Saturday, March 31, 2012
Inspired by the Ebers Papyrus, Smashwords today announced a new service to treat medical ailments commonly endured by writers.
“For too many years, traditional publishers have turned a blind eye to the physical and mental welfare of writers,” said Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords. “Writing is one of the toughest professions on the planet. Over time, writing can lead to chronic medical issues such as back and joint pain, carpal tunnel, insomnia, anxiety, depression, writers block and hemorrhoids. It’s time we confront these serious medical issues openly and honestly so writers can receive the care and compassion they deserve.”
Medical science has discovered a strong mind-body connection proving that our thoughts directly impact our health. The dirty little secret of the writing profession is that writers put their emotional psyches in harm's way on a daily basis as they mine their imaginations in the service of readers. Some genre writers face greater harm than others. For example, novelists who write thrillers, horror novels and murder mysteries are at risk for chronic anxiety and insomnia .
A mind under constant stress and duress can lead to permanent physical and psychological disorders without early medical intervention.
Starting April 1, the new Smashwords WEED™ (Writers Earn Extra Dispensation) service brings brings welcome relief to all eligible Smashwords authors, publishers and literary agents.
As background, last month Smashwords filed a Form 10XTHC with the California Department of Health to become a licensed and legal dispensary of medical marijuana. The license was granted today.
The free service is only available to authors with books accepted into the Smashwords Premium Catalog. Please review the Smashwords Style Guide to understand Premium Catalog requirements.
To obtain medical marijuana under the Smashwords WEED program, Smashwords authors must first visit a California-licensed physician, who will determine if the writer’s physical, emotional and creative health can be helped by medical marijuana.
Writers then bring the prescription in person to the new Smashwords WEED dispensary at 21 Sunshine Boulevard, San Jose, California. The dispensary is conveniently located five minutes from San Jose International Airport. Smashwords offers a free hourly shuttle service for out of state guests.
Medical marijuana has been clinically proven over the centuries to relieve many ailments suffered by writers, including muscle spasms, headaches, anxiety, depression, panic attacks, insomnia, poor concentration or focus, and low energy. The Ebers Papyrus, for example, recommended cannabis for the treatment of sore eyes and hemorrhoids.
"Our mission at Smashwords is to make writers euphoric," added Coker. "Please enjoy our services responsibly, and tell a friend."
Considering today is April 1, commonly known as April Fools here in the U.S., the reader is cautioned not to believe everything they read today, especially stories that sound too good to be true.
Happy April 1!
Our previous April 1 pranks include:
2011: Smashwords Acquires Amazon to Create Smashazon
2009: Smashwords Harry Potter Ebooks
Wednesday, March 28, 2012
At the heart of the issue, I suspect, is concern over the agency pricing model. Agency pricing allows the publisher (or the indie author) to set the retail price of their book.
Although Smashwords is not a party to this potential lawsuit, I felt it was important that the DoJ investigators hear the Smashwords side of the story, because any decisions they make could have significant ramifications for our 40,000 authors and publishers, and for our retailers and customers.
Yesterday I had an hour-long conference call with the DoJ. My goal was to express why I think it's critically important that the DoJ not take any actions to weaken or dismantle agency pricing for ebooks.
Even before the DoJ investigation, I understood that detractors of the agency model believed that agency would lead to higher prices for consumers.
Ever since we adopted the agency model, however, I had faith that in a free market ecosystem where the supply of product (ebooks) exceeds the demand, that suppliers (authors and publishers) would use price as a competitive tool, and this would naturally lead to lower prices.
I preparation for the DoJ call, I decided to dig up the data to prove whether my pie-in-the-sky supply-and-demand hunch was correct or incorrect. I asked Henry on our engineering team to sift through our log files to reconstruct as much pricing data as possible regarding our books at the Apple iBookstore.
We shared hard data with the DoJ yesterday that we've never shared with anyone. I'll share this data with you now.
As background, Smashwords is one of several authorized aggregators supplying ebooks to the Apple iBookstore. On day one of the iPad's launch, we had about 2,200 books in the iBookstore, and our catalog there has grown steadily ever since.
Henry was able to assemble a complete data set going back to October 2010. We created once-a-month snapshots of the Smashwords catalog at the Apple iBookstore between October 2010 and March 2012. Our data captures the average price of our titles in the iBookstore, and the number of titles listed.
I'm sharing four data sets. The first data set, above at left, shows the number of Smashwords titles for sale in the Apple iBookstore. As you can see, the numbers have grown steadily. I'm not aware of any other agency pricing study that worked against such a large body of data.
In the next data set, we plotted the percentage of books priced at FREE by our authors and publishers. As you can see from the chart, the number grew from 8.45% in October 2010 to 9.60% this month.
Why would authors and publishers give away complete books when they have the power to price at a price? The reason is because FREE is a powerful marketing tool for platform building, and for introducing new readers to an author's backlist.
This data indicates a slow but steady increase in the adoption of FREE.
For you statistics geeks out there, the data represents a statistically significant trend with a tau of 0.516 and a 2-sided pvalue of .00313. For you non-stat-geeks, a positive tau number indicates an upward sloping trend, and the pvalue represents the statistical odds that the trend is invalid. A 2-sided pvalue of .00313 indicates that the odds of this trend not being statistically significant is only 3 in 1,000.
In the next chart, I aggregate all books, both FREE books and priced books, to calculate the average price of the books in the catalog.
The downward sloping trend is pronounced. The tau is -.948, indicating a downward trend, and the 2-sided pvalue is .000000049141. So, if I'm counting my zeros correctly, that's less than a 1 in 100 million chance that this trend is not statistically significant.
In plain English, we've seen the average price of books in our catalog drop from $4.16 in October 2010 to $2.97 today.
In the next data set, we removed the free titles to identify the true average price for priced books in our catalog at Apple.
This statistically significant data set carries a tau of -0.908 and a 2-sided pvalue of 0.00000017217. This confirms that even if you remove FREE books, the average price of priced books is declining. The tau indicates 1 in one million chance that the indicated trend is incorrect.
In plain English, the average prices have dropped 25% from $4.55 in October 2010 to $3.41 today.
Back in 2009, I blogged at the Huffington Post that the time had come for publishers to price ebooks at $4.00. That day arrived for Smashwords authors and publishers a year ago.
The $3.41 is a really interesting number, for a couple reasons: 1) It shows that authors and publishers, left to their own free will, are pricing their books lower in this highly competitive market. Sure, they could all try to fleece customers by pricing their books at $29.99, but customers won't let them. 2) $3.41 is remarkably close to the average price paid for Smashwords books purchased at Barnes & Noble during the last 30 days. The B&N number: $3.16. I looked at every Smashwords book sold at Barnes & Noble between February 28 and March 27, then calculated the average price. This means Smashwords authors are pricing their books close to what customers want to pay. The median price (represents the midpoint, where an equal number of books sold at lower prices and and equal number sold at higher prices) was $2.99. The weighted average price (all priced book sales divided by number of units purchased) was $2.59.
We had a good conversation with the DoJ. They were very interested to learn about our business, and learn about the underlying dynamics of the retail distribution ecosystem from the perspective of indie authors and small publishers.
I explained how when Smashwords first began distributing ebooks to retailers in 2009, our retailer contracts were under the traditional wholesale model. After Apple introduced the agency model in early 2010, we found ourselves managing dual, incompatible pricing systems. Apple priced at agency, and our other retailers continued to discount.
As I explained to the DoJ, Apple was aware that our other retailers were underpricing them, not just because we were juggling wholesale and agency, but because Apple prices in $.99 tiers. As we explained to Apple two years ago and to the DoJ yesterday, if a Smashwords author priced a book at $1.25, we'd bump the price at Apple up to $1.99 rather than price lower than what the author wanted.
The DoJ asked me if Apple ever balked at the knowledge that other retailers were selling our same books for less, and my answer was no. Not once in our two year relationship with Apple have they ever complained about a Smashwords-distributed title priced lower at one of their competitors. They've never price-matched any of our books if they found it lower elsewhere. I really don't think they care.
For our other large retailers - Barnes & Noble, Sony and Kobo - I can think of less than five instances combined where any of them tried to price-match books because they found them priced lower elsewhere.
There's only one retailer that has made it a practice to strictly enforce most-favored-nation pricing upon its authors and publishers, and they're the retailer that forced us to move all of our wholesale retailers to the agency model. As I mentioned in my initial blog post here, our move to agency in 2010 was necessitated by Amazon's automated price matching.
At the time, when Sony or B&N discounted a $2.99 book by a mere 5%, Amazon price-matched the book which dropped the author from a 70% royalty rate at Amazon to 35% (Some time after October 2010, I believe Amazon stopped dropping the royalty rate upon price-matching). At the time, our bestselling authors were understandably upset, because the downgrade was costing some of them thousands of dollars in lost income. It caused some of them to remove their books from all retailers except Amazon out of fear of such punishment. Keep in mind, in mid 2010, Amazon controlled 80-90% of the US ebook market, so such policies put authors in a tough bind.
