As you can tell, this creativity shifted into writing after the nineties. The papers brought back a lot of fond memories, only a few of which involved the wailing and lamentation of the players.
- Redemption of Mata Hari
- Sirius Academy
- Approaching Oblivion
- Doors to Eternity
- Dreams of the Fallen
- Empress of Dreams
- Contagion of the Gods
- Clean and Floss
- Epic Fails
- Void Contract
- Union of Souls
- Children of Ur
- The K2 Virus
- Quantum Zero Sentinel
- It Takes an Oni
Sunday, April 30, 2023
As an author, I try to keep up with current trends, topics, and marketing methods. One of the newest is Kindle Vella a way to engage younger readers and those on cellular devices. My (now adult) children are voracious readers but prefer free serials and fanfiction available on numerous aggregator sites. My son lamented the demise of his phone because he lost the thousand browser tabs he had up to catch updates on all his favorite stories.
Three Reasons I Tried Vella
1. Direct Connection with Fans
Many people comment on the ongoing threads. I liked the idea of real-time feedback on a story as I write. Even Brandon Sanderson and Lawrence Watt-Evans have enacted similar mechanisms with their fans. Marketing only through e-mail feels cold and distant.
2. Lower Upfront Cost
To collect the 5-10,000 email addresses I need to build and communicate to a core audience would run me around $1200 a year. Editing prices have shot up to $1200 a novel and cover costs are about $275 each, even if I didn't like the results. Copyright is not $65 a novel. With advertising for the releases, he grand total comes to about $2100 a book. The price to post on Vella is about $25 for a cover image on Etc.
3. Getting in on the Ground Floor of the Next Big Thing
I succeeded in e-books when they first came out. This could be a great opportunity. Two years should have been enough time to work the kinks out of the platform. Right? In theory, the author gets 1 cent per 200 words of story sold, plus bonuses.
Reasons I Dropped Vella after a Month
1. As of January 2023, Amazon Doesn't Pay Authors for Free Tokens
Hundreds of people could read your story, but if they used their initial 200 free tokens, you don't see a cent. My counts of episode unlocked would be up one day and retroactively zeroed out the next. Here's the trick: authors can't prove which reads were free. You have to trust Amazon. I don't after funny business with audible and an audiobook. Even if you manage to get the unicorn bonuses, they won't pay for two months.
2. Vella only usable through Kindle Devices
The Kindle app on my phone can't actually read Vella stories, and none of my 600 e-book fans were interested in the Vella. What about reaching new readers? The "discover" button for Vella will only recommend 25 stories, plus a list of their big money makers and a few new/trending. The scrolling search is difficult on a phone or other small device. Only two covers are visible at a time. If you read it on a PC, the episodes appear in a popup limited to 2.5" wide, not conducive to binge reading.
3. No Good Way for Readers to Find You
Since you can't do Amazon ads for Vella, Facebook groups are the only viable was to advertise. The groups that aren't closed are composed almost entirely of new authors. The idea is that each day, you join events to read and like/follow other people's episodes in hopes that someone will do the same for you. To do so honestly takes a lot of time. In a week of effort on one group, I accrued 21 likes. Most successful authors belong to 6 such groups. Given that members of the recommended list average 10,000 likes, you would need to spend full time accumulating these for 80 weeks to show up on those reliably. However, this is completely artificial, not organic reader response. For uncrowned sagas, the ratio of likes to actual reviews is abysmal, on the order of one in 500. With e-books, the ratio between read and reviewed is closer to 1 in 25. You also have to spend real money to gain these likes, while other authors might not. Also, you are not allowed to criticize other authors' work in any way, even to tell them they have missing/duplicate punctuation or other typos in episode one.
How could readers find you organically? The initial categories like frequently updated only show two covers/titles at a time with no text. Each of the 16 categories have around 1000 entries displayed in the browsing, with the addition of 2 of the 7 tags you chose. However, the most popular categories I wrote in have far more competition.
These aren't ordered by any rhyme or reason I could find.
