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?

…And It’s Gone

BooksI took a look on Amazon today, and was surprised to see that the $713.52 copy of Arcana that I mentioned a little over a week ago is no longer posted. Was somebody really dumb enough to pay over seven hundred dollars for a copy when I normally sell them for under twenty bucks?

My guess is probably not. More likely, the seller came across my blog post and realized I was on to them. Like I said in the previous post, odds are they never had the book in the first place and were planning on ordering a copy at the under-twenty-dollar list price to ship to anybody willing to bite. Then, they could keeping the difference for themselves. I do know that Amazon is trying to crack down on that sort of “selling,” so if that’s what they were doing it would explain why they didn’t want the attention.

But it also occurs to me, on the chance the book actually sold, that maybe I should put up a listing to sell my own used copies for hundreds of dollars. It’s not like I don’t own a stack of them, and I could honestly pitch them as “signed first editions.” You know, because there’s only one edition and I’d just sign the book before shipping it out.

“Blade Runner” Was a Totally Different Story

Back in October I saw the new Blade Runner 2049, the long-awaited sequel to Ridley Scott’s science fiction classic. I enjoyed it a lot, and I think that they did justice to the original – which is a pretty tall order. I will say that the reviews were mixed in part because you need to be familiar with the original film in order to fully appreciate it, and some of the perpetual fan questions like “Is Deckard really a replicant?” go unanswered – but I found it a nice counterpoint to the big, kind of dumb sci-fi action films that seem to be taking over the genre of late.

At any rate, no matter what you think of the original or the new film, here’s a question for you – what the heck is a “Blade Runner?” We know what it means in the context of the films – blade runners are essentially bounty hunters who track down rogue replicants, synthetic humans originally created as a slave labor force. The original Philip K. Dick story, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, is no help at all – the term “blade runner” is nowhere to be found in the text.

I recently came across this Slate article up explaining where the title came from, and it’s actually kind of bizarre and amusing. It just goes to show the in world of movie adaptations, nothing is anywhere near as straightforward as it appears. The story of the term “Blade Runner” starts with a doctor named Alan E. Nourse who also happened to be a science-fiction writer.

Whatever Nourse’s skills as a doctor may have been, they were outweighed in the scales of history by his other passion: writing about the medical profession and fantastical worlds of the future. Before he was even done with medical school, he was publishing sci-fi on the side: first came short pieces in anthology magazines like Astounding Science Fiction and Galaxy Science Fiction, then he started publishing novels with titles like Trouble on Titan (1954), Rocket to Limbo (1957), and Scavengers in Space (1959). In 1963, he retired from medicine to focus on his writing, but wrote about learning the healing arts in a 1965 nonfiction book called Intern, published under the intimidating pseudonym “Dr. X.” Sci-fi author-editor Robert Silverberg, who knew Nourse, tells me the latter book “brought him much repute and fortune,” but in general, he just “wrote a lot of very good science fiction that no one seemed to notice.”

That changed on October 28, 1974. Sort of. On that day, publishing house David McKay released a Nourse novel that combined the author’s two areas of expertise into a single magnum opus: The Bladerunner. It follows the adventures of a young man known as Billy Gimp and his partner in crime, Doc, as they navigate a health-care dystopia. It’s the near future, and eugenics has become a guiding American philosophy. Universal health care has been enacted, but in order to cull the herd of the weak, the “Health Control laws” — enforced by the office of a draconian “Secretary of Health Control” — dictate that anyone who wants medical care must undergo sterilization first. As a result, a system of black-market health care has emerged in which suppliers obtain medical equipment, doctors use it to illegally heal those who don’t want to be sterilized, and there are people who covertly transport the equipment to the doctors. Since that equipment often includes scalpels and other instruments of incision, the transporters are known as “bladerunners.” Et voilà, the origin of a term that went on to change sci-fi.

The Bladerunner had nothing to do with Philip K. Dick or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Nonetheless, it would become the title of the film that would make Dick and his work famous in popular culture. The story of how that happened was strange and serendipitous, to say the least.

