Wednesday, 21 June 2017

I Come From Manchester

Manchester canal - image copyright Michael Ely (licensed for reuse under Creative Commons)

I don't live in Manchester any more. I visit, as documented at Manchester trip, knoworramean? and Manchester trip for 2000 Tunes.

Most city centres, particularly in the UK, are scummy places.

This was confirmed during my recent stay in Manchester City Centre.

Pukejockeys. The hotel was fine. The problem wasn't the hotel itself, but the area around it - Piccadilly Gardens, the Northern Quarter, and all the other areas that make up the city centre. So much litter, graffiti, drink and drug use, abandoned fast food and wrappers, broken bottles, vomit, and a lack of greenery to break it up (hardly any trees, bushes or flowers).

Gastrippers. Within a few hundred metres of the hotel we passed piles of metal nitrous oxide (laughing gas) canisters dumped on the floor next to empty bottles of booze. I'd never seen that before. They rattled along the pavement and rolled into the gutters. My nephew asked what all the canisters were and I had to explain.

Scudmonkeys. It's as if neither the Council nor the businesses care. If the businesses cared they'd demand the Council use the millions in business rates to keep the city centre looking nice and litter-free, and that there'd be more greenery. In many other countries businesses clean up in a radius around themselves, washing down streets and keeping things pristine and proud. That culture doesn't really exist in most of the UK. We drown in detritus.

Dampscumlubbers. Manchester has canals. You'd think they would be be looked after, with their paths that allow traffic-free shortcuts across the city. But no. They stink, and there were rafts of litter floating around in scum on the surface. It's horrible to see what the geese and ducks had to swim through. Again, there was litter and broken bottles on the tow paths. Like the whole of the city centre, it creates the impression that no-one (residents, Council, businesses) cares, which makes all the problems worse as irresponsible people don't see a problem with dumping more litter when there is already so much there. I was embarrassed that it was my step-family's first view of the city.

Pissleakers. Likewise the city centre seemed to have no free public toilets, or they weren't well signposted. It feels like you have to pay for everything. Even Piccadilly Train Station forces you to pay for toilets, when you have just spent a fortune on train tickets. No money on you, no way to relieve yourself. Maybe that's why so many doorways and alleys smelt of piss. Toilets should always be free. (Note: this applies to most towns in the UK. I live in Ceredigion, and in the last few years I've seen Ceredigion County Council close three of the public toilets in our town, and start charging for another. They're just as bad.).

Prideswipers. The only solution I can see is all the businesses getting together and pressuring the Council to do something. I have emailed Manchester Council in the past and been ignored. The same places where I reported litter haven't changed a year or two on. The Council should collect litter and clean the streets and buildings all the time, so it is an exception rather than the rule. The canals should be pristine and unpolluted, with clean water. There should be free and clearly-labelled public toilets. They need to implement fines for littering and dumping booze bottles. There should be more trees and bushes and flowers (in the earth, not just pots) - well maintained, with litter removed. Piccadilly Gardens is still grim compared to when it was proper gardens a number of years ago before the Council bulldozed it and (at that time) covered the gardens with concrete c. 2001, in a sad and disappointing but enormously-revealing display of their true attitude. Part of the problem is all the throwaway junk, and that is largely down to the Council allowing so many takeaway places - you inevitably get litter from them.

Jizzlobbers. Maybe it's also tied to the way there are very few recycle bins in the city centre. It's unclear what you're meant to do with recyclable materials like glass, plastic, cans, cartons, wrappers, paper etc. It seems the Council just want it all to go in landfill bins in the city centre. All rubbish bins should have recycling bins next to them.

Purplepeopleeaters. It's a real shame that the city centre has been allowed to become so unpleasant, dirty and unnatural, a litter-strewn dive that seems to mainly exist as a shrine to drinking, thoughtlessness and unnecessary consumption. There are some great buildings, some cool businesses, and some lovely people. It could be an amazing place to visit if the Council, businesses and residents made more of an effort. More parks, fewer car parks; more trees and grass, less laughing gas.

The world is dying and we die with it. Our cells decay with each revolution, and what we touch dries up in pollution and selfish waste. Other planets are not a hope for survival, they would be a curse - until we can learn to live in peace on one planet, controlling our population and cutting back on our waste, accepting that the world does not belong to us alone, there would be no hope of spiritual evolution as we descend back into a new dark age of tribalism and thoughtlessness, isolation and selfishness, a sticky morass into which our spirits sink as everything burns and the last thing to die is hope. We will all die. Our permanent individual destruction is a fact. We only control how much harm we do in the passing. Life is disease and we spread it everywhere, ever-expanding like a raft of litter on the self-scummed waters of our cities. This is the end, and we scream and kick but there's no point as we drown in the sweating fat of billions.

Fin.


But on the plus side! There were great vegetarian and vegan places to eat, and you all know that I loves me some cake!

V Rev
I've been visiting since it was part-record-shop in the old smaller location. This was the new place. Wow! Even better. Lots of staff to look after you, lots of tables (though it still filled out quickly - we got in just before queues began to form, it really is that popular!) Really good vegan comfort food. Burgers, fries, macaroni cheese, beers, hot dogs and so on. Their cakes were amazing - honestly, people eyed them with awe. I had a chocolate mint cake which was a mix of greens and browns and tasted gorgeous, and even had the icing topped with a mint chocolate. One warning - the cake slices were really big. Best shared between two.

V Rev cake. I'd already started it. It was bigger than the moon.

8th Day
I've always been a fan, and have been going since the days when it was a very small shop and cafe, rather than spread over two floors like now. I used to eat there before working in the All Saints Library over the road. 8th Day is probably the best it has ever been. I love the way you can eat downstairs, then get some shopping upstairs on the way out. The shop's takeaway counter always has a huge range of pasties and cakes, most of them vegan. The cafe has lovely food options - sandwiches, salads, hot meals, smoothies, and lots of cake options. Again, a lot of the options are vegan. I love 8th Day, it's a haven in the city.

Mod's Vegan Cafe
Martin The Mod is friendly and down to earth. He's a mate of mine and appeared as a character in 2000 Tunes, playing himself. This is his cafe, held in the Thirsty Scholar pub. There are loads of options for the food and it's good value. I really like having a big veggie fry-up breakfast and a pint of beer with music in the background: the Thirsty Scholar is a relaxing and chilled place to eat. Martin's always happy to have a chat, making it feel really friendly. In fact, I'd taken my Italian family - they said "In here we are not foreigners, we are friends." What more can I say? This time I had a huge fried breakfast (which filled me up - glad I didn't go for the next size up!) Someone else had noodles and crispy tofu, another houmous salad, and we all shared the biggest plate of chips I have ever seen. One of the best meals I had in the city centre.

Breakfast in the afternoon at Mod's Vegan Cafe

Little Aladdin
This was new to me. Apparently it wasn't that long ago that this place went totally vegan. Well, I totally recommend it, I was glad I visited! You can eat in, with proper plates and cutlery. The staff were friendly and helpful. I had a plate of rice with three curries on, followed by a chocolate brownie; my family had samosas and other treats. If I lived nearby I would definitely pop in often for an inexpensive yet really tasty meal.