4. Poor Quality for the Money
The presentation could be the same as the Kindle e-reader, but they use a cheaper, clunkier interface with no indentation that ruins scene breaks. The import function doesn't check spelling like the e-book upload either. The average quality of the 100+ episodes I sampled was low, filled with grammar errors and repetition. I only liked about one story in ten. Just one story so far merited a review. In that case, the author stretched a single scene over four 600-word episodes--agonizing. Even with the crowned suggestions, the cream of the crop, the most frequent rating is 3 stars. In the rare instance they complete a season, say 100 episodes 1000 words each, a reader would spend $9.70 for the raw unedited product. For the same e-book, polished, they would spend from 99 cents to $3.99.
While Vella may become a viable platform for new authors some day, it's not soup yet. I added updates every other day for a month and then stopped. By May 28th, I'll be ready to post the e-book.
A month later, I still have $0 in royalties (despite several days where the dashboard briefly showed sales). However, I did get an email from Amazon saying that I have a $25 bonus which will be paid out in a couple months for my high March sales. Huh?
Tuesday, December 13, 2022
The second phase of our summer vacation, we visited Irene's hometown of Alicante, and her parents showed us around. Several of the nights, we took a train into town to watch the fireworks festival at night, and celebrate her grandmother's birthday with their extended family. Still photos don't do it justice. We took hundreds of photos and movies during our stay. Here are just a few.
A short drive into the mountains to see ancient fortresses where Christian kings clashed with the Moors.
We laughed and sang 80s pop tunes a lot. Her folks spoke fluent English, unlike my high-school Spanish, which was just enough to know which lane we should be in on the highway or to pay for gas and fast food.
The beach walk was full of shops, ice cream, fountains, splendid architecture, and palm trees, but I think our favorite was the playground in the shade. Here Emily caught Irene in a photo op on the stairs to a gazebo overlooking the port.
Then we drove up to a scenic overlook captured a few of my two beautiful ladies.
No album would be complete without a candid of her parents many cats. Her mother fosters them while awaiting homes.
Saturday, August 13, 2022
Two years ago, we had a wonderful exchange student from Spain, Irene, who was forced to return during the COVID outbreak. This summer, for the first time, we were able to visit her and her family. Our first stop was to see Valencia for a few days, the town where she was attending university. She is fluent in English and a wonderful tour guide.
The next day, we saw the town, starting with the Queen's plaza, the mayor's palace, and the cathedral with the Holy Chalice. The flagstones could have dated back to the days of Columbus, but you couldn't swing a churro without hitting some renovation project. At the fruit stands we saw a flat peachlike fruit unavailable in the US, called a Paraguaya.
basin prone to flooding and filled it with an elegant park and latest in architecture. The walk in the park helped to cool us in the 95 degree heat. Even the tree-shaped arches and tile work were reminiscent of Gaudi's Sagrada Familia.
Sunday, January 2, 2022
This summer, after over a year of helping people as a health-care professional during a pandemic, my wife needed a break, so I took her and our daughter on a vacation. Since my wife will be retiring soon, we wanted to see if Hawaii could be our new home. Because of the universities, modern conveniences, and plentiful restaurants, I selected various locations around Oahu for 18 days, not just the touristy places. I didn't plan too much. We decided to wing it.
The rules for what we needed for the trip changed weekly, but two things held constant while there.
1) Once we uploaded our COVID results to https://travel.hawaii.gov/, everyone wanted to see it before we could get off the plane, rent a room, or get into a car. Nobody cares about the paper card they stamp at the airport. The big green check mark on your phone is a requirement. It doesn't matter how long ago you took it. Don't let your phone battery die!
Most if your activities should be outdoors, so this won't matter often. On the left a shot from the top of Diamond Head on day two.
For the last four days on the island, we rented a car. Hertz closed two hours before their website said and then yelled at us for half an hour, complain about entitled haolies and how our visits are driving up real-estate prices for them so they have to work two jobs. The bargain car of about $150 a day we reserved didn't matter. They jacked the price by $70 a day before they would let us have *any* vehicle. A car there runs more than a good hotel room, plus $35 a day to park it inside Honolulu. Avoid this. Even on the North Shore, with only one road, traffic moves at 5 mph, and there's nowhere to park.
