Monday, August 11, 2014

More on Hachette and Amazon

From a letter from E. Stoops to Hachette:

"It has become increasingly obvious over the last few months that Hachette's beef with Amazon is more about protecting a bottom line and shoring up failing practices in traditional publishing than a moral philosophy or reasonable outrage against a perceived monopoly.

I understand e-books are not 'free', though many people seem to be making that argument as of late. They have to be edited, formatted, advertised. Royalties are paid to author and artist. They are certainly not free. However, they are cheap. A standard Sci-fi run is about 7,500 books (though ebooks don't have a run, this could be considered the anticipated sales) -- the set costs for a book is about 300-600 dollars in art commission and about 500-2000 for editing, depending on size. I'd wager there is another 500 for formating at an absolute maximum. Before royalties and advertising, the price of each book to break even is roughly 50 cents. Advertising, royalties and overhead costs cannot, under any imagined economic engine, somehow cause the book to cost 30 times that amount. 

It's outrageous and it's insulting to demand prices this high. Especially when it is increasingly clear that these prices are simply designed to keep the traditional publishing business, which is horrendously moribund at this point, afloat a little longer:

* Your media is designed to create a boycott of Amazon that will 'wipe out' small-time presses and authors that cannot withstand a long 'siege.'
* Getting rid of 'cheap' competition will, of course, make your prices seem more reasonable during consumer comparisons.
* Once the low-end of the market has been put flat on its back, you'll be able to flood the market with your own cheap new authors to fill a manufactured void for cheap books.
* Eliminating Amazon's low-end market will also eliminate the slush-pile for their in-house imprints, sending authors back to the rough waters of traditional publishing, which is, except for a golden-gooses like Amy Tan or Stephen King, an extortion scam.

The only think I can conclude from these increasingly transparent interactions with Amazon is that you are afraid, you are paralyzed by the fear of changes to the publishing industry. And you are willing to throw anyone in the fire to keep yourself out -- your own authors and one of your largest distributor have been chucked mercilessly to the flames. It's sickening. Absolutely sickening. Keeping your authors as soldiers in this fight is about as moral as leaving your loyal dog tied up outside during a tornado.

I don't know who you think you are kidding, but it's not me, it's not Amazon. This is not a fight about fair business practices. It's not a fight for and by authors. It's a shakedown designed to hold off the next paradigm in publishing a little longer to the detriment of everyone involved except for a few key players that can wait out the storm.  

I'm disgusted by your actions. Completely and utterly and unendingly disgusted by what you are doing.

Stop. Bury the Hachet before enough people catch wise to what you are really up to."

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Post San Diego Comic Con -- what now?

By now everyone knows that a girl from San Diego Comic Con was reportedly found away from the con, assaulted and left on the side of the highway. It seems it was finally determined that she had fallen into the pool area. (Uhm, what? I'd love to know how that happened without help. More on that later.) Whatever the real facts, the ultimate takeaway of this event is that a young woman suffered significant injuries in or because of a place that is supposed to be safe.

Let me explain before my next comment that I do think a strong anti-harassment policy is important. It's a great idea. It's an important idea. However, the vast majority of issues and incidents that are happening at cons, which have been the impetus for these policies, wouldn't be prevented or even mitigated by a strong anti-harassment policy.  The issue with women at cons is a many-headed beast and anti-harassment policies are basically an arrow aimed at one eye, on one head. They aren't going to do anything to the rest of the critter. (But hey, it's still blind in one eye!)

So my main points:

1. Anti-harassment policies only deal with an issue after it has presented itself. They do not deter or prevent because they don't actually do much in the way of 'damage' to the harasser.

People harass cosplayers and 'hot' women because they can, because it gives them a cheap thrill and it is easy. Con represents a unique environment because, as many have said before, men that don't usually have the opportunity to be around women, are suddenly around women and have the chance to get-in on this 'rite of passage.' (It sickens me to say that harassing women is a right of passage in some minds, but there you have it. I can't deny it. That would be stupid.) Basically, a bunch of suppressed 14 year olds suddenly make an appearance. Only, they are 24, or 34, or 44. They've had years or decades to stew and get meaner and nastier and much more forward than their 14 year old self ever could have been. And it comes out at con.

And you know what, lots of cons, even those with anti-harassment policies are a low-stakes game. Most cons have a system of 'warnings.'  They let you come back the next day. You can definitely come back next year. Getting kicked out of one doesn't kick you out of the one that happens next month. It doesn't get you kicked out of the local comic shop. And, honestly, it might take a con most of the weekend to get security in the right place, at the right time to find someone harassing someone else and get them tossed out. The damage has already been done to the community. And for the guy or girl (because women can and do harass, don't doubt it) that manages to sneak-harass people all weekend and not get caught -- the damage has only begun.

