Web/Tech Feed

Amazon Won't Allow Spouses--or Anyone Else Who Lives Together--to Review the Same Books

   Burnbook

 Around Thanksgiving, my husband and I decided to share our reading experiences by swapping books. He recommended one for me to read, and I picked out a book for him to read. His pick for me was the indie-published novel Fat, Old, Punks from UK writer James "Grim" Desborough.

 I loved the book. It's laugh-out-loud funny, thanks to Desborough's clever wit. The setup is ingenious and hilarious: a group of middle-aged punk rocker friends meet in a pub that's relevance is waning as surely as their own. After they go several rounds comparing sources of unhappiness and lamenting how futile it is to change the world for the better, they manage to hatch a plan that is as brilliant as it is doomed to fail. Or succeed? Does it even matter? The book is a must-read for anyone who craves another perspective on contemporary politics.

 For me, this was a 5-star book, in that it was a thoroughly entertaining read, stayed true to its promise, and had zero flaws. It sucked me in and kept me riveted to the end, and I came to care about the characters and their issues, which are real and wholly felt. It resonated with me, and I think it would resonate with other readers.

 Full of my passion for the book, I logged onto Amazon and posted a review. I was only the second US reader to post a review. I noticed the only other review had been posted by my husband.

 At first, the review appeared as normal. But later, when my husband went to look at what I'd written about the book, he found that not only had my review disappeared, but his had as well. We both appealed the deletion through Amazon, and after several rounds, I received this message:

We are unable to post your Customer Review for "Old, Fat, Punks" to the Amazon website because our data shows elements of your Amazon account match elements of other Amazon accounts reviewing the same product. In these cases, we remove the reviews to maintain trust in our customer reviews and avoid any perception of bias.

You will not be able to resubmit a review for that product, even if the resubmitted review includes different content.

Customer Reviews are meant to give customers unbiased product feedback from fellow shoppers. It is our goal to provide Customer Reviews that help customers make informed purchase decisions. Therefore, any reviews that could be viewed as advertising, promotional, or biased will not be posted. This includes reviews by more than one customer in the same household.

 This is pretty disturbing on a number of levels.

 First, assuming that's what tripped the red flag, how does Amazon know we're in the same household? We have separate Amazon accounts; mine is tied to my author account. We use separate credit cards to purchase products on Amazon. And we use separate email addresses, from a generic email service, to log into our accounts. So that leaves two possibilities for the bots to detect we're in the same household: They could match our delivery addresses, and since we both have numerous delivery addresses, as we frequently send to family in other areas, this would seem... difficult. Or they could suss it out from various billing addresses. Either way, it's a creepy level of surveillance, all to... what? Basically punish an indie writer by deleting his only two reviews in the US. Nice job, Amazon. Good one. 

 Second, WTF is up with this policy? People from the same household can't review the same products? By this logic, no one sharing an address can ever review the same product. So if you and your mother or sister or roommate happen to love the same book, video, underwear three-pack, or pet scratching post, don't think you can both post a review about it. It's not even first-come, first-served in this case. If your mom posts a review, and then you post a review for the same product, BOTH your reviews will be deleted. Because Amazon's bots said so.

 Plus, think about the people who might share 'households.' When I worked for Big Fish, many of us had packages delivered to the office instead of our homes (since we were more likely to be at the office, yup). Would Amazon read us all as being from the same household since we shared a mailing address? What about army barracks, dorms, group homes, etc.?

 Third, what if it's not the shared mailing address and instead other "elements" of our accounts that raised the issue? Amazon's vagueness here is creepy, as are the ads that show up on my Facebook wall for products I've viewed on Amazon.

Oldfatpunks

 In our case, James Desborough's indie title got a minuscule boost through word-of-mouth advertising when my husband recommended the book to me. Neither my husband nor I received anything in exchange for the reviews, and my husband purchased the ebook version of the novel, which I read on his Kindle. My husband and I are both connected with Desborough online due to our mutual interests in books and games, but I've never met Desborough in person, and my husband met him once, years ago, at a game convention. So in actuality, the author did all the right things here in spreading the word about his work through social media and conferences over the years. Only to have Amazon undo it all in one fell swoop.

 No one has done anything wrong here whatsoever, yet our time has been wasted, and an innocent author is being arbitrarily punished.

 If Amazon really wanted to protect customers from review fraud, they'd set their bot programming to trigger this kind of response only after a suspicious number of reviews came in for a product. Two is NOT a suspicious number. They could also find out if the reviews came from accounts in good standing. My husband and I have spent probably thousands of dollars on Amazon products over the many years we've had separate accounts. We are very careful especially since I'm an author not to trade reviews or otherwise violate good ethics with regard to reviews.

 We tried to reason with Amazon, and this is how they responded:

We reviewed the information you provided and have determined that your review was removed in accordance with our guidelines. Our data shows that elements of your Amazon account match elements of other Amazon accounts reviewing the same product. In such cases, we remove the review to maintain trust in our customer reviews and to avoid any perception of bias. 

To learn more about this policy, please see our Customer Review Creation Guidelines (http://www.amazon.com/review-guidelines).

We cannot share any further information about our decision and we will not reply to further emails about this issue.

