Kissing Strangers

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I don’t like to call myself a writer. Bearing the occupation is a double-edged sword. On one hand, I could own it. I make a little, but helpful income as a writer; specifically, ghostwriter. While I can’t disclose my clients, I have recognized my work elsewhere. I publish under my own penname and adjust my own prose accordingly to avoid plagiarizing myself since I’ve sold the rights to similarly created content. Moreover, my own writing earns exponentially less than ghostwriting.

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Which brings me to other hand: anyone can be a writer. Independent bestsellers are typically plucked from obscurity thanks to social media. Most of them lack middlemen or filters. If they don’t hire professional assistants or score a literary agent, they bank on shock value or cliqued networking; which requires a lot of time. It also requires patience and instinct. There may be distinct target demographics, but the public is altogether fickle—which is why things often change; why viral content that was once everywhere, palpable to everyone and everything dries up in a matter of weeks. People have a loose grasp of time in the market since they frame things in terms of immediacy.

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First impressions matter because gratification must be immediate. So, it’s unsurprising that fruitful figures tend to have a loose grasp of right and wrong; and even looser grasp of accountability, almost like children. They make little, if any sense of how the world turns and their place in it. I think this is why they people—buying or selling—never think to burn bridges; why they can go off the deep end only reel and reconcile. The only thing they seem to understand is that it pays to be popular, often by being provocative.

book2Fame is not unlike writing. It’s about quantity, not quality. Writers are seldom seen for their words, but their assets. Calling myself a writer inclines folks to ask not what I write, but what I’ve sold; and since I’m not really selling—at least, under my name—I don’t have any business calling myself one. The only things I have to show for my writing are a fat stack of manuscripts—novels, short stories, screenplays, an unfinished memoir—rivaled by an even thicker packet of rejection letters. A stray reader may leave a decent review. They have hope I can either improve or publish something to acclaim.

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I have bills. I have dependants.

I don’t have good sales skills, but I do have knowledge and a choice. I know that everything is for sale, even if money is not always the currency. I also know how invisible, impoverished and therefore, inconsequential I am. I know money is just paper and pieces of metal so, I have chosen to monetize this craft however I can to amass what I can of this constructed medium of exchange.

I have chosen survival.

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I’ve also just chosen one of many jobs. Ghostwriting is the ideal route for me since it’s simply supply and demand. It takes no time at all to get your feet wet as a content creator amongst classifieds. Each assignment affords you some scope to familiarize yourself with a client. More often than not, satisfied customers revisit your listing; and in a matter of months, you’ve built a recognizable and reliable client list. Rates climb slowly, but surely. The key to making the most of this is time management. You write off time for correspondence if you can’t schedule check-ins; if your subject requires research, you wade into whatever that may be. Most importantly, you spend time looking into your actual clients: if they have positive feedback, references, and good standing with their source of listing; which requires more time if you’re still building, shopping around.

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What sold me on ghostwriting is that it requires little to no audience engagement. I’m not on the prowl for potential readers; I’m not dangling freebies or swag on the prospect of sampler loyalties. If they haven’t found me already, my skillset is enough to solicit clients and earn me a guaranteed payment. This isn’t too unlike how regular jobs work: you clock in, clock out, and an employer pays you hourly; sometimes, a flat fee. The rate of pay is contingent on the economy and industry of your field. Time and pay coalesce when you work independently, albeit there are hurdles for entrepreneurs.

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Last Wednesday, two bills which were pitched to curb online sex trafficking passed the American Senate by a landslide. The Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA) will criminalize the “promotion or facilitation of prostitution” and those who “facilitate traffickers in advertising the sale of unlawful sex acts with sex trafficking victims.” Overall, FOSTA and SESTA are initiatives which will screw over sex workers. These bills are poorly conceived because they conflate sex trafficking with consensual sex work. They have no clause that discerns between consenting and non-consenting sex workers and clients, which will result in gross exploitation and potentially violent working conditions for regulars whom evade their execution.

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In the realm of ghostwriting, think of these bills as equivalents geared to criminalize—I don’t know, bad writers. FOSTA becomes the Fight Online Bad Writers Act (FOBWA) while SESTA turns into the Stop Enabling Bad Writers Act (SEBWA). The problem with the initiatives of FOBWA and SEBWA is that while they aim to outlaw bad writers, they do not have clauses which specify, let alone define what makes a good writer. Rather screening or prosecuting bad writers specifically, these bills would instead outlaw all writing. While I’m not the greatest writer, these bills would be ridiculous for obvious reasons; and if legislators endeavored to regulate the business of writing in the wake of these bills, I would probably have a smaller pool of clients and likely see even less of a profit due to service fees.