In mid-2010, with our authors angry over the discounting, and with them removing books from distribution (as a distributor, we care about this on multiple levels!), we started asking our retailers to move us to agency terms so our authors could control their pricing. At first, they all said no. None of them were fans of the agency model at that time. I think all of them felt as if the model had been shoved down their throats by the ultimatums of the Big 5 publishers (who viewed Apple and its agency model as their white knight counterbalance to Amazon).
In November 2010, Kobo moved us to agency, and then the next month Barnes & Noble and Sony gave us agency terms as well. I think they all moved us to agency because they realized that their discounting was causing indie authors to remove their books and sell only on Amazon.
Over the last two years, my appreciation for the agency model has grown as I've come to fully understand its benefits for our authors, publishers, retailers and customers. Here's why I support agency:
- Agency puts the authors and publishers in control over their retail price and their promotions. This gives authors and publishers the freedom to coordinate promotions across all retailers for reasons decided by the author or publisher.
- Publishers earn 60-70% of the retail list price as their earnings, vs. 35-50% under the traditional wholesale pricing model. This gives authors and publishers the freedom (should they choose to exercise it) to price their books lower, yet still earn the same or more income from the sale of each unit. This allows our authors to compete more effectively against the books of Big 6 publishers, who price their books on the high end. Lower prices make books more affordable and more accessible to more potential customers, leading to a virtuous cycle of higher unit sales at higher profit levels which leads to more earnings for our authors and publishers.
- Agency provides our retailer partners a fair, predictable commission of 30%. These retailers are investing millions of dollars - sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars - to attract more readers to more books. They earn every penny. We want them all to build profitable businesses selling indie ebooks.
- Agency creates a level playing field for all ebook retailers. It prevents deep-pocketed retailers or device-makers from using predatory pricing practices to sell books at below cost in an attempt to bleed their competitors' finances dry, or in attempt to snuff out new competitors before smaller startups gain a foothold in the market.
- Agency forces retailers to compete on customer experience rather than price. Retailers who win will be those who do the best job of attracting customers to their store, and who offer the best algorithms to match readers with books they'll enjoy reading.
- Agency forces authors and publishers to be wholly accountable to their customers. If the author or publisher prices their book too high, the market will respond by purchasing lower cost alternatives.
It's also fallacy to believe that somehow the wholesale pricing model is the savior and enabler of low prices. Under the wholesale model, the publisher has always set the price at which they'll sell the book to the bookstore, typically a 50% discount to the suggested list price. The $30 front list hardcover you purchase earns the publisher $15, or less. If the publisher decides they need to earn $18.00 on each copy sold, they'll set the suggested list price to $36.00. If you agree that under normal circumstances, most retailers will not consistently sell all their books at below cost, then it's reasonable to conclude that even under wholesale, publishers already control the minimum price all customers, on average, will pay.
It's worth noting that when the Big 5 publishers moved to agency, many of them started earning less per book than they had previously earned under the wholesale model. Pricing control was more important to them.
Analyzing the Short and Long Term Impacts
A return to the wholesale pricing model for ebooks would lead to the following short term affects:
- Indie author and publisher "royalty rates" (earnings) would drop to 35-50% of the retail price.
- Retailers would discount ebooks, and customers would begin migrating to retailers with the lowest prices. In the online realm, the cheaper book is only a click away. Online price checking web sites and apps make it easy for customers to always find the lowest price.
- Authors and publishers, in an attempt to recoup lost earnings, would at first increase prices. For example, if it's important to a Smashwords author that they earn $3.00 per copy sold, under agency they'd price the book at $5.00. Under wholesale, they'd need to price the book at $7.00, 40% higher. Yes, a return to wholesale could increase prices for customers.
- In the battle for market share, price wars will break out, and some retailers will begin pricing books below cost. Other retailers would be forced to match the prices or risk losing customers. If the price wars persisted, only two or three major ebook retailers would likely have the financial stamina to endure: Apple, Amazon and Google
- Barnes & Noble, which now controls about 28% of the US market, would probably run out of cash and suffer the safe fate as Borders.
- Smaller independent ebook retailers such as the Diesel eBook Store, BooksOnBoard and others, would be probably be forced out of business.
- Formation of new ebook retailers, both here in the US and internationally, would dry up to a trickle, further limiting the number of companies in the business of promoting reading.
- With less competition, retailers would stop discounting, and prices would rise as retailers capture the full 50% margin enabled by the wholesale model.
- With retailing power consolidated in the hands of one or two powerful retailers, authors and publishers could lose control over their distribution options and could be forced to make concessions on royalty rates, or forced to pay co-op dollars or listing fees.
I think if those of us - including the DoJ, authors, publishers, retailers, distributors, readers - who have the power to promote policies and practices that lead to more bookstores and more reading, we have an obligation to do the right thing. I believe agency will lead to more reading, and wholesale will lead to less.
Ultimately, regardless of pricing model, customers will decide what they will and will not pay.
Here's the big question: Who should decide what customers should pay? Proponents of the wholesale model believe that publishers make poor pricing decisions, and retailers make smarter decisions. If we're talking about big publishers, I agree with the retailers. Big publishers are pricing their books too high.
If we're talking about the indie authors and small presses, I think indies are more savvy about pricing than big publishers. The data above supports this. They're closer to their customers. With nearly 100,000 Smashwords books to choose from at Barnes & Noble, customers are voting for $2.99 as the median price and our books are priced very near that.
Are retailers better at pricing than indie authors? My guess is yes, simply because retailers have real-time access to store-wide data. But this gap in intelligence is rapidly decreasing. Indie authors are getting faster access to information, and there's even greater opportunity ahead for distributors such as Smashwords to start sharing more information with both authors and our retail partners. Such information sharing will help better align the interests of authors and retailers, and the end result will be pricing that is more responsive to the needs of customers.
Who Should Control Pricing?
In the end, I think authors and publishers should have the freedom to decide their pricing.
I have no idea how the DoJ will lean in their rumored lawsuit. I also don't know the negotiation plans of the publishers and Apple. The DoJ declined to share any details of their investigation with me.
I trust now that whatever decision the DoJ makes, they'll make it with the full knowledge of how it will impact indie authors. As I expressed to the DoJ, indies are the future of publishing.
Monday, March 26, 2012
The book represents my attempt to distill, organize, package and share the best practices of the most commercially successful Smashwords authors.
The book is organized around 28 different "secrets," in which I explain not only what a writer should do, but also the thinking behind why they should do it.
The book took me almost 18 months to write. We've been so crazy busy at Smashwords that most of the writing occurred at 35,000 feet on my frequent flights to here and there, and during vacations.
The initial spark for the book struck two years ago in early 2010 when the organizers of the Self Publishing Book Expo conference in New York invited me to speak at their September 2010 conference on a topic of my choosing. I named the session, "The Seven Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success," not because I knew the secrets but because I wanted to learn them.
As I mention in many of my talks, self-publishing tools such as Smashwords make it fast, free and easy (sometimes too easy) for writers to publish books, but we don't make it easy for writers to become successful publishers.
Even after a writer writes a great book, there's still the challenge of connecting that book with readers. Most authors tackle the challenge with marketing. I wrote The Smashwords Book Marketing Guide a couple years ago to help in that regard. The book has been quite popular with nearly 80,000 downloads. Although many people have achieved good results with my marketing guide, I've come to the conclusion that marketing alone is insufficient.
Many Smashwords authors have hit bestseller lists with little discernible marketing effort. Other factors - previously unknown to me - were propelling these books forward.
What were these factors? This is the knowledge I sought to uncover in this new book.
The Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success helps writers obtain the necessary knowledge to take their publishing to the next level. That which becomes known becomes achievable.
These secrets are your secrets. You - the Smashwords author or publisher - inspired them, even if you don't recognize your contribution. Take these secrets and put them to the test. Build upon them. Then share what you learn with your fellow authors.
It's in this spirit of sharing that I invite you to share The Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success with every author you know. Your fellow authors are your partners, not your competitors. When they succeed, you succeed. When you succeed, we all succeed. We're all in this together.
The Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success is now available for free download at Smashwords. In the next couple weeks, it'll be available at all the leading ebook retailers.
Thursday, March 22, 2012
[David Weir] You've been very successful at Smashwords. Please tell us how you've done it.
[Ruth Ann Nordin] I heard about Smashwords in 2009 from Joanna Penn's podcast at The Creative Penn, and thought it would be fun to make ebooks. At the time, it was an experiment to see how the process worked and to share what I learned with others on my blog. As Smashwords opened up distribution channels, I opted in for all but Amazon because I was already publishing directly on Amazon (and I started that back in 2009 as well). Early on, I made all of my books free on Smashwords so people interested in my books could use any format they preferred to read them. I don't remember when I switched to $0.99 on most of my books, but I kept a couple of them free. I think it's the free books and offering them in as many avenues as possible that ultimately set me on the road to selling books for $0.99.
