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July 8, 2009 — 405 words

The Success of Free

By MCM

This is a response to a comment at TorrentFreak about TorrentBoy, so please excuse the unscheduledness of it.

TorrentBoy: Zombie World was released in March of 2009, and since then, it's been downloaded over 250,000 times.  For the sake of simplicity we'll count each one of those downloads as a unique person.

592 people have donated money after reading Zombie World.  The most common donation is $9, with a grand total of $9,636.32 (after PayPal fees).  Around $2,000 of that was in the first 30 days.  0.2368% of my readers donate, but they tend to donate more than I would have made in royalties from a regularly-published book ($1.79 per copy).

Put in perspective: a typical advance for a book of this kind is $5,000.  Odds are, I wouldn't see royalties at all.  So right now I'm $4600 ahead of where I would have been under the traditional "pay first" model.  Also, under this system, I have a lot more readers than your typical book aimed at this market.  Canadian best-sellers ship 5,000 copies.  I've already done that, fifty times over.

Can I live off $9,600 a year?  No.  I'd have to write a new TorrentBoy book (with the same rate of success) every three months or so, and even that would be cutting it close.  Under this system, you need to produce constantly, or you don't survive.  I happen to enjoy producing, so it's not a big deal for me... but as a replicable model, it's not quite fully-formed yet.

The thing that stuns me about the whole situation is how much of this money has come from (what I assume to be) BitTorrent fans.  These are people you'd assume are hardcore pirates, pillagers of "intellectual property" and enemies of artists everywhere.  Instead, they have sent me donations without coaxing, and made my little TorrentBoy experiment a big success.  It may not happen again, but I think it puts a twist in the theory that pirates are immoral leeching psychopaths :)

Free works.  I'm going to be trying "freemium" later this month with The Vector (where you can bypass the serialized scheduled by donating $5), but thus far I have no reason to bother trying to lock down anything I do.  Treat your audience with respect, and they'll do the same to you.  Treat them like criminals, and they'll take great pride in watching you squirm.

July 7, 2009 — 219 words

TorrentBoy: Pirates Attack!

By MCM

Today marks a momentous day in the history of 1889 Books!  It's the launch of the new TorrentBoy adventure, "Pirates Attack!",  by Chris Keyes!

When danger strikes the Maritime Museum, TorrentBoy and his crazy teddy bear Crash must save the day!  But when a battle erupts between the infamous Sweesh Pirates and the noble Protectorate Guard, they find themselves caught in an impossible situation.  Now, with giant whales and Proton Crabs causing trouble at every turn, TorrentBoy needs to work hard to uncover a dark secret that could destroy the world!

This is a really great book.  I was really excited when I read it, and I hope you will be, too.  It's being serialized at 1889 Books, with a new chapter every Tuesday.  Subscribe to the RSS feed or just mark your calendars!  Go see right now!

(side note: the artwork on the cover is temporary while I try and work through an artistic roadblock... I have a really cool design in my head that I can't seem to execute properly.  Once it's done, I'll update everything.  Apologies to Chris)

July 7, 2009 — 1,119 words

Disassembling the World (5)

By MCM

At the end of July, 1889 Books will be releasing The Vector, a science fiction novel about people trying to survive a slow apocalypse.   When we start the book, things have already been deteriorating for some time, and no time is wasted explaining why.  Over the next few weeks, I’m going to writing a series of background articles here that fill in the back story.  You don’t need to read these to understand the book, but if you’re like me, you’ll probably want to know.

Read Part I here.
Read Part II here.
Read Part III here.
Read Part IV here.
Read Part V here.
Read Part VI here.

Part V: Black Clouds Over China

Although there had been incidents of synthetic viruses being spread beyond Europe, very few had been of a magnitude to do much damage.  A Chilean infection known as DOMA-4 had killed several senior cabinet ministers, but it had been so carefully executed it left many with a false sense of security.

A year after the Bonn-1 attack, Hong Kong was thrown into chaos by the emergence of an extremely virulent disease, killing tens of thousands within a month.  The local government, fearful of the panicking populace, requested support from Beijing while it tried to restore order with its police force.  Beijing wasted no time: soldiers in full hazmat suits were on the ground in 24 hours, with order to shoot anyone that broke curfew.  There were 390 casualties the first night, and no more after that.

Diagnosis of the virus revealed a signature encoded in the DNA, calling the strain "Freedom-1".  The government publicly decried it as a foreign invasion, an attack against the Chinese homeland.  Military installations were put on full alert, ready to "strike back against the aggressors where we find them."  The United States urged calm, but after a second outbreak in Tianjin, it looked certain that war was close at hand.