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While I’m not equating literary work with sex work, I can appreciate the entrepreneurial and ethical threats FOSTA and SESTA pose to sex workers. Moreover, the absence of social networks which concern sex work altogether bodes badly for present and prospective sex trafficking victims. Networks are comprised of safety nets and public records [however informal] which include reviews and references. In addition to actual job listings: advisory boards and mailing lists which cover everything from ringleaders to bad clients, to workers practices, to precautionary prompts and check-ins will now be shut down.

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Respectability politics are also at play as there are others, including writers, whose platforms are being suspended or shut down for what moderators deem to be inappropriate content in accordance to FOSTA and SESTA. There are independent erotica writers whose books have been removed from Amazon, CreateSpace, and Draft2Digital; and academics whose references to sex work have been wiped from their cloud storage. In light of how popularity propels profit, however, I doubt those cuts will be made regarding traditionally published authors or famed scholars.

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Of course, the implications for how bills like FOSTA and SESTA may influence other countries to erect and enact similar legislation are also huge. The implications are huge because the world at large seems disturbingly comfortable with the fact that life as we know it is contingent to debt and depression under some pretext of one paying their dues. Bestsellers or success stories who strike gold are the result of unlikely albeit lucrative gambles and inherited wealth. Survival within a corrupt, capitalist economy that positively reinforces those whom oppress or shortchange is further hindered by policy and profit motives.

For more information on FOSTA and SESTA, check out #SurvivorsAgainstsSesta and the immense insight of Phoenix Calida

[stock photos from kaboompics]

Wicked Games

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So, I’ve been seeing a lot lately re: Amazon’s new review policy. Apparently, it’s cracking down and either banning or removing what it deems to be biased reviews. Book bloggers are predictably outraged, if not panicking.

I mean, I understand this from the bloggers’ POV since reviews are essentially their brand and a stream of income. However, as the writer I am, I’m kind of confused. Because, it seems like the majority of the reviews are “biased” in regards to the actual business model and how bloggers come by these books to review in the first place—which neither affects writers like me here or there.

Yes, I understand the algorithms and formulae wherein numerous reviews amplify visibility. I also understand that there’s something to be said as to how one actually “procures” or solicits reviews. For traditionally published authors, reviews are typically solicited from mainstream outlets; Publisher’s Weekly, for example. Independent authors can appeal to that circuit with the right contacts or sales ranks to “merit” folks take a gander, I guess.

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Independent authors may or may not hire PR, PA’s, or promotional platformers to distribute free copies of their books to reviewers. There’s no payment for this. They’re giving away free books for folks to review at their discretion. These reviewers also have the option of simply not reviewing as well, regardless of whether or not they’ve received the book. PR, PA’s, and hub sites with master lists of reviewers just distribute your book. They may guarantee a certain number of reviews too, but from whom?

Moreover, independent authors have to pay for all this themselves. They don’t get promo budgets to spend like traditionally published authors and all that stuff is expensive; and writers like me quite frankly don’t have that disposable income. On top of actually writing, we’re editing, formatting, designing covers, and working otherwise. Plus, some of us aren’t editing, formatting, or designing the covers due to information and technology gaps or limited access—which is another expense.

And after all of that, we’re still prompted to simply gift our products for reviews in an attempt to stymie the system or for “great exposure” and pay more money for the privilege of distribution. It’s uncompensated labor and something I find to be a rather ethically ambiguous dynamic.

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Of course, there’s the alternative of simply approaching bloggers and “gifting” them ourselves without the middlemen of PR, PA, or boutique review hubs. Either way, the odds of them at any point in time actually buying our books to review them is slim.

Which again, is why I’m confused and a bit nonplussed by the outrage. These reviewers are freely given the fruits of our labours. They aren’t buying our books to review them, but we’re buying or begging to be reviewed. Not to mention, these reviewers aren’t actual “experts.” We’re not exactly paying to be graced by literary legends or those whose prowess is in prose. These are just everyday people. They’re regular readerships whom monetize the reviewing system. Jolene with thousands of followers, visitors, and reviews under her belt is indistinguishable from Brenda who just enjoys romance and decides to blog her reviews as a pastime. Either can get onto a reviewers’ list (and pocket) relatively easily if they’ve consistently reviewed, use social media, and know the lore of the big leagues. There are some hobbyists who don’t charge, but the lot does.

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Reviewing itself has become another lucrative industry thanks to the algorithms and specs determinant of our visibility and success. Folks are compensated for their reviews and quotas in some cases. These reviews aren’t mandatorily “good” either. Regardless of whether you just asked or paid, or the fact that it was a free read at your expense: they can still pan the book in their review—which you paid for, literally and figuratively. That’s not biased in itself. Everyone’s entitled to their view. Unfortunately, given the aforementioned, not everyone is entitled to be acknowledged.

