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25Jul/1233

How Amazon Users Steal Books

This piece was bought by a major publication back in January, but they were too scared to run it.  So I decided to take it back and just run it myself unedited.

How Amazon Users Steal Books

 

by

 

Aaron Goldfarb


The arrest of German-Finnish superhacker (and future Mike-Myers-in-makeup-and-a-fat-suit movie character) Kim Dotcom and the seizure of his website Megaupload has left college kids fuming and me concerned about one very important issue:

How will people continue stealing my books?

Back in 1970 Abbie Hoffman encouraged people to steal his book with a titular directive, but that old-fashioned way of illegally torrenting is not really practical any more.  Mainly because you don’t see bookstores around and even if you do they’re now places for the homeless to hit the loo and wash up.  Ditto with libraries, now mainly for the homeless to check their e-mail and look at porn.  The death of paper is clearly going to have an apocalyptic effect on the homeless lifestyle more than the publishing industry.

Still, there are other ways to get books for free.

Some are legal like BookLending.com, Kindle’s own Lending Library (though you’ll need a $79/year Prime membership), and e-mailing authors with a sob story about how you love reading but can’t scrounge together a few bucks since you were an English major in college and now can’t get a job in this economy and therefore have to shamelessly beg for a free PDF.

Most others are illegal--depending who you ask!--with countless disreputable sites like Pirates Bay, Iso Hunt, and Torrent Room still yet to be shuttered by the U.S. Department of Justice.  Have at it and I hope you (don’t) find the FBI knocking on your door while you’re in flagrante torrenting.

If stealing isn’t your thing yet you still have a total disinterest in spending even a nickle on reading material, you’ll need a little ingenuity and a lot of free time, but you can read entire books on your computer via Amazon’s “Search inside” or Google Books look-through functions.  As a recent Emory grad who brought this method to my attention told me, “No one in college pays for books any more.  We always figure out a way to read stuff for free.”

You say, but doesn’t “Search inside” only allow you to see a few sample pages?  In theory but not function.  When you begin a search, you will typically be allowed to view the cover, copyright info (ha!), table of contents, and a few introductory pages before the pages quit going in numerical order and start randomly jumping ahead.  For my book How to Fail, that jump-ahead occurs after page five, sending you to page nine, and that’s fairly similar to other books.

At this point, you begin typing keyword guesses into the “Search Inside this Book” box on the left sidebar until you locate either the next page sequentially or one close to it.  You have some wiggle room because every time you land on a new page via a keyword search you are afforded the ability to flip back and forth several pages from where you landed.

The key is figuring out words likely to appear on every single page.  Amazon doesn’t index commonplace words like “a” or "the”--though it does allow “this,” “you,” and “I”--so you’ll have to focus on words commonplace to what you’re reading.  A Harry Potter book and you might guess “Hogwarts.”  The Steve Jobs biography and “Apple” or “asshole” might be good.  My book and “failure” should get you all the pages you lack initially.  With a +/- of a few pages granted for each search, for most books you’ll only need one or two keywords to read every single page.  Stealing, sure, but at least you have to think up an “Open sesame!”-like password to gain access.  Though I agree with poker player and author Rafe Furst, who has used this method since 2007, but notes, “Personally, I find it tedious and not that satisfying to read a book (via “Search Inside”) and end up buying the book if I'm at all interested.”

Still, there’s an even more ethically murky way Amazon users steal books that tops all the above.  I discovered it recently when looking at back-end sales totals for Kindle copies of my books, noticing a column marked “Units Refunded.”

 

 
I was baffled at first, “Who would possibly return an ebook?!”  Especially ones like mine usually priced less than $5.  But, month after month, around 4.5% of buyers return my books for a refund.  I asked other authors if they were encountering similar numbers.  Ben Nesvig, author of First World Problems:  101 Reasons Why the Terrorists Hate Us, told me he averages about 5% returns for his book.  Another friend, a popular technologies writer, told me likewise, as did nearly all authors I surveyed.  I put a call into Amazon and though they wouldn’t give me any exact data, I’m guessing it would indeed hover at around 5%.

Now a normal person might assume these refunds were from people that accidentally bought a book, then returned it seconds later, like when you forget to ask for extra naan on a SeamlessWeb order and have to quickly edit it before the restaurant has begun fulfillment.  But, I’m no normal person, I’m a money-grubbing author that never wants to have another day job.  So I dug deeper and discovered something shocking:

“Books you purchase from the Kindle Store are eligible for return and refund if we receive your request within seven days of the date of purchase.”

(To return and refund, go to Manage Your Kindle, click the actions tab for the title you’d like to return, and select “Return for Refund.”)

 

 

 

Seven days?  Who can’t read a book in seven days?!

There are people buying ebooks, reading them quickly, then returning them for a full refund, like stay-at-home mom Elisabeth Gilbert who told me, “I have literally never spent money on an ebook since getting an iPad.”  Numerous other readers told me likewise.  Though I didn’t ask, I’m sure they also tuck the tags when they buy new clothes for a date, then take them back to Banana Republic in the morning.

“Those are their rules,” explains Jon, a legal professional.  “I don’t feel like I’m stealing anything since Amazon allows this.”

