Apr 252010

Facebook greed: do not like.

In Facebook’s latest quest to make even more money from its users’ personal information, their newest ploy: the perversion of the “Like” button, which previously was an innocent way to give a virtual “thumbs up” to a friend’s comment or photo, without “subscribing” to anything or making a permanent connection. Now, however, that same “Like” button — that Facebook has trained its users to click on so much it expects 1 billion new “Likes” within the first 24 hours — “creates a connection” when used for interests, Fan pages, or other company websites. According to FB, “we believe this change offers you a more light-weight and standard way to connect with people, things and topics in which you are interested.” In other words, they hope to confuse things and trick more people into clicking “Like” because people are used to it, and it sounds better than “Become a Fan” or “Subscribe” or “Let us Track Your Interests.”

The new “Like” button not only extends its reach to Fan pages (which you used to “become a fan” of), but will now pop up all over the web on various company websites. An example FB gives is Levi.com; so, you visit Levi.com and see the ubiquitous FB “Like” button and click it. Assuming you are logged in to your FB account, you have now provided a piece of personal data that FB can sell to Levi’s, Macy’s, or some other jeans competitor. Also, the fact that you “Like” Levi’s now shows up in the “News Feed,” which means that you just spammed all 200 of your friends with an advertisement for Levi’s. Great! Because advertising wasn’t invasive enough, now FB is trying to trick your friends into doing the advertising for them.

In a similar vein, your “Interests” on the “Info” tab of your Facebook profile page are being converted automatically into things that you “Like.” So, if, under activities or interests you put “Unbuttoning my Levi’s and eating at KFC,” you will now be assumed to “Like” Levi’s and KFC. And your name will show up as a “Liker” or “Fan” or “Friend” or “Follower” (or whatever they’ll call it) on the new Levi’s Facebook “Communities” page. So, anyone (friend or not) can visit the Levi’s communities page and see you’re a “Liker.” Yes, even if you have your “Interests” set to “private.” OK, that’s not so bad, but what if you included “sex” under interests, or “marijuana,” or “speeding.” Now, all that information is instantly accessible in a neat database … and how much would your car insurance company like that information?

Want to stop that from happening? FB says your only option is to “delete” all your interests. However, in a clever twist, that just prevents your interests from showing up on your profile (where you want them so your friends can see), yet FB keeps that info and continues selling it to advertisers. It’s the worst of both worlds. Nothing you can do; if you’ve entered something, it’s too late, FB owns it. I’ve said it before: I don’t care what your privacy settings are, don’t put anything on Facebook that you wouldn’t want to appear on the front page of the New York Times. That is more true today then ever.

Think your status updates and comments are safe? Nope, those can show up on “Communities” pages too. So if you say, “I hate the FBI,” that post will show up on the “FBI” Communities page. Nice.

Facebook has explained recently that they are trying to “monetize” their user base … that translates to “get you to spend more money” and “advertise to you more” and “sell more of your information and purchasing history.” They’re trying to take a personal site where people share info with friends, and needle into that info and those exchanges and make money from them. I understand they are a business and are seeking to profit, but this method is so at odds with what their users want, I don’t think they can pull it off. At least I hope not.

I’m sure there are less invasive ways for them to harvest all that user info and make money from it without violating the trust and privacy of their users. For example, they could aggregate “trends,” things people are talking about or searching for, and sell that compiled info to companies. “Mentions of Twilight are up 12% this week,” “instances of the phrase ‘going to buy an iPad’ are down 27%,” “72% of users who discuss it claim they refuse to pay over $9.99 for e-books.” Isn’t that info valuable? And, providing that sort of aggregate (not personally-identifiable) info wouldn’t alienate FB users.

Facebook needs to seriously re-think their disregard for users’ privacy. I’m sure, when you have hundreds of millions of users, the temptation is great to see them all as nice plump dollar signs. These sorts of moves have backfired on Facebook before, spawning protests over privacy concerns, but they keep trying. Facebook is a company, and wants to make (more) money. Hey, look, I get it. I wish I could give my novels away for free and not worry if they sell or not. But I’m trying to make a living here, and the grocery store doesn’t give me food for free, and my landlord keeps bitching about rent. But I’m not taking anyone’s personal data and selling it — let alone tricking them into giving it to me. But hey, what do I know? I’m not 25 years old and the owner of a company worth over $35 billion. But my free advice is: stop pushing, Facebook, before your users turn on you and leave Facebook for good.

