Gatekeepers Make Creators Fragile

Creators and artists of all persuasions cannot count on gatekeepers. Many publishers and corporate sponsors do not have the creators’ interests in mind, only their own. That gives social justice warriors a vulnerability to exploit.

Earlier this week, political interest groups used deceptively edited footage to assassinate Milo Yiannopoulis’ character. The edited clip showed Yiannopoulis apparently defending paedophilia, leaving out the entirety of his argument: the law on age of consent is proper; in some rare cases a sexually mature teenager older than a child but younger than the age of consent may give consent; intergenerational relationships between younger and older gay men, both of them above the age of consent, are beneficial; and that paedophilia is an unforgiveable crime. The lie caught like wildfire across the Internet, prompting Simon & Schuster to cancel Yiannopoulis’ book publication. Yiannopoulis himself opted to resign from Breitbart to draw fire away from his colleagues.

Yiannopoulis is not a one-off event either. Disney-owned Maker Studies and YouTube severed ties with YouTube sensation PewDiePie after he was accused of making anti-Semitic content. Bestseller author Nick Cole’s former publisher dropped him after objecting to a chapter in his work Ctrl-Alt-Revolt that likened the antagonists’ motivations to abortion.

Social Justice Warriors and progressives of the Ctrl-Left know that gatekeepers are fragile. Stir up enough of a controversy and the gatekeepers will fold – if the gatekeepers are not themselves already converged by SJWs to suit the ends of SocJus. This trend can only continue into the future: now that authors and publishers are hiring ‘sensitivity readers’, one can expect Big Publishing to weed out and reject every doubleplusungood thoughtcrime book and author.

From Crisis, Opportunity

Cleaving to fragile gatekeepers makes creators fragile. The fickle whims of the crowd will inevitably turn against anyone SJWs do not approve of, even their own allies. SJWs will always eat their own.

Creators must seek to be antifragile. Every crisis becomes an opportunity for growth.

After Nick Cole wrote about his being dropped, he signed on with Castalia House to release his novels. When Roosh V was attacked by feminists and slandered by the media, he went on the offensive and increased his own popularity. Milo Yiannopoulis is now setting up his own independent media network.

The lessons are clear. Build your own brands and platforms. Never count on gatekeepers to protect you; always go indie if you can. Never give in to the howling mobs of never-to-be-placated Social Justice Warriors. When mobbed, always counterattack at the earliest possibility. Study Vox Day’s seminal work, SJWs Always Lie, and be prepared for the inevitable wave of shrieking harpies. If you must work with publishers, select those that will not bow to the whims of SocJus, like Baen or Castalia House.

To be famous in the modern age is to attract the jealousies and intrigues of lesser people whose only talent is to lie and shriek and denounce. But as these men have demonstrated, the skilful creator can turn the situation around for his own profit. Antifragility is no longer an intellectual curiosity; for creators, it is a critical life skill.

Image: SJWs Always Lie: Taking Down the Thought Police by Vox Day

I, ESCHATON is live!

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I, ESCHATON is live and ready for sale! The third entry of the American Heirs series, this story picks up where KEEPERS OF THE FLAME left off, taking Master Sergeant Christopher Miller into a new battlefield. To quote the blurb:

Master Sergeant Christopher Miller has returned home from war, but war has come to find him.
The Sons of America are targeting the Wilshaw Foundation, and Miller’s lover, Sarah Grey, is at the top of their hit list. To survive, Miller must go underground with Sarah. But to prevail, they must ally themselves with the enigmatic artificial intelligence that calls itself Eschaton.
An extension of the smart networks that underpin the Republic of Cascadia, the AI offers contacts, resources and the full power of the national security apparatus. But at what price?

I, ESCHATON can be found on Amazon, Smashwords and Payhip.

Observant customers might have noticed the prices. That’s right: I’ve slashed the prices of my stories. Previously, novels were USD$5.99 and novellas at USD$3.99. Now, they are priced at USD$3.99 and USD$2.99 respectively. Plus. if you share my ebooks on Facebook and Twitter via Payhip , you’ll also get a 30% discount. These among are the most affordable military science fiction ebooks on the market; get them while you can.