While European states had implemented careful containment measures aimed at stemming the spread of infection, Chinese authorities found such measures lacking.  A new program was put into place, called the "Health Protection Unit", charged with maintaining public order in the face of impossible odds.  The first directive issued by the HPU was to cut off all internet access to the outside world, as any new virus codes must have been transmitted from outside China.

The HPU recruited top soldiers from within the regular army, equipping them with robust closed-system armour, and deployed them into Hong Kong and Tianjin.  Although their role was primarily to be investigative, the HPUs quickly found themselves in the thick of a dangerous unrest.  Five agents were killed in the first month, swarmed by angry mobs, and another two disappeared while on assignment.

Two months later, an outbreak of Freedom-3 in Shanghai threw the country further into disorder.  By the timing of the strike, it was clear the threat had come from within China itself, possibly by a pro-democracy group emboldened by other terrorist attacks around the world.  While the special police rounded up all known suspects, the HPU sent its agents into Shanghai to deal with Freedom-3.

This was the first instance of HPUs being on the ground at the start of an infection, and the game plan was significantly different.  When cases were confirmed in a city block, the entire area was gated off for quarantine until it was deemed "safe".  HPU agents were sent into quarantine areas to execute and burn the sick, in the hopes of stemming the spread before it overtook their resources.  After two agent deaths, the rest of the force began to defy orders, refusing to kill innocent civilians.  Many of the agents were Shanghai natives, which only added to the tension within the ranks.  The government quietly disbanded the HPU and began to retreat from Shanghai as conditions worsened.

Two months later, a new force was established.  Called the People's Health Enforcement Unit, it was made up of specially-trained agents from the western district of Xinjiang, deemed "safe" because of its remote location and relatively low population.  The PHEU used more streamlined armour than the HPU, with more dire orders: it was clear from sign-up that they were to contain all threats, no matter the cost.

The PHEU invasion of Shanghai was quick and efficient.  In the first week, 263 infected had been neutralized, with 51 "other" civilian deaths.  None of the agents reported injuries.  Rather than trying to burn bodies on site, PHEU installed powerful ovens in the outskirts of town, and carried out cremations in relative obscurity.  Heavy masks were mandatory for all citizens; going out in public without one would result in immediate execution.  Freedom-3 was not dead, but it was greatly diminished, and PHEU was declared a success.

By the time authorities properly diagnosed a new outbreak of Freedom-3 in Fushun the next month, it had already spread throughout most of the population.  PHEU directors debated for several days before deciding there was no way to isolate the infection, and drastic measures were needed.  In the night of June 6, agents and soldiers constructed a massive fence around the city, declaring the entire area a "black zone", and condemning its citizens to death.  Air Force bombers torched Fushun from the sky, killing all 1.7 million people over the course of a week.  None of the PHEU agents resigned over the affair, cementing their reputation as monsters in their eyes of their own people.

The world was shocked by the events in Fushun, with many countries closing their embassies in protest.  But despite the moral objections, the results were undeniable: after Fushun, there were no further large-scale outbreaks in China at all.  Because of this, the PHEU agents — now the symbol of death themselves — worked in a diminished capacity, isolating and treating viruses as they came up.  The suicide rate among their ranks were astonishingly high, and it appeared that the saviours of China might all die off, reviled as their greatest nightmare.

It was not until the Russian plagues that they found a new purpose.

July 6, 2009 — 681 words

Big News Monday

By MCM

Today I'm going to announce two things that some of you already know, and I fully expect to receive a healthy amount of hate mail about.  Also, a minor update on the Deathmatch.

TorrentBoy: Pirates Attack!

Starting tomorrow, 1889 Books will start serializing TorrentBoy: Pirates Attack!, with one new chapter every Tuesday for 18 weeks.  The big news is that "Pirates Attack" was not written by me.  It's by a very cool guy named Chris Keyes.

When I was finding beta testers for PA, I pinged a few hardcore self-publishing people, some of whom found it extremely offensive that I would betray "the cause" by becoming what was essentially a micro-press.  There's a notion (that I guess I overlooked) that says that self-published authors must work exclusively for themselves, and cannot pool resources in any way.  If I'm understanding correctly, the idea that I would partner up like this means that I am two steps away from Satan, and yet I will also burn in the pits of Hell for all eternity etc etc.

