A little over a week ago, I received one of the best pieces of news I’ve gotten in several months. Kirkus Reviews, a very prominent book review magazine, posted an online review of my first novel, The Prostitutes of Lake Wiishkoban, that was highly complimentary of my work (to say the least). Quotes like “Shannon’s … fiction debut is an entertaining, provocative bildungsroman that successfully turns an unconventional premise into a thoughtful exploration of freedom and identity” are the kind of thing that authors like me dream of, and even the non-bibliophiles among you can probably appreciate that this is the kind of thing I want to shout from the rooftops.
Early in 2017, shortly after I first published the novel, I did a small amount of advertising for it on Facebook, Twitter, Amazon and Google. I didn’t have much money, but you don’t need much money to advertise on those services, and I was fairly satisfied with the return on investment I got from those advertisements. However, due to the problems with Mom’s estate that I was dealing with at the time, I wasn’t able to manage those advertising campaigns as well as I would have liked, and they failed to generate enough buzz to really get my sales going. By the end of last year, I’d resigned myself to the end of the initial life cycle of the novel, and that the best way to reignite interest in it would be to write another book that might attract more notice for all my work; in addition to publishing a second ebook of classroom exercises for Humanities instructors this year, I’ve also been researching a non-fiction book on education politics that I’m hoping to start writing in the next few months.
Getting that rave from Kirkus Reviews changes everything, though. I didn’t have any reviews from such an authoritative source when I did my first round of advertising, and particularly for a novel with such an unconventional premise, getting a review that explicitly states how there’s a strong, character-driven story alongside that premise is a real boon for me. Again, I don’t have the money to launch a massive advertising campaign for the novel right now, but given how successful my first campaigns had been without a review from an established authority, I figured that launching a new wave of advertising focused on that review would be a wise investment.
The weekend after the review came out, I placed ad buys with Facebook, Twitter and Amazon. (I’m waiting until I get another AdWords coupon from Google before placing advertising there.) The Facebook campaign has gone somewhat okay (lots of interaction, but few sales), and the first day of the Twitter campaign helped me increase the novel’s visibility. Shortly after that first day, though, Twitter shut the campaign down, saying that despite my promotional tweet having been approved earlier, I was in violation of their policies against “adult sexual products and services.” This change of heart, particularly in light of the fact that Twitter had let me advertise my novel the previous year without the slightest hint of any problem, confused the heck out of me.
I gave Twitter the benefit of the doubt, though, because I certainly recognize the potential for misunderstandings in cases like this. I filed a support ticket with Twitter, explaining that The Prostitutes of Lake Wiishkoban was a literary novel, and did not fall into their definition of “adult sexual products and services” (unless they’re defining that term so broadly as to include any work of art that has depictions of sex/sexuality, which doesn’t appear to be the case when I look at the other promoted tweets on their service). I figured that my appeal would be quickly accepted, particularly in light of the fact that whoever conducted the appeal wouldn’t even have to read my novel; the review (which is what I linked to, not the product purchase pages on Amazon) does an excellent job of making clear that The Prostitutes of Lake Wiishkoban is a literary novel.
To my shock, not only was I informed that the ban on promoting my tweet about the review had been upheld, but I was then told I wouldn’t be able to purchase any further advertising on Twitter at all because my entire account was in violation of their policy on advertising “adult sexual products and services.” (I’ve screencapped the relevant parts of those emails and posted them on my Instagram.) As this happened, I noticed that Amazon was dragging their feet when it came to approving my latest ad buy on their service, when all my previous campaigns with them had been approved in short order. As of the time I’m posting this, I’m still waiting to hear back from Amazon about whether or not they’ll accept my latest advertisement purchase.
What could be going on here to make these services suddenly change their acceptance of my ad buys ? The key, to me, lies in Twitter banning my entire account from purchasing advertising. My Twitter bio mentions that I’m the author of The Prostitutes of Lake Wiishkoban because that’s kind of a cornerstone of my online presence right now, to say nothing of my writing career. Even though I’ve been publishing content on the .org here for close to eighteen years , books are far more reliable for attracting a wide audience than websites are, and having a novel available for people to buy gives me a certain authority as well. The title of my book is one of the only things my bio and the tweet I was trying to promote (which, again, linked to the Kirkus Reviews review of my novel, not a product page for the novel itself) have in common, and of all the words in that title, there’s no question which word might be the most problematic for some people.
As I’ve already written about, the way that the recently-passed FOSTA/SESTA legislation was worded was so hopelessly broad that instead of simply targeting the child sex trade, as its supporters purported, it wound up being a broadside on sex work of all kinds, particularly the intersection of sex work and the online world. As soon as President Trump signed the legislation, Internet companies of all stripes were quick to shut down websites and user accounts that had even the slightest whiff of sex work to them. I didn’t think that I was in any danger of becoming a victim of these actions, but it seems like the mere presence of the word “prostitutes” in the title of a book that I wrote is enough for me to be blocked from advertising opportunities that were okay with the same companies just over a year ago.
To be clear, my First Amendment rights are not being violated in any way by these companies. Twitter and Amazon, and Facebook and Google as well, are private companies, and they’re under no obligation to provide me with any kind of platform at all, not even a user account. For all that Twitter has banned me from advertising on their service, they haven’t sanctioned my account in any way, and the tweet I made promoting that review is still visible; I just can’t pay to have them distribute the tweet to other users of their service. (Whether or not FOSTA/SESTA is impinging on my First Amendment rights is a topic for another day.)
Not having the ability to buy advertising, however, is a massive problem for me. As wonderful as the review that I got from Kirkus Reviews is, it isn’t going to help me all that much unless people see it, and the kinds of small-dollar advertising campaigns available through services like Twitter and Facebook are crucial to self-published authors like me when it comes to gaining visibility. People aren’t going to buy my book if they don’t know about it, and if I can’t utilize the limited resources that are available to me right now to inform people about the fact that I have a novel out there, and Kirkus Reviews thinks that it’s pretty freaking awesome, then The Prostitutes of Lake Wiishkoban will continue to languish in relative obscurity.
This is an obvious problem for me as I work to build my writing career, but more than that, the possibility that works of art with even the slightest hint of sexuality to them may be denied vital promotional platforms is scaring the hell out of me. Part of me is sympathetic to Internet companies working to comply with FOSTA/SESTA, but if my novel can be seen as a potential problem when it comes to establishing an online platform, then a broad swath of artists could soon find themselves in the same predicament I’m in right now, and the cultural effects of such a crackdown would be nothing short of mortifying.
In the meantime, all I can do is continue promoting my novel using the channels of communication that I still have access to. If you have an account on Twitter, I ask you to please retweet my tweet promoting the Kirkus Reviews review of The Prostitutes of Lake Wiishkoban, since I literally can’t pay Twitter to let me increase that tweet’s visibility, and click the Facebook Share button on the review page if you’ve got a Facebook account. Maybe that review will still lead to the breakthrough I need to really sell my novel, but again, it’s not going to do me a lick of good unless I can tell people about it. At least I can still tell all of you reading this blog about it. For now, anyway.