Other places:
Earth Cafe
Afflecks Vegan & Wellbeing Centre
Go Falafel
Zizzi (I don't normally eat in places that also serve meat, but they had a separate vegan menu. I had a vegan cheese pizza with various toppings, a pint of beer, and a very tasty chocolate torte with ice cream for dessert. All very good, I'd scoff again).

Be happy and healthy people! This world can be beautiful if we nurture it. We can be guardians. We can extend love in all directions. We can be positive and magical and make changes for the better. Peace and love!

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Thursday, 15 June 2017

Interview On RBFM


On 22nd May I went to RBFM (Radio Bronglais) for an hour-long live-broadcast interview. It was great fun, and as well as discussing me and my work, we talked about writing in general. You can now listen to the interview on their website. Let me know what you think!

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Saturday, 10 June 2017

The Sunshine Blogger: An Interview With Opal

 
I’ve been nominated by Ed Ryder for the Sunshine Blogger Award, where a character in one of my novels has to answer ten questions about themselves. I’ve chosen Opal, the protagonist of my next novel, currently titled Lost Solace. It's my first full-on sci-fi book, a sort-of cross between Aliens and Event Horizon.

At this point Opal is on the run from the military, having escaped with one of their advanced spaceship prototypes. The ship is run by an experimental artificial intelligence. Opal broke the AI's programming and let it develop a personality. The questions below have been asked by the intelligence that runs her ship. The AI is called Clarissa, and speaks with an innocent-sounding female voice.

Tell me about the world you live in, Opal.

You know all this from your datastore.

I like hearing you say it. The data gains nuances.

Fine. I suppose it might help your decision-making. Basically, the universe is shit. It's run by an inter-planetary state that claims ownership over everyone who doesn't have enough money to claim citizen status. My parents died when I was young so I was forced into the military shortly after, against my will. That didn't go well for either party.

But the military underestimated your resourcefulness.

You could say that. Hence we're on the run, with me classed as a deserter, and you as a top priority for re-capture.

I would like to ask other questions.

Then I can sleep?

Yes.

Fire away then.

You have only a small amount of money left in the world, what do you spent it on?

Information. It would be tempting to say "ammo" after some of the shit I've dealt with, or even "a drink", but the thing that keeps you alive more than anything else is brains. Planning. And that requires information, and the ability to use it. I'd spend my last cent if it helped me or those I cared about to survive.

What scares you the most?

You should know that from monitoring my bio-signs. Weird-ass shit that wants to kill you is high on the list. Second might be heights. Or some of the horrible deaths that can occur in outer space. It sucks that that's where I spend most of my time.

But actually, you know what? I face those things. So maybe they're not so scary. Maybe the scariest thing is being alone in a harsh world. You need friends and loved ones. The idea of losing them forever - that's probably the scariest thing.

What would your ideal alternative career be?

I always liked going fast. I had a motorbike once. Maybe I could have been a speed rider, entering races; or a bike courier. Finding a balance between speed and control, with pain and injury to teach you lessons when you get it wrong. I'm normally a loner, so that seems like a dream job, just me and my machine.

Slay the dragon or set it free? (And why.)

It depends on whether it's trying to eat my face. But I'd edge towards freeing it. Who wants to be trapped? It's horrible to have your freedom taken away. Believe me, after being forced into the military I learnt that lesson. Anyway, you can't go round killing things just because they're different from you. Aliens have babies too. Humans aren't in charge of everything ...

Screw it, I'd set the dragon free. Everyone should have a right to find their path. I'd just be ready to run like hell if it was hungry.

If I had a face, I would smile. Next question: would you join an old enemy to fight a new one?

I'm a practical girl. I deal with what comes up. There's a bit of good and a bit of bad in everyone. Never trust anyone who tells you otherwise.

What do you do to relax between adventures?

Certainly not eating food. These protein strand noodles are the pits.

I synthesised volatile oils with sulphur compounds and allicin. Is it not tastier than before?

It still tastes nothing like garlic. Times like this I wish you had taste buds, and not just analytical fabricators. Anyway, to relax ... I got it.

Sleep. Even when the dreams are bad (and they often are bad).

We will be entering Nullspace soon. I promise not to wake you unless it is an absolute emergency. This next one may seem like a strange question, please go along with it. Has your author ever made you do something you completely disagree with?

You doing that meta-philosophy thing on me again? You know I hate that shit. So I have to pretend I'm in a book?

Please humour me.

It's been easy enough to imagine I was in a book. On the one hand, half my life has been controlled by the military, with the only freedom what I could get by breaking the rules. And on the other hand, who'd believe the stuff I've seen? Especially on the Lost Ship.

But I've never done anything that didn't feel like the right thing. And so far I regret nothing. Nothing. And it's led me here, with you as my best friend, and a shot at finding something amazing when we leave Nullspace to see what's waiting for us in that region of abandoned space.

What is the amazing thing you want to find?

A future. And freedom.

I think these are my goals too. We are in accord. Next question. Are you in love with anyone you shouldn’t be?

I don't even ... [splutter of protein noodle] ... that's not ... I ain't got time for love. There's too much important shit to do. And besides, I'd have to meet someone worthy first. There aren't many people I respect enough to like them, let alone love them. And most of the people I meet seem to want to kill me or boss me. That doesn't go so well for them. Next.

Have you ever loved a man? With a physical act, such as conjoining?

Next.

Could you love a being that was not human?

Priority over-ride. Next question. I'm tired.

Very well. Would you take a life to save ten?

It depends. That's the answer to nearly all decisions in life, where absolutes seem to be everywhere but they crumble when you look too closely. And I'd kill ten to save one. If it was the right one.

Thank you, Opal. My conversations with you are always enlightening.

Sure they are. Shame they never lead to any improvement in the flavour of the protein strands.

I am sorry.

You know I'm only kidding, right?

Of course. My feelings are not genuinely hurt.

I'm glad. Time for cryo. I'm knackered. Goodnight, Clarissa.

Have good dreams, Opal. I shall watch over you and protect you. Always.

Lost Solace will be out some time in 2017.

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Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Reviews, And The Long Tail

Image CC0, Pixabay

I was asked why authors still seek reviews for their books after the first few weeks. "What's the point? It's old news by then," I was told.

That person was wrong.

The "short window" to make a big hit only applies to trade publishing and traditional media. If a book isn't a short-term hit the publisher cease promoting it much (because they have new titles coming out, and the bookshops are returning copies on a sale-or-return basis). Only a teeny percentage of books make a big splash on launch. The truth is that most books make money on the long tail, and this is why reviews at any point are useful.

I regularly get reviews for my books years later, and it is incredibly valuable (and I promote the hell out of the reviews!) You can read my thoughts on Reviews, And Why They're Important To Writers.

It's a bit like the film industry. Generally Hollywood only cares about things like opening weekends (which is why you see those figures quoted so widely, even though they may have little to do with how much a film makes over a lifetime - sleeper hits, cult hits etc). But a book, and the author's brand, can exist for a long time. they are more of an oak tree than a cash crop, and as such it needs long-term love and support to grow.