Maybe they shouldn’t.  Maybe Amazon should only allot 24 hours to make a return.  Or not allow a return once you’ve read past page 20 or so, something they have the ability to monitor.

It’s not like this is completely a modern technology problem, though modern technology makes it much easier to beat the system, and makes system-beaters far less guilt-ridden, especially during these tough economic times.  “Why should I feel bad?  I’m not stealing anything real,” is the thought common to serial refunders like a Seton Hall student I spoke to.  There’s always been people who bought hardback books, quickly read them, then returned them, capitalizing on lax 30-day refund policies at most chains.  Barnes & Noble even lowered their return time to 14-days back in 2008, sick of being used as a library.  Bookstores average around a 1% return rate on paper books, but who knows how many of those were people just bummed out they were given Tom Brokaw’s new tome as a Hanukkah present.  (Interestingly, bookstores themselves return anywhere from 25%-50% of unsold books back to the publishers for a full refund.)

Ebooks are returned at five times the rate of physical books, because returning physical books is simply tougher.  A physical book has to stay crisp and clean and it’s a physical object you literally have to drive back to a physical location.  Ebooks are frivolous possession-wise:  a scroll of the mouse, a click of a button, zapped to your Kindle or iPad or iPhone in a matter of seconds, then returned six days later by reversing the steps.  Stealing one isn’t even zero-sum, literally an infinite number exist.

Seth Godin once told me, for a young author like myself, I shouldn’t be worried about sales or even making money, I should be worried about building a “tribe” of fans, not coincidentally also the title of one of his best-selling (selling!) books.  Likewise, Paolo Coehlo is a firm believer in simply getting his books out there electronically, going so far as to pirate his own work, which he feels has greatly contributed to the 65 million sales of The Alchemist alone.  And, Cory Doctorow has famously said:  “For pretty much every writer, the problem isn't piracy, it's obscurity.”

So I suppose I should be thankful I’m building a tribe and becoming a little less obscure through electronic theft.

Having said that, if you truly want to get an author’s book for free, there’s a better way.  Derek Jeter can’t be the only person who gives his paramours personalized parting gifts.

15Nov/110

The Speech That Was Never Spoken

Paneling

Last week I was invited to speak about using social media to promote your creative business.

Actually...I wasn't.

I just thought I was.  (I was actually invited to be one of five members of a panel discussion at Brooklyn Winery during which I drank too much and acted contrarian too often).  Thus, I prepared a speech I never gave.  I hate to waste "content," so here it is:

Any one who tells you they have the secret to helping you gain social media followers is a snake oil salesman.

You want to know the one BIG secret:  be famous.

It doesn’t matter how shitty of Tweeter you are...if you’re famous, you’ll have followers.  Think of the most famous person you can that doesn’t have a Twitter account.  If they signed up tomorrow morning, they’d have several hundred thousand followers by the end of the day.  Even if all their posts were about what hair products they’re currently using.

Lady Gaga can post about her lunch and Beiber can post about a shit he just took and they keep gaining followers.  No one cares about their content.  Even the famous people that are supposedly “quality” Tweeters--Ashton for instance--write absolute garbage (AUTHOR'S NOTE:  I composed this piece before Ashton's major Twitter gaffe).  My least interesting friends are far more interesting.

The only celebrities worth following are very good comedians and very uneducated professional athletes.  Sometimes I think some of the athletes I follow are speaking another language.  If this talk had slides, right now a slide would pop up that showed a Tweet from Antonio Cromartie.

For the rest of us, from the conditionally famous on down, we have to provide brief content that is interesting.  There’s nothing more frivolous and unstable than social media followers.  They are so fickle.

For instance, you all might be bored by me, or disgusted by me, or repulsed by me.  But you paid $5 and you’re several subway stops from home and there’s free wine (AUTHOR'S NOTE:  There actually wasn't.  Not even for the "talent") so I’d really have to be boring or disgusting or repulsive to get you to stand up and leave.  Not true on social media.

Write a boring or disgusting or repulsive thing on Twitter and there’s a certain kind of social media follower (a high percentage actually) that almost takes pride in UNFOLLOWING.

“I CANNOT believe he wrote two mildly unfunny Tweets in a row.  Not only am I unfollowing--but I am going to @ him and tell him that I am unfollowing him.”

People on social media are fucking nuts.  They demand a bizarre level of excellence for something that is FREE and easily ignorable.

But if that’s what they want, then that’s what you have to give them.  I have lots of interests and I used to Tweet about lots of things.  I’m a craft beer fan, I used to have a craft beer blog, so I used to occasionally Tweet about fancy beers I was drinking.  And a small percentage of my followers loved to hear about that.  But the VAST majority didn’t care.  They knew me, and followed me, because I’m “Aaron Goldfarb,” the comedic and satirical novelist.  So one Tweet about beer, or Syracuse basketball, and they held their mouse above the unfollow button.  Two or three Tweets about that subject and “Unfollow.”

The same goes for self-promotion.  One or two Tweets per week about what you’re doing, where you’re speaking, what Tumblrs read by only five people have an upcoming interview with you, and your followers can deal with it.  Any more, and they will unfollow you with no prejudice.

