Google Algorithms at Work



Everyone has noticed—and is from mildly to serious annoyed—that after we visit a website looking for garden tools, say, Google generates an avalanche of related ads. Last year I bought a scarf online and, for the next few months, my social media were draped in it. What gives? I already bought the darn thing! You’d think the system could distinguish between “Purchase completed” and “Still interested. Maybe? Nice, right? You like?”

Two RISD graduates—Jason Huff and Mimi Cabell—decided to test the limits of networked marketing by emailing to each other, page by page, Bret Easton Ellis’s 1991 scorcher, American Psycho. You’ll recall the book is about Manhattan businessman and serial killer Patrick Bateman, and is notorious for its graphic sex and violence. What ads would Google’s hard-working algorithms find relevant to these emails? Huff and Cabell wanted to know. The interesting results revealed what the author’s say was “GMail’s unpredictable insensitivity to violence, racism, and sex.”

A page that included the murder of a man and a dog by a knife-wielding attacker did generate ads for knives and, in a grisly touch, knife sharpeners. And a page with a racial slur carried no ads at all. But the most common ad across 408 pages of mayhem? Crest Whitestrips. Maybe a “just keep smiling and all this will go away” message there.

You can get a pdf of the book they compiled from their results, which includes all 800+ ads as footnotes (minus the contribution by Bret Easton Ellis). Something he wrote that appeared on page 27 stimulated an ad for “folding chair parts.” I can’t imagine. And, on the very last page, a way to avoid “3 Awful Guitar Mistakes.” Probably not one of Bateman’s top-of-mind worries.

Writing in A Digital Age

book ereader Kindle


Last week in London, the Literary Consultancy held its third Writing in a Digital Age conference. Participants heard the usual hand-wringing over the issues of digital rights management, the decline in bookstores, especially independents, and the attention-sucks of our various digital tools and devices. Panelists discussed the irony that the gadgets developed to expand reading are the very same ones that can reduce it, if what we use them for is interrupting our reading time to play a game, send an email, scan Facebook, tweet a half-formed thought, watch a YouTube cat video, and check the current weather in Paris. One speaker called them digital Trojan horses.

And while these de rigueur arguments are familiar, echoing past concerns that television would be the end of radio, and video would be the end of movies, one statement by panelist Steve Bohme, who manages the Books and Consumers survey for Nielsen, sent a chill from my toes to the roots of my hair: “When everyone you know has a Kindle, why would you buy them a book?” No more buying (and receiving) books as presents? Oh, no!

Indie-Author Book Promotion Spending Lags



A recent survey of a mix of self-published authors, reported by Dana Beth Weinberg, suggests the extent to which individual authors are outsourcing some of the tasks that in the good ol’ days, were done by their publisher. There’s a range of those tasks, and some authors do a few of them on their own, and some authors engage several people to accomplish the whole shebang. Recently, some formal book-publishing “teams” have been developed, and they can be expensive and low-performing (see the recent update on the class action lawsuit against Penguin-Random House’s company, “Author Solutions, Inc.,” a costly team service many authors complain under-performs.)

The 2014 survey was conducted by Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest and received information from almost 2,200 self-published and hybrid (both self- and traditionally-published) authors about their most recent self-publishing experience. Just under half of these authors obtained outside help. Apparently believing you can judge a book by its cover, most often they hired a cover artist (35% percent); and 20-25% obtained help with formatting, print on demand, and copy editing. Amazingly, since book sales is the biggest problem for self-published authors, only 11% got help with marketing and promotion!

Only 112 of the 1,900 authors who reported their earnings (net or gross? article doesn’t say) made $10,000 or more from this recent book, and there is a definite trend line between spending more on services and higher earnings. However, most of the authors had a median expense of $0, and earned less than $1,000 on their book. Even among the highest-earning group, only 20 percent of authors spent on marketing and promotion. Something wrong here. And it may be in part that authors feel competent to look at a book cover and say whether they think it’s good or not, but not to assess a marketing campaign that isn’t working.

