Post-Pyrrhic and Punch-Drunk


Five weeks ago, I blogged about a very problematic turn of events for me. On the one hand, the leading book review organization Kirkus Reviews had posted an incredibly positive review of my first novelThe Prostitutes of Lake Wiishkoban. For many authors, getting this kind of a review can be career-making , and it was coming as I headed into a summer where I didn’t have any teaching work. Getting this review in front of as many people as possible became a top priority for me, but I quickly found that Twitter, which had previously allowed me to buy advertising for my novel, was no longer going to let me buy any advertising on their service. I strongly suspected that the recent passage of SESTA/FOSTA, and the chilling effect it’s had on a wide swath of America, was to blame for this, and the events of the past month have me even more firmly convinced of that than ever.

When I posted my last blog, I was in the middle of waiting for a response from Amazon about an ad buy I’d submitted for their service; as with Twitter, I’d previously had no problem with Amazon accepting advertisements for my novel. After a much longer wait than I was used to, Amazon finally accepted my advertisement, although they informed me that they would no longer let me advertise my novel on Kindle devices. Again, that hadn’t been the case before SESTA/FOSTA was signed into law by President Trump. In the month since I got that notice from Amazon, I’ve gradually increased the bid price for my advertisement, to the point where it is now more than twice the rate Amazon said was “average” for my kind of campaign. Despite that, though, Amazon has yet to place a single ad for my novel, so even though they claimed to have accepted my advertisement, they haven’t actually shown it to anyone.

I also mentioned in my last blog that I was waiting to place new advertisements with Google until I got one of their “spend $X and get $X in credit later” coupons to help me maximize my buy. I got one of those coupons a couple of weeks ago, so I placed another buy on there, setting a daily budget and allowing Google to place my ad bids at going market rates. Just like Amazon, though, Google hasn’t actually shown the ad for my novel to anyone, and it doesn’t look like they plan on doing so here any time soon.

The only company that is still showing advertisements for my novel is Facebook, but the return for my advertising dollar I get from Facebook is very low. To showcase this, I recently placed a two-week, $100 ad buy on Facebook that included the most quotable line from that review by Kirkus Reviews, as well as a link to my novel’s page on Amazon. That purchase resulted in slightly over 10,000 people seeing the advertisement, but only 219 people clicked on the link. Of those, only three people actually bought the novel, which will yield me slightly over six dollars in royalties. (By point of comparison, my previous Amazon ad buys resulted in well over a 50% return on my investment.) This isn’t a sustainable advertising model, and I doubt I’ll be placing any more ad buys on Facebook in the future.

I’ve spent a lot of my time these past few weeks, and expended a lot of my energy, trying to figure out how to overcome these barriers. I wish I could say that I’ve had any luck with that, but between being cut off from so many opportunities  to amplify my message beyond my relatively small media platform, and having to contend with a virtual blizzard of horrifying news stories, I just haven’t been able to make any headway with any of these problems. As each day passes, the potency and relevancy of that review diminishes more and more, as does one of the best chances I may ever have to make a success not only of this novel, but my writing career as a whole.

On one level, I can’t deny that part of my frustration right now is being caused by my own foolish pride and ego. I probably spent thousands of hours on The Prostitutes of Lake Wiishkoban, fine-tuning and developing the idea behind it into the first full-length novel I ever wrote, revising it dozens of times until every one of its 109,000 words was as strong as I could make it, and handling related tasks like cover design and publicity. Nearly every person who’s actually read the book has nothing but praise for it (and will tell you that it is not “adult content,” despite what Twitter has repeatedly claimed), and while I harbour no illusions about becoming the next J.K. Rowling or Stephen King, I do still desire some kind of recognition for all the work I have put, and continue to put, into this novel.

More than that, though, there are broader issues going on here that deeply disturb me, and which affect far more than me and my novel. I’ve already blogged about how the language of SESTA/FOSTA was so broadly worded that it’s literally putting the lives of sex workers in danger. They are, by far, the most important victims of this legislation, but if its passage has now created a climate where artists like me can have our ability to make a livelihood from our work effectively kneecapped just for producing a work with a title that alludes to sex work, then the potential for art, and artists, to be smothered in this current sociopolitical climate in America should send a chill down the spine of anyone who cares about the First Amendment.

This would be bad enough if I could point to some previous moment in my life where the climate was like this, but as I’ve mentioned before, a good deal of inspiration for my novel probably came from the fact that one of the movies I watched a lot as a child, because Mom loved it so much, was The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. That came out when Ronald Reagan was president, and while there was a modicum of controversy that caused the title to be changed in some locations in America, there was never any insinuation that the film must be “X-rated” simply because of its title. If books like mine can be effectively blackballed from wider society because of one piece of harmful legislation, and more of that kind of legislation is likely to come from Washington in the coming weeks, many more artists could soon find themselves in the same situation I’ve been enduring for the past few weeks.

I’d like to joke here about how I might get better treatment from these advertisers if I could get Lin-Manuel Miranda to help adapt my novel into a musical, but the fact is that I’m too tired to joke right now, let alone fight. I have to keep fighting, though. Beyond the principles here involving art and free speech and so many other things I care so passionately about, I’m also fighting for my own ability to provide for myself through my hard work, so I can continue to fight for those issues and others. I’ve lost a lot of battles these past few weeks, but the war isn’t over yet.

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