It wasn't until 2011 that I started asking $2.99 for my new books. I've experimented with pricing and found that for old books, free or $0.99 worked best, and new ones worked best at $2.99. Pricing up might have made me the same money, but I was more interested in exposure so that's why I like keep a couple books at free and my old ones (from 2009 to 2010) at $0.99. The trade off on losing money with free books to reach out to new readers who might then buy my other books has been one of my best tools. I also used to keep a first draft blog, and that was the best way my target audience found me. I posted my Facebook information on the blog, and they friended me over there. Between the comments on the blog and on Facebook, I was able to open a dialogue with my readers who gave me a better idea of what I was doing right and focused on doing more of that in future books. I'm not sure what worked best, but it's safe to say all of this worked together.
[DW] We understand you actually sell more books through Smashwords than through Amazon?
[RAN] Yes, and I recently made a blog post that tracked my sales from 2009 to November 2011. Here is what I got:
2009: 709 books sold; total earned about $160.
2010: 40,452 books sold; total earned about $15,500 (all of my books were $0.99)
2011 (up to the end of November):
•Books sold at all Amazon stores: 96,333
•Breakdown of sales earned through Amazon: US was a little over $44,000, UK was about $14,000, and DE was like $10 a month totaling $58,000.
•The $2.99 price on new titles made a big difference, as did word of mouth because at this point, I was doing no real marketing outside of blog posts and Facebook mingling
•Books given away for free on Amazon using their price matching strategy: 240,781 (this is separate from paid sales)
2009: I made $0 from Smashwords. I also sold no books in other venues. But to be fair, all of my books were free back then on Smashwords, and I don’t remember when Smashwords started distributing to other sites.
•Apple: 4,223 books sold and given away for free
•B&N: 66,291 books sold and given away for free
•Diesel: 230 books sold and given away for free
•Kobo: 55,025 books sold and given away for free
•Sony: 51,599 books sold and given away for free
•Total income from Smashwords in 2010: $2,860.
•Apple: 36,919 books sold and given away for free
•B&N: 555,994 books sold and given away for free
•Diesel: 2,169 books sold and given away for free
•Kobo: 92,119 books sold and given away for free
•Sony: 36,930 books sold and given away for free
•Total income from Smashwords in 2011: $75,100
[DW] What does it mean for you to be an independent author, as opposed to the old-fashioned kind?
[RAN] Being an independent author means that I have the freedom to control everything about my books. I get to control content, the title, the cover, the price, when it's published, and if I want to post it for free on my blog or not.
[DW] How long have you been writing and did you ever try conventional publishing?
[RAN] Unlike most authors, I hated reading and writing early in life. It wasn't until I read my first Sweet Valley High book (a teen romance) back in the sixth grade (late 1980s) that I realized reading could be fun. I still remember the first sentence of that book, the title, the cover, the characters’ names and the plot. After I read every Sweet Valley High book I could get my hands on, I had trouble finding other books I wanted to read. When I was a freshman in high school, I was browsing the bookstores and libraries and wondering why nothing appealed to me. Finally, it dawned on me. "If I can't find the book I want to read, I need to write it." From there, I started writing.
I was never interested in conventional publishing. The query process didn't appeal to me. I just wanted to write books and have fun. Seeing my books in print was fun, so I went through vanity publishers (meaning, I paid them to put my books into paperbacks) starting back in 2002. I continued on with vanity publishers and spent $10,000 from 2002 to early 2008. My husband put his foot down at that point and said making $30 twice a year wasn't worth spending all the money I was. In despair, I confined myself to never seeing another one of my books in print again and started looking for a conventional publisher because I still wanted to write and see my manuscripts in book form.
It was while hanging out in forums on Authonomy and Amazon that I learned about creating paperbacks for free. Well, free was in my price range, so I asked several authors for more information, and it was April Hamilton who pointed me to CreateSpace. From my time on the forums, I came across The Creative Penn where I learned about ebooks. I did send out queries and synopses to a couple of agents and publishers, and two publishers requested I modify the manuscripts to better suit their idea of what a romance book should be like (aka to make them marketable to their audiences). I never resubmitted the two manuscripts because their vision of romance wasn't my vision.
Thanks to CreateSpace for the paperbacks and The Creative Penn, which led me to Amazon KDP and Smashwords (ebooks), I could publish my books for free (making my husband happy) and keep my books the way I felt they were meant to be (making me happy).
[DW] Do you remember your first reader reviews or letters for your ebooks and what did they mean to you?
[RAN] I do, and I still keep in touch with the first reader who told me she enjoyed my books. Feedback I received from readers wasn't all positive, and I think that's the reality check that startled me the most. It seemed to me that if people liked my books, they would email me or comment on my blog, but if they didn't like my books, they would leave 1 or 2-star reviews on Amazon. To be honest, I almost gave up (and this was in March 2010) because of the 1 and 2-star reviews. While most of the feedback was positive and I was also getting 4 and 5-star reviews, it's the 1 and 2-star ones I remember most, and those reviews came on An Inconvenient Marriage (which is ironic since that seems to the be the book that has done the best overall). I remember praying to God and asking Him what He wanted me to do because I was ready to unpublish all of my books and walk away from the whole thing. A half hour later, I got an email from a reader who told me "to continue my good work”.
That email is posted on my wall where I can read it whenever I contemplate giving up because the urge still comes about twice a year. I share this story because it's one of the experiences of being an author that no one in my writing groups ever told me, and I was in organizations with Harlequin, Avon and small press authors who had more experience than I did. I wish someone had given me a heads up that the emotional roller coaster authors go through is normal.
[DW] What do you think of the trend toward exclusivity such as with Amazon's KDP Select program?
[RAN] It worries me because of the implications exclusivity involves. No matter where exclusivity is part of the deal, it means limiting yourself from potential readers. Readers prefer to read ebooks on their e-readers, whether it's the Kindle, Nook, iPad, etc. I think the best thing an author can do is make their books available to them in the format (and for the device) they want. My other bad feeling about being exclusive through one retailer is that authors can get boxed in to ultimately relying on one place to sell books. It takes time to build up reviews and sales ranking. In the past, whenever I have pulled my book for even a week, I might have kept my reviews, but my sales ranking fell and I wasn't able to get it back to where it used to be, no matter what marketing strategy I tried. Also, from examining how exclusive programs work, I've noticed that books in these programs get a boost, but the problem is, the boost doesn't always last.
Books not in exclusive programs can take a hit, so there’s a downside to not being in them. For example, my sales at Amazon have been about 40% worse since I don’t have any books in the program. I won't enter Select or any exclusive program offered by any retailer because I think in the long run, it's going to hurt my potential to reach new readers. I think for authors who don't want to enter an exclusive program, the best strategy is to write more books they're passionate about and publish them. Sales might dip, but having more books available (and making them the best books you can so don't rush it) is crucial as you try to find new readers and to keep the ones you already have happy. I also think it's a good idea to keep books on Amazon even if sales are dropping. I don't want to alienate my Kindle readers, and Amazon is a useful avenue to get books to the public.
[DW] What's the hardest part about self-publishing and what's the best part?
[RAN] Back in 2008 and 2009, the hardest part was the stigma associated with it. I was pretty much told by traditionally published authors that my books didn't count in their organizations because I self-published. This is not the case today. Self-published books are now acceptable in most places. Today the hardest part about self-publishing is the spirit of competition among some self-published authors. There are authors who are nice to your face and leave 1 and 2-star reviews behind your back, and you find out it's them when readers call out their true identity on forums. Sandbagging is a big problem, especially on Amazon. I’ve seen authors who’ve been harshly criticized in reviews by their fellow self-published authors, and when I say criticized, I mean they resort to mudslinging. Most authors I come across are great. They are very supportive and will bend over backwards to help each other, but I think you have to be careful until you get to know someone to find out who you can trust.
The best part is having full control of your book. I love having the final say in my content, my cover, my title, my publishing date, my price, and even my record keeping. I have hired cover artists on a couple of books, but I do most of them myself because I enjoy working with GIMP or BookCoverPro. This is why traditional publishing was never a good fit for me. I love doing it my way too much.
[DW] You've published some 23 romance novels to date. How did you come to this genre and what continues to draw you to it?
[RAN] I stumbled upon romance by accident when my parents took me to a used bookstore when I was in the sixth grade and I picked up that Sweet Valley High book I mentioned above. I enjoy reading a variety of genres and I've written a variety of genres, but romance is my primary focus because I enjoy exploring the relationship between a husband and wife as they overcome obstacles presented to them. I also enjoy that “falling in love” feeling and love a happy ending, both of which are the focus of romance novels.