Personal Branding Pitfalls


(photo: Derek Gavey)

Say you’re a Hollywood icon, but business has been a little slow. You need a new brand, an new image. Business cards! Italian designer Behancē has ideas for you! From Nemo’s Sushi Bar, to Rosemary’s Babysitting, they can repackage your celluloid skills into whole new career paths, suggests a Wired article by Angela Watercutter. (Her name itself could be a brand, in whole.)

Branding, like any other good idea taken to extremes, lends itself to parody, and no branch of it more so than the dubious activity of personal branding, with “people turning themselves into web superstars in their niches.” The pro-branding author of this hilarious web post provides personal branding stories for seven individuals. The post confirms that I’m out of the branding zeitgeist because, regrettably, I have never heard of any of them (have you??). Take, for example, Erika Napolitano, about whom the blogger says, “Anybody that refers to her followers as ‘bitches’ deserves my immediate respect.” It’s great to see Americans haven’t lost their ability to laugh at themselves. At least I hope that’s what’s going on.

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Girls Books, Boys Books?

girls books, boys boooks, Let Books Be Books, gender stereotyping

Is “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” a girls’ book or a boys’ book? Is “Chicka-Chicka-Boom-Boom”? These are books for any child. But as children grow past the board-book stage, it doesn’t take long for gender stereotyping to creep in, with princesses and cupcakes for girls and superheroes (OK, a few not-so-interesting super-heroines, too) and robots for boys. Last I knew, boys liked cupcakes, too. Too bad the ones in books are always pink.

The UK grassroots (moms and dads) gender-neutral toy campaign, Let Toys Be Toys, has launched a “Let Books Be Books” effort to encourage publishers, booksellers, (and bookbuyers) to be reexamine their marketing practices and better reflect the diversity of kids interests, rather than channeling them into girl-boy stereotypes. It’s gaining support. I loved Nancy Drew until I read my first Hardy Boys adventure, and I never looked back. The “boys books” were just more fun!

The covers of the books on the Let Books Be Books web page tell the story. The boys’ covers feature adventure! Skills! (Submarines, kites, soccer, vikings, rocket ships); the girls’ books? Cupcakes, butterflies, flowers, balloons, jewelry. You’re nothing if not slathered in cutesy stuff. The message is clear: Boys DO. Girls look pretty. In 2014? (You can sign a petition here, if you care to).

“Artificial boundaries turn children away from their true preferences,” the LBBB website says. They narrow kids’ perspective on the world. A recent birthday party for a four-year-old girl provided cloying evidence that “Princesses Rule” in the constricted world of gifts for diminutive females. This tiny effort may be a dragonfly wing in the hurricane of gender-based marketing, but still worth taking a stand.

Working Both Sides of the Brain

 Saturday’s “business side of writing” workshop reiterated the familiar disheartening theme that today’s authors (especially new authors) cannot focus solely on their writing. They need to think like entrepreneurs. Extroverts make great entrepreneurs. Alas, most writers are introverts, people who love to sit alone at their computers and create worlds.

“I don’t want to do all that promotion stuff, and I don’t know how!” is the common reaction. It’s like telling a boy who loves baseball that to succeed he also needs to take up needlepoint.

One of the presenters, Bob Mayer, pointed out today’s writers must compete fiercely for discoverability. In recent years, the estimated number of books published (mostly self-published) in the United States is between 600,000 and 1,000,000 a year. It takes a lot of effort to have any book noticed. It’s one frozen drop in a Niagara of ice.

Only two hardcover fiction books have been on the current New York Times list of best-sellers for more than 16 weeks (alas, and my snobbery is showing, one is by Dan Brown, but the other is Gone Girl, a super read).  Eleven of the 15 have been on the list less than three months. Remember when books were on the best-seller list for a year or more? Those were the horse-and-buggy days of book marketing, as gone as the girl is.

Our second coach, the estimable Jen Talty, pointed out the flaw in writers’ tendency to hang out with other writers—people who don’t ask, “So when is your book coming out?” when they learn the first draft (of probably 15) is done. What she advised writers to do is to connect with readers. That takes work and as much creativity as goes into the novel itself. “My book is for everyone” isn’t a marketing strategy.