Honestly, Chris sent me a really great draft, but needed assistance getting it produced.  It's a TorrentBoy book, so I had a natural inclination to help.  Chris is self-publishing it with a bit of support from me, but any donations you make will go directly to him (minus the standard 20% TorrentBoy Project share), and if it goes to print, he's handling the logistics there too.  It's self-publishing with benefits.

Just to be clear: I am not accepting submissions, I do not pay advances, and I am not trying to establish any kind of publishing company beyond what I already have.  If I end up diversifying my author portfolio (ha!), I will do it in my own secretive way.  You'd do better to get your book produced yourself than to put your hopes in me helping you.  I'm not that good at this stuff yet.

Agents

I've already had one awkward conversation because of this, so I'll just make it clear: as of a few weeks ago, I have an agent for my screenwriting career.  She's Amy Stulberg of Vanguarde Artists Management, and she kicks serious ass.  Also, she's funny.  In my TV-related world, she rules with an iron fist.  Happy, non-threatening iron.  Or something.  Anyway.

Having a screenwriting agent is not the same as having a literary agent.  They are two different things.  I am not "betraying" anyone by doing this.  I've always been very clear that my RollBots-related life was more conventional, and my book-related life was experimental.  To help pay for my experiments, I need to earn money doing conventional things.  The one helps the other.

That said, I have never been of the opinion that agents are as evil as many other people seem to think.  In the book world, they're just overwhelmed and trying to keep their heads above water in ways that seem (to writers) to be shifty and disrespectful.  If you had a few thousand people trying to get your attention every day, you'd construct a wall to keep them out, too.  The system itself is broken, not the people.

Anyway, I wanted to put this out in the open so it didn't seem like I was trying to hide it from everyone.  I honestly hadn't thought about it at all, but then got chewed out for my "deception", so I figured I'd better save myself further headaches.

Chaos Book

I'm still not calling it done, but in the Deathmatch, The Chaos Book has a devastating lead.  Like 3:1 over D'Myr, its closest competitor.  Better still, I've had a few people actually PRE-PURCHASE The Chaos Book.  So it's looking pretty solid there.  I may shift D'Myr to an animated concept, or just shelve it for a while.  Thanks to all 3 people who liked "The Ransom Line"!

You have until Friday to vote.  Recruit friends and stuff.  Cheating is acceptable.

Stay tuned for the Pirates Attack announcement tomorrow, and vote in Fission Chips too!

July 3, 2009 — 509 words

10 Inspirational Quotes by Very Dead People

By MCM

  1. "I keep one eye on the stars, so I know what to aim for."
    - General Quintus Tiberius (105-135); died falling off the Alpine Pass when distracted by a meteor shower

  2. "Wise men try everything once.  Fear is no excuse for ignorance."
    - Xi Tai Lao (803-844); died discovering gunpowder

  3. "Remember the little things.  A brilliant sunrise fills me like no bread ever could."
    - Saint Lucia of Carvanne (942-964); starved to death

  4. "When life turns dark, trust in your fellow man; they alone hold the keys to peace and enlightenment."
    - Father Pedro diCampagna (1402-1441); burned at the stake for heresy

  5. "Smart men plan for the worst.  Great men turn the worst around."
    - General Maxime de Tièmes (1774-1805); died when his army was decimated at the Battle of Deschamps

  6. "Winners move first.  Losers get leftovers.  The rest are just cattle."
    - Lieutenant Mark Vardy (1838-1862); died in a failed ambush when he forgot to equip his troops with ammunition

  7. "There is nothing in this world so awesome as a man exercising his knowledge.  Immortality follows genius."
    - Winston Albertson (1890-1921); died of electrocution after bringing a light bulb into the bath to read

  8. "If I stayed down like they told me, I'd never have been able to beat the odds."
    - Marcus Rayburn (1902-1928); died of a brain aneurysm during a boxing match

  9. "Death holds no sway over a man who can put one foot in front of the other, and knows where he's going."
    - Louis "Tank" Williams (1917-1945); died falling off the gangplank upon arriving home from World War II

  10. "Everyone has the potential to change the world, if they can see past the fads and focus on that which is truly great."
    - Wilbur Axelrod (1951-1997); died in poverty when his Laserdisc manufacturing company collapsed

  11. Bonus: "I find the will to succeed in the words and actions of the great thinkers of history.  With their guidance, I am unstoppable."
    - Jamila Allidina (1979-2009); crushed to death when a library bookcase collapsed on her

  12. Bonus: "You can beat any odds if you try.  The only thing holding you back is caution."
    - Brian Spaeth (1975-2008); exploded while filming motorcycle vs. helicopter climax to "Prelude to a Super Airplane" (2009, directed by Michael Bay)

  13. Bonus: "Fear is the body's way of protecting itself from the unknown.  Beat that, and nothing in this world can stop you."
    - Piper Hawking (1835-1864); eaten while trying to domesticate lions in Africa

Know a great quote I missed?  Which sounded most convincing?  Let me know in the comments!

