How Can You Tell If Your Work is Good?

This morning, I ran across what has to be the single most objectively bad book cover I’ve ever seen in my life. Someone I follow retweeted it to help out the author. And even at the ass crack of dawn with an hour and five minutes of sleep (an actual Fitbit reading, not hyperbole) I could tell that this cover was slow down and look at the train wreck bad. It’s not pardon me, your slip is showing. It’s more… Hey, your bikini waxer missed a spot.

The book in question was a BDSM romance in the vein of 50 Shades. The adver-tweet, itself said BDSM romance, and yes, I actually followed the link to more description on Amazon. No, I can’t remember a dang word of what Amazon said.

The models on the cover were the requisite well-built and shirtless man(cropped at the neck), and a blonde woman who was pasted over him at a rather odd angle. You got the impression that some other background had been removed, and the original furniture didn’t really have the same contours as a hard six-pack. The whole thing was very clearly patched together.

She also had an expression on her face that didn’t really suggest a consenting adult. I’m very serious when I say that my first thought was that she’s dead. In the sense of… well, that’s a very life-like makeup job. Literally dead. (This is partially the weird angle she was at, and partially the expression on her face.) Dead. Overdosed. Vapid blow-up doll surprise. Best case scenario, she looked like a vulnerable adult.

And yet… someone not only decided that collage of images was sexy… they chose it to represent their book.

The cover had absoutely nothing to suggest BDSM or any other part of the plot. The only thing that made me notice it at all was just how awful it was. Who the hell is sending me this crap?

Writers are not artists. Most of us don’t have a lot of graphic design background. I get that.

I still found myself looking at this cover and wondering just how it happened. Author designing their own cover to save money? Probably. But still. How objective do you have to be to catch that your female model looks dead or intoxicated? Author not getting or not trusting feedback on the cover picture? Probably that, too.

And of course, to some extent, I’m guilty too. After all, I didn’t pull the author aside and send them a nice note that says… hey, uhm… did you know?

I have a writers’ group on line–an actually fairly large forum–where people can post titles, cover copy, and cover images for feedback. You get to vote as to which thing you like best, and then you get to comment about why. And the longer I’m there, the clearer I am getting about sorting out the objective–this is just wrong–information (Such as The cover model is a blonde Caucasian, but you described the character as a pretty Afro-Caribbean) from the subjective. (I like the blue one.)

So, the question is… how do you find the friends who will say hey, your slip is showing, your breath stinks, and you can’t for the world tell the American spelling from the British one?

How do you know when what you’ve done is actually good, and how do you develop the taste that lets you know the difference?

Extroverts Should Come With A Warning

I got into one of those conversations today.

You know the ones.

Yup. The kind where you’re with one of your extroverted friends, and you have no idea on this earth where the third person came from or why you are talking to them. They’re just sorta there because you’re out walking with (well, what do you get when you cross the cutest baby in the world with a Labrador retriever?)

Oh, yes. That’s right. An infestation of strangers.

This particular conversation started with the number of businesses that are closing (all of them), and the whole “Buy local” thing.

And as an extrovert, new person announced that “our mayor” has been really pushing the buy local thing.

And as you might guess from some of my previous posts, it’s working. We’ve opened three empty store fronts and a new vacant lot in the past couple of months alone.

I told her I was buying groceries on the internet.

She told me she likes to squeeze her fruit.

(Yes. Yes, she did.)

So, let’s talk about those empty store fronts, shall we? The question I keep hearing is how we get people to buy local.

As if that’s a marvelous option. And you know, I do have options. Should I squeeze my fruit at  Empty-store mart, boarded-up world, or Vacant-Express? Don’t get me wrong. There are grocery stores locally, but they’re not locally owned or anything. They’re gateways to non-growth. Work there so you can buy there so you can work there. There’s a larger version, involving more of the town, but that’s it. An endless cycle of stasis.

And when those storefronts were open? Well, it wasn’t the greatest selection. In fact, the best bookstore in town when I was a kid was the remainders bin at Pamida.

I just don’t see the good ol’ days looking backward.

Here’s the thing. I have access to more because of the internet. Not just more choices (although the fact that I can order a case of random weird delivered to my door doesn’t exactly make me sad.) but more people. More potential customers. A business in my small town–thank you, sweet baby Tim Berners-Lee– has access to millions of potential customers, and not just the handful that are here, and the opportunity to sell to niche audiences that simply weren’t unified enough to have purchasing power until recently.