People that get away with it, whatever it is, tend to up the ante the next year.

2.  Cons present themselves attractively to a particular type of low-life and refuse to address this point, hiding behind a lot of pc boilerplate.

To put a fine point on it -- a) you usually need a license to show that much skin and serve alcohol, b) presenting yourself as a place to push the envelope to 'get known', especially in NYC or LA (or nearby) is guaranteed to encourage jaw-droppingly skimpy costumes on the most vulnerable and c) lottery-type registration at larger cons encourages a lot of mixing, so the crowd is rarely familiar faces that know who is who (thus giving the harassers even better odds in an already low-stakes game.)

I think most of this is pretty self-evident, but I do want to comment on sub-point c a little more. The point of cons is for a community to gather and share information, ideas and humor. A community is a group of people who know each other. What is happening at larger cons with the lottery system is not a joining of community, but basically gathering a movie audience. People that are there to see and be seen. They have minimal investment in the community aspect and frankly, it doesn't seem like they understand how their policies and the constant harassment incidents and assualt incidents at their events hurt the community. So you have a place where the young and the vulnerable are encouraged to show skin, push the envelope and drink at room parties (which of course, are always private events at these types of cons) and where people are encouraged to be bystanders, and audience to events, not participants. It's a very rich environment for abuse -- precisely the kind of environment that appeals to a predator.

Let's loops back to the woman that 'fell' in the pool area. Actually, an under-aged girl. Her only 'friend' at the convention was a 29 year old man, whom she was dating. He helped her attend a party with alcohol, and it's fairly clear that she drank quite a bit. She then fell badly enough to land in the ICU. It sounds like she fell off a balconey because she was so drunk she either didn't realize she was in danger, or didn't care. Some 'friend'.... (Actually, I do believe his story about trying to talk her into going home before the night got too late. I doubt that he had great motives, but regardless....)  The real problem, is not one douchey guy. It's a community that failed, over and over. First, there was no minors-after-midnight policy like other larger cons have. Secondly, there were no party checks like other cons have, where rooms are periodically reviewed to make sure these kinds of abuses aren't happening. Thirdly, there doesn't seem to have been any security in the courtyard alert enough to recognize impending danger. And it sounds like she was out cold, in the courtyard for a period of time before she was found. Anything could have happened to her. She could have died. How could the community either not notice or not care about someone who is obviously injured and in need of help?

Well, this is the meat of this point -- these larger cons, especially the comic-cons, have made these girls disposable. They are a star one year and never return to retain their crown. There is a new crop of want-to-be starlets to choose from each year, each under intense pressure to get skimpy, get edgy and snag an opportunity before it done dries up and blows away. SDCC does everything short of billing itself as a place to see a geeky sex-show. It's not the only con that is in the business of selling the illusion of available cosplayers. And they know what they are up to. Unfortunately, it seems like cosplayers are complacent with these policies that make them disposable, if not actually compliant.

3. Ambiance is a thing, and costumes are part of it.

This is really 2b, but because it is handled differently, it should be addressed separately.

The reality is that clothing creates an image that sends a message whether or not that message is intentional, whether or not we like it, whether or not we want it to. These are two Roger Rabbit cosplays:

(Credit to Love and Hate 123, at Deviant Art)

Selfie by attacked cosplayer (Name withheld due to age.)

These cosplays create a very different atmosphere, though they are the same character at similar events. Pictures say a thousand words. Look at them for a few minutes. And then imagine, for a moment, what it would be like to be in a crowd of one hundred of one, and a crowd of one-hundred of the other. How would those two crowds feel different? What sorts of feelings do you think that they would inspire?

So what now? What to do?

Solution 1. Throw their asses out.

Seriously, if anyone harasses someone, just throw them out. Maybe have one warning. But then -- toss 'em like they are garbage. AND, give them a one year vacation. Notify all the cons in the area and let them know that you did that because they were harassing people. Let the other cons make a decision, but give them info. And then, turn around and give that info to EVERY vendor that works with you. This would actually be a much stronger policy as it would have real and solid consequences. It wouldn't shut down one venue, it might just shut down all venues. If they value their experience at con beyond T&A, then they will figure out how to shape up. If they don't, you didn't really want them at con in the first place.

Solution 2. Real Security. Lots of it.

Any con much larger than 600-800 people needs real and professional security. Period. And enough of it. Volunteers can and should be used, but they don't know security like pros do and they shouldn't be considered an adequate substitute. Too often I've heard that "Con security is special because..." NO. IT ISN'T. This is usually an excuse to let shit slide. When shit slides, the young and the vulnerable get hurt. Not acceptable.

If a con can't get security to work for them, they need to update their policies until someone will. Period.

As much as I hate the lottery system and I'd like to abolish it, I do think adequate security would mostly mitigate the issues it brings. But I still think that it's a special problem that should be addressed.

