Who Wants Art and Books During Football Season?

Downtown Huntsville offered a Bonus Friday Night Art Walk to vendors last night, but traffic around the square was decidedly light compared to summer events. Kids were back in school, which meant Friday night football games were the priority for parents and students alike. I was a lonely bookseller on my corner with only a couple jewelry makers in view on the street behind me.

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To pass the time, I resorted to people-watching and spinning stories. A woman passed me carrying a large vase of red roses, and her expression wasn’t happy. Were those roses a plea for forgiveness from some suitor? Breakup roses? Anniversary roses on the wrong day? Or maybe her frown had nothing to do with the roses, but she’d just been yelled at by her boss.

What was her story?

On the steps of the museum across the street, a beautiful lady posed in a gold dress while the setting sunlight bounced off her face, and a photographer instructed her to pose. After some time, she changed into a glamorous pink and red dress and made her way toward me for further pictures on the steps on the courthouse, then on one of the benches beside my table. People blew their horns as they drove by, and she waved. Was she famous? Was she an important person? It was hard to avoid staring as she moved down the sidewalk and posed under streetlights, beside trees, and next to buildings.

What was her story?

Back on the museum steps, another couple lined up between the white columns to pose for a picture. They held a big sign that said “We’re Engaged.” I imagined this photo shoot would soon go viral on their social media network. Why weren’t they posting pictures of an engagement ring? You didn’t need a sign if you did that. A diamond told the whole story without any words at all. Maybe there wasn’t a ring. But why?

A few people stopped and talked to me about my books, but they weren’t “my people.” My readers were somewhere else last night. I don’t know if they were watching high school football or just hanging out at home with friends, but they weren’t downtown at the art stroll.

There was, however, a shirtless skateboarder. And a very confident man wearing salmon-colored corduroy pants. While both of them looked like Avant guard artsy-types, neither seemed to be the target audience for YA novels about troubled teens turning corners.

So until next spring, football wins the day.

 


Why Readers Magnet Should Fear Google and Facebook

 Photo by Glen Carrie on Unsplash

Photo by Glen Carrie on Unsplash

As I’ve written before, my top blog post is about the Readers Magnet Scam. People around the world search Google and Facebook for information about this outfit and land on my page. Their call center must have been working really hard last night to find a mark because the analytics on my web site was blew up with hits from the US, Canada, UK, and even Japan.

I imagined all these indie authors in their homes, receiving calls similar to the one I did. A quick Google or Facebook search on Readers Magnet pulls up blog posts about the scam, and they have instant access to everything they need to make an informed decision.

Google Analytics Data

I began analyzing the data, and here is what I found:

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Readers Magnet appears to be a company located in the Philippines or with an outsourced call center in that country which targets authors primarily in the US and Canada, with some in the UK. Other inquiries in my site came from Japan, India, Croatia, Australia, Montenegro, Nigeria, and Singapore. I believe this because—in addition to the website traffic data—I had a cryptic comment from a user Flumpas@elink.com.ph – I am Philippines who darkly said “I can justify this” in response to my original blog post about their activities.

Here is another view of the keyword analytics on traffic for the past two months relating to Readers Magnet.

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They like weekends, and apparently Saturday nights are a good time for calling authors with their aggressive marketing tactics.

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I have weeks of logs like this about this article.

Better Business Bureau

Digging a little further with Google research, you can find 6 complaints against this company on the San Diego, CA Better Business Bureau.

Under Customer Reviews, you can find a complaint as recent as September 7, 2018 from an author.

And in case you are interested in other complaints by consumers, you can also check out Ripoff Report as well.

Readers Magnet Publishing

They do publish books. A quick search of Readersmagnet LLC in the Search bar of Amazon.com will reveal several pages of results. Most titles were published in 2018 or 2017, and few have more than 2-3 reviews. Many have none at all. If they are helping these authors with marketing services, the results are not evident.

Are They Legit?

There are ways to check if a company is genuine, including the company website itself. Readers Magnet lists an address in the US and show a physical location on a map. Ultimately you have to trust your instincts, and if you have a “bad vibe” about the location, try to dig deeper because there are virtual office scammers. I have not investigated the address to determine its validity.

Conclusions

Independent authors have a hard enough time publishing and marketing our books. Achieving sufficient sales to recuperate the cost of gorgeous book covers and professional editing services, not to mention any additional marketing or advertisement costs, is a challenge. It may be hard to resist the seductive lure of a scammer’s quick fix and the dream of reaching wider audiences, but armed with the right information, we can help each other to avoid becoming victims of this kind of predator.

If you’ve had any experiences, please like or comment and share. I’d love to hear from you.

 

Why I Hate Censorship in YA Fiction

The YA fiction choices of my generation were fewer and tamer. Judy Blume was the author who took on tough topics for teens, and I believe there was some scandal surrounding the reading of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.

 Photo by  Maxim Lugina  on  Unsplash

Photo by Maxim Lugina on Unsplash

My parents rarely censored my reading. As a latchkey GenX kid, I had free reign of their adult library, as well as Grandma’s closet of harlequin romance novels, and I read everything. Early in the book, Stephen King’s Cujo has a pretty graphic adult scene, so Judy Blume’s Forever was not as shocking for me as it might have been. But this lack of oversight is not the reason why I hate censorship.