So I actually like to think of the Twitter arena as the stage, just like I mentioned before.  I sit here and I try to be interesting and informative and funny.  I’m not sitting here spending the majority of the time talking about an article I was quoted in, or another interview I gave, or a book I have coming out next year.  I’m not talking about a good beer I had yesterday or my thoughts on Syracuse basketball for the upcoming season (promising).  If that was my brand, maybe--but for better or worse it’s not.  Mine is to be funny and entertaining and when I am--and not TOO profane--I gain followers, I gain RTs, and I gain conversations and sharing.  When I’m not, it’s at best a wall of silence, at worst followers start dumping me like a bad habit.

And that’s one final thing I’d advise--don’t pay attention to any of this.  Sitting here, I can see who is listening to me.  I can see who is laughing and who is twiddling their thumbs and what attractive women are beguiled.  I can see if any one stands and walks out on this.  And that would fuck me up if that happened.  They might have gotten an emergency phone call, or drank too much free wine (AUTHOR'S NOTE:  Impossible), I don’t know--but if they walk out on me, my head would be fucked with.  And it’s easy for the same thing to happen on social media.

It’s easy to notice, “Holy shit, I lost 20 followers today!” and start wondering why and analyzing what you Tweeted and then trying to Tweet things more in line with what you think doesn’t lose followers.  But don’t do that.  Don’t pay attention to your number.  Who cares why you lose fans?  Just trust me that you will eventually, and at worst slowly but surely, gain fans if you just follow your focus--whether that’s being entertaining or being interesting or being perceptive or being news-breaking.  Whatever your reason for being on Twitter and creating content is, be the best you can be at that, and don’t self-promote too much, and don’t talk about what you’re drinking too much, and for God’s sake don’t fucking Retweet Andy Borowitz too much--and you’ll do all right.

But what do I know? I barely have 2000 followers.

14Jul/114

Culturally Popular – To be a popular artist do you have to think popular culture is actually good?

I watched "The Hangover." I fucking hated it.  This is a movie 50 million people loved?!

I've tried to watch "Criminal Minds" and "Bones" and "NCIS" and "Big Bang Theory."  I detest them.  These are shows that get 10 million viewers per episode and dot the Neilsen ratings weekly top ten?!

I started "The Da Vinci Code."  Quit after page 50.  This is a book that has been read by zillions of people in 40 different languages?!  I didn't even know there were 40 different languages.

I'm not a culture snob.  I read, watch, and listen to everything.  True, I pursue the best of the best, but I also read, watch, and listen to the most popular of the popular.  Just to see "what it's all about."  Just to try to understand the zeitgeist.

When it comes to books, I not so humbly think that my book "How to Fail" is vastly superior to most.

Based on sales alone, it is most certainly not.

And that's my point exactly.

Does the fact that I hate most all best-sellers yet think my book is better, doom me straight from the get go?

Does one have to generally like the most popular of popular culture to then produce his own super popular culture?

Did Spielberg have to like the American Hollywood hits of the 50s and 60s (as opposed to the more artsy European stuff) in order to become the definitive hit-maker of his era?

Did J.J. Abrams have to worship blockbuster artists like Speilberg--because we know he did--to become the most famous pop producer of his era?

Did J.K. Rowlings have to be inspired by the most famous piece of pop culture ever in order to create the most read book series ever?

(Maybe I should start going the initials route--A.M. Goldfarb.  Yeah, that's the ticket.)

Would I write the kind of works that were not just liked, but were gulped up by the idiot masses if I was also a massive idiot that loved all the popular shit?

Perhaps.

Or, maybe I just need a movie released to 3000 screens, a TV show aired on CBS, a book given front table placement at the airport newstand.  Maybe I need to curse less.

Whatever the case, I'm about to start reading "The Hunger Games" to see what that shit's all about and why it sells like fucking crazy.

Then, I'll keep writing what I like to write.

 

 

Popular culture* of recent times I actually liked:

Every Pixar film
"Avatar" (seriously)
"The Dark Knight" & "Inception"
"The Blind Side"
"Bridesmaids"
The Millenium Trilogy
"Room" by Emma Donahue
NBC Thursday night comedies
"How I Met Your Mother"
"Modern Family"
"House"
Lady Gaga

*I defined this as blockbuster movies, highly-watched network TV shows, and best-selling books before any one argues.

30Jun/112

Posting a Book Review on Amazon is a Pain in the Ass – A Small Way Amazon Hurts Authors and Readers

It is a pain in the ass to post a book review on Amazon!

This is not a piece I ever wanted to write.

But after months of Googling the topic and waiting for someone else to write it, I decided I had no choice but to do it myself now.  This is a service to fellow authors and fellow readers (or, at least, the fellow readers that are big enough nerds to post reviews on Amazon. And, as an author, I say God bless you, nerds. Unless you gave me a shitty review.)

It would seem posting a review on Amazon would be easy.  It isn't.

It would seem it would be as simple as posting a review on any of the other user review websites from IMDB to Yelp to Goodreads and so on.  It's not.

You see, Amazon has certain policies.  The only problem is, they don't really tell you these fucking policies.  And, thus, when you type up a review and hit POST, you really have no clue if it's going to post.

Until it doesn't.

I've written countless reviews for fellow authors...that have never appeared.

I've had countless friends and fans of mine tell me they wrote reviews for me...that never appeared.