In other publishing news: I’m about two-thirds of the way through my next novel, NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS. It is a science fantasy novel set in a world populated by daimons and jinn, where specially-trained psions can use divine or infernal materials to reshape reality or themselves. It has cybernetics, reality manipulation, daimonic summoning, high intensity close quarter combat, hacking, and rumours of a coming apocalypse. It’s the first book of an exciting new series, and I hope I can share it with you soon.

I have also begun work on another short story. This one is a military science fiction action story with horror elements, with the setting organically allowing for magic. I can’t say anything else about this, only that just thinking about it makes me break out into giggles. In a good way.

I, ESCHATON ready for preorder!

It is my unalloyed pleasure to announce that the third entry in the American Heirs series, I, Eschaton, is now available for preorder. I meant to make the announcement earlier this week, but I had to sort out no end of formatting issues until today. Here’s a shot of the cover and the blurb:

Master Sergeant Christopher Miller has returned home from war, but war has come home to find him.
The Sons of America are targeting the Wilshaw Foundation, and Miller’s lover, Sarah Grey, is at the top of their hit list. To survive, Miller must go underground with Sarah. But to prevail, they must ally themselves with the enigmatic artificial intelligence that calls itself Eschaton.

An extension of the smart networks that underpin the Republic of Cascadia, the AI offers contacts, resources and the full power of the national security apparatus. But at what price?

I, Eschaton will go live on 4th May 2015 on the wrong side of the International Date LineYou can make pre-orders now on Smashwords and Amazon. When the manuscripts go live, I’ll be uploading a copy on my ebook store.

I, Eschaton marks the halfway point of American Heirs. There are three more stories to go, two novels and a novella. For the time being, though, I’m working on a different story with a different series concept. It’s nothing like what I’ve ever done before, and I’m keeping the details to myself until everything’s ready.

I can, however, reveal the working title: No Gods, Only Daimons

Chapter 1 of I, ESCHATON

The next entry in the American Heirs series, titled I, ESCHATON is almost good to go. All that’s left is the cover. Here’s a preview of what’s to come.

Chapter 1

Special Delivery

Jacques’ timing was perfect.

It was just after two in the afternoon. Office workers thronged the streets, hurrying back to their workplaces from the plethora of coffee shops that dotted Downtown Seattle, many of them with their faces buried in smartphones, tablets, or augmented reality glasses. Jacques studied the crowd, spotting a few making a beeline for 38 Vandemeer Plaza.

The skyscraper gleamed in the sunlight. It was sleek lines and clean glass, shiny metal and unyielding concrete. Modern technology never ceased to amaze him. His childhood memories were of mold-blackened roofs, crumbling walls, streets filled with trash and debris, and packs of ferals that around every corner, waiting for easy prey. It was almost a shame to burn it all down.

Jacques pulled his van into an open spot in front of the tower. Smoothening down his gray deliveryman’s uniform, he reached under the dashboard and flicked three concealed switches. He grabbed the box on the passenger seat and jumped out, locking the vehicle behind him.

Cradling the box to his chest with gloved hands, he pretended it was filled with heavy lead bricks and waddled to the tower, slipping in behind a small knot of white collars. One of them smiled at him, opening the door to let him through. He smiled back.

A series of gantries controlled access to the main lobby. Employees flashed smart cards to pass. Jacques headed for the security desk, where an elderly woman manned a computer.

Can I help you?” she asked.

Ah, oui,” he said, his head just barely clearing the top of the box. “I have delivery for Wilshaw Foundation? On floor nineteen?”

She gave him an once-over, and smiled. “Is it a scheduled delivery?”

Ah, yes, I have paperwork here.” He pulled out a flexitab from his pocket, unfurled it to its full length and powered it up. An impressive set of blanks and words filled the screen.

I see,” she said. “Do you need help?”

Non, I can carry this myself. But the gate…”

Of course.”

She got off her chair and emerged behind her desk. She was a very short woman, almost broader than she was tall. Jacques wondered how this…creature…managed to be a security guard. There were no fat people where he lived. There was never nearly enough to go around, and everybody knew fat people couldn’t fight.

Huffing from the exertion, she tottered over to the nearest gantry and flashed her security card over the scanner. The gantry beeped and opened. Muttering thanks under his breath, Jacques eased his way through, keeping up the charade. He studied the signs on the lobby, and called for the elevator that served odd-numbered floors. He’d been living and operating in the Green Zone for a few years now, and he’d always wondered why there were lifts that only served specific floors.