[DW] Who reads your books and what do they tell you about their experience reading them?
[RAN] My primary audience is Christian women around the world. My secondary audience is Asian women of various faiths. I've noticed that no matter what their religion is, their faith is important to most of them, and they appreciate the fact that sex happens after marriage in my books. In fact, I get more requests to keep sex after marriage in all of my future books than any other feedback, and since it's something I intend to do, fulfilling their wish isn't a problem. I would say my audience wants to see old-fashioned values in their romances.
[DW] How does your writing and editing process work?
[RAN] I have at least four books I'm working on because if the plot stalls on one book, I have other books I can focus on. That way, I can keep advancing toward the end goal, which is a published book. My goal is to publish six to eight books a year, so I keep a calendar where I write what I hope to accomplish three to six months in advance and another calendar to track down what actually happens. To keep my readers updated on my progress, I also have word count widgets and updates of where I'm at with all of my works in progress on my blog. This also helps me stay motivated because it holds me accountable for how I spend my time. I have an average goal to write 2,000 words a day. I break this word count up into one 1,000-word segment and two 500-word segments.
500 words equals 30 minutes. So I can do my word count goals in two hours, as long as I remove all distractions. That means no Internet, no TV, no answering the phone, etc., for 30 minutes to an hour at a time. After that, I'll take a break or do some housework (I'm a stay-at-home mom). There are some days when I can't make my word counts. If I miss a couple of days in the month, I don't stress it. I just start over the next day. I have scheduled in a vacation for the summer and take a day off if I'm too sick to write. So I do allow for real life. This helps prevent burn-out. If I'm feeling overwhelmed (usually because I have too much to do that day), I take the day off from writing.
As for editing, once I finish the first draft, I go through it to polish it up to second draft status. Then I send it off to my editor with specific things I'm looking for. After I get it back, I polish it up again to make the third draft. Then it goes out to two or three proofreaders. My proofreaders are people who’ve read and enjoy my books, have been nice in telling me what they like and don’t like in my books, and are punctual in getting the book back to me. After I fix their suggestions, I go through a final listen through on my Kindle (hearing the book helps me catch things we all missed earlier in the editing process). After that, I send it off to be published.
[DW] Do your characters come to you before you start writing, or do some pop up during the writing itself?
[RAN] This usually works in two ways for me. I either have the characters in mind and wait for the right plot to pop up, or I have the plot waiting for the right characters to come along. I am the type of writer who writes by the seat of her pants. I start with something like, "I want to write a mail-order bride story" and "I want a heroine who isn't beautiful". Then I start writing. Usually, I have the first couple of scenes in mind, but the characters end up taking over and as long as I follow their lead, I don't have a problem with the story. The story stalls when I am doing something that isn't right for the characters. At that point, I work on another book and brainstorm what needs fixing to get the other book back on track.
[DW] Many authors get discouraged when their books do not become successful quickly. What advice do you have for an indie author trying to connect with her audience?
[RAN] First, I think it's important to define success. I don't think success is limited to sales. To me, success is writing the story I want to read, and as long as I accomplish that, I'm successful. That's how it's always been for me. I know it's easy for me to say that since I'm where I am today, but it's how I felt back in 2002 when I published with a vanity publisher. I was just happy to have a physical copy of my book so I didn't have to carry a notebook around to read my story. I think if you're happy with where you're at and with what you're doing, it's easy to keep going.
That being said, I can understand and appreciate the desire to make a living or get a nice supplemental income from your books. Different things will work for different authors. Free has probably been the most useful way I've connected with my audience. But free took time. Free didn't lead to sales in a couple of months. It took over a year for me to see things start to take off. I realize there are some overnight successes out there, but that's rare. I think self-publishing has allowed a good percentage of authors a good chance of either making a living or having a nice supplemental income, especially since we're able to distribute to a variety of channels on Smashwords that are also expanding globally.
Ultimately, it's really a matter of patience and perseverance. Keep writing and publishing. I strongly advise authors to put their books through every channel they can. My first months (Spring - Summer 2009) on Amazon earned me a few bucks, and that is all I made until Dec. 2009. When I started out in ebooks, I didn’t have the sales that I hear most newbies get, so this is where authors should be encouraged. I think it’s easier to reach readers now. However, instead of expecting numbers to take off in a profound way the first year of publishing, I think it’s better to think long-term. Don’t stress the numbers. Keep writing books you are passionate about. If you are passionate about your books, you won’t have trouble writing them. Also, have a strategy where you're reaching deadlines so you can stay focused on getting more books out there. The more books you have, the better your chances are of finding readers.
[DW] Any other pearls of wisdom especially for new authors hoping to take a shot at self-publishing a book?
[RAN] Study books in your genre and see what types of covers and titles are selling well. Also, which ones caught your attention? The ones that caught your attention should give you an idea of what to name your book and what kind of cover to use. Read the descriptions and pick out key words and phrases that intrigue you. Go to reader forums on sites like Amazon and Barnes and Noble where readers of your genre are discussing books they like, don't like, and why. You don't have to do what the readers are saying, but they might discuss what types of covers, titles, plot points, and character traits they like or don't like that might give you some ideas when you're working on your books.
Most importantly, you should write the book you're most passionate about because you'll want to make it the best you can. I strongly advise you not to spam. Just put links to places to buy your books on your website and/or blog. Participate with people you come across and be the kind of person you'd like to be friends with. If people like what you have to say, they'll click on your name and see your website/blog that you linked to. Look for ways to help others but also know that you have the right to say no if someone is trying to take advantage of you or if you don't have enough time to do something.
Don't read reviews. Reviews are for readers. You're better off taking the advice (praise and criticism) from your fans because they are the ones you're writing for. Don't compare yourself to other authors. Everyone's experience will be different. Sales rise and fall. Publishing new books help to get out of the dips, but not all books sell the same. Some books sell better than others, and there's no way to tell which will sell well. All you can do is write the best book you can, put an attractive cover and title on it, write the best description you can, and put it out there. Most of all, have fun writing because in the end, that's really at the heart of what we're doing: writing books that mean something to us.
[DW] Thanks, Ruth Ann!
Smashwords distributes Ruth Ann Nordin to the following retailers:
Barnes & Noble
Diesel eBook Store
David Weir is a veteran journalist who has published three books and hundreds of articles in various publications, including The Economist, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times. He currently covers technology for 7x7.com.
Thursday, March 15, 2012
[David Weir] When did you first start writing erotica, where did you publish, and what were the results?
[Selena Kitt] I wrote a lot when I was younger—I wrote my first novel long-hand when I was thirteen—but I didn’t start writing erotic fiction until a friend pointed me to a site called Literotica. They were holding a contest called “Survivor” (back when the television show was very popular)—the most stories written in the most categories in one year would win a $500 prize. I thought it would be a fun way to flex my writing muscle, get feedback for my work, and push my boundaries as a writer.
Also, my husband was the only one working at the time, and we had two small children, so I thought the money could come in handy. I only came in second place, but at the end of that year, I had a very large body of erotic work. I had also received a great deal of feedback from readers on the site, and had risen to the top of Literotica’s “favorite authors” list. I said to my husband, “If I’d been paid for every time someone downloaded one of my stories, I’d be a millionaire!” And he said, “Well, why aren’t you getting paid?”
That got me moving. I submitted some of my fiction to a few epublishers—the now defunct Stardust Press along with Samhain Publishing and Phaze—and they accepted and published my work, but they paid so little, just 30-45% royalties, and they didn’t accept many of the subjects I’d written.
So I went to the largest ebook distributor in the game at the time, a site called Fictionwise (they were later bought out by Barnes and Noble). They told me they didn’t accept individual authors, and that I would have to be a “publisher” to get my books distributed on their site. So I went to my Literotica author friends, who had written books right alongside me all year long, and asked them to publish with me. And that’s how Excessica was born. I met my goal of making a good supplemental income on Fictionwise -- about $5,000 per quarter. That was $20,000 a year! I was pleased.
Then Amazon came out with the Kindle and the whole ebook world exploded.
I started making $10,000 a month on Amazon. (And that, ladies and gentlemen, was back when their Mobi division was the only way to get on the site and they only offered 35% royalties to authors!) When Kindle KDP opened up and Amazon began giving 70% royalties, the floodgates really opened. And then Barnes and Noble came out with the Nook. And suddenly, my little supplemental income had turned into a booming business.
[DW] Can you quantify your current success for us?
[SK] Well, if you want stats… in 2011, I sold half a million ebooks and made about three-quarters of a million dollars. I don’t know if I will make that much in 2012, but I’m fairly well known as an erotica author now and the ebook market only has room for expansion— but as we know in this genre, it’s often one step forward, two steps back! I’m humbled and still a little stunned by my own success, I have to admit. I have a hard time wrapping my head around the amount of money that comes my way every month from ebook distributors and still break into a cold sweat sometimes when I see the bank balance!
