February 3rd, 2012 | 7 Comments »

 

So I was interviewed recently by Guy Raz for NPR’s weekend edition of All Things Considered. Which was pretty exciting for me — I mean, I listen to that program all the time, and here I was actually going to be on it. It’s as exciting as describing the funny sound your engine makes on “Car Talk,” or being a contestant on “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me!” The program segment was a follow-up to the two articles Fast Company ran on Amazon, erotica, and piracy, here and here; I wrote my version of the events here.

First, a staff member from NPR contacted me by email and we had a few exchanges; then she called me and we talked for about half an hour (probably to establish that I wasn’t a nutter). I checked out OK, so she said that they’d have me go down to the local recording studio for my area’s NPR station, and I’d be interviewed and recorded. She said Guy would ask essentially the same questions she did.

Now, an interview is easy, right? Someone asks you questions, and you answer them. And if you know the topic in advance, and you’ve even already more or less walked through it on the phone with someone, there’s nothing you need to prepare. You just show up.

And so I did. And … well, he asked me a question I hadn’t expected.

He asked, “What are your books about?”

I know! I know! Of all the possible questions you could ask an author, surely that one would be the most likely one of all. It ought to be the question I expect the most, not one that catches me by surprise. I can’t explain my surprise rationally, I can only tell you that I felt it.

Fortunately, I did not say the first thing that popped into my head, which was, “Oh, they’re about ten pages.” Unfortunately, though, I did say the second thing that popped into my head, which was, “They’re about sex.”

Now, our interview lasted about 20 minutes, and he did follow up that question by asking me to relate the plot to one of my stories, which I did… but the total time for the segment was under ten minutes, and there were other people to be interviewed as well, so I knew that a lot of that would be cut.

Not, of course, the quip of my books being about sex.

*wince*

Because the thing is… they’re not about sex. Sex is the vehicle, the conveyance, yes; but my stories are about desire, or attachment, or doubt, or adventure, or growth, or any of the many things that other novels and short stories are about. I almost always have a core idea that I wish to explore: Is it wrong to need reassurance of one’s attractiveness? What role do observers play in defining a couple? How does being covered (physically and metaphorically) affect your view of yourself? What circumstances drive us to ask directly for what we want? and so on.

Readers don’t always pick up on whatever issue it is that I think I’m exploring, I’ve noticed — and that’s perfectly OK. The “message,” if there is one, is really for me. But I never sit down to write thinking, “I know! I’ll describe two people fucking!”

I have no idea why I didn’t say that on the air. But I do think it’s a good question, and it’s one that every author should be prepared to be asked, I think; and it’s worth answering for yourself, whether anyone else puts it to you or not.

For those who wish to hear my embarrassing answer on the air, the link is here.

For my fellow writers, I offer the chance to answer the same question here: What are your stories about? How important is it to you that your message be apparent? Do you always know your “about” before you begin, or do you ever look back at a finished story and discover it then?

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January 14th, 2012 | No Comments »

 This is a post about cheating and deception. That’s the juicy stuff. But in order to get there, I’m going to put in a bit of background. I promise you, though, we’ll get to juicy stuff!

Books are not quite like many other consumer products. If you buy a refrigerator and you really like it, you’re not likely to go out and get a half dozen more. But if you buy a book and you really enjoyed reading it, you are likely to buy more — you’d be repeating a pleasurable experience. I think that’s one reason authors (OK, most authors) aren’t competitive with each other. More readers, and more happy readers, means more readers for everyone.

The community of erotica writers I’ve found to be very supportive and helpful. If someone posts a new release or a good review on Facebook or Google+, other authors are quick to “like” it and share the link and write supportive comments. Authors who post questions (To what publishers might I submit a story with elements x, y, and z? What word count constitutes a “novella” and how much should I charge for one? and so on) get helpful answers and encouragement. We are, after all, in the same business, doing the same work, making the same effort.

That last point is important: doing the same work.