I don’t have to buy the remainders bin books, if what I really want is a book in Spanish or French, or Classical Assyrian.

And I don’t have to figure out what will sell to a geographically limited market of a few thousand people.

Indie publishing runs on that principle. There are enough people who read Sasquatch porn that if you just figure out how to reach them, you can earn a living. Or… you know… whatever your niche is.

Small, independent art galleries… I don’t have to take the art to New York. I bring New York to the art. Or… I bring the internet connected world to the art.

I can stream videos directly to my home that my local Blockbuster wouldn’t have dreamed of stocking. Wanna binge watch Korean romances with me? No problem. They come to my living room these days.

Wanna have a writers’ group that specializes in people who are actually writing novels? Yeah. That’s on the internet, too.

And frankly, I don’t see it as being a contradiction. Small towns are worth revitalizing. They’re good places to live, and they’re worth saving.

But the question isn’t how you get people to “buy local.”

It’s how do you help local businesses to sell global.

Co-Working in Small Towns

A new coworking space is opening in a vacant building near me.

Coworking is several start-up sized businesses sharing space and resources, and usually has space on a drop-in basis. It’s actually something I’ve been watching for a few years, now. I could see doing a web-design business out of it.  (Pay no attention to the theme here) Or I could see it being a great place to get away from the daily noise and go work on a novel when you’re on a deadline.

Thoughts have fluttered through my head.

None of them involved co-working space in my own town, though.

I always thought of it as a larger city thing, and maybe a way to start a business “in” a larger town without dropping a fortune on rent. (The thought of starting a business that’s anchored to a dying town does not appeal to me.)

So, one of the local realtors is starting a co-working space.

That’s not how the places usually start, of course. It’s usually more of a start-ups getting together thing. Maybe let’s call that a cooperative. There’s usually a list somewhere on the co-working website. And the community involved is a big part of the sell. (Work on your own projects, but get the interaction of a more varied workplace.)

Okay. So, we all know the reason for it is that realtor has a butt-load of empty storefronts, and no one to rent them to. And this is one of the bigger empty buildings, so just filling it will give the town more curb-appeal. (It used to be a movie theater.)

It makes sense. You fill the space with start-ups who couldn’t rent an entire office or store front on their own, and then–eventually–some of them get big enough to move into other space around town. Maybe you make a little money, and maybe you just make enough to cover the taxes, but either way…

This is the first time in a while, though, that I’ve seen a new business come in and actually believed that it had a chance of 1.) Succeeding and 2.) Succeeding without shutting down some similar business.

I’m excited to see how it works, even if I’m not actively thinking of using the service. Pricing will be coming out soon, so we’ll see how it compares to my get started in a bigger town idea.

Related Links, or THAT’S NOT MY FAULT!

One of the things that always fascinates me about the internet is the automatically generated links. Now, a human being… they have a pretty good idea what’s related to what. They can bet that if you’re looking for desert recipes with chocolate, you’re game for pies, cakes, and tortes, and that maybe you’d settle for brownies.

The internet? Well, left to its own devices, it’ll find some off the wall connection between your searches. Yup. She’s definitely looking for recipes where salt is an ingredient.

I subscribe to a blog that focuses on Strong Language. Yup. The all-dirty words all the time blog. It’s an academic approach–it highlights the origins, the usages, and the cultural differences–and it’s a riot. It’s also not appropriate for children, or the squeamish, and sometimes… well, it’s not guaranteed safe for work.

Yesterday, the specific word was “cock” and the various adjectives, verbs, and adverbs that come with it.

The writer does note–rightly–that this is the kind of Google search that will lead to a wide variety of pornographic content, and–to save you from that horrifying experience–has aggregated the data into some really spiffy actuarial tables.

(Well, we’re not trying to be obscene here.)

The related links–obviously computer generated–led me to a linguist led me to a conservative Christian minister. Well, check that. I’m pretty sure the minister would consider himself a linguist, and I’m pretty sure there’s a copy of Bauer on his desk.

Well, that got me to thinking about related links and sales.

For instance, I bought a case of soup on the internet, the other day, and in the same order, I happened–no real correlation–to order a bottle of my favorite anti-diarrheal medication. So… does the soup now come up with “People who bought this also bought…”

There’s not that much to control that kind of links, as far as I know.

But it would still be cool to be recommended as something people who bought Arduino or a pet dinosaur also bought.