Solution 3. No Public R-rated costumes. Ever. No over-exposed minors. Ever.

When I was working as sub-security for a con, I had a very eye-opening experience. The con in question had an under-age drinking problem and they knew it. They decided to get serious about it, and I was in charge of cleaning out the dance of drunk under-aged kids. Which I did. Of the 5-6 people I hauled out of there, one stuck out. He was 19. He was not that drunk. He was really nice about the fact I was ruining his night.

I felt so unbelievably shitty. As an individual, I don't really care about a nineteen year old that has one drink and then goes and dances his ass off. I don't care about a nineteen year old that goes home, has a beer and plays video games. I just don't really have a strong stance on under-age drinking as an individual. (I have a really strong stance on being stupid drunk. I have a homicidal stance on drunk drivers. Just in case you were thinking I had no standards.) If it had been in my power right then, I wouldn't have sent this guy home.

Fortunately, the woman that would later inspire the president in the Pretense series was on hand to explain why we had to send him home. The problem is not the individual. The problem is herd mentality (which is just a fact of herds, no avoiding it, and no point in playing it down.) If Dan and Suzy go to con and get a couple of drinks and then go dance, you better bet that next year, Dan, Suzy, Polly and Harry will show up and one of them will get rip-roaring drunk or high and thus be a problem. It expands from there. Same thing with costumes, especially in the high-pressure markets where the cons are considered a place to 'get found.' Sleeze multiplies quickly, and it tends to nab the young and the vulnerable first.

So the problem with costumes is not the individual costume. It's the multiplicity of costumes showing a bunch of leg, cleavage, ass-cheek and skin, skin, skin. I don't blame the people that wear them (and guys will do the same with muscle-man type costumes) the con encourages it in oh-so-many subtle ways, even if they aren't intentional. So it has to be the cons that rope this back in via policy. Cons need to NOT be the place to go see free T&A, and they really, really, really need to not be the place to go see under-aged T&A. That must stop being the appeal of attending these events. (To be clear, I have no problem with private parties that encourage and display these costumes. There is a time and a place for most things, and I would fully endorse a private party with all the naughty costumes.)

On an individual level, I feel differently about certain points, obviously. But I'm not just a person so I have to look at this from a business perspective, because con is a business itself and it is part of my business. Small Tomatoes really doesn't want to ever associate with the kind of monkey business that happens at SDCC. So this hurts us and in the end, it will hurt them.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Marketing: Orangeberry Book Tours

So, as you all know, we're trying a lot of different marketing.

Orangeberry Book Tours wasn't bad, but it wasn't good either. We chose them based on some very good advertising they had gotten themselves, but unfortunately, we later found out that they are known to have issues, and we ran into all of them. Their team doesn't seem to be able to reach an audience. It does seem to help with SEO optimization (somehow) but it didn't seem to drive sales OR reviews. They also didn't deliver on their promises.

That isn't to say that I don't think virtual book tours work. I want to try this again since the overall process is interesting and it seems like legitimate companies can do a lot for a little. This is one experiment I want to retry.

What's up next in our marketing hopper? Marketing on comic sites. Stay tuned.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Marketing: Reddit

We're in the last two weeks of marketing efforts through Reddit, which was suggested by a couple of folks as a cheap way for getting the word out there. Overall, I don't think I'd recommend Reddit as a marketing medium for small companies and it might be particularly bad for Small Presses.

1. Our ROI was abysmal. Only about .3% of viewers clicked on our ads. We could only attribute 2 or 3 clicks to purchases.

2. We were able to effectively move free copies several times, however, this didn't seem to provide us with quality reviews.*

3. Engaging with Redditors (outside of very specialized subreddits) seemed difficult. Several methods of engagement were tried, and in general, it didn't seem like any of them resulted in much curiosity for what we're doing over here. We got some notice when Stoops did a week long effort to give away book copies (hard or e). It evaporated when we maxed out that part of our budget.

4. Finally, it's perfectly acceptable to threaten to kill people with extremely detailed death threats on Reddit. There seems to be a herd mentality that once someone has been threatened, everyone attacks. I don't think that's a demographic we want to chase as a small company, because they won't be good ambassadors to other fans.

* One review seems to have come via Reddit. It was simply one long insult and reads similarly to one of the trollish, bitter, vitrolic-for-lulz posts that seem so common on the site.

Reddit has not been a good investment.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Sparks in the Void Update

The rough draft has been kicked out the door to the betas, and the not-so-benevolent overlord, The Hunchback, Small Tomatoes Press's editor. It is forty chapters long, almost one-hundred eleven thousand words and contains three chapters of the very best writing I have ever done in my life.

The Pretense Series (really a trilogy) is almost over.