 

So, what's the problem?

 

As far as can tell, there are two biggies:

1.  No cursing.

Fair enough, but Amazon considers "curse" words such mild stuff as 'ass' and 'pussy.'

(Why I feel the need to use 'ass' and 'pussy' in certain book reviews is my own damn business.)

I don't have a master list of profanities that Amazon will not accept, but I sure wish I did.  Based on personal experience, they aren't exactly Carlin's Seven Dirty Words.  More like Amazon's 235 Mildly Risque Terms.

So, when in doubt, make the PG-13 rating into a G in your own reviews.

2.  No self-promotion.

But seriously, why else would I be reviewing other people's books?!

All kidding aside, if you're an author yourself, and you mention in any way being an author yourself, or having a book, your review will never get past the Amazon censors.

This was something I suspected but didn't fully know until I wrote a review of my friend Phil Simon's book "The New Small" in which I mentioned my own book.  I'd posted the review three times without it appearing on site, when I finally got an e-mail from "Jeff" at Amazon customer service spelling things out for me.  (For the record, the first e-mail I'd ever received from them post-posting an unacceptable review.)

This e-mail linked to Amazon's policy, hidden in the deep recesses of their website, on what isn't acceptable for reviews to contain, printed below:

 

Amazon Review Guidelines

Objectionable material:
• Obscene or distasteful content
• Profanity or spiteful remarks
• Promotion of illegal or immoral conduct

Promotional content:
• Advertisements, promotional material or repeated posts that make the same point excessively
• Sentiments by or on behalf of a person or company with a financial interest in the product or a directly competing product (including reviews by authors, artists, publishers, manufacturers, or third-party merchants selling the product)
• Reviews written for any form of compensation other than a free copy of the product
• Solicitations for helpful votes

Inappropriate content:
• Crucial plot elements (unless you offer a clear "spoiler alert")
• Other people's material (this includes excessive quoting)
• Phone numbers, postal mailing addresses, and URLs external to Amazon.com
• Details about availability or alternate ordering/shipping
• Videos with watermarks
• Comments on other reviews visible on the page (because page visibility is subject to change without notice)
• Foreign language content (unless there is a clear connection to the product)

 

Besides the fact that "How to Fail" is an entire book with obscene or distasteful content, profanity or spiteful remarks, and promotion of illegal or immoral conduct, it's nice that some policy was finally spelled out to me.  Sorta.  Policy of the highly-ambiguous type.  Nearly everything above could be debated as to what is and what isn't.

I mean, look, I don't have any issues with company policy and certainly not Amazon's, I just wish Amazon would more clearly spell out their policy when one reviews and, if a review doesn't immediately fit in with said policy, give us a heads up, like when you forget to add your zip code or fuck-up the CAPTCHA on an online form.

I wish a red flag would appear immediately after you hit post:

*Review unable to be posted due to the following profanities:
cocksucker
twat

*Review unable to be posted due to the following acts of self-promotion:

I don't mean to rip Amazon.  I love Amazon.  I, and a lot of other indie authors, owe parts of our careers to Amazon.  But, part of what we owe is based on one major commodity that Amazon provides:  user reviews and word of mouth.

My books of obscene and distasteful content don't get reviewed by the NYT or on "Good Morning America," I need word of mouth straight from the people's mouth.  And, the current draconian nature of the Amazon review system makes it damn tough for me and my fellow writers to load up on reviews.

And, makes it damn annoying for readers who want to post something about a book they loved...or, hated.

So, fair reader, my advice would be that if you post a review that doesn't appear immediately, first, hit the "back" button and copy and paste your content into a clipboard, then wait until Amazon gives you a chance to review again--usually a few hours--then scour your previous review for any of the above issues.

Or better yet, keep it simple stupid.  The shorter the review, the less chance you have of fucking up and breaking Amazon's policy.

I'm not exactly sure why Amazon wants to encourage writing smaller reviews over the larger and more in-depth, but this is what they are doing with this current system.

Yet, I still love 'em.

GIVE ME NON-CURSEY, NON-SELF-PROMOTEY, REVIEWS HERE:

How to Fail:  The Self-Hurt Guide

The Cheat Sheet

25Jun/115

Non-Motivational Speaking Tips

I spoke Thursday night as part of Gelf's Non-Motivational Speakers Series.  The self-hurt guide author as non-motivational speaker.  Clearly a match made in heaven.  It took place at the Pacific Standard, a prototypical Brooklyn bar full of great craft beer and skinny, bearded, asshole bartenders (Spuyten Duyvil is the gold standard of this genre).  Of course I'd be invited to give a speech at a bar.  I write books in bars, sell them there too, constantly dream of opening my own, and now I give speeches in them.

It feels funny to call something in a bar a "speech," even if there was a microphone present.  Speeches are what Lincoln gave.  So we'll say what I did was a "talk."

It felt like the first talk I'd given in my entire life.  Then again, Bill Russell threw up before every single basketball game he ever played.  Then again, Bill Russell probably didn't pound a few Flower Powers before tip-off.

I've actually spoken plenty of times in my life.

I've spoken in front of college classes, classes where I'm the curriculum.

I've spoken in front of groups pimping my book.

I've even been on TV, radio, and lengthy podcasts where they almost had to tell me to shut the fuck up and that they were done speaking to me.