Our favorite places were a make-your-own enchilada place on the beach and the second-floor restaurant in a hotel. Both had great views while you dine if you do so before dark. Most people wait until nightfall to dress for dinner. Avoid the waits and go early. That launch place with the line wrapped around the corner isn't worth an hour in the sun. Even McDonalds can have a long queue.
The midrange hotel has a view of the beach from a mile a away over the park. However, it was centrally located for walking. Breakfast always burned the whole voucher, even if you only ordered a muffin.
Fun Things to Do
The historical tour at Pearl Harbor was stark and a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but I think the .most startling events were the rainbows--unexpected and spectacular.
Things I Didn't Enjoy
Every corner of Oahu had some hidden beauty. However, when summing up the extended stay, there were things we didn't like so much--deal-breakers for my migration.
1) How long the flight takes. It costs a lot of endurance to take that volume crammed in like sardines, and we wouldn't be able to visit friends and family on the mainland much.
2) The ever-present homeless. They're near every park or beach. In Honolulu, you can't walk anywhere without encountering a camp of them sprawled over a sidewalk. Behind our hotel, one had a dumping ground where they got rid of things they didn't want from stolen tourist bags. At sundown, you didn't dare encroach on someone's regular territory.
3) The smell of weed. We steered our daughter around the aroma an average of eight times a day. We were approached about a purchase in line at the ice cream store. The local cops have enough on their hands that this doesn't even show up on the radar.
4) Lack of beach access. All beaches are public, but getting there can be difficult. No parking and a three-foot path that's trash-strewn and a little dangerous. Adjacent property owners can be unfriendly. Some beaches have lots that fill up at 7 a.m. Others treat your rental car like an ATV. Often, you'll find vehicles that have been abandoned for years, but nobody tows them.
5) Inconsistency of zoning. You can see a million-dollar mansion with barred windows right next to a trailer park, with cops putting on tactical gear to the strains of Bad Boys.
6) A general feeling of resentment against outsiders. After talking to some people on the bus, unless I could tell the locals which high school I attended, they would never accept me.
Tuesday, December 7, 2021
I'm a math geek. Every once in a while I like to attack big problems as an intellectual workout. The problem I picked this time was known as Beal's conjecture. Why should you care? Aside from the sheer beauty of formulas and ramifications to fields like math and cryptography/cryptocurrency, it has a million-dollar prize. https://www.bealconjecture.com/
Everyone is familiar with the Pythagorean Theorem: A^2+B^2=C^2, but Fermat claimed (recently proven after 357 years of attempts) that this formula can't work for any power over two.
A^n+B^n =C^n has no integer solutions. In the process of trying to prove Fermat's Last Theorem, a mathematician by the name of Andrew Wiles determined that in the general case A^x + B^y = C^z has no solutions for x, y, and z above 3 unless A,B, and C have a common factor. The American Mathematical Society has offered the big prize to anyone who can prove or disprove the conjecture.
I found how I could take any prime and use modulo arithmetic rules to construct examples where that prime is the common factor.
2^3 + 2^3 = 2^4
3^6 + 3^6*2^3 = 3^8
(5^2*41)^10 + (5^2*41*2)^10 = (5^2*41)^11
7^3 + 7^4 = 7^3*2^3
11^5*3^5 + 11^5*3^5*2^5 = 11^6*3^6 ... ad infinitum.
If there had been even one prime I couldn't do this with, it might have been a chink in the armor. No such luck. After playing with this for a week, I became convinced it's true, and nobody will be able to find a counterexample. Why? Because in an attempt to disprove it, I made the rules even weaker. I got rid of the common exponent condition and just looked for a counterexample where A, B, and C have no factors in common but all the exponents are above three. A^x + p1^m*p2^n*... = C^z
My reasoning for this was that if I generated a few dozen weaker solutions, I could then generalize a pattern for the counterexamples, and I could finagle one that also worked in the stronger Beal case. But that's never going to happen. In the looser construct, I found exactly one solution:
271^3 + 73^3*3^5*2^3 = 919^3This example cannot be converted to the Beal case without increasing the power of 3 to a multiple of three. However, to do that, I would theoretically have to multiply every term in the equation by common factors, violating our rules and thus proving Beal's conjecture.
