Thursday, December 18, 2014

Artists and Personal Responsibility, Or Why There's Nothing "Terrifying" Nor Even Surprising About Sony Pulling 'The Interview'

RE: The Interview, here's a comment I posted in reply to Chuck Wendig's blog post Art Held Hostage: Why Sony Not Releasing “The Interview” Is Scary. This is my response to those who say Sony's decision to pull the Seth Rogen / James Franco comedy film The Interview, in which two hapless celebrity interviewers get an interview with Kim Jong Un and are pressed into service by the U.S. government to use their access to assassinate Un, is "terrifying", "horrifying", "scary" and lots of other hyperbolic adjectives:

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Y'know, the go-to solution to this problem has always been not to name specific names. It's one thing to make a film about a group of CIA operatives trying to take down "a Russian official" who's made to look and sound like Putin but is given a totally different name (such that the audience knows exactly who's being portrayed, even if it's not explicitly stated), but it's a horse of a different color when that same film is made and DOES have an actor portraying the REAL Putin. Naming ANY specific, real-life individual, especially the real-world leader of a sovereign nation, in a story that mocks that individual or lays out an assassination plot against that individual (that's backed by the U.S. government) is asking for trouble. This is why the Roman A Clef has a long and celebrated history.

Sure, in a perfect world any artist should be able to make whatever art he or she wants so long as it doesn't break actual laws or harm actual people. But there's 'a perfect world' and the world we actually live in, which is populated by plenty of crazy and heavily-armed people, and when there's a very simple alternative that can accomplish the same artistic ends *without* putting anyone's data or lives at risk, why not just go with the alternative? Would you rather compromise a little and still get your art and message out there, or dig in your heels and see your art wielded as a tool to do gross injury to innocent people?


Whither the artist's personal responsibility and common sense? Does the right to make a statement of some sort trump all other concerns, including the safety and security of innocent people?

A photo-realistic painting of hundreds of actual rape victims' hospital ID bands would make a powerful statement about the numbers of girls and women who are victimized in such a way, but it would also be an irresponsible thing to put on display because it would make the victims' identities public. And the artist should know that. 

A performance art piece in which someone dressed as a police officer pretends to choke a black child to death in the middle of a town square, in plain view of passersby, while others dressed as police stand with their backs turned, would make a powerful statement about the de-facto police state that exists in many parts of this country. But it would also put everyone who's participating at risk from people who don't know it's a performance art piece, and might step in to try and assist the "victim". In this age of cell phones everywhere, it would also likely become an internet sensation of false reporting by well-meaning people who'd post their images and videos online with statements about ongoing police brutality, which in turn would foment more anger and hostility toward police in general. And the artist should know that.  

My point is this: art is not "being held hostage" in this case. This is a case about a breathtaking lack of judgment on the part of Sony execs who greenlit this project without a thought about the entirely predictable fallout. It would've been a simple matter to tell Rogen and Franco their script could only be produced if the "dear leader" character were given a different name and and were put in charge of a fictional regime in a fictional country.

Before anyone cries, "CENSORSHIP!" stop and think it through. Would the substance of the film be altered to any significant degree? Would the jokes still work? Would the central message still be there for any who cared to hear it?

Now ask yourself: if that were the film Sony made, would thousands of innocent Sony employees still have their social security numbers and medical records leaked to the public? Would Sony's servers still be wiped? Would we be hearing threats of terrorist acts against innocent moviegoers? I think not.

This is the juncture at which the Stand On Principle types usually chime in to say that forcing artists to consider the possible threats of hackers and terrorists when art is created effectively stifles the statements those artists want to make. But it doesn't, as centuries of Roman A Clef novels have proven over and again: you can make your point and get your statement across without putting any innocents in harm's way.

If you feel so strongly about whatever it is you want to say as an artist that you're willing to be martyred for it, by all means go right ahead. If your statement puts others in harm's way however, you better think pretty damned long and hard before making it. Who are you to decide for everyone else that your precious artistic integrity is worth the potential harm to others?