 So basically, we have no recourse for further appeal, and Amazon refuses to be transparent about its review process. This instills neither confidence nor loyalty in me, as a customer or Amazon author. 

I think of reviews as a civic duty in this age--I know first-hand how reviews can make or break sales. I've diligently reviewed a wide variety of products on Amazon; not just books but everything from air filters to vitamin supplements. But now? I don't know if I'll continue. Reviewing books is part of my job, but this makes it hard to post on Amazon. We know one thing, and that's that my husband CANNOT now post a review for the book I recommended to him, Mycroft Holmes by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Sorry, Kareem.

If this can go so, so wrong, I wonder if Amazon's bots are truly protecting anyone from review fraud. Instead, they're hurting the little guy here. And that's not cool at all. 

Top image, courtesy of Pixabay. Second image, my own.


Guest Blogger: Taking Your Social Media to the Next Level

Like Me

by Andrea Dunlop

LB: Today on the blog I have Seattle-based author and social media consultant Andrea Dunlop. I asked her to critique my social media activity because I get a lot of compliments, but I honestly feel like I'm bumbling around most of the time. Here's Andrea.

As a social media consultant, I often work with clients who have either a small presence on social or are starting from scratch. So when Lisa reached out to me to give her social media a critique for a guest post, I was excited. She’s already done some of the hard work of cultivating an audience, so there’s something to build on. 

There are a million ways big and small to improve your social media reach, and what’s more, new tools, platforms, and hacks pop up every day. I don’t pretend to know all of them (no one does), but the depth of the practice is what makes it so much fun to be a constant student of social media. It’s never going to be the same every day.

Below I’ve included some notes on what’s working well for Lisa on her blog, Twitter, and Instagram, as well as some recommendations for each. 

Lisa’s Blog 

What’s Working 

Consistency: Lisa posts an average of at least once a week, which is my gold standard for author blogs. If you want to make your blog your main thing and a possible revenue generator, you’d want to blog more frequently (read a great series about that here from Ramshackle Glam’s Jordan Reid). But for most authors, your main goal is to bring some extra traffic to your site and keep readers engaged between projects. Once a week is great for that. 

High-quality content:  In addition to posting regularly, Lisa mixes in short posts with guest posts and longer, more in-depths posts on writing and publishing, such as this essay. Lisa has learned a lot of helpful information from her work, and she shares it with readers in a digestible way. 

Reader Engagement: Many of Lisa’s posts about her writing involve a call to action for her readers, asking for feedback on a new prologue, or posting a call for beta readers, for example. Involving your readers in the process is an excellent way to galvanize your most passionate fans. 

What to Work On

Focus: I love that Lisa mixes up her content, but it can also make the blog feel a little scattered. Lisa is doing a variety of interesting things (writing, indie publishing, game design) and this unique mix is part of what makes her worth following. This also means that she can hit a number of disparate audiences, which is great. The challenge here is making the content cohesive. Always think about what your core blog readership would be the most interested in.

Too Lisa-centric: Before you think I’m being critical here, this is a problem with most author blogs I see. Of course your fans want to hear about you and your books, but it’s easy for that to become monotonous for any reader who isn’t one’s husband or mother. Now of course there are exceptions and plenty of lifestyle bloggers who build platforms based almost solely on their own experiences, but again, that’s not going to work as well for an author blog. I would suggest to Lisa to add a bit more about what else she’s reading and content that focuses on fellow authors in her genre. Featuring others is also a great way to build community, which is one of the best long-term marketing strategies out there. 

Lisa’s Twitter

What’s Working 

Consistency: Lisa tweets several times each day, which is a good bar for this platform (and why some people find it so intimidating!). The shelf life of a tweet is short, so if you don’t want to be on Twitter every day, you can always schedule tweets using a tool like Tweetdeck, but you also might consider whether this quick-moving, conversational platform is right for you. 

Art: Lisa is taking full advantage of the banner space on Twitter by using it as ad space. You don’t get much space for text on Twitter so the more you can use the visuals, the better. Twitter has really upped its game with its visual components to keep up with competitors like Snapchat and Instagram. 

What to Work On: 

Avatar: I really recommend using a photo, rather than a painting or other drawing for your Avatar. There are exceptions, of course, like Grammar Girl, but she’s a persona, so it works. One of the things Twitter is the most useful for is networking; therefore, I prefer a clean, clear headshot (no hats and glasses please). 

Too Lisa-centric: My biggest critique of Lisa’s Twitter is that it's almost exclusively about Lisa. This doesn’t mean that Lisa is a narcissist; it just means she’s not using the platform to its full effect. Twitter is one of the easiest platforms to use to share work by fellow authors and writers by tweeting about books you’re reading, links to essays, pictures from events, the list goes on. A good ratio is: for every tweet that’s about you/ your book, you should have about four that acknowledge someone else. Cheryl Strayed is an absolute all-star at this. 

Lisa’s Instagram 

What’s Working: 

Selfies: There are lots of smiley photos of Lisa and shots from her everyday life. Super cute! Lisa’s Instagram makes me want to go hang out with her, maybe swing by her house for dinner. Her account gives me a sense of her personality. 

