Category Archives: News

Well Played!

In the wake of this whole “cockygate” nonsense, it may be that one of Faleena Hopkins’ targets will have the last laugh. Hopkins sent a cease-and-desist notification to Jamila Jasper, another romance novelist who dared to “infringe” on Hopkins’ “cocky” trademark with a romance novel called Cocky Cowboy. Jasper was quoted in the original article about Hopkins, stating that while she thought this was bogus – like every other reasonable person does – she was not in a position to engage in any legal action of her own and would have to comply and change the title of her book.

Well, she did, and it’s hilarious. Cocky Cowboy is now retitled The Cockiest Cowboy To Have Ever Cocked. Note that the new title doesn’t contain “cocky” and the trademark only applies to that exact word. Also, the new title takes on a kind of Chuck Tingle-esque over-the-top quality that is legitimately funny, especially in light of this whole stupid “scandal” or whatever the heck it is. Jasper is getting a big sales boost over this, and according to her reviews she’s apparently a pretty good writer in addition to being delightfully snarky.

If you want to take a look at the new title and show your support for standing up to the writing equivalent of patent trolling, you can check out The Cockiest Cowboy to Ever Have Cocked right here.

“Cocky” Sounds About Right

faleena_hopkinsWe authors are going to need more than clown sex stabbings to sell books if we keep trying to eat our own. I understand that book sales are disappointing, marketing is hard, and making a living publishing books is basically impossible at this point, but trying to drag each other down fighting over the crumbs of an ever-decreasing pie is seriously not the way to go.

According to this article from The Guardian, romance novelist Faleena Hopkins filed a trademark on the word “cocky” back in April. She is the author of a series of books that use the word in the their titles. Since then, she has claimed to own the word and has threatened legal action against any other author who uses it in a book title.

Faleena Hopkins is the self-published author of a series of books about the “Cocker Brothers” (“Six bad boy brothers you’ll want to marry or hide under you [sic] bed”), each of which features the word “cocky” in the title: Cocky Romantic, Cocky Biker, Cocky Cowboy.

On Saturday, author Bianca Sommerland posted a YouTube video sharing allegations that Hopkins had written to authors whose books also had titles including the word “cocky”, informing them that she had been granted the official registered trademark of the adjective in relation to romance books, and asking them to rename their novels or face legal action. Records at the US patent and trademark office show that the registered trademark for use of the word “cocky” in relation to romance ebooks was issued in April 2018.

Self-published writer Jamila Jasper, who claims she was asked by Hopkins to change the title of her novel Cocky Cowboy, said she removed her novel from sale after she was contacted by Hopkins. “I have to admit I am intimidated because I don’t have many resources to fight this legally if she does pursue,” she wrote on Twitter. Pajiba reported on Monday that the author Nana Malone had been asked to change the title of her novel Mr Cocky, while TL Smith and Melissa Jane’s Cocky Fiancé has been renamed Arrogant Fiancé. Other writers claimed that Hopkins had reported them to Amazon, resulting in their books being taken down from the site.

Hopkins tweeted that the word was “a brand”, and that the writers she was contacting could “keep their books, rankings, reviews and their money by retitling which takes one day”. On Facebook, she said she was a victim of “cyber-bullying”, writing that she “applied for the trademark to protect the future of my series because it helps people. It’s filled with love, hope, and respect to all human beings.”
She added: “I receive letters from readers who lost money thinking they bought my series. I’m protecting them and that’s what trademarks are meant for.”

Others are not so sure. Chocolat author Joanne Harris punned that “such behaviour is considered a dick move” on her blog, adding more seriously that “if it were really possible to legally forbid authors from using a certain common word in their book titles, then the whole publishing industry would be down the drain in a matter of days”.

Seeing as this is totally not how trademarks work, and that it basically fits the definition of “utterly deplorable,” I’m left to wonder if this might be an attempt by Hopkins to employ the “being awful” side of the clown sex stabbing promotion method. If it is, I’ll admit it’s a clever variation on the theme that I have never thought of. It’s got to be getting pretty close to peak awfulness, and it remains to be seen if it boosts her sales like a clown sex stabbing would.

Surely I could trademark the word “Arcana” – the title of my first novel – and then file suit against all makers of Tarot cards! After all, they include a set of cards called the “Major Arcana.” There also are a series of music albums that use the title, and a couple of other things that use it as well. Or I could trademark “Guild” – after the Guild Series – and then threaten to sue every single author who has a guild of anything in their books. That’s even more awful, right?

