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 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.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

In Defense of Dreaming Big

One of my closest friends works in shipping. It's not a glamorous job by any measure, but he is really, really, really good at it. In a world where most industries ship 3-6% of order errors, his company ships less than 1.5% errors. Because my friend is good at his job.

Generally I'm a realist. It's highly unlikely that Small Tomatoes is ever going to need a shipping department. But I like to dream about the day we have one anyway. You see, I have a big dream. My big dream is that Small Tomatoes Press would ship 10 titles a year. That means that, with the exception of August and one other month as of yet undecided, we would pack and ship anywhere between 30 and 60 review copies in their little 'review kits.'

See, I think reading should be an experience. So it's always been my intention that Small Tomatoes would be a class act or die trying. A review package would contain a cardboard inset that created compartments for a neatly tissue-wrapped book, the tea specifically selected to compliment that book and a tastefully wrapped bag of Bequet Caramels in case reviewers get the nibbly-noshes halfway through a chapter. On top of this kit would be a crisp envelope containing a thank you card to the reviewer. This would be neatly boxed up, labeled and put in the mail. By my friend.

Because I hate doing that sort of thing. I think it's a great idea! I think it should be done! But I have never in my life won an argument with packing tape or even come close. Right now we are also limited to sending out e-copies which precludes sending one of these review kits. But the big idea is there, and I often keep a mental tab on it.

See, big dreams, big ideas are the best kind. Because they don't just pull one person up the ladder. They pull other people up the ladder too. Those big ideas let you think of other talented people and figure out where they fit in a bigger picture that more fully maximizes their talents (while covering up your own faults.) If two people can do so much more, then how diverse could a team of three be? Between three people you are likely to find all the talent you really need for a small business. Which is why you should dream bigger than just yourself.

Of course, my friend was gung-ho about this idea. (Let me say that again. My friend was beyond excited about running a shipping department.) And then he dropped the bomb -- how do we get from where we are now, to this dream? Alas, that's basically a numbers game. The more reviews we get, the better we sell, the better we sell, the more reviews we get. And then eventually it hits critical mass and snowballs. Once it snowballs.... we're going to need a shipping department for those cutesy boxes that artistic types go nuts over.

Look around your room -- you've probably purchased something recently that is awesome. Or at least exactly what you wanted. Please go online and review it, even if it already has a couple thousand good reviews. Go online and review it. You don't know if and when your review will trigger someone to buy it. You don't know if that one purchase makes it so the company can finally justify one of their big ideas that changes someone else's life.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Commentary on Piracy

(cross-posted from Reddit)

It would be nice to know that we're getting paid for the majority of the copies of our books floating out there. But we aren't, and honestly, not even close to being paid for even 50% of the copies out there. It would be nice if people felt like ponying up the pitiful amount of cash we want for an e-copy of a book was worth it to them.


Pretty much all of our fans that encourage other people to buy our books became a fan via a free copy. Almost all of our reviews come from giving away e-copies in hopes that someone will drop us a line. I'd say a good half of the people I talk to personally say they wouldn't have ever given us the time of day if we hadn't given them a free copy of a book to read.

There's a saying in the small press business now -- give away the first book, make money on the second. And it's based around the idea that we know people will jump at free entertainment and only once they like it, will they watch it, read it, listen to it in a legitimate format. There are many bands I personally wouldn't have ever purchased if I couldn't have sampled them on Youtube.

As for the Pretense Series biggest fanbase? Couldn't buy a legit copy if they wanted to. Stoops has a following over in Russia and it's completely through 'piracy.' Which brings me to another good point -- if the person WON'T or CAN'T pay for a copy, we lose nothing when they pirate it. We don't gain very much, but we can't lose anything, because we were never going to get it anyway.