What to Work On: 

If Lisa just wanted to use her Instagram for fun, her approach would be fine, but right now it’s underutilized as a marketing tool. As an author, Instagram doesn’t always seem the most obvious choice for social media, but it’s one of the most powerful tools out there if used well. Don’t take my word for it; take Vogue’s 

Some tips for Lisa: 

Consistency: Three times a week is a good minimum; every day is better. Do this by…

Mixing it up: Instagram is not only a great place to share selfies and other in-the-moment photos but also stylized images about your book (a few examples over on my page), inspirational quotes, videos, and more. Lisa has a ton of great images collected on her Pinterest page that would repurpose well for Instagram. 

Books, books, books: If you are an author, you should be reading constantly and you should also be snapping photos of what you’re reading and uploading them to #bookstagram. Especially if you’re hoping to reach a younger audience, #bookstagram is where it’s at. Check out my favorite Bookgrammer @BookBaristas to see how it’s done. 

*For more tips on Instagram, read here

Andrea_Dunlop

Andrea Dunlop is a social media consultant based out of Seattle, WA with over a decade of experience in book publishing. She is also the author of Losing the Light (out now) and the forthcoming novel She Regrets Nothing, both from Atria Books (Simon & Schuster). You can read more about Andrea’s consultant services here. You can also connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn. She is currently running an introductory special for new clients, so book before August 1st to receive ten percent off your consultation fee.

Lead image courtesy of Pixabay


My Latest Game-Writing Project: Smash Squad

 

 I've been a writer and narrative designer in the digital game industry for going on nine years now. For the past five years, this has meant helping developers create strong storylines and integrate them with the "play" part of the game. But this spring I had the opportunity to shift gears and concentrate on just the writing itself, and in a very different type of game than the hidden-object puzzle adventure fare that was my focus at Big Fish. 

 The game, which just released on iOS, is called "Smash Squad," and it's an incredibly fun, addictive, fast-paced, top-down physics battler. While definitely focused on a pinball-style battle mechanic, it also has a role-playing and collectible element as well. The creative team obviously had a blast coming up with characters like Broomhilda Sweeps and Lumber Jacques. 

Smash_Characters

 My task was to write the core narrative text, given a villain named Klon, a guide character, Trixie, and a set sequence of worlds the player would move through as the game progressed. This involved guidance from and discussion with the developers at WG Cells, with initial feedback on a trial sample to get the tone and story beats in line with the overall vision for the game. It was a great opportunity for me to stretch into more of a sit-com, one-liner writing style after years of working on mostly super-serious mystery games.

     Questria_Text_edited-2

 The team generously gave me leeway in developing a story arc to fit the game's mechanics. I decided it would be fun to have Klon try to recruit the player over to the, ah, Klon side, and they gave me the green light. 

Story2_edited-1

 Writing for games means making use of the world-building in the game's environmental art, as in this sequence below, which highlights the statues in the second level, Sooper City. This way the characters, though only onscreen for a short time and in 2D, are tied to the world, and the player can fill in the rest with her imagination. Here's how it looks in the context of the map world. While this dialogue string references the statues in the world, the previous one played on the giant octopus.

   Sooper4

Sooper5

Sooper6

Let me know after playing Smash Squad what you think of the story - I'm always looking for ways to improve my craft. If you haven't played it yet, check it out! The game is available now in the App Store.  


Measures of Success: Where I Am in This Publishing Experiment

  Woodtype-846088_1280

Lately I've heard from people who assume I'm earning piles of money from my books. They tell me I make the whole publishing thing look easy, and that it makes them want to jump in.

This is a really good example of why I try never to make assumptions. 

It's funny, because I've been pretty up-front about the whole thing from the beginning, as you can read in this post on my decision to self-publish as well as this post about what it took to hit the bestseller spot in two categories on Amazon. If you don't want to read those two posts, here they are in a nutshell: 1) My decision to self-publish was borne from a cold-eyed practicality that showed me getting an agent and a solid traditional publishing contract would be as likely as winning the lottery and 2) Hitting the bestseller lists on Amazon came after 25 years of toil, and I still had to make the book free.

But I guess my previous posts weren't enough. People see "bestseller" and the fact that I'm up for a couple of major awards, and they automatically assume I'm making piles of money. And maybe it's my own fault for trumpeting the bestseller achievement, which is a big win, don't get me wrong. But because publishing today is totally broken, it doesn't mean I'm making piles of money, or even enough to call this my new day job, neither of which I have actually claimed, but people seem to assume. There's a lot of hope and fantasy-making when it comes to the life of a writer. We still want to believe we can all be J.K. Rowling, and that getting there is easy. 

Here it is for the record: My husband/business partner and I are still in the red on these books. 

