Monday, November 24, 2014

Misogyny, Racism and the Moscow Rules

If my intent is to write something useful that people can understand then it's better to write about the way things are instead of what we imagine them to be. Many have imagined the world in ways which don't really exist because how one lives is so far removed from how one ought to live that the person who abandons what one does for what one ought to do, learns frustration rather than clarity.”
Niccolo Machiavelli: The Prince

During the Cold War, Russia was the most dangerous place to be an American spy. The men and women who survived this dangerous and brutal environment followed a set of concepts called the Moscow Rules. These weren’t official guidelines. For years they were never written down. The rules were simple, easy to remember and essential if you didn’t want to end up dead in the street with a bullet in your back.

In the 21st Century, America has proven itself to be a dangerous and brutal environment for women and minorities. Look at the police brutality caught on tape (See Thoughts on Police Brutality). Consider the institutionalized misogyny of the NFL (See My Sixteen Game Ban on the NFL), Uber and the legal system when it comes to rape. Spend a moment thinking about all the hate groups, militias and interpersonal conflict in the United States and you might see parallels between Cold War Moscow and present day Ferguson (See Writing While the World Burns). 

Perhaps it is time for us to adopt the Moscow Rules for our own use. Maybe evolution is based on survival and survival is based on adaptation to circumstances. If you don’t know who to trust and you can’t rely on institutions or violence to protect you, then maybe you need a different approach.

Since there is no official set of Moscow Rules, I’m going to suggest my own. These are based on different versions of the Cold War ideas. I’ve simply modified them for the world we live in now.
  • Assume nothing. (Help may never come)
  • Pay attention. (You can’t avoid what you don’t know about)
  • You are never completely alone. (Threats can come from anywhere)
  • Everyone is potentially under opposition control. (I’ll let you define “opposition” for yourself)
  • Go with the flow, blend in. (If they don’t see you, they probably won’t get you)
  • Always give yourself a way out (of a conversation, altercation or attack)
  • Vary your pattern. (if they know where you are, you’re an easier target)
  • If it feels wrong, it is wrong. (Don’t ignore your instincts)
  • Maintain a natural pace. (Too fast or too slow draws too much attention)
  • Lull them into a sense of inactivity. (If they define you as a threat or an opportunity, they will attack)
  • Build in opportunity, but use it sparingly. (Pick your shots and your battles)
  • Don't harass the opposition. (Attack from a position of strength, not weakness)
  • There is no limit to a human being's ability to rationalize their actions. (Being “right” won’t protect you)
  • Keep your options open. (especially when it comes to getting away)
  • Technology will always let you down. (Rely on your wits and your skills, not your stuff)
  • Once is an accident. Twice is coincidence. Three times is an enemy action.  (Understand the patterns of human behavior)
  • Don't attract attention (Even by being too careful or prepared)

I’m not suggesting we need to be spies in our own country or personal lives. I’m not saying this is the right way for people to live. On a certain level, adopting these concepts as part of your daily routine involves a change in perspective. You might begin to see yourself as isolated and oppressed by your own society. Seeing life this way can create emotional and mental damage over time. But I’m not writing this in response to the way life should be. I’m looking at the world around me and writing about the way our society is now.

If you feel the institutions and systems you live in will protect you, then you have no need for the Moscow Rules. If you are willing to risk a bit of alienation to avoid being shot dead in the street, consider the Moscow Rules. They might help you adapt to the dangers and brutality of your environment.

If you hope the institutions and systems you live in will protect you, give you justice or make you whole again after you’ve been violated, good luck. Just remember; hope is not a plan and the news is full of people who didn’t have a plan.

Have fun.


Monday, November 10, 2014

An Exercise in Reader Hunting

At this point in my independent publishing career, I feel my ability to write is stronger than my ability to market. While this combination gives me the right skill set to be a starving artist, I’d like to find ways to increase my ability to reach my target audience and not die of hunger. I’m planning a major overhaul of my commercial strategy in January and increased exposure is a fundamental part of the program. As part of my long term plan, I just completed a small scale experiment to increase my pool of potential readers. I’d like to share it with you. Please feel free to use it or ignore it at your leisure.

The Goal
There is a school of thought in independent publishing (and sales in general) that people will buy books from authors they already know and like (See Write, Publish, Repeat). Not many people are familiar with my work right now, so my goal was to increase my exposure for a short period of time and get my writing into the hands of potential readers. Because this was a marketing exercise and not a sales exercise, I didn’t expect to generate any revenue. At the same time, I didn’t want to spend a ton of money either.