Once again, Jacques’ sense of timing served him well. When the elevator doors opened, a few office workers entered with him. One of them pushed the button for the nineteenth floor. All of them gave him a wide berth, and looked away from his face.

There were a number of tenants on the nineteenth floor. A law firm, an Internet marketing company, a gang of financial advisers. But the main one, the one that mattered most, was the Wilshaw Foundation. Jacques stepped out and turned right, following a woman. She opened the door with her smart card, and he dashed in just before the door closed.

Jacques glanced around the reception area. A white-uniformed security guard stood nearby, his face a portrait of professional boredom. Unlike the one downstairs, this one was armed with a pistol at his hip. The Wilshaw Foundation had upgraded its security over the last month, in response to the Sons of America striking targets across Cascadia. But there was only the one guard.

Hello?” the receptionist said. “Do you have a delivery?”

Ah, oui,” Jacques replied. He eased the box on her desk with a soft groan, and fished out his flexitab. “Please ack-no-ledge receipt here.”

She took the flexitab, opening it up. “What’s inside?”

Jacques glanced at the guard. The guard was still standing there, still bored, still unaware of what was coming.

He would be the first to die.

Death.”

Jacques reached in and pulled out his weapon. The 100-round casket magazine in the pistol grip was heavy, but the weapon was so finely balanced the extra weight made it easier to aim. He swiveled over to face the security guard and thumbed the fire selector to full auto, his off-hand grabbing the forward pistol grip and mashing down the pressure pad for the top-mounted laser sight. The gun still down at his hip, Jacques brought the laser up to the guard’s chest and squeezed the trigger. The stubby suppressor screwed on the muzzle reduced the report to a loud THUDTHUDTHUDTHUD. The guard dropped on his face.

Huh?” the receptionist replied, looking up.

Jacques casually turned around and put a bullet in her face. Turning back, he extended the weapon’s wire stock, brought it to his shoulder, peered through the reflex sight, and put a single shot into the downed guard’s brain. A nearby office worker gasped, dropping a stack of files. Jacques drilled her too, twice in the chest, twice in the face. With no more targets in view, he picked up the flexitab and swiped his finger across the screen. The text window gave way to a phone app.

Entrance secure,” he said, and stepped away from the flexitab.

Backing up against the wall, still aiming downrange, Jacques hit the button that unlocked the doors to the office with his left hand. The magnetic locks released with an audible thunk.

The door opened. Seven men flowed in. All wore black masks, gloves, and goggles. The last man tossed Jacques a balaclava. Jacques pulled it on as suppressed automatic fire erupted around him. Two of the newcomers took up security positions behind the security desk, kicking the corpse away. One grabbed the flexitab while the other plugged a flash stick into the computer.

Uploading worms,” the one with the tablet called.

The five-man assault team surged into the Foundation’s main workspace, suppressed gunfire in their wake, and Jacques followed.

Corpses piled the floor. Blood spattered across the walls and soaked into the carpet. The six men worked the room, gunning down everybody they saw. A young woman popped her head out a door and ate a bullet. A large fat man, seated at a couch, tried to stand, but a shooter stitched him from gut to face. Jacques saw a wounded man push himself off the floor, and rewarded his effort with a head shot. A woman, hiding behind a desk, jumped up at an attacker as he passed. She screamed, arcing her body away from him, throwing awkward, powerless slaps at his face. He shot her off him with a burst to the groin, snarling, and erased her face with a second burst. Another woman curled up behind a couch, whimpering, pleading for the police dispatcher to pick up. Jacques dragged her out and shot her.

Clear!” the assault leader called.

Clear!” Jacques responded.

Past the work zone were a series of private offices. All of them had full-length windows and doors made of clear polymer. Most of them were curtained off. Jacques knew the basics of active shooter response training: run, hide and fight. The two men at reception had sealed off the only escape route. If there were survivors, they would be hiding inside the offices, with some preparing to fight if the intruders broke in.