And here's why:

  1. Discoverability. By at least one estimate, there's a new book posted to Amazon every five minutes. Simply getting eyes on your product remains the biggest obstacle in all of entertainment. At the video-game company were I used to work, it was of chief consideration. We did the best when we had our own portal to funnel new games to players who'd played our previous games, but the Apple store made this more of a challenge. So if I could design a Lisa Brunette portal within Amazon that sent my book promos to readers who'd purchased my books before, or similar books, I'd be in business. But that's not possible.
  2. Have you bought my books? If you did, thank you. I hope you enjoyed them. But was it the print or audiobook version (which earn me just a few cents to a few dollars in royalties), the ebook version (which earns me even fewer cents to a couple of dollars in royalties), or the free version (which earns me next to nothing in royalties)?
  3. Sales of Cat in the Flock to-date are clocking in at just under 5,000 copies, most of those free, and sales of Framed and Burning are lower because it's been $3.99 since launch with no promos and no KDP enrollment (what this is). As for my other books, there's a reason I continually refer to poetry as a "labor of love." Ditto short stories.
  4. Most of the people who downloaded the free copy during the promotion that catapulted Cat in the Flock to bestseller status haven't yet read the book, which affects my royalties via Amazon's "normalized pages read" count, and they did not buy the second book in the series. This is a well-known result for bestsellers on Amazon these days, so writers and marketers generally hope the lift will boost sales a few times as others see the book in the ranking, which did happen for a time...or I don't know what else, and neither do they.
  5. I am no pro at promotion. It's funny because I keep getting notes of admiration/offers to hire me from other authors who think I do it well, and I tell them I'm just bumbling around here, but since authors on the whole tend to be really terrible at this, I guess I look good by comparison. I am still learning how to do the book sales and promo thing, so stay tuned. Hopefully I'll get even better!
  6. Most of the friends and family to whom I've given free copies of my books haven't read them. I try not to get too tripped up about this, as it seems to be a writer phenomenon: Those closest to us tend to be the least likely to read and discuss the book (with the exclusion of my husband/business partner, who's my biggest fan; he also has a stake in the game). But it's probably because reading the words of someone you know very well can be jarring. As my sister (who is actually very supportive) said, "I hear your voice in my head as I'm reading, and it's weird." This recently happened to me with an old friend who wrote a thriller set in a fundamentalist religious sect after she blurbed my thriller set in a fundamentalist religious sect. I freaked out reading the first chapter and haven't been able to pick it up since. It wasn't just the voice; it was the inevitable comparison in subject matter. People you know look for themselves in your books; they can't help it.
  7. I've been very fortunate to have amazing supporters and fans who share my content, but I haven't had the time to grow my list the way I should. It's a business that is definitely more-than-full-time, like a start-up or your new local restaurant, but I have not yet had the luxury to focus on it 24/7 because I have to attend to my other sources of income. We spent this entire last weekend working on republishing both Dreamslippers books, for example, so we feel like we now need a weekend to recover from our working weekend.

We're not yet in the black, but we partners of Sky Harbor LLC invested more into the business than most indie authors, so we have more to make back. We saw this as a long-term strategy, and it's way too early to call since I've only published two books so far. The models I have for how this works didn't begin to make a living until they were into books three or four, and this goes for both the indies and the traditionally published authors. One traditional author tells me the only way he lives off his writing is through his foreign sales. His foreign publishers are also the ones who pay for his few book tours, as his U.S. publisher won't pay for any.

My approach is to be much more diversified, too. I'm currently working as a game writer, speaker, and journalist in addition to the fiction I write. I believe this is a healthier mix for these volatile economic times. But that means I'm trying to keep up with four different industry spaces, growing my contacts and experience in all of them at once. Some days, it feels like managing four different start-ups.

Overall, I'm flattered that people think I'm making a living at this, and I am thrilled with the success I've had with my fiction. With just two books under my belt, I've won one book award and am a finalist for two others. My first book hit the no. 1 spot not in some quirky niche but in two major categories on Amazon: paranormal mystery and private investigators, which, if you think about a book being published every five minutes, is a huge achievement. It's trending at 4.5 stars on 52 reviews, and the second book is close behind. I've been approached by a Hollywood director about TV rights (but don't get too excited--Hollywood is notoriously fickle). Enough readers and influencers have given their independent, non-paid praise of the books such that I know if I can surmount the hefty obstacles, I will begin to see some financial success. I've proved I am a serious career author with the speaking, marketing, and most of all, writing chops to go the distance. It's only a matter of time before the right people--and/or an army of readers--take notice. 

And if they never do, I will at least know that I gave it my all, heart and soul. Plus, look at the enviable experience I'll have to offer in my next day job...

  


My Presentation for the IDEA Summit at University of Florida

  IDEAS_Lisa

 

I finally had a chance to review my video from the IDEA Summit last month. To tell the truth, I find watching videos of myself to be a tough task, as I endlessly critique my performance, attire, physical appearance--you name it. There's also the truth that women who talk about games for women have been horribly harassed online. So I'll admit to some fear that being more visible as a woman in the industry making games for women will garner me the kind of attention I'd rather not receive. I hope that's not the case.

For the record: I've never been harassed about my game work, either in person or online. But I've also always worked in casual games, which means I've been working on games for families, or specifically for women, throughout the course of my eight-year career in the industry. In other words, I've never asked for changes to be made--or tried to change--the games being made for hardcore gaming audiences. The work I've done to help developers tailor their games to a female audience was by company directive, and in everyone's best interest, as it made the games sell. We always knew that if the games didn't sell, we'd all have to go home. So the work we did was tied directly to the bottom line and not due to a political objective, not that there's anything wrong with political objectives.

So that has likely insulated me, and I don't have much experience with that other world, outside of sometimes playing hardcore games myself or meeting people at the Game Development Conference. 

