It’s another ‘I’m an idiot, learn from me’ post today. It’s also long. Apologies for that but there’s rather a lot to say.
Recently I’ve been trying to get the initial ideas and machinery in place to launch a new book. There are several places where I’m stuck, mostly the same, old same old: you know, stuff like actually managing to write a blurb that makes it sound appealing or coming up with a viable title. There is also the aspect of things I might unknowingly stuff up.
OK, so I try to act with professional integrity. This is the internet. Whatever I do I will offend someone but I try avoid any dishonourable, shabby, dishonest or generally reprehensible behaviour if at all possible. I try to love my internetty neighbour the way I’d like to be loved myself.
However, I’m a writer and a flawed human being. I frequently offend people without even realising. Indeed, if life was a game I suspect unwitting offence would be my Special Attribute. A couple of things have happened, recently, that have made me very aware of this and concentrated my attention on the matter of how hard it is to achieve a good reputation on the internet, how difficult it is not to cause offence, however well meaning your actions may actually be. And how difficult it can be to gauge how others will react to your actions when the only guide you have is to imagine how it would feel to be on the receiving end.
It’s not just about trying to act with decency and integrity at all times. It’s about whether people think think you are. A lot of that is about what folks believe your intentions are. I think that no matter how genuine you wish to be, how honest you think you are being, or how principled you aim to make your approach, if you are selling anything, however obliquely, there are certain quarters of the internet where any attempt to connect on your part will be considered a hypocritical attempt to befriend people in order to sell them something. So far with me, it’s kind of been the other way round. But a couple of things have really surprised me, recently. Stupid things I’ve done without realising they were stupid.
On the up side, since I’ve made these monumental fuck ups, it means that by describing them to you at length I can ensure that you don’t have to. Here’s what I’ve learned from this series of unfortunate events…
The dreadful truth about titles.
I’ll fess up. I got in a bit of a muddle publishing my last two books. The main problem was that when I finished the third book in the K’Barthan Trilogy (as it was then called) I discovered it was a snadge over 300,000 words long. What to do? If I produced a paperback then, by the time I’d factored in the kind of discount that would pay the middle men (60%) I would have a book that cost about £25. So there’s book 1 at £9.99, book 2 at £11.99 and book 3 at £24.99. With books 1 and 2 ending on cliff hangers it does rather look as if I’m holding readers to ransom to find out what happens. Luckily there was a point where I could split it. So I did. But that cost more. Another £800 or so to be precise and another £90 plus 20% sales tax to upload it to the print on demand distributor I use.
With money tight, the question raised it’s head of spending a further £90 plus tax per book to change the word ‘Trilogy’ on the cover and front pages of the first two, to ‘Series’ in print. Also, what little traction the series had was as the K’Barthan Trilogy. I asked folks, took advice and tried to imagine how I would feel if a trilogy I was following had four books. The folks I asked reckoned a 4 book trilogy was not unusual and that no-one would mind. Since I’ve read the Hitch Hiker’s ‘trilogy’ and was delighted when it kept growing, rather than upset, I saved the £180 and went for the 4 book trilogy.
How wrong I was.
A couple of months ago the third book got a blistering one star review, slamming me for writing a fourth instalment. I paraphrase but the gist was like this:
“I know your game,” it basically said. “You’re just going to write book after book and never end the story, because you’re just a bastard writer! And all you bastard writers ever want to do is rip readers off and make us pay and pay so you can buy another set of gold plated wheels for your Mercedes Benz. Well I’m not reading any more of your crap you… charlatan!”
Fair enough, this case, someone has clearly watched too many episodes of ‘Lost’, and that £50 a month I earn from my writing may well look like the gold-plated-alloy-purchasing big time to some folks, but I was completely thrown. First that they were upset, second by the enormous gap between their perception of my personality and the real one.
OK, we all know the golden rule is DO NOT ENGAGE. NEVER reply to things like that.
I broke it.
