Books

Motivrite 3: Vanity Publishing vs. Self-publishing


For the longest time vanity publishing and self-publishing were one and the same. If someone couldn’t get a deal with a traditional publisher then their only other option was to go with a vanity publisher who would gladly print up anything the author wanted, for a price. This naturally led to a bunch of not-so-great stuff being vanity published, and there’s a stigma associated with vanity publishing that still lingers around all self-publishing to this day.

But vanity publishing and modern indie self-publishing are far from the same thing, and it’s time for that old stigma and snooty attitude about self-publishers to go. Today’s episode of Motivrite dives into a brief history of vanity publishing, and the differences between old school vanity publishing and modern digital self-publishing.

Show Notes:

0:30 – The distinction between vanity publishing and self-publishing. One of these things is not like the other.

Vanity publishing and self-publishing used to be the same thing. That’s not the case anymore. Good work is being done by indies now that digital self-publishing has democratized the process, and this podcast is going to delve into the history of vanity publishing and compare it to modern digital self-publishing.

1:20 “Publishing companies” that weren’t publishing companies at all. My introduction to the world of vanity publishing.

A brief story about my introduction to the world of vanity publishing. Aka how I learned to stop worrying and accept that I wasn’t actually getting a publishing contract for a short story I wrote for my high school newspaper.

2:35 What is vanity publishing?

A history of old school vanity publishing and why it has a much deserved bad reputation among writers and publishers.

4:37 Not knowing the distinction between vanity publishing and digital self-publishing held me back from my future career. Don’t let it hold you back.

For the longest time I thought that digital self-publishing was just the new version of offline vanity publishing, and this held me back from self-publishing my stuff for several years I could’ve been using to build my career. Don’t let this happen to you.

5:40 Digital self-publishing is a whole new world of indie publishing.

There’s a whole new world of opportunities for writers because of the digital publishing revolution. I go into the differences between the old and busted self-publishing and the new hotness, and why one is still a costly dead end and one is your path to a potential new career.

7:45 Sturgeon’s Law is alive and well, but digital self-publishing allows the cream to rise to the top instead of relying on gatekeepers.

I tackle one of the most common criticisms against self-publishing: that a lot of the material that’s put out there isn’t that good. Which is true. There is a lot of crap out there, but there are also plenty of new systems in place that help the good stuff rise to the top that are far better than the old gatekeeping system of agents and publishers, because it’s the readers who get to decide what’s worthwhile in this new paradigm.

8:30 Digital markets are the great equalizer that puts indies on an equal footing with trad publishers.

We’ve never lived in a better time for writers to make money from their craft. Vanity publishing was a last ditch way for writers who couldn’t cut it in the old system to get their stuff out there, and it almost never worked. Digital self-publishing is a great new level playing field where anyone writing good stuff can stand out from the crowd and make a career!

Progress update: 10/29/2018

I’m going to start a new thing where I do a quick update at the end of a work day talking about everything I accomplished that day. I figure it’s a way to keep myself accountable while also providing some encouragement to get my butt in gear and get stuff done.

Today I wrote 11,941 words across seven projects I’m currently working on. I had a bunch of outlining in there as I’m currently outlining one book for my pen name, and another that I plan on releasing under my name.

I also revised 9,086 words on a project for my main pen name that I’m putting the finishing touches on. I’m a little behind on that one, but what can you do?

I’m getting closer and closer to finishing the sprawling 200,000 word doorstopper GameLit novel I’ve been working on for almost a year now. Even when I finish that there are going to be heavy edits to be done, but simply being close to the end on a project that’s the longest book I’ve ever written feels pretty good. I’m going to have to bust my butt on revisions to get it out by the holiday season though.

I also made progress on the Dice Mage podcast audiobook experiment I’m going to try with that book. Everyone keeps talking about how audio is the new hotness, and I figure I’ll give it a try and see if it’s any good for audience building. I finished editing chapter 5, and recorded, edited, and finished chapter 6 as well. I plan on releasing that to the world now that I have six episodes banked to get those download numbers up when it goes live on various podcasting services.

I also started, but didn’t finish, a couple of blog posts. One about making dining reservations at Disney World, based on a recent experience I had dealing with that frustration, and another about my experiences with the Sega Genesis on the occasion of that system’s 30th birthday.

That’s it for today! Time to hit the sack and prepare for another full day tomorrow.