If there's a way to make that same statement without bringing harm to other people and you still choose the route that makes sacrificial lambs of others---people you don't even know---, I don't care if you're an artist or not, and I don't care how important your statement may be: in my opinion, you're just being selfish and irresponsible, and any harm that comes to others as a result of reactions to your art is your fault.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Facebook Fan Page Reach: No, It's Not All Over For Free Promo On Facebook

If you've been promoting your brand and books on Facebook via a Fan Page*, then stories like The Free-Marketing Gravy Train Is Over on Facebook (from Time Magazine's site) may have you in a tizzy. Don't be.

Those articles are either intimating, or stating outright, that this is some kind of plot on Facebook's part to force Fan Page owners to either pay to "boost" their posts or pay for ads in order to maintain the same level of exposure, or "Reach", as they've enjoyed in the past. I don't doubt Facebook is very much interested in selling "boosts" and ads, but the truth is that you don't have to invest in either of those things to increase your Fan page posts' Facebook Reach.

*Note that this post only applies to Fan pages, not individual Facebook Profiles (aka "Timelines"). This is because there are no tools for measuring engagement or boosting posts on Profile/Timeline pages: those pages are supposed to be for private individuals to engage socially with their private networks, they're not intended to be used for marketing purposes. So if you want to deal in Reach on Facebook, you need a Fan page.

How Do I Know This?

I manage a few FB fan pages for my day job and I've been observing the 'Reach' trends on both 'boosted' (promoted for a fee) posts and non-boosted posts. The ones with the greatest Reach are ALWAYS the ones with the most "engagement": Likes, clicks, Shares, comments. This is regardless of whether or not a given post has been 'boosted', and in fact I frequently see non-boosted posts far exceed the reach of boosted posts.

It's kind of a chicken-or-the-egg loop once the post is out there, because you have to get initial Likes, clicks, Shares and comments to improve the post's visibility in your Fans' newsfeeds. Higher visibility leads to more Likes, clicks, Shares and comments, and so on and so on.

FB is keeping the details of their Reach algorithm secret, but based on what I've observed it goes kind of like this:

You post something to your fan page. Facebook says, "Okay, we'll show this post in the newsfeed of a very small test group of your Fans, and see if it gets any engagement. If it does, we'll show it a larger group. If it gets more engagement from that new group, we'll show it to an even larger group." And so on, and so on. So Facebook isn't just blowing smoke when their reps say the new algorithm is intended to ensure that only the most 'engaging' stuff gets pushed to users' newsfeeds.

Context, and Specifics: How Many People Get To See A Post Immediately, and Ultimately?

One of the Fan pages I manage has around 16,000 fans (or "Likes"). I make three posts a day to that page, and others I work with make another 3 - 5 posts to the page each day. A typical post that hasn't been "boosted" via paid promotion is only initially shown to 50 - 60 of the page's fans. That's about .3% - one third of one percent of the total number of people who Liked the page and actually WANT to see updates from it.

If the post gets one Like, it may or may not get more exposure; that seems to depend on who is doing the Liking (more on that below). But if it gets more than one Like, the Reach needle definitely starts to move. For example, an unboosted post I made on one of those Fan pages at 5pm yesterday got an initial Reach of about 54, then it got 5 Likes and its Reach expanded to around 1200.

Likes are well and good, but it's the Shares that really kick your Reach into high gear. After that example post got its 5 Likes, it got one Share and Reach immediately jumped to over 3,500. I guess this makes sense, since a 'Share' shows a lot more interest (or, "engagement") than a Like. More Shares tend to lead to more Likes, which increases Reach even further, and so it goes.

Even so, ever since Facebook altered its Reach algorithms for Fan pages and introduced its new Reach tracking tools last year (not coincidentally, about the same time the 'boosted posts' advertising program was rolled out), I've never ONCE seen ANY page posts on ANY of the pages I manage, boosted or not, reach any more than about one-third of the page's total Fan base. Boosted posts seem to consistently hit a reach of around 15% of the page's total Fan base, and only rarely go higher.

It's true that boosting a post that's already getting a pretty good Reach organically may create a snowball effect, but since you have no control over whose newsfeeds will be included when you pay to boost a post, you can't be certain about this. If the extra Reach is only, or mostly, going to page Fans with very small followings of their own, it may not make much of a difference. More on that in the next section.