I've even given a few best man speeches in my life.

Weddings are always a tough crowd to speak in front of.  Everyone is itching to eat, to hit the bar again for a Scotch refill ("Seriously, Chivas is all you have?!"), to start dancing.  No one wants to hear from some asshole in a rented Men's Warehouse tux who they don't even know.  No one is enjoyable to listen give a wedding speech, but I've twice killed it.

Two tips:  be short, be funny.

Legendary comedians like Chris Rock and Louis C.K. can barely hold an eager crowd's attention for ten straight minutes, yet you think you'll be able to?  You won't.  Two to three minutes and out.  If you're not funny, or you're the bride's dad, or a female...feel free to be sentimental.  Get a few "awwwwwws" from the crowd and then be done.  Otherwise, you best be funny.

I was asked to speak for 15 minutes Thursday night which already forced me to break my "be short" rule.  I was nervous about that.  It was the longest scripted and memorized talk I'd given in my life.

I asked my buddy Phil Simon what his number one tip for giving a good speech is.

"Don't use slides," he said.

Which is odd because another friend, James Altucher (who wrote a great piece on public speaking), really likes using funny slides.  I wasn't even allowed to use slides if I had wanted to.  Which is good because I would have been too lazy to cull them together, any ways.

I studied some more of James's tips for some additional pointers.  I liked his ones about starting with a joke (obvious), being self-deprecating (not too tough when I'm already being called "non-motivational"), and shocking them with each and every point.

Opening with a joke seems self-evident and I opened with a series of them.  First, a casual faux-impromptu joke as I approached the mic:

"I've always wanted to give a TED Talk but they don't let you drink at those, so this'll have to do..."

As I took a sip from my beer while they laughed.  Then, I shocked them with my opening line:

"On my birthday this year, I got sued..."

And it was off from there.

Most comedians like to close a show, but I like to open.  Gives me a chance to kill early and get drunk late.  I hate sitting around waiting to speak and accidentally getting too drunk, forgetting what I have to say, other people already setting a high standard of speaking ahead of me.  Truth be told, the second and third slots were the best slots Thursday night.  They had the largest crowd and the most slightly buzzed and really engaged people.  But, I still liked opening.

The Non-Motivational Speaker series was an apt pairing for me.  The other three speakers all gave talks that included tales of lawsuits, hare-brained schemes, substance abuse, and barely eking out a living chasing their own dreams.  Of course, the other three speakers dreams were, respectively, to open a Big Lebowski store, hold the world's biggest jerk-off, and be allowed to legally ride a unicycle on New York City sidewalks.

I was torn.  I felt both honored and utterly ashamed to be a part of this foursome.  Alas.

I thought I gave a pretty good speech.  I was impressed I could go for fifteen minutes and keep the crowd engaged and laughing.

There's currently a big debate going on over at Slate about the new practice of charging for author talks.  I've long been saying that the modern author is going to have to learn to "play live music." Yes, agreed, typical author events ARE really boring.  That's why I had my book tour in bars right from the get-go.

It's tough, though.  We're writers that now also need to be performers.  I did pretty well, I thought, got quite a bit of laughs, but was it stand-up quality?  Not even close.  Maybe in a few years I'll be stand-up good, but not yet.  My material is good, but delivery is more important than I would have thought.  That's going to take a lot more practice.  Simply having good jokes and saying them doesn't quite get the laughs and merit shelling out big bucks to hear me speak.

Then again, plenty shelled out bucks to buy some of my books afterward.  And, that's what matters most to me.

22Jun/114

It Doesn’t Matter — Why There’s No Silver Bullet for Selling Your Books

Yesterday, there was a nice interview with me on Scoutmob, a New York City "daily deals" website, sent to over 200,000 e-mail accounts.  I was incredibly excited for the attention.

You know how many books that sold me?

ZERO.

It doesn't matter.

I've been on television to pimp my book.

It doesn't matter.

I've gone on countless morning radio shows.

It doesn't matter.

I've been on podcast after podcast after podcast, many of them notable.

IT DOESN'T MATTER.

I was talking to an author much more famous than me the other day (you'd recognize his name and his books) about this subject.

I told him that I was thinking of finally going with a major publisher for my next book just because I've always had the bizarre dream of seeing my books for sale in the airport.

"My books have been in the airport," he told me.

It didn't matter.

He'd appeared on Larry King.

It didn't matter.

He's regularly written about in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.

It doesn't matter.

The other day I saw an even bigger celebrity than him, one with 2 million-plus followers, beloved by all!, Tweet about how much she liked his new book.

Wow, what a plug I thought!

I'm guessing it didn't matter.

Nothing matters if you look at things in a "silver bullet" way. If you try to bank on each little TV appearance and interview and blog mention to be the one thing that sells a fat stack of books for you. That's called playing the lottery. And it doesn't work. It doesn't matter.

As William Goldman said, "Nobody knows anything."

You can never know what or why your books will sell, so quit worrying about it.

One more story:  I sold about 50 books DURING the Super Bowl this year.  Odd.  Someone must have taken out a commercial I missed.

Something might have mattered that day.

But you know what really matters?

Just writing the stuff you enjoy writing.