For writers like me, it gets kind of worse.

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Often, independent authors do not take priority over traditionally published ones. From what I’ve seen, it’s somewhat odd to see that reviewers seem likelier to actually buy books from the latter as opposed to the former. Reviewers may have reading lists stretching into next year and it’s at their discretion which come first. Whether the priority is chronological or otherwise, they’re likelier to be keen to traditionally published authors or bestsellers first simply because they’re familiar. They may also be getting bonuses or other incentives independent authors may not be privy to [afford and/or award]. Besides, common names or well-known authors are popular. They’ll drive traffic to their venture. Moreover, they’ll be the filler everyone else is talking about. Because, who mentions the unknown or little guy around the water cooler; especially when folks are already talking about somebody else, somebody known?

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Now, factor in the disparities somebody more marginalized overall fares against even if they make the cut. Think about the narratives reflecting that positionality emerge to the chagrin or bewilderment of many reviewers whose measuring stick is mainstream. Then, factor in any legit bias—which may manifest in any of the steps I just mentioned: of precisely how and why a reviewer comes by the content they review, and note how many have a disclaimer saying they got a free copy in exchange for one: good or bad. Think about the implications of capitalizing on the desperation of a creative demographic vying for visibility when they’re resigned to scream into a void regardless of their time or effort—only to selectively boost some and backlist or ignore others.

This is how marketing itself works. Trends are eventuated by folks playing favourites. It’s why the same story can be told a million times and progressively make bank. It’s why the need for “diversity” persists: because there’s little, if any space for variation. A number of marketers, social media specialists, and prosperous folks can speak to this too. It’s no coincidence particular people are visible, “viable,” & altogether supported while others…well, aren’t.

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Then, there are the actual reviewers: everyday people just reviewing. Similar to the hubs that offer services “a la carte” which include promo, most of them are just well-meaning albeit misguided social media users whom just snowball on your behalf.

Think of it like a team. If you want to win, you’ll want to have experienced players; players with your best interest in scoring a goal. Not folks who’ve never played or are halfheartedly, however earnestly trying to get in the game. Algorithms, formulas, and overall data collection that measure quantity over quality don’t care about good players. They care exclusively about goals. In theory, you could have lacking players and that’d be okay so long as they scored. And “scores” are indiscriminate, even if they’re foul goals; even if your team (or the very league) is riddled with penalties. No matter what, the more, the merrier.

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In the scheme of everything I just mentioned, reviewers are like your teammates—except their objective to score is questionable when you critically consider if they’re present; if they’re with you or actually rooting for bigger, better booksellers and tropes from other bleachers. While you essentially play by yourself for yourself (hardy-har-har). Ideally, your teammates may eventually indulge your personal objective—but what are the odds, especially when the time is now?

Remember, these reviews don’t equate or translate to sales. So, it’s a present-but-not-really game where you’re scratched onto the scoreboard by the end; while these teammates nonetheless proceed to plug other, popular names around the water cooler; and you’re the one paying the check.

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It honestly reads as somewhat sanctimonious and disingenuous when I see the lot arguing their right to review by saying Amazon’s new review policies are hurting independent authors; and that they [the reviewers themselves] are all for independent authors. Because if that were true, this dynamic of free books in exchange for reviews wouldn’t be so determinant. Moreover, if this exchange system worked, every author who “gifted” these free books would have returning reviewers and readerships based on good reviews.

Ask yourself, how many reviewers actually reinvest their compensation or pay these gifts forward to the independent authors for whom these reviews are crucial? How many reviewers leave good reviews and actually buy a book from the authors they review? When reviewers say “I’m looking forward to reading more from this author,” how many of them actually intend to read more by buying a book from that author versus expecting to just get more free books, and they’ll just write the author off if they don’t?

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Reviewers are not outraged because this new policy effects independent authors. They’re angry that it compromises their business and ongoing, free libraries. They’re mad that they’re suddenly disqualified as viable sources. They’re upset because in the game, Amazon has moved the goal posts and redrawn the boundary lines. They’re geared to play, but are now being smacked with requirements or aren’t allowed on field. In addition to that, every score they’ve made prior is being called into question. There are many whose reviews have been deleted and deemed “biased” under this new policy.

Whether this policy addresses actual bias in the reviews or the grapevine is something they can discern. They were right in a way though since the implications and liabilities of this are huge, particularly for independent authors—whom may demand refunds or whatever else to make up for this. Amazon isn’t on the hook, they are. Obviously, it depends on the terms between authors and reviewers per service though. In any case, this new policy has some potentials, good and bad. It can also be adopted by other platforms.