Which they wouldn’t. The shooters ahead of Jacques lowered their goggles. These were fusion vision goggles, able to combine different vision modes in one. Including ultraband radar. Forming a tight triangle, they stalked the corridors and passages between the offices. Wherever they saw a survivor, they fired through the walls. Plastic splintered and shattered. People screamed and begged. Blood flowed in rivers. Jacques hung back, watching for survivors, checking the bodies the advance party had left behind.

Doors flung open. A man yelled. Eight people burst out of the last two offices, each holding an improvised weapon in their hands: fire extinguishers, a chair, flexitabs. Jacques didn’t have a clear shot, but that was all right. The shooters ahead of him held their ground, unleashing disciplined torrents of steel into the mob, cutting them down with aimed fire. None of the civvies got close.

Area clear,” the leader reported. “No more survivors.”

Proceed with phase two,” Jacques said.

Tearing through the offices, they found a door labeled ‘Information Technology’. Inside were a series of desktops, and a large tower that housed the Foundation’s server. One of the shooters pulled out a tablet and wired it to the tower, while the others took up security positions. Walking over to a window, Jacques peered out to the street below. All was quiet downstairs. Nobody was running, traffic was normal, no sign of police attention. Jacques sauntered into the server room and waited.

Phase two complete,” the man with the tablet announced.

Well done,” Jacques said. “Initiate phase three.”

The shooter disconnected the tablet and put it away. From another pocket, he removed a sticky bomb. He peeled off the back lining, exposing an adhesive resin. He stuck the disc-shaped object on the server, with the business end pointed at the doorway. He turned a dial, setting the proximity fuse to activate in a minute.

The men bugged out. Jacques, with empty pockets, led the way out. The rest trailed, taking turns to booby-trap bodies and corners with more sticky bombs. The team regrouped at the reception desk. There were four new bodies on the floor. Someone had dragged them in from the corridor outside. Jacques looked askance at the nearer of the two shooters on security.

Witnesses,” he said, shrugging.

Jacques nodded. “Good. My flexitab?”

The shooter returned it to Jacques.

The eight men left the Foundation, heading into a nearby stairwell. Eight duffle bags awaited. They grabbed one each and tossed in their masks, weapons, gloves, ammo, everything that made them stand out. Then they headed down the stairs, as fast as their legs would take them.

Twenty floors down, they were sweating and breathing hard as they emerged into the basement car park. A black van was waiting for them, the engine purring. The men climbed in, with Jacques taking the passenger seat.

All in,” the assault leader said. “Roll.”

Rolling,” the driver acknowledged, and drove. Jacques leaned against his seat, breathing deep, letting the air conditioner cool his face.

Up on street level, Jacques pulled his flexitab from his pocket. He closed the dummy screen and opened another app. The screen dissolved to black, displaying a single red button. Jacques checked the reception. Full strength. He took a deep breath. Let it out. Pushed the button.

A block away, the street erupted in flame and steel.

A Deeper Silence

On Wednesday my computer broke down without warning. I suspect it’s a hard disk drive failure, but time will tell the true cause. The digital silence that followed gave me the time I needed to coalesce some thoughts that were floating about in my mind, specifically pertaining to silence and speech.

As an introvert, silence comes naturally to me, and in prolonged silence I find the space and concentration necessary for deep thought and creativity. As a professional communicator, silence is a potential harbinger for disaster and long periods of it means you will be ignored and forgotten. I’m coming to understand this fundamental tension between my inclinations and my profession. Now I’m trying to put this into practice, discussing very recent events and making some updates.

Firstly, I’m pleased to report that the third entry of the American Heirs series, I, Eschaton, has completed the first round of proofreading and is entering the final stage of edits. I also managed to back up the last round of changes before my computer’s untimely demise. Work is on hold for the moment: I’m working on a loaner at the moment, and I would rather not keep sensitive information on it if I can avoid it. I am, however, planning for publication within the next couple of months, and am doing what preparatory work I can.

Secondly, I have also begun planning my next set of stories. It is not necessarily the fourth installment of the American Heirs series. It is not necessarily the same mishmash of science fiction and military tropes either. In the early days of the creative process I’ve noticed ideas come and go very often. I don’t think it’s prudent to raise expectations by talking about a product that may be dramatically transformed between conceptualization and publication.