You can watch the video of my presentation here. All in all, I think I did all right. Most importantly, I loved the synergy between the students, faculty, and all conference presenters. The exchange of ideas and rich conversations will stay with me. I'm already looking for the next opportunity to participate in something like this, which I hope comes along soon.

I was also part of a panel discussion, along with a wide variety of people with varying expertise pertinent to entrepreneurship. This got spirited when the subject of sexism in the tech industry came up.

I'd be interested in hearing about your experience with games--both as a player, if you are one, or as someone who's stood outside the industry, looking in.


It's a Great, Big Digital World

Gamedesignclass

Here I am, guest-lecturing in a Game Design class.

I spent last week in Gainesville, Florida, for the first-ever International Digital Entrepreneurship Association Summit (IDEAS). The Summit grew out of a series of conversations I had with Marko Suvajdzic, a professor with the University of Florida's Digital Worlds Institute.

Marko and I have worked together for many years, but until now sort of on opposite sides of the fence. As he likes to explain, I'm the one who would mark up his game concept proposals and game design documents, asking him to make changes to the storylines. That was my job as Manager of Narrative Design for Big Fish, the publisher of the games Marko created through his studio O2D. He and I have collaborated on all of O2D's games for Big Fish, which includes the Vampire Legends series and the Mythic Wonders series

But now we've both moved on. Marko just sold O2D's Belgrade studio to Eipix Entertainment, another Big Fish developer, and I'm no longer with the Fish. However, with our shared experiences in both gaming and academia, a new kind of collaboration was inevitable. We started talking, and I served as a remote guest-lecturer in his Game Design class in December, and the IDEA summit was born. Marko brought together a serial entrepreneur from Tel Aviv, a Pakistan-born hybrid digital video artist who now lectures in Shanghai, an independent filmmaker who started in the business as a stuntman, and a social practice artist from the states. 

As I told Marko, he has great taste in friends. The week was a 24/7 incubator for ideas, debates, and lively exchanges. It was also a treat to meet other U of FL faculty, such as the lone female professor in the College of Engineering, who studies dance in an engineering context, and a professor of anesthesiology who wants to make games her patients can play as part of their palliative care, or even as the treatment itself.

The most endearing part of the weeklong experience was the students. I walked them through the game design process on the blockbuster game Christmas Stories: Nutcracker, and they had smart things to say throughout the two-hour class. The next evening, the students showcased their work at the Salon, and I was really impressed by the creativity and great ideas on exhibit. The winning entry was a re-imagining of breakdance set to elegant, graceful music, the stunning choreography turning the form on its head and blowing the viewer's expectations and stereotypes. The student judges were unanimous in their choice, they told me.

I'd never been to Gainesville before, so I was happy to get a tour from a delightful student who showed me the communal vegetable patch as well as this on-campus meditation center, which she and I dubbed 'the Gothic Pagoda':

Gothic pagoda

The Summit itself was an intense, one-day affair. I took part in a spirited discussion about women entrepreneurship on the morning panel, and then I blew everyone's mind with my presentation about interactive storytelling for women gamers. At least, that's what it felt like I did. Highlight: A female student came up to me and said she'd been considering giving up her plan to work in games due to a biased hiring experience, but my talk had changed her mind. She called me a "pioneer." I swallowed hard at that one and tried to give her the best advice I could. 

I left wondering if I should start my own game studio* even though my new pal Ofer Zinger, the keynote speaker, said about 90% of startups fail. What can I say? This entrepreneurship stuff is a heady drug.

IDEAS

* No, I'm not really going to start my own game studio, but if there are any VCs reading this, call me.


I'm Speaking at U of Florida's Digital Worlds Institute

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I was invited to participate in this summit on digital entrepreneurship, which is pretty damn cool. That week I'll be a guest lecturer in a digital design class (I've done this once before, remotely), a speaker at the summit itself, and a judge of student work at the salon. Here are the summit details:

International Digital Entrepreneurship Association Summit (IDEAS)

Presented at the University of Florida Digital Worlds Institute’s Research, Education and Visualization Environment (REVE) - March 25th, 2016, 9:30AM-5:00PM

Come join us for an amazing day of exploration & innovation with premiere guest speakers from around the world.

IDEAS is an inspirational event offering a day of learning how to succeed in the digital media business landscape. This one-day summit promotes the confluence of traditional entrepreneurship and new technologies, with an emphasis on new business forms and the opportunities created by these technologies. Guest panelists — academic and real-world practitioners — will link theory and practice, in a dialogue with participants, as they share their innovative stories, techniques, and ideas that have established them as leaders in their respective fields and industries.