Today’s youth have outstanding choices in YA fiction and a whole section of their own in the bookstore, so they don’t have to pillage their parents’ shelves for good reading material. Some critics argue that dark themes in YA literature are contributing to the violence in schools, ranging from bullying to gang violence, and therefore we should censor the books that teens read for their own good.

Here's why I hate censorship.

1.     Books Are Not Bad

I never want to be afraid to read books—any books, not even books whose content I might disagree with. Words and ideas are information that a thinking person can use to make better decisions. I want to always be free to choose for myself whether or not to read a particular book. Shouldn’t young adults also be able to make up their minds about what to read, particularly 15-18-year-olds who are developing their intellect?

2.     The Digital Age Makes Banning Books Silly

My parents had the ability to block my reading habits. They could have restricted my library access, and I didn’t have money to buy books on my own. There wasn’t an Internet or eBooks.

But today, banning books just seems silly. Students have phones with unlimited access to the Internet and the ability to download anything they want. If some school or library decides that Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why or Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian should be banned from the school library, students can simply download the books on their phones. Who can stop this? What is the point of restricting access to these books? It seems like a silly protest.

3.     Banning Books Doesn’t Erase Teen Problems

Okay, so parents censor the books that their fragile children are reading, and now nothing bad will happen to them, right? Wrong. The bullies are still in their schools, as well as the drugs. Guess what? Girls still get raped at parties, and girls still cut themselves and drink too much, and kids die from driving while under the influence. Banning books about these things doesn’t stop them from happening.

4.     It’s about Power, Not Helping

Maybe people who want to censor the reading material of others truly believe their motives are well-intentioned and good. Their concern comes from a well-intentioned place. Maybe. My perception is that those who want to control others, like the book-banners in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, really want power.

  • I know what’s best for you.
  • I know what you can handle (and what you can’t)
  • I know what you need (and you don’t)

The only good thing to come from banning books is that it drives popularity. What’s better than forbidden fruit, right? If it’s banned, it must be good. If you’ll look at the Banned Books that Shaped America, you’ll see some titles that have become some of our literary staples:

  • Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
  •  Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Where do you fall in the debate? Do you agree with banning some books in high school, or do you hate censorship too? Share your thoughts.

Which YA Books about Eating Disorders Should You Read?

My most popular book is Hollow Beauty, a YA novel about a girl who decides to go on a drastic diet after a boy asks her to go to the prom. The fact that this book is my “bestseller” makes me feel sad because I still think about the death of Karen Carpenter on February 4, 1983 from anorexia nervosa. I was a young girl, and here we are in 2018, with women (and even men) still struggling with eating disorders.

 Photo by  Mihail Macri  on  Unsplash

Photo by Mihail Macri on Unsplash

I started my first diet in middle school, around the time that puberty hit. I remember having "head rushes" where everything went black because my blood sugar dropped so low from not eating all day. Then I went to college and gained the Freshman Fifteen. I've struggled with dieting much of my life. In my thirties, I lost 60 pounds on Weight Watchers but remain relatively stable at a healthy weight now—give or take a few pounds.

According to one Internet article that I found, I was in the 91% of female teenagers who tried dieting. Maybe I was even in the 40% who had an eating disorder, though I don’t know if I qualified for the label of anorexic. Does it really matter? I suffered from low self-esteem, low self-respect, and a desire to please other people, often at cost to myself. I certainly didn’t know who I was or what I wanted, except to be smaller. Much smaller.

YA Book Recommendations

Reading books can help save lives by showing what eating disorders look like. Through the power of story, someone may recognize their own symptoms of disordered eating or in their friends, and this can help someone to seek help. With that in mind, I offer two of my favorite YA titles on the topic:

1.      The Stone Girl by Alyssa Sheinmel

Sethie Weiss is such a disconnected character. She’s almost hard to like because she’s so cold, made of granite, and not really in touch with herself in any way. It takes awhile to realize that her pain is tied to this perfectionist state she’s locked herself in, and the things she does and says are really part of her illness. In the end I rooted for her. I wanted her to become a real girl again.

2.      Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson

This book is stark, beautiful, and also painful. Laurie Halse Anderson writes about tough topics, and Wintergirls addresses eating disorders, friendship, grief, loss, and recovery. One girl is dead. The other one suffers from guilt and anorexia. You won’t be disappointed in this story.

While there are great Goodreads Lists for YA Eating Disorder Fiction, I cannot offer other titles for recommendation. Go and find your own joy. Let me know if you find something great.

Memoir Recommendations

The authors whose writing has been more impactful have been in the area of memoir. One person in particular stands above all others: Carolyn Knapp. Her struggles with anorexia are detailed in The Merry Recluse, Appetites: Why Women Want, and even to some extent in Drinking: A Love Story. Her work is amazing. I give her 5 stars all around.

Another great memoir about eating disorders is Wasted by Mayra Hornbacher. Check that one out as well.

Above all, if you are someone who struggles with food, do not take four decades to learn the lesson that I have learned: you are enough. You are small enough, good enough, smart enough. The number on the scale does not define who you are or who you will become.

I’d love to hear from you. Please like or share any books and personal stories.

Readers Magnet Scam

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Sadly, the top-ranked post on my website is not content about my YA novels but this one about the Readers Magnet scam. To help those authors seeking information about this Philippines-based outfit, I thought I’d collect a list of other links for people who continue coming here seeking information, as well as tips for how to deal with the situation if you find yourself scammed.