Seriously, though, if you think this is as outrageous as I do, there’s a petition you can sign asking the patent and trademark office to strike down Hopkins’ trademark. It probably won’t work, because she’s allowed to trademark whatever she wants. She’s just not allowed to beat every other author out there over the head with it, and the courts should eventually make it clear that this behavior is totally not okay.

Awful But Effective

Zoe AdamsI keep reading accounts of authors trying to market books using all sorts of different promotional services, and the results are almost always described as “disappointing.” Marketing is tough, and as I’ve noted previously, it’s a lot easier to make money off authors than it is to make money by being an author. Promotions of whatever sort generally lose money and don’t even generate that much exposure.

Looking through the news lately, though, I came across something that appears to have worked. The trouble is that it’s not the kind of promotion that most of us want to go through. Kieran Bewick is a 17-year-old fantasy novelist with one ebook currently published. He made the news when, in a truly bizarre story that hit all the tabloids, he was stabbed during sex by his girlfriend Zoe Adams, who was dressed as a clown at the time (!). Adams was recently sentenced to eleven years in prison for the attack.

Adams shrugged off this evidence as a joke and claimed that she had no recollection of the stabbing. However, Judge James Adkin, dismissed her defense and said her “cruel and sadistic” actions were those of someone who deliberatly intended to cause harm, reported The Telegraph.

Adkin added that the attack was premeditated, citing the duct tape and knife that had been taken into her bedroom prior to the attack. “You had decided to cause serious harm to Mr Bewick during sex,” Adkin said. “I am sure that by that time you had already become disinhibited by drink and drugs and the more sadistic side of your personality had come to dominate.”

Bewick, an aspiring fantasy novelist, survived the attack but was left was life-threatening injuries, including a collapsed lung. In his victim impact statement, Bewick said he is going to be emotionally scarred for life and that the attack will further exacerbate his fear of clowns.

“I struggle with the knowledge that someone I genuinely cared about would do this to me. Just after I got out of hospital, this thought played on my mind a lot,” he said. “But having had time to think about it, I am convinced that she planned it. It wasn’t personal. She was going to do it to someone and it just happened to be me. Strangely, that makes it easier to deal with.

Checking the sales rank on Bewick’s book, I can confirm that with only one review and a two-star rating, it currently is outselling every single thing that I have ever published. Bewick lives in the UK, too, so he doesn’t have to offset his earnings against hospital bills. That alone would make the clown sex stabbing  approach less viable in the states, even though in terms of sales it seems to be working better than any commercial promotional service I’ve seen.

And I joke – sort of. To be clear, I’m not making fun of Bewick or his book, or this awful ordeal that he’s been through. My point is that this is one more piece of evidence that “going viral” is not a thing that happens due to simple word of mouth or individual people sharing posts. As I’ve mentioned here previously, according to a huge data set amassed by analysts at Yahoo!, the “viralness” of anything is directly proportional to the circulation of the largest media outlet that covers it. That’s the only metric that matters.

The upshot of this is that aside from massive publicity outlays that may finally produce a return on investment, but which no independent artist or writer can afford, outrage and incredulity are what make most popular artists popular. It has almost nothing to do with technical skill or quality of work. People telling you that you can become a bestselling author by focusing all your efforts on writing the best book you can? Flat-out wrong. Getting attention for your work is exponentially harder than doing the work in the first place, so if you really want to make even a meager living at writing that’s where you have to focus.

Because of the outrage and incredulity factors, the only shortcut is to be an awful person (to generate outrage) or, like Bewick, have something awful happen to you (to generate incredulity). And to be clear, the awfulness you need to cultivate is not just any awfulness. It has to be kind of mystifying and bizarre to anyone who reads it, a “man bites dog” kind of story, because that’s what will make major media outlets pick it up.

Guy gets stabbed by his girlfriend? Boring. Guy gets stabbed by his girlfriend during sex? A little less boring. Guy gets stabbed by his girlfriend during sex while she’s wearing full clown attire? We have a winner, folks! It’s whole clown thing that really pushes the story over the top and makes larger outlets want to report on the story. And the resulting media coverage sells books. But the problem is that this is a pretty difficult thing to do on purpose.

I’m a practicing magician, so I probably could come up with some occult-related stunt that at least fundamentalists would find awful. At the same time, so few people care about the occult that I doubt I could push anything like that into clown makeup stabbing territory. I don’t really want to commit a crime or wind up in a hospital, so that limits my options. And I think if anybody is outraged by what I say on my magick blog, Augoeides, I would know about it by now.