Recently, I’ve been trying my hand at publishing. I self-published a short story (very short! so I included a ‘bonus story,’ and priced it cheap), and then I published two titles by another author, James Wood, under my 1001 Nights Press imprint.

One of Mr. Wood’s titles, Taking Jennifer, I enrolled in Amazon’s Kindle Select program. To participate in this program, you need to give Amazon exclusive content; you can’t have the same title currently available anywhere else. A controversial move, on Amazon’s part, for sure. In return, you get essentially two benefits:

• The book is available in the Kindle Lending Library, which means that members of Amazon’s Prime program can borrow it free. Prime members are allowed to borrow a whopping one title free each month. Authors are paid a fee per borrow that’s calculated in this way: Amazon has a pot of money ($500,000 for December 2011, and $700,000 for January 2012) that is divided equally among all borrowed titles. The price per borrow for December 2011 came out to $1.70. That’s a good deal if your book normally costs .99, and not a good deal if your book normally costs 9.99; however, it is (some feel) increased visibility in general. (Taking Jennifer normally costs $2.99, resulting in a net to the publisher of about $2.00 minus a few cents for a “delivery charge.”)

• You can offer your book for free for 5 days out of 90. (To be in the Kindle Select program, you must enroll in renewable 90-day segments.) While your book is free, obviously you don’t earn anything for a download — but since people like free, it’s likely that your book will be downloaded a lot. This could lead to sales of other titles, if people liked the one they tried. It can lead to reviews, and most importantly, it will raise your visibility in Amazon’s system. You might start showing up tied to other bestsellers in the “Customers who purchased X also bought Y” pages, and that’s very helpful. Many (although not all) authors report increased sales after their book has been available for free.

So, I put Taking Jennifer up for free for two days in December, and sat back to watch the results. (Note: This is one of the fun things about self-publishing, for the mildly obsessive — you can keep refreshing and checking your stats!)

Free books show up in a separate list from paid books, of course, which is only fair. Jennifer did pretty well, I think — at the end of promotion, it reached #21 in free erotica on the US Amazon site, and #3 on the UK site.

Check out the #3 title — that’s mine — and then the #1 title. Naturally, I was curious to see who was doing better; particularly because of the title. I wouldn’t mind at all being ‘beaten,’ if you care to see it that way, by a book called My Sister’s Best Friend, but … My Sister Bestfriend? Really? And with that cover image? It’s not even the right shape, and there’s no title or author name or anything. Like the author didn’t even try. My cover image was done by Shaina Richmond, author of the popular Safe with Me series. I don’t think it was enormously difficult, but still, it took some time and negotiation and playing around with fonts (and talent) to get it just right. Oh, and obviously I had to purchase the cover image. That’s the process most authors go through: You select an image from a stock image site, you pay to download it, and you add a title and author name. Some people use more than one image, or use image-editing software to enhance the picture. And … you can pretty much tell when someone hasn’t gone through those steps.

So, I clicked on the book, and then to the author page for Maria Cruz. Wow, lots of erotica books, which all had the same sort of, um, unprofessional-looking covers (even one spelled wrong: Domenating Her). All erotica, and … one horror book. That seemed out of place, so I clicked on it, and then on “Look Inside” and read a bit. It was, well, it was pretty good prose. Very good prose. Almost … suspiciously good prose. So I googled a bit. Ah. It was Bram Stoker’s Dracula (though the cover was lifted from a graphic novel site).

Now, Dracula is actually in the public domain now. However, under the terms of the Kindle Select program, public domain works that you re-publish are not allowed — remember that exclusivity clause?

It’s been my experience that people rarely cheat only once. So I started clicking on her other titles, the erotica ones. Surprise, surprise. They were all lifted from other places as well, predominately from the Literotica site. Now, it’s possible — highly unlikely, but still possible — that Maria Cruz was actually the true author of these 40+ titles on Literotica from back in 2006, and had just wanted, for her own reasons, to use 40 separate pen names. No law against that. But there was still Amazon’s policy that books in the Kindle Select program (as Maria Cruz’s were) couldn’t be available anywhere else (like Literotica), whether you’d written them yourself or not.