Event page:  https://www.facebook.com/events/973184246099902/
Contact info:  
marko@digitalworlds.ufl.edu

The event is free but RSVP’s are required: rsvp@digitalworlds.ufl.edu

Event schedule, March 25th:

  • 9:30AM to 10:00AM – Coffee and registration
  • 10:00AM to 10:50AM – Key note (Ofer Zinger)
  • 11:00AM to 11:50AM – Panel discussion 
  • 12:00PM to 12:50PM - Guest speaker presentation (Nestor Gil)
  • 1:00PM to 2:00PM – Lunch
  • 2:00PM to 2:50PM – Guest speaker presentation (Lisa Brunette)
  • 3:00PM to 3:50PM - Guest speaker presentation (D.A. Jackson)
  • 4:00PM to 4:50PM- Guest speaker presentation (Taqi Shaheen)

Guest Speakers:

Ofer Zinger, Entrepreneurship - Hands-On

Being an entrepreneur is exciting, however, extremely risky;  more than 90% of the startups fail.  As a serial entrepreneur in the digital space, Mr. Zinger will cover the common pitfalls as well as the shortcuts to startup success that are often missing from standard textbooks, using real life hands-on examples.

Ofer Zinger has founded several companies in the digital space such as TLV Media, Dynamic Yield, Cedato, Ilivid (Acquired), Bundlore (Acquired) and others. Consultative to the Israeli Intelligence (8200), IAF, Iron dome project, and various companies in homeland security and medical devices sectors. Ofer Zinger is currently the Chairman of Feature Forward, a programmatic video advertising platform.  (https://www.linkedin.com/in/oferzinger

Lisa Brunette, Crafting Games for a Mainstream Audience
The current market is flooded with mid-core games targeted toward a male audience aged 18-35, while the audiences outside that demographic remain underserved. Learn how to craft game stories for women, older players of all gender identifications, and children in this talk from a recognized expert in premium casual storytelling.

Lisa Brunette has story design and writing credits in hundreds of bestselling video games, including the Mystery Case Files, Mystery Trackers, and Dark Tales series for Big Fish and AAA games for Nintendo and Microsoft platforms. She is featured in Boy’s Toys, a documentary about women in games. She earned an MFA in Fiction from University of Miami, and she is the past recipient of the AWP Intro Journals Project Award, a grant from the Tacoma Arts Commission, and the William Stafford Award. (www.catintheflock.com)

Nestor Armando Gil, Labor Under Alternative Economies
Social practice art takes as its starting point relationships and dialogue, two elements crucial to a successful entrepreneurial enterprise.  By producing research, commodities, and performances in a social context, Nestor Gil addresses memory as a series of negotiations that are personal, cultural, and political. 

Nestor Armando Gil was born in Florida in 1971.  He received the Masters in Fine Art degree in 2009 from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  His performances and visual work have been exhibited throughout the United States and internationally in Spain, and the United Kingdom.

D. A. Jackson, Making Something Out of Nothing:  Independent Filmmaking in the Digital Age
Award winning director D.A. Jackson discusses the ins and outs of film production in the 21st Century.  Topics covered will be, how to use available resources, budgeting, directing, writing scripts, producing, VFX, and distribution.

D.A. Jackson has been working in the film industry for the past 18 years.  During his career, he has worked as a director, stuntman, fight choreographer, actor, and producer.  He has directed commercials, music videos, television shows for SPIKE,  and won numerous awards  for his independent feature films and shorts . His passion for storytelling  and unique approach to filmmaking has led him to be an often requested speaker at colleges and film festivals.

Taqi Shaheen, Being Digital: The Chinese Way

Born in Pakistan, and currently lecturing in Shanghai, China, Taqi is uniquely positioned to present the complex system of entrepreneurship as it exists in Asia today. From art works, to information technology and video games, Asia has been a hotbed of production and innovation. 

Taqi Shaheen is a filmmaker, visual artist and art educator whose work crosses mediums and defies genre distinctions to fashion witty and curious observations of contemporary Asian cultures and their urban landscapes. He graduated from the National College of Arts, Lahore, and uses hybrid digital video and film formats to research and construct non-fictional narratives collaborating with various visual artists, musicians and performers.) (http://www.taqishaheen.com/)

IDEAS is sponsored by UF Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation in the Warrington College of Business Administration, supported by the UF Division of Sponsored Research, presented by the UF Digital Worlds Institute, and organized by Prof. Marko Suvajdzic.

Prof. Suvajdzic is a diverse thinker with 17+ years of achievement in academia and the creative digital research and production space. Marko’s experience includes a wide range of digital startups and educational projects. He has lectured internationally at schools and conferences in: U.S.A., U.K., India, Serbia, Norway, and China.


What I'm Reading: My So-Called Freelance Life

My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for HireMy So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire by Michelle Goodman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I reviewed this book on Amazon back in 2008 but find myself continuing to recommend the book to freelancers, so I thought I'd add it to Goodreads now as well. Here's my 2008 review, which still stands: As a freelancer for 16 years, I was skeptical at first that this book would teach me anything I didn't already know. I started out around the same time Goodman did, in my twentysomethings, and was just as green at the time (she and I both spent too much money on neat new business stationery). But I'd been waylaid along the route by a grad-school stint, and then got sucked into teaching, so her real-world advice has helped me refocus on the freelance goal, identify (and correct) a few re-entry missteps, and build on my niche expertise (even if you don't think you have one, you most likely do).

Plus, this book is a terrifically fun read. It's like sitting down with one of your gal-pals to talk shop instead of gossip. Although filled with practical, usable suggestions, Goodman writes with humor and pathos, sharing some of her own horror stories (such as a gig that dragged on so long, she ended up making a few cents per hour on it) and hewing to a no-nonsense, colloquial tone, with subheadings such as "Problem: Your Client Is a Bloodsucker" and "Ebbs Are for Amateurs."