[DW] How much feedback do you get from readers and what is your sense of who they are?
[SK] I get lots of emails from fans, and I try to answer them all if I can, even if it’s just to say, “Thank you for reading!” Just judging from the feedback and reviews, I’d say that 70-80% of my ebook audience is women. Which is a bit of a switch from Literotica, where I think a majority of my fans were men. But I think I actually write erotic fiction that crosses gender boundaries and appeals to both.
[DW] What tension, if any, exists for an author of erotica to write about fantasies as if they were events that actually took place? Or is it sufficient to present fantasies strictly as fantasies?
[SK] One of my books, “Confessions,” addresses this very issue!
More than any other genre, erotica writers hear the question, “Did that really happen?” Somehow it’s assumed that we erotica writers are swinging from the ceilings on sex swings every night and we carry cat o’nine tails in our back pockets “just in case” like some people carry Swiss army knives! Why should I try to dispel the myth?
There are lots of people who think Stephen King is one creepy dude. Is he really? Or does he just have a very rich, vivid imagination? Writers are good at lying. We don’t call it lying, of course, we call it fiction. Telling stories. It’s what we do. We give the truth “scope.” So even when we are writing about things that happened in our own lives, they’re not always true. And when we’re writing about things that never happened to us at all, that doesn’t mean some aspect of them isn’t also true, for us, in some way.
Thriller writers don’t have to have murdered to write about serial killers. I wrote The Sybian Club before I’d ever ridden a Sybian. (Although I do happen to own one now!) Like any other writer, I don’t have to have experienced something to write about it. Some of the things I write about have happened to me, personally, or to people I know. Some of them are strictly fiction.
And sometimes, I think especially in erotica, the mystery of not knowing for the reader makes the reading all the more intriguing and fun. Erotica writers become a fantasy within the fantasy and as long as I don’t have stalkers calling or showing up at my doorstep, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that!
[DW] Are there any differences in the way you develop a character in erotica, say, than in other reams of fiction?
[SK] Not really. You’re still exploring someone’s psyche, whether your character is eating breakfast, jumping out of an airplane, or having sex. That said, you’ll probably be exploring more of your character, or at least different aspects of them, than most authors do. You’re going to have to think about your character’s first sexual encounters, whether or not they’re experienced, what things have shaped their sexual character? Are they conformers in the bedroom? Are they rebels? Are they repeating patterns in their sex lives, in their relationships? Those are things you might explore in a mainstream novel, but its stuff you definitely have to know when you’re writing erotica.
[DW] Do you think there is any connection between erotica and visual pornography, which obviously is also huge on the Internet?
[SK] Other than the fact that it’s porn and sex that has driven every new technology we’ve ever developed? They aren’t the same thing of course—but they do have connections. They both sexually excite. They are both controversial. They both have their advocates—and their detractors. Personally, I’m not against either, nor do I believe that one is “better” than the other. I think they can both be healthy additions to a normal person’s life. But I do think they both have a slightly different aim. Most visual porn has the singular purpose of arousal and release. The purpose of erotica is far more plural. Most erotica explores the depths of human sexuality in ways that visual pornography can’t reach. Visual porn tends to be as two-dimensional as the screen you watch it on. Erotica, when it’s done well, gives the reader a deeper understanding and experience of human sexuality.
[DW] Finally, what advice do you have for new and first-time authors of erotic stories and books, and how can they navigate the world of self-publishing, especially during the periodic crackdowns that may occur?
[SK] I won’t tell anyone to self-censor, although I have chosen to do so myself, in some ways. I do write some incest fiction, but out of my sixty-something titles, I only have two novels and one anthology that focus on incest. If you do want to write in the taboo realm, there are still places (Barnes and Noble) to publish all of the topics. If you want to write transgressive erotic fiction, go for it! Just know that the paying market, at the moment, is more limited than it was. And there is a possibility that it will become even more limited in the future. Keep your eyes and ears open.
Other than that, I wouldn’t give any different advice now to an erotic writer than I would have a month ago. Write often, write well, and write what turns you on. Worry more about your character development and your word choice than finding your market. If you keep writing, your market will find you. Pay more attention to your readers and their feedback than pimping your book on Facebook or Twitter. Yes, you’re writing for yourself, but if that was the only person you were writing for, you wouldn’t be publishing, would you? So you can’t please all of the people all of the time, but if you’re not pleasing most of the people most of the time, maybe it’s time to reevaluate your work. Learn to take constructive criticism and filter out the stuff that really doesn’t matter. And keep writing. Always keep writing.
[DW] Can you walk us through the recent crackdown attempt on erotica by PayPal from your perspective?
[SK] Sure! The basic 411 on the “erotica crackdown” started back in late 2010, when Amazon decided to start removing erotic fiction containing incest and bestiality from their virtual catalog. This was a backlash in regards to Amazon removing The Pedophile’s Guide from their site (after they defended leaving it there, issuing an official statement that removing it would amount to censorship). So much for a policy of no-censorship.
Just recently, it was PayPal that contacted me as a publisher at Excessica, telling us that they would no longer pay for erotic fiction that contained “incest, pseudo incest, bestiality or rape for titillation purposes.” And I wasn’t the only phone call they made. I know several other independent ebook publishers and distributors who use PayPal who were also contacted. Many of these ebook distributors began removing books from their sites without regards to actual content. If they had “Daddy” in the title, they had to go—even if they were just role-plays between two consenting adults. Non-consent fantasies (i.e. what PayPal deemed “rape for titillation”) were removed, even if they were actually dreams or the characters were ghosts and never existed at all.
Many of those titles were on their bestseller lists and selling very, very well. Many of my own titles had been on their sites for years and I’d actually been awarded as a “bestselling author” for selling titles that contained such content. Clearly readers were voting with their dollars. They wanted to read them—they were willing to buy them—but now they couldn’t. At least not on the sites that had been targeted by PayPal.
But what happens when a huge corporation like PayPal decides they don’t want to pay for something? Well, now it becomes less profitable to produce those products in question. Erotic authors begin to change and adapt to the market. They self-censor. They don’t write about that stuff anymore, even though readers want to read it (remember, they previously told us so with their dollars), because they can’t upload it onto sites that use PayPal as a processor.
That’s how the decision of one corporation threatened to reshape the entire free market.
[DW] Why should rape or incest or bestiality be protected in erotica?
[SK] Um, gee… because it’s fiction? Because these are completely imaginary, made-up stories written down as words on a piece of paper? Because it’s not real?
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by the public’s reaction, given that I write erotic fiction in a country whose Puritanical roots continue to choke the life out of us as sexual beings. I keep having to remind myself that I live in a culture where breastfeeding photos disappear off Facebook as fast as they appear, but clips of torture-porn like Hostel or Saw posted from YouTube are just fine and dandy. Sometimes I forget that some people consider the books I write offensive or even immoral.
The fact is that all fiction is, and should be, protected. There are no victims here. And there has been no broad-based, definitive study that proves that fiction makes people engage in the subjects they read about. Most people who read thrillers about serial killers don’t go out and kill people. People who read erotic incest fiction don’t want to have sex with their family members. It’s called fantasy for a reason!
We should always defend free speech, if we want it to remain free, even if we don’t like what’s being said. So maybe the thought of a woman being tied up and having clothespins attached to her nipples is abhorrent to you. And perhaps the babysitter having sex with the family dog makes you feel a little ill. And two siblings getting it on is just… ewwwww… icky!
But we have to protect icky speech too. We have an obligation to defend those things we find reprehensible, even indefensible, if we want to protect our rights.
[DW] What does research tell us about rape or incest fantasies, and why people have them?
[SK] I can speak to this with some authority, as I have my Masters degree in psychology. If you want a thorough background, go read Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden or Forbidden Flowers. The fact is that sexually explicit fantasies are normal and healthy in both men and women. This is 2012. We all understand (I hope) that masturbation doesn’t cause hairy palms, and sexual fantasy doesn’t cause sexually deviant behavior. Many, many, many women have rape and incest fantasies. It’s quite common. Rape and incest are deviant behavior, but fantasy is not reality and words are not action.
Incest fantasies have a huge psychological component to them, and they’re usually about love and acceptance. It’s probably no surprise that many women who enjoy “Daddy/daughter” role play or fantasizing about “Daddy/daughter” sex often lacked a strong father figure in their lives as adolescents. This is a generalization of course, not an absolute. But one of the reasons incest fantasies are so popular for men and women stems from the fact that, at least in our ideal worlds, no one knows you better or loves you more unconditionally than family. There’s also the “forbidden love” aspect of an incestuous relationship, which has great psychological appeal. We humans sure do like doing things we’re not “supposed” to do!