The Method
  • I hired a marketing group on that specializes in e-book marketing. They charged me $45 for what amounted to a mini blog tour.  
  • I took my last novel (A Taste of Honey) and made it exclusive on Amazon’s KDP to set up a two day free offer that would take place a couple days before Halloween.
  • I announced my free offer a week in advance on social media along with a free piece of horror flash fiction to get people’s attention.
  • On the day of my free promo, I sent an email blast out to my mailing list of about 13,000 names.

The Results
  • The marketing company produced 5-7 announcements and reviews for my book just before the free period. The announcements appeared on, Top Books Worth Reading and other blog sites.
  • A handful of verified purchasers picked up the book before the free period and left reviews.
  • There were more than 900 downloads of the book during the two day period, with a huge push in the first 16 hours and then a steady decline afterwards.
  • A Taste of Honey broke into the top ten spy novels list on Amazon during the first day of the free period.
  • Sales for the most part remained flat outside of a predictable dead cat bounce.

The Lesson
If my goal was to make a lot of money in a short period of time, then the experiment was a failure. I spent forty five dollars and didn’t make anything back. If my goal was to connect with more potential readers, then things didn’t turn out too bad. Nine hundred potential readers is a decent bite at the apple. In my experience, nine out of ten people who enjoy adult crime fiction liked my writing. Not everyone who downloaded my free book will read it, but even if only ten of those nine hundred people decide to read my book, maybe nine of them will like it too. When my next nine novels come out over the next five years, each one of those potential readers will be more prone to buy them because I’ll be an author they already like.

Some writers will mock me for losing 1,000 potential sales, or continuing to use KDP long after Amazon scuttled the algorithms that used to guarantee sales. Other writers might reject my use of a marketing company, comment that the process perverts the purity of the blog tour concept or otherwise smacks of dishonesty. Some people will be offended just for the sake of being offended. My goal isn’t to change those opinions. Every writer is entitled to their own perspective. My perspective is finding more people who might enjoy my work.

I plan to include this tactic in the overall strategy for releasing my next novel. Have you done something similar? What worked for you? What do you wish you could do over? Any comments are welcomed, even if I don’t answer them all.

Have fun.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Luxury of Voting

I almost didn’t vote yesterday. I didn’t want the hassle of the forty minute train ride. I didn’t know anything about the candidates or the issues allegedly defining the election. I didn’t think it would make a difference. But I got off my butt, went into the city and voted anyway. The after affect wasn’t empowering or inspiring. I just had the same feeling I get when I finish running an errand.

So why did I bother? There are probably a lot of reasons. The fact that no one is going to lynch me or bomb the polling place has a lot to do with it. The persistent encouragement (or shaming depending on how you look at it), of social media plays a role. Expressing my disapproval of politicians who side with FOX News also helped me get to the polls. But the biggest reason can be boiled down to the luxury of expression.

As a writer, I have the luxury of being able to express myself in words. When my friends perform at a show or have an event, I enjoy the luxury of expressing my support by showing up to cheer them on. When things I find online resonate with me, I have the luxury to express my perspective by sharing them. When I vote, I take advantage of the luxury to express my preference for the particular personality or perspective presented to me at the time.

As a student of the realpolitik school of political science, I do not see individual votes or even individual elections as the ultimate measure of political success. Politics isn’t about candidates or issues. Politics is about power. Power is measured by what you can and cannot do to affect change. The power to change or not change the lives of individuals comes from actions not votes. Whether you’re talking about ending slavery or LGBT rights or ending Prohibition, the pattern is the same. The decisions and actions come first. When the votes come later, it is an expression of acceptance for a fait accompli.

Is voting a decision or an action on its own? Maybe, but if it is, it represents a minimal act of power. It will not create change by itself. The party in power may or may not change, but the sight of a police officer will continue to make me just as apprehensive as the sight of a potential criminal. Temporary political shifts in Washington or Albany will not change my struggle to manage my relationship with money, time or the people who are important to me. If I’m going to change anything substantial in my life, it will be determined by what I do during the 364 days when I’m not voting.

I don’t vote to exercise power. I vote to express my opinion. My opinion in this case is symbolic because it is limited to a handful of pre-selected, carefully screened artificial personas. But most luxuries are symbolic. The real power in my life comes from my choices and my actions.

Maybe it’s the same for you too.

Have fun.