Maybe they’ll even sit down and read a good book instead. 😉

UPDATE: Nice article from Wired, first line: “Facebook has gone rogue, drunk on founder Mark Zuckerberg’s dreams of world domination.” Another nice tidbit, FB now adds apps without your permission when you visit certain websites (I just checked, and had 4 installed on my profile).

25 Things About Me

 Posted by at 6:22 PM  Tagged with: ,
Apr 232010

Not mine yet. One day.

OK, I don’t normally do these sorts of lists, but I’ll give it a go.

1. I am a passionate (some say “crazy”) Gator fan. I’ve been to all of our football (3, plus 1 we lost) and basketball (2) national championship games.

2. I met my wonderful and very supportive wife my second night after moving to L.A. For a while after that, I called L.A. “The City of Angels.” I don’t anymore because I hate the city and the traffic and the smog, but still love my wife.

3. I’ve also lived in South Florida; Gainesville, FL; Berkeley, CA; Oakland, CA; Los Angeles, CA; and South Florida again.

4. I also visit Hawaii a lot because my wife is from there and her family lives there. It’s a long flight.

5. My favorite city of all time is Rome, Italy. The combination of history, art, culture, food, and modern society is unparalleled. I was overwhelmed by the experience of sipping wine at a cafe overlooking the Pantheon and thinking “Julius Caesar hung out here a couple of thousand years ago.” Oh, and the gelato is FANTASTIC.

6. I love animals. I have a bird (a conure, which is a small parrot) and my wife’s cat, which is a North American Shedder breed. I’m more of a dog person, but don’t have one yet. My parents have 4, though.

7. One of our favorite places is Parrot Jungle (now called Jungle Island) in Miami, where we’ve held and played with lemurs, baby tigers, chimps, gibbons, parrots, and we volunteered for a while with their baby orangutans and baboons. Their male baboon, Pharoah, still goes nuts when I visit and likes for us to groom each other.

8. I grew up reading C.S. Lewis and Piers Anthony.

9. I got to drive a Ferrari F430 and have yearned to drive it again ever since. It is truly perfection on wheels. I finally understand when the car magazines call it “telepathic” steering and handling.

10. I once jumped out of a perfectly good airplane. OK, “perfectly good” may be a stretch, since the thing was held together by duct tape and love. But I did a solo skydive from 2 miles up in the air (about 11,000 feet). I could see both coasts of Florida.

11. I was a philosophy major in college, with a focus on ethics. I wrote my honors thesis on contemporary moral issues.

12. After college, my ethics courses inspired me to write a science fiction story that explored ethical themes and tried to entertain with action & adventure while also encouraging the reader to think about interesting and complex moral issues. So, Right Ascension was born.

13. I went to law school at UC-Berkeley and was editor-in-chief of the law school newspaper, the Cross-Examiner. It probably sounds more impressive than it was because we basically just made fun of everything, it’s not like we examined cases or discussed any of that legal crap.

14. During law school, I learned a lot. I started drinking (yup, no alcohol before law school), learned to play golf, and wrote my second novel, Declination (which is the sequel to Right Ascension).

15. I once saw a lady walking a pair of llamas down the streets of Berkeley. I am not making this up. It was NOT the strangest thing I have seen in Berkeley.

16. Since I had gone to law school and taken the Bar Exam and all that rot, and since I had made approximately enough on my novels to buy a week’s worth of ramen noodles (if you didn’t count my expenses), I moved to L.A. to work for a big law firm as a lawyer.

17. Being a lawyer is … not as much fun as it looks on TV.

18. Oh, except I did get to work on a case for “Girls Gone Wild” where I got paid to “review evidence” regarding whether certain girls did certain things on videotape or not. That part did not suck.

19. I recently “retired,” moved back to South Florida, and started writing (and editing, and designing covers, and formatting, and promoting) full-time. I took a humorous short story I had worked on in bits and pieces and it kept growing until it turned into a novel called The Twiller. I am very nearly finished with it now, and I’m very excited to release it soon.

