Self-Publishing: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
(Cybernocturnalism: Authors Behaving Badly)
by Stephen Kozeniewski
Edited and Formatted
by Anthony Servante
Cybernocturnalism is the ongoing discussion of the avalanche of ebooks to hit the market over the past five years. In past articles, we've talked about the expectations of new and seasoned authors approaching the e-market. We've also delved into the ramifications of self-publishing, such as un-edited works, sub-par writing, and how the glut hides the gems in the cyber-mass.
With these thoughts in mind, I approached Stephen Kozeniewski to co-write an article with me about the unethical tactics used by e-authors to lure readers to their books. Well, it seems that Mr. Kozeniewski already had written an unpublished work called "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly", an advice article for e-authors new and continuing in this e-market. So, here it is for authors and readers alike. A round of applause for our guest, Stephen Kozeniewski.
Biography Info:Stephen Kozeniewski (pronounced "causin' ooze key") lives with his wife and two cats in Pennsylvania, the birthplace of the modern zombie. During his time as a Field Artillery officer, he served for three years in Oklahoma and one in Iraq, where due to what he assumes was a clerical error, he was awarded the Bronze Star. His published work includes BRAINEATER JONES, THE GHOUL ARCHIPELAGO, and BILLY AND THE CLONEASAURUS.
Amazon - http://amazon.com/author/kozeniewski
Facebook - https://www.facebook.com/KozAuthor
Twitter - https://twitter.com/outfortune
Mailing List - http://kozauthor.campayn.com/contact_list_form/signup/10334
Overview [on what an e-author should know]:
(ordinary, preferred, and acceptable behavior)
- politely ask friends and family for reviews
- politely ask professional and semi-professional reviewers for reviews
- pay for a reputable blog tour to garner reviews and exposure
- don’t respond to reviews except with a polite “thank you” on the comments of a blog
- complain about a review that upsets you in private to a friend, loved one, or mentor
- create a voluntary mailing list that is easy to unsubscribe from and only periodically use it
- treat people on social media as human beings, with your behavior ranging from polite to friendly
- politely ask local libraries and bookstores to host signings (and take “no” for an answer)
- when speaking publicly (e.g., at a convention panel), be polite, don’t push your books, and don’t trample over other speakers
- create trailers, memes, bookmarks, and other advertising material with original art and music, or pay the creator for the rights to art and music
- politely ask more famous authors for front cover blurbs, and remember to return the favor when others ask you
(annoying, questionable, not recommended behavior)
- harass reviewers
- respond directly to reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, etc.
- comment on a bad review in a public forum (i.e. Facebook, Twitter, etc.)
- spamming Twitter, Facebook groups, etc.
- diverting social media threads to talk about your own work
- hogging, diverting, or otherwise being boorish at a convention panel or book signing
- hogging, diverting, or otherwise being boorish while in the audience at a convention or book signing
- photoshopping the cover of your book into famous photos (the billboard at Times Square or in President Obama’s hands, etc.)
- rearranging the displays at a bookstore to favor your books
- spam your voluntary mailing list
- any unagreed to quid pro quo (i.e. “I left you a review. You’d better leave me one now.)
- be a user
(cruel, malicious, and possibly illegal behavior)
- create sock puppet accounts to leave reviews
- pay for reviews (there are a few exceptions where reputable trade pubs like Kirkus charge for reviews)
- trade drugs, sex, or porn for reviews
- stalk or harass a reviewer in real life
- stealing art or music for your advertisements
- stalk, harass, troll, or leave bad reviews for other authors you perceive as “competition”
- deliberately stealing a title of a famous work in an attempt to confuse buyers (i.e. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Jim Smith)
- literally stealing another author’s work by republishing it under your own name
- trolling under your real name to drum up exposure
- leaving your POD book at a bookstore for exposure
- steal addresses for your mailing list from another organization
- falsify quotes from famous authors, etc. about your work
Every author, even international bestsellers, is part artist and part salesman. Your marketing budget may vary from literally nothing to millions of dollars, depending on how you publish and how famous you are. But however you are advertising, there are right ways and wrong ways to go about it.
Book blurbs are a potentially powerful marketing tool. That’s the little “better than sliced bread – James Patterson” quote you see on the fronts of books. No one know exactly how important they are, but big presses and self-pubbers alike still do them, so they have some clout. You can reach out to famous authors, and some will blurb you. You’re more likely to get a response if you develop a relationship with a famous author first, or ask a more midlist author who is already a friend. It’s important to remember, then, to return the favor when you become a little more famous and the guppies start asking you.
Every author should have a mailing list. It sounds old-fashioned and clunky, but an e-mail list will never go out of style the way Friendster and MySpace (and ultimately even Facebook and Twitter) will. Your list should be voluntary and easy to unsubscribe from. You can run contests and promote the list, but you shouldn’t be strongarming anyone into it. And you should never spam people, just periodically let them know when you have important announcements and new books to sell.