So at the moment I’m still standing here at the drawing board, trying to brainstorm an approach that fits all my criteria and is as sensational and weird as a clown sex stabbing. I think I’m going to need a lot of luck to pull that off. Truth be told, I’m probably nowhere near masochistic enough or messed up enough or surrounded by messed up enough people to do it. That’s by design and it’s the life I want to be living, but clearly the drawback is that it limits my potential marketing appeal.

To wrap up, this all makes me weep for the future of our art, and if there’s a hill I’m willing to die on, this is it: writers should not have to subject themselves to clown sex stabbings – or their equivalent – in order to sell books. A world where that’s the norm is a dystopian nightmare, and we’re already closer to it than I think any of us would like.

How did we ever get here?

 

The New Censorship?

censorshipAt the end of this last month, erotica writers on Amazon noticed something disturbing. Erotica and romance novels containing adult content were being stripped of sales ranks and reviews without any explanation. It appeared to be more than a technical glitch, in that adult content in particular was being targeted. Amazon has yet to release any sort of statement explaining what is going on, but many writers including me are concerned about the possibility of ramped-up censorship on the world’s largest online book market.

A big blow to the romance community has surfaced as romance and erotica authors are having their titles on Amazon stripped of their ranks and reviews. Towards the end of March, the romance community began to notice romance and erotic novels being stripped of their ranks and/or reviews, without an explanation. Although Amazon has yet to make a statement about what’s going on, it’s clear that any book that contains adult content could be stripped.

Of course that’s devastating to both authors and readers. Both of these things allow authors to successfully sell their works and helps readers to find titles they would be interested in. In an effort to try and save their reviews and rankings, some romance/erotica authors have taken to removing any keywords that might cause their titles to be stripped. For those that have published in the erotica category, it might prove even more difficult to protect their books from these changes.

Since Amazon isn’t being transparent about what is happening, it’s not clear why these novels are being stripped. Many authors believe it could be in response to the FOSTA bill, while others believe it could be an internal update from Amazon to push these books off the ranks. The Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) was touted as a bill to make everyone safer by creating accountability for internet companies. However, the bill was met with great backlash for many reasons, including the amount of censorship it would allow.

I want to be clear on a couple of things here. First of all, FOSTA is a fundamentally stupid law. Much like the Communications Decency Act in the 1990’s that was struck down as unconstitutional, it enables censorship on the grounds of what might happen. With the CDA, it was about liability for Internet companies hosting anything children might be able to access, regardless of verifications and safeguards. FOSTA is about liability for Internet companies that might host a personal ad that was really put up by a sex trafficker. Might, could, maybe, possible. Nothing about due process or even a reasonable understanding of how Internet platforms work.

Second, I have no idea if this is related to FOSTA or not. Amazon has made no statement one way or the other. It seems kind of unbelievable that it would be at first glance, since even given the goofy “might” criteria in the bill, there’s no way that I can imagine a book of erotica could possibly have anything to do with sex trafficking. I also think it’s kind of strange that Amazon would kill their own golden goose here, since they are making a lot of money on erotica. It’s hard for authors to make money on anything else, and Amazon always gets a cut. But whatever is going on, it’s not good. I don’t think anybody halfway sane wants an Internet that is so sanitized that you have to install Tor and hit the dark web for anything not rated G.

So I’m calling on Amazon to knock this crap off. I realize that it’s unlikely to make much of a difference coming from an insignificant author like myself, and I also realize that this is one of the hazards of allowing a single company to monopolize so much of the book industry – which is a whole other conversation.

UPDATE: As a point, I am aware that the term “censorship” technically applies to actions by the government, not private corporations. Amazon is a business and it can decide what it will and will not carry. However, my point is this – if they really are removing and down-listing content in response to the ridiculous FOSTA law, as I see it, that DOES qualify as censorship. At this point nobody knows if that’s what they’re doing, which is why they need to clarify their actions as soon as possible.

Charging for Giveaways?

authors-money-marketingOne of the things I will always tell aspiring authors is that there is a lot more money to be made off of authors than there is to be made by being an author. The reason for this is pretty simple. Writing is a passion, so we authors keep doing it even though making money at it is really tough, and we are always looking for new ways to publicize books and get them in front of readers. At the same time, hardly anything ever works that well, so if you, say, run a paid service that publicizes books you may find that authors are happy spending a significant amount of money on your service even if all it generates is a handful of sales.