Introducing Dice Mage!

I got my start in the whole full time writing thing doing erotica and romance. I make no secret of that and I’m not ashamed of it. I’m proud of figuring out a way to make a full time living doing something I love, and I’ve actually come to really enjoy romance as a genre in my time writing in it!

Having said that, for the past four years I’ve always been shooting for the goal of releasing something under my own name. It’s something I was working towards way back in 2016, but then life got in the way. My dad was diagnosed with cancer so I was taking care of him, then he passed and I was taking care of his estate. I also had a string of a couple of surgeries that weren’t life threatening, but put a cramp on my writing time. Through this all my wife was pregnant, then she gave birth and I was helping around the house while she was home on leave, and after that I made the decision to keep my daughter home for her first year.

Suffice it to say my plate was full, and it was taking every bit of time and energy I could dedicate to writing simply to keep up with my existing pen names and maintain an income that kept my family in the lifestyle to which we’ve become accustomed.

So some of the GameLit and fantasy stuff I was working on went on the back burner for awhile, but as of a couple of weeks ago I’m excited to say that I’ve finally released a GameLit adjacent book, Dice Mage!

If you’re not familiar with GameLit, it’s a genre that goes hand in hand with LitRPG. It’s a story that includes gaming elements as part of the story. In Dice Mage that translates to a normal college dude who was minding his own business when he was tapped by a goddess to be her champion in a game of the gods taking place on his college campus, and he has to try and save the world with a set of magical dice that give him the powers of a badass mage! Maybe. If he can ever figure out how they work.

I was super excited about this genre when I saw it moving up the charts in 2015-2016, and I’m excited to finally release my own entry! I’m also a little annoyed that I didn’t get a start in the genre a couple of years ago, but life happens and all you can do is move forward.

So there you have it! You can check out Dice Mage at Amazon and give it a read. It’s also in Kindle Unlimited if you’re a subscriber. I’ve been doing this writing thing full time for nearly four years, but it feels good to finally have something out there under my name!

Kindle Unlimited snafu: scammers, suspended accounts, and page read reductions

There’s a minor to major snafu going on in the Kindle Unlimited author community right now depending on who you talk to. Naturally the authors who are getting letters from Amazon about suspicious activity on their accounts, or getting their accounts suspended, are more inclined to think it’s a big deal.

Basically the issue is that the Kindle Unlimited system has a problem with scammers. There’s money in them thar hills, and like with every gold rush there are unscrupulous people looking to make a quick buck. In this case the quick buck is made by uploading “books” that are stuffed to the maximum page count and then using click farming operations to page through those books to generate page reads for an account and sponge up that sweet, sweet Kindle Unlimited money.

This is causing a few problems including:

KU payout problems

Kindle Unlimited operates with a pot of money that is paid out to all participating authors at the end of a month. So Amazon will have a pot of, say $20 million and they divide that by all the authors who got page reads in a month. The rate per page read usually hovers around $0.005 per month depending on how much money Amazon pumps into the system and how many pages were read in a month.

Seeing the problem yet? Yeah, if there are a bunch of click farmers out there who are artificially inflating the page counts with their stuffed books that means they’re taking away money from other authors. It artificially depresses the payout by crowding out legitimate authors with their ill-gotten page reads.

Authors (unfairly?) targeted

There’s another more low key and potentially more insidious side effect hitting authors over the past couple of weeks. See those scammers know that it would look suspicious if the only books their click farms paged through were their overstuffed books. So what they do to make their operations look more legitimate is they target other bestselling books and page through those as well.

By targeting legitimate books it makes their click farm accounts look more legitimate. The problem for authors is if their book happens to be targeted by one of those click farm operations it suddenly makes their book look more scammy to whatever automated bot Amazon has trawling their site looking for suspicious activity.

The upshot of all this is legitimate authors have been targeted by scammers to lend scammer accounts more legitimacy, and now those author accounts are being targeted by Amazon as scammers with consequences ranging from sternly worded emails accusing them of scamming the system to outright suspensions. There are also authors who are reporting that their page reads are being retroactively revoked for previous months. Presumably these are page reads that were generated by click farm accounts.

Who to believe?

Here’s the problem. Whenever something like this happens there’s a lot of confusion and a lot of rumors that get spread around. I’ve deliberately kept the details in this post to just the facts, ma’am, but if you’re inclined to go looking at some of the rumors then it’s easy enough to find the uproar on KBoards.