Speaking of spam, don’t you hate it when your Facebook and Twitter feeds just fill up with unsolicited advertisements? While on social media, always remember that everyone is a potential reader, but only if you seek out and engage with them on a human level. Don’t treat them as numbers, chattel for your advertisements.
You should, of course, do some advertising. And make sure that when you do, you do it the right way. Less than 10% of your social media posts should be spent advertising, as a rule. Make sure your commercials, trailers, and memes are clean, professional, and that you paid the artists and musicians who worked on them, or create the art and music yourself.
In real life, you should take opportunities to reach out to libraries, book stores, and conventions and other events in your local community. A nice bookstore may offer you a display for the period of your signing, and may even buy or consign a few of your books if you are not traditionally published. Sometimes newspapers and magazines will help to advertise you, whether in a story or paid advertisement is up to them. If you’re lucky enough to speak publicly, such as at a panel on a science fiction convention, make sure to speak in turn, don’t be a walking billboard for your books, and let the other people on the panel speak when it’s their turn.
This can apply as behavior in any walk of life, but don’t be a user. Don’t be the guy who’s always asking others for front cover blurbs, but when somebody asks you, suddenly you haven’t got the time for them. The authorial community, believe it or not, is a small place, and users are noted. If you’re always taking advantage of others to beta read, advertise, and just generally help out with your work, and suddenly you’re Harvey the Rabbit when everybody else needs help, it will become known. And then folks just won’t help you. Because you’re a user.
Spamming Twitter and Facebook – particularly Facebook groups totally unrelated to your book – is a good way to get people to tune you out. That is, if you’re fortunate and FB doesn’t take action and block your account. Even if you’re not actively spamming people, it’s bad form to bring up your book in a totally unrelated thread. “Hey, guys, which is The Beatles’ best album?” “I dunno, but have you read my NEW NOVEL? Only $0.99!!!” You shouldn’t be spamming your mailing list anything close to daily, either. People will just start unsubscribing to you on all social media if you make an ass of yourself, and then it won’t matter how many advertisements you’re putting out per day, no one’s going to see it.
Of course, social media is not the only place where people can act doucheily. Book and fandom conventions are a great place to reach new fans. You can often easily get placed on speaking panels at these events. You can then spend the whole time talking about your book, which nobody cares about, and not letting William Shatner (who the people probably do actually care about) speak. Even worse is when an audience member decides to raise his hand for the Q&A session at a panel, and instead of asking poor, beleaguered Captain Kirk about his battle with the Gorn, proceeds to talk about his self-pubbed dinosaur erotica. Not cool, random audience member who has attended every panel I have ever spoken at. Not cool.
It should probably go without saying, but if a local venue isn’t interested in hosting you, you shouldn’t be harassing them. Nor should you be sneaking into your bookstore and shiftily rearranging displays to favor your book. Bookstores and publishers have lots of money involved in how they arrange their displays. Plus, you’re really not accomplishing all that much except making a poor bookseller’s day harder when he has to go put your book back where it belongs a few hours after you “cleverly” messed up his stacks.
Intellectual property law is a little wonky, especially with the advent of the internet, and I’m hardly an expert, but as with anything there’s a grey area and there’s a flat-out douche area. If you’re photoshopping your book into Katy Perry’s hands, you may argue that it’s fair use and you may even argue that it was obviously a parody…but I’m just going to go ahead and guess that her lawyers will see it differently. And you probably don’t even have a lawyer.
I’m just going to put this out there: don’t do what Brendan Leonard did. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/brendan-leonard/guerilla-marketing-campaign_b_5358166.html) It’s not guerilla marketing. It’s not sticking it to the man. It’s just douchebaggery.
See, every book, even those that are print-on-demand has a barcode. So technically it can be bought and sold anywhere. And I mean that in the most technical sense. If you leave your POD books in bookstores – or for that matter, in a grocery store, or in a mechanic’s garage – the cashier can technically “sell” it. However, you have just fucked up their inventory, their sales totals, and quite possibly some legal exclusivity deals that they may have with their actual suppliers. If you’re lucky, someone will just scratch their head over the mysterious $12 that suddenly appeared in their accounts. But you quite possibly might be losing some poor cashier his or her job, and you just might be fucking up a franchise owner’s ability to deal with his publishers. But, hey, yeah be a guerrilla there, Che Jr.
I probably shouldn’t have to say that anything that is illegal is probably a bad idea as an advertising technique. But, still, people will steal e-mail addresses for their mailing lists the same way they’ll steal e-mail addresses for the Russian mob’s 419 scams.
Also, don’t make up a quote for the front of your book, or falsify your bestseller status. If James Patterson didn’t say it was the greatest thing since sliced bread…don’t pretend that he did. These are crimes, people, perjury and potentially libel.