So that pissed me off. Other authors in Amazon’s program were abiding by the terms; they were playing fair. And this one wasn’t. And how was her book so high in the rankings? By being downloaded a lot, sure … but why was something with a crap cover and poor grammar being downloaded so much? I will let readers draw their own conclusions, but … I think there are ways, if one is skilled with computer-y matters, to essentially stuff the ballot box, if you know what I mean.

Was Maria Cruz hurting other authors? Well, yes and no. As I said before, if one author is successful, it doesn’t at all mean that another author won’t be successful. Authors don’t compete in that sense. But in the “game” of sales rankings, yes — Maria’s being at #1 means that someone else is not at #1, and so on down the line, and sales rankings mean increased visibility, and that visibility helps all of your books. And if Maria’s books were being borrowed, then she was getting a slice of Amazon’s half-million dollar pie. At one point in December, Maria Cruz posted on the Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing forum that she’d had over 700 borrows in December (Taking Jennifer had 12).

I wound up telling this story to investigative journalist Adam Penenberg, who wrote about it for Fast Company; as he noted, Maria Cruz was far from the only erotica pirater selling on Amazon, and the piracy problem went beyond erotica. But I think erotica is particularly vulnerable because of sites like Literotica where authors post stories for free. They don’t register copyrights (which would cost them $35), and they pretty much all use pen names. Maria Cruz was lifting stories posted over 5 years ago; it’s quite possible the original authors weren’t even writing anymore, let alone scouring the Net to see if their work had been reposted.

Is there a solution? Currently, it’s pretty easy to upload a book to Amazon. You open an account, you format your book, and you upload it. Amazon does require a bank account and tax ID number; perhaps Amazon can do something at their end, then, as long as they are aware a problem exists. But how would they know? They don’t check each title. (Perhaps they should?)

But definitely, buyers should check. Before you purchase a book from Amazon, check the “Look Inside” feature (well, you would anyway, wouldn’t you?), and then google a phrase or two. Generally, a string of seven words in between quotation marks is enough to pull up a matching text, if one exists (although not with stock phrases such as “Once upon a time” and the like.) Some pirates will change proper names, and might make minor changes such as “brother” to “step-brother,” but if you take some innocuous middle sentence, that should suffice. Go ahead and try it with text from the screen shot (from Ms. Cruz’ Domenating Her). Put in the first few words: “Click. Click. As they gradually awoke” and see what comes up.

Also, at least with erotica, be suspicious of cover images that don’t really look like covers:

And finally… if you do find a book on Amazon that is clearly pirated, please report it! It seems to me (though it’s not entirely clear) that the link for reporting a copyright violation is intended to be for people whose own work has been stolen. Still, though, you could certainly report it there. Another place to report it would be as “inappropriate content” and then from the drop-down menu as “violates the Amazon Kindle terms of service.” In the Comments section, you could paste in the link to the same work attributed to another author.

Some people still look down on self-published books, thinking that they’re of low quality and poorly edited. And if that’s the case, then that will come out eventually in the reviews. And people have different tastes, of course. But every book up there should be the author’s own work. THAT we have the right to demand, authors and readers alike.

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December 6th, 2011 | 21 Comments »

It’s holiday time! Time for toys! As this is an erotica blog, I’m sure people are thinking about sex toys — such a nice gift, because they often please both the giver and the receiver.

However, many sex toys mean batteries, and batteries mean … guilt. Am I the only one who feels this way? I have all these things that take batteries — alarm clocks, vibrators, laptop, camera, cell phone, vibrators (OK, so I have more than one!) — and they all take batteries. And I know batteries are bad. They’re expensive, and they’re made of toxic materials, and they’re hard to dispose of. Plus they’re inconvenient. Why do alarm clock batteries only give out before you have an early morning plane flight? Why do vibrator batteries … well, there isn’t really any good time for those to give out, is there? And then they’re hard to dispose of, so you get a drawer full of batteries waiting for you to take them to whatever place you take your old batteries, and then you open a drawer six months later and you have no idea if these are old batteries waiting to go out, or new batteries liberated from their packaging, or semi-new batteries that you took out of something else for some reason… it’s a mess.