As for the non-consent or rape fantasies, we have to remember that, historically, women have been sexually repressed by the patriarchy. Even in this day and age, we still have a mainstream radio host making comments about a woman whose admission of using birth control must mean she is not only sexually active, but she is also a “slut.” So it’s no wonder that females in this culture have a lot of shame and guilt surrounding asking for and accepting sexual pleasure. The non-consent (or as PayPal liked to phrase it, the “rape for titillation”) fantasy allows a woman to explore her sexual pleasure without all the baggage and possible recriminations that can come with openly doing so.
One of the purposes of fantasy and fiction is to allow ourselves to experience things that might actually frighten or horrify us in real life. Horror fiction does this. So do the fantasies of erotic fiction. There are lots of books about locking a girl in a basement as a sex slave—both in mainstream and erotica. The difference is, in mainstream fiction, the woman is truly raped and tortured in horrible, shocking and really sick and twisted ways, and the killer usually gets caught and punished. In erotica, the woman being "forced" isn't really being raped, per se—at least not in the same sick and twisted way she is in the mainstream—and in the end, it turns out... she actually enjoys herself! And usually falls in love with the rapist-hero.
The reality is that the “rape for titillation” fantasy that PayPal was so worried about isn’t about rape at all—it’s actually about women receiving pleasure! Non-consent and dubious consent fiction is about sex and fantasy. But the rape in mainstream fiction—from John Norman’s Gor books to Jack Ketchum’s The Woman—is, indeed, about very real rape, in all its horrible, gory detail.
Is it a coincidence that, statistically, most erotic fiction is written by AND read by women, but horror, on the other hand, is known to be a male dominated genre?
[DW] What is "pseudo incest" and why would it be censored?
[SK] “Pseudo incest” is so ridiculous a term it’s laughable. It isn’t incest. It’s sex between two consenting adults who happen to be related, but not by blood. Pseudo incest is kind of like taking tofu and shaping it like a hamburger.
As to why it was to be censored—you’ve got me. Apparently, according to PayPal and the credit card companies, Woody Allen could have sex with his adopted daughter—but erotic fiction authors shouldn’t write about it?
[DW] You've described what started happening with PayPal as a "slippery slope" that could affect all indie authors. Please explain.
[SK] Instead of dealing with PayPal’s mandate on a book-by-book basis, Bookstrand deleted all of their Indie author accounts. Not just the erotic writers—ALL of their Indies. If you’re an Indie author and you think you’re immune… think again. Be prepared. It’s possible that this latest round of “risk-reducing” by PayPal and credit card processors is over. Or maybe they’re just starting at the top and working their way down. Take a look at this, from Visa’s site:
VISA Brand Protection
Members must not use the Visa-Owned Marks:
• In any manner that may bring the Visa-Owned Marks or Visa Inc. or its affiliates into disrepute
• In relation to, or for the purchase or trade of, photographs, video imagery, computer-generated images, cartoons, simulation or any other media or activities including, but not limited to:
– Child pornography
– Rape (or any other non-consensual sexual behavior)
– Non-consensual mutilation of a person or body part
I know a lot of “torture porn” (al a Saw and Hostel, etc.) that falls under that last category. And I know a lot of Indie authors who write it as well.
[DW] Now that PayPal has reconsidered, what do you think PayPal's new policies mean for the future of indies in general and erotica indies in particular?
[SK] I think it's an unprecedented victory for erotica indies and it gives me hope for this thing we call "the free market." People stood up for something they believed in, and a large corporation backed down from their original position. How often does that really happen—outside of, say… fiction? It seems as if it's a victory for the little guy, for free speech (even if this wasn't 'technically' definable as a constitutional issue) and for the erotica genre as well. All Indies will benefit from what happened here, because no matter what we write, we are all authors and we should all be interested in protecting the right to do so freely, regardless of genre or subject matter.
And it may seem radical on my part, but even given how far PayPal has backed down in terms of erotic fiction, it still bothers me that they made any restrictions on free and legal fiction at all. Like most citizens, I abhor child pornography and pedophilia, but the written word is very different from other art forms—as this decision has proven. I understand staying away from pictorial displays of that kind of subject matter—but fiction? What would happen, for example, if Lolita was self-published today? Sorry, Nabokov—PayPal won’t pay for that?
The fact is that no pseudo-bank should be telling anyone what they can or cannot write or publish, regardless of subject matter. I’m glad PayPal came to their senses to the degree they have. And I do feel that Indies are now a little more protected, thanks to the actions of those who were willing to speak up.
I hope other corporations will remember this incident when they sit down in future board rooms to make policies in regards to the written word, erotica or otherwise. The message the public sent here was loud and clear, and I’m pretty sure they’d be willing to send it again—as often as needed—to make their point.
[DW] Thank you, Selena!
Smashwords distributes Selena Kitt to the following:
Diesel eBook Store
View the complete catalog of Excessica books:
Smashwords - Excessica Publisher Page
David Weir is a veteran journalist who has published three books and hundreds of articles in various publications, including The Economist, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times. He currently covers technology for 7x7.com.
Next week, an interview with Smashwords author Ruth Ann Nordin!
Tuesday, March 13, 2012
I met with PayPal at their offices yesterday in San Jose. They outlined their proposed policy changes for me. I was impressed.
This is a victory for all writers and readers. It removes credit card companies, banks and payment processors from the business of censoring legal fiction. It creates a new precedent that should allow other payment processors who have previously discriminated against legal fiction to relax their policies.
It will make more fiction more available to more readers. It gives writers greater freedom to express themselves. It gives readers more freedom to decide what they want to experience in the privacy of their own imagination.
If you haven't followed the Paypal censorship saga, you can see how the campaign developed by reading my email dispatches to Smashwords authors, publishers and customers. They're archived in the Smashwords Press Room (see PayPal #1, #2, #3, #4, #5).
When I received the first email from PayPal February 18 with the ultimatum to remove certain erotica content or face loss of PayPal services at Smashwords, my first inclination was to try to limit the damage so we could protect mainstream erotica from further censorship incursion. Thanks to the outpouring of opposition to these policies, I saw an opportunity to make PayPal our partner in a greater campaign to protect all legal fiction from censorship.
Credit for this breakthrough goes to the indie author community who made phone calls, wrote letters and emails, blogged and tweeted; bloggers who raised visibility of the issue; advocacy groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), The American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE) and the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) who were the first to stand up for our authors; mainstream media who raised visibility of the story to greater levels; and last but not least, PayPal. PayPal worked with us in the spirit of partnership to understand the issues, understand Smashwords and how we represent a new model for publishing outside the traditional gatekeeping system, and to understand that fiction is fiction and literary merit should be determined by readers.
I'm sending out an email today to all Smashwords authors and publishers with more details and thanks. An archived version is in the Smashwords press room here.
Tuesday, March 6, 2012
Today, we're going to put a smile on your face, erotica style.
The amazing duo of Jen Ashton and Ren Cummins, writing under the nom de plume of Freida Wright, have penned a delightful parody of the PayPal/Smashwords censorship saga that would make Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert blush with pride.
They published it Monday as a $.99 ebook titled, Two People Having Sex - An Erotic Parody That Meets PalPay Standards of Censorship. You can purchase it at Smashwords (and soon, Smashwords will distribute it to the Apple iBookstore, Barnes & Noble, Sony, Kobo, Diesel and Baker & Taylor).
With their generous permission, I bring you their masterpiece here in its entirety, for FREE.
Great satire helps us view important issues in a new light. Just as the political satire of Stewart and Colbert brilliantly illuminate insights inaccessible through mainstream media, Ashton and Cummins expose the inanity of censorship.
If you've been following my email updates to Smashwords authors, publishers and customers regarding the PayPal censorship saga, you'll appreciate this parody even more. I trust even our friends at PayPal will enjoy a friendly chuckle.
Ashton and Cummins have given readers permission to reprint their story anywhere online provided it's reproduce it in its entirety with the links intact. This is a story worth sharing, so please do your part to sprinkle its pixie dust far and wide.
Parental notice: Since this is an erotica parody, it contains language and situations not suitable for children. Enjoy!
TWO PEOPLE HAVING SEX
An Erotic Parody
That Meets PalPay Standards of Censorship
Two People Having Sex by Freida Wright
Copyright © 2012 by Freida Wright
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.
This ebook is reprinted with permission from the authors. Bloggers may reprint this story in its entirety provided all content and hyperlinks remain intact, and provided readers are not charged for access. If you would like to support the authors of this ebook, please purchase a copy at Smashwords at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/139100
Two People Having Sex:
An Erotic Parody That Meets PalPay Standards of Censorship
By Freida Wright
The gentleman in the suit handed her a pen. “Here you go, miss.”
She accepted it with a demure nod, glancing over the details in the paperwork before her. The lawyer closest to her patted her shoulder reassuringly.