Thirdly, I regret to say that my video game project, Odyssey: Remnants of Terra, is on hold indefinitely. The problem was mechanics: Odyssey was originally conceptualised as a shooter, and despite my best efforts I could not find a way to fit it into our chosen game engine, RPG Maker. After some intense discussion we concluded that the only way for Odyssey to work is if we choose another game engine, learn it from the inside out, and maybe expand the team. This takes time, money and contacts. Not to say we have given up on it completely, but we need to line up our ducks in a row before we can execute.

With that in mind, we are still going to create a game. Odyssey was a learning journey, and we came to better understand the ins and outs of the RPG Maker engine. As it transpires, I have an (as-yet) unpublished story that would, with some reworking, fit RPG Maker’s mechanics far better than Odyssey. Time will tell, but with this new pivot I hope we can finally create a product.

Finally, in spite of my quasi-weekly update schedule I noticed that readership has significantly tapered off. Part of this can be attributed to the shift in URL. In hindsight I should simply have maintained the old wordpress site and redirected visitors here, but it’s a bit too late to cry over spilled milk. All I can do is keep on keeping on.

Beyond that, though, sometimes it just feels like there’s nothing to say. That I’m either too busy working or else too preoccupied with other matters to blog. With a personality like mine, I’m beginning to understand and appreciate the need for quiet time, to process and analyze before acting. I don’t like to fill my pages with empty talk, and usually if I only have a few lines or paragraphs to talk about something they go on Facebook instead of my blog.

Content is king, as the saying goes. Now the question is what kind of content goes here, and how much. I have a headful of ideas. Some will stick true to the core Benjamin Cheah brand of deep analysis of politics and other issues. Others will take it into different directions. With a very small readership I’m effectively rebooting my brand. The question is where it will go from here.

That, I think, is something I need to answer first in a deeper silence.

Lessons from Failure

In the technology field, a popular mantra goes, Fail early and fail often. The idea being to try out new ideas while the company is still new, understand your mistakes, then incorporate these lessons into future products. I’ve been applying this to my writing, figuring out what works and what doesn’t. Along the way I learned that this idea is incomplete.  The full mantra should be: Fail early, fail fast, fail often, fail smart, fail forward.

Fail early

A writer’s career doesn’t start with publication. It begins when he puts pen to paper, when he commits to writing. It doesn’t matter how famous that person is; when he’s got nothing to his name he’s writing on a blank slate. At that point, with no writing brand to his name, he can afford to make mistakes. The kind of mistakes needed to grow. Mistakes like telling too much, using overly fanciful writing, switching points of view too many times. He needs to finish his stories and send them out, and learn what he can from the inevitable wave of negative feedback. In my case, I learned these mistakes with the first series of Michael Chang stories, and all the other stories I wrote along the way that never saw the light of day.

Later in the writer’s career, when he has an established brand, failing early takes on a new light. ‘Early’ no longer means finishing a story and publishing it or sending it out. ‘Early’ means the space between writing the first word and before publication. If a pro’s story has to fail, let it fail before people see it. This minimises the risk to a writer’s professional brand, and maximises the space, time and resources available to fix the mistakes that led to the failure. This skill can be thought of as internal quality checking, and it’s a skill that can only be learned by failing early in one’s career.

Fail fast

Writing is work. Writing is an investment of time and energy. As an indie writer, it is also an investment in money — to cover the cost of publication. Failing fast in this context means reaching the point of failure fast enough to minimise sunk costs. For instance, when a short story reaches a point of failure, the writer would have spent between a week to a month working on it. A 300000 word doorstopper, on the other hand, requires much more time to write, and to pick out points of failure. And in that time, that story is not generating any return on investment — only costs. By failing fast, one minimises costs and the time needed to incorporate new lessons. It also enables the writer to produce even more stories, eventually leading to success.

The key to failing fast is producing what is termed the minimal viable product. This is the smallest possible package that encapsulates the functions and ideas of the overall concept. In a computer game, this would be a single sequence that showcases the core mechanics. In the manga industry, publishers test the market by publishing a lengthy one-shot piece, and if the audience is receptive the author is given a contract to extend the one-shot into a series. When seen in the context of writing, this means short stories and novellas. American Sons, for instance, was a proof-of-concept story that opened the way to a wider series. I’ve also been working on a fresh set of short stories, banging out the ideas in my head, and modifying or rejecting them accordingly.