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The Five Things GO THE FUCK TO SLEEP Can Teach Us About the Future of Books

17Jun/1196

The 5 Things GO THE FUCK TO SLEEP Can Teach us About the Future of Books

I wanted to hate it.

I wanted it to only be a stupid gimmick.

But, I don't and it's not.  Adam Mansbach and Ricardo Cortes's "Go the Fuck to Sleep" is already a massive hit, achieving the #1 spot on Amazon before it was even released and currently residing at #1 on the NYT's Bestseller List.

This is great!  Authors like me shouldn't be jealous, we should pay attention and learn a few things.

"Go the Fuck to Sleep" was released by a small Brooklyn publisher and has become a hit because it deserves to be one.

In fact, more than any other recent book, the success of "Go the Fuck to Sleep" can teach us the five important lessons for the future of books.

 

1.  HIGH CONCEPT

The "Fuck" in the title cheaply draws you in, sure.  The idea of an adult children's book quickly intrigues you.  Curse-titled books and children's book spoofs have existed before, but there haven't been too many.  Being high concept isn't about being the first of its kind.  It's about being easily describable.  You hear "Go the Fuck to Sleep" and go, "Ah...I get it."

(Likewise, I wanted you to hear "How to Fail:  The Self-Hurt Guide," the world's first self-hurt guide, the opposite of a self-help guide, and also immediately "get it.")

 

2.  FEW WORDS

I seriously do not snark when I say that.

People do not read any more.  And by that, I mean they don't read long things any more.  You know it, and I know it.  You've probably already started skipping ahead in this blog post--which I'm guessing, actually will end up having more total words in it than "Go the Fuck to Sleep."

Nowadays a writer needs to quickly entertain, and then get the fuck out.  "Go the Fuck to Sleep" does that.

If you keep something to a minimal amount of words, everyone can enjoy it and everyone is willing to give it a try.  If not, you've already lost.

There surely must be a formula that can predict for every 1000 words added how much in percentage your potential audience decreases.  It's larger than you'd think.  Shit, by the time you get to the 1000 pages category, perhaps only 1% of people in the world will even dare attempt your book.

Do you really want to cut your potential audience (customers) so dramatically just because you "need" that much content?

(With "How to Fail" I tried to write it in a way so that each chapter and footchapter were short enough, and insular enough, to enjoy on a quick subway ride or during a 10 minute break while waiting for a friend.)

 

3.  EASY TO DISCUSS

One of the toughest things about books is that they aren't as easily spreadable as other media.  When you finish a great book, how do you LIKE it or Tweet it, without physically typing "u shuld really read this book" into Twitter or on Facebook?  How do you "share" it without, uh, walking up to a friend and literally putting it in his hand?  How do you quickly tell a friend to read Jonathan Franzen or Jennifer Egan's new book.  "Uh...you should read this.  It's good."

That's about the best you can do.

But a high-concept, short work like "Go the Fuck to Sleep" is easy spreadable.  Almost like an epic poem.  Shit, I could nearly recite the entire book to you from memory (in fact, my friend Jenn was telling me about another iconic children's book a few months ago, which she did by reciting from memory the entire thing.  I was sold!).

It also doesn't hurt that "Go the Fuck to Sleep" is available in other media that are far more spreadable (more on this in a second.)  And, interestingly, "Go the Fuck to Sleep" started as a Facebook post!

 

4.  A KEEPSAKE WANTED

It seems that everyone in the world had already read (via piracy) or heard (via Sam Jackson's unsurprisingly brilliant audio-recording here) "Go the Fuck to Sleep" in its entirety before the book had even been released this week.  And, now, any one could easily walk into Barnes & Noble and read the book in about three minutes while standing up.  Yet it still hit #1 on Amazon in preorders.

It doesn't matter.  This is still a book that people want to OWN.  It's a great gift.  Perfect for a baby shower, new parents, as a gag.  It's a funny thing to have around the house to show to guests.  Or, to save to give to your own annoying baby once he or she grows up.  The same isn't true for most other books, though Seth Godin is releasing limited deluxe editions for the Domino Project and I believe McSweeney's also does a brilliant job of making physical books that people want to actually own.  Curiously, "Go the Fuck to Sleep" is selling pretty well on Kindle--though not as well--currently nestled at #12.

(Here's where "How to Fail"...uh...fails.  Though I do think my design by Sarah Vendittelli is quite beautiful, I'm not sure that any one just "has" to own a copy)

 

5.  "LIVE MUSIC"

I've often wondered what is going to be the "live music" for authors in the future?  When people quit buying CDs, musicians were forced to change their revenue making abilities and focus more on live shows which, of course, can't really be pirated (you can't just search for a free Lady Gaga torrent and then magically have her standing in front of you in your living room--though don't we wish!).  But what about authors?  What's the "live music" for us?

"Go the Fuck to Sleep" has solved this brilliantly by creating a work that demands live performance, and by wacky celebrities such as Werner Herzog no less.  People actually paid $15-25 the other night to hear the legendary director read a book that they could have bought for cheaper than that!

(And here's where I've utterly failed.  I haven't made a lot of "live music."  Though I do have a fun speaking gig next week.)

 

BONUS:  CHILDREN INVOLVED!