But fortune smiled on Nourse, as did one of the finest writers of the past 100 years: the obscene eccentric William S. Burroughs. According to literary scholar Paul Ardoin, Burroughs somehow obtained a copy of the second printing of The Bladerunner around the end of 1976. Burroughs was in a transitional stage in his life, having kicked heroin only a few years before and having moved back to New York after a self-imposed exile in Europe. He was rebooting his career with the help of a new assistant named James Grauerholz, turning in columns for pop-culture mag Crawdaddy and soaking up the nascent downtown punk scene. On December 5, 1976, Grauerholz wrote a letter to Burroughs’s agent, Peter Matson, saying the scribe had “liked the book very much, and in fact has begun to consider a film treatment for it.” As far as I can tell, writing a film treatment was something new, or at least quite rare, for Burroughs, but he dove into it with fervent passion. Matson negotiated the rights with Nourse, got the go-ahead, and Burroughs wrote the treatment in less than four months, delivering it to Matson by March 1977. He called it The Blade Runner, adding a fateful space to the titular noun.

Burroughs’s take on Nourse is, to put it mildly, a wild ride. Indeed, it barely has anything to do with The Bladerunner and is as over-the-top as the original was buttoned-down. It’s written not as a screenplay, but rather as a novella-length explanation of the movie to someone named “B.J.” (Burroughs periodically included this mysterious figure as the recipient of his words in other works, as well.) Like many Burroughs texts, the adaptation is highly inscrutable, which is what makes it so entertaining. He doesn’t even get to the main plot of the movie until nearly halfway through, having spent the first portion just setting the scene with the difficult-to-follow backstory of how the world of the film got to be so screwed-up: Overpopulation led to government intrusion into the lives of private citizens, the state’s attempts to control the population begat multiple Health Acts that were received poorly by the populace and led to a bloody civil war in greater New York in which the white middle class battled the poor and people of color, and from the ashes rose a new America where “the unfit” have to undergo sterilization in order to receive health care.

The Blade Runner was patently unfilmable. Grauerholz reported in July 1977 that nobody they took it to was interested, and an alternative arrangement was made with Nourse, whereby the treatment would be published in book form and all film rights would be forfeited. In order to distinguish it from Nourse’s book, a title change was necessary, and although the adaptation would never be a movie, Burroughs and Grauerholz confusingly chose to call it Blade Runner: A Movie. It was first published in 1979 by Blue Wind Press and was never considered a major Burroughs work.

However, a copy of Blade Runner: A Movie found its way into the library of a struggling actor and writer named Hampton Fancher. In the early 1980s, he, producer Michael Deely, and director Ridley Scott were working on an adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and stumbled on a question. “Ridley, after a few months of us working on a draft, when he first came into the project, asked me a question that was so obvious I hadn’t really addressed it before,” Fancher tells me. “What is it that Deckard is, professionally? ‘He’s a detective,’ I said. ‘Well, that was obvious, but what kind of detective exactly, what should he be called?’ I didn’t have an answer, but I’d better get one fast.”

He turned to his collection of tomes. Per Fancher: “That night, I was looking through my books and came across a thin little volume by William Burroughs called Blade Runner. Bingo! Everybody liked it, then later, we needed a new title other than the ones we’d been considering and Michael Deeley, the producer, said, ‘It’s staring us right in the face.’” According to Scott, they approached Burroughs, he said yes, they bought the title of his book for “a nominal fee,” and Blade Runner — a work that otherwise had nothing to do with The Bladerunner or Blade Runner: A Movie — was released on June 25, 1982.

I don’t know if there’s any real takeaway from this, except that it shows if you come up with a really cool title for your story, somebody might decide to license it for a completely unrelated film. This isn’t the only case of that, either. The producers of the 1992 film The Lawnmower Man licensed the title of the Stephen King story of the same name not long after King became a household name, but the movie was actually based on an original screenplay with a working title of CyberGod.

The only similarity with the King story is that there’s one scene where a guy is killed with a lawnmower. King wound up suing the production company when they advertised that the film was based on his story – when all that the company had licensed was the title and the movie was entirely written by someone else. And by the way, before you tell me how terrible The Lawnmower Man was, make sure you’ve watched the director’s cut first. Compared to the theatrical release, which was awful, it’s like night and day.

So maybe that means if you come up with a really cool title, you should keep it to yourself until you know what the people licensing it are going to do with it. Then again, if your name isn’t Stephen King, I don’t know how likely it is that a film production is going to try and exploit your fame in order to drum up publicity.

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.