My Experience

On December 29, 2017, I received a call from someone from Readers Magnet, claiming that my wonderful, award-winning novel, Drive to June, had been selected by their talent scouts, and they wanted to partner with me for representation in the 2018 New York Rights Fair. They were extremely complimentary about my work. They knew that the book had won an award and that I’d written multiple novels. I let the person talk for a long time even though I was pretty sure it was a scam because I wanted to hear the pitch.

“As stated we will be the ones taking care of the other expenditures and all the legwork since we were the ones that found you, although you will be entitled to all of the proceeds and hoping that you would be able to continue the momentum that we will be setting for you and your book’s success. We aim to create publicity for our company through your book’s success.”

She was a woman named Ruby Baker with a strong accent. She was very smooth, asking about my goals for my writing career and what sorts of things I had done for self-promotion to date. At one point I clarified that she wasn’t seeking rights for the book or commissions on sales. She wanted some sort of fee, correct? It still took her awhile to get to the point where she wanted $600 for the registration fee for this show.

That's right: $600.

The amount would cover the publicity listing in the directory and the booth showing. They only needed one signed copy of my book. All other sales would be handled directly with me. This didn’t pass the sniff test.

After hanging up, I searched for this company and found a bunch of other complaints from authors who’ve been contacted by these scam artists.

Useful Resources

Don’t be fooled if you receive a call like this! You can find new analytics information about them in my blog article, Why Readers Magnet Should Fear Google and Facebook.

In addition, here are some other links to help you make an informed decision before parting with your own cash.

Ripoff Reports – Readers Magnet

https://www.ripoffreport.com/reports/specific_search/READERS+MAGNET

https://www.ripoffreport.com/reports/readers-magnet/nyc-new-york-10004/readers-magnet-literary-book-scout-wanted-450-to-market-my-book-which-they-said-came-hig-1364410

Other Stories

https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/18715656-anyone-here-ever-contacted-by-readersmagnet

https://www.kboards.com/index.php?topic=262483.0

https://authorchristopherdschmitz.wordpress.com/2017/09/08/dont-get-scammed-by-companies-like-readers-magnet/

https://thestoryreadingapeblog.com/2018/02/03/dont-get-scammed-by-companies-like-readers-magnet/

https://absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?329269-Marketing-ReadersMagnet

Better Business Bureau:

https://www.bbb.org/sdoc/business-reviews/digital-marketing/readersmagnet-in-san-diego-ca-172021180/reviews-and-complaints?section=complaints

Regarding ReadersMagnet LLC Publishing

During the week of August 31, 2018, someone named "Dee" posted a comment 3 times with links to a book that ReadersMagnet LLC published on Amazon and Barnes & Noble--presumably as "proof" that they are a legitimate outfit. However, this book has only 2 reviews, and one of the reviews seems to be a fake one with a post date from 2006. This is a real trick considering that the publication date on the book is March, 2018. There is no author presence on Google, although there is an author website listed through Amazon. Any digging at all quickly raised my suspicions.

What to Do If You Are Scammed

A US-based author contacted me to say that he'd been scammed out of $9643.00. "Any recommendations on how to get out of this?"

My suggestion is to search Google for consumer information on how to report and resolve international fraud and scams. Specifically, the US Federal Trade Commission has a Website for reporting International scam outfits like this one:  https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/blog/2015/10/reporting-international-scams

You can also visit this site: http://www.sec.gov.ph/, which is referenced from https://www.pinoymoneytalk.com/where-to-report-scammers-in-the-philippines/.

What about you? Do you have an experience with Readers Magnet to share? I'd love to hear from you.

13 Reasons Why Adults Love Reading YA

The wonderful thing about the novel as an art form is that its appreciation is subjective. I don’t care for The Great Gatsby, but some people find it amazing. I’d rather pick up Stephen King than Jane Austen, although these days I’m reading a lot more YA than horror.

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Market statistics point to more than 50% of YA readers are adults like me. This information has led many to speculate on the trend, but I’ve come up with 13 reasons why I think adults love reading YA:

1.      Amazing Story

First and foremost, I want a great story. I’m a plot junkie. I want pages that turn, chapters that beg me to leave the light on for ten more minutes, and twists that I don’t expect. Not every book is a suspense thriller, but I don’t want the whole novel to be predictable. Surprise me a few times.

Recommendation: Missing by Kelly Armstrong and One of Us Is Lying by Karen McManus

2.      Real, Sweet Love

It seems the teenage love triangle has fallen out of favor these days, but I still enjoy a sweet love story, like Everything Everything by Nicola Yoon. When the emotional stuff is done well, not love at first sight or some other contrived device, but the excited fever that comes with new, young love—that’s something! It’s complicated, clean, and messy all at the same time.

Recommendations: Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell and Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz

3.      Delightful Writing

Some of the YA novels have witty and beautiful language. David Arnold’s Mosquitoland is particularly lyrical: “So I float in silence, watching the final touches of this perfect moonrise, and in a moment of heavenly revelation, it occurs to me that detours are not without purpose. They provide safe passage to a destination, avoiding pitfalls in the process.”