Of course you know the solution: rechargeable batteries. But when you look at them, they seem expensive! You know they’re cheaper in the long run, but they’re right up next to the Valu-Pak of cheap-in-the-short-term disposable batteries, plus you’d have to buy the charger, and then of course it takes all night to charge them, and … I know how it is.

That’s why I’m going to recommend one of the best Christmas presents I have ever received (no, not the corded — and therefore battery-less — Hitachi Magic Wand, although that’s very nice too): It was a Battery System. Or that’s what I call it. A family member poked around my house, took note of what size batteries I used, and bought me two sets of everything I’d need plus a nice big charger that would hold all of them. See how it works? You have one set of batteries in the charger at all times. When some batteries you’re using need recharging, you just swap them with the other fully charged ones. No waiting! It’s the sort of thing everyone ought to do for him/herself, and yet most of us just don’t get around to it. To have someone else do it for you — well, it was very, very nice.

So I pass this on as my Green Christmas/Holiday tip: Buy the object of your affections two sets of rechargeable batteries and a charger. Heck, open one set and the charger and have one set already charged by Christmas morning! If you made enough money this year, throw in a vibrator as well. And then when the recipient asks what the batteries are for, hand ’em that package. 😉

Of course, as an author, I’d be remiss in not mentioning another very obvious Green Christmas gift: ebooks! Easy to purchase, easy to give, no delivery charges, no fuel used in transportation, and so on. You can read ebooks on your Kindle or your Nook or your computer. Oh… don’t have a Kindle? Did you know that by commenting on this post, you’re entered to win a Kindle? Yes! And then click here for the full schedule of Blissemas blog posts, because you can comment on each one for an additional chance to win.

Whether you win the Kindle or not, I’d be happy to send you your choice of a number of erotic ebooks, either to you or to a gift recipient you specify. Available in all sorts of formats, and can even be emailed directly to a Kindle or a Nook. Just mention in your comment that you’re interested, and I’ll email you (your email shows to me when you leave a comment, but does NOT show to the world in general, unless you specifically type it out for them) and we can sort out what you’d like.

I’m interested in hearing other people’s Green Holiday suggestions!

Special thanks to  sscreations (portfolio here) for the use of the red batteries image and to digitalart (portfolio here) for the use of the green battery image.

November 30th, 2011 | 5 Comments »

I once made myself very unpopular at a Harry Potter launch. They had one of those jars, you know, filled with jelly beans — Bertie Bott’s, naturally — and you had to guess how many beans there are in the jar to win it. It wasn’t quite a drawing, of course, more like a guessing, but it had the same feel. The launch of a popular book in a small bookstore meant that there was quite a crowd of people around the jar, filling out their guesses and dropping their names into the collection box.

“I never win these things,” sighed one woman, “I wonder why I bother.” And all around her was a chorus of agreement: “I know! I’ve never won anything” and so on. And without thinking, I said, “Oh, really? I win them all the time.” Well. I hadn’t felt such a cold, disapproving silence since I once heard a man say, “Oh, I loved high school. I was really popular.”

It’s true, though. I do win things. Not big things, never the Caribbean cruise or the 42″ television (not that I have room for one anyway), but second and third prizes. $25 gift certificates from local merchants. A basket of decorative bathroom soaps. A live Christmas tree. A pair of binoculars. A tiny flashlight that says on the side, “The Grim Grotto is dark” (Lemony Snicket launch, that one). A cordless drill.

Online drawings, too — three books from Victoria Blisse. A book from Rebecca Bond. A prize package from author Casey Sheridan that included a keychain, a mini bullet vibrator (that came with two sets of batteries), and a $10 Amazon gift card. Also a book from Sommer Marsden, a leather collar (black with red hearts!) from Babeland from sex toy reviewer Geeky Nymph, two anthologies from Lucy Felthouse, 10 pounds of organic coffee, and a book from Elizabeth Coldwell. Eat your heart out, Charlie Sheen!