Sometimes, though, these services get too greedy for their own good. As of January, Amazon-owned book site Goodreads has been charging authors for book giveways. So not only do you have to pay the money out of your own pocket to buy the books, you also have to pay Goodreads to… do whatever Goodreads does. Post a listing? For hundreds of dollars? Yeah, I’m not going to be doing that, and I advise everyone else to do the same.

The truth is that if you follow author discussions online, giveaways rarely accomplish much of anything these days. They had their day in the sun maybe two years ago. Everything I’ve read recently suggests that these days they have little effect on sales and maybe garner a review or two – if you’re lucky. I also think that the rise in giveaways has had a toxic effect on the book market in general, by acclimatizing people to getting all their books for free.

That’s just not sustainable if want any authors to be able to support themselves on their writing going forward. The biggest problem with writing and the arts in general is that writers and artists are passionate about our work and enough of us are going to keep doing it regardless of how much money we are making. That makes the supply practically unlimited against a finite demand, and the more of us who give away our work for free, the worse it gets for everyone else.

I suppose Goodreads imagines that it will be making money off of publishers and the few writers like me who have money to spend, but the bottom line is that charging for a giveaway is just stupid. I’m not about to waste the money I have on nonsense like that. And if you realize going in that a giveaway is very unlikely to generate sales, you probably won’t either. My suggestion is this – if you want to do a book giveaway, give away ebooks through a platform like Smashwords.

Here’s why. First, they’re not owned by Amazon. Amazon already takes a big enough share our money and web traffic. Second, with an ebook there’s no inventory involved, so you aren’t really taking a loss on the books you give away. Third, unlike Amazon which requires a Kindle or an e-reader or whatever, when you buy an ebook on Smashwords you have the option of downloading the book in a bunch of different formats – including PDF which you can basically read on any phone, computer, tablet, or whatever.

Smashwords makes it easy to create a coupon that you can send out to people on your mailing list. You can set it up to last for a period of time, or a certain number of downloads. All your fans need to do it is buy the book on Smashwords with the coupon, and the book is free. Once they own it, they can go into their Smashwords account and download it again, any time they way, and in any supported format – including Kindle, Nook, PDF, Apple, and so forth.

Oh, and making those coupons is free. With the way things are going, that right there recommends it pretty highly.

Ursula K. Le Guin

LOS ANGELES – DEC 15: Ursula Le Guin at home in Portland, Origon, California December 15 2005. (Photo by Dan Tuffs/Getty Images)

This week author Ursula K. Le Guin passed away at the age of 88. Le Guin was a master of speculative fiction and one of a handful of writers credited with bringing the science fiction genre into the literary fold in the 1970’s – that is, except by those writing snobs who are absolutely convinced that only “realism” can ever count as serious or important literature, regardless of how clever or well-written a speculative piece may be.

In 2014 Le Guin won an award for distinguished contribution to American letters and gave this wonderful acceptance speech. I’m quoting the whole thing because it is just that good, and because it touches on various themes I’ve been discussing on this blog over the last year.

To the givers of this beautiful reward, my thanks, from the heart. My family, my agents, my editors, know that my being here is their doing as well as my own, and that the beautiful reward is theirs as much as mine. And I rejoice in accepting it for, and sharing it with, all the writers who’ve been excluded from literature for so long – my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction, writers of the imagination, who for 50 years have watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.

Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality.

Right now, we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximise corporate profit and advertising revenue is not the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship.

Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial. I see my own publishers, in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an e-book six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience, and writers threatened by corporate fatwa. And I see a lot of us, the producers, who write the books and make the books, accepting this – letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish, what to write.

Books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.

I’ve had a long career as a writer, and a good one, in good company. Here at the end of it, I don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want and should demand our fair share of the proceeds; but the name of our beautiful reward isn’t profit. Its name is freedom.

I have a couple of takeways from this. First, Le Guin was an excellent writer, easily on par if not better than most of the “literary realists” whose work doesn’t get dismissed as “genre fiction” only because they write about “real life” – whatever that’s supposed to be. Le Guin wrote about real life, too, but from the far more interesting standpoint of speculative fiction.

Second, by 2014 the publishing industry was already in crisis, under attack from discount sellers like Amazon and and facing an enormous glut of books on the market due to the rise of self-publishing. It’s understandable that publishers would want to do everything they could to move books, but at the same time Le Guin is right that an author’s vision should never be compromised by what will or won’t sell.

Sadly, it’s become common advice that authors should chase the market – if you self-publish, your cover should look like those of other books in the genre, your blurb should read like every else’s, and your story should employ tropes that are easily recognizable to your readers. It’s nice to say that as artists we should dispense with all this, but the reality is that if we do we will usually sell nothing. With self-publishing our share of the proceeds may be more “fair” in terms of overall percentage, but a better percentage of nothing is still nothing.

