Catfishing on the Amazon

Selbe Lynn/Flickr
Selbe Lynn/Flickr

Last week, The Washington Post published Caitlin Dewey’s article How an industry of ‘Amazon entrepreneurs’ pulled off the Internet’s craftiest catfishing scheme, and it caught my eye because it deals with the tactic of self-publishing ebooks on Amazon, and then paying for fake reviews to boost sales.

The article’s use of the term entrepreneur is apt, since these entrepreneurs do not write the books themselves, but hire others to do it. This is hardly the first time that someone has ghostwritten books for someone else. According to Wikipedia, ghostwriters have penned, among other materials, memoirs (Ronald Reagan, Hillary Clinton) and novels (Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys). And the idea is the name of the ghostwriter isn’t given credit with the book.

The entrepreneur described in The Washington Post article uses the pseudonym of Dagny Taggart, taken from Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged. This is different than a pen name, since the person with a pen name actually wrote the book. I’m fine with someone using a pen name, and literature has many writers using alternate names, such as Stephen King, Joanne Rowling, and Dean Koontz (whose Wikipedia site lists 10 pen names).

I had heard of the practice of paying ghostwriters and assembling a library of ebooks on Amazon, but I didn’t realize how big a single entrepreneur’s library could be. The article notes that Dagny Taggart published 84 ebooks in one year! I’ve self-published two ebooks in 2015, so that number boggles my brain.

I found the idea of paying someone for a fake review to be disturbing. The marketplace is surely a crowded one (84 books in one year from one person!), and each writer (or entrepreneur) wants to grab attention of viewers and turn them into customers who purchase their books. If I’ve never heard of an author, a review is certainly helpful. Same with the advice of friends about a new restaurant in town: should try it out, or is the food and/or service not worth it? So I can see how a glowing, five-star review would help a book’s sales. And how twenty of those kinds of reviews would help even more.

Also, the article made me meditate on how I want to approach this blog. In my old blog, I posted things I created (drawings, flash fiction, etc.), and I didn’t talk about personal matters. But as I think about this new blog, I’d like to open myself up more.

Why not start now? I added a photo of me on the About page — something I never did during six years on my old blog. I hope to someday become a full-time writer. I’ve had that dream for many years, ever since falling in love with stories and thinking that books were magical in how they drew me in. I still love books, and I’ve wanted to become a writer capable of conjuring that story magic.

When I get into the rhythm of writing, it’s amazing. But the idea of getting my work out there is a scary one. I’ve dealt with lack of confidence for a while, in thinking my writing wasn’t good enough, that readers wouldn’t like it. Starting small helped, and you can find many of my flash fiction stories on my old blog. This past summer, I told myself I needed to get a longer story out there, and I picked a horror story, since Halloween made for a convenient deadline. I was very pleased to finish a novella in late October. It’s up on to Amazon, and I set it as a free download for five days in the hopes of getting readers to try out an author they’d never heard of before. The novella doesn’t have any reviews, so that answer hasn’t come.

But the answer will come eventually. In the meantime, I will never pay for a review to try to fake out potential readers.

Also in the meantime, I will continue writing. I’m researching one story and writing another story, and progress has been good.

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Halloween gift

Happy Halloween! To celebrate this day of ghosts and goblin and witches and more, my novella Don’t Lose Your Head has been free on Amazon for a few days, and it will continue to be free through tomorrow. Here’s the cover:

Don't Lose Your Head cover

It’s a horror story with a ghost haunting another character. I won’t say why the ghost is doing the haunting, as I don’t want to give that part of the story away. But I will give away a small part of the story, as here’s an excerpt…