I commented on the review apologising for causing offence, explaining that it wasn’t intended, that the story ends at the conclusion of the fourth book (in case anyone else reading that review wondered) and then I offered to send it to them for free so they could find out what happened. They never replied. I went and changed the title from ‘trilogy’ to ‘series’ in all the ebook files and on all the listings on every retail site I sell through – it already said it in the product desription. Naturally the retailers all accepted my chages except for Amazon who asserted that if it said ‘trilogy’ on the book cover (even if it’s too small to read) it will be called ‘trilogy’ until I pay the designers to change the j-peg and upload the new one.
I chalked it up as something to watch and a change to do when I brief the designers about my next book.
During last year, I entered both books for the excellent Wishing Shelf Book Awards. When the feedback came through I was very surprised to discover that readers there, too, had commented negatively about my writing a ‘trilogy’ of four books.
Clearly, something that hadn’t registered with me was really pissing other people off. So what have I learned from this litany of amateurism?
- Give yourself options.
My four book ‘trilogy’ has royally ticked off a whole bunch of people. Folks I will never get back. Folks who will consider me a wanker forever and spread their opinions near and far. But the problem would never have existed if I’d had the wit to call it the K’Barthan Series from the get go. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, so learn from mine: if you’re writing a trilogy then, in the name of the almighty don’t call it that. Call it a series unless it’s actually finished, has three books the same length, and you are about to publish the first one.
- Give yourself some slack.
Accept there are some things you can cover with research and some things that only experience will show you but.
- When experience does kick you in the teeth, learn from it.
- If you can repair the damage, do it as soon as you can but think it through, don’t hurry it or you may just make things worse.
OK, so I can’t afford to get rid of the bloody ‘trilogy’ moniker until the entire series is edited at the end of November. The covers, I can, and will, change sooner. For now I just have to accept that I’ve fucked up, chalk it up to experience and learn from what I have done.
The grim truth about interacting on the internet.
The second smack in the face from reality came this week.
Recently, I’ve had a facebook ad running which offers the first two books in the K’Barthan Series to anyone who joins my mailing list. I’d heard that a good way to identify a market of people to show your ad to is to choose an audience who like books by an author similar to you. It then suggests you make reference to the author you, and they, know and love and suggest that if they like that stuff they might like yours. I’m always a bit leery about this, I mean, all those reviews saying I write like Adams are just setting folks up for disappointment because I don’t. But I thought it might work with a humorous bent if I aimed it at Pratchett readers.
After a bit of tweaking and watching and tweaking I ended up with an audience who liked Terry Pratchett books and an ad which referenced CMOT Dibbler.
OK, in my defence here, I wrote the copy while Sir Terry was still around but this is what it said:
“If you like funny British science fiction and fantasy why not check out this freebie: The K’Barthan Series stands complete at four books and I’d like to give you two of them. Yes, this all sounds a bit CMOT Dibbler school of marketing but I’m hoping you’ll find a lot more quality literary meat in these books than there is REAL meat in CMOT Dibbler’s sausages.
All you have to do is tell me where to send them – the books, obviously, real sausages will not be involved.”
Then there was this picture and the title and caption below.
“I’M LITERALLY cutting my own throat here.
If you love a bargain, help yourself to two award winning funny sci-fi fantasy books, Few Are Chosen and The Wrong stuff, parts 1 and 2 of the best selling K’Barthan Series are usually £4 but they’re free for a limited time. To grab yours click here.”
To start with, I got sign ups, shares and a couple of joky quotes about the quality of the meat – is it named? Yes it’s called Bob. In other words, exactly what I expected. Then a few days ago, from New Zealand, this:
Pep A: Ripping off a Terry Pratchett character to sell your book? Poor form?
Pep B: Poor form? Fucking shameful.
And I looked at it and I thought… what happened there? And then the ad got this comment:
Pep C: Well. He’s dead now.
And the penny dropped.
Yes M T you daft, fucking moron! He died. And so suddenly this ad is not joking about characters we know and love from a favourite author. It’s trampling over people’s memories of a great man and maligning the dead. Events can cause changes in perception. And I completely missed that. So I’ve removed the ad. Because although it was working really well I didn’t think of that, and while, personally, I think it’s a bit weird to be offended, I do absolutely get why someone might be.