Talty and Mayer have their own publishing partners enterprise, Cool Gus Publishing, capitalizing on opportunities in both traditional and electronic publishing. A key difference between the two is that traditional publishers are most interested in initial sales. If a book doesn’t do well out of the gate, traditional publishers’ efforts to promote it go from minimal to nonexistent, and the book vanishes. By contrast, Amazon (Kindle) and other e-publishers are in it for the long haul. Maintaining the e-file is all but free, and if an author has a book success next year or the year after or the year after that, sales of the earlier book will likely head up, too. Writers sitting on a backlist of books that never sold well are finding new revenues.

The publishing mountain gets steeper, but writers persist. It’s in our bones. Perhaps that’s because, as Mayer said, and contrary to the common expression, “Storytelling is the oldest profession.”

A Book AND Its Cover

What makes you pick up a new release from the tables at the front of Barnes & Noble? You might recognize the title, or the author, or it might just be the cover. Some books cry out to be investigated further. A good cover design captures the feel of the novel and the browser’s eye with equal facility. Years later, just seeing the leafy jungle cover of One Hundred Years of Solitude brings back the whole story.

The New York Times has published its annual “15 best” compilation of covers (slide show). I’d need to know more about some of the books to know whether the covers really nailed it, but I must say the amazingly simple cover for the reissue of Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying certainly does. It’s fearless and would certainly have failed a censor’s scrutiny, if there were such a post as Defender of Dust Jacket Decorum.

The ability to capture the essence of a book is very different from the generic approaches typically used in genre fiction. The shootouts, dark alleys, and steamy sex on these covers, although possibly eye-catching, could pretty much be used on any number of Western, mystery, and romance novels. (A quick and clever blog post on the latter can be found here.)

In the Times compilation, see whether you like the covers for F – Poems by Franz Wright and Middle C by William H. Gass as much as I did. I’m tired of the chalkboard writing style of The Art of Sleeping Alone, first noticed last year on The Fault in Our Stars. If you look at the B&N tables just from a design perspective, you can spot trends and copycats. Book jacket design, like everything else designy, has fashions and fads. Amazon’s blurb for Phil Baines’s Penguin by Design, calls the parade of covers for the publisher’s various book lines, which began marching forth in 1935, to be “a constantly evolving part of Anglo-American culture and design history.” Another intriguing book on the topic is Alan Powers’s Front Cover. Powers also has assembled a collection of children’s book covers and their many influential illustrators.

Book covers are designed to appeal to specific readers, which creates an interesting gender dilemma. Check that B&N table and ask yourself, is this a book for men or women or both? Women writers are concerned their books receive the “pretty” treatment, which means men are very unlikely to read them. More on this issue here—and be sure to check out this post’s coverflip slides, which show how covers of popular books might have been presented had the authors been the other gender. Eye-opening.

Notable covers on books I read this year included the one for Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior. The blue version (top), which I have (or had, since I seem to have made the mistake of lending it out), suggests the massing and subtle movement of butterflies in the trees, the phenomenon that leveraged the story’s action. I much prefer it to the more literal treatment given the Kindle edition (middle) or, least imaginative of all, the UK edition (bottom).

Another gem was the cover for Herman Koch’s The Dinner, which gives a pretty darn accurate assessment of how that particular meal went. A linen tablecloth can do only so much.

My take on both these books can be found in the Reading . . . section of this website, with The Dinner in the audio list.

The Changing Publishing Scene

Writers—and some readers, too—are worried about the massive shifts in the publishing industry, including whether it will be possible to make a living as a serious writer for very much longer, not that it was ever very easy, and what making authorhood impossible means for the diversity of ideas in the cultural marketplace.

My professional organization, Sisters in Crime (it’s worth joining just to be able to say that!), recently released a new report on the state of publishing, based on expert interviews with 15 individuals involved, in various ways, in the industry. They asked about books in general and mysteries/suspense/thrillers in particular. The experts they talked to echoed the rather gloomy predictions heard for the last couple of years regarding the challenges the industry faces.