Fail often

One failure is not going to be enough. The craft of writing encompasses a staggering array of fields, some relevant to a given writer, some not. Some writers (like myself) have a huge array of interests, and the only way to tell what works and what doesn’t is to write stories and see which work the best. When a writer goes pro, he has to decide what price points and distribution channels work for him, because everybody’s situation is different. The only way to learn these lessons is to see what does not work and adapt accordingly.

This ties back to the earlier principles. Failing fast and often is practically a necessity in fast-paced fields, and the indie publishing revolution is transforming the industry into one. To fail often, one needs time, energy and resources; to minimise expenditure of these assets on failures, one has to fail fast and fail early. I have a portfolio of about two dozen short stories, written in the past two years; a number of them are too poor to be published, but they served as lessons for the road. By failing often, a writer learns that much more often.

Fail smart

Failing is easy. One simply refuses to experiment, refuses to think, refuses to plan, refuses to do. But that’s not the point of the failure mantra. To fail smart is to look back on one’s failures, to understand what worked and what did not. This is the point of failing so many times. By not picking up these lessons, there is little point in failing to begin with.

Failing smart requires a great deal of honesty and professionalism. Creators need large egos to stand true to their work during the process of creation, but when it is done they need to be able to stand apart and understand what went wrong. This means knowing when to stand fast and when to adapt, when to defend yourself and when to acquiesce. This means being so well acquainted with the bitter taste of failure and criticism that it is no longer repulsive. At that point, the writer can look back on his work with a critical eye, and learn what needs to be learned.

Fail forward

The final edition of Keepers of the Flame was nowhere close to the first draft. The novel went through five major revisions and multiple minor ones before taking its final form. And yet it only took a little over two years of total writing and editing time to complete. That was because I made a point to apply the lessons I had learned and quickly turn things around, revising over and over and over again until I could not improve on the manuscript any further. I failed early and fast enough that mistakes could be corrected, often enough that I picked out the major flaws of the story, and set myself up to fail with an eye towards learning.

The principle of failing forward is to apply the lessons you have learned. If you must fail, do so with an eye towards self-improvement. Do it consciously, so that it becomes a learning process. Failure is something to be acknowledged, to be embraced, and to build upon. Otherwise, failure simply becomes the equivalent of mindlessly bashing one’s head against a concrete wall over and over and over again.

Embracing failure

Singapore is a risk-averse culture. Singapore is a place where failure is verboten, a sign of weakness and lack of capability. I suspect this is true for every culture and institution that seeks to create people who to perpetuate the system instead of creating new things. Yet failure is precisely what is needed to grow and to create. The school of hard knocks endures because sometimes it is the only way to truly learn something.

Embrace failure. The road to success is pitted and rocky, and those who walk the way of the pen will trip and fall many, many times. But each failure contains the seed of success, showing how to avoid future pitfalls and how to find smoother roads. This is the philosophy I choose for my work, and maybe, just maybe, it will pay off soon.

Revisiting Writing and Marketing

In the days and weeks following the publication of Keepers of the Flame, I’ve been writing short stories and novellas, some standalone, some proof-of-concepts for future stories. It was practice, and it was to build up a portfolio of works for submission. But through the pen I am beginning to uncover the enigma that is Benjamin Cheah.

Once I believed that someday I would write my name alongside the stars of literary history. Once I believed I could find my way in life through sheer bloody-mindedness. Once I believed I could haul myself up into glory.

Once I believed.

When I look back now I realise how improbable my career has been. My chances of ever publishing my fiction in Singapore is somewhere between laughable and none. Singaporean publishers want Singaporean stories about Singaporean culture by Singaporean writers for the Singaporean market. They want capital-L Literature. They want assemblies of words to probe the depths of language and bring out the human heart, to hold up a mirror to Singapore and in it find a reflection of the reader.

I can’t write that.

There’s a lot of bestselling fluff out there. The Twilights, the Fifty Shades of Greys, the derivatives that try to cash in on trends and jump on bandwagons. Or else ‘stories’ and prose held together by strings of pretty words, words that when seen as a whole hold no substance and no meaning. Stories that tap into some collective zeitgeist without offending too many people.

I can’t write that.

The prestigious science fiction magazines want specific stories. They want stories about how technology influences society, people and language. Stories that with certain je ne sais quoi, or stories that bring up the nastiness of humanity. Stories that celebrate diversity by hammering it into the reader.