You release a new book, announce it on your Twitter feed, and get a few LIKES and some stray comments.  Your old buddy from high school status updates about their child finally taking a shit in an adult toilet and the internet nearly blows up.  I tried to shamelessly integrate kids into my marketing campaign, but it was phony so it didn't work.

I didn't have a children's book.  Mansbach and Cortes do.  Perfect.  Boom:

One final thing...all of this shit would be negated if "Go the Fuck to Sleep" wasn't actually a clever, brilliant, and well-written work.  It truly is.  I dare you to listen to the Sam Jackson audiobook and not laugh at least once.  You will.  It's very funny.  It's very catchy.  It'll be stuck in your head for the rest of the day like a bad 80's pop song.

And that's how you create a book that rocks the zeitgeist and makes you a very rich man.

Easy, right?

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1Jun/110

Striving to Be an “F” Student

"We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard." --John F. Kennedy

I've started picking up freelance writing gigs as of late.  Now what usually happens is a magazine or a website will ask me to write something for an already established section or column.  For instance, I'm currently writing a piece about Oklahoma City's craft beer scene for the "Destinations" series in Beer Advocate magazine.

I always struggle with these!

Why?  Because I feel trapped in a box.

I'll get assigned the piece and the friendly editor will usually ask if I'm familiar with the particular column (I always claim that I am, even though I usually am not) before sending me a few examples of previous editions.

It becomes far too easy for me to read the previous works and just use them as a template for my own piece.

But how does that benefit me?  How does that benefit the readers?!

This is C student work.  (Or, rather, B or B- student work in today's grade-inflated culture.)

This isn't work that "WOWS" as Tony Hseih, CEO of Zappos and writer of the brilliant book "Delivering Happiness," asks of all his employees.

“We measure our people on one thing: Did you WOW! the customer? If they each do that, we’ve done our job; everything else will flow from there.”

How am I going to make a name for myself with C student work?  How are readers going to be wowed by C student work?!

They aren't.

I'm reminded of my own childhood.  My mother, oddly enough a disciplinarian in most aspects of life--rules were rules and laws were laws and they weren't to be broken--always encouraged me to go above and beyond in my schoolwork.  Guidelines apparently weren't guidelines in her thinking, they were something to transcend.

So if I was, say, assigned a basic report on Italy, mom would encourage me to make an entire multi-media presentation.  Assigned an essay on Jackie Robinson, mom would encourage me to create and bind a fully-illustrated book on the man.

This was clearly not C student work.

To some teachers, in fact, it was F student work.  I had totally mocked their assignment guidelines, I had shown an unwillingness to follow their rules, I had done things the other students didn't even "know" they could do ("That's not fair!").  I clearly deserved an F for my insubordination.

But this rarely happened.

What more often happened is I got an A+.  I got my work passed around to other classrooms, teachers, and students as examples of what could be done.  I made a name for myself.  And, I probably pissed off the lazy C students and strict C teachers.

What eliminates this desire to be an A student (or an F student) from adults and makes us simply want to be bland C students?  Why do we play it so safe?

My adult "F student" idol is screenwriter Charlie Kaufman.  Hired and tasked with adapting Susan Orlean's seemingly unadaptable book "The Orchid Thief," Kaufman battled a huge case of writer's block.  I can attest, adapting prose into screenplays can sometimes feel like nothing more than robotic cut-and-paste jobs.

With no other choice, Kaufman decided to write a screenplay about his struggles adapting "The Orchid Thief," going over-the-top and creating exaggerated events surrounding the writing, even creating a fictional twin brother named Donald Kaufman who acted as his co-writer.  Kaufman later explained:

"The idea of how to write the film didn't come to me until quite late. It was the only idea I had, I liked it, and I knew there was no way it would be approved if I pitched it. So I just wrote it and never told the people I was writing it for.  I really thought I was ending my career by turning that in!"

If Kaufman had gone the C student route he would have created an easily forgettable film no one would have even heard of by now, nearly a decade later.  And, true, going the route he did could have ended in him getting a metaphorical F from the film studio--notorious by-the-book institutions--getting fired, and having to return a ton of money.

But, instead, Kaufman got a resounding A+.

"Adaptation" would go on to be nominated for countless awards, even winning one Oscar, and is widely considered one of the best and most unique films of the previous decade.

Let's all start doing the kind of work that breaks so many rules it will surely get us an F...

...if it doesn't get us an A first.

 

3May/112

How to Be Interviewed

I'm not Lady Gaga or anything, but I still get interviewed a few times a week (check out my press coverage), and I've quickly learned some secrets.

1.  Be brief -- You can say 99 amazing insights. But that one stupid thing you say, that's the thing that will be quoted in the piece.   (Like when I mockingly noted that I was going to "Get rich or die trying" here.)  So, I guess, only say smart things, which is decreasingly hard to do the more things you say.

2.  Be long -- A paradox, but not exactly.  Like all of us, journalists can be lazy.  So the more of their piece you can "write" for them, the easier it'll be for them.  I've yet to completely ghostwrite both sides of an entire interview for a journalist, but I'm thinking about suggesting it next time.  I enjoy talking to myself any ways because I'm an egomaniac that works alone all day.