July 2, 2009 — 1,212 words

Book Premise Deathmatch

By MCM

Next week, things will be getting very exciting and busy around here, so I want to give this as much time to breathe its own air as I can.  This is what I like to call the Book Premise Deathmatch.

Usually, I do this process in my head, but my psychiatrist tells me it's not healthy to talk to myself so much.  Quiet, you, I'm talking!  Where was I?

Ah, yes.  The Deathmatch.  Right now, I have three ideas competing for my Friday timeslot*.  These are going to be as insanely Social Media-ey as I can make them, and should be a lot of fun.  But only one can survive.  And that's where you all come in.  I need you to vote for the premise you like most by visiting its 1889 Books page.  Every hit counts as a vote.  At the end of a week, whichever concept has the most votes will win.

(Side note: because I am in full-on fundraising mode, these all have money tied to them in some way.  You may judge based on that methodology as much as creative content if you like).

D'MYR

Concept: Lucifer Clockhopper is a Myrian, a kind of pygmy fox is thought to have died out hundreds of years ago.  The Myriad live in an advanced society underground, borrowing language and technology from humans, and doing their best to survive.  But when Lucifer gets back from his latest reconnaissance run, he finds the entire city of Myr has been destroyed, with only a handful of survivors.  As they make their way to the ancient Myriad home on the banks of the great underground Olyvent Sea, the last remnants of this troubled race discover there may be more of them still alive, and that the destruction of their home may not have been as random an event as it seemed...

Release: D'Myr will be an episodic series, following Lucifer ("Lux") as he tries to recover the rest of the survivors.  Chapters will be about 1,200 words each, once a week, likely for a full year (52 weeks).  Subscribers (one-time $5 fee) will get chapters as they're done, with everyone else stuck on the schedule.

Characters: Early on, the fact is revealed that there are 499 Myriad still alive, all scattered around the underground world.  As a means of sponsoring the story, I would implement a system where you could suggest a name and occupation for a Myr survivor, and for $30 I would draw you the character and mail you a print.  They'd appear in a chapter somewhere along the way.

Appendices: The Myrian world is full of linguistic and social influences, and has a rich culture leading up to its quasi-steampunk existence.  I would write appendices outlining these elements on commission, at approximately $10/1,000 words.

THE CHAOS BOOK

Concept: The hero is an efficiency expert for the supernormal.  When a zombie army is moving too slow to eat brains, he picks up the pace.  When a rogue AI is having trouble getting its drones to massacre humans, he sets them straight.  When an alien race can't figure out which organs to harvest for their experiments, he's got the answer.  But there's one thing he HATES, and it is...
...up to you.  You see, every episode of the Chaos Book is based on feedback from you.  Even the hero's background will be a mixture of the most popular recommendations from the audience (via the site and Twitter etc).  What's this week's dilemma?  Agoraphobic vampires from Mars?  Done!  I'll make it happen, with as much action and comedy and absurdity as I can squeeze in.

Release: The Chaos book is episodic, which is slightly different than a normal chapter.  Each episode will be fully-contained, but collected into a larger book (with story threads continuing through).  Each episode will be about 2,000 words, once a week, for 20 weeks.  Subscribers (one-time $5 fee) would get episodes a week before anyone else (as they're posted), with everyone else delayed slightly.

Custom Stories: If you really want me to write about sociopathic combusting fire ants, you could request a custom story for $60.  If you don't have $60 to spare, you could opt for a $20 option that lets me package your idea with two others, making things even more chaotic.  Once a $60 mark has been met, I will throw your story to the top of the queue, and give you a sneak peek when it's done.

