coming July 5, 2016

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Paranormal Reality Shows and Shifting Societal Beliefs--And The Profits

No matter where you turn, it seems like reality entertainment based on the paranormal is everywhere. From long-running television shows like SyFy’s Ghost Hunters to Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures and Dead Files and YouTube channels run by investigation groups, the options for the paranormal enthusiast are everywhere.
And while a segment of the population is strongly skeptical, a Harris Interactive poll indicates that 51% of the public, including 58% of women, and 65% of those aged 25 to 29 but only 27% of those aged 65 and over, believe in ghosts, while a Live Science article from 2011 indicates that 71% of Americans believe they have experienced some sort of paranormal phenomenon.
The popularity of paranormal-based entertainment seems to reinforce the empirical evidence. These shows are long-lived because the target audience is growing. And now that science is beginning to make a concerted effort to explain paranormal phenomena, that belief is growing. Whereas once, ghost hunting was done by groups seeking knowledge, now it’s big-time entertainment with big-time dollars – and not just in Hollywood. A October 31, 2014 Fortune article entitled “The Boo-tiful Business of Ghost Tourism”by Melissa Locker makes this clear.
Ghost tourism is its own cottage industry that stretches from coast to coast. San Diego’s Whaley House, home of the city’s first public gallows, runs ghost hunts for $50 per investigator with extra-spooky activities running throughout the month of October. Pennsylvania’s Eastern State Penitentiary is a boon for amateur and professional ghost hunters alike. The crumbling prison’s Halloween activities even have corporate sponsors, including the expected (Spirit Halloween stores) and the unexpected (Peanut Chews).
While supernatural attractions are cashing in on the public’s interest in the paranormal, theactual business of paranormal investigations isn’t really a business at all: “It’s a very expensive hobby.”
Paranormal tourism is taking off, and many families are starting to see the appeal.  John Williams of Kennesaw, Georgia took his wife and youngest son on a paranormal vacation last year. “My kid watches paranormal TV shows and was interested. My wife was thinking, ‘Whatever.’ But it was a great bonding experience for us as a family. We went to nine haunted sites in seven states. Best money I’ve ever spent. Great family experience, even though we had no experiences of our own.”
Many allegedly haunted sites offer ghost-hunting overnight stays if you’re an amateur investigator – another side of the ghost tourism business – and haunted location owners are cashing in. For example,The Sallie House in Atchison, Kansas is run by the local Chamber of Commerce and charges $189 per person per night.
Ghost-hunting groups have to pay those fees too, along with the cost of their equipment which can be extremely expensive. The added advantages of new video technology don’t come cheap. One night-vision camera can cost up to $500, while the thermal FLIR camera can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $8,000. These groups have tens of thousands of dollars of equipment without the benefits of a production company’s backing. And as most paranormal groups don’t charge to investigate a site, their hobby is very expensive indeed.
But most people live vicariously through ghost-hunting shows, and not all of those shows are on television. I’ve got a history of shredding poorly done paranormal shows like A&E’s Cursed: The Bell Witch(a legend I am intimately familiar with as I grew up in the area) and Destination America’s laughable Exorcism Live. Even the longest-running television paranormal shows have come under scrutiny amid accusations of faking evidence and hoaxing – both prospects being much easier with production company equipment and the drive to produce payoffs for each weekly episode.
Williams watches both televised ghost-hunting shows and online investigations. “It doesn’t seem like online groups have as much incentive to exaggerate,” he explained. “We love televised programs, but it seems like they would have more motivation to fake stuff. Shows like LiveScifi seem totally sincere.”
I agree. That’s why I believe the best paranormal shows can be found on YouTube. It’s where you’ll discover anything about ghost investigations you could possibly hope for – and in many cases in such a fashion as to preclude the possibility of hoaxing. To these groups, the money is unimportant. What they’re after is information – and knowledge. But you have to know how to negotiate the tangle of groups looking to cash in on the paranormal craze and find the few that balance more on the side of investigation than entertainment.
 