I often receive e-mails from budding young freelancer-wannabes seeking advice. Now all I have to do is give them this book.

View all my reviews


What I'm Reading: The End of Absence

The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We've Lost in a World of Constant ConnectionThe End of Absence: Reclaiming What We've Lost in a World of Constant Connection by Michael Harris
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This will definitely resonate with anyone who came of age pre-Internet. Interesting observations, and while Harris doesn't deliver much more than a "meditation" on what we should do about the loss of absence, I appreciated his even-handed approach to the subject.

View all my reviews


How Not to Go Broke As a Creative Writer

Lisa Fantasy Shot

Image credit: Lindsey Look

Here's what my life as a writer is like! I sit on my writing throne all day, penning masterpieces with my quill, all while dressed fashionably for battle, my loyal feline by my side!

Ah, nope. That's why they call it "fantasy."

The truth is, I'm sweating blood and crying tears doing this. Blood. Sweat. Tears. Lots of tears, actually... But hey. I'm doing it! I've been writing for 20+ years, I paid a Seattle mortgage on my freelance income, and I have an enviable stack of byline credits.

And here's how you can make it, too. That is, as long as you get the fantasy version of a writer's life out of your head. Here, I'll give you some new images to replace it with. And look! I've even organized this into a listicle!

#1 Work Your Personal Network

Group Shot BF

Photo credit: Margie Bissainthe

Way before Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter existed, successful writers worked their networks. First and foremost, this means being the kind of person people like working with and know they can count on to get the job done.

For me, this also meant always making sure I kept in touch with people, letting them know what I'm up to, and when I needed work, I told them I was available. Some of my best gigs have come from people I’ve known professionally and become friends with. When I freelanced, I sent all my clients links to an online survey where they could brag about my work. Then I reported back the results and blurbed them on my materials.

#2 Diversify Your Skills

Mopirglisa_AV

These days, it's not enough that you can write creatively. You should also be a good public speaker, a crackerjack editor, know interactive media, or be able to train and manage people well. It's best to do all of these things, and more.

I've never got a job on the basis of my creative writing MFA alone - but in combination with other credentials, it looks good. Some of my best experiences came early in my career, when I was in college working in politics, where I wrote brochures, press releases, letters to the editor, and newspaper columns as well as learned to give speeches and manage and motivate people.

#3  Diversify Your Portfolio

Moss Adams Report

Especially if you’re freelancing, it's next to impossible to make a living off one thing these days. As a freelancer, I basically subsidized my really fun work, like doing author interviews, with well-paying gigs, like editing financial services reports. But even this work can be creative – in the above example, I distilled a very analytical idea down to “growing pains” in the financial services industry. In that world, there aren’t many creative writers, so if you can do this for them, you’re a god, and they’ll pay you well.

You should also expand your notion of what "writing" means to you. It's possible that editing, which often involves a fair amount of rewriting, could make you perfectly happy. In the game biz, I'm called on to critique game stories and rewrite rough translations from another language, and that gets pretty darn close. In large projects like TV shows and games, writers aren't usually coming up with the original story line anyway but rather writing for a specfic character or punching up the dialogue, as Joss Whedon did on the TV show "Roseanne" early in his career.

 #4 Stop Thinking of Your Writing As Art

If you want to earn a living, you need to think about your writing as a business. Otherwise, it's a hobby, or a sideline. Even Shakespeare made his writing into a business. That’s part of why we’re still thrilling to his stories today.

Big Fish Rankings

At Big Fish, where I work most of the week, my colleagues and I get very passionate about our games, and when we get into intense discussions, it's always valuable for us to bring it back to the hard data we have about which games sell and why. If the games don't sell, we won't have the privilege of sitting around talking about them for much longer.

#5 Don't Write for Free

SLU News Highway to Smog Heaven

It’s OK to work for free when you’re in college, or just starting out, so you can get the clips. But once you’ve got a portfolio, stop working for free! If you write for free, you are not a writer; you're a volunteer. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. But if your goal is to make a living as a writer, you should not give it away for free. And you shouldn't ask others to write for free, either. Here on the blog, as you may have noticed, I've got ads (shocking, I know). I hope you'll click on them, as they're funding the article you're reading right now.

#6 Get Cozy with Rejection

Don't get discouraged by rejection. Cozy up to it. Friend it on Facebook. Cuddle up with it at night. You and rejection will be seeing a lot of each other.

Here's an example of why.

Newspaper Closures Since 2007

Newspaper Closures

Please see www.newspaperlayoffs.com for more information. Used with permission.

The collapse/revolution/massive transition - whatever you want to call it - of the book publishing and journalism industries is out of your control. So don't take it to heart if you’re not a lightning, overnight success story. You’re competing with out-of-work, Pulitzer-prize-winning writers with a lot more experience and credentials.

Look for the opportunities: When the journalism door closed for me, another one opened. I was recruited to work in games, and unlike some writers, I didn't think I was too good for games. I've never thought I was too good for any writing job, which is probably why I've never been out of work. And truthfully, working in games has tapped my passion for both story and interactivity in a way few other industries could.