Book reviews are an author’s lifeblood. You may not even think consciously about it, but as an online consumer when you look at a book and see it’s gotten seven reviews and came out in 2011 you’ll subconsciously (if not flat out consciously) dismiss it as unpopular and therefore unworthy of your time. Both quantity and quality of reviews count, as Amazon will sometimes do features on books depending on the number of reviews they have and how well they’re rated. And it’s not all about good reviews either. How often have you looked at the lone one-star on Amazon first to see what the haters say? And if the haters seem like idiots, consumers will often be even more inclined to take a chance on buying a book.
Ideally, all reviews would come from random readers who were so wowed by your book that they take the time out of their day to write you a review. In reality, if you’re not a very popular author, you’re not going to get a lot of organic reviews. Only something like 1-10% of readers take the time to review a book. Consider how even books that have sold millions of copies, like THE HUNGER GAMES or Stephen King’s latest, will only ever have a few thousand reviews.
So authors, especially new and indie authors, are compelled to solicit reviews. The easiest way is to personally engage with friends and family and ask them politely to review your book. Unfortunately, even if you have the most supportive friends and family in the world, only a bare fraction of them will actually remember and follow through.
Not to fear, though, good friend! That’s what book reviewers are for. Reviewers can range from paid staff of venerable, decades-old publications to a teenager who just started a blog last week. Except for some of those more venerable publications, like Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly, reviewers will generally not expect to be paid to review your book. You simply write them a polite e-mail after closely reviewing their submission guidelines, and if they’re interested you send them a courtesy copy of your book in their preferred format. They may or may not follow through, and if they do, you are never guaranteed a positive review, only an honest one.
Finally in the list of ways to legitimately garner reviews, you can pay for a blog tour, where a company will basically do the legwork of contacting reviewers for you, in exchange for a small fee. As with any business transaction, there are legitimate blog tour hosts, well-meaning idiots, and out-and-out scammers all out there for you to sort through, so caveat emptor!
There’s all kinds of ways things can go wrong at the “soliciting reviews” step. Just like in real life, nobody likes to be harassed, so don’t keep “following up” with reviewers if it seems they’ve given you a brush-off.
I got a message once from a “peer” who had clearly not read my book (considering he had posted the review the same day I published it.) He just wanted a quid pro quo, that I would also write a 5-star for his books. I’m tempted to put this in the ugly category, but it’s really more of a nuisance than anything else. I mean, it didn’t really “hurt” me any more than any average poorly written review would.
Yeah. So. If I had never become an author, I never would have imagined this, but do not trade sexual favors or pornographic selfies for reviews.
Do not create a hundred free e-mail accounts so you can post a hundred reviews. See, you may think this is clever, or even a victimless crime or something you’ll get away with. But you know how the killer in the movies always gets caught because he has a limp or something? Yeah, you have a limp. I don’t know what it is, but you have a verbal tic that if you write a hundred reviews, no matter how hard you try to make them all look different (which you won’t, because you’re a lazy shit trying to fake a hundred reviews, but I digress) people WILL know it’s you. That semicolon that’s always in the wrong place or whatever will be there to damn you. And if you REALLY think you don’t have a tic that will give you away, unless you are an Anonymous-style hacker, there are people who will get suspicious, trace your IPs or whatever, and reveal you to the world as a great big faker.
Reacting to Reviews
Everyone gets a bad review. It’s going to happen.
Don’t respond. If you take nothing else away from this, take this: don’t respond. To a review. Ever.
If you want to get into the wriggle room, and, trust me, you don’t have to, because the “don’t respond” rule will serve you just fine, but if you want to get into the wriggle room, you could say “Thank you” as a comment on good reviews that bloggers give you. Don’t comment on Amazon. Don’t comment on Goodreads. Ever. But if you get a good review on a blog you could say “Thanks.”
I wouldn’t recommend saying “thank you” to every review. Because if it’s a really bad review, you could look like you’re being sarcastic, and seeming sarcastic can unleash the wrath of the internet.
So. Don’t respond. If a review has you truly upset, talk to your friends, family, or clergy about it, and do so privately. Don’t say “I got a bad review, what an asshole” on Facebook, even if you’re doing it anonymously. That makes you look like a bad sport. Just deal with it privately. Scream into a pillow privately. Weep on your dog’s fur privately. Discuss it with a loved one privately. Then develop a thick skin. And you’ll be fine.
You can respond to bad reviews. You can say what the reviewer didn’t get. You can make an ad hominem attack against the reviewer, his mother, and the horse he rode in on. You know what that’ll get you? The ill will of at least one reviewer, possibly all reviewers (since they all talk) and possibly all readers, since they read reviews and they also all talk. You want to get blackballed in this industry? The fastest way to do it is to respond to a review.