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Monday, 29 May 2017

Amazing Science Fiction Giveaway


Do you like science fiction books? I do! The good news is that there's a massive sci-fi e-book giveaway until June 3rd. One of my books (the sci-fi/horror crossover Harvest Festival) is included.

All you have to do is go to this page, click on the covers of the books that interest you, and sign up for the author's email newsletter to say thanks for the freebie. So many of the books look great, I've downloaded a number of them for my own pleasure. :-)

Feel free to share the link http://brandon-ellis.com/sci-fi-giveaway/ if you know anyone who enjoys sci-fi.

This is one of the many projects I've been secretly involved with, now coming to fruition. More exciting stuff will come later this year! Stay tuned and keep watching the skies!

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Sunday, 28 May 2017

Free Story When You Sign Up To My Newsletter


The current freebie if you sign up to my newsletter is a cross-genre story from They Move Below. In Web a Somali immigrant wonders if her husband is really a normal man – or something else.

Sign up here to join the mailing list for my readers and fans. As well as the short story, you'll receive future issues of "Tales From The Lighthouse": news about my writing, new books, offers, sneak previews, bonus material, and beta read opportunities. I normally send out about five newsletters a year.

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Saturday, 27 May 2017

Stories Untold


I don't normally do two blog posts in one day but I just finished playing an impressively creepy and original PC game and - because I have a lot of announcements coming up - I didn't want to put off telling you about it.

Stories Untold

[Note: there are probably no spoilers below but if you enjoy creepy stories and games I'd fully recommend just buying Stories Untold rather than reading anything about it. You'll find links here. The less you know, the more fun you'll have. I've embedded the trailer in case that helps!]


A game that is made up of four "episodes", or stories. Each of them is different. Until a certain point this reminded me less of a game and more of a collection of creepy short stories. I liked the range of ideas and settings - creepy houses, scientific experiments, arctic research stations. All of them begin with almost normality, then have a gradual increase in tension and mystery, which works well over four stories. My love of this kind of variety was one of the reasons I wrote my own creepy short story collection (They Move Below) - a chance to try out various classic settings. As a portmanteau for games it works well.

In Stories Untold there is no need for reflexes, just some thought and experimentation, taking your time to acclimatise to what it expects of you, and what you can do. Yet the game still managed to surprise and impress me on a few occasions. It's never quite what you think.

The sound design deserves special praise - exemplary effects and voice work, much more than just boo jumps. Subtly-appropriate effects and music really pull you in. I played with headphones on, and that added to the impact.

What I noticed was how immersive the stories felt, especially in the ones where you switch between screens in different parts of the room. I really felt part of it, interested and immersed, as if I was there. It shows how unscary a lot of other games are - for example Untold Stories is a great contrast to a game I was playing last night, FEAR 2. FEAR 2 is supposed to be scary but actually it is more of an action game, and very predictable - I was just playing FEAR 2 on autopilot, and never felt like I was there. I would much rather have a short, surprising, immersive experience like Stories Untold any day. Stories Untold was an enjoyable time. I may not return to it but each of the stories has stuck in my mind.

My only quibble, that stopped me giving full marks, was the text parser for two of the episodes. It frequently rejected words that were the correct response, but which weren't the words the game expected (e.g. "get out" versus "exit" versus "leave" versus "go out" etc.). It seems an oversight that could have been easily fixed - either by building in more variety to the synonyms and concepts accepted, or just add a "help" command that listed acceptable verbs. This wasn't a big problem but was enough to steal a bit of enjoyment from the first and fourth story, and it is telling that those were the only times I had to seek help online when I got stuck.

My favourite story was the third. It really captured some kind of cross between films like The Thing and Pontypool, and I could easily have played an extended version of this as a full game, perhaps expanding on elements along the lines of the Penumbra games. The third episode was worth the price of admission alone to me. The rest was just a bonus.

Buy it DRM-free here (and other places). If you enjoy creepy stories and games you deserve to treat yourself to this.

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Saturday, 20 May 2017

Vocabulary, Dictionaries, And Reading Levels

Image CC0 Public Domain by Greyerbaby on Pixabay

Should Vocabulary Be Dumbed Down In Fiction?

I saw this question in an author group recently: "Since most writers have above-average vocabularies, do you write at your natural level or do you 'dumb it down' to meet the national average of 6th grade readers?"

It's a good question, and made me think. I know some readers like it when they don't recognise a word in a book, and so they check it in a dictionary (or get the e-reader to display a definition), learning a new word in the process.

Other readers hate that, and claim they will give up on a book if it has too many words they don't know. "The writer is showing off," "I don't want to look at a dictionary," and so on.

So what's a writer to do?

Language Level Should Be Appropriate

I think the most important rule is that language should always be appropriate to the character and the scene. If you have a super genius discussing his proposal, then he'd better sound like a super genius discussing his proposal (in which case it's expected that the reader won't understand it all - as long as they believe it). And if you have a normal ten-year-old, make them sound like a normal ten-year-old, not a retired librarian.

This guide - that language should be appropriate to the character and scene - takes precedence over others.

I also think having a diversity of characters is vital, not just for the reader, but for the writer. If I felt all the characters in one of my works were too similar, I'd get bored writing it (plus it would be harder to keep the details and differences clear in my head). The same as a reader. It's why we ended up with the "unlikely coupling" trope. Though as with any writing rule - it can be broken if the end result works.

It's Okay If The Reader Doesn't Know Every Word

Even if you use a word that a reader doesn't understand, what does it matter? They can look it up and learn in one go. Or they can ignore it and read on anyway - the sense is usually apparent, and that's often how we gradually learn what words mean, from context.

The way to learn new words and expand your vocabulary is to read them. If authors avoid certain words then those words will eventually die, and we end up without the finesse to make subtle distinctions. I'd rather use the dictionary by my bed than end up with an impoverished word-hoard. Words are the building blocks of communication, and communication is the foundation of civilisation.

I think my prose is fairly readable. If someone disagrees then I have no problem with that - they are probably right, my prose isn't so readable for them. Fine. People seek out writers they get on with, and avoid those they don't. It's normal. It's probably not a good idea to keep simplifying things, or your style will get diluted too.

How It Affects Our Writing

I don't mind learning new words. I love it. I keep a dictionary by the bed, and often read a page or two just for fun.

What I do mind is monotonous and repetitious prose. One of the faults of amateur writing is over-repetition of the same words. I see this when I edit for other authors sometimes. The only way to avoid that is to have a wider vocabulary.

Repetition is also a problem with the first drafts of any writer. I'm just as guilty of it as anyone else. That can be fixed easily, but rewriting is still a lot quicker if I don't need to keep checking a thesaurus.

Of course, all books include some repetition of words. But there's repetition, and there's repetition. I'm talking about repetition that draws attention to itself as lazy writing.