Why do I win so much? Well, probably because I enter so much. I mean, there are plenty of drawings that I don’t win, too. But while I can assure you that people really do give away the prizes they say they will, you also can’t win if you never enter. My rules for entering are simple: I never enter a drawing for something I don’t want, and I never pay money to enter. I’ll pay time — I’ll fill out the form, leave the comment, repost the link, that sort of thing. But no money, not even a postage stamp.

The pattern seekers among you might have noticed that I win a lot of books. For one thing, I like to read, so I enter a lot of book drawings. It’s also the case, though, that authors offer a lot of drawings, and — no big surprise — they tend to give away books. Ebooks are especially popular for erotica authors because you don’t have to pay for postage, and your recipient can be nice and discreet. The plain brown Internet wrapper. But it’s also because authors love to be read, and because authors understand that new readers hesitate to take a chance on books they don’t know. Even if you like how a given author blogs, you might not be sure you’d like the novel. Thus, a giveaway is a chance for the author to find a new reader, and the reader to find a new author. That new reader might even leave a nice review or rating up at some site, although I’ve never seen a giveaway that even suggested that, let alone required it. It’s just a secret hope. 😉

I suppose people might be wondering if this post is going to include a drawing. Well, it’s going to do several things.

First is to announce a big giveaway that’s coming up, starting tomorrow (December 1, 2011) and running through the 22nd. The prize is … a Kindle! Yes! That’s one sweet prize! Hostess Victoria Blisse has teamed up with 22 blog authors (including moi) to create Blissemas, an event of free reads and essays and jokes and recipes and general holiday-related fun, culminating with a draw for a Kindle. Each day brings you one chance to enter, which is done by commenting on the blog of that day (check the main site for the schedule of blogs — this one is December 7, just FYI).

Second, I’d like to invite any author (well, not kid lit or YA, for obvious reasons) who’s holding a giveaway in the month of December to leave me the link in a comment to this post, and I’ll add them here. Then people can come back again and again to find more giveaways. Remember, people, you can’t win stuff if you never enter!

Finally, for anyone who has never won anything — whether you’ve tried or not — if you leave me a comment here, I will email you my new short story ebook, “Good Girl.” No, it’s not a villa in France, but it’s free! Your choice of .pdf, .doc, .mobi, or ePub formats (or anything else you want, if I can figure out how to make it). Everyone’s a winner!

Oh, and the jar of jelly beans?

Yeah, I won it.

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List of December Giveaways

• From Kiki Howell, a blog tour with several different chances to win. Find the schedule here.

• From Katie Salidas, a blog tour featuring her paranormal Immortalis series. Different blogs feature reviews, interviews, and guest posts. The schedule for the first week is here:

Dec. 1: http://reviewfromhere.com and  http://jaelynnedavies.blogspot.com/
Dec. 2: www.embracetheshadows.wordpress.com and http://www.simplistik.org/lissetteemanning
Dec. 3: http://saphsbookblog.blogspot.com/
Dec. 4: http://ramblingsfromthischick.blogspot.com/
Dec. 5: http://jeanzbookreadnreview.blogspot.com/   and http://gravetells.com
Dec. 6:  http://wormyhole.blogspot.com
Dec. 7: http://readingbetweenthewinesbookclub.blogspot.com/

 

With thanks to Nutdanai Apikhomboonwaroot, whose portfolio can be found here, for the image of the jelly beans.

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Posted in • Winning!
November 19th, 2011 | 6 Comments »

This post comes after a discussion on this topic on google+ some months back. I came a little late to the party, so there was already a long list of comments, and pretty much they all agreed that authors should not review friends’ books (making me instantly wonder, well, should they be reviewing enemies’ books, then?). In fact, one poster even wrote that people reading the reviews could tell whether comments were made by authors or by “real people.”