Web Hosting Woes

My website spent a good chunk of today not functioning. The general reason–as I understand it–is that someone attacked the host’s name servers, and as a result… basically everything attached to those name servers went down. I’ve been debating changing hosts on and off for a while. This afternoon was a little bit of an **aha!** moment. A while back, I got a letter that suggested I upgrade to a snazzier server because I’m straining the resources on my current plan.

Well, I contacted them, and asked for a ballpark figure on how many views my account should be able to handle, and was told–I don’t know if I should be surprised–that it had more to do with my use of resources, than a specific number of views.

Uh-huh. So, I got to optimizing databases, and started looking askance at photos. Is that picture too big? Uhm… Well, maybe a few fewer pictures. I’m sure you’ll be able to see where it changed, if you look back at posts.

I don’t know what number I was expecting, but it certainly wasn’t anything close to what I had been getting. But you know how it is. Lack of experience, and willingness to accept the idea that this is my fault.

So, fast forward, and now the whole system is down because of a Distributed Denial of Service attack on the name servers.  Well, **aha!** That sounds a lot like the kind of thing that might be presaged by resources being gobbled up.

I’m thinking warm fuzzy thoughts about changing hosts.

I’ve found one that advertises a number of views with a hosting plan that costs… well, about the same as mine… And their number is 200k per month. Well, I’m not actually going to do the math, but–uhm, yeah… carry the 200–that’s more than I’m getting.

And it’s WordPress specific hosting.

I know it won’t be exactly the same for everyone, but I do like having at least a broad figure.

I’m still doing some thinking. I have a while until my term ends. I’m not crazy about the hassle of moving, and I’m not 100% sure what the new host will be. I also kinda want to revisit the issue with their customer service, and perhaps be much clearer about the reason for the questions.

I also have a friend who has some deep and soul-binding connection with them (I didn’t ask) so I might run the questions by him, just on basic principle. (Or I might not. I don’t know if setting myself up for second-hand preferential treatment is a good long-term choice.)

So, while I’m out there collecting information… Anybody in love with their host? Or, you know… ready to commit justifiable homicide? Recommendations? Warnings?

Trigger Warnings for the Modern Reader

The first time I ran into the idea of trigger warnings, I was working on revising my first (and eternally unpublished) novel, and writing a second (or third, or fourth, or fifteenth). I was on the NaNoWriMo forums, talking to people I didn’t know particularly well, whose names I no longer remember, and who were probably not writing in the same genres as I did.

And somewhere in the conversation, someone “suggested”–with more than a hint of self-righteousness–that I should put a warning sticker on my book.

I took it as a joke. Something like those parental advisory stickers that used to come on music, back before music came off the internet. And why wouldn’t I? I mean, the title of my book was something like “Slicey-Dicey Serial Killers of Death,” the cover–if it had gotten that far–would likely have shown a dead woman (or some portion thereof), and it would certainly have been shelved under murder and mayhem in the bookstore or library.

What more warning could you possibly need?

That was before e-readers. Back then, the question was pretty simple. Trigger warnings, yes or no? And since publishers mostly only publish one version of a book at a time, a little debate, and then everybody gets stuck with the same answer.

Now, to be quite honest, I don’t just not want to be trigger warned, I very much want to not be trigger warned.

But…

We’re not talking about some over-arching trigger-police running amok in the libraries, stamping things with stickers, anymore.

When I read a book, more often than not, I read it in my preferred font, at my preferred size, and that impacts… exactly no one other than myself. When I buy a book, I frequently do it in an internet store that remembers my previous purchases, and makes individual suggestions. When I search for a book–on Google or in the store, itself–the ads I see aren’t the same ones you see. And there are parental controls on my devices, even though my only child uses a litter box.

Everyone sees their own internet.

Trigger warnings don’t have to be a sticker on the front cover, anymore. They don’t have to be front and center, spoiling the book for everyone. It is not a zero sum game.

They could be–like my preferred font– a personal setting either on a sales website or on your e-reader, itself. People who need them see them, and I don’t. You could even use it as a marketing tool. (that little red exclamation point means they’re there, if you want them.)

And they could be incredibly detailed.  Wanna be warned about abuse, but not be told in advance that Beth dies? Fine. Set your reader settings that way.  Want your warnings up front, or chapter by chapter? There could be a setting for that.

It’s time to move on. We’re at a point where we could easily move from static, one-size fits all trigger warnings to customize-able trigger controls. And put the reader in control.

 

Lagniappes, Giveaways, and Finding YOUR Fans

I love it when people give me free books.

