Writers vs. Authors vs. Scammers

I keep thinking about the argument of writer versus author, and then saw this interesting news item about a scammer who made millions publishing junk ebooks on Amazon:


The summary is that a guy set up a small empire publishing hack e-books about homesteading, weight loss, vitamins, healthy lotions, and whatever Whole Foods-oriented how-to garbage would attract clicks. The scam used multiple fake authors and an army of fake customer accounts. He would then game the system with a network of fake reviews, and set the books for free and mass-download them to up the ratings. He carefully hid his tracks through the Tor network, and when a book got reported and banned, he would re-title it, and have another fake author release it with a new cover.

I think most writers have different reactions to this, but it’s a mix of two base thoughts: either “I waste all my time writing and publishing real books and some asshole publishing fake books on vegan child care is making tons of money gaming the system, this is bullshit” and “why am I not gaming the system, maybe not to this level of scamminess, but it sure would be nice to get some traffic.”

I think the best reaction to have, for me, and one that I don’t have, is something like “all of this is meaningless, and who cares how these scammers are destroying the industry, because I write to write, not to make a buck or get fame.” But it’s hard to think this way in a world where you have to pay to keep a roof over your head, and I think a lot of writers are somewhere on the spectrum of this being important, and make some ethical sacrifice towards this.

I’ve struggled with the “writer versus author” argument, and I feel like I need to invent a new set of terms, because these don’t seem quite right. But I think there’s a difference between people who write whatever they write because it is their passion or their lot in life, versus people who write to sell. That’s not to say genre writers who research what to write based on market trends can’t be passionate about their work, and people writing literary fiction can sell their work or modify it to meet market demands to some extent. It’s probably a spectrum, and writers make ethical or business decisions that push them in one direction or another on this range.

What makes me think about this is that the scammer in the article has made many decisions that are to the full-blown extreme of writing to sell. And when I read self-publishing help sites, all of these tactics about gaming the system are discussed to some extent. These sites talk about the importance of covers, how to title your work to get maximum reach, the use of pseudonyms, how to pick categories and add keywords and get reviews and whatever else. They are not as extreme as what this scammer did, but they are all things that aren’t related to writing, or the art of writing.

The thing that gets me is that this scammer chose books, but not because they enjoyed writing or making a connection with the reader at all. I’m not even sure if he actually wrote the books; he could have paid someone on Fiverr to do it. And it could have been anything other than books. The same tactics could have been used to sell nutritional supplements or baseball caps drop-shipped from China. And I sometimes feel that way with the other writers (authors, whatever) with which I share an Amazon bookstore. My books aren’t for mass-consumption, and sure, they don’t sell like a good vampire erotica series sells. But it makes me wonder if these other writers are more interested in marketing and selling than they are about writing. When the gold rush will end, will they will all move to selling insurance or lawn furniture or prepackaged meals online, or will they be writing book that make no money?

I wrote my novels before there was a kindle, before there was a self-publishing world. If Amazon disappeared tomorrow, I would keep writing, even if it meant going to Kinko’s and paying ten cents a page to give them to friends. It’s what I did back in the nineties, and it’s what I’d do again, if it came to that. Everything else shouldn’t matter. But it still creeps in my head, especially with a new book out, ready to face the world. This is something I struggle with, and I wish I didn’t.


New (Old) Kindle

I bought a new Kindle, but an old Kindle. It’s actually a Kindle DX, the large-screen variety, which is long discontinued, but for some reason, Amazon occasionally has them in stock, through “Amazon Warehouse,” whatever that is.

I am not really a fan of ebooks. I gave it an honest go back in 2010 or so, bought a lot of my favorite published authors at crazy markup prices, like buying Vonnegut classics at ten bucks a pop. But I found reading fiction to be difficult on a Kindle. Because everything is the same font, and the device always has the same feel, the same heft in your hand, it removes the experience of reading the book, and I typically retain nothing I read on a Kindle. I went back to paper, and I’m fine with that, mostly. There are more titles available, it’s often cheaper in the long run, and there’s something about going to a physical book store that I miss when I’m simply e-hoarding books online.

But, there’s a big problem with space, and allergies. I’m finding that old books, ones infested with dust and mites, make me incredibly sick. I simply cannot buy a fifty-year-old paperback from a used book store, because the moment I open the browning pages, I have a horrible allergy attack. Yes, I take the medicine and I get the shots, but I’ve pretty much exhausted the medical possibilities. I just can’t read old books. And now, I’m finding my “new” books are all old. I pulled a Kerouac book of letters the other day, just for a quick skim, and it made me sick. And I “just” bought that book, but when I checked the receipt stashed inside, and it’s twenty years old. So I don’t know what to do about that.

It’s nice to not have the clutter involved with collections. I was religious about collecting CDs and DVDs, and they took up a good amount of my apartment when I was single. After I got married, and after the technology of MP3s and streaming video took off, I ripped everything, and junked or stored away all optical media. I don’t really miss it, and I’m glad I have the space. But books are more difficult for me.

I have issues with current e-readers, too. I love e-ink displays. The first few iterations of Kindle had less refined screens, a lower PPI count, the weird black-flashing issue with a slow refresh speed, and some slight ghosting of old images. There are new ones with higher PPI, better resolution, and backlighting. But they’re all the smaller screens. As my eyes go, I really want a big screen. Ideally, I would want an 8.5×11 screen. This also helps with PDFs, which you really want to not get downscaled or zoomed weird.