Alan ran away, the slaps of his rapid footsteps bouncing about the canyon-like room. The only exit he could see was the opening with the strips of clear plastic, where Gottlieb had pointed before. Why wasn’t there a door to the outside? And a car in the parking lot?
         More footsteps resounded with his—along with the roar of the artist coming after Alan: “Class is in session! Follow your dreams, Alan! They know vaht’s right for you!”
         The plastic strips clattered as Alan thrust them to the sides and rushed into the next room. Cold air wrapped its arms around him. His breath burst out in jets of cloud.
         Pig carcasses had chains coming out of their mouths, and the chains were looped on hooks at the ceiling. The carcasses were enormous, cow sized, and there were many of them in the room. Without any skin, the muscles of the pigs were evident. Ready to be sliced into chops and ribs and bacon and various remainders collected into sausages.
         Alan moved between the carcasses. At least he could hide behind the carcasses—except for his feet, since the pigs didn’t reach all the way to the floor. His desperate eyes scanned the walls for a door that led to freedom.
         The soft clatter of plastic signaled Gottlieb’s arrival in the room.
         “Here, piggie piggie!” Gottlieb called. “Come out, come out, little piggie! I vill huff and puff and blow the house down!”
         A blast hurled through the room, like an icy winter wind off the ocean. The carcasses swung violently on their hooks. The chains clinked. Alan feared the pigs would fall, and then he would be a clear target for Gottlieb. But the dead pigs didn’t fall. They swung like frantic pendulums of grandfather clocks that couldn’t stand the length of a second any longer and sped up, making time sprint forward in a sickening pace, the world teetering on its axis, the floor tilting as if a giant had picked up the world and angled it, making Alan slide across the floor of the slaughter room.

Want to read more? You have through tomorrow to swoop over to Amazon and pick up a free e-book. I hope you enjoy the story, and I hope you have a fun and safe Halloween!

Don’t Lose Your Head

Don't Lose Your Head cover

My novella Don’t Lose Your Head is free from today until Sunday! It’s a story that’s in the horror genre, just in time for Halloween.

The story came out of advice to write something you’re scared of. Plus, the idea behind the story lodged into my brain and didn’t let me go — until I got it all out. Thankfully, other ideas waited patiently on the side until I wrapped up this novella.

Now let me step to the side to tell you a little more what it’s about…

When you leave for a trip, who knows you’re gone from your house? Family and friends, sure. Neighbors, perhaps.

So does the chauffeur who drove you to the airport. Alan Tinsley takes advantage of working for a car service to know when clients will be away from their houses for several nights. Some houses are easier, since they don’t have a security system — and these houses are on his list for a night visit to steal valuables.

The Resnick house has been on Alan’s list for a while, and now it will be empty for a few nights, since Mr. and Mrs. Resnick are spending a long weekend in Chicago.

But is the house really empty? Alan’s about to find out what it’s like to not be alone in the house, his car, his apartment, and his head. And with another person in the house, hat will Alan do to avoid the police being called about him breaking in?

You have until the end of Sunday to scoop this up for free — you don’t even have to wear a costume and say, “Trick or treat.” I hope you enjoy the story.

Refining My Focus

For several years, I kept a blog to post my writing, drawings, and photos — and I had a load of fun doing it. I got to share the things I created with the WordPress community, and I got to see what works the creative community was putting out there.

Then, at some point in 2014, my blogging momentum dramatically reduced, so my posting became more and more infrequent. I still sketched and wrote on the side, but I didn’t keep up with my blog as I previously did. This shift in momentum was due to some hectic times with my work (I’m a freelance graphic designer) and other issues going on in my life. It was a time I needed to take a break from my blog and focus on other things.

During that break, I figured I was stretching myself too thin by attempting to accomplish many different projects on top of my main job. All those personal projects piled up and up, eventually becoming unwieldy.

So I decided to focus on primarily writing as a personal project. Writing fiction was my choice for what I wanted to do when I grow up. Going back to it now feels like a rediscovery. While juggling those other projects, I wrote flash fiction (pieces fewer than 1,000 words), and they seemed to have served as stepping stones on my wish to write longer stories. I’m about to self-publish a novella of 46,000 words, and it feels wonderful to finish it. The story’s the longest piece of fiction I’ve completed. I’ll say more on that in another blog post, letting you know that it’s been published.

Returning to mostly writing has also clarified my love of story. It’s always been there, in enjoying reading novels and watching TV and movies. But now, maybe I’m looking at that love with clearer eyes. It could be that I’ve been reading more actively, with an eye toward appreciating the craft of the story — rather than just being entertained by it. I’m sure I’ll come back to my love of story in many future posts. It’s something that’s hit me hard in the past year, as I have valued the ability of writers to bring me into worlds through their words.

If you’d like to follow along in my journey of writing and appreciating story, please subscribe. I’ll probably post some flash fiction on this blog, but in the meantime, you can read my very short stories at my old blog, Zooky World (the name came from wanting an easy-to-remember word, as I couldn’t think of another way to describe the various things I posted on the blog). Thanks for stopping by!