THE RANSOM LINE

Concept: Marjory Breen has been kidnapped from her kidnappers.  It's really embarrassing.  Joey was getting some candy and he left her alone for five minutes, and now she's gone.  The worst part is, the new kidnappers want Joey and his seriously pissed partner Dan to jump through some pretty insane hoops, or they'll tell Marjory's parents who her original abductors were.  They're forced to use a messaging service nicknamed the Ransom Line, where they're given their instructions, and have to post progress reports as they go. The trouble is, the Ransom Line isn't fully private, and they aren't sure who the actual kidnappers are, so they sometimes go way off-script trying to please the wrong people.  But with only a few days before Marjory is killed, they have to work fast to save the day.  Someone's day.  It's a bit murky.

Release: This is what we call an improv Twitter story.  Joey and Dan communicate entirely by Twitter (standing in for the Ransom Line), yakking back and forth with the expectation of privacy (which they don't get).  Every Friday, the kidnappers give them another task to complete, and they work it out, live, for everyone to see.  At the end of the day, the collected Tweets are assembled and put online so you can read it any time.

Interaction: Because it's just regular Twitter, readers can actually interact with the characters.  In this context, the readers can be random passers-by, other kidnappers, generic criminals, or maybe even law enforcement trying to trap them.  Dan and Joey (and the kidnappers) will react and change their plans according to what you say.

Ransom: Every so often, the kidnappers will demand payment from Dan and Joey, or they'll do something nasty... but rather than it being up to the characters, the audience will have to chip in to keep Marjory alive.  If the target isn't met by the next chapter, they'll follow through on their threat... too many missed targets, and Marjory might not make it.

I would love to do any one of these, but there can only be one.  Ask questions about them if you like (use the comment box below), and visit the page for the one you prefer.  I will pick the one to do at the end of the day on July 9, based on the hit volume to their pages.

Thanks, and good luck!

* The Friday night timeslot does not preclude other regularly-scheduled books like Xander and the Wind.  Timeslots are for serialized content only.

July 2, 2009 — 899 words

Pig and the Box: 6 Month Review

By MCM

Is it that time already?  The Pig and the Box version 2 has been out for half a year now.  In that time, I've released four other books (Poke of the Titans, TorrentBoy: Zombie World!, Fission Chips and Percy's Perch), and tried a variety of techniques for creating a better book industry.  Here's what I know:

Readership

When I last served up results, the book had been downloaded about 300,000 times in 30 days.  In the months since, my prediction of 100 downloads a day has been reasonably correct: 105 downloads a day (on average), coming out to a little over 12,900 readers (312,900 including the first month), or 52,000 readers a month (averaged).  Trending towards 328,380 readers for the year.  To re-hash everyone's favourite statistic this month: a Canadian best-seller is 5,000 copies or more.  So The Pig and the Box is a best-seller, 62 times over.  Well, except that READS aren't the same as BUYS...

Money

When we last saw our stats, I was aiming to sell 111 print copies for the year, and had only sold 69, for a total profit of $104.19.  Since then, I've filled a bunch of orders (including ThinkGeek), bringing my sales for the year to 241, or $363.91.  I've more than doubled my goal, earned back my production costs, and am happily collecting a few sales every month from Amazon and Chapters.  All told, not too shabby.

eBooks continue to be a mystery.  In the first week, I sold 10 copies of my ePub version.  Since then, I sold another 3, for a grand total of $38 for the year so far.  The eBook stats were so disappointing that I had no trouble ditching that distribution method from my line-up entirely.

The biggest switch is donations. Donors tossed me about $75 in the first month, and then almost completely disappeared for several months... until last week, when I introduced the Reader system (where you can read the book for free in your browser).  The "make a donation" page at the end of the book seems to have worked amazingly well: $104 in a week, almost exclusively in $2 increments.  Given my print profits are only $1.51 per copy, this is a major victory for me.  The tip jar method actually works.  I wouldn't have guessed that, honestly.

In total, The Pig and the Box has earned me $580.91 so far in 2009.  I don't expect it to break $700 by year's end, but even still, that's a pretty good take for a super-saturated 3-year-old re-issue.

Lessons Learned

eBooks are good, but not for illustrated works.  Full-colour pictures are what stop me from using technologies like Kindle or other black-and-white-only readers.  Also, the abysmal image support in readers like Stanza make it even less appealing.  Until the technology catches up to print in this market segment, it's not worth the time to create ePubs.

Donations work best for what I do.  Most of my books are aimed at tech-minded people who don't mind reading off a screen.  Given that fact, creating print runs for most of my titles is a waste of money.  The best way to turn a profit is to ask for donations from people that have read the book free online.  Deep down inside, people are pretty nice, and they're not too stingy to drop me a buck or two.  It's an uncertain way to make a living, but it might just work.