Recommendation: The Absolute Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

4.      Tough Topics

Many of the breakout novels and films in YA have been in the category of issue-driven fiction. Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why tackles the topics of bullying and suicide. John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars is about children with terminal cancer. Some critics argue that authors are too cavalier with their treatment of topics like mental health, eating disorders, physical illnesses, self-harm, depression, or other issues, but others applaud such books for taking on the challenging stories and handling them with honesty, humor, and a bit of hope.

Recommendations: All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven and The Future Unborn by Khristina Chess

5.      Memorable Characters

The best characters stay with me long after I’ve closed the book, and YA has characters with strong, memorable voices.

Recommendations: Elizabeth Scott’s Living Dead Girl and By The Time You Read This, I'll Be Dead by Julie Anne Peters

6.      Breadth of Genre

Within YA, there’s so much variety. In addition to contemporary literary novels, I’ve discovered books that are historical, like Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson or The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. The dystopian future is popular in YA and adult alike. My whole introduction to YA started back with a teen vampire named Edward and a friend who said, “You have to read this! You won’t believe how good it is.”

Recommendation: Razorland Series by Ann Aguirre and The Twilight Saga by Stephenie Meyer

7.      Unpretentious

Because YA novels focus on story and have a reduced page length from mainstream literary fiction, most authors don’t waste time on fluff. Descriptions are not overly complex and drawn-out, and characters are developed without so much backstory that you know their kin’s next-of-kin. The language is meant to be readable at the high school level. This is not War and Peace or Waiting for Godot.

Recommendations: Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews

8.      Universal Experience

Most YA novels have some coming of age aspect to them, and all readers relate to this, young and not-so-young. The journey of change is one that most of us continue into our twenties, thirties, and beyond as life events and stages continue. Leaving high school to go to college and having your kids graduate high school are similar moments, evoking common feelings and memories.

Recommendations: Hello, Goodbye, and Everything in Between by Jennifer Smith and The Unexpected Everything by Morgan Matson

9.      Diversity

YA novels seem to make a more concerted effort to include diverse characters in them, as well as to publish books by diverse authors. This opens the genre to more inclusive voices and stories.

Recommendations: The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X. R. Pan and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

10.   Creative Techniques

Many YA novels employ creative storytelling techniques. They can be more visual, a step away from picture books, as if still in transition from their middle-grade and elementary levels. This format gives the novels a fresh appeal that reminds the reader the characters are still students.

Recommendations: Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews and The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson

11.   Movies

Sometimes the movie tie-in is the hook that brings adult readers to YA novels. YA novels have been made into movies and television series more than ever: The Maze Runner, Divergent, The Hunger Games, Thirteen Reasons Why, If I Stay, Pretty Little Liars, The Fault of Our Stars, and so on. Sometimes the movie is the hook that brings adult readers into the world of YA fiction.

12.   Cost

A lot of YA fiction is cheaper than adult books because of its shorter page count.

13.   Positive Escapism

For those who read for respite from lives that are full of stress and worries, YA fiction offers positive escapism. Even in those “tough topics” books, the themes are overwhelmingly full of hope and good messages. The novels portray strong young women and men who are learning about life and finding their voices. The characters explore friendship, love, loss, and the other range of experiences that it means to be human.

All of these are great reasons to pick up a YA book. They’re some of the reasons why I love reading them—and writing them. It’s become my go-to genre, slowly displacing the literary fiction on some of my bookshelves at home.

What about you? Are you a YA reader, and if so, why? I’d love to hear your comments about your favorites.

Books about Teenage Love and Pregnancy

I love the beach. More specifically, I love the Caribbean. I love the turquoise water and white sand, and I love snorkeling for hours. I especially love the wildlife: turtles, trunkfish, parrotfish, angel fish, stingrays, eels, and on and on. The ocean is astonishingly beautiful. I love its sound and its rolling, rocking motion. I love reading a great book beneath a palm tree. Whenever I visit there, the most amazing peace and quiet settles over my soul.

When I first began thinking about "The Future Unborn," a YA novel about teen pregnancy, we were in an all-inclusive resort for families in the southern Caribbean. Most of the guests were from Europe, and there were several teens. The girls were lovely, independent, and seemingly unsupervised, and of course, boys followed them wherever they went. Young love seemed to be in the air.

I wondered what it would be like to be an American girl in such an environment, especially a sheltered and inexperienced teen. I imagined that it would be easy for her to lose her bearings and find herself in a difficult situation.

Once while I was snorkeling on my own, I spotted a turtle. I began swimming after it, and I followed that turtle for a long time, mesmerized by how the sun glinted on its shell and legs. Together we circled around and around, almost dancing together. The colors of the ocean were breathtaking, and I felt buoyant and a bit spellbound by the experience. Suddenly I saw a flash of silver in the distance and realized I had traveled very far from shore. I swam very hard and for a long time before returning safely to shore.

I think that's what happened to Kansas during her beach trip in "The Future Unborn." She saw something beautiful that made her throw caution to the wind and consequently put herself at risk.

What about you? Did you ever find yourself too far from land--metaphorically or in real life? I'd love to hear from you.

Why I Believe in the Next Generation Readers

At the Huntsville Downtown Art Stroll last night, three small children stopped at my table and began to interview me:

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“Did you write these books?”

“Do you like to read?”

“What are they about?”

I offered them bookmarks and answered their many questions. Since teen drinking wasn’t an age-appropriate topic, I told them Drive to June was about a girl who learned how to drive a car—which is also true. Several minutes into the interview, their mother caught up and said they were just learning to read.