“I’ve been through the documents, Melanie, they’re all perfectly legal.”
Regardless, she read briefly through them. Such a big deal for such a simple thing, she thought. She sighed.
Thomas touched the back of her hand. “Are you sure you still want to go through with this? I know, it seems like such a bunch of fuss over something so…” he sighed as well. This wasn’t how he’d planned it, but rules were rules. He reached into the interior pocket of his jacket and pulled out a passport and a billfold. From the billfold, he further drew out his driver’s license, credit card and his gym identification.
“You said three forms of ID, yes?”
The lawyers nodded, and Melanie set her purse on the polished oak table and pulled out her own documents. “I, um, don’t have a passport, but you said a birth certificate would be fine, right?”
“That will be fine, miss.”
She bit her lower lip a moment before asking her next question. “You said we’d need to pay your legal fees now as well, correct?” The two lawyers nodded in turn. “I didn’t bring any credit cards along, I just have a checkbook. Or do you take PalPay?”
The lawyers looked at one another and laughed briefly before turning back to her. “Good heavens, no, miss.”
Thomas patted her hand again. “It’s okay, Mel, I’ll cover this.”
Her smile was filled with gratitude. He was a good man; they’d only been seeing each other a few days now, but he was thoughtful enough to ensure that all possible legal protections were being covered for. She could remember in the not-too-distant past how it was all so much simpler; two people met, were attracted, and things led naturally to another until…well, she was afraid of even thinking it in case the censors were somehow able to read her thoughts.
His hand touched hers a moment longer, until the prolonged contact drew the attention of one of the lawyers. “Please, sir, if you could restrain yourself until we have completed our business.”
“Sorry,” he said, withdrawing his hand, but sneaking a wink in her direction as he did so.
Thomas had told her he had spent a year abroad, and had merely shaken his head when they had gone through the list of conditions that the law required of them. “It’s so much different in other countries,” he had explained. “You wouldn’t believe what goes on in other countries without all this…red tape.”
She had grinned at that. “Are you going to use red tape on me?”
“Shush,” he had said, quietly alarmed. “We don’t know who’s listening.”
What had ever happened to this? It had all become so formal, so sterilized and impersonal. It was almost….censored. Romance, intimacy, sexuality, it was all becoming distilled into a legal process designed not to offend.
Well, screw that, Melanie thought. I want to fuck this man.
The lawyers took photocopies of the IDs, and ran Thomas’ credit card for their fees.
One of the lawyers pulled a stapled set of pages from his briefcase and cleared his throat. “Please understand, we are required by law to ask the following questions. Failure to comply will leave us with no further choice than to pull you from publication.”
“What does that mean?” Thomas asked.
The other lawyer answered without even looking up from his paperwork. “It means it will be as if you were never created.”
“That’s a bit excessive, don’t you think?”
The first lawyer regarded Thomas and Melanie over his reading glasses. “Not at all. There are reputations which must be maintained, sensibilities which must be protected. There are many things of a vile and loathsome nature; things offense, detestable and obscene, and we stand as gatekeepers against the tides of filth which might otherwise choke our pristine shores and its pure citizenry.”
“Um, yeah,” Thomas nodded. “You’re doing a great job, too. So, let’s get started, then.”
“Of course. By signing your respective affidavits, you are both attesting to the best of your ability that you are each of legal consenting age, correct?”
Mel and Thomas both indicated in the affirmative.
“Melanie, you are the younger of the two?” His grim gaze was condescending and judgmental.
“Yes, sir. Is there a problem?”
He cleared his throat and mumbled something about how they frowned down upon older men dating younger women. But when Melanie asked him to speak up, he simply just referred her to the fine print.
“Second,” he finally spoke up, “that by signing these documents you are also attesting that you are both, in fact, human beings, alive and not an animal masquerading as one such person, and will remain in human form for the duration of your…activities?”
The couple exchanged awkward glances. “Um, yes. We promise.”
“Are either of you any of the following: vampires, cybernetic organisms, minotaurs, mermaids (or mermen), lycanthropes (including, but not limited to: werewolves, werepanthers, werefoxes, werebears, carebears, or any other part-human creature?)”
“No,” they said in unison, giggling to themselves.
“No!” they echoed again.
“Third, that you are not related?”
They both agreed.
“Pseudo-related?” he continued.
“What does that mean?” Melanie inquired.
“Pseudo. Meaning false,” he clarified.
“Falsely related?” she asked further. “I’m not quite sure I understand. Who would fall under that category?”
“Technically? Everyone who is not related by blood.”
“We aren’t,” she assured him. “But wouldn’t that just mean we’re not related?”
“No, miss. Not related is not related. Pseudo-related means falsely related.”
“Just say no,” Thomas whispered through his teeth.
The lawyer’s expressionless face was smug and impatient.
“No,” Melanie finally muttered with a smile.
“Good. And, final question, that you will not engage in any actions which could be found to be of a sadomasochistic manner, otherwise known as BDSM, including anthophilia, necrophilia, pedophilia, bibliophilia, or any other form of engagement which might be against the terms and conditions outlined in this pamphlet.”
“Bibliophilia?!” Thomas interjected.
“Yes, books. Especially of the erotic nature.”
The second lawyer reached into his briefcase and handed the couple two identical pamphlets, again without lifting his eyes from his work.
Thomas glanced over the pamphlet before exchanging a somewhat confused look with Melanie. They both nodded at the lawyers. “Yes, we’ll… behave.”
The second lawyer pulled an inkpad from his case and stamped their respective documents, and handed Thomas a copy of the credit card receipt for him to sign.
They stood and collected their paperwork, and shook the couples’ hands before exiting.
“Lovely house you have here, sir,” the second lawyer said. “And good day, ma’am.”
They escorted the lawyers to the door and closed it, locking it as the two odd men walked away.
“Well, that’s that, then,” Thomas said with a wink. “Now what shall we do?”
“What can we do?” she reasonably asked.
He held up one of the pamphlets, and waved it before her face. “Obviously not anthophilia, that’s for sure.”
She shook her head, pulling the paper from his hand. “Anthophilia? What is that, anyway, sex with another person?”
“That’d be anthrophilia, I think. Anthophilia is sex with plants.”
“Plants? Ew! Who would do that??”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s a weird world, my dear.”
They made their way to the bedroom. Somehow, it wasn’t quite as romantic as she had envisioned it would be. The two held hands and finally sat next to one another on the foot of Thomas’ bed.
“So?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she shied away, tucking her hair behind her ear. “This is a little awkward.”
“Maybe we should make out,” he suggested.
Melanie sighed. “It’s just so confusing. With all these rules and all, I’m not really even sure if we’re related or not.”
“Pseudo-related, you mean,” he corrected her. “We’re not.”
“How do you know? I mean, we have known each other a long time. I practically grew up with you. And there was that one time…you know, when we played house?”
“Don’t be silly,” he calmed her, placing his hand on hers. “Maybe we should set the mood. Let’s get comfortable.”
Thomas reached for his jacket and began to peel the sleeves down his arms.
“Wait!” Melanie placed her hand on his jacket to stop him, and then looking around, “Maybe we should keep our clothes on. You know, in case PalPay is watching.”
“Relax,” he told her, “People have sex every day. We’re not doing anything wrong.”
“It sure feels like it. I didn’t know there were so many morality clauses attached to what two consenting adults do together in the privacy of their home.”
“C’mon Mel, it’s just sex,” he half-joked. “People who have sex don’t even have morals!”
Melanie couldn’t argue with that, so she, too, began to remove her restricting clothing. It wasn’t the romantic ripping off of the clothes with passionate hunger that she had fantasized about for the last decade, but it would do. As she pulled her sweater over her head, she peeked at Thomas’ manly chest and the soft tufts of hair that trickled down between his nipples, leading to his…well, to below his belly button. There was a moment where she recalled the muttered fine print about age discrepancy in her contract.
Was it really wrong that Thomas was an older man? Since when? And who says? Surely, no one could frown down upon her for finding his distinguished good looks attractive! So he was a few years older. Who cares? Last she checked, Edward from Twilight was a 104 years old and dating a teenage girl! Now that was disgusting! And he wasn’t even human. Ew!
“You alright?” Thomas interrupted. She felt as though she had been ripped from the pages of the contract itself.
She made a face. “Is sex with a vampire considered necrophilia?”
“Well, vampires are dead, so wouldn’t sleeping with one be like sleeping with a dead person?”
He laughed a bit at that. “Well, I think they’re undead, so maybe that’s not the same thing.”
“I guess not, no.” She shrugged. “Though I still think he’s too old for her.”
“Who’s too old for who?”
“Never mind, it just got me thinking, that’s all.”
He sighed. “You didn’t answer my question.”
“What question?” Her eyes widened. “Oh, am I alright?”
“Well, are you?”
“Yep! Let’s do this thing!” he said eagerly. “Tell me, what turns you on?”