Things To Do

Not to sound pessimistic, but the Pig and the Box has probably run its course.  I don't imagine I'll get much more than 100 reads a day from now on, barring any minor miracles.  Then again, I should probably work on creating minor miracles... I still have no idea how to do this "marketing" thing, and it's pretty obviously dragging my numbers down.  I have a lot of readers of Fission Chips by sheer luck... I have no idea how they found me.  If I could figure a way to semi-reliably pull people in, I might be able to earn a living off donations.

Looking at it this way: let's say I get 700 downloads a week, and $100 in donations.  That means I earn 14% of my reader count in dollars.  For a month at the current levels, that translates into $400.  I don't expect I can increase the donation rate, but if I could increase the readership rate, things would change fast.  Double the readership, and that's $800/month.  $9,600/year isn't "a living", but it's damn good for a back-title.

The only question is how to increase the 100/day reader rate.  It's hard enough making a promotional push for a new launch... but doing this kind of long-term promotion... I don't have any idea how to do it.  Something to contemplate.

Goals Going Forward

My current goal is to sell 10 more print copies for the year, and try to maintain my $400/month donation rate.  If I can do that, I'll finish out the year with a total of $2,980.91, and will be able to call The Pig and the Box (Second Edition) a major success.  Still, if I only earn $650, I'll be overjoyed.  I'm just trying to set lofty goals :)

Check back for a 1-year update at the end of December!

July 2, 2009 — 857 words

A Q&A With Myself

By MCM

I get a truly absurd amount of mail, and some of it isn't spam.  Some of the questions I get asked, I get asked a lot.  Frequently, you might say.  And given the lack of an internet convention for dealing with questions which are asked frequently, I will provide you with this, a Q&A with myself, paraphrasing the questions which have been asked.  Frequently.

What came first, books or TV?

Broadly?  I think books.  For me specifically, it's a bit murkier.  I wrote The Pig and the Box when I was already deep into RollBots.  But the Pig beat RollBots to market by 2 years, so the order seems reversed.  If it makes you feel any better, I wrote Dustrunners (animated series) before anything else... so we can safely say "TV".

Why do you use Creative Commons?  Isn't that stupid?

I don't see why.  My license choice affords me all the protection of traditional copyright, but explicitly informs the end-user that they're allowed to make copies and trade non-commercially.  Ultimately, the license is redundant, since those rights should be inherent under existing copyright laws, but for whatever reason, there's doubt in the marketplace.  I just choose to re-confirm the status quo.

Are you really a college dropout?

Technically, I'm a university dropout.  And I don't much care for the term "dropout", because it implies I couldn't handle advanced learnin'.  I just had better things to do, and I decided to do them.  That sounds cheeky, I know, but when you have a mission in mind, I find it's better if you just do it.  I didn't need to "find myself".  I'd found myself.  I needed to do something about it.  Less toe-dipping, more jumping right in.

What kind of a writer are you?  Do you write for children or adults?

Both.  I write kid-friendly books like The Pig and the Box and Percy's Perch, and I write adult fare like Poke of the Titans and Fission Chips.  Also, although I gravitate towards science fiction, I also write non-techy stuff with a very "normal" foundation.  Of course, I'm quite insane, so even my normal stories are nutty.

Why do you bother writing?  Nobody likes you.

Wow, I'm abnormally cruel to myself.  But okay: I bother writing because there are people out there that like what I do.  Some only like one of my stories, some like a lot, but I do have people that appear to appreciate what I do.  As long as they're around, I'll keep doing it.  I mean, just because I hate Michael Bay's Transformers with an unholy passion, it doesn't mean he should give up directing forever.  Not necessarily anyway.  Actually, maybe I need to re-think this position...

Aren't you filthy rich off RollBots?  Why did you joke about working at Starbucks?

In an interview I did recently, I joked that working in animation for TV isn't as luxurious a job as some think.  You work for several years on a single project, but get paid a flat fee for that work.  When you split the money across the time, you don't really earn that much... probably similar to working at Starbucks.  I assume it's because simply working in animation is like a gift, so you can't expect to get paid well at the same time.  Or something.  So to put it bluntly: no, I'm not filthy rich.  I'm astoundingly lucky, but not rich.  So stop asking for money.

Are you just publishing online in the hopes of landing a publishing deal?