3.  Be well-edited -- Misspell a word in an email interview and good chance it'll appear in the final piece.  Again, people are lazy and cutting and pasting your direct quote from your interview into their piece is what they'll most likely do.  All the more embarrassing if they add a mocking (sic) behind your misspelled word or misstated fact.

4.  Answer the questions you want to answer -- Donald Trump's brilliance is in turning any question into an answer to a question that was never asked but that he'd rather answer instead.  "Why is your book selling so poorly?" the interview asks.  "I'm being honored with a film festival for my short story collection this weekend!" you reply.  They move onto the next question.

5.  Butter them up -- Any question the interviewer asks, respond with, "Oh, good question!" before answering the same lame question you've been asked a zillion times.  Sometimes, even extend the good.  "Oh, gooooood question!"  After the interview, tell them that was seriously the best interview you've ever had.  Give them free shit.  Copies of your book and what not.  No one's going to blast a interview subject that loads them up with free shit.

6.  Get them drunk -- Likewise, no one's going to have anything but positive things to say about a person that's fun to hang with.  Bonus points if you get your interviewer so drunk that you flip the tables on them, start asking them questions which they answer in embarrassing fashion.  By the next morning, they'll be certain to pen a beautiful piece on you, for abject fear that you could retaliate by writing something terrible about them.

7.  Send along pics -- Writing pieces is easy enough, but increasingly in today's society, all people care about are the images.  "Art" they call it in the journalism business.  So attach a full photo set of you in various positions (none erotic) along with book cover images and what not.  Almost a lock the interviewer will add them to the piece and now you've just one-upped all the other bozos that were interviewed but didn't include art.

8.  Don't keep emailing them asking "When is this piece gonna run?  Is it gonna run soon?  When will it run?!!!" -- Makes you look like a pure rube.  A cool writer would just pretend they have enough coverage to not care about a single piece here or there.  "Oh, that interview with me finally ran in Time Magazine?  I totally forgot about that..." you aloofly smirk before picking up 75 copies.

9.  And, for the love of God, don't rip the finished piece -- Yes, when the piece is finally published, you're most likely gonna find that it sucks. Hardcore.  It's gonna be poorly written, use the worst pull quotes, get basic facts wrong, and not even perhaps mention the product you wanted to pimp.  What can I say?  Most writers are shitty.  Still, what you can't do, is link to the piece on Facebook or Twitter and add:  "Here's an interview with me.  The shitty fucking writer totally botched it."  All that matters is the emotion of the piece.  If it's favorable to you, nothing else matters.  So, smile, be proud, and when your friends look at you askew and ask:  "Did you really say, 'Get rich or die trying?' respond:  'You're goddamn right I did!'"

10.  Pretend you're a media superstar the next time you beg someone to interview you --  If they don't believe you, just arrogantly say:

"Google me."

Any journalists, bloggers, podcasters, radio hosts, or just old fashioned yahoos with their own poorly-followed Tumblr that want to interview me--or have me ghostwrite their own interview of me--contact me at:

aaron @aarongoldfarb.com

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26Apr/114

New York City of Movie Flops

There are few things sadder than walking through beautiful Manhattan and seeing billboards for movies that have already flopped.

In fact, if an alien film buff came to our planet, he might think Manhattan's aesthetic was to cover the city with countless images of recent movies that tanked.

It has to be demoralizing for a studio head or producer or filmmaker or actor to wander the city and everywhere he or she turns--a phone booth! a bus stop! a billboard!--is a reminder of the shitty fucking movie they spent the last year on.  (And movie fans spent hardly a weekend on.)

You'd think studios would just produce high-tech billboards and posters that somehow know to self-destruct once a movie's opening weekend gross is less than $20 million or fares worse than 70% fresh on the Tomatometer.

Or, perhaps, they could just start making good movies.  Movies they'd be proud of seeing posters of in ubiquity for perpetuity.

Just a few months ago, every free spot of New York started getting wallpapered with posters for "Arthur" featuring Russell Brand's ghastly visage.  I don't believe I heard a single person in town go, "Oooh, I'm excited for that."  But, you didn't really know.  The original 1981 version of "Arthur" was a comedic masterpiece with Dudley Moore as the lovable drunk.  Did it really merit a remake?  It didn't seem likely but it was hard to be sure.

As release date neared, critics offered the resounding opinion NO and then the few schmucks that actually went to investigate for themselves came to the same conclusion.

Now, we have a city still covered with Russell Brand's smirking puss.

I like to think of Russell wandering the streets unable to escape his massive failure.

In fact, that would be the best creative prison sentence possible for filmmakers who continue to just phone it in:  Put them in a city wallpapered with his or her failures.

Nic Cage would surely make better movies if during a walk through the East Village he turned to the left and saw "Windtalkers" on a phonebooth, turned to the right and spied "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" on a bus stop, looked up and "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" on a roof, ducked into a cab with "National Treasure 3" atop it, before sprinting into a skyscraper plastered with a 25 story poster of "Ghost Rider."

Or, perhaps artists could just start trying a little harder.  Start making product they're actually proud of so when it's still hanging in the city months if not years after its release, people will look fondly upon it and go:  "Now that was a great movie."

Naw, they'll just keep making shit.

Whoa!  A bus just blew by with a "Drive Angry" billboard on top of it.  Man that movie fucking sucked.

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