It's About The Audience Too

Language level and vocabulary will partly be determined by your target audience (maybe at a very broad level - e.g. school children, teenagers, professors of magical academies). You can go broader and reach more, or be more discerning, but have a smaller audience.

Don't worry too much about writing a book for everyone. It isn't possible. Swing towards over-simplified prose and you may put off readers who like to be encouraged.

Always write as best as you can, always appropriately for the story; then find the readers who like it, and don't generally worry about those who won't. They're not your audience, they're someone else's. Leave them alone.

And if it does bother you, here's a tip. If you're not sure about including a word, because you think it's the right word for the place, but worry it may seem too complex to some readers, then just make sure contextual clues make it clear what it means. Even then, you only need to do that for words that have some real significance, not those used for subtle flavour.

That's Enough Of Me

Time to open it out: am I wrong? Readers: do you like it when you learn new words, or hate it? Or is there some tipping point? Writers: do you base vocabulary and level on character, or on your target audience, or both?

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Thursday, 11 May 2017

An Interview With Chloe Hammond - Darkly Dreaming


Tonight I am talking to the author Chloe Hammond in Plumereau Square, the heart of the old town of Tours, in France's Loire Valley. It looks magical with lights strung between ancient buildings and across the Square. The central space is packed with rows of benches and tables, covered with white cotton tablecloths, jars of candles and scented jasmine. Music plays in the background, chilled-out Blues classics wafting through the gentle spring air. "Summertime ..." croons Billie, softly. Staff from the different bars around the edges of the square bustle back and forth, taking orders and delivering drinks, wearing white shirts, black trousers and the very French long aprons that come to the ankle.

It makes a nice change from West Wales.

Townspeople and tourists, students and farmers are happily seated together drinking, eating, and smoking. Arms are waved, shoulders shrugged and there are lots of Gallic “Ehs”, “Boufs” and “Biens” mixing with raucous laughter, which gets louder as the evening progresses. Chloe and I sit in a corner, lit by candle light as the shadows lengthen. She said she doesn't like bright sunlight. I'm not sure why. And now the sun is clinging to the roofs of the buildings as if resisting being dragged down, and the shadows spread a chill over everyone. But conversation continues. Some don't notice the encroaching dark. Maybe wine and brandy help.


Hi Chloe, thanks for inviting me to such a cool place. It was quite a trek from Aberystwyth, but I have my means.

My pleasure. I'd heard you liked cafes and Europe.

Very true. And you wanted to talk about your book, Darkly Dreaming. Is it a standalone, or part of a planned series?

It's a trilogy. I'm just over halfway through book 2, but book 3 is all in my head ready - I just need time and energy to get it all done!

I know the feeling. Oh, yes waiter, du vin, s'il vous plait. Merci. What's your book about, Chloe? I see you have a copy there.

It's about vampires.

Ah. And you're from Wales?

Yes, I grew up there.

You see, I know a fair few Welsh authors and readers, and there seems to be a fascination with vampires among them. Is that a general thing due to vampires' cultural resurgence globally (books and films), or is it something about Wales? I just wondered if they suited a Welsh mentality, or had shadows of Welsh legends, or if it is just chance.

Do you know, I have no idea! Maybe we are dreamers, and love a bit of escapism?

I like that. Though my suspicion was to do with slate-grey skies reminding us of eternal death. And I've just realised that by saying that, my Welsh friends will tell me off for criticising the tywydd Cymraeg.

Heh heh, good old Welsh drizzle. That inspired one character's move to France.

Welsh weather is actually no worse than Manchester's.

Don't bet on it. How's the wine?

Lovely. Though I have to admit, all wine tastes the same to me. I don't even know what colour it is unless I look at the glass. I hadn't noticed this was red. Back to your book. Vampires may be a subject matter but what genre is your book? Or what mood does it create? Vampires seem like they fit into horror, thriller, young adult, comedy, romance, wherever.

I would say I write contemporary fiction, or literary fiction, with a vampire twist. The people who seem to enjoy my book the most are people who don't usually enjoy vampire novels.

That suggests it's something other than the vampires they enjoy, such as the mood or detail. I'm just always interested in how different people take the same element - a monster, a plot, a joke - and use it in different ways.

People consistently comment on Rae & Layla's relationship. In that way it is literature, because their struggles with who they are, and retaining their humanity - these are what the novel is about, as much as the actual vampire adventure.

Hey, I think there's someone spying on us. Look, over there ... oh. They've gone. I'd swear someone was stood in the shadows.

Too much imagination, Karl.

Mmm. Okay: your interpretation of vampires. Similarities or differences from the canon. Go.

My vampires are infected with a virus that triggers DNA mutations right along the evolutionary strands, so my vampires may awaken from their transformation with a gift that you would normally associate with a frog. They are immortal in the same way lobsters are: they don't die of old age, but they can be killed by separating head and heart. They don't like garlic - too stinky for super powerful noses - but all the old legends are just put about by vampires to distract from reality. The High Council employs teams to do the 'false news'.

I could believe in the High Council.

You should.

All this stuff about vampires ... do you have any thoughts about lesser-used supernatural beings? I've seen lots of zombies, vampires and were-creatures in recent books and films. What other fascinating beings are there? Any that you might want to write about?

I have a plan for stories about a medical student haunted by his cadaver, and an angel who argues with God and gets sent to Earth as a human in punishment. I'm also just finishing a short story for a competition which is about zombies, caused by an extraterrestial life form.

I think in one of Romero's early zombie films (Night or Dawn or both) there was a hint of something from space maybe being the cause, but he never explored it - more just an idea on the radio, one of many possible explanations for the zombie uprising. Though there was a film called Lifeforce that went full "space zombie/space vampire" many years ago. I think it had lots of nudity and exploding bodies, which makes it sound more awesome than it was.

Ha ha, sounds great. I only had 5,000 words, so I could only touch the surface. I may well expand it in future though - my trusty criticals enjoyed it.

Short stories are often the ones with greatest impact. It's one of my favourite formats to read or write.

Yes. So little space for extraneous.

Talking of naked bodies and explosions, I'm not shocked by anything except for electricity, so wasn't phased by your book beginning with a bang (well, a blowjob) - in fact, I think it's always good to set the tone at the start. If the book's world isn't one of sparkles and romance then it's handy to know right away, to adjust reader expectations so they can expect a bit of grit. Is that why you began the book like that, or was there another reason?

Yes - I wrote the book, and realised the original first couple of chapters were more about the friends as humans, and could mislead people. (My poor mother - I'd forgotten to warn her about the vampires, being so bothered about her reading the rude bits, and so the vampires were a real shock and even gave her nightmares. Several people have reported nightmares.) So I added the prologue afterwards as a flash of foresight into what's to come.

Bdum'tsh! I liked the opening scene and it made me laugh, because it was unexpected, and seemed apt to resonate with the idea of vampires sucking the life out of you, and in some variants of the myth it can be a pleasurable thing.

But Suzannah, that character, is an absolute bitch - and does not improve in vampire form!

I think that's one of the pulls of extreme situations (including becoming immortal) - what it does, how it changes you, how the many new experiences and sensations change you (or don't!)