“Reading is a lifelong joy,” I said. “What do you like to read?”

“Shel Silverstein.”

“Oh, I love Shel Silverstein!”

“And Dr. Seuss.”

Are You My Mother is my favorite,” I said. “Have you read Where the Wild Things Are?

“Did you write that?”

“No!” I laughed. “I wish! It’s an excellent book!”

“We’ve read Where the Wild Things Are,” their mother said. “Remember?” She thanked me and herded them on with promises of ice cream.

After they left, I continued enjoying my evening of people and dog-watching. There was a boy in an alligator suit and a man with a cat hand puppet, and I can only assume they were advertising for a local theatre production. Diners pulled in front of the swanky restaurant across the street and blocked the street to wait for the valet parking, and horns blared from the cars stuck in the intersection behind them. It was high drama.

My greatest thrills of the evening came from fan visits. One reader stopped by to say she’d met me at a previous event and had bought two of my books. She read both of them and enjoyed them, and now she wanted to purchase the other two—signed of course.

Then, as I was packing up my table at the end of the evening, another girl raced up to my table and said, “You’re still here!”

“I am.” Barely.

“We were all the way on the other side of the square,” she said. “And we ran over here before you left.”

She explained to her parents that she’d met me at an earlier event but didn’t have money to buy my books. Would they buy some for her now?

I pulled a copy of each novel out of my suitcase, spread them across the table, and described what each was about.

“Can I have all four?” she asked her mom.

“Two.”

She made her choices. I signed them and thanked her. She looked delighted. I know I was. Who are those naysayers that claim young people aren’t reading anymore? I’d spent an evening talking to future young journalists who read Shel Silverstein. I’d been pursued by teenage readers and returning fans who clearly loved books. My faith in the future reading public remains strong.

What about you? Do you think young people are reading more or less? I'd love to hear from you.

Dear Jeff Bezos: We Need Digital Transformation

I want Amazon to transform the book industry.

“Digital transformation” is the current buzzword in business, and the use cases for improving the book buying experience with machine learning and artificial intelligence are a no-brainer.

Let me give you a user story so your scrum teams can start planning right away:

USER STORY

As an avid reader and independent author, I want Amazon to be more predictive about customer reading preferences so that the site can suggest great new matches and improve sales for everyone.

CONDITIONS OF SATISFACTION

  1. Half of the suggestions in the “Books You May Like” section are books I already own and have read.
    • Amazon should consider data from Goodreads (which it owns) to understand my reading preferences, since I’ve rated hundreds of books there already.
    • Amazon should periodically ask me about my reading tastes, independent of my purchases, to help suggest better books to me. For example, as part of my shopping or shipping experience, ask “What was your favorite book this year? What was your least favorite?” This answer may be a title I bought at a brick-and-mortar store. Use this information to feed the engine.
  2. Amazon should give authors a way to say “my book is like this book” to help the algorithm suggest better books.
  3. Amazon should give me a way to anonymously rate books I don’t like so I can provide feedback without making other authors feel bad. I’m often reluctant to give low ratings on books because I don’t want to hurt feelings. However, it would be helpful to tell the AI that I don’t want any more books by this author or don’t want to see other books of this type.

There are plenty of other suggestions where these came from. Making the site more predictive about reader’s tastes will increase book sales. I know there’s a way to make software smart enough to serve up the right books to the right readers, and the algorithm can be more sophisticated than simply promoting the small percentage of books that are already selling.

I want Amazon to transform the book industry, and I bet you do too. So what do you say? Can we see this on your product roadmap for Q2 2019? :-)

www.khristinachess.com

Shrek, Dragons, and an Ugly Duckling

Humpty Dumpty isn’t a normal visitor to the Friday Night Art Walk in downtown Huntsville. I see a lot of things from my vendor booth on the corner: people walking dogs of all shapes and sizes, kids eating frozen ice, cars circling the block, and that guy at the restaurant across the street who does valet parking for the restaurant. Occasionally there’s the oddity like the guy riding a skateboard down the middle of the street with a camera. Or the musician with the accordion. Or the little redheaded princess in pink tights with green butterfly wings.

But when Humpty Dumpty crossed the street, I wasn’t sure what to think.

More characters soon followed. There were two king’s men, a lovely queen, and then an ugly duckling. They were characters from Shrek the Musical, handing out cards to advertise for their upcoming production at Lee High School. That ugly duckling looked adorable and very hot in her costume.

That’s what I love about the downtown Art Walk. Every month is unique. The people who come out are fun to talk to, and everyone is enjoying the city and the atmosphere. There’s live music competing with the street noise of the traffic. It has a festival feeling about it.

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Lots of people visited my table. One mother and her teenage son came to hear about my books, and I ran through the 30-second elevator pitch. The mother turned to her son.

“No dragons,” she said.

“I don’t care about any of that,” he said. “It sounds really depressing.”

I laughed. “They have happy endings. Romance.”

He shook his head and backed away with a look of horror on his face. I wish I’d thought to mention to robots and the zombies, but I’m not sure that would have been enough to entice him. Maybe my next book needs to include a dragon?