This is, weirdly, the source of some of the ugliest, ugliest authorial behavior on record. Sometimes an author simply goes batshit on a negative reviewer. (http://www.indiesunlimited.com/2014/08/22/another-badly-behaving-author/) Guess what? Bloggers usually have an audience and a platform, and if you attack one, you will draw the ire of the entire blogging community. Want to get blackballed? Do this.
Of course, authors who have the luxury of having a following can unleash their own dogs – whether deliberately or accidentally – on negative reviewers, and this is increasingly taking on the veil of criminal harassment, between the death threats, rape threats, and hacker-style chicanery. Lives are being ruined by this. Is a bad review really worth causing someone that level of psychic trauma? Is it worth them losing their job or suffering real world consequences from your army of followers acting wildly? I would say, if you’re part of a rabid fandom, reign it in when it comes to attacks on people. And if you’re the object of cultish worship, please take active steps to tell your fans not to attack people, and never, ever ask them to.
Of course, professional repercussions and psychological trauma are not the upper limits of what an angry author can unleash on a negative reviewer. You can, of course, also physically stalk your reviewer. That’s what Kathleen Hale did. (http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/oct/18/am-i-being-catfished-an-author-confronts-her-number-one-online-critic) Her behavior was, ah, let’s say…not well received by readers and authors alike. In fact, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say she’ll be persona non grata going forward.
You should always remember that as an author, you are a part of a community. Other authors are not your competitors – they are your well-wishers, your source of inspiration, potentially your allies and friends. But some dark-hearted people will always be jealous of the success of others.
Benjanun Sriduangkaew was an up-and-comer in the sci-fi world. Then it turned out she had been a notoriously vicious internet troll called “Requires Hate” who had ripped into her fellow authors for all manner of bigoted reasons. (http://www.dailydot.com/geek/benjanun-sriduangkaew-revealed-to-be-troll-requires-hate-winterfox/) Needless to say, I don’t think she’ll be coming up so much anymore.
Some trolls don’t bother to even hide their identity. Chris Roberts is a notorious douche who writes one-star reviews for everyone and everything under the sun, for the sole reason, as far as anyone can tell, of being an asshole. In fact, I’d be surprised if he hasn’t already commented on this blog post by the time you read it. (http://www.deathandtaxesmag.com/210583/this-man-has-written-276-negative-amazon-reviews-mostly-in-verse/?hc_location=ufi)
There is some bad author behavior that is so incomprehensible, so baffling, really, that there simply is no positive other side of the coin. I leave you with some of the weirdest and wackiest examples of authors behaving badly that I simply could not categorize otherwise
Titles, you may know, cannot be copyrighted. That’s why you can have a movie named “Love Reign O’er Me” named after the song or a book called SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL. It’s also why, technically speaking, there’s no reason I couldn’t write a two thousand word pamphlet on air conditioning repair and call it HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HOLLOWS.
It’s weird. It’s unconscionable. But people do it. And they do it with the goal of outwitting that slim section of the public that will google Harry Potter, find the cheapest option, and click “buy” without looking at the cover or reading the back matter. Essentially this is the behavior of a confidence man.
As reprehensible (if technically legal) as trying to trick less tech-savvy readers is, it pales in comparison to out-and-out theft. Amazon has made it possible for literally anyone to publish literally anything. The saga of Phronk’s BABOON FART STORY says it all really. (http://www.dailydot.com/business/baboon-fart-story-chuck-wendig-amazon-self-publishing/)
Say what you will about a story that consists solely of the word “fart” but at least it was original. There are “authors” who simply steal other people’s work, physically put their names on the cover, and republish it to Amazon. Why would someone do that if we have copyright laws and intellectual property laws and it’s pretty easy to prove that someone just ripped you off? Because the thief would probably still make a few bucks in sales before anyone notices. And Amazon won’t pull a stolen book until someone notices it and reports it.
And so, my friends, it’s time to wrap up this piece on authors behaving badly, but I would be remiss if I didn’t send you out with a bang. I’ve highlighted a lot of people who ranged from exercising poor judgment to flat-out jerkasses in this piece, but one stands head, shoulders, and shitty shitty belly above all the others: Nickolaus Pacione. I don’t want to speak in absolutes, but practically every piece of ugly advice I’ve recommended you not do, he has done. This guy has stolen, trolled, and harassed a swathe through the horror community. For over a decade. K.H. Koehler gives you a brief recap here (https://khkoehlerbooks.wordpress.com/2012/11/21/the-return-of-nickolaus-pacione/) but no mere blog post can really do this guy justice. So if you’re ever confused about what’s wrong and what’s right in the world of publishing, one mantra that I think will get you through is “Be not like Nicky.”
Thank you to Stephen Kozeniewski for the informative and well-researched article. Please share your thoughts or leave a comment, and don't forget to visit Stephen at the links in his bio.