Category Archives: Writing

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.

Fun With Meter


I have never been much of a poet. Despite taking creative writing classes for years and all that, it turns out that I can write poems that follow specific forms and are technically correct – but still terrible, or at best not even rising to the level of mediocre.

I do enjoy playing around with meter, though. One of the interesting things about it is that there are really only so many ways you can write a rhyming poem with meter. So that means that many poems share the same meter and structure, and some of those are set to music. For example, Emily Dickinson was so enamored of the 7-6-7-6 meter that all of her poems can be sung to the tune of The Yellow Rose of Texas.

Recently some clever folks on the Internet came up with a far more sinister example of meter overlap. They discovered that the H. P. Lovecraft poem Nemesis has the exact same meter as Billy Joel’s signature song Piano Man. How does that sound, you might ask? Well, have a listen above. You can find the text of Nemesis here. It’s way creepier than a straightforward tune about a guy playing music in a piano bar.

Back in 2009 Slate put up a piece arguing that Billy Joel’s music is somehow transcendentally awful. Personally I’m pretty neutral on Billy Joel – I don’t particularly like his music, but I don’t particularly hate it either. It’s cheesy pop that I can take or leave. The article makes me wonder if the author had some bad childhood experience that took place while Billy Joel was playing in the background – because, let’s face it, in the 1980’s you could barely turn on a radio without hearing one of his songs.

But if the core of Piano Man somehow resonates with creeping Lovecraftian horror, I may need to revise my opinion. What if Joel’s music is not merely bad or schlocky, but evil? What if it is the means by which the Elder Gods intend to return to the world from the dark recesses of human imagination? Maybe that’s why he’s been popular for so long – his songs tap into an eldritch reservoir of ancient power that helps to embed them within the foundation of human consciousness.

Granted, it may just be a coincidence. But isn’t it more fun to envision Joel as an emissary of the ancient ones, promulgating their message through his music, and in the process slowly being driven mad?

Publishing in 2017

publishing2017 might turn out to be the year in which declining book sales finally start to take a real toll on major publishing houses. Niche and independent writers like me have been talking about these trends for years, but for the longest time it seemed like big publishers who could position books were essentially immune. The democratization of publishing has meant that anybody can publish their work, but what that means in practice is that there are now millions and millions of books out there that hardly anybody will ever hear of, with all of them in competition with each other.

Marketing is an entirely separate skill from writing, and beyond that, the only organizations willing to put significant resources towards it are the big publishing houses – so their status as de facto gatekeepers has not really changed that much. But as this Slate article points out, 2017 was a little different. Even for the big publishers, it was a pretty bad year for book sales. At the end of 2016 sales were flat, and Carolyn Kellogg of the LA Times opined that the publishing industry really needed a 2017 blockbuster. But it did not get one.

Only a handful of overtly political books broke through this tranquil surface in 2017. First and foremost—among political books, but also among pretty much all books—was Hillary Clinton’s memoir, What Happened, which sold 167,000 copies its first week according to BookScan and kept on trucking through the fall. This Fight Is Our Fight by Elizabeth Warren and Understanding Trump by Newt Gingrich made brief appearances on BookScan’s top 10. Rediscovering Americanism and the Tyranny of Progressivism by radio personality Mark R. Levin had a bit more staying power. But the sales of every non-Clinton political book were easily dwarfed by those of the latest John Grisham or, for that matter, Neil deGrasse Tyson, whose Astrophysics for People in a Hurry is one of those titles that never hits the No. 1 spot but ends up selling far more copies over time than the hot screed of the moment. A couple of perennial best-selling authors, however, performed considerably below their previous numbers this year. Dan Brown sold 144,759 copies of Origin in its first week out. That’s a staggering amount, but less than half of the first-week sales of his previous blockbuster, 2013’s Inferno, and Inferno’s first week was less than half as impressive as that of Brown’s 2009 novel, The Lost Symbol.

Brown isn’t the only franchise whose brand appears to be cooling. Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard have been raking it in for several years with their Killing series of page-turning popular histories. These books aren’t overtly polemical—unlike O’Reilly’s other titles, authored on his own—and the most popular volume in the series, Killing Patton, sold 163,208 copies during its first week of publication in 2014. Last year’s Killing the Rising Sun also did well—144,657 copies sold—in its first week. But the most recent installment, Killing England, moved only 64,723 copies during its first week in September. This is almost certainly due to O’Reilly’s ouster from Fox News earlier this year, and with it his inability to hawk the new book on TV every weeknight. With O’Reilly out of commission, Brian Kilmeade of Fox & Friends is clearly hoping to don the mantle of Fox News personality lending his brand to ghostwritten potboilers that burnish all the annoying moral nuance out of American history. His Andrew Jackson and the Miracle of New Orleans: The Battle That Shaped America’s Destiny has loitered around the midsection of the list for the past few weeks.