I can’t write that.

What I can write are stories of action and adventure. Stories with gee-whiz gadgets and huge explosions, stories about the clash of civilisations and the end of empires, stories that examine human frailties and wonder at the next stage of humanity. Stories where freedom is won at the point of the sword, when evil is resisted with fire and ethics, where good people must stand fast in the face of temptation and corruption. Stories that harken to the epics and sagas of my childhood while looking to brighter futures yet to be born.

I haven’t seen a publisher in Singapore that will want to do that, not the least because the target audience of my stories are not necessarily exclusively Singaporean, nor are the themes those that Singaporeans would readily grasp. As for foreign publishers, I have heard too many horror stories about bad contracts, under-reported figures, and how marketing resources are prioritised for bestsellers and newcomers are left to flounder. Call me sceptical, but I don’t see why I should put up with the risk of that in this day and age.

Even if I could get a publisher, the simple fact is that the majority of those who can reach my target audience are based in the United States. Between absurdly low royalty terms and the IRS’ insistence on taking their cut, what little royalties that come my way likely aren’t worth the effort.

The best publishing solution is independent publishing. It’s my default option. Without it, as recently as ten, maybe five, years ago, I would never have been able to be published. Or else have to content myself with peanuts forever. The indie route is the only way Keepers of the Flame could have been published, as would my other stories.

And yet, the IRS still wants its 30%..And now with the EU imposing the new VAT taxes, I’ll make even less money from European sales. No matter which way I cut it I just won’t make as much money as someone with the same sales figures as me. Which, in turn, means I need to put in even more effort into marketing just to make the same amount of money.

As much as I believe in the indie publishing revolution, there is still a massive gap between royalties of 45% and 70%.

All that means I can’t adopt the methods used by other authors and expect the same degree of success. The numbers are not with me, and neither is the law.

There are a lot of obstacles stacked against me. The easy option is to sigh, throw up my hands and focus on something else. Another option is to place writing on a back burner, to hold off on writing until I can get back to it at a more favourable time and place. Yet a third option is to simply choose to write for fun and ignore financial considerations. But the blood of entrepreneurs runs in my veins, and I cannot give up so soon. With this in mind, I’m changing my publishing/distribution and marketing strategies.

1. Writing and publishing short(er) stories and/or anthologies on a regular basis. To make up for reduced royalties, I am thinking of putting out shorter stories regularly. This is my least preferred option, not the least because it requires the ability to cover fixed costs. But maybe, if employed as a means to bridge the gap between core stories (like what I’m doing with American Heirs), or if published on different markets, it could maintain buzz and market presence until the next major story.

2. Focus marketing on several channels. Applying the Pareto principle, it seems 80% of my royalties comes from 20% of my marketing channels. That means Smashwords and Payhip. Going forward, I will focus my promotional efforts primarily on Smashwords and Payhip, relying on Amazon mainly for reviews and print books. Perhaps this focus in marketing might pay off through increased sales.

3. Work with small presses. At some point, marketing just becomes a chore with diminishing returns. When I look at publishing contracts, I’m essentially asking myself if the difference in royalties accounts for marketing efforts, ready access to customers, and covering the fixed costs of publishing. When it comes down to it I can be agnostic about publishing methodology, and if working with select small presses means I get more books to more people, all the better.

4. Hold workshops. In the medium term (ideally, after publishing American Heirs #3), I’ll see if I can conduct writing workshops. I’ve come to realise that writers with much less experience than me are passing on the lessons they have learned, and if they can do that, I reckon I have some tips to share too. And maybe this might translate to more connections and more sales in the long run.

There’s a lot of maybes and perhaps here. There are no guarantees in this line of work — except a gaurantee of failure if one does not do. And if there is one thing I cannot abide, it is failure to do.

Sidestepping #VATMESS: My new approach to ebook pricing

Books are my life. I spent my childhood in and out of libraries and bookstores, exploring the worlds and ideas of countless thinkers and writers. Today, books are my lifelihood, serving simultaneously as research material, entertainment, study guides, teachers and companions. Books made me who I am today, showing me worlds beyond this one, pointing to futures yet born and ill-lit histories, whispering hints to build bridges between today and tomorrow.