LiveSciFi Bloody Mary Ritual Investigation


One channel I enjoy a great deal is LiveSciFi. LiveSciFi offers a multitude of different investigative styles. Its founder, Tim Wood, does frequent Ouija Board sessions that he live-streams on YouTube. Feeling brave? Here’s a link to the terror. What makes those sessions interesting to me is that he also runs a voice recorder at the same time, and catches multiple EVPs (electronic voice phenomena) in most shows.
But even more interesting are the LiveSciFi live feeds from haunted locations, where viewers can watch uncut, unedited film for 48-72 hours as the investigations are occurring. LSF has done live feeds everywhere, from the infamous Sallie House to the Whispers Estate in Mitchell, Indiana. And for Creepypasta fans, his ritual live streams about legends like Bloody Mary or the Midnight Man are a lot of fun. LiveSciFi is the largest paranormal channel on YouTube with over 300,000 subscribers over its 10-year life span and over a billion views. The Sallie House alone provides hours of binge watching opportunities.
 
Living Dead Paranormal Investigation of Haunted Willow Creek Farm


The Living Dead Paranormal group is another outstanding online option. Comprised of three brothers – Josh, Rocky, and Shaun Fourman, who lived through a serious haunting in their childhood home – and a friend, Jeff Brown, their body of work is impressive. Their investigations are presented as documentaries, with high production values. The two investigations they’ve done at the Monroe house in Hartford City, Indiana are among the best work I’ve seen. (You can find those investigations here and here.) If you’re made of sterner stuff, a recent demonic haunting investigation is guaranteed to make you jumpy.
We’re not talking about Elvira, Mistress of the Dark shows here. We’re talking about regular guys in sweatshirts and jeans, alone in reputedly haunted locations, and only those guys. No tech crew. No directors. No producer hanging out in the background pulling fishing line attached to props. And trust me: You may watch for hours and see not one darn thing, which makes the things you do witness that much more interesting.
I approach most paranormal claims with a healthy dose of skepticism. You have to if you ever intend to sleep with the lights off. I’m not a gullible person, but my life experiences have led me to an interest in the paranormal – a search for validation of things I’ve seen or witnessed that defy logical explanation.
That doesn’t mean that I automatically accept everything I see; in fact, the jury is still out for me on Bigfoot and UFO sightings. I’ve laughed myself silly at some poorly executed hoaxes on television and at many, many paranormal “investigators” I’ve seen on YouTube. Kind of hard not to. Early Most Haunted  shows are great for that, by the way. Never underestimate the comedic possibilities with a Derek Acorah or a Chip Coffey.
But there are groups out there that might make you think – if you know where to look and what to look for. Hint: If the lead investigator looks like a high school sophomore or is obviously costumed in front of a set that looks like The Munsters, it’s probably best to just move on.
If, like me, you find the paranormal fascinating and entertaining, stop looking in your TV Guide and do a check on paranormal YouTube channels. You can experience all the aspects of an investigation from the comfort of your living room, and sometimes even simultaneously with the ghost hunters, without all the curse words getting beeped out. Because they can approach these alleged hauntings without the obligation to get bang for their buck, their credibility factor is higher. And believe me, if nothing has happened during the first three hours of a live stream, you’ll know that too – which is about 99% of what happens during any investigation.
That’s what this boils down to.
Instead of spending thousands of dollars on equipment and insurance, instead of staying up all night and evaluating scores of hours of footage, instead of walking around in the dark with instruments and talking to whatever inhabits an alleged haunted building, paranormal reality shows allow you to investigate without ever leaving your home. That, in turn, inspires some viewers to either explore paranormal tourism, at sites that now are charging fees so people can enjoy them for themselves – or to actively investigate, spending their money on equipment. And even if you stay at home and live secondhand through television, you’re subjected to commercials up to a third of the show’s running time. Paranormal investigating has turned into big profits for everybody involved.
Except the independents, the ones with their YouTube channels and blogs. That’s where the best paranormal reality can be found. But you have to know where to look as much as what to believe. And while each webisode has both creepy moments and uneventful ones, there’s unexpected fun too – the hilarity of finding out a big guy who hunts for ghosts is terrified of birds, or someone walking face-first into the corner of a wall, or sometimes just the nervous laughter that happens after they’ve been spooked. The entertainment factor of these independent channels is undeniable. The reality part I’ll leave to you to decide.
And that’s what paranormal reality shows are changing in our culture.
“My belief has definitely increased. I was a skeptic. I’ve gone from assuming it’s all BS to belief. Watching Ghost Adventures and then LiveSciFi shows – they’re hard to refute,” Williams explained. “In our family, we say, ‘Okay – whether it’s true or not, they seem to believe.’”

