August 30, 2014

Amazon, where do my sales come from?

This post was inspired by Hugh Howey's recent blog post titled, "Stuff I Want to Know." (This isn't the first time that Mr. Howey has inspired me, by the way.) In the post, he lists 12 things that he would love to know from Amazon. Given his clout, I'm hoping that most of his questions will be answered.

One question that wasn't on his list, and that I asked in the comments (the only time my name will appear on a page written by Hugh Howey, I'm sure), was where my sales come from. I would love to know if people find my books because of this blog, a review that a book blogger posted, a promotion I run, or some other source. For an author, or any seller, that information is golden.

John Wanamaker, a pioneer in marketing, is credited with saying, "Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half." Digital advertising platforms have sprung up to answer that question. Google and other sites provide that information to some extent. I'm sure Amazon tracks the referrer URLs for all of their product pages. It should be rather simple to link a sale with the referrer URL that led to it. Even if Amazon doesn't reveal the actual URL but only the domain, that can be useful to. Do more people come from Twitter or Facebook? Are promotions from one site more effective than promotions from another? Even if Amazon tells me the referrer for product page views instead of sales, that's still better than nothing. Google's Blogger, where this blog is hosted, provides that information. Why can't Amazon? Here's to hoping the world's largest online retailer is listening.

August 23, 2014

Book review: Battle Royale by Koushun Takami

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Battle Royale, a high-octane thriller about senseless youth violence, is one of Japan's best-selling and most controversial novels. As part of a ruthless program by the totalitarian government, ninth-grade students are taken to a small isolated island with a map, food, and various weapons. Forced to wear special collars that explode when they break a rule, they must fight each other for three days until only one "winner" remains. The elimination contest becomes the ultimate in must-see reality television. A Japanese pulp classic available in English for the first time, Battle Royale is a potent allegory of what it means to be young and survive in today's dog-eat-dog world. The first novel by small-town journalist Koushun Takami, it went on to become an even more notorious film by 70-year-old gangster director Kinji Fukusaku.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

August 15, 2014

Every story has already been told

Last time, I talked about how worthless a story idea is if you don't do anything with it. What if you have the opposite problem? Instead of thinking that your idea is great, what if you don't like it because you think it's a rip-off of someone else's idea? Well, to tell you the truth, it probably is. That's because, at some level, every story idea has already been taken.

I just read Battle Royale by Koushun Takami. It's about a government that forces a group of teens to kill each other until there's only one survivor left. Does that sound familiar? Hunger Games, anyone? Yup, when The Hunger Games grew in popularity, some critics accused it of ripping off Battle Royale, which was published earlier. On the surface, they are two very similar story ideas, but I believe Suzanne Collins when she said that she wasn't aware of the Japanese book and came up with her idea independently. Anyone who's read both books will see that both authors treated the subject matter in different ways, their writing styles are vastly different, and as a result, a reader can enjoy both books without feeling cheated by two seemingly identical story ideas.

To take it to an extreme, some say that there are only seven basic story plots. (I've also heard as few as three.) So what are the chances that the new story idea in your head is different from what every author who's come before you has written? Zero. But don't worry. You're not Hemingway, you're not Stephen King, you're not Suzanne Collins. And I mean that in a good way because it means that your take on the idea will be different from theirs. Despite the apparent similarities, if you're true to yourself and write the best story you can, it'll be sufficiently different from what other authors have written.

Now, I don't condone plagiarism or conscious rip-offs of other works, but there's a lot of room to work with before you reach that stage. Consider the number of sparkly vampire stories that popped up when Twilight became popular. Those authors were definitely trying to capitalize on Twilight's success by emulating it. I haven't read any of those books (nor Twilight for that matter, although I've seen the movies), but if they can be deemed different enough from the original, chances are that your story idea will be considered original as well.

Don't let the fear that your idea isn't unique stop you from pursuing it. As I mentioned before, an idea is worthless if it stays in your head.

August 9, 2014

Book review: The Caged Graves by Dianne K. Salerni

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The year is 1867, and seventeen-year-old Verity Boone is excited to return to Catawissa, Pennsylvania, the hometown she left when she was just a baby. Now she will finally meet the fiancĂ© she knows only through letters! Soon, however, she discovers two strangely caged graves . . . and learns that one of them is her own mother’s. Verity swears she’ll get to the bottom of why her mother was buried in “unhallowed ground” in this suspenseful teen mystery that swirls with rumors of witchcraft, buried gold from the days of the War of Independence, and even more shocking family secrets.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

August 2, 2014

Story ideas are worthless

You know that great story idea you have in your head? The one that you think is so awesome and so original that it's sure to be a bestseller? Do you know how much it's worth? Absolutely nothing... if it remains just an idea.

For those who don't know, I'm not a full-time writer. I have a day job as an engineer in the Bay Area, home to Silicon Valley. I've worked at my share of tech startups and have even once started my own company (which was obviously a failure or I'd be writing full-time from some tropical island). One thing that a lot of wanna-be startup founders misunderstand is that their world-changing ideas don't mean anything. They worry about telling people their ideas for fear they will get stolen, and they insist on anyone they share it with signing NDAs (non-disclosure agreements) before revealing their big ideas. Well, what I've learned is that the best startup idea in the world doesn't translate into a successful company without proper execution. Look at Google and Facebook. They didn't come up with the idea of search or social networking, respectively. They just did a really good job executing on the idea, better than their competitors.

Now back to writing. If you're an author, I'm sure you've had the experience where you talk to someone and they say, "I have a great idea for a book!" Or you may be an aspiring author yourself who thinks you have an idea for the Next Big Thing. But in most cases, I bet the person with the idea won't have taken the next step of turning that idea into a book. So what's their brilliant idea worth? Hmm, let's just say that the idea and a dollar will buy me a cup of coffee at McDonald's.

I have a notebook full of story ideas. I think some are brilliant, but they're just notes in a binder that don't do me any good right now. It's not until I turn one of them into a story and then publish it that the idea has value, both to me and to you as a reader. And sometimes, I'll execute poorly on it and choose not to publish it. That can happen to good ideas with flawed execution, like a startup that delivers a poor product or runs out of money before they hit their goals.

So if you have a great story idea, don't just let it sit. Write it. Do the best job you can to bring it to life. Then publish it for the world to read because if the idea remains in your head or in a notebook, it's worthless.