The Reach Formula Is Complex, and Has Many Factors

Another Fan page I manage has nearly 70,000 fans, and the Reach of its posts seems to be calculated a little differently from the page with the 16k Fans. For one thing, its posts generally get a starting Reach of around 800, which is about 1.1% of the total page Fans. That's considerably higher than the initial Reach on the other page, and I take this to mean that Facebook is assuming more popular pages should automatically get more Reach, right off the bat. So the size of your page's Fan base matters: the more Fans, the wider initial Reach.

Now consider Likes and Shares. I've already explained how Likes have a lower Reach impact than Shares, but there's one caveat: it also matters WHO is Liking or Sharing your post. If the person doing the Liking or Sharing has a pretty wide Reach of their own (meaning, they have a LOT of Fans or Friends), his or her Like/Share will boost your post's Reach much more than if he/she has a relatively narrow Reach. So the Reach of your Fans matters, too.

One more thing: the more engagement your posts get from Shares, the wider their Reach becomes. So even if a given post has only gotten a couple of Likes and one Share on your own Fan page, if that Share is on a very popular page and there's a lot of engagement on the Share, those bits of engagement seem to be weighted more heavily than the initial Likes and Shares on your own page.

This makes sense to me, since it's definitely in keeping with the viral nature of the web: the more people who have nothing to do with the original poster become engaged with the post, the more "viral" the post seems, and the more motivated Facebook is (it seems) to broaden the Reach of that post.

What Does All This Mean For Your Fan Page?

If you've always done a good job of posting stuff people are interested in and tend to engage with, you can just keep doing what you've been doing. It's true that no Fan page post is ever going to get the same Reach today as it would have a few years ago, before Facebook started tinkering with its Reach formula and pushing boosted posts and advertising, but at least it's a level playing field. Everyone with a Fan page, from Coke to you, is climbing uphill against the same Reach obstacles.

If you've never gotten much engagement, make a concerted effort to change that. Statistics have shown again and again that posts which include an image get more engagement than those without, so start including images in your posts as often as possible. Facebook's recent site redesign definitely shows that Facebook itself places a premium value on images: they're so much bigger on the site now! Try to tailor your posts to what's most likely to generate Shares: humor, how-to's, lists and "surprising but true" stories. Videos may not be your best bet, since not everyone can watch a video at the moment they happen to see your post.

Breaking news -type stories are popular too, but won't generally be a fit for an author or publisher page.

This is why part of my day job involves creating weekly, humorous memes to be posted to Fan pages. Funny memes spark Likes and Shares like nothing else. The second most consistently popular posts on the pages I manage are about deeply discounted, bestseller ebooks; people also like those quite a bit, and like to Share them.

Start analyzing those little Reach statistics and graphs Facebook provides at the top of each Fan page, and look for patterns. If more engagement consistently happens at certain times of day, try to post at those times. If certain types of posts consistently perform better, focus on posting more of the same.

And if you happen to HAVE a Facebook Fan page, feel free to share the link to this article!

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Why I Like Horror

In a recent email exchange, a friend expressed surprise that Horror is one of my favorite genres in fiction. Here's how I explained why:

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I have an odd fascination with archetypal good vs. evil (or, God vs. Satan) stories. I guess it's because, even though I don't really believe in good and evil in the Biblical or religious sense, others' unwavering belief in them seems like the primary driving force behind most human behavior and societal frameworks. Whether you're talking about education, politics, law, economics, or even entertainment, notions of what's good and what's evil are in there somewhere.

I don't go for ALL Horror, though. For example, I was never a fan of the zombie sub-genre and I can't wait for that trend to peter out. I don't find stories where it's basically a bunch of people running/fighting for their lives against some destructive horde very interesting.

The kind of Horror I'm drawn to is the sort where the stakes aren't just about saving one life, or even thousands of lives, but saving the souls of all of mankind. It's a very rich literary vein, dating all the way back to Dante's Inferno.

Horror can be tremendously inventive (see Neil Gaiman's American Gods, for example: it's a sort of fantasy/horror hybrid) without getting too sprawling (like traditional Fantasy or Sci Fi often does), and there's a lot of catharsis in it. Seeing one guy, or an unlikely team, defeat evil-with-a-capital-E definitely keeps my experiences with internet trolls, red-tape-loving government workers and rude drivers in perspective.