The difficulty when something like this happens is all we have to go on is the word of the author on the one hand that they aren’t doing anything scammy, and the stonewall from Amazon on the other side. There are probably some authors out there who did legitimately grey hat things to generate page reads on their books and now they’re complaining along with everyone else on the bandwagon about how they’ve been unfairly targeted. There always are when there’s a smackdown targeting the KU scam du jour.

On the flip side there are enough authors complaining about these issues that it seems highly unlikely that all of them have been partaking in click farms, wittingly or unwittingly. The thought of being labeled a scammer and having your account suspended because your books were targeted by a click farm to lend their scam legitimacy, something that you absolutely cannot control, is terrifying.

With zero transparency from Amazon about exactly what is going on and conflicting reports from authors it’s difficult to say exactly what is happening, but it seems safe to assume that there are legitimate author accounts being unfairly targeted as part of a crackdown that is casting a net that’s gone a little too wide.

What to do?

It’s a difficult call. There are a lot of authors who are talking about pulling out of Kindle Unlimited entirely and going wide. The problem with this is if your whole author strategy so far has been to rely on the ease of Kindle Unlimited then you don’t have an audience on other platforms which makes it difficult to go wide.

On top of that there’s the issue that there simply are some genres that don’t do as well wide as they do in Kindle Unlimited. A lot of authors who have come to rely on KU money are going to have a difficult time and take a severe hit right in the pocketbook if they make the precipitous move of taking their books out of KU. On the other hand if an author is facing a suspension because of illicit KU activity they have no control over there’s really no choice. Better to be out of KU with no KU money and have your Amazon account intact than in KU and risk having your account suspended and you’re out KU money and royalties.

I’d advise caution for authors reading posts from other panicked authors. If Kindle Unlimited is a significant portion of your income then be smart about whether or not you want to withdraw. Especially if you’re relying on that money. Take the time to build yourself up on other stores and build up alternate revenue streams. Don’t do something precipitous that’s going to leave you unable to pay the bills and put food on the table because you’re making a decision from a place of fear.

Parting thoughts

Amazon should be more transparent about what is happening. That’s not likely to happen, but authors should take comfort in the knowledge that Amazon does tend to do the right thing by legit authors in the long run when these crackdowns hit. I think that right now there is a bot or some automated system that is inappropriately flagging some authors, but if those authors make noise and they aren’t actively participating in scams they’re going to be okay in the long run.

It always sucks when something like this happens, but crackdowns at Amazon are hardly new. There are always people who will push the extremes, and often the response swings to the opposite extreme before the dust clears and authors get on with writing. This has all happened before, and it will all happen again. Take a deep breath, remain calm, and come at this from a business perspective rather than from a place of panic and fear.

And maybe consider working on your wide game so you don’t have all your eggs in one basket for the next panic.

Ready Player One is amazing

I went to see Ready Player One on Wednesday when the early bird release came out. I went to see it again last night with my wife because I loved it so much.

It’s been years of waiting and anticipation. I’ve been following the movie ever since I read the book back in 2015. I thought the book was a hilarious, rousing, sometimes poignant cyberpunk masterpiece at the time and I still listen to the audiobook version every six months or so.

And yes I realize that the book has some problems. There are a lot of information dumps and from a pure writing point of view there’s a lot of telling rather than showing, but I don’t care. I’m also not as willing to lay the sins of GamerGate at Ernest Cline’s feet the way a lot of publications seem to have done in recent years.

The book is a fun fast-paced piece of entertainment that invites you to turn off your brain for a little while, but at the same time there are some deeper social commentaries buried in there for anyone who cares to look. I think if a lot of the critics who write the book and the movie off as nothing more than supercharged nostalgia actually took the time to look at that subtext they’d see a piece of pop culture that is subtly thumbing its nose at the very critics who hate it, but that’s neither here nor there.

We’re talking about the movie. And how awesome it is. Seriously. If you were a fan of the book go see this movie. Don’t go in with expectations either. Don’t go in hoping to see your favorite scenes from the book rendered in loving CGI glory, because that’s not what you’re getting with Ready Player One the movie.