Given the difficulty new writers have being published, many are advised to go-it-alone. But “understand the risks,” one prominent agent said. Yes, it’s easy to self-publish with today’s technology, but publishing does not necessarily lead to sales and income for the writer. Because about 300,000 print titles and an almost uncountable number of ebooks are published each year—think of it as a thousand new books a day—the necessity for and burden of promotion and marketing are enormous. Accomplishing this shifts the emphasis entirely onto the self in self-publishing.

The few self-published books that have achieved financial success have encouraged many more writers to try to follow in those footsteps, creating such a rising level of background noise level, even excellent books go unnoticed.

The implications of the rise of e-books has yet to sort itself out. And, because of a number of economic pressures on publishers, the bar for new authors is constantly being raised. Worse, publishers aren’t interested in mid-list authors—“they want bestsellers.” Authors want to write bestsellers, too, but most won’t. The Great Gatsby sold poorly when it was first published in 1925, but now it is one of the most highly-ranked English-language novels of the 20th century (second-highest in the Modern Library’s list after Ulysses.) As of today it ranks #10 in Amazon’s bestsellers’ list, 4th among novels. For authors whose publishers aren’t banking on returns 88 years into the future, the emphasis on bestsellers is a problem.

The one bright spot for writers of mysteries is that the genre retains its popularity in this fast-changing environment. Mysteries account for 24 percent of ebook sales, though only 15 percent of the dollars, which means their prices are discounted compared to other books. Mysteries are 21 percent of library ebook collections and 24 percent of their print collections. And “cozy mysteries,” that less-sex-and-gore subgenre perfected by Agatha Christie and still practiced by many authors today are actually increasing in popularity.

Exploring Further:

“The Slow Death of the American Author” – Scott Turow’s recent, widely circulated lamentation in the New York Times

Sisters in Crime – membership organization promoting the professional development and advancement of women crime writers

The Modern Library’s lists of 100 best novels; one list selected by its board and one by readers

Cozy Mysteries Unlimited – website for cozy fans

Is It Contagious?

Are you trying to promote an idea, a behavior change, a product—say, your new book? Jonah Berger’s Contagious: Why Things Catch On, describes why things go viral. In the tradition of Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point and Chip and Dan Heath’s Made to Stick, Berger illustrates his pared-down principles with real-life examples and embeds in them the results of behavioral research. The book is based on marketing lectures he gives at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, and the cover design  is brilliant.

So, why do things go viral? “People love to share stories, news, and information with those around them,” Berger says, and word-of-mouth is dramatically more effective in motivating someone to buy your idea or product or service—your “it”—than any paid ad. If you present your it in a way that makes people want to talk about it, you’ve increased your chances of success many-fold. But what kinds of messages make someone want to share?

Messages that become contagious have at least some of these common elements, Berger says:

  • Social currency:  people feel cool—like insiders—when they know about it. Think how people feel about the small perks of frequent flyer status. (I’m right there.)
  • Triggers: The message has many triggers—things in the environment that remind people of it.
  • Emotion: think of the canned Facebook posts—pictures and sayings that made people sad or mad or smile. (Positive emotions evoke more shares, BTW.)
  • Public: “Making behavior more observable makes them easier to imitate,” which is why stores print their names on the shopping bags they give you. And people re-use their bags from Bloomingdale’s and Tiffany’s. Both instantly recognizable.
  • Practical value: People like to help others. Thus, “the six best ways to make your message contagious.” Or, as Berger sums it up: news you can use.
  • Stories: Bring it home.

Every one of us is trying to “sell” something. We may want to persuade people about the good works of our favorite charity so they will donate, we may want to promote a public health message on gun safety, we may be in the actual selling business—real estate, securities, lipstick. In my case, I want you to visit my website (and you have!). Berger has a persuasive chapter on each of the six elements that will help you analyze your messages and create more effective ones.

If you’ve read about the tipping point and stickiness, some of this will sound familiar, but if you haven’t read these books lately, Contagious is full of useful reminders.