Originally published by Blogcritics, July 8, 2016

Thursday, July 28, 2016

EXCERPT--The Asphodel Cycle 4: The Apostle of Asphodel

I jumped in front of Mariol, using my blade to keep the ferocious bird-women away while the mage muttered behind me. Before long, several of the Harpies deduced that I had the shortest reach of any of the attackers and converged on Mariol and I, their talons clicking together as they hefted the long spears to their shoulders.
“Any ideas?” I threw back over my shoulder, swiping at a grasping claw.
The Harpy screamed and fell back, blood dripping from her scaly leg. Another soon took her place. Mariol didn’t answer me, mumbling under his breath instead.
“An idea would be really good right about now!” I said more urgently, blocking a thrusting spear with my sword and reversing the blade, snapping the shaft in two so that the obsidian point fell to the floor at my feet.


Mariol grabbed my arm and pushed me aside. Surprised by the unexpected shove, I crashed to the floor with an indignant yell. Before I could clamber to my feet, a ripple of energy detonated over my head. With ragged screams and terrified shrieks, the Harpies tumbled across the chamber to fly against the obsidian walls, falling down heavily to the floor.    
“What did you do?” I asked in amazement.
Instead of answering me, Mariol hauled me to my feet and shoved me toward the nearest Harpy, who was struggling to rise while her wings fluttered around her shoulders. “Go...kill...Harpies!”
The effects of Mariol’s spell, whatever it was, were temporary. As the Harpies flapped around trying to regain their footing, Brial, Wilden, and I attacked them while they were on the ground and presumably weaker. I discovered that their speed of attack was undiminished, although their agility was hampered upon the ground. The first Harpy I confronted hissed at me and I barely avoided the slashing swing of one taloned foot as she lunged for me. Their handicaps lay in the fact that their wings were befouled and tangled, the feathers bent the wrong way and some missing.
But even on her back a Harpy is a formidable foe.
I was able to get close enough to the Harpy to penetrate the frenzied swipes of her claws. Watching the talons carefully and jumping over her flailing wings, I leapt upon her torso and sank my sword to the hilt in her breast. Instead of screaming like a human foe, the Harpy’s eyes dulled and she fell limply off my blade. A second later, I was knocked off my feet as a second Harpy screeched in anguish and launched herself at me.


She hit me hard in the back and I flew several feet through the air with her on me. We landed in the clearing, barely missing the stone bench. As soon as I felt the ground behind my back, I pushed up hard with my legs and the heavy body of the Harpy rolled from my feet and fell some feet away. Without stopping to think, I coiled back up to my feet and went after her.
Somehow, she’d managed to grab one of the spears, and I narrowly avoided being skewered as she thrust it at my mid-section. Sidestepping the spear, I swung the blade and it connected with the soft tissue on the inside of her upper arm. Screaming, she dropped the spear, rolling to her side and pushing herself up with her good hand. More agilely than I would have thought possible, she rose to her clawed feet, one arm dangling at her side, with her wings twisted behind her.
Another detonation sounded behind me, but I had no time to look. The Harpy leapt at me, snarling, one talon extended before her for my throat. I dove to one side, rolled up to my feet and planted my sword in her back between the crippled wings. As with the first, she slid silently to the floor, where she lay face down in the ashes.
I turned back to Mariol. He was under attack by two of the vicious creatures, who clawed ineffectually at the shield he’d erected around himself. I darted back toward him, stooping to pick up a fallen spear. Using it like a javelin, I hurled it at one of the Harpies. The spear struck her side and she screeched in pain, twisting this way and that as she tried to remove it from her flesh. Her companion swung to face me, and for a moment our eyes met.
There was nothing resembling humanity in her stare. She had the same intense glare of any other bird of prey, and it fell unblinkingly on me as I approached her, my sword held before me. I circled around the flailing body of the Harpy I’d felled, who thrashed upon the floor with the spear vibrating as she screamed.
Her attack, when it came, was swift and silent. The only warning I had was the abrupt narrowing of those emotionless golden eyes, then she launched herself into the air. Amazingly, her wings righted themselves and with a single hard flap she hovered above me. Those eyes never left me as the wings furled and she hurtled straight toward me.
A couple of feet away from my unprotected face, however, her headlong dive stopped as if she’d run into a wall. The impact jarred her head back with an audible snap, and the Harpy tumbled to the floor, where she lay dead and sightless at my feet. I turned to look at Mariol. He was pale and sweating, his hand extended toward me still resonating with the power of the shield that he’d shot between us.
Wilden dispatched the still-screeching Harpy I’d speared with an arrow to the throat. When she, too, fell silent, the room echoed with the sudden cessation of noise. I whirled around to look for Brial, and saw him wiping the blade of his sword clean on the feathers of another fallen Harpy. As he straightened, I sagged in relief. He was safe.
To my complete disgust, he grinned at me. “That was fun.”
Wilden snorted, whether in distaste or humor I couldn’t tell, but Mariol’s reaction was spectacular.
Fun?” he repeated incredulously. “Fun! What would you have called it if we’d had to fight a dragon? Or maybe a tribe of cannibals?”
Brial shrugged. “Entertaining?”
Despite myself, and the carnage around us, I began to laugh weakly. Wilden joined in, his deep chuckle resonating against the obsidian walls with a comforting rumble. We fell against each other, laughing helplessly as we wiped tears from our streaming eyes. Mariol was hyperventilating, his nostrils flaring as he drew in deep breaths in an attempt to calm himself.
Then, the greenish-red flames of the huge, smokeless fire sputtered and went out, and our merriment disappeared with it.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Discouragement Brain--Cheating Authors Prosper on Amazon and This Is How