They’ve said from the beginning that the movie is inspired by the book, and I think that’s a good thing. I’ve seen a lot of diehard fans moaning and groaning that they’re not getting the point by point adaptation of the geeky deep cuts they’ve always been hoping for, but that was never going to make a great movie. The general public and the average moviegoer has probably never heard of Zork or The Tomb of Horrors or any of the other stuff that forms the backbone of the book’s plot.

What the movie does give us is a fun ride that resembles the hunt presented in the book. Sure there are still pop culture references, but they’re the sort of thing that a wider audience is going to pick up on. It’s the sort of fun that allows that wider audience to be in on the fun rather than walking out of the theater confused and wondering why the hell they just paid $30 per ticket to see a geek standing at an arcade cabinet playing an ancient video game with a creepy skeleton.

The great thing is those deep cuts are still there, but they’re hanging out in the background where people familiar with the novel can pick up on them. Rush 2112 shows up in the background a few times. There are games and ancient computer systems that appear faster than you can see. I spotted a “Re-Elect Wil Wheaton” poster next to a “Re-Elect Mayor Goldie Wilson” poster from Back to the Future which is a fleeting nod to one of the funnier throwaway lines in the book.

All that stuff is still there for anyone who wants to go looking for it.

The point is Ready Player One is a movie. it’s been adapted for the screen. Go in with that expectation and you’re going to love it.

Because the movie is amazing. It’s a visual treat. There are so many references that fly by so fast that even watching the movie twice I was still picking up on things I didn’t see the first time around. This movie is going to be a joy for the kind of people who love picking apart pop culture.

If that’s all the movie was then yeah, it would be the very thing that a lot of critics accuse it of being. A pop culture greatest hits list flashing by at a reference a second overloading people on a nostalgiagasm to the point that they don’t realize what they’r watching is empty fluff.

That’s not the case though. There’s plenty going on to elevate it above the mere fluff that so many people seem deadset on making it out to be. The Spielberg touch makes the relationships between the characters feel far more substantial than they did in the book. I actually prefer the way they come together in the movie to the way they did in the novelization, and there are a lot of rough edges that are sanded away in this version.

The plight of the average Internet user pitted against the evil corporation that wants to use a wonderful resource that’s freed humanity to turn around and sell stuff has also never been more relevant than now when we’re increasingly facing a world where corporate interests are using the levers of government to push an anticompetitive agenda as they monetize away everything that made the Internet great.

Ready Player One is a story that still has a lot to say, and the movie delivers it in a tight fun visually stunning package that feels like it goes by way too fast despite clocking in at nearly two and a half hours. Seriously, if ever there was a movie that might’ve benefitted from the otherwise egregious Hollywood practice of splitting books into multiple movies it’s this one. The one complaint I had about the movie was that the plot felt a little rushed and hurried along at times when they could’ve done more to show the passage of time.

Some of my favorite spoilery moments, you’ve been warned, below:

  • Mark Rylance’s portrayal of James Halliday stole the show. Seriously. It was a revelation that tugged at the heartstrings. I was nearly in tears at the end when he said “Thanks for playing my game.”
  • “It’s fucking Chucky!” has to be the best use of a PG-13 f-bomb since Wolverine’s cameo in X-Men: First Class.
  • I really enjoyed the changes they made to Samantha/Art3mis. She took a more active role, was warmer and less standoffish, and having them meet halfway through the movie rather than at the end made their whole relationship arc seem more plausible. She always took an active role even in the book, she was never the hero’s prize that some critics who obviously never read the book claim, but having her work with Wade earlier felt better and made the romance more believable than the standoffish romance they had in the novel.
  • It was nice that they didn’t off Daito. The Daisho character development was about as thin as in the novel, but there were plenty of ways of proving how evil IOI was within the context of the film without offing one of the High Five.
  • It seemed like the movie world was a little less dystopian than the book world. That might be that there wasn’t enough room to show it considering everything they had to pack into the runtime, but everything felt a little less bleak.
  • Mechagodzilla. Holy. Fucking. Shit. I was worried that Toho might not play ball considering how protective they are of their biggest international star (the 1998 movie notwithstanding), and it was a pleasure to see Mechagodzilla. And what an appearance! The design was beautiful, and the fight was one of the greatest kaiju battles ever put to film.

Go see this movie if you’re a fan of the book. Go see it even if you’ve never read the book. It’s seriously awesome, and well worth the ticket price.