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Crowds at Friday Night Art Walk

Heat didn’t deter visitors from the first Friday Night Art Walk of 2017 in downtown Huntsville last night. Families, dogs, and even a few out-of-town visitors circled the square to check out our vendor tables. One journalist caught me in the photograph of their article; I’m in the crowd in the top center.

That’s my corner.

People were in the mood to talk about YA fiction last night. I met several interesting readers and one collector who wanted to know how to identify first editions of print-on-demand books. I didn’t know. One of my dear friends stood by my shoulder and helpfully said, “She’s going to be famous someday. You should buy her books!”

He agreed. He asked me to write the original publication date when I signed them.

One of these days, I hope to be signing a hardcover first edition of a new book with a publication date printed on the copyright page by the publisher.

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Alabama Authors, Literary Festivals, and Catfish

Yesterday felt like the first nice Saturday in 2018. Every weekend forecast since January has been rain, rain, and more rain, but yesterday was gorgeous with sunshine and warm temperatures.

As a result, very few people visited the Athens-Limestone Public Library, where a group of Alabama authors (and one Pennsylvania author on book tour) gathered for the Fourth Annual Catfish Literary Festival. While we sat around our book tables and spoke on panel discussions, the public gathered at outdoor events: Panoply in downtown Huntsville and Cars & Bikes on the Square in Athens.

Also, we had no catfish. Or food trucks of any kind.

I met a few people, though. One man wanted to know how I published my books. He’s another aspiring writer who’s thinking about taking the plunge into the world of self-publishing, and I gave him as much advice as I could while two young children circled him.

Another man came around with his daughter. She looked to be someone who was in my target audience, but she wasn’t making eye-contact. She didn’t like my books; she probably thought they were uncool. She probably thought I was uncool. Her discomfort made me uncomfortable. Two introverts sharing the same space are no good. You can practically hear the pop as we snap our heads into our turtle shells. It’s not ideal for selling books.

Another woman asked about my books for her daughters. She described them to me, how old they are, and what kind of grades they get in school. Since my books are about issues, we talked about whether the subjects were appropriate or not.

“Their father would kill me if I brought home a book about that,” she said.

The Future Unborn is about teen pregnancy.

“It happens,” I said. “Even with girls you wouldn’t expect.”

“I know.”

I don’t hold it against the woman for not wanting to talk about teen pregnancy or not wanting to give her daughter a book about the subject. I only find it curious because this happens whenever someone asks about that book at literary festivals. Is it because we’re in Alabama? Or would that happen anywhere? Is it just a parent thing that we don’t want to think about our girls growing up too soon?

Ah, well. Let’s not talk about that. Might as well pack up and go outside. Check out the car show. Eat some barbeque.

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Savoring the Binge Bloat: Lost in Space

Danger Will Robinson! Netflix has a new binge-worthy series: Lost In Space. I love the modernization of the classic story, its deeper narratives, the bigger cast of characters, and of course the robot. Some critics have written that Netflix’s reboot of Lost in Space gave up something essential in the serialization of the story. We now consume television series, not in episodes, but in entire series:

Netflix: Are you still watching?

Me: Continue Watching

Yes, continue watching. I must continue until it’s done.

In fact, I would argue that binge-watching series is a new genre and that viewers aren’t really supposed to watch just one episode. You can, but really, why would you? It’s created to be consumed all at once, over a weekend, while consuming unhealthy food.

Writers break novels into chapters, but are you really supposed to stop at each one? No. When the book’s really good, you plow through from front to back without stopping. In fact, that’s why I don’t do well reading books in series either. I wait until the author publishes the whole collection so I can binge all of them in one group.

After the binge comes the bloat. All that television (and perhaps snacking)… and what am I supposed to watch now? Does anyone have any recommendations? Maybe I should do a little writing now. That’s what writers are supposed to do: watch less TV, write more, and read more.

Oh wait, Netflix has a new recommendation for me!

What are your thoughts? Like or share your thoughts. I especially love Netflix recommendations.

Censorship, Banned Books, and Intellectual Freedom

I’ve been living in a cave regarding censorship and banned books. I’ve been operating under the assumption that in the digital age where students have unlimited access to the Internet, there would be less censorship for them than past generation. Why restrict access to library books when kids can just download them on their phone?

When I spoke to a group of high school students last month, they asked me questions that alerted me to this important issue, and now I see it everywhere. As an author of YA books on sensitive topics (suicide, depression, teen pregnancy, anorexia, drinking) that the intellectual freedom police would likely target, this is deeply concerning.

In a recent article about restricted access or removed library materials, the top 10 YA books that were challenged and banned include:

  • “Thirteen Reasons Why” by Jay Asher – because it discusses suicide
  • “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie (a National Book Award Winner) – because it acknowledges issues such as poverty, alcoholism, and sexuality—as well as uses profanity

I’m doomed. Two of my books fit into these categories.

The only good thing to come from banning books is that it drives popularity. What’s better than forbidden fruit, right? If it’s banned, it must be good. If you’ll look at the Banned Books that Shaped America, you’ll see some titles that have become some of our literary staples:

  • “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury – a personal favorite of mine
  • “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck
  • “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald
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I’m going to mark the restricted books into my 2018 reading list.

What about you? What are your thoughts on censorship, banned books, and intellectual freedom?

Two Stories of Lifetime Impacts on Student Lives

Teachers matter. They are more than talking heads on a computer screen regurgitating instructional material to memorize for a test. They are Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, the people who inspire and enlighten and change us in a lasting and fundamental way.