I wish there was a word for the good pain one feels when one has created something that is destined to be delivered into the hands of others.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Thoughs on Writing as 'Therapy'

(Repost of content originally written for a book tour.)

 It’s often said that writing is like meditation or playing music – it heals the soul. I’m the first to admit that it’s an excellent way to comb through a tangled mind or mentally put to rights something you couldn’t in real life. But writing shouldn’t just be scriptural talk therapy, it is also a creative process and it’s not the issues you put on the page that heals the soul, it’s transforming the negativity into a creative energy that is what actually does the trick. The first two books of the Pretense series were written while friends were in the middle east. I harbored many dark thoughts at the time. Worry, fear, anger and also a sort of maniacal dark joy on the days that they sent up the flag to let us know they were still alive and kicking. You might think that the Pretense series is dark and gloomy because of it, but as all that darkness churned and was spun out into words, I found I had written a funny book about dark themes instead of the serious book I thought would come of my efforts

I think we’ve all read that one book, the one in which it’s pretty obvious that the author is working through their own issues, their own hatreds and prejudices. It’s not a fun experience as a reader (but I’m sure the author feels better!) I think it can be healthy to write that way, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to publish it. Publishing a book like that is like screaming at family members in the middle of Barnes and Noble. That isn’t to say that writing a book is a mill-like process wherein all dark and negative emotions are made light and positive. Outside of the horror genre (which I think is a different kind of catharsis) the real trick is to bring them into balance or put them in perspective. This is why I often find that I give each chapter both an up note and a down note. Even if they don’t balance out in each chapter (and generally, in the beginning of the book, the down notes are huge steps down and the up notes small steps up) over all I like it when a book should has a similar quantity of notes of each kind and ends only slightly out of balance in terms of quality. I always like my heroes to have some sort of victory, but I often salt it. I don’t think it’s realistic for them to get what they want at minimal price.

The one thing that I think is tough about making this process work is getting the mill started so that it can start processing your emotions into a narrative. That’s because it’s not about creating the enemy that your characters will defeat. It’s about dropping the reigns on your fears, angers, sadnesses and letting them run amok in the book and transform themselves into the enemy. I can always tell when I’m reading a book where someone worked hard on creating just the right metaphor – to me it always seems a little stilted. I used to do the same, but with Pocket, I just let my fears loose in the pages, and they became very subtle, very creepy, and a much better metaphor than I could have created.

They also became bigger. But that was Lucius’s problem, and I more or less liked how he solved it for us both.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Settings Aren't Just for Gemstones

(Repost of an article orginally written for a book tour.)

I don’t know if it’s just the books I’ve been picking lately, but I’ve noticed an awful lot of non-specific settings being used. Vague State College in Moderately-Sized City, USA is a popular location as is Bigger City, USA that is a strange mishmash of New York City, Miami, San Francisco and Phoenix, sometimes with a touch, but not too much, of Chicago or Detroit. While I prefer that horror stories occur in Derry, Maine, because Derry doesn’t exist (so I tell myself) I really prefer that other books take place in a real setting, or at least a very specific setting, one I feel like I could stumble over on a long road trip through the area.

It’s not because I necessarily find specifics more exciting, it’s more that I like to believe that the book I’m reading really could be transcriptions of tapes left behind revealing a secret world that has existed under my nose (the premise of pretty much every Urban Fantasy novel ever.) Or that there really is, somewhere in our universe, a planet with magic, dragons, enchanted swords and dazzlingly beautiful women. Simply put, specific isn’t exciting on it’s own, but it makes a setting feel real, and the more real and concrete a book convinces me the story is, the more gripping I find it. It’s like a stage magician – if you can figure out the trick it’s bummer, but the minute you realize you can’t, your mind has to accept that maybe it really is happening. And doesn’t the show get more exciting then? Same with books for me.

Specific settings also help with one of my pet peeves – internal consistency. Books with vague settings tend to make mistakes. In the first chapter the character mentions that they made a quick fifteen-minute run to the grocery store, but it’s a plot point in chapter 15 that she lives 20 miles out of town. Oops. In a specific setting the mistake might still happen, but it’s unlikely. And it also helps with characterization. Once you have a specific setting you can easily say what is or is not normal for the area, which helps the reader determine who is and isn’t an outsider without the author directly explaining (spoon-feeding) those details to the reader. But there’s always caveats – some stories need the vague location to have the proper ambiance. Authors that choose a specific place but screw up basic details tend to get crucified.

I think the best question to ask is not “Should this be more specific?” but “What advantage do I gain if I leave this detail vague?” If you can’t think of one, it’s probably time to be specific. This also opens the book up to great opportunities for specifics to provide subtle clues about who isn't who they seem. In Pocket, notice that Magister Ryan drinks tea while the rest of the crew drinks coffee. It's the earliest foreshadowing that he isn't who he says he is.