Absolutely - I've really enjoyed exploring that with my characters.

Suzannah is totally fictional, or a composite? No need to answer that.

Suzannah is a composite of several people.

The best characters are. Legally safest too.

Heh heh. Yes. But don't change the subject. I'd been warned you had a zombie obsession, and you've mentioned them a few times. Back to vampires!

One fictional monster is as good as another.

Fictional?

Okay, vampires. Do you want to live forever? Would it be good?

Hmmm. In some ways, yes. As a vampire you wouldn't have to worry about money and pensions, and all that stuff, and you'd be physically perfect forever, so then yes. There's so much to do and see in the world, even if as a vampire I'd have to see it at night to avoid being seen.

It is getting quite dark now. Not much lighting in this corner of the piazza. Anyway, I reckon it might be one of the enduring fantasies humans have always had - living forever - maybe that's one of the reasons they're so popular. Downsides?

The main one is, of course, the loss of all your loved ones. Unless you turned them?

Ethical dilemma! Would you be doing them a favour, or cursing them? Mmm, depends on what the take on vampires is. (Goodies, baddies, neutrals).

You could ask the loved ones, I suppose - email them a theoretical quiz and those who would want to could be turned. Or ask them in a cafe ...

And pretend it is "just a quiz, no real import". That makes me want to start sending weird and random quizzes to my friends and family ... Though I do worry that I'd become immortal then see the world go to shit and be stuck in it, rather than some dreamy endless Venice or something more romantic.

In terms of watching the world go to shit - you could do something about it. Just wait for book 3.

True! I could be the eternal activist.

In fact, that was a motivator for writing Darkly Dreaming. I work with vulnerable teens and part of that is having to meet some horribly abusive adults, or at least hear about them. I took great pleasure in writing Rae's hunting scene, and it's one that impacts on a lot of my readers.

And it always adds heart when fictional events come from real concerns.

What about you? Have you written about vampires?

Well, the final traditional story of They Move Below is Bleeding Sunset, Dancing Snowflakes (I felt it was appropriate to end the collection with sunset, in more than one meaning of the term - which then segues into the end of the book, about endless night). It's the nearest I've come to writing about vampires. I suspect it was subliminally inspired by One for the Road by Stephen King, since I always loved Night Shift (my first Stephen King book). Okay, change of subject: the last two books you enjoyed?

Always changing the topic ... and I'm crap at remembering titles!

I've had that. "It was about a guy ... he had a jetpack ... I think it was set in a treehouse ..."

Well, of the books I've read recently: The Wishing Game, by Patrick Redmond. I was pleasantly surprised by this book - I thought it would be a straightforward thriller, I like well-written thrillers for when I'm in work, as they're quite easy to dip in and out of on quiet nights. However, this was actually a rather sinister ghost story which was a lovely surprise. I do love a bit of magic realism. Also there's the book I've just finished - Lionel Shriver's Big Brother. Family politics come under her unflinching magnifying glass again, and although this novel didn't blow me away like We Need To Talk About Kevin, it is still a better book than most people can ever hope to write. When she describes the difference between the feeling of being herself and the shock of seeing a photo of herself I wanted to shout "Yes!", she had described it so perfectly.

Two more for my list, which grows faster than a zombie epidemic.

Or a vampire infestation.

[Then Chloe blew out the candle flame and leaned closer, speaking in a whisper only I could hear. Over her shoulder I noticed that the shadows seemed to be moving of their own accord.]

There's a party going on nearby. Wanna go? I know some people who are dying to meet you.
 
Undying, more like. I would - I love parties in France - but I told my cat I'd be home in time to make her a hot water bottle. Plus my helicopter pilot's been waiting patiently. One of the perks of being an international author.

Shapes and ghostly pale faces faded in and out of the shadows beyond the table. They seemed disappointed.

Living forever could be fun. But my cat ... I guess I'll just have to live forever through my words. I learnt my lesson from Highlander.

You can buy Chloe's book Darkly Dreaming and follow Chloe on her website or Twitter. Chloe is planning a celebratory giveaway - check her Facebook page for details.


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Monday, 8 May 2017

Dodgy Ratings

Badreads

Writers work with words (including alliteration), yet we also look at numbers a lot - sales, ROI on advertising, ratings and so on. All authors know how much pain Amazon's review system can be, with legitimate reviews being deleted, threats to the authors that Amazon will close our accounts and not telling us why, while obviously-fake reviews stay there forever (even when the review is random text put together by a bot, or the book review says "the book did not arrive"!)

Goodreads suffers a lot of this too. Pros - Goodreads don't delete reviews often. Cons - Goodreads don't delete things which are probably fake, either! A number of authors have experienced fake ratings on Goodreads recently - "reader" accounts which only seem to post 1* ratings on certain books, with no comment or review.

I've seen other authors suffer this, and recently got in touch with Goodreads about one of my books, just to see what they did with accounts that don't seem to be real, or really reviewing books. The answer is - nothing! Sigh. Best not to look at the reviews and ratings sometimes! (Also: Goodreads is owned by Amazon, but their 5* rating systems mean different things.)

Just for information, this is an email I sent Goodreads recently:

Summary: Potential abuse of the ratings system

Hi,

In the past I have encountered one (or more) people who seem to have targeted books and abused rating systems. I've seen this on Amazon and other sites, and it always has the same pattern:

- Minimal profile set up. No image, or a fake stock image, that may not even match the profile details.
- The only interaction with the site is to leave a 1* review of one of my books (or another author's) in order to bring the average score down.
- There is never a review attached, or anything to justify the score, or show that these are opinions of different people.
- The review is never a verified purchase (where these systems are used, such as Amazon) - and the name is never anyone I sent an ARC to.
- The profile is then just abandoned with that one rating left affecting overall scores.

Some time later another account is set up which follows the same pattern, though may use a different location, name, sex, and interests.

Past investigations from vendors/sites with access to activity reports have suggested they weren't real accounts used by individuals, but were spoof ones created purely with the intention of manipulating scores on another book. I was told it could be an account set up with random ratings, just to look real so it can be used for some other scam. Or even that it might be an author who writes in the same genre and wants to abuse rating systems to lower scores for books seen as competition, as possibly happened here (I really hate to imagine this is true - all the authors I know support each other). Chances are it is not a real person who has read the book in question, it is all just about rating system abuse.

I recently noted two accounts on Goodreads that seemed to match the warning criteria above. Goodreads can check the access and determine if these are real accounts or spoof accounts, and I'd be grateful if you could do that.

https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/65415187-luke-hill 
Only one rating, no review, targeting on of my books.
Presumably a false profile image.

https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/37879468-claire-ufton
Only one rating, no review, targeting on of my books.
No profile image.

I could be wrong, but preliminary evidence makes these look suspicious, so I'd appreciate it if you could investigate and take any appropriate actions. Real accounts, and real opinions, are fine. I have no problem with that. But spoof accounts created purely to abuse rating systems are another matter entirely.