Also, what character could possibly be more interesting, or relatable, than Satan? According to the Bible's version of events, he was (and still is) an angel. He was banished for mutiny, essentially. He thought it was unfair of God to place mortal man above the angels, it was ultimately a fight for angelic civil rights. How many of our worldly political revolutions and wars have been built on similar foundations? To me, any Horror that traces its roots back to that first big Biblical throwdown has a lot of built-in depth, whether the creators of the piece intended it or not.

So I'm a sucker for archetypal good vs. evil stories (Constantine, The Ninth Gate, The Exorcist, The Shining, The Stand, etc.) and vampire stories, because vampires are considered to be no less "fallen" than Satan.

I don't write in the Horror genre because I don't think I have the right sensibilities or skills for it. But I'm very glad that others do.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

How To Sell Your Integrity, $470 At A Time

Here are two new questions authors need to add to their vetting process when considering hiring out for costly author courses, services and how-to books:

Do you have an affiliate program for this product or service I'm considering, and if so, how much of the sales price will be paid to the affiliate advertiser?

Imagine that the answers to those questions are, "Yes, I do have an affiliate program, and half of the price you pay is sent back to the affiliate whose link you followed."

So far, so bad. Now imagine the price you're being asked to pay is $940, and $470 of that fee will be paid to the affiliate.

Pick your jaw up off the ground because I'm sorry to tell you, this is not some far-fetched scenario. Today I received this exact offer to become an affiliate advertiser for someone offering author and book marketing/publicity products and services.

I get affiliate requests pretty frequently but anyone who reads this blog or visits the Publetariat site regularly knows I don't say "yes" to many of them. Today's request is just about the best example I've seen to date for explaining why.

Here are the pertinent excerpts from the email invitation, with my comments below each. Note that any boldface emphasis in the quoted passages has been added by me.

I am writing today to suggest a partnership: make this course available simply by letting their existence be known. With my affiliate program, the seller earns a full 50% commission. Although the science exposed is worth hundreds of times more then what is being charged for this air-tight system, the Amazon course is priced at a disquieting rock-bottom $937! Each time a client purchases the course, $468.50 will be deposited into your PayPal account.

I wouldn't call $940 for a course in how to game Amazon a "rock-bottom" or "disquieting" price. Well, maybe disquieting, but not in the way this offer intends. Considering how many books and courses on that very topic are already available for a fraction of that price, and how many free resources are available on that topic as well, I'd say "highway robbery" is a more accurate descriptor to use here.

So why is the price so high, you wonder? That would be on account of the $470 this publicist pays the affiliate on each sale generated by the affiliate.

If I were to accept this offer and start promoting the program to my readers, and one of those readers who signed up were to later learn HALF the cost she paid for the program went to me as an affiliate advertiser fee, she would feel I'd been dishonest and greedy, and that the publicist had ripped her off. And she'd be right.

How could I possibly stand behind this program as a good value for the money, knowing HALF of that money is going to pay (maybe "bribe" is the more accurate term to use here) affiliates? How could this course possibly be worth $940 if the woman who created it is willing to give away half the purchase price on every sale to an affiliate?

Please let me know if it would be of interest to sample the course to ascertain this match made in heaven: a plethora of magical material tailor-made for the self-published author, coupled with exposure to a large population of our shared target market. A mere 20 sales a month garners a cool six figure side-income- not bad for mailbox money!

This is the passage that troubles me the most about the email because there are plenty of desperate and greedy people out there in the online bookish world who will immediately accept this invitation, start promoting the hell out of the program, and have no ethical qualms about it at all.

These are some tough economic times and as a single mom raising two kids, one of whom is heading off to culinary school this fall, I could definitely use the additional income. But I won't line my pockets by emptying the pockets of people who trust me. follow-up tradebook, [Title] ...This industry textbook is chock full of secrets about which PR firms never want their clients to know. In and of itself, [this book] is worth thousands of dollars. However, I also sell it independently for $295 because our goal is to help the self-published author achieve at an affordable price-point.

I wouldn't say $300 is "an affordable price-point" for a BOOK. At least, not unless there's a cashier's check for at least $250 bound into it. And given that elsewhere in the email she says she throws this book in for free when someone buys the $940 program, it's hard to believe it's really worth anything near $300.

So I'm going to reply to this woman with a fairly curt, "No," and invite her to read this blog post if she wants to know why I'm not taking her up on "this match made in heaven", and why I'm not anxious to start working on that six-figure side income.

My integrity is not for sale.