“Well,” she paused, smiling to herself, “I would really prefer a light tap on the ass right now. It really gets me going. But I'm not sure if that qualifies as an incidental plot point or not."
“Oh yeah,” he conceded. “Damned BDSM. It’s such a broad field - where do you draw the line?”
“Exactly,” she agreed. “Except, I happen to love getting spanked. This sucks.”
“You’re telling me, I’m totally down for a little ass smacking right now. Especially if you call me Daddy. Man, that really turns me on!”
“Shhh,” she reminded him, placing her delicate fingers over his lips. Again, she peered around the room to see if PalPay’s SWAT team would come crashing through the windows. She brought her voice to a whisper. “You can’t say that. This is technically an erotic experience and that word is forbidden. When I perused the pamphlet, I saw a clause that specifically banned it from this entire occasion.”
“Are you serious?” Thomas’s brow buckled at the thought of being so restricted. When did sex become so tame? Exhaling his frustration, he flailed his hands around. “Great! Next you’re going to tell me that we can’t role play, make animal noises or fulfill any other fantasy!”
“Actually,” she cringed, “we can. Er, well, I think we can. As long as we remain in human form and are just pretending to make animal noises, I think we’re good to go!” Her statement was followed by a short pause before she continued. “Well, then again, pretending would mean pseudo. Sooooo…” she dragged her vowel as she tried to make sense of it all, “that may fall under pseudo-bestiality. Was that in the contract?”
“Fuck, I don’t know, Mel. The lines are so blurred. I’m going crazy right now, I’m so horny!”
“Oh my God!” she squealed. “No! You have horns?! Are you the devil? Some kind of animal? Please stay in human form until we figure this out! I really want to have sex with you!”
There was a brief silence following her panic attack, and then they both fell to the floor with laughter as Melanie realized how absolutely absurd she sounded. She had been so engulfed in the fine print, hazy guidelines and limitations that she completely lost her sense of sexy. Perhaps it, and all of her romantic instincts, had somehow walked out the door with their attorneys.
“Oh Thomas,” she apologized, feeling awkwardly embarrassed. “I am so sorry.”
They exchanged glances and Thomas, reaching up to caress her face, gave her the most endearing eyes she had ever seen. She leaned in to him, scooting her body close to his, and closed her eyes. It was then that Thomas finally placed his soft lips on hers and kissed her.
The kiss was long and passionate, just as every other kiss they’d shared the past week had been. His mouth was so warm, so sweet. It almost felt as though he cradled her tongue in his. Oh shit, don’t think cradle, she warned herself. He’s an older man, I’m a younger woman. Pseudo-related, pedophilia. “Fuck!” she finally shouted. Aloud.
“What now?” Thomas asked, sliding his finger along her neck until it traced her collarbone. A tress of her hair fell forward and he twirled his fingers inside its curl.
“Nothing,” she sighed heavily. “Let’s move back up to the bed.”
They both climbed to their feet, Thomas gently assisting her in removing the rest of her undergarments. She, in turn, peeled his boxer briefs down his hips until his you know what peeked above the waistband. The sight of his swollen sex took her breath away. She had fantasized about it for years. Well, since she was eighteen, of course. You know, of age. Everyone knows teenage girls never think about sex. How dare they!
Melanie tried to gather her thoughts again. Back to Thomas and his giant pee-pee.
“Are you ready?” she asked coyly. She bit her lower lip and looked up into his deep blue eyes. It was her signature move. Her mating call. Doh! Don’t think mating. Don’t think mating. She hated all these rules. She couldn’t get out of her head for even just one minute. Music, we need music. Her eyes panned the room for a stereo, an iphone, anything that would fill the silence with something other than her debilitating thoughts.
Thomas seemed more confused than ever as she excused herself and walked over to his nightstand. She pressed a button on his alarm clock and the static blared through the speakers. She scrolled the tuner to find a station. Pausing when she heard an old metal song, she left it alone and jumped on the bed.
“Okay,” she squealed happily, “now I’m ready!”
Naked and waiting, she laid back on the bed as Thomas slipped out of his briefs and crawled on top of her. And there they were, back to kissing.
Thomas’ body felt stiff and hard against her supple curves. He was athletic and muscular, and kind enough not to place all of his weight on her. He held himself just above her, leaning in only near her secret places. She felt him pulsate against her writhing femininity. He was firm and ready.
“I can’t believe we’re finally doing this,” he said sweetly, brushing her hair out of her face. “There was so much red tape to get here.”
“I know,” she concurred. The words red tape formed another image in her mind, of being bound to a chair with red tape as he…. No! I can’t think about obscenities at a time like this! It’s wrong. So wrong!
As if a mirror to her thoughts, Thomas wrapped his arms around her body and thrust his hips toward her pelvis. Just as he slipped his organ between her thighs and pressed firmly into her, an ominous song began to play, an old industrial song she knew well.
I want to fuck you like an animal!
“No,” Melanie begged. “No, no, no! Turn it. Hurry! It’s not allowed! We’ll be unpublished!”
Thomas reached up and hit the snooze button, inadvertently turning off the radio completely. Melanie’s anxiety had clearly startled him. He fell over her nude body and gave up in a huff.
“It’s never gonna happen, is it?”
She ran her fingers through his hair, soothing him the best she could. “There’s just so much…bureaucracy.” She crinkled her forehead at the thought of using that word anywhere near a bedroom, let alone the bedroom of the man she was dating, who was naked, hard and laying on top of her, dying to fuck her brains out! That’s it, she convinced herself, fuck the rules, we’re fucking! Right now! But just one more formality. Just one.
Melanie rolled over and slithered down Thomas’ body, exploring his tan skin and athletic physique. She lingered just above his erection, slowly sliding her hands further south over his thighs. She had noticed earlier how…very hairy they were. She curled his hair between her fingers gently, until an entire tuft was within her grasp.
“You’re not a werewolf, are you?”
“No,” he chuckled under his breath, “I’m Italian.”
“Just making sure,” she smiled, moving her hands back up to grip the base of his…well, you know.
She stroked the length of his shaft, feeling his sex throb under her touch as she guided him toward her lingering kiss. Wait. What was oral? Was it allowed? Forbidden? Could it be considered BDSM if she used excessive force? What if he pushes her head down while in the throes of it? Oh no. Oh no! Rather than take any chances, Melanie simply glided his stiffness along her cheek, down her neck, between her tits and so on, until she climbed back up his body.
“I think we should just stick to the basics,” she told him. “You on top. Me on bottom. That’s how the conservatives do it, right?”
“No doggie-style?” he asked.
“The title alone implies it could be risky to try,” she whispered.
“Human? Or alien?”
“You may feel inclined to spank me if we do that, though,” she reminded him.
“Ok,” he conceded. “What about butterfly?
Melanie paused in deep thought. “Nope. A Jockey rides a horse. Animal.”
“Sounds too sacred,” she argued.
“Barbaric. Might fall under BDSM, hun.”
“Snake charmer. Wait, never mind.” Thomas caught himself this time.
“Sounds paranormal.” Melanie finally cut him off. “I think we should do missionary, babe.”
A deep, heavy sigh fell from his mouth. “I guess you’re right. Way to take all the fun out of it.”
“Oh c’mon Thomas, let’s just play by the rules and make this happen already. Take me!” she screamed. “Be a man, in human form, with absolutely no fantastical qualities to whisk me away into romantic wonderland, and just take me!”
He snapped his fingers. “I know! I’ve got it!”
Her eyes widened. “Anything, please, I just want you inside me!”
“You can be an author…” he began, crawling up between her legs and draping her arms over his shoulders. He held her by the hips, positioning her just until he was nearly inside her.
He grinned, making certain she was paying attention to his words. “…and I’ll be PalPay.”
“Oh, yes!” she squealed. “Yes!”
“You see these muscles,” he flexed. “I’m gonna use them on you, baby!”
“Ooooh,” she cooed, wriggling her hips underneath him as she gripped his biceps. “So powerful. Does this mean you’re going to use excessive force?”
“You’re catching on,” he laughed.
She trembled expectantly, squirming in his grasp. He was so close, so near that she ached with desire for him.
“But it’s against the rules,” she whispered playfully.
“Not if I’m PalPay,” he reminded her. “Now I can really fuck you!”
And, with a powerful thrust that took the breath from her, he did.
About the Author
Freida Wright may, or may not, be a young woman or an old man. She may also, but not likely, possess supernatural powers that may, or may not, have been used to procreate with her partner. Her children don’t, but could, have crossed eyes and cleft palates because her husband is much older and of no relation. But most importantly, Freida Wright is an advocate for first amendment rights in the United States.
Freida Wright is the pen name of the writing duo, Jen Ashton and Ren Cummins.
If you enjoyed this story, please consider supporting the authors by purchasing a copy of your own at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/139100
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