I believe in a world where books are cheaply and readily available. I believe in a world that values literacy and education, where the sum of human knowledge can be found at one’s fingertips. I believe in a world where technology can synergise with business and art. I believe in a world where artists can be paid fairly for their work, where readers can access high quality books at reasonable prices, where entrepreneurs need not pay unreasonable tax burden to enjoy the fruit of their labour. I believe that in this lifetime humanity has the power to make the first steps towards this new information revolution.

I believe.

The new Value Added Tax threatens to undo all this. Previously, the European Union charges Value Added Tax based on the location of the seller. Now, VAT is charged according to the location of the buyer, and sellers are required to harvest the buyer’s data for VAT compliance. As TechCrunch notes, these rules present an onerous burden on small busineses–like virtually all indie writers–who now have to handle even more paperwork and reconsider pricing strategy.

As BuzzIndie points out, the new VAT rulings would crush indie writers, entrench major companies thanks to their ability to handle VAT, and open a whole host of legal ambiguities. The result is a #VATMESS that will not go away. Already, Amazon is taking advantage of its position by automatically raising prices for ebooks sold in Europe, and threatening to price-match ebooks should their bots find that an author charges lower prices elsewhere. Mark Coker from Smashwords predicts that the new VAT ruling will place a dampener on sales from Europe.

Yet I believe.

Independent writers like me face a dilemma: absorb the tax burden or pass on VAT to our European clients. From my perspective, it is incredibly tempting to just raise prices to meet the new VAT rulings, since I’m already slammed with a 30% withholding tax from the IRS.

Currently, I make far fewer royalties than my foreign peers. When I sell a book on Amazon or Smashwords, the distributor takes 30% of the proceeds. Of the 70% that remains, the IRS takes another 30%. This leaves me with a royalty rate of roughly 45%. With the new VAT ruling, VAT is subtracted first before all the other subtractions. Going with a European average of 20%, that means my royalties from European sales will hover at around 39.2%.

And I’m not talking about my own tax liabilities yet.

Still I believe.

This #VATMESS is going to take a long time to sort out. But I believe in a world where people do not have to choose between dinner and a book. I’ve had to make that choice too many times to wish it on anybody. And I believe in a world where a man should not have to put up with excessive demands for data and exorbitant taxes from foreign bureaucrats for the ‘privilege’ of doing business. The Internet and the indie publishing revolution promised an end to such nonsense, and I will keep to this.

I believe. And this is why I will be absorbing VAT.

I will not be adjusting the prices of my ebooks on Smashwords to account for a policy I’ve had no say in. Amazon has automatically raised the prices of my ebooks on Europe; when their bots find the lower prices on Smashwords I fully expect them to lower my prices on Amazon automatically. I don’t see a point in investing the time  needed to manually set lower prices on Amazon for each European country to meet different VAT regimes and periodically update them to account for fluctuating exchange rates (I have to think in three currencies when setting prices!) when my European sales via Kindle are practically nil. I’d rather focus my energies on directing European customers to places where they won’t have to pay elevated taxes, such as Payhip.

Previously, I sold ebooks through Gumroad, Sellfy and CoinLock. Neither Coinlock nor Gumroad would help me sort out the #VATMESS, effectively forcing me to maintain huge customer databases, capture addresses and determine how much tax should go to which country in Europe. I do not have the time or ability to do this, so I have closed these avenues of sale. As for Sellfy, I wasn’t too impressed with the marketplace and (lack of) categorisation for ebooks.

Therefore, I have consolidated direct purchases through Payhip. Payhip charges a flat 5% fee of the gross sale price for each transaction through Paypal. It also promises to handle VAT paperwork. It’s a godsend for writers like me, allowing me to focus on writing instead of paperwork, while still earning much higher royalties than the major distributors. My Payhip prices will be inclusive of VAT, so all my customers should see the same price regardless of where they are.

Payhip also allows me to do neat things like social discounts. If you share my Payhip ebook links on Facebook or Twitter, you will enjoy a 30% discount. Here are the links to At All CostsAmerican Sons and Keepers of the Flame.

I hope you will enjoy these stories. Together, I believe we can build a better world, a world where the politicians regret the #VATMESS they have created and small businesses can get on with delivering content instead of paperwork.