Aside from the obvious–someone is giving you a free book–it’s a great way to get past all those unconscious biases and read something completely out of your comfort zone and find something you wouldn’t pick up on your own.

The first strangers I remember handing out free books were the Gideons. Motel room Bibles, first–seems like I was always on a road trip of some kind as a kid–and later, the suit-and-tie men who stood outside schools and passed out teeny-tiny New Testaments in bright colors. One of my great-uncles was a Gideon, and you could always go over to his house and read the Bible. And since he was also kind of an ersatz missionary, you could “read” the Bible in more languages than I can count, some of which used a completely different alphabet.

Laugh, if you want, but it was one of my first introductions to foreign language.

Later on, when I was a Bookseller, we had a communal shelf for the Advance Copies publishers sent us, and the books rotated in and out fairly quickly. You’d read it, and then bring it back (most of the time) and add a post-it with a few notes on your thoughts. Obviously, the ones  with the most post-its were the most desirable.

Yes, there was a range. There were tech manuals in back that had probably been untouched since the dawn of the Epoch, and which were probably… just fine as that goes… and occasionally, you’d wind up with a note or two that shredded something.

But you still got that exposure to things you might not ordinarily buy or even read. Would I put out money for a History of the San Francisco Sewer system? Probably not, but if my friend liked it, and it was free…

And then, comes the world of e-books. When I got my first e-reader, it seemed like everything was free, and if it wasn’t… well, wait a week. People were fiddling around, trying to figure out the business model for e-books, and the first digital-only imprints were being born. And somehow, people still made money.

Just not the company that made that first reader. In time, their store wound up being swamped by “Free.” You could search, but you couldn’t find anything under the piles and piles of “Free.” The algorithm seemed to make no distinction between “real” books and the “books” some high school kid kicked out over the weekend. Probably because it didn’t make a distinction between giving away copies and selling them. It wound up closing.

Moral of That Story? There is a difference between attracting your own fans, and attracting the fans of Free.

So, moving right along…

The solution at least a couple of traditional publishers have come up with is offering “free” ebooks, but only through their newsletters, and off their own websites. That way, they’re focusing on people who care enough to know, instead of on the whole internet.

I get a couple of newsletters that have a regular Book of the Month type giveaway (and an associated discussion group, if you’re into that). I think they’re probably doing fairly well in terms of attracting “their” fans instead of a bunch of bargain hunters. One of them is Tor, and the other is a much smaller, University press that trades in non-fiction.

On the far end of things, I’ve heard the idea that you shouldn’t be afraid to give away all of your work (eventually) because your true fans won’t be able to wait and will wind up sending money, anyway. I’m not sure I totally believe that, but it does seem to work for some people.

So, what do you think? If you give away books, how do you make that work for you? If you don’t, what led to that decision? And if you’re in some other industry, how do you handle the giveaways?

Businessy Me.

A couple days ago, one of my co-workers sent me a picture of everything that was going wrong in my absence. (Everything.) And also, I’m not supposed to mention the rat. (There’s a rat.) And apparently, people have been asking her to post my schedule so that they don’t have to deal with my new counterpart. (They would probably ask me, personally, but I am quite frightening.)

I don’t understand it. I mean… counterpart has been well trained. Somebody pointed at my work area and said “You’re doing that tomorrow” and everything.

I’m learning a lot about running a business from this job. Mostly by negative example. I’m seeing a whole lot of short-term choices being made, and a whole lot of higher policies that incentivize those short-term choices.

And I’m starting to see the effects of making short term decisions.

I don’t know what’s going to happen in the company as a whole, but I have the feeling the writing’s on the wall for this particular town. (We’re in a downward spiral of cut jobs, lose income to bad customer service, cut more jobs to make up for the lost profits. I don’t really expect it to level out, and I know I don’t have the power to fix it.)

I could actually see what I’m learning being useful, if I could figure out a way to market it. Fabulous business advice such as:

  1. You can’t meet long-term goals with short-term solutions.
  2. If everyone who works with a manager thinks he’s incompetent, he probably is.
  3. Never mistake a retention problem for a hiring problem.
  4. More training, less hiring. (And less firing.)
  5. Don’t get in the way of peoples’ true passion. You’ll lose.
  6. Don’t expect everybody to share your idea of success.
  7. Understand other peoples’ personal goals, and help them meet them.

I’m not sure how those would relate to a writing business. I’m not likely to have an HR department. But you never know… I might find a use for them.