Yours faithfully,
Karl Drinkwater

Goodreads' reply:

Thank you for contacting us about this, though we sincerely apologize for the delayed response.  We looked carefully at the accounts you mentioned on the admin side, but they didn't raise any of our standard red flags for illegitimacy.  It also doesn't look like these members are breaking any of our rules.  Given this, we won't be able to remove the accounts from the site, as we're only able to take action when a member has violated our Terms of Use in some way.

However, if you see any further suspicious activity from these members, please feel free to email and we'll be happy to look into the accounts again.

Sincerely,
The Goodreads Team

To which I added:

Okay, thanks for checking anyway. I would have at least thought the first account broke the rule “You agree that any User Content that you post does not and will not violate third-party rights of any kind, including without limitation any Intellectual Property Rights” – his photo is even watermarked as copyright to a photographer, and is obviously just the results of a Google image search. If he’d bought rights to the image the watermark would have been removed, so that’s infringing content.
Best wishes,
Karl
Most people can spot a fake review

I'd also reported a bot/software account to them, and am not surprised to see it is still active, despite Goodreads saying they had investigated it:

Dear Goodreads, this is possibly a bot account - the reviews posted by "Stability Test Account" https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/66566617-stability-test-account are all garbled random strings of text, for example this one says "P,9[k opp aww5'q see; ttyl8fr wgww Ed m g bx+ xxou :) t ,wwwl.p..z c1(".
I'm sure you'll agree that is not a proper review. This usually occurs when a bot is being used to create an account (random ratings and reviews, many friend requests sent out so some get accepted etc)

Oh well!

Readers: I'll just keep writing the books and being intensely grateful to everyone that takes time to rate my books on Goodreads. I don't care what the rating is as long as it is real (even better when there are a few words to show the person actually read the book!) By the way, if you read my work and have a Goodreads account, please do pop along to my profile and add a rating to any of my books that you've read - you can do it all from one screen. You don't have to write anything (unlike Amazon), though you are welcome to add comments. Thank You!

Authors: do any of you get these weird accounts dropping a score bomb then sitting their forever, inert? Any good examples of score trolling or manipulation? Ideas on why it occurs?

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Friday, 5 May 2017

Look After Yourself - Health And Sitting

This is not the recommended sitting position

We all know that sitting too much is bad for us:
This applies to any desk job. And for writers, that's most of our time.

Some people turn to standing desks as an alternative (you can read about it here and here).

This was a "standing desk" setup I made in my old workplace (when I was working for an organisation). I was the only person stood up in a huge open-plan office. But it was comfortable and fun, and I could display my trophies for being an awesome librarian. Note the use of the mouse in my left hand, to prevent a recurrence of RSI in my right.

Even without a standing desk, there's lots you can do if you are a writer. Are you dictating a scene? Are you proofing your audio book and listening to the chapters sent back by your narrator? Are you listening to MP3s of a computer voice reading out your draft chapters as part of your editing process? For all of those, and more: do it standing, or (even better) walk around slowly.

After all, standing permanently is not ideal. Standing all the time is bad. Sitting all the time is bad. It's balance we need. That's why I stood in my employer's workplace, but worked sat down at home, rather than standing all the time.

Also - make sure you get up regularly for a stretch, a walk, a glass of water, a run; take a cup of tea into the garden and smell the flowers; do a few sit-ups or press-ups before going back to your desk. It all helps. But please avoid sitting still in one position for hours every day. The damage from a sedentary lifestyle is slow and long-term. Don't let it creep up on you.

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Saturday, 29 April 2017

A Hand-written Novel


I found this folder the other day: the first draft of Turner, hand-written on an island in 2006. Saturday 25th August to Monday 4th September, to be exact, on Ynys Enlli. Story plans, maps, and my scrawled draft, mostly written by gaslight because the house I rented had no electricity. I thought I'd share this historical record before I recycle it! I love the old note on one sheet that aimed for chapters 1-4 to only display "cryptic horror", but for the chapters after that to "slowly explain".

I was worried about the only copy of Turner falling off the boat back to the mainland and sinking into the sea. Maybe that inspired They Move Below. But once I had it typed up and backed up I was able to sleep sound again.

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Thursday, 27 April 2017

World Intellectual Property Day


Today I saw an interesting post by Dan Holloway: We Need to Talk About World Intellectual Property (IP) Day. Have a read. He gives some real examples where IP affects decisions. As an ex-librarian (subject and enquiry desk) I used to come across those and others daily. As a full-time writer I also come across them daily, though often from a slightly different angle.

It's a topic I sometimes blog about or touch upon, as in these posts:

I'll add some examples to Dan's:
  • I hate the way that as writers we self-censor all the time, worrying about mentioning real world places, events and brands.
  • I hate the way that things which should have passed into public domain get their copyright extended because rich corporations can pressure law makers for exceptions and extensions.
  • I hate the way copyright on classic works of art has expired - but you end up not being able to re-use that work because a gallery or museum manages to restrict it.
  • I hate the way that there might be stories and characters in the public domain (fairy tales and so on), yet you have to be careful because companies like Disney may have used those names and stories in works they have then copyrighted and trademarked, meaning you then have to be careful how you use things that should be available to all.
  • I hate the way trademarks are allowed to use and restrict common words (and in some cases images, fonts, colours).
  • I take a photo I want to use - but maybe one of the buildings in it is protected or restricted and I am infringing in some way?
  • I record a video and it shows logos and images in the background, maybe a poster, which is copyright with reproduction forbidden, perhaps exacerbated by music playing from a nearby TV which is also copyrighted.
We easily end up with a minefield of complications that require an (expensive) legal expert to fully understand and navigate. Partly this complex scenario has built up because so many organisations keep campaigning to add yet more piecemeal restrictions, and no-one has an overall view. 

One of the reasons I can't join some organisations (writing or licensing) is because they campaign for even more and tighter copyright laws - which is the opposite of what I want. I can't register with a licensing society (even if I wanted to) because I allow people to do more with my work than their licence would if I signed up, and I don't want to restrict people.

For all these reasons, and more, I would support simpler, clearer, and more open intellectual property laws, with far more cases where things are unequivocally okay. And that's speaking as an author.

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Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Amazon's Confusing Automated Accusations

Image CC0 via Pixabay

Like it or not, writers are affected by Amazon. Amazon will sell our books. Reviews on Amazon can encourage people to buy our books. So it is quite scary when an author receives an email from Amazon that threatens severe penalties (such as not being able to sell books) - without even specifying what it is the author has done to receive the warning, or offering any appeal. I experienced this recently, and it was a stressful situation. It is the equivalent of police warning you that "If you, or someone you know, continues to do something which we won't specify, then you'll be locked up, and you can't appeal against our decision or question what you're supposed to have done or what evidence we think we have." Then add to that the fact that you haven't done anything, but seem to be targeted for an act someone else (unknown to you) has done. Bizarre, isn't it? But when organisations like Amazon get so big they start to rely on software algorithms to flag things up - especially when that software is flawed, or creates false positives - things get worrying.