No.  I have no interest in a publishing deal, actually.  I'm doing this as an experiment to see what works best for creating and distributing written material online, and I won't be satisfied until I find the right formula.  And then, once I've found it, it'd be pretty silly to abandon it just so I could sign with a major publisher.  Then again, I'm not opposed to distribution deals with bigger players... but I run my own shop here, and that's not going to change.

If you had just one wish, what would it be?

More readers.  Or even the same readers coming back for more.  I've served close to 10 million people in the last 3 years, but I stupidly let them get away.  I wish I could send them an email and say: "Hey!  I've done more stuff!  Come see!", but I can't.  Grabbing eyeballs is the thing I have the most trouble with, and if I had myself a genie, that's what I'd wish for.  That, and a lifetime supply of kimchi ramen.  Mmm, ramen...

If you have any oddball questions of your own, you can add them to the comment below, or email them to me and add to the backlog.

July 1, 2009 — 742 words

On Simulated Freedom

By MCM

All non-physical goods are going to be free, whether you like it or not.

Giving things away is a fundamental requirement of business in this day and age, just like Power Point decks and Twittering in meetings (don't try and deny it).  Things are free for a variety of reasons that you could argue about till the cows come home, but still not disprove.  This isn't about that.  This is about how you make something free.

Mark Cuban pointed out an astonishingly smart distinction: there is a difference between "free content" and "freely-distributed content".  In the one case, you don't charge anything for the product, so people can access your stuff without a credit card glued to the back of their hand.  In the other, you're packaging that content in such a way that they can trade the product all over the internet, completely outside your control.  Like creative herpes.  Except not so negative.  Or not necessarily.  Let's just move on.

Web culture has tended to bind these two concepts together, but I suspect they're becoming unglued.  Much like me.

Here's the thing: if people can't find your content, it doesn't exist.  If you are invisible to Google, you are only theoretically good at what you do.  If someone is researching a subject that you excel at, and they don't find you, they'll go to your competitor.  It doesn't matter how amazing you are, you egotistical fiend.  It's the way the world works.  It's not malicious, it's just how it is.  The only real way to make your content visible to searches is to make it free.  The more of a pay wall you erect around your content, the less visible it is, and the more audience members you're shunning.  Shunning customers is high on the list of Stupid Business Decisions.  Second only to suing them.

So this is where distribution comes in.

Just because your content is free, it doesn't mean your audience needs the ability to take it with them.  I can go to the bookstore downtown and read a book without paying, so long as I read it there.  If I try to leave without paying, two large burly men with blue shirts and dragon tattoos will accost me.  This is an excellent example of distribution control.  Also, unresolved psychological trauma.  We'll focus on the former.

While it is ideal that your potential audience realize that you are, in fact, da bomb, you likewise want them to stick around to continually stroke your ego beyond that first encounter.  Moreover, if they tell their friends about how great you are, you want these new disciples audience members to bask in your glory.  If they aren't forced to visit your site, their basking potential is greatly reduced.  The less basking, the less inclined they will be to donate their liver to you when the time comes.  Obviously, it is essential they not leave.

Still, if you put too many constraints on your content, it stops being free, and is unable to market itself through its inherent genius.  People want to be able to disseminate content on their own, and any steps you take to prevent this will work against you.  But since providing free distribution is equally dangerous, what you need to focus on is simulated freedom.  Online, you already know it as Twitter-friendly URLs, or embedded players, or "widgets" for blogs.  In the real world, it is known as the United Kingdom.

Simulated freedom gives your audience the sensation of being able to freely trade your content, while still tethering all future eyeballs to your site.  It lets your content travel the tubes in any direction it can, without sacrificing your brand identity, your page views, or your potential income stream.  In actual freedom, you would never be able to append a new product offer to an already-distributed file.  In simulated freedom, you can adapt your past successes to help promote your future ones, because you still control the access point.

Luckily, simulated freedom is already well-established across the internet, so it won't offend anyone if you implement it too.  It's a gentle compromise between creator and audience: you can do whatever you like with this, but please do using my tools.  99% of your visitors won't think twice about it.  And for the last 1%, you can hire some burly men with the dragon tattoos.

June 30, 2009 — 1,093 words

Disassembling the World (4)

By MCM

At the end of July, 1889 Books will be releasing The Vector, a science fiction novel about people trying to survive a slow apocalypse.   When we start the book, things have already been deteriorating for some time, and no time is wasted explaining why.  Over the next few weeks, I’m going to writing a series of background articles here that fill in the back story.  You don’t need to read these to understand the book, but if you’re like me, you’ll probably want to know.