20. My favorite TV show of all time was Firefly, and I still cry a little bit inside every time I think about how soon it was cancelled. I cry a LOT inside every time I see some of the crap on TV that has replaced it. (Amazing Housewives So You Think You Can Apprentice Idol in the O.C., I’m looking at you.)

21. My favorite movies are Forrest Gump, The Shawshank Redemption, and Gattaca.

22. I really enjoy reading Timothy Zahn. His Thrawn Series Star Wars novels and his Conqueror’s Trilogy books were excellent.

23. I had a dream last night that starred Mila Kunis. No, it was NOT as dirty as you’re probably thinking.

24. My father inspired the intelligence, leadership, and morality of Admiral Daniel Atgard from my novels.

25. This is the first “25 Things About Me” list I’ve ever done. I’m not sure what inspired me to do it. Probably the Mila Kunis dream.

Apr 122010

We are seeing more and more digital content, including:

  • E-Books
  • Downloadable & streaming movies and TV shows
  • Apps and games
  • Magazines
  • Newspapers

This digital content costs less to produce and distribute than the non-digital version. It eliminates printing costs, fabrication of DVDs and DVD cases, and shipping costs, just to name a few. So why isn’t this stuff getting less expensive?

The problem is that the content providers are generally overcharging. Why can I rent a DVD from RedBox for $1, or unlimited movies for a month from Netflix for $9, but on the iTunes Store I’d have to pay $5 just to stream a movie one time, or $15 to download it? Why are you charging $3 for a single TV episode I could watch for free? Why are many e-books $9.99 and up, even when they have a paperback version out for several dollars less? Do they really expect me to pay $5 for a single issue of Time magazine, or $20 a month for the Wall Street Journal? Don’t they give it away for free on their website?

And, one thing I quickly noticed on my wife’s new iPad: all those $0.99 and $1.99 and $2.99 iPhone apps have iPad versions that tack “HD” onto the title and sell for $4.99, $9.99, and $14.99. A tad greedy, methinks.

What these content providers don’t seem to realize is that the great benefit of digital content is that there is no marginal cost. Once the content itself is created, you can sell an unlimited number of digital copies for essentially no cost. Yet, many of these providers are still stuck in the tangible retail model, where they need to make a certain profit margin on each book, or CD, or magazine that they print or produce. What they fail to realize is that they could cut prices in half and probably sell 3, 5, maybe even 10 times as much content, doubling or tripling their revenue and profits. (Also, to the extent that magazines and newspapers make a lot of money on advertising, even selling only twice the content at half the cost is a huge win for them.)

I grappled with pricing issues with my e-books. I first priced them at $4.77 each. I figured that was a “fair” price for an e-book, about half the cost of a paperback, so the readers were getting a good deal. But then a funny thing happened. I tried selling them for just 99 cents each. A little voice in my head cried out that I was “devaluing” all my hard work (those books took over a year each to produce) and that they were “worth” more than that. But when I sold 7, then 20, then 35 times more copies at $0.99 than I did at $4.77, it didn’t take long for me to silence that tiny voice. But what I don’t understand is that, if I can figure that out, why can’t the movie studios, large publishers, and newspapers?

Think about it. I’m not gonna pay $5 to digitally rent a movie I can get for $1 elsewhere. But if that movie was $1 or $2, I’d probably digitally rent at least a few a month for the added convenience. So, the movie studio can make $0 off of me, or $6 a month. Remember, it costs them almost nothing to actually stream the video to me. So who’s winning with these high prices?

That doesn’t even consider the fact that higher prices increase piracy. I don’t think overcharging makes piracy okay (you’re still illegally downloading something you didn’t pay for), but it helps people justify it in their own minds when they can say, “Screw these greedy movie studios. I’d never pay $15 for that movie anyway, so they’re not really losing anything by me pirating it.” When an e-book is just 99 cents, for example, the vast majority of people would rather just pay what they consider a fair price than resort to piracy. Apple figured that out with 99 cent music downloads … and the greedy music studios forced them to raise prices to $1.29 … and (prepare to be shocked) digital music sales declined for the first time ever.