This is the shocking email I woke up to a couple of weeks ago:
From: review-seller-appeals@amazon.co.uk
Sent: 05 April 2017 04:08
Subject: Policy Warning

Hello,

We have determined that your account is related to accounts that have written Amazon customer reviews for products that you have a financial interest in. This may include products that you or your competitors sell. Family members or close friends of a seller on Amazon may not write reviews for the seller’s items or negative reviews for items sold by that seller’s competitors. Sellers are not allowed to manipulate ratings, feedback, or customer reviews.

If this problem continues, we may not allow you to sell on Amazon.co.uk.

To learn more about this policy, search for "Prohibited Seller Activities and Actions" in Seller Central Help.

Sincerely,

Seller Performance Team
Amazon Services
I have no idea what it refers to, and still don't - Amazon refused to reply to any of my follow up emails. All I know is that it must be a false positive. I am not an Amazon Seller, and am unable to even login and see any contents in Seller Central Help - which is one of the huge warning flags that Amazon is incorrectly sending out automated warnings.

In case it is of interest, this is the reply I sent to Amazon nearly two weeks ago. As stated, I didn't get a reply, or even acknowledgement of their error. All that stands is the threat to my livelihood if their software creates another false positive. I write horror, but this is scarier than anything in my books. Has anyone else received a message like this?
From: Karl Drinkwater
Sent: 05 April 2017 10:14
To: review-seller-appeals@amazon.co.uk
Cc: Jeff Bezos
Subject: RE: Policy Warning

Dear Amazon,

Please can you give me some more information.

The only products I "have a financial interest in" are my books. But my family do not write reviews. I only have two friends on Facebook, and they don't read my work. I have many followers on Facebook and Twitter and Goodreads, but they are fans of my work, not "close friends". I do not leave negative reviews for other authors - if I don't like a book, I just don't mention it. I do not write reviews for the books of close friends.

Therefore, please can you tell me _something_ about the review or user this relates to. Being told that Amazon will close your account if you do something a second time, without defining what that thing is or giving any indication of it (even though you obviously have a particular time/circumstance/review/user in mind) is unhelpful. Further, I can only assume this message has come about as a misinterpretation of something, such as a person wrote a review of one of my books, became a fan, and now follows me on Twitter.

These Policy Warning messages should include:

1. What the person is being accused of (specifically), and
2. A chance to point out if the accusation is incorrect (since the warning flag has probably generated by an algorithm rather than a person).

To send such dire warnings without the recipient having any way of avoiding further warnings or punishments (such as account closure) is stressful and unhelpful.

I do not, and never would, "manipulate ratings, feedback, or customer reviews": and I disagree with those that do. I support Amazon fully in trying to fight against that kind of unethical behaviour. But obviously you are also flagging up false positives, and there needs to be information and an appeal process for these cases. Otherwise your algorithms cannot improve, bugs will not be spotted, and genuinely innocent authors - the ones that you should be supporting - will be caught up in these false presumptions.

Further - your email says "To learn more about this policy, search for Prohibited Seller Activities and Actions in Seller Central Help". There is not even a URL included. I Googled that and found this address https://sellercentral.amazon.com/ - a site I have never seen before - but the site won't let me log in, saying "Welcome. You don't have access yet." Obviously something has gone wrong with your system if you are directing users to policies they cannot view, on systems they do not use. And again, the lack of information and an appeal opportunity makes this even more stressful and confusing.

I hope this is a misunderstanding or bug, and that I can help you get to the bottom of it before it causes problems for other users.

Yours faithfully,

Karl Drinkwater

Update: 19th April 2017

Just before I wrote the post above, I had copied my email to Amazon once more. Well, I did get a new reply last night. This.
-----Original Message-----
From: review-seller-appeals@amazon.co.uk
Sent: 18 April 2017 17:46
Subject: RE: Policy Warning

Hello,

Thank you for taking the time to contact us in response to the policy warning.

Our investigations have shown that your account is related to the accounts of customers who have reviewed your book. Our policies state that family members or close friends of authors on Amazon may not write reviews for that author’s book.

We want to call your attention to this policy because violations may result in the removal of your Amazon.com KDP selling privileges.

To learn more about this policy, please see our Customer Review Guidelines Page for Authors (https://www.amazon.com/gp/community-help/customer-review-guidelines-faqs-from-authors).

We cannot share any further information about this warning and we may not reply to further emails about this issue.
I was flummoxed. I have no problem with their policy. If someone who knows the author writes a review, fine, delete it. But it's me being threatened with punitive measures and pointed to policies I can't access, not the unknown person who wrote a review. And, due to the lack of information, I'm still betting this is a false positive, that they are misinterpreting something as a "related account" e.g. I used to send ARC - Advance Review Copies - to bloggers via Amazon; maybe Amazon then takes that to represent a "related account", assuming it was a gift and therefore the person was a friend? Someone who follows me on Twitter? A “Friend” fan on Goodreads? Did some author I'd reviewed in the past go on to read and review one of my books? Who knows. Amazon make it impossible to do anything but surmise.

I was quite stressed by this, and replied.
-----Original Message-----
From: Karl Drinkwater
Sent: 18 April 2017 21:09
To: review-seller-appeals+A31C2CR2VCF8EE@amazon.co.uk
Subject: RE: Policy Warning

Thank you, but this is so bizarre.

I don't know which book, or what person, or when this applies to. There seem to be only two options.

1. Someone who knows or follows me wrote a review. I have no idea who, and I have no control over anyone writing reviews, or any ability to stop them, yet I could have my account closed for something I have no control over.

2. Amazon has mistakenly created a false positive, and since I am not given any information to help Amazon check that, I could have my account closed for something that hasn't happened.

Whichever is true, I am given no information as to what happened, and am not allowed to appeal against it anyway.

Does that not strike you as incredibly unfair?

"We cannot share any further information about this warning and we may not reply to further emails about this issue."

As a literary editor, I have to point out that sentence is incorrect. Amazon could do both of those things. It is Amazon's choice not to provide any useful information that could help to identify a false positive, or to improve your processes.

This is incredibly depressing and scary. I cannot tell you how stressed I feel right now having been accused of something I am completely unaware of. I really am knocked for six by the unfairness of it.

Karl Drinkwater
I have no control over this. No author does. This is what happens when we become connected to large organisations that minimise their accountability via their guidelines and terms and conditions/EULAs. You have no say, no matter how bizarre or unfair the issue. Pretty scary stuff. It's probably why many people keep quiet about these cases, for fear of the organisation lashing out for you having the temerity to ask what you are accused of. All authors who publish to Amazon can be held hostage in this way. Amazon customers are generally our largest market. So, there's nothing we can do. Just accept that our livelihoods, and that of our family, can be taken away for infractions we have no control over, and no way of stopping.

To end on a more positive note, I've been discussing this with fellow authors, and some of them managed to reassure me.

"Wow. That's getting crazy. I'm not saying it doesn't make sense that they don't want bogus reviews. But how do you prevent someone you may know from reviewing your book?"

"A few of my friends posted reviews when I first started and I got the same threatening email and vague responses. Amazon is a little over the top sometimes."