Ten years without Robert Jordan

I noticed awhile back that it’s been ten years since the passing of Robert Jordan. I was surprised to see that it had been that long. I guess I’m getting to that point in my adult life where things that happened ten years ago still feel like they only happened yesterday as opposed to the eternity that would’ve seemed when I was younger.

I was super obsessed with The Wheel of Time when I was a teenager. I’d chatted with a few people who were obsessed with it over ICQ, which is another line that’s dating me, and I eventually decided to pick up The Eye of the World near the end of my sophomore year of high school. I still remember going out to dinner with my family one Friday night when I was near the end and instead of going in shopping with them like I usually did after dinner I sat flipping pages in my mom’s car reading by the dome light and having my mind blown as I finished EotW.

Jordan’s work was a revelation at the time, and I think it’s one of those things where he was so revolutionary and there were so many people who moved to copy him after the fact that a lot of people look at Wheel of Time now and find themselves wondering what the big deal is.

It’s difficult to describe if you weren’t around the fantasy fandom at the time, but it was nothing short of amazing. Strong female characters. A subtle depiction of a world where women hold the power. I always found it endlessly amusing that people criticized Jordan’s female characters by calling them shrill, shrews, commanding, demanding, etc., and never once do the people leveling these criticisms seem to have the introspection to ask themselves if they would level the same accusations at their fantasy heroine if she was a hero.

Jordan had a well thought out world that felt lived in. He had an intricate magic system where, as he said in a signing I attended, the magic is their technology. He took familiar fantasy tropes and turned them on their ear.

Sure the books start to plod after about book five. Sure it felt like the plot was spiraling out of control with new characters being introduced when you wondered why he wasn’t just wrapping the damn thing up. Sure some of the descriptions can get a little samey after awhile, and he had an obsession with fashion that was a bit odd.

But I still think they’re wonderful books that are well worth exploring. They were groundbreaking in their day, but even these days they’re still a fun read. Maybe skip Crossroads of Twilight since nothing of consequence really happens in there.

I had an opportunity to meet Robert Jordan when he was on tour for Knife of Dreams. I’m so glad that I took the time to go to that book tour because it turns out that was the last one he’d ever go on. He had a presence that filled the room. A severity and an attitude that said he’d been on enough of these tours and dealt with enough fans trying to get him to reveal something that he wouldn’t put up with nonsense, but he still made the room laugh.

At the signing he said he was planning one more book in the series, and that he would make the publisher put it on the shelves even if it was a foot long. Which is a little ironic in hindsight considering they ended up splitting the book into three after his death. He did a rundown of how to pronounce the names, and deftly handled a Q&A where it was clear there was a room full of fans who were eager to get him to reveal something or catch him in a “gotcha” question.

When it came time for the signing itself everything was brief. We got up and I bought hardcover copies of Eye of the World and Knife of Dreams for him to sign. I could kick myself, because once we got to the signing I saw other people there who’d brought giant bags full of their hardcover collections for him to sign. I’d been building my own hardcover collection from used bookstores at the time and I had everything but The Dragon Reborn at that point. Of course the signing was a good three hours away from where I lived so there was no way I’d be able to go back and get those books, and while he was happy to sign more than two books the people who did that had to wait until the end of the night so it’s not like it would’ve been workable.

When I got up to his table he hit me with a look that I can only describe as piercing and severe, but not unfriendly. I stammered something out about how much I enjoyed his books, nothing profound from me meeting this particular hero, and then he signed the books and it was over.

One other thing we remarked on at that signing was how thin he looked. He was definitely more gaunt than he appeared in his book covers, but my friend and I who made the drive out there assumed he’d been losing weight for health reasons or something. It wasn’t until after the tour that his diagnosis was announced and the world realized how bad it was.

I still remember sitting in a computer lab in college browsing Digg, another tell as to what an old fart I am in Internet years, when I read the news that he’d passed. It was a surprise as they’d been optimistic and upbeat in all the updates, but not a huge surprise since his disease didn’t have a great prognosis.

The fantasy world lost one of its giants that day. I still wonder what might have been if he’d been allowed to finish the series. Brandon Sanderson did a wonderful job of tying up a series that had too many dangling threads to count, but fantasy fans are always going to be left wondering how Jordan’s take would’ve turned out.

To Robert Jordan. One of the greats. I’d say he was gone too soon, but it seems like he lived a long and fulfilling life and will be remembered fondly by fans and those who knew him, and can you really ask for more than that once you’ve shed this mortal coil?