Of course, to make this an official proof I would have to show conclusively that this is the only solution, not just assert that it was the only one that doesn't overflow the integer variables on my computer and I didn't make a mistake in my programming. This is close enough for me. It adds to the body of knowledge without me having to lock myself in a room alone for months. These sorts of problems will eat you alive if you let them.
Tuesday, November 2, 2021
Pubby is a website where authors rate each others’ books. Membership has a monthly fee, but it bypasses Amazon’s stricture against paid reviews. Is a good idea to join? The short answer is: in moderation and in limited circumstances for a limited time.
Why I Tried
Indie authors should never pay for reviews. First of all, Amazon would remove your account. Although, a few Vine Voice reviewers hit me up for payment, but nothing happens to them. Second, nobody would believe the honest reviews you do have. While browsing on Amazon, few people will buy a book with under ten reviews, and some advertisers won’t help you until you reach that threshold. Normally, my mailing list of fans can provide 5 to 20 starter reviews, depending on how good the cover is and how close the new novel is to my normal style. If those fail, things get ugly. Sending out personalized invitations to 500 reviewers may get me another 5 reviews, but new reviews risk knocking off earlier unpaid reviews—three steps forward and two steps back. Giving away a hundred e-books on Goodreads doesn’t do much. I got one Amazon review and 4 Goodreads ratings. The read-to-review bulletin board hasn’t yielded results in a couple years. I won’t give away free copies on Amazon again to spur reviews. If you get a competing author or an offended customer who gives you an early one-star on Amazon, your book may never recover. Even free, it counts as a verified purchase and weighs as much as 8 older reviews from bloggers. What can an Indie author do in these circumstances?
Trading reads on a site like StoryOrigin is slow. I think I received six reviews for two books in the few months I belonged, and half were from Amazon.uk. One caused Amazon to remove a previous free review. My net gain was two reviews for three months of effort, not a great payoff. The site was valuable for meeting other authors and growing my mailing list. Although, site membership is now $10 a month.
What’s left? Desperate to repair my books that started with a bad cover or an early one-star, I turned to the Pubby website.
You get a free 10 day trial membership and a few points to spend. You get more points by reviewing the books of other authors on the site. I would recommend the trial membership to anyone with a few caveats. Though some are free, most books are only available to select if you belong to Kindle Unlimited or pay for them on Amazon. If you want reviews for your books to have full Verified Purchase weight, you have to pay Pubby an extra fifteen bucks as a one-time fee. The Kindle Unlimited option is another ten. Why would you want this? Because Amazon purchases from Pubby reviewers can actually earn you more than your subscription fees, and reviews don’t vanish due to the mysteries of the Almighty Amazon Algorithm. Anecdotal evidence has informed me when under ¼ of reviews are verified purchase, old ones can slip off when new ones are added. I opted to get both options and continue for two months at the limited 10-book level at $17.99 a month. For a beginner without a mailing list, it’s a no-brainer.
The site interface is crude but navigable. In theory, you can gain as many reviews as the work you put in, taking out two books at a time and waiting six hours after purchase to post a review. In practice, they will only allow 10 reviews per week, and your progress is limited by the speed at which the moderator confirms reviews (up to ten days). In case Amazon someday ends up invalidating all those reviews or the books themselves, I didn’t choose my best-rated/most-reviewed novels. Over a span of 64 days, I spent $205 (61 to Pubby and 144 for buying other authors’ novels) and got 57 reviews, with an average outlay of $3.60 each—a financial bargain.
Most of my novels only needed 2 or 3 reviews to repair a stain or boost them to the noticeable level. For books already rated below 4.0, I started cautiously to see how the community would react to them. Reviews for free copies were half the price (1500 vs 2500) and counted for less than verified. Amazon only allows 7 free reviews a week. Though I got a three-star for my lowest ranked older book, it didn’t sting or make an impact, and I stopped when I reached ten reviews. These novels didn’t change ratings at all, just count. The only permanent and significant ratings gains came because of volume and purchases. I’ll talk about my larger scale experiments later.