OK, of course I’m going to bristle at being called an unreal person, but I do get the point being made — it’s the belief that a review being written by a friend is not just going to be positive, but going to be falsely positive. Therefore, since the review is inflated and insincere, it is in some sense dishonest, and does a disservice to potential readers trying to decide whether to purchase a certain book.

I don’t think it’s any secret that I review friends’ books, but just in case someone didn’t know that, I’ll clarify: I certainly have, and will continue to, review friends’ books. It didn’t start out that way, because when I started reviewing erotica, I didn’t know any erotic authors. In fact, some of my erotica author friends are people I met after I reviewed their books. I found things in their writing that spoke to me, so I connected on Facebook or FetLife or wherever, and we started emailing, and became friends. At that point, did my book reviews become invalid? 😉 (OK, I know that’s not what the original discussion was implying.)

But let’s take now. I have a few books in my review queue, and some of them were written by friends. Real friends, not just casual email acquaintances, but people I’ve spent time with, who’ve stayed at my house, whom I’ve shared meals with. In fact, one reason I wanted to review their books is because we’re friends, and through that friendship, I’ve come to know their values and beliefs as well as their writing, which lead me to think I’d like their future books.

Of course, no one was saying you shouldn’t read your friends books — only that you shouldn’t review them. But I still disagree. If I read a book, and I like it, I should be allowed to say so, whether I know the author or not. I know that I’ve read things by friends that I didn’t particularly care for, so it’s not true that I’ll like something just because a friend wrote it. That’s assuming I’m a lot more shallow than I am, thank you very much. Nor would my friends want me to write insincere praise. I don’t, for example, enjoy paranormal erotica. My friends who write in that genre aren’t offended by views, but they’re not surprised if I don’t ask for those titles to review.

Can a reader tell, though? If a review is insincere. You know, I’m not sure it matters — because I don’t think the thumbs-up or the thumbs-down is what influences readers anyway. Nor is the glowing praise or the scathing insults. What matters is a) the plot summary, and b) the reasons and descriptions a reviewer gives. If a review doesn’t tell me why the reader liked or didn’t like a certain book, then it doesn’t sway me one way or the other. And if the review does give me reasons, then I sometimes decide I wouldn’t like a book the reader loved, or that I would like a book the reviewer hated. I’ve experienced that in both directions. When The Kite Runner came out, for example, I can’t count how many friends recommended it to me, telling me how well-written it was. So I asked what it was about. Ah… really not my kind of book. (I’d confess here some books that got terrible reviews that I loved anyway, but I’m too shy.)

If you’ve ever read my book review policies on this site, you know I don’t write negative reviews — not because I never dislike anything, but because writing a review is hard work and takes time, and I don’t want to spend that on something I didn’t enjoy. I don’t necessarily even want to finish the book. I also review erotica for Oysters & Chocolate, and there (since I’m paid) I take what I’m given and I give my reaction, whether positive, negative, or a mix. However, even when leaving a negative or mixed review, I’m careful to give my reasons — and a thoughtful reader could read those reasons and still decide that he/she would enjoy the work in question and buy it anyway.

I don’t agree that opinions are like assholes, but I do think that opinions are … oh, no analogy. They’re just opinions! Not to say that an opinion can never be inaccurate (I swear to god, my local video store used to have A Clockwork Orange shelved in the “comedy” section), but if there are enough reviews of a book, one review that’s way off the others is going to stand out.

The reviews I do object to? Those by people who have not read the book (and yes, that happens!) and those that are only a sentence or two and say something like “I hated this book it was dumb” or “This was the best book ever, so you have to buy it.”

However, I don’t think those sway anyone’s behavior.

I’d love to hear from people whether they’ve ever bought or decided not to buy a book based on a review, and if so, what the deciding factors were. I’d also like to know, of course, what people think of authors reviewing the works of people they know. And finally, do you think you’ve ever read a review that was insincerely positive, and if so, how could you tell?

Thanks to dan for permission to use the photo of the rose on the book. Please see his portfolio of images here.

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