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My Robin Williams announced his retirement as a classroom teacher. This person came to our school with fresh ideas and taught my English class with props like Weird Al to introduce us to satire. We wrote thought-provoking essays about a wide range of topics, and in the process learned about both the world and how to construct papers. Later he served as the faculty advisor for the writer’s club and gave structure to our meetings, writing prompts, critique groups, and a literary magazine. He invited us to his home at the end of the year for a picnic, and we read our work to his wife. She made burgers for a motley group of poets and prose writers.

During my senior year, my parents split up, and I went through a bad time for awhile. This teacher saw I was in trouble and took me aside for counseling. I don’t remember the words anymore, only the feeling of being seen, of being not alone.

People who know me also know this teacher’s name. He’s an integral part of my story, part of my writing life, part of who I’ve become. We continued to stay in touch during my college years, but I fell away until social media reunited us and others from high school. He blogs wonderful articles about education and other topics.

In my book Straight A’s, you see a fictional glimpse of him in this story. The student and teacher have the same relationship through the writer’s club, and ultimately, that teacher has an equally significant and lifelong impact on the student’s life in the book.

Teachers matter beyond the classroom. Teachers like mine give us the self-confidence to use education and move forward into the world, to believe in ourselves, and to be encouraged. When that kind of feedback is missing at home for whatever reason, a charismatic teacher can be the only person who gives it. For the right student, this kind of attention from one caring adult is all it takes to make them soar.

I was one of the lucky kids. I had multiple good teachers in my life. They made a difference in multiple ways—some of which had nothing to do with my GPA—and I’m grateful to every single one.

What about you? Do you have any stories about great teachers in your life? Like or share them in comments.

3 Reasons Why the Show 13 Reasons Why Is Better Than Book

True confession: I liked Jay Asher’s book, Thirteen Reasons Why, a lot, but I LOVED Netflix’s miniseries version of it. I binge-watched. There are several things the show did better which made it so gripping and effective. I’ll list my top 3:

1.      Length – With 13 episodes, the writers of the series had time to expand the story and character development over a longer timeline. In particular, Hannah herself became three-dimensional in the series, and that gave her character a depth that wasn’t as strong in the novel.

2.      Point of View – In the book, the viewpoint is limited to Hannah and Clay, but the show expands scenes in a way the develops the whole world and characters in Hannah’s life. The complete picture of what happened comes together in a way that the novel didn’t show.

3.      Adaptation Changes – Usually when screenwriters mess with a book I love, I feel angry and robbed. “No! No! No!” I scream. “That’s not how it was!” In the case of the Netflix adaptation of Thirteen Reasons Why, the writers did such an amazing job that I often found myself wondering, “Was that in the book?” or “I like that better than the book.”

Plenty of people have negative things to say about the book and the show. One critic of the novel, Hannah Moskowitz, wrote, “The very premise of the book is flawed to me; you don’t kill yourself for REASONS, you kill yourself because there is a bug in your brain gnawing at you and sucking out any valuable thought you’ve ever had, and I never saw that kind of bug in Hannah.”

I disagree with this. The topic of mental illness is a complex one, and it’s difficult to say whether or not a reason can push a profoundly depressed person over the edge—or what that reason might look like. A seemingly ordinary reason may be life-or-death to a teen. According to a 2017 report, a student commits suicide every hour in India; the pressure to perform academically is extremely high.

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In my novel Straight A’s, the main character makes a plan to commit suicide because she’s knocked out of the valedictorian spot and thinks this is the end of her college path. The depression and anxiety are real for her. Her inability to see another path through her troubles are real.

We know from teen suicide rates that this is real.

What do you think? Did you see the show, Thirteen Reasons Why?, or read the book? Which did you like better, or did you give both rotten tomatoes? Share why in the comments.

3 Young Adult Novels on Depression and Anxiety Struggles

There are dozens of lists of popular YA novels that talk about mental illness, depression, anxiety, and suicide in one or more characters. For various reasons, these kinds of stories have replaced the YA dystopia boom of the early 2010s in our culture.

So in case you haven’t heard, Thirteen Reasons Why is the new Maze Runner. Here are my top three recommendations in the depression, anxiety, and suicide YA sub-genre, plus a bonus recommendation.

  •  All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven—This is one of my all-time favorites that combined a love story with depression; it was such a wonderful, heartbreaking, lovely book that I read it twice. And I will probably read it again!
  • By The Time You Read This I’ll Be Dead by Julie Anne Peters—This book is a fast read but hard. The character is so tough, harsh, hard to love, and yet I just wanted to break through her pain and help her.
  • Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher—The premise of this book is fantastic. A girl has committed suicide, and she has left behind 13 tapes explaining why she did it. The main character and the reader go on a journey to understand what happened. It’s a little hard to get emotionally close to the girl through this storytelling, but it’s a compelling read.
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Bonus round: If you already like these books and these authors, consider picking up my novel Straight A’s, which also deals with academic pressure, anxiety, depression, and suicide. The story shows how perfectionism can be taken too far and lead down a dangerous path.

What are your favorite YA novels in this category? I'd love to hear your recommendations.