Basically, fans have been pummeled in the last few years, held over the beam and told to pony up a LOT for bad albums, bad books, bad movies. Sequilitus is a huge problem in the entertainment industry. I feel like the entertainment industry has extorted them. 8.50 for the movies, no 9.50, no, 12.50. They've put the second-run houses out of business. Any time the market adjusts to create an avenue of paying reasonable prices, the industry readjusts to screw the consumer some more. (Google the Netflix/Net Neutrality debacle going on -- go ahead and tell me that the movie industry has no dog in that fight.)

We're in a period when people are reacting to that via piracy, via non-consumerism. They are telling the industry what they are willing to pay for entertainment -- a lot less than what the industry wants to make. The industry isn't getting the message and the reaction has been extreme. There's a shakedown happening on both sides. The market can and should set the price, and piracy is unfortunately how they are taking back their control of the market.

Does it hurt? Yes. God yes it hurts. Because the little guys, who have no place in the bigger picture are on the wrong side of the fight and getting pummeled much more thoroughly than people that need to take it in the teeth.

If you want to combat piracy, use the OFFICIAL channels to get freebies. There are tons of freebies out there if you want them. And when you go through the official channels, you HELP the artist, the author, the indie film maker. For example, right now "Corner of a Round Planet" is free on Amazon. Every free copy that gets downloaded helps that book place better in Amazon's internal ranking. The higher it goes, the more likely it is that Amazon will show that book to people AFTER the freebie giveaway is over. The more people that see it, the more sales will come in. This is true of most of the big shopping algorithms you see around the internet. However, free copies via torrent or fileshare, that doesn't help the artist or the author or creator at all. But official giveaway sites/deals/channels are designed to give the consumer something they want, for the right place AND give back to the creator.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Amazon is my Buddy.

To say that Amazon is getting bad press in the Hachette dispute is understating the situation by an order of magnitude. Amazon is getting slaughtered and vilified by turns. People have called for an e-book boycott and boy howdy, is there a boycott against Amazon to help Hachette. And it is going to help Hachette big time. Not the way people think, though. Hachette is after Small Press and this boycott will stamp out a lot of us before it's over. If this is successful, Hachette can happily kiss cheap competition goodbye as it morphs into an even bigger fish in a smaller pond! As for Amazon -- it's not really going to do much to them. But Small Presses are going to take it in the teeth when Hachette and their hatchlings stab Amazon in the gut.

Look here, Amazon is my buddy. More to the point, Amazon has been my buddy since before I knew I needed one. KDP is a far superior program to PubIt! Smashwords, or iTunes. It is by no means perfect and I don't love certain features of the program, but it's certainly the best one out there. Amazon is magnanimous -- they seed their algorithms with Small Press and big names alike based on customer buying habits. They give little guys a couple of really powerful tools to compete in the market place. Amazon has a very distinct idea of what they want to do with ebooks. They want to change the paradigm completely. Hatchette and other big publishers really do not want this. They know that without some of the seriously unfair advantages they've had for the last 80 years, they are in big trouble. And Amazon isn't playing ball with them the way they've become accustomed to playing the game.

Amazon is doing nothing that any other consignment business wouldn't do -- they've told Hachette their price points and told Hachette to meet them or lose Amazon customers. Just like any other consignment store, Amazon knows what their customer is willing to pay and what is priced in such a way to just take up floor space. Hachette has thrown a temper tantrum not because of these price points, but because they don't want to play ball with Small Presses. They are afraid. Which is laughable but true. They know that throwing a temper tantrum, ostensibly because Amazon is a big, mean bully, will get their author's fans behind them. And with a group of angry fans behind them, they can attack their 'real' enemy -- small presses. And how do they do this? By asking you to not buy from Amazon, which is the home port of almost all independent publishers, particularly those in the ebook business. 

Ebooks are our bread and butter here. Every sci-fi/fantasy small press I know is dependent on ebook sales. Hachette has to know that. They've used this opportunity to stab us. Not Amazon, but Small Presses. They know that they can't do a lot of damage to Amazon with this. But they can wipe out a lot of struggling Small Presses by keeping up pretenses for a month. And that's who they are really after.