On the other end of the spectrum is the “everything should be free on the Internet” model, which people are slowly realizing doesn’t work (even newspapers are finally figuring it out as they lay off reporters and editors). The problem with everything being free is that the people who create quality content need to get paid, so you can get insightful commentary, professional journalists who can travel to report on stories, quality television and movies, and well-written novels. If even the people who are very good at creating content can’t make a living at it, they will take their talents somewhere else that pays the bills, and we’ll all be poorer for it.

So, my belief is that people are willing to pay reasonable prices for digital content (read: less than the old cost of physical content), and that lower prices (that are still above free) will result in more sales and more revenue, and will allow more people to enjoy more content. That’s a win-win in my book.

Reviewing Reviews

 Posted by at 4:24 PM  Tagged with: ,
Apr 112010
"Can I leave zero stars?"

"Can I leave a zero-star review?"

For several years after I wrote my novels, I received mostly positive feedback about them. Even discounting encouragement from family and friends, the few reviews or emails I got were uniformly positive.

Now that I’ve sold a few thousand copies to complete strangers, I’ve been forcefully reminded that not everyone will like my novels. It makes me feel only marginally better to remind myself that not everyone will like any novel–just take a look at some classics and bestsellers on Amazon and all their 1-star reviews. But getting bad reviews still stings.

Now, when I say bad reviews, I don’t mean balanced or somewhat critical 3- or even 2-star reviews. I’m talking about 1-star reviews filled with pure vitriol, slamming every aspect of the book and not mentioning a single redeeming quality. Reviews that question my regard for literature, hate the main character like he killed their dog, call it cliche, boring, predictable, terribly written, the whole thing. Reviews that say “DO NOT BUY” in all caps. Or a review, from a reviewer who only leaves 1- and 2-star reviews, saying he liked the first novel (but couldn’t be bothered to write a positive review), but then found the time to come and slam the sequel with a 1-star review.

First of all, I wonder what kind of a person has that much hatred, who wakes up in the morning and says, “Let’s try to hurt the sales and smash the dreams of an aspiring indie author.” Do they realize there’s an actual person on the other end of the computer screen? One who takes his writing very seriously? Or is that the point? Is it simply “trolling” at its worst, designed just to elicit a response for the poster’s own amusement?

The problem is that, to maintain a respectable 4-star average (on a scale of 1 to 5), a single 1-star review counteracts three 5-star reviews. Even worse, a single 1-star review would require twelve honest, solid, 4-star reviews just to inch back above 3.75 (which gets rounded up to display 4 stars).

Now, I can understand that some people may not like my book. Some people don’t enjoy sci-fi, or romance, or thrillers, or certain writing styles or types of characters. I thought Harry Potter kinda sucked (although I didn’t go leave a nasty review), but lots of people apparently loved it. And I realize my novels are not perfect or the greatest books ever written; truly, I do. But I’ve read enough books to know that they’re not 1-star novels. That the writing isn’t “terrible.” And that they can’t be all bad. So it makes me wonder about the motivation behind these 100% negative, strongly-worded, personally-attacking, 1-star reviews.

So, what can be done? Well, I can’t do much about it. I’m not going to review my own novel, or give a troll just what he wants with an angry response. So, that leaves it up to my readers.

Reviews are important. Average star ranking is important. I do notice a bump in sales when I get a positive review, and I thank all of you who have taken the time to leave one. Especially since it seems that most people who dislike the books feel strongly enough to go post a bad review, and most people who like it (and kindly email me to let me know that) don’t really think about posting reviews–until I go beg them to do it. 🙂

So, anyway, if you did enjoy the novel, it would mean a lot to me if you could help out by posting reviews for one or both of them–and it doesn’t cost you a cent. The main place to post is Amazon, but please consider also posting it (you can even copy & paste) at Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, Kobo, and the Apple iBook store.

I do very much appreciate it, and it helps me ignore the trolls and the haters, and get back to concentrating on writing.

Concentration And Intelligence

 Posted by at 7:13 PM  Tagged with:
Apr 102010

Could multi-tasking be making us dumber?

That’s one possible conclusion based on interesting neurological research performed on mice. The article discusses how intelligence could be more than just “how many facts someone can cram into their head,” but also “how much someone can focus on a specific task.”

