4. What Makes People the Most Happy: An analysis of the way people answer the question “What made you happy in the last 24 hours?”
A little over a week ago, the final results of the SPFBO (Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off) competition came in. In case you didn’t know, The Way into Chaos was a finalist, but in the end I landed squarely in the middle. Sixth place, in fact.
Sixth isn’t so terrible, although the structure of the contest means that my book was certainly not the sixth best of all 300. (If you already know know how SPFBO works, skip the next paragraph.)
SPFBO is pretty straight forward: They have ten blogger-reviewers and 300 self-published fantasy novels to split between them. Each reviewer picks one finalist from their allotment of 30. Then each reviewer rates each finalist, and the books are ranked according to the average of their reviews.
When TWiC was made a finalist back in November, there were a number of people who thought another book deserved the spot. Readers’ tastes are idiosyncratic–mine certainly is–so the idea of a “best” book doesn’t really fit.
Anyway, SPFBO was founded by bestselling author Mark Lawrence. Here’s what he had to say about it:
The SPFBO exists to shine a light on self-published fantasy. It exists to find excellent books that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. It exists to help readers select, from the enormous range of options, books that have a better chance of entertaining them than a random choice, thereby increasing reader faith in finding a quality self-published read.
If you read the rest of that page, you can see Mark is up front about the idea of a “best” book. The most we can hope for is an intersubjective consensus, of sorts.
My question is this: Did readers “find” my book when it was named as a finalist? By which I mean: Did I get a bump in sales from SPFBO?
To simplify things, I’m only going to look at Kindle sales. I do list the books on B&N and Kobo and the rest, and there is an overpriced POD edition (which is redundant, but that’s how it works) that I plan to cancel soon, but all together they make up about one-tenth the sales on Kindle, and the trends match, so I’m going to simplify things by only talking about the Kindle store.
Let’s look first at the historical trends. Keep in mind that these are only sales of The Way into Chaos. The other books in the series are not included.
(Stupid Preview, putting a box around that one piece of text for no reason I can see.)
By way of explanation: The Way into Chaos was the first book of a trilogy, and I released book 2 and book 3 approximately 30 days apart, which I’d been told was a good strategy for ebook sales. Besides, all the books were finished because I had Kickstarter backers to please, so why wait? “Key/Egg” refers to A Key, an Egg, an Unfortunate Remark, the pacifist urban fantasy that I delivered as a stretch goal.
You can’t see the bar graph for the month that the SPFBO finalists were announced because I sold fewer than two dozen copies that month. There was a very slight uptick in sales for Nov and Dec 2017, but the numbers were small enough that they could have been statistical noise.
That’s not what I’d call a bump.
What about the announcement of the winning book, which included cover art for all the finalists and their rankings?
That didn’t do it, either. I think you can see why I’m only posting numbers for book one in the series. I’d hoped that a bump in sales for the start of the trilogy would have carried over to books two and three, but there was no bump, and therefore no carry.
I imagine that Rob J. Hayes, who won the top spot with Where Loyalties Lie, saw a noticeable sales bump. I’d be curious to see what effect the contest had for him. Readers (including me) respond much more strongly to enthusiastic reviews than they do to mediocre ones.
And TWiC received a number of middling reviews: one reviewer doesn’t like books with fighting and politics. Another did the “No, really!” snark thing, but no one snarks on a book they genuinely enjoy. And all that goes back to what I wrote at the top, which is that the bloggers’ responses were very personal, just like in any contest.
Also of interest is this take, from an author who did not make the finals but feels he got tremendous value from it. For him, the real benefit came from the community that has sprung up around the contest.
Which is great for him, but that community is on Facebook, and I walked away from FB years ago for all the reasons that people do. I still have a (friendless) account because some readers want to follow me there and I need an account to maintain a page, but I rarely look at it. Joining a Facebook community wouldn’t make sense for me.
Besides, my life already has too much social media in it. What I need to be doing is cutting back, not adding more.
I post this not to complain or criticize. The book has already sold quite well, and hitting 7858 units sold in the first six months–only counting the Kindle–is pretty good. In fact, it’s better than some books released by traditional publishers. For comparison, in its first six months, The Twisted Path only sold 1,957 copies. That’s not terrible, but it was also a long-awaited sequel to my most popular series. So TWiC has done pretty well.
The reason I post all of this is to put as much information into the world as possible. Nihil veritas erubescit.
Anyway, SPFBO 2018 is already running and full up on submissions. But while it’s too late to enter, it’s a good time to follow along, find some great new books to read, and maybe join a new community. If you’re on Facebook, that is.
[Update] Author Rob J Hayes, who claimed the top spot in SPFBO 2017, had this to say on reddit:
It’s hard to say exactly what effect SPFBO has had on sales of Where Loyalties Lie because it was only released a couple of weeks before the blog off started last year. Since then its sales have been steady most months with large bumps both when it was announced as a finalist, and an even larger bump just recently when it won.
So there is a bump! Maybe I didn’t get one because a) I didn’t place high enough or b) I wasn’t part of the Facebook community or c) both.