And as I’ve said before, I wish I had a solution to this conundrum, but I don’t. I just am going to keep doing what I’m doing – making my living in information technology and writing on the side, because making enough to live on writing books is basically impossible except for a lucky, tiny minority.

Do Readers Dismiss Science Fiction?

science_fiction_quote_bradburyThe Guardian has an article up today discussing the results of a study that to my way of thinking plays right into the “literary versus genre” fiction debate. As I’ve mentioned a couple of time, I had an English teacher in high school who insisted that science fiction was automatically not literature, which to my way of thinking conveyed a lot of ignorance about the genre. Sure, there’s pulpy science fiction that isn’t written well enough to give it much value beyond passing entertainment, but there are also examples of the form that are written at least as well as most literary novels.

According to the study, readers were given 1000 word short stories to read. The stories were identical in terms of writing quality and content, except that a “literary” version was set in an ordinary cafe, and a “science fiction” version was set on board a space station at some point in the far future. The study found that readers tended to dismiss the science fiction version and not read it as carefully as they did the literary version.

Their study, detailed in the paper The Genre Effect, saw the academics work with around 150 participants who were given a text of 1,000 words to read. In each version of the text, a character enters a public eating area and interacts with the people there, after his negative opinion of the community has been made public. In the “literary” version of the text, the character enters a diner after his letter to the editor has been published in the town newspaper. In the science fiction version, he enters a galley in a space station inhabited by aliens and androids as well as humans.

After they read the text, participants were asked how much they agreed with statements such as “I felt like I could put myself in the shoes of the character in the story”, and how much effort they spent trying to work out what characters were feeling. Gavaler and Johnson write that the texts are identical apart from “setting-creating” words such as “door” and “airlock”: they say this should have meant that readers were equally good at inferring the feelings of characters, an ability known as theory of mind.

This was not the case. “Converting the text’s world to science fiction dramatically reduced perceptions of literary quality, despite the fact participants were reading the same story in terms of plot and character relationships,” they write. “In comparison to narrative realism readers, science fiction readers reported lower transportation, experience taking, and empathy. Science fiction readers also reported exerting greater effort to understand the world of the story, but less effort to understand the minds of the characters. Science fiction readers scored lower in comprehension, generally, and in the subcategories of theory of mind, world, and plot.”

As the article goes on to explain, the study has a number of problems. The authors made no effort to sort their subjects according to what they actually liked to read, which is an enormous hole. It seems to me that the most obvious observation in the world from this is that once you identify a piece of writing as a genre you don’t really like, you tend to just skim over it. I like fantasy and science fiction and don’t read romance, for example, and I can certainly see if somebody handed me a “romance” piece and a “science fiction” piece, I would probably test a lot better on the science fiction one than the romance. I’m automatically not going to read something as closely once I identify that it’s in a genre I don’t particularly like.

This would require a new study that would group the participants into science fiction readers and non-science fiction readers, and compare their scores. I suspect that among the science fiction readers, the scores would be similar for the two pieces, and among the non-science fiction readers the scores would diverge dramatically. Since science fiction is not the most popular genre out there, my guess is that these two sets got averaged together to produce the final result. I would also predict that if a follow-up was done on genre preferences, it would find that there are far fewer science fiction readers in the sample than non-science fiction readers, just due to random selection.

So I think the answer to my question up there would be that yes, readers dismiss science fiction if they don’t like science fiction. But seriously, did we really need a study to work that out? My guess is that it holds across the board, with readers engaging with genre fiction that they like and dismissing the rest. And as for literary fiction, the primary characteristic of that version seems to be that there was nothing in the story that allowed a reader to classify it into a genre. There was no real difference in writing quality or content, just the setting. So to frame it as the headline does – suggesting that there is something in particular about science fiction that makes people “poorer readers” is just plain wrong.

So one takeaway – if you can write a piece that people can’t easily classify into a genre, you maybe have a larger potential audience. But it’s also challenging to get there, because people tend to look for writing in the genres they like, not pieces of writing that might or might not fall into their preferred categories. “Literary” readers tend to go for stuff in the “dysfunctional family” genre – which is totally a genre with a whole detailed set of tropes – and pieces that appear to be about “real life,” which basically just strike me as drop-dead boring. Maybe that means I would score better on the science fiction piece in the study – after all, at least in that version something is going on that has the potential of holding my attention.