Have I replied or apologised? Well… no, because of another particularly important thing that I’ve learned about the internet, so that you don’t have to is that it’s bat shit crazy, and also:
- The international nature of the internet is a two edged sword…
Yes, you can talk to the entire globe. Unfortunately, not all of it thinks the way you do. That means you can and will offend thousands of people effortlessly and unwittingly at the touch of a button: not just people in Britain but folks all over the world.Seriously though, I’m not American, from the RSA, Kenya or Zimbabwe. I’m not Australian, or a Kiwi, or Tasmanian or from India, Pakistan or South East Asia. I’m not from Holland, Germany, France, Russia or any of the myriad other places where people speak English and read my books, in English. I lack the instinctive grasp of other cultures that will enable me to see the point when funny becomes offensive to them if it doesn’t to someone British. But because I’m speaking English and they speak English too, THEY EXPECT ME TO.
- The internet contains a huge gap in perception.
The aforementioned gulf between the spirit in which I act and interact on line, who I think I am, and what others perceive me to be. Frankly, it’s enormous. 90% of communication is non verbal and boy does it show on t’interweb – mainly through the medium of folks becoming very suspicious of one another. And what that equates to, if you’re selling anything, anywhere on line, is an assumption that nothing you do is genuine. That everything is crafted, honed and perfected with your eye on the next sale.So while you’re trying to just be, write a blog, do stuff, keep people informed, have a presence that’s just yourself: a benign and friendly presence, there are folks out there who will dismiss it as the work of a rapacious scammer who sees everyone as a potential victim (including them, unless they’re ‘careful’ a.k.a. prickly, aggressive and ready to take offence at the drop of a hat).
- 3. People are going to drop their weird shit onto you.
There’s a saying, ‘you can please some of the people some of the time but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.’ I understand this but it seems that in today’s world, if you do anything that might put your name into the public domain, like paint, write, make music, act etc you are expected to please everyone, all of the time. Worse, if you don’t, no quarter will be given.Genuine mistakes, or simple errors of of judgement, far from being forgiven, are seen as an act of cynical aggression towards your innocent audience. A lot of people out there don’t really like themselves. They think they’re cynical, cold hearted conniving little shits, and guess what? Because they believe that about themselves they’re going to believe it about you too.
- Give them some slack. Try to stay positive and accept that sometimes you will offend others and it can’t always be helped.
Long ago, I decided not to worry about the nature of the net. I am who I am and it’s hard to be anyone else. I know I will make mistakes and all I can do is try not to. It’s worth making peace with yourself and accepting that sometimes, no matter how benign you want to be and how hard you try to avoid hurting people, you will cause offence. Sometimes all you can do is apologise, chalk it up to experience, learn from it and move on. Sometimes our attempts to interact with people we don’t actually know personally, can be interpreted, by some as evidence that we’re out to get them in some way. It doesn’t matter how much cobblers that is, they’ve been burned by others and but there’s no way we will ever convince folks like that of our good intentions. There’s no point even trying. Indeed, the only thing you can do about them is hope to heaven that they never, ever find you.
So what can we do? How can writers or artists or anyone creative who interacts regularly on the internet behave ‘well’ without becoming too slick, too spun and anodyne?
Perhaps we can’t. Or perhaps all we can do is our level, genuine best to avoid saying anything that would offend us if you were on the receiving end. Do unto others and all that.
If you’re laid back and you write humour which, by its nature, is subversive you will undoubtedly prick the bubble of the pompous at some stage. But you may also stuff up and the way I have though sheer naivety, lack of foresight or plain ignorance and unwittingly offend many, many folks – good decent people who you don’t want to upset. When you do, I guess the only course is to chalk it up to experience – apologise if appropriate/possible and move on.
Few people do things deliberately to offend, whatever many internet users think. Most of us offend because we’re human, and flawed; and that’s natural. If we never cocked it up we’d be actual God. Because perfect is impossible unless you’re Allah, right?