Though the Pubby-written reviews averaged two lines and were vague, about a third of them were thoughtful and deeply appreciated. A few reviewers obviously didn’t even crack the book or read the summary; their reviews could have applied to any work of fiction. A little resentment leaked through from other people who felt forced to read the books of others because they began with the phrase “normally I don’t read this kind of book.” So much so, the word “normally” now appears in my keyword list for reviews for “It Takes an Oni.”
Because verified reviews and longer books are more expensive, I gave more reviews than I received. For the 60 reviews I provided, I started with nice things above the More click line and then limited negatives to the worst four problems. I gave points for formatting, editing, meeting the promise of the genre, and whether I liked it or not, with examples. Fourteen of them had serious formatting issues. Forty-two of them had persistent grammar and punctuation issues. Most fiction authors I could contact through Goodreads (those I was giving 4-5 stars and wanted to help) admitted that they had no editor and no wish to spend that money. Reviews from kind peers are no substitute for a professional product. If I couldn’t say anything nice, which happened about three times, I put it back as soon as possible, returned my payment points, and got my real money back from Amazon. Of the eight organic paid novels I rated a three-star, one author gave up collecting reviews afterward. Another removed their book from Amazon entirely. However, half of my critical reviews became the top review for that book, so others thought they were helpful.
The biggest cost to me was time, an average of four hours per book for reading, add one each for note-taking, spreadsheet-accounting, and e-mails to remove website obstacles. That’s over 300 hours of effort, something I wouldn’t have time for unless I was between projects.
The ratings sci-fi books receive on Amazon (sampling several authors) are typically about half a star higher than Goodreads. The ones I received on Pubby averaged 4.587, about .25 stars higher than my usual Amazon rating. Then again, when I had a choice between which of the ten novels on my shelf I would submit for the next review, I spent my hard-earned points on my best, most popular, and most sale-worthy novels first.
Books with fewer than 30 reviews and actual organic participation didn’t seem to be significantly skewed by the Pubby additions. However, fifteen of the books I reviewed relied solely on Pubby (fewer than 5 Goodreads reviews and over 30 Amazon). Those averaged 72 reviews with 4.458 stars (standard deviation of .19). We have no clue whether those were realistic, and my ratings also fell inside that narrow band. The outliers were more credible, giving some indication of quality range; however, 102 ratings that averaged 4.8 with no 3-star reviews doesn’t seem authentic. Even Jim Butcher’s latest triumph, “Battle Ground” (same star rating) had 4 percent of its ratings 3 and below. Someone in cycling competition would call performance like this sus. Since a quarter of those authors who received bad reviews dropped out before reaching the 30 mark, this might affect the average rating curve.
Keep track of every review you have on Amazon before and during the experiment. If one of your Pubby reviews vanishes mysteriously, they will refund the points you paid. Second books in a series are notoriously hard to collect reviews for ahead of time, but you can get them done here! An epic fantasy book from a decade ago received favorable attention, which let me know I’d underestimated it and encouraged me to spend more effort on the series. If I have one paid review a day, the position on my genre list goes way up from 1.5 million to 2000, which adds a little respectability too.
The text you place in your book description often ends up in reviews, so choose wisely. Once you add a book, it’s there forever. You can also pay extra to have your book reviewed by people who rate your genre or your books higher than average, which we’ll come back to later. Children’s books were easy to review, but many weren’t suitable for Kindle.
The biggest hidden benefit was seeing how good my cover is by how fast people snap up the title after I request a review. If it’s a couple minutes, you have a winner. If it takes a day, invest in a replacement. I could tell how good a novel was by how long it took on average to go from “reading” to “review awaiting approval.” My book “It Takes an Oni” almost always came back with rave reviews the next day, whereas few people wanted to finish my genetic-engineering hard science fiction in five. On this site, you can tell quickly which of your products are marketable, where you should invest future efforts, and where you should cut your losses. A word of caution, any novel over 70k words will be considered “long” by this audience and make garnering reviewers more difficult.