Leveraging a massive publicity platform is one of the few proven methods of selling a lot of books, but the media has become so balkanized that many best-selling authors are “celebrities” invisible to most of the nation: YouTube stars, radio hosts, reality TV contestants. The Canadian poet Rupi Kaur has enjoyed a degree of popularity few poets would dare to hope for. Her work, by turns mawkishly sentimental and quotably confessional, makes her the Rod McKuen of her generation. Kaur’s success—her new book, The Sun and Her Flowers, sold more than 75,000 copies in its debut week last month and has racked up a total of 252,602 sales in the month or so since—isn’t entirely due to her ability to produce lines like “i do not want to have you/ to fill the empty parts of me/ i want to be full on my own.” She has 1.8 million followers on Instagram, where her fame was initially spurred when a self-portrait in pajamas stained with period blood was banned by the platform. In a paradox worthy of our late, decadent stage of internet culture, Kaur’s career is dependent on Instagram both because it puts her on millions of teenagers’ cellphones and because she is seen as having defied it.

It’s not so much that those numbers are that small, but compare them to some numbers from the past. Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code sold 81 million copies as recently as 2003. Nothing like that ever seems to happen these days, and that only happened fourteen years ago. Not hundreds of thousands, millions. A while back I published an article in Denver Witch Quarterly addressing the entirely wrongheaded idea that you can freely publish occult books because occult writers like me are swimming in money. The reality is that occult books make next to nothing in terms of real money, so every single sale counts.

Now that might be starting to happen for mainstream authors as well. Maybe that means we’ll see some changes in the industry at this point, but unfortunately I have no idea what would work. Business is not my strong suit and it never has been. Probably it will be something that takes us all totally by surprise. The next big hit might be just around the corner, ready to revitalize the industry, and 2017 might just be a fluke or an outlier. At least, for now we all can hope that something will emerge to turn things around.

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.

Second-Guessing Doesn’t Help

martin_and_kingFor those of my writer friends currently doing NaNoWriMo, here’s a piece of advice from Stephen King himself. King is famous for writing books very quickly. For years and years he kept up a pace of writing 2,000 words per day, every day, no matter what. Basically, he did NaNoWriMo full-time, as his job, for all those years. So one could perhaps argue that King is the greatest NaNoWriMo-er of all time – and he certainly has a lot more experience with it at this point than any writer I know of.

His advice comes in the context of a conversation with Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin, whose writing speed has become a bit of joke in the fan community over the years. Martin’s books are long, intricate, and well-written – but he produces them quite slowly. So when Martin got a chance to sit down with Stephen King, he asked how King managed to write books so quickly. King’s advice is pretty simple.

This entire nearly hour-long conversation between writing luminaries George R. R. Martin and Stephen King is well worth listening to in its entirety, but before that: skip to around 50:08 and hear Martin ask the one question he’s always wanted to put to King. It’s worth it.

The interview comes from a recent event in Albuquerque, New Mexico that’s been recently made available online, and Martin’s demand to know how King writes “so many books, so fast” isn’t just cute—especially considering Martin’s own infamous writing pace when it comes to A Song of Ice and Fire—but a really interesting insight into how the two writers approach their work ethic. King just writes and writes and writes, regardless of if it’ll end up being cut or not. Martin, on the other hand, prefers to take his time.

Bottom line? When you’re writing, don’t second-guess yourself. Just write, and worry about the editing later. In On Writing, King explains that he expects to edit out about ten percent of everything he writes and rework some of the rest. But that’s okay. Getting all the words on the page is important, even if not all of it winds up in the finished piece. If you try to basically edit as you go, like Martin does, your books will take a lot longer to finish. So just go for it, and trust that your writing can always be cleaned up when you go back to edit it.

After years of being an “edit-as-you-go” type, I think I finally am to the point where I can relax enough to edit later – and it’s kind of a liberating experience, to tell you the truth. I have thrown out some large sections, too – the original Pathless Void was going to be a longer piece, but I decided I didn’t like the direction I went in at about the 40,000 word mark. So I published the good part as a novella, and figure I’ll get back to doing a second section that is more to my liking later on.

So that’s my advice, which is the same as King’s – just go for it. A lot of the time when you edit later, you wind up realizing that some of the stuff you had doubts about really does work after all in context. And if it doesn’t, you can always fix in post so to speak.