But I've seen my share of layoffs in this industry as well, which brings me back to the original point: Get cozy with rejection! There are NO guarantees, anywhere.

Sometimes, a rejection can even make your day. Here's one I received after querying an editor on my children's picture book manuscript:

“I've had a chance to review MOON GIRL and while I think it's unique, dark, and quite whimsical, I am concerned that it would be a hard sell for us. It reads a lot like Neil Gaiman's children's books but those are difficult to compare with given his known status…”

She had me at "unique."

 #7 Don't Be a Job-Hunting Jerk

Respect and reciprocity are the names of the game. Network like a human being, not a selfish twit. 

Be solicitous with people's time - take them to coffee, buy them lunch. Send a thank you letter afterward. Remember them - if there's any opportunity to do them a good turn, do it! Do your research and ask good questions. Don't flub it in the interview stages - take it seriously. Dress up, arrive early, shake hands, speak well, do your homework on the company and the games or products they make or services they provide.

BF Surface Page

You can play the first hour of many of Big Fish games for free online. But when I was a hiring manager, I had people apply for jobs who clearly hadn't played any of our games.  

#8 Learn to Collaborate with Others

Credits Whispered Secrets

 No woman is an island. Almost every project you write for will be created by committee, and it’ll be a better project if you know how to play well with others.

I used to make my students do group projects when I was teaching, and they always complained. Now I feel vindicated. Forget bylines. Your name for two seconds in the rolling credits will give you a high, but it’ll be a different one than getting a book published. Not “I did this myself,” but “Wow, look what we all made happen!”

#9 Don't Think You're Too Good for Entry-Level

  Group Shot NDs

Photo credit: Anna Rix

Despite having had a great resume post-college that included service as the chair of Missouri's largest environmental organization and a prestigious internship in D.C., not to mention a portfolio of clips, there was a recession going on in 1994 when I graduated, so the only job I could find was as a secretary. But I made the best of it and was promoted in six months to a job that involved a bit more writing.

In games, you often start out in customer support and/or as a game tester. One of my team members spent 2.5 yrs as a tester before we hired her as an Assoc Narrative Designer. Another worked on a team with me at Nintendo. We hired them as much for their editing skills as for their creative writing backgrounds.

 #10 Consume What You Produce

Don't just expect everyone to consume your words. You must also be a consumer of words.

If you want to write books, make sure you're buying and reading a lot of them. If you want to play games, you better play them. We can spot a poser a mile away. If you don't really love them yourself, how do you expect to make your audience love them?

Here, you can start with my book. :) Why not? You must like my writing, since you made it this far...

Bookcover_final_series_callout

If games are more your thing, check out the ones you can download from Big Fish. Happy writing!

Big_Fish_Games_logo

Note: This article grew out of a presentation I gave to the creative writing program students at Seattle University in the fall of 2013.

 


Cat in the Flock Facts

All devices

The really big news is that Kirkus Reviews, "one of the most trusted and authoritative voices in book discovery," gave Cat in the Flock a very positive review, calling it "a mystery with an unusual twist and quirky settings; an enjoyable surprise for fans of the genre."

You can read the full review here.

 It's now up to 11 reviews on Amazon, all 4 and 5 stars. We need more in order to qualify for certain ebook promo sites. If you're inclined to dash off a few lines and rate the book, please do! 

 Here's one of my favorite reviews, posted on Goodreads. The book has also received a few impromptu gushes, such as this one on Gameboomers and this one from a fan of my game writing.

There have been more than 50 downloads of the book so far - not a bad start for a "soft launch" and about what I expected. (This is the long game.) I've been interviewed by Nina Shapiro with the Seattle Weekly (story pending) and The Reading Frenzy blog

 The book also now has this blog named after it. I've always been a bit of a tech nerd and early adopter of writer tech (remember Web rings?), and I was one of the world's first bloggers back when they were all shiny and new. But except for what I've done for the day job, I've been pretty blog-free since I started writing full-time for the gaming industry eight years ago.
 
So when the universe suggested I return to blogging, I ignored it at first. It's hard enough to find time for my personal life and community activities between game writing and a side-career as a novelist. But the big U wouldn't let up. I figure it has better things to do than send me messages, so it's best to listen when it takes the time to speak. 
 
There you have it - I'm a born-again blogger. Right now I'm obsessed with my recent honeymoon trip to Barcelona, but who knows what I'll get up to in the future. Come on by and join the conversation.

Once a Blogger, Always a Blogger

After a hiatus of about, oh, seven years, I'm returning to blogging.

Because if there's one thing the world desperately needs, it's more bloggers.

There are a few reasons for this heralded return: 1) I kept getting messages from the universe that I should blog. I try to listen to the universe, especially when it's repeating messages, as it's not like the universe doesn't have better things to do. If it takes the time to tell me something, I treat it like E.F. Hutton. 2) I need an outlet that is longer than 140 characters or relegated to the realm of "update." 3) I launched my first novel a bit ago, and a blog is supposed to help me build an audience, give you gentle readers some other ways to engage with my words.

So there you have it, and here it is. My blog, in all its naked glory. I hope you'll give it a chance. I know you have a lot competing for your attention.

What have I been doing for the past seven years when I could have been blogging? Only this.