Hidden Costs and Pitfalls
The word count in the book description page Pubby gives you is often wrong, especially for nonfiction. They don’t care. Don’t bother to email the site; just put it back because they aren’t paying you enough.
Often, nonfiction people game the system to a ridiculous level. They put themselves in an obscure subcategory that they’re really nowhere close to the subject matter to just to get higher on a chart with less competition. Please don’t commit fraud like this. I deducted a star and called it out in the reviews. If I could have complained to Amazon, I would have.
In one case, a person reading my book didn’t post a review in the week after, so the site put my on the market again at no cost to me. Unfortunately, someone grabbed it that normally doesn’t read sci-fi and rated it a 3 with a one-line review: “This looked like it would be a fun read, but not really. At least for me.” This was absolutely no help, with no specifics. Did they stop after the first page?
I tried to be super nice my first month—reminding myself of a young bride who won’t fart in front of her husband for the first year. I wouldn’t take a book assignment if I couldn’t post an average rating a four. In nonfiction, logical errors and misinformation from non-experts abound. Some writers only have one title and post it nonstop over a hundred times. As a rule of thumb, a book on Amazon will have about half the number of organic reviews you see on GR. If they only have three on GR and over 100 on Amazon, it feels like a sock puppet. I didn’t feel right lying to people about these and tried to avoid them. The worst side-effect of perpetuating these is that Amazon detects common purchasers, even from Pubby. With every review you ask for, you risk being lumped in with them because people who bought the sock puppet also bought yours. If you’ve ever downloaded your own book during a free day, you could infect yourself by touching this social network.
After receiving my the three-star review “not for me”, I stopped caring and became more honest. When I read a nonfiction book that lied on several levels and lacked basic formatting and editing, I issued my first two-star rating. Once the average score I posted dropped below four, the number of options I had to do reviews on dropped sharply. Why? People pay extra points to get the friendly reviews. The ones remaining were usually a lower quality, with no editing. As I gave more 3s, even though I kept the rules about starting positive, I was excluded by genre after genre and my review approvals slowed ever more so I couldn’t request reviews as often. By two weeks into my second month, I could only see nonfiction candidates once or twice a day. Since I wasn’t a woman of color into Raki massage subscribed to Kindle Unlimited, the options were even scarcer, only travel books or nothing for days. I was forced to drop out 10 days before my last month completed.
Case Studies for Larger Review Counts
What about the two special cases where I gathered more reviews? My medical thriller “Preconceptions” started with 3 reviews (2 fives and a one-star), sitting at around 3.5 average. Either readers didn’t like the topic of eugenics/near-future genetic engineering and the rules governing science, or I didn’t wrap it attractively enough. Once I accrued 7 mor reviews so it met the minimum 10 threshold, it had risen to an average of 4.1 with a believable bell curve. My first Book Barbarian sale last April only sold 15 copies. The second sale in mid-October with a comparable venue only sold 8. In a light-bulb moment, I figured out that email/social media sale venues don’t show the number of reviews, only the cover and a short pitch. Having a hundred reviews doesn’t matter if my book isn’t marketable. A sale can get you noticed on the first page of a genre where reviews matter, but only if you can garner enough interest on day one to make the leap. Pubby can’t help a novel nobody wants.
Lastly, I did a larger scale test for “It Takes an Oni,” my supernatural heist novel with a new cover. It started at 5 initial reviews (all five-stars) and actually went down to a more realistic 4.7 by the time it reached my goal of 30 reviews. It sold 51 on its opening sale in March, including my own mailing list. However, I hoped that seeing a sharp new cover and a lot of reviews would sway more of my existing fans to try it. If this happens, I could reach the fifty review mark organically, and Amazon might send a few emails on my behalf. At the very least, bloggers might be more receptive. The sale Halloween week sold over 100 copies, more in two days than the previous year! It also encouraged two additional organic reviews by the third day.
I got my money’s worth on this experiment but won’t be able to repeat it with my next book. Not only would I have to pay $25 a month to go from ten to eleven novels on my shelf, but once you’re completely honest, you’re no longer welcome on the site. Therefore for future novels, I have to make sure my book is marketable, has a good cover, and is supported by my base fans before I post it to Amazon.