National Poetry Month Begins in April

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I watched The Hero last weekend. It’s not often that a movie character reads a beautiful poem in a film, or that the words continue to resonate with me even a week later. The poem was Dirge without Music by Edna St. Vincent Millay. It was a perfect moment, a perfect poem, with perfect sadness.

Writing novels is my go-to art form, and there’s usually not a lot of room for poetry in novels. Most of the time my poetry is random, personal, and left in a drawer. However, in my YA novel Straight A’s, Kim and Elliot exchange sonnets as a flirtation, like this one, called Lawn Cowboy:

Afar, I watch him mount his trusty steed,

A mechanical beast of name John Deere.

Easy on the eyes is this guy indeed,

Shirtless and muscled, no bees doth he fear.

 

I long to draw his attentions to me.

Instead, his mind focuses on one track:

The perfect straight line, across yard, to tree.

Naught else, not even sunscreen on his back.

 

One day those six-pack abs will be beer gut,

And hair will sprout in all manner of place.

Trusty green steed will become rust bucket.

Still my true love will shine upon his face.

 

If only he would ask me, I’d say yes,

To join the cowboy journey, heading west.

There are silly poems as well:

Floozy

Betty Sue lost her red bootie

beside the red tattooed

man when she left the Jacuzzi.

 

You can bet your sweet patootie

she also forgot to

inform him about her cooties.

The climactic romantic moment comes with a brief four-liner:

I wrote this sappy love poem for you.

Please excuse the rhyme,

Infused with copious words to woo.

Won’t you please be mine?

But as any reader knows, the road to love is never straight or easy, especially for poets.

Click Like to let me know you liked this article or add a comment. I always love hearing from readers.

Why Novels about Suicide Are Helpful

One of the big issues in the latest YA novel I’m writing is mental illness in teens. For some reason I’m especially heartbroken by the vulnerability of kids struggling with this issue today and the missed opportunities to help them. All the warnings that go dismissed, ignored, and misunderstood are leading to higher and higher rates of suicide among our youth.

More teens harm themselves than harm others. That’s depression. It's when the pain turns inward. Depression says:

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·        Everything seems hopeless. It just goes on and on.

·        Everything is falling apart.

·        I am not enough.

·        Who I am on the inside doesn’t match the outside.

·        I feel empty and alone.

·        No one can see me.

Novels about depression and anxiety can help to show teens that they're not alone. Straight A’s is about a girl who feels that everything is falling apart, and there is no way out. Stress and perfectionism push her into a corner. Her cries for help are seen by friends and recognized in time for her to be saved, but for many in our world today, this isn’t true.

When I talk about my book, it makes people squeamish. SUICIDE! Ugh. What a nasty topic. Can’t you write about something nice like romance? Why would you write about something horrible like that?

Because it’s important.

Because it’s real.

Because it hurts a lot of people. Because it’s killing them. Literally.

Talking really does help. Writing in journals helps. Sharing with friends, making art, talking to a counselor, and lots of things like that helps. Reading books about anxiety and depression helps. It’s important that feelings of hopelessness and despair do not stay bottled on the inside, alone. Terrible things grow in that darkness.

Healing happens in the light, in community.

Here's a great list of 10 Young Adult Books That Talk about Anxiety and Depression. Jennifer Niven's All the Bright Places is one of my all-time favorites.

What about you? Do you have some other recommendations to share? I'd love to hear from you.

Sharing the Road at Sparkman High School #amwriting #5amwritersclub

Yesterday I spent an hour with a group of students at Sparkman High School’s Creative Writing / Literary Magazine class for a talk on writing novels. The group was a mixed range of artists, writers, photographers, dancers, graphic designers, actors, and even a talented programmer who enjoys creative writing.

Would I have any message to engage such a diverse group of teens? Could we connect?

After introducing myself, I launched into my journey and described my passion for writing stories since elementary school. These students created the literary magazine for their school, and I also worked on a writing club and literary magazine: an initial connection.

The writers were fully in from the beginning. The artists were in. Most of the others were in too. We took the journey together. When I began talking about the steps for self-publishing on Amazon, they finally stopped me.

“This sounds like running a business,” one of them said.

“It’s exactly like a business,” I said. “As an indie author, you’re creating a product, manufacturing, selling, marketing, publicity, everything. End-to-end. Amazon handles distribution.”

This generated a flurry of questions about traditional publishing versus independent publishing. What was my literary agent doing for me? What was that experience like? Why was it so hard for independent authors? What would make it easier? They asked so many insightful business questions and grasped the complexities of the problem with selling on a platform like Amazon (search and discoverability) versus a bookstore and why distribution into wider channels is vital.

They let me continue through the rest of my deck but asked more questions along the way. We were comfortable with each other now, and the conversation was easy. What did you do in your other job as a technical writer? I explained that I’ve been a manager for a long time now, but when I was a technical writer, I wrote software manuals to describe how to install and use products.

Who are your favorite authors? What kind of books do you like to read? How do you build realistic characters? What are your books about? What was your favorite book to write and why? You write about difficult issues. Do you know that they’re starting to censor books now? They’re trying to censor classics like To Kill a Mockingbird. How do you feel about that?

Uh, well... I think censorship is bad.

Goodness! That was a lot of fun. The students were full of enthusiasm, interest, and challenging questions, and we had a great discussion about writing, which is always my favorite subject. I left them with copies of my recommended reading list, and I'm so grateful that they invited me to their class.

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