Also, lol at “willing to put in the work”
I noticed this a couple of weeks ago and I tried to put off a response until my interest in it fell away. It hasn’t. Therefore:
It started with this tweet from Chuck Wendig:
help I fell down a weird rabbit hole of shitty Star Wars fans
oh my god these people
— Chuck Wendig (@ChuckWendig) May 31, 2018
If you click on that and read the whole thread, skip the rest of this paragraph. But basically, there are a bunch of right wing Star Wars fans who have decided the movie series has to be one of the many fronts in the culture war, and they imagine they have the power to tank a movie’s box office through shitposting.
And then there’s the guys who think that targeted harassment against the women who star in these movies–harassment that causes them to shut down their social media–is some kind of victory for men. Especially if the women are not white women.
It reminds me of something I read a very long time ago and never forgot. It was so long ago that I’ve forgotten the source, but it stuck with me: it’s that the most dangerous people you are likely to meet on the street are young men traveling in groups.
As a writer of thriller/action/violence and such, I’ve spent a fair amount of time searching for good books on the subject. They’re surprisingly rare. (I can recommend (with affiliate links) two good ones, if you’re interested. One. Two.) But you can usually find a worthwhile nugget or two in any book.
The reason young men in groups are especially dangerous, according to this long-forgotten author, is that to the men in the group, the victim almost doesn’t matter. The victim is beside the point. The real reason the men in the group want to do violence is to impress the other members. They want to prove themselves. To push things a little farther.
In the book, the technique the author proposed to head off the confrontation was to look one member of the group in the eye–not the one directly in front of you, but one standing back a little–and say something like “You know this is wrong.” Basically, to shame them into breaking the cycle of competition so they would move on.
It seems to me that part (not all, but part) of what’s going on in these RW hate campaigns is a similar dynamic. It was certainly the case with GooberGate, where young men were competing to be the most outrageous shit head, and for all the notoriety that went with it. The victim didn’t matter to them except as a trophy to show off to their friends. What mattered was attention from others in your group.
And when you’re online, a victim can’t look someone in the eye and shame them. That has to happen in real life, because that online connection will never be as strong as the connection to their group.
For example, check out this article about an incel who left the online incel community. Is it body dimorphism for him to believe he’s too ugly to ever get a girlfriend? He looks like a perfectly normal guy, but maybe he doesn’t feel like one. He says he didn’t approve of violent talk in those incel communities, but he thought they were dark humor.
I’m glad to say that Mr. Former Incel had a chance to meet people in real life who looked him in the eye and made him realize he already knew it was wrong. Instead of chiding other incels who fantasized about violence, he walked away.
There will always be a certain percentage of any particular group of abusers who are psychopaths or sadists. They hurt people because they like it and they can’t be shamed into changing. But the people around them, who see that viciousness as a kind of strength, emulate them so they can feel strong, too. Those followers can be cut away, but it’s not easy. And I have no idea how it can be done in online spaces.
I came across this movie in an odd way. It was literally lying on the floor in the library; someone meant to check it out, but dropped it while browsing through graphic novels. I looked at the cover, read the back, then opened wikipedia to make sure the Rotten Tomatoes score was not below 40%. Then… sure. Why not?
Especially since my wife has a soft spot for artsy, oddball movies with interesting production design.
The premise is simple: Annie returns from a business trip to discover that her boyfriend, Dave, has built a shitty cardboard fort in their living room. And he’s inside it. And he won’t come out.
Well, he claims that he can’t come out. And he begs her not to mess with it, because it’s his latest project and he wants to finish it. And he doesn’t want her to come inside. He says it’s bigger on the inside, and he’s lost in a maze that he constructed. He doesn’t want her to get lost too. Or set off one of the booby traps he created. Or run into the minotaur that has somehow appeared.
Annie thinks Dave is having a full on breakdown. She invites one or two close friends to help draw him out, but of course a bunch of his jerk pals show up and take nothing about the situation seriously. They all push into the entrance of Dave’s little fort and discover that yeah, it’s bigger on the inside. Which means they spend the next hour and ten moving from room to room, hallway to hallway, inside a living cardboard maze built out of Dave’s frustration and self-loathing, while the minotaur and booby traps take them out one by one.
Let’s talk about the flaws first, and I have to start with the dialog. It’s rarely more than perfunctory, and the movie isn’t nearly as fun as it would have been with dialog that startled and entertained. Lackluster dialog is literally the only factor that keeps this from becoming an honest-to-god classic. If Dave’s motivation for creating the weirdo labyrinth that’s killing his friends is “I wanted to make something,” you don’t need him to say that a bunch of times. Have him say it once, and shoot it so that the audience knows that it matters.
I don’t think it’s a surprise that its the supporting cast who get most of the best lines. They get most of the personality, too.
Another problem (one I’d normally be willing to forgive) is that Dave himself is the worst. He’s an “artist” who never finishes a project, and who lives, at least in part, off of his parents. He’s so frustrated, you guys, because he hasn’t amounted to anything, and he’s already thirty years old! Can you believe it? So old!