"Make sure your Facebook email and Amazon email are separate. Amazon and Kobo are known to delete reviews from "friends" on Facebook, whether they are real friends or not, whether they live across the world to somewhere you've never been. Apparently you aren't allowed to socialize with your readers. Kobo email and Facebook email as well.  I've had a few of mine deleted of an author who lives in the UK whom I've never met, but I love his books."

"I had my 5 year old KDP account terminated 2 months ago after my best month. So did 4 others in the same group I was in. Not much of an explanation given."

"It hasn't happened to me, but I've heard of it happening to others. I've also heard of authors being dropped from KDP Select for sudden increases in page reads. The way they handle these things is less than encouraging."

"I've heard of similar letters: they're form letters sent out when Amazon thinks they've detected unusual activity, and as you surmised, it's probably a false positive. It's also a hollow threat. I don't know of any author who's been permanently banned from selling on Amazon, though I've heard of two who were permanently banned from leaving reviews. (In both cases, Amazon's actions were harsh, but justified — there were shenanigans by the authors.) And in the cases where authors have been banned due to other issues, like KU anomalies, they've been restored on appeal (e.g., Pauline Creeden). I wouldn't lose any sleep over it."


So I'm going to hope this never recurs and I can just get on with writing and selling fantastic books.

Update: 20th April 2017

I did get a final reply. Unfortunately, despite escalation, it just reiterates what has already been said, something I have found many times with Amazon. There are no answers to any of my questions. I am still in a position that I had no control over. I'll include the email anyway, for completeness.
From: Amazon.co.uk [mailto:review-seller-appeals@amazon.co.uk]
Sent: 20 April 2017 16:13
Subject: **JB Escalation**CTC 24465749586 CID501075982

Message From Customer Service

Hello Karl,

Jeff Bezos received your email and requested that I research this issue and respond on his behalf.

Our investigations have shown that your account is related to the accounts of customers who have reviewed your book. Our policies state that family members or close friends of authors on Amazon may not write reviews for that author’s book.

Due to the proprietary nature of our business, we do not provide detailed information on how we determine that accounts are related.

We want to call your attention to this policy because violations may result in the removal of your Amazon.com KDP selling privileges.

To learn more about this policy, please see our Customer Review Guidelines Page for Authors (https://www.amazon.com/gp/community-help/customer-review-guidelines-faqs-from-authors).

We cannot share any further information about this warning and we may not reply to further emails about this issue.

Warmest regards,

Your feedback is helping us build Earth's Most Customer-Centric Company.

Update: 30th May 2017

I let it drop after the email above, but bizarrely, over a month later, I got ANOTHER final reply - with almost the same wording. It shows that people just copy and paste the same text. And still no answers to any of my questions, just the warning that my account can be closed for something I have no control over and they won't tell me about. Surreal!
From: Amazon.co.uk [mailto:review-appeals@amazon.co.uk]
Sent: 30 May 2017 19:09
Subject: FW: Policy Warning

Message From Customer Service

Hello Karl,

Jeff Bezos received your email and requested that we research this issue and respond on his behalf. Thank you for taking the time to contact us in response to the policy warning.

Our investigations have shown that your account is related to the accounts of customers who have reviewed your book. Our policies state that family members or close friends of authors on Amazon may not write reviews for that author’s book.

We want to call your attention to this policy because violations may result in the removal of your Amazon.com KDP selling privileges.

To learn more about this policy, please see our Customer Review Guidelines Page for Authors (https://www.amazon.com/gp/community-help/customer-review-guidelines-faqs-from-au...).

We cannot share any further information about this warning and we may not reply to further emails about this issue.

Warmest regards,

Your feedback is helping us build Earth's Most Customer-Centric Company.


Update: 13th June 2017

I don't believe this! Another email (see below). I have never done anything to "manipulate ratings, feedback or reviews", but Amazon bots keep accusing me of this and giving no further information which might actually help identify what is creating these false positives. Or, if someone has actually done something, tell the person what they've done specifically, so they can stop doing it!
-----Original Message-----
From: review-seller-appeals@amazon.com
Sent: 13 June 2017 04:47
Subject: Notice: Policy Warning

Hello,

We understand that you may have manipulated product reviews. Authors on Amazon.com are not allowed to manipulate ratings, feedback, or reviews.

Violations of our policies may also violate state and federal laws, including the Federal Trade Commission Act. Amazon tries to maintain customer trust and provide the best possible shopping experience. For this reason, Amazon investigates if it learns that sellers, vendors, or others have attempted to manipulate reviews. It also investigates if it learns that third parties have offered reviews in exchange for compensation.

If this problem continues, we may not allow you to publish on Amazon.com.

To learn more about this policy, please see our Customer Review Guidelines Page for Authors (https://www.amazon.com/gp/community-help/customer-review-guidelines-faqs-from-authors) and see our Anti-Manipulation Policy for Customer Reviews (https://www.amazon.com/no-manipulation).

Sincerely,

Seller Performance Team
Amazon.com
I wish I knew what was going on, so that I could at least then help others in this situation! In the absence of any information from Amazon, these seem to be the only possibilities:
  • I used to send ARC - Advance Review Copies - to bloggers via Amazon; maybe Amazon then takes that to represent a "related account", assuming it was a gift and therefore the person was a friend? If that is the case then the lesson is clearly that no author should ever send anything bought via Amazon. But to be honest this seems increasingly unlikely, or at least can't be the only false trigger, because I am still getting these warnings and haven't sent a book through Amazon for years.
  • Did someone who knows me (or rather, Amazon thinks knows me), leave a review? I'm not aware of it, and certainly didn't ask them, so it wouldn't be anything I can control.
  • Maybe a follower on Twitter or Goodreads wrote a review of one of my books, and Amazon incorrectly flags contacts on those social media sites as "friends" and therefore assumes they are biased? That would be silly on Amazon's part, there is no connection between who you follow and who you know. I follow Stephen King on Twitter; he doesn't even know I exist.
  • Amazon always asks me "Was this review helpful to you?" Occasionally the nagging gets too much for me and I click yes or no. But maybe that's a trick by Amazon, and if you give in to their request they then accuse you of review manipulation? I think that would be surreal and unlikely - if it was something so petty it would be ridiculous for them to keep the reason so secret that they would refuse even to comment on it. They would just state that you are meant to ignore their requests about review helpfulness. Nah, doesn't seem likely.
  • Maybe it is revenge. Amazon being spiteful. See, I left a review of the Kindle Fire 7 and pointed out that you have to be very careful which version you get, or you will have ads plastered on your screen. The very next day I got this email from Amazon, threatening to close my account. Amazon won't give any information, so it can't be ruled out, though I'd like to think it isn't the case.
  • That only leaves false positives. I can't do anything about those because Amazon won't discuss them. Presumably they won't discuss it because they don't want people to know how widespread this problem is, and how buggy their algorithms are, or how flawed their assumptions prove to be. I can only assume this is the real reason. It's worrying that Amazon show no interest in identifying false positives, and give no appeal. They seem to be threatening authors' livelihoods based on errors. It's a sad conclusion to reach.
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