Read Part I here.
Read Part II here.
Read Part III here.
Read Part IV here.
Read Part V here.
Read Part VI here.

Part IV: Rise of the BioHacker

The prevalence of incubator technology in affluent nations created a sudden shift in many social spaces, but none so dramatic as in medical-related charities.  Organizations previously dedicated to research and treatment of disease, when presented with immediate cures, were forced to switch gears to promote the dissemination of vaccines almost exclusively.  Fundraising drives dried up as the urgency eased.  AIDS charities adapted well, spending their remaining cash on "vaccinate everyone" campaigns that saw a 99% success rate throughout North America, eastern Asia and Europe.

Similarly, a move was underway to "cure the common cold" in many nations.  Russia, in particular, used its extensive Free Incubator Network (FIN) in an attempt to diagnose and treat as many incidents as they could find.  While experts debated the efficacy of the so-called vaccines that were produced, citizens lined up by the millions to get their inexpensive shots, which they hoped would keep them safe over the winter.  Politicians boasted that Moscow was the "healthiest city on Earth!", despite statistics that showed the same level of affliction as previous years.

Despite regulations that limited incubator use to registered pharmacies, wealthy and well-connected individuals got access to their own units, which they used to diagnose and treat all kinds of untreatable illnesses.  Armed with instant access, the more eccentric hypochondriacs of the world began trying to vaccinate against headaches, upset stomachs, and fatigue.  Tales of miracle cures only accelerated the process, with the promise of a cure for cancer just one click away.  It was the panacea of the modern age, with or without concrete evidence.

The biggest shift of the incubator generation began in Moscow.  A mystery illness began working its way through the local mob community with terrifying speed, violently killing known criminals, their families, and even random people on the street.  It was assumed it was an imported strain like Avian Flu, probably carried in from satellite operations in the east, where the mob had been consolidating efforts of late.  The authorities moved quickly to stem the spread by enforcing quarantines with martial law.  But when a second unique infection surfaced, it became clear they were not dealing with a natural virus... it was man-made.  Police switched gears from protection to investigation, hunting down un-licensed incubators connected to FIN, hoping to stop any further casualties.

A week later, a message emailed to the Vedomosti newspaper clarified the situation: "You think you got us, but you missed some.  Let us see how you like your own tricks."  Two days later, three of the largest private companies in Russia suffered stunning human losses, with a death toll of over 9,000 in under a week.  Death bed admissions by some senior executives suggested they were involved in a turf war with the mob, and this was retribution.  Investigators found no trace of actual incubators, but this in itself was deemed suspicious, given their prevalence in affluent circles.

Over the next few weeks, several new virus variants began circulating through Moscow, then Russia, and eventually into other countries like Germany, Austria, Sweden, China and Italy.  An air bomb laced with a deadly pathogen was detonated in a crowded market in Bonn, killing not only the son of a local gang leader, but another 1,200 people over the course of 48 hours.  It was dubbed "The Bonn Virus", and was diagnosed, disassembled, and cured by international FIN operators almost instantly.  The mood among academics was publicly confident, but privately terrified.  Many resigned their posts and moved their families to remote areas, hoping to save themselves.

WHO President Jacques Démarain coined the term "BioHacker" in an interview with the BBC, in a public plea to criminals to stop trying to "even the score" with new viruses.  Although he claimed he was confident that licensed incubator operators could hold their own, when pressed, he admitted civilization was in serious danger: "If you're asking me if we can be one hundred percent sure, I will say no.  You can't stop a faceless enemy who wants you dead.  It's simply impossible.  These aren't human beings we are dealing with, they are monsters on a grand scale.  The only hope we have is that the heroes of humanity can protect us faster than the villains can defeat us."  Two weeks later, he was assassinated with an airborne dose of Kiev-1.

Perhaps the most tragic casualty of the BioHacker movement was Africa.  Government and private funds previously dedicated to vaccinating the continent shifted towards defending against synthetic viruses.  The serum that incubators used to generate vaccines became a precious commodity, and while few officials would admit it publicly, they could not rationalize diverting resources to a distant people when they themselves might need it.  48.3 million people in Africa were infected with AIDS, a striking 99.6% of the cases worldwide... and the political will to save them had evaporated.

A year after the Bonn Virus (now called "Bonn-1"), Hong Kong was struck with a highly contagious infection that killed millions.  Beijing's response to the crisis shocked the world.

Note: My short story "The Virus Coder's Girl" covers this period on the ground level.  It's free to read at 1889 Books.