As a 52-year-old who didn’t sign a publishing deal until he was 42, and who might never sign another under my real name again, Dave sounded like a toddler crying over a dropped ice cream cone. Sure, I understand why that might make you unhappy, but this is petty compared to the shit that’s on the way, believe me.
Plus, he has Annie, who starts the movie nine-tenths done with Dave’s self-indulgent bullshit (and his awful friends) but falls in love with him all over again by the end. And is she hot? Suuuuuuper hot.
Despite those two flaws, I still enjoyed the hell out of this movie.
It’s the maze that’s the real star here, with its patchwork cardboard walls, weird rooms, and elaborate traps. The estrangement effect is in full swing, because the film never stops reminding you that it’s a film. Every room, effect, or plot twist makes you think “Wow, they’re knocking this out of the park” or “They put in a lot of work for that two-second shot” where “they” = “the filmmakers.” You never suspend disbelief or invest in the character’s emotional dilemma, and that’s okay.
And intentional. The tone is light and ironic. Even the deaths are played for laughs (and wow, did we laugh). Plus, three of Dave’s friends who are caught in the maze with him are a documentary film crew more concerned with documenting the situation than solving it. The movie keeps telling you you’re watching a movie and daring you to enjoy it nonetheless.
I’m trying not to spoil any of the stuff that makes this movie such a fucking delight. The less you know going in, the better. Dave Made a Maze may not be a great movie, but it sure is a lot of fun.
7) Vaccines Work: Here are the Facts. (a comic)
If you hate spoilers for movies, especially the new Avengers picture, don’t read farther.
My kid doesn’t like action movies.
He won’t overlook the artificial aspects of them to lose himself in the moment. In Mad Max: Fury Road, for example, when Tom Hardy jumped from a flaming truck just as it exploded and caught hold of another vehicle, my son blurted out “He’s dead.”
Now, did I need a teenager to point out that the death-defying stunts of an action movie are inherently artificial and overblown? I assure you that I did not. When I suggested that films are obviously full of fakey bullshit, from the way people speak to the way they look, he just shrugs. He hasn’t bought in to the sort of cinematic hyperbole you find in action films because he just doesn’t enjoy them. The stakes feel false to him because he hasn’t bought in.
Which brings me to Avengers: Infinity War. It’s an action movie where the heroes do *not* narrowly avoid death, even the ones with sequels that have already been greenlit. I’ve seen reactions online from folks who disengaged from the story the same way my son does when a hero comes through a massive gunfight without a scratch, and I’ve been thinking about why.
I suspect it’s because it’s new. Comic books have been killing off their IP… er, I mean, their characters and then bringing them back for years. The last time I looked at comics, Tony Stark had been physically killed, and currently survives as an AI. Bucky put on the Cap suit at one time, and so did Sam Wilson. But it’s always temporary. As a longtime comics reader, I went into the film wondering if they would kill off beloved characters in this style and I wasn’t surprised when they did.
In fact, I experienced the deaths of Black Panther, Dr. Strange, and Spider-man as a kind of relief. No way were those deaths going to be permanent, and the incredibly somber finale of A:IW was softened in a way that I welcomed. It pulled me out of the story a little, but I was okay with that. There are lots of movies that make a virtue out of artificiality.
I’ve also grown up with action movies that have grown more bombastic over the last four decades. We’ve gone from westerns and cop movies where the hero and villain shoot at each other once, then one clutches at their shirt and falls over, to ludicrous better mousetraps of explosions and falling buildings. For me, that has been a slow evolution in pushing the boundaries of the disbelief we’re willing to suspend, but my son has seen all these old movies in a jumble. He’s been thrown into the deep end of pirates of the caribbean and John Woo, and its too much too fast.
Anyway, it’s a good movie for the sort of movie it is. I’m a fan of stories about superpowers, so it hits a sweet spot for me. At some point, I’ll have to watch it back-to-back with the recent Justice League film, to figure out why one made a “Villain collects plot coupons” plot work so well, while the other did it so poorly.
Also, in this movie, the heroes lose because they’re unwilling to sacrifice individuals for the greater good (although I wanted to tear my hair out when Dr. Strange bargained for Stark’s life) while the villains won because they’re willing to kill their own (not just with Thanos murdering his own daughter, but “We have blood to give). I hope that, when The Return of the Avengers comes out next year, the heroes succeed and the villains fail for those same qualities.
But I’m still interested, as a storyteller, in limits of our suspension of disbelief and in how we move those limits around.
When I finished watching the second season of Jessica Jones (the first time through) I tweeted this:
S2 of @JessicaJones is even better than S1, which makes it the best of all Netflix MCU shows.
— Harry Connolly (@byharryconnolly) March 8, 2018
Now that I’ve seen it all the way through three times does my opinion still hold up?
1) What happens when bookstore employees get bored. This is delightful.
2) “She wrote it but…” Revisiting Joanna Russ 35 Years Later.
6) What’s the longest train route in the world? Video.