It certainly rings true to me: I don’t think that flipping between TV stations, or playing video games with lots of colors and sounds, or skimming pictures in a magazine makes me smarter. You know what does make me feel smarter? Reading. The article points out specifically that reading long, difficult books (War and Peace, anyone?) is a great mental exercise, as it trains our brains to not only process information and contemplate its meaning on multiple levels, but also to focus on one thing for a long period of time. While it may be more difficult to focus on simple words printed on a page (as opposed to moving TV images or a cool iPad game), that’s precisely what makes it a better mental exercise. (Do you see bodybuilders lounging in chairs, doing bicep curls with 3-ounce cell phones?)

The fact that reading makes you smarter is hardly a revelation; I’ve known that for some time. But it’s interesting to see research that highlights the importance of the ability to focus.

So, if you feel like some enjoyable mental exercise, something that will entertain you and make you smarter at the same time, why not read a good book? I’m just saying ….  😉

Apr 072010

As some of you no doubt know, I am an attorney. By this, I mean that I went to law school, graduated, passed the CA Bar exam, and worked as an attorney at a law firm for several years. That makes me an attorney. Pretty simple.

But I also write novels. I am an author. But, am I a “real” author? A “professional” author? What does that even mean?

It may surprise some people to know that only a tiny percentage of authors make a living solely by writing (obviously “make a living” is pretty vague). Most authors–yes, authors on the NY Times Bestseller List published by big publishers–teach on the side, have day jobs, freelance, or do other things to pay the bills. One estimate said that only 200 authors in the U.S. make a living solely from their writing. Let’s put that in perspective: there are 1,696 players in the NFL (32 teams x 53 players). And their minimum salary is $325,000 per year, much more than just “making a living.”

Hell, there must be more than 200 state lottery winners each year in the U.S., and they probably make at least $1 million. Better odds than writing.

So, what defines a “professional” writer? When can an author call himself a “professional”? Is it if he “makes a living” (is one of the 200)? Is published through a traditional publisher? Sells X number of books? Earns more than a certain dollar amount per year by writing? Has written more than a certain number of books?

Let’s say you get signed by a large publisher because it thinks your book will be profitable (not “good”–big difference). The standard first contract for an unknown author (i.e., not Sarah Palin, who doesn’t actually write–is she an author?) is a $5,000 advance and 8% of royalties after that. About 80% of books never make it to the “after that” stage–they don’t earn the author anything beyond the initial guaranteed $5,000. And publishers give most first-time authors very little or no publicity, no big display at Barnes & Noble, and if your books don’t sell well in the first month, they’re yanked from the shelves and they go out of print. You just made $5,000, on a book you probably spent at least a year on. Most authors spend that $5,000 trying to promote their own books.

Is that guy a professional author? What if I make $5,000 selling books on my own this year? Am I a professional?

The good news is that the game is changing. Readers are starting to get sick of much of the “traditionally-published” stuff, which is often formulaic and appealing to the lowest common denominator. Just as with indie music and movies, people are looking for new voices and books that the big publishing companies didn’t deem “marketable” enough to sell.

And now, with e-books, the self-publishing movement, and Amazon (the world’s largest bookseller), all those lines are being blurred. For very little money (and a whole lot of time), an author can format their own e-books and distribute them on Amazon’s virtual shelves right alongside Stephen King and Isaac Asimov. And, since print publishers are trying their best to kill e-books to protect their hardcover book sales, it gives little guys like me a chance.

  • So far in 2010, I’ve sold over 3,000 books (mostly e-books, and mostly through Amazon). Does that make me a “professional” author?
  • I’m completing my third novel, The Twiller, which should be out in a few months. Is that enough?
  • Stephen King said you’re a “professional” if your royalty check doesn’t bounce, and it pays the electric bill. My royalties this week already paid the electric bill for the month. But what about rent?
  • I made it to #1 on Amazon’s “Technothriller” best-seller list, and #479 overall in the Kindle Store (out of almost 500,000 e-books), which puts me above 99.9% of all e-book titles. Do I qualify?
  • And what about, you know, actually being a good writer? Does that even matter at all? I can name plenty of best-sellers that are horribly written, but their authors rake in the cash.

I actually don’t know the answer, and I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please leave a comment below. But I do know that I’m giving it a shot. More on that in my next post.