But, the big-screen e-ink readers just don’t exist. Sony has one in Japan, that’s insanely expensive, like $800 or something. And there are one or two cheapie made-in-China ones that are half-broke, hard to buy, and still pretty pricy. Every year, there are CES rumors of a big-screen reader, but these are always vaporware, and — huge pet peeve of mine — put out the idea that there are big-screen readers. But what you see at CES is never what you get, and they simply aren’t out there.

I don’t think the masses want a paperwhite e-ink display. They want a tablet, something like an iPad that can play games, show a video, and do things best left to a color screen that eats batteries. I have an iPad, and they’re great, but I can’t read on it. It causes too much eyestrain, and I’m also convinced that heavy use of a screen right before bed causes bad sleep hygiene. Almost all of my reading takes place in the hour or two before sleep, so I can’t deal with an iPad. That’s where paper has been great, and where a big e-ink display could be helpful.

So I hunted down the Kindle DX, and I found this one on Amazon. It was only $140, which was a steal, compared to the original $400-ish list price five years ago. This is the Kindle DX Graphite, which has the 3G connection, no WiFi, and the second-gen DX display, which is “50% improved.” It has roughly the same lineage as the third-gen Kindle Keyboard, but less RAM inside. No backlighting, no apps, no touchscreen.

Although the Amazon page made it sound like this was a used model or maybe a refurb, this was a new-in-sealed-box model, with plastic on it and everything. The only snags I found was that it did not come with an AC adaptor, just the USB cable. (Not a problem, I have 784 110V-to-USB adapters around here.) But it also would not register to the Whispernet network, and the wireless appeared dead. I gave them a call, they asked me for the serial number and a few other things (IMEI, something else) and then after a reboot, it connected wirelessly and all my stuff was ready to go.

My main use for this, at least initially, is to read PDFs. I have a giant archive of UFO docs and conspiracy theory stuff, FOIA requests and declassified government reports, and it will be nice to plop all those onto this thing. The screen is 5.5×8, so almost the size of a paperback book. It’s much easier to read than the original one I have. So I will give it another go.

It’s oddly nostalgic for me to look back at the documents that were waiting for me on the Kindle. I got my original Kindle in 2009, and toward the end of my Samsung tenure, spent a lot of my lunch time reading science fiction books on it. Also, when I started my allergy shot regimen in 2010, I would bring the Kindle and get a lot of reading done there. I had horrible writer’s block then, didn’t know what would be next for my writing, so I was reading a lot of Philip K. Dick books for inspiration, and also a lot of schlocky how-to-write books, which were useless. The Kindle font, and the general layout of the thing, the dark grey letters and the LCD-like background color, remind me so much of reading those books. But I can’t really remember much about them. So, we’ll see how this works out.



Scrivener Tips, Redux

I am in the midst of production work for my next book, and this is the time I always learn new things about Scrivener.  Here are some random bits of info.  If this makes no sense to you, don’t worry; I’m mostly documenting this so that a year from now, I’ll google it again and find it here.  BTW all of this is in the latest version on the Mac.

Using a Code character style in Kindle output

Need to have a monospace font code style that shows up in your final Kindle output?

  1. Surround your text with the HTML <code> tag.  Like this
  2. Select the text, and select Format > Formatting > Preserve Formatting.  Your text gets surrounded by a little blue dotted outline.
  3. When you compile your book, under Compilation Options, select HTML Settings,  and under HTML, select Treat “Preserve Formatting” blocks as raw HTML.

Making first paragraphs in a chapter or section not indented

  1. When compiling, under Compilation Options, select Formatting.
  2. This gets a little squirrely, because it depends on how you break up your documents/scrivs/folders.  For this project, I had a scriv per chapter, and within them, I had blank lines for sections (where you’d normally have * * * or something in a print book.)  In that situation, select the Section Type of Level 1+ with just one document (the bottom item).
  3. Click Options.
  4. Select Remove first paragraph indents and the relevant option.  I used After empty lines and centered text, but yours might be something else.
  5. You might have to do this for different Section Type levels, depending on your structure.

My About the Author chapter is showing up as Chapter 32 in the Kindle TOC

  1. Make sure your scriv for the chapter has a properly-cased and human-readable title, like “About the Author” and not “WTF FFUUUCKCK FIX ME”.
  2. Under Compilation Options, go to Title Adjustments.
  3. There is a thing labeled Do not add title prefix or suffix to documents:.  It has a little gear next to it.  It’s not very OSX-ish and super easy to miss. Click the gear.
  4. Select the documents you want to not name “Chapter x”
  5. Click outside of this pop-up to close it, like on the dialog underneath it.  (It has no close button. I told you it was a junky piece of UI.)

I imported a Scrivener-generated Word doc into Pages and when I try to have different head/foot/page numbers in a section, it freaks the fuck out and I think my computer is possessed by Satan

Scrivener probably put a page break instead of a section break between a couple of chapters, and now the Pages “use previous section” heading/footing setting behaves wrong. Change the page breaks to section breaks.

Also, if you don’t use section breaks between chapters and your chapters start on even pages of your book, stop doing that.

The spell check isn’t catching things

That’s because it sucks.  You might want to check your spelling and grammar in another program.

Hope these help someone, or at least help me in six months when I do this again.