I have this thing called discouragement brain. 

Musicians, actors, artists, writers, dancers--we're all hypercritical of ourselves. We have to be. Art is a process, not a blast from some supernatural agency waving inspiration over our heads and daring us to catch it. We all edit. And while I edit words, musicians edit notes; dancers, nuance; actors, delivery;  and artists, technique. We have to. In order to create that perfect expression, we must refine until it feels as natural as breathing. 

Discouragement brain happens to everyone in the arts. 

This week has been tough. I've been writing a lot this year. A lot. My current yearly first draft word count exceeded 700,000 words last week. You're reading that correctly. Six full-length novels since January 1. I spend a portion of every day writing, a portion editing, and a portion doing all that other stuff authors have to do. I usually work around sixteen hours a day, seven days a week. Beginning Labor Day weekend, I *might* take Saturdays off--I don't give up college football for anybody. I also edit for a few clients--very picky about who I accept, honestly--and now I'm blogging and writing a sports column too. All that falls into the "other stuff" category.

But I am also self-publishing eight books in eight months, and that's feeding my discouragement brain.

All of this work takes a toll on a writer. Self-publishing is hard and expensive if you're going to do it right, and while it would have been easy to slap a cover on an old manuscript and put it out there that was never an option for me. If I'm going to do something, I'm going to do it right. Each book costs me hundreds of dollars to publish, but at least I know it's a product I can be proud of. 

 And yet--

Doing any part of all this requires confidence, and when discouragement brain rears its ugly head it's hard to justify moving forward. And this week has been that way for me. This week I find myself questioning my own career path. 

Let me explain.

With writing and publishing there is a right way and a wrong way to go about doing things. Right now, there's a growing percentage of self-published authors who are most assuredly making things difficult for everyone else. Aside from the content farmers and the spammers, there's a cross-section of self-published authors who have figured out how to beat the system. High Amazon rankings translate to bigger sales--and a self-published author who does well in sales may be approached by Amazon's publishing wing. The authors who manage that get preferential product placement, advertising, and direct marketing from Amazon--along with editing, standard promotions, professional cover art, etc etc etc. 

Any author wants that. But there's a quirk in the system. You see, on Amazon you don't have to actually buy a product in order to rate and review it. So authors have their friends go in and write tons of positive reviews with five star ratings. The book creeps up the rankings, which in the Amazon sales algorithm (based on the star ratings of the product) gives the book better product placement. 

Which leads to more sales. 

Which leads to more reviews and ratings.

Which leads to more sales. 

It's fascinating, in a sick sort of way, to find a self-published "Amazon bestseller" where all the reviews WITHOUT a verified purchase are glowing, and all the reviews WITH a verified purchase are critical. Even more interesting to me is the fact that after a critical review from a verified purchaser, there's a flurry of glowing reviews from unverified ones. 

Have to counteract that two-star with enough five-stars to keep that book's overall rating up, after all. 

And while the authors who cheat are rewarded, the authors who are doing everything the right way are penalized by a sales algorithm that was created for one purpose. Not to put great books in the hands of readers, but to increase sales for Amazon. They don't give two shakes of a pig's tail if the reviews are given by people who--you know, actually READ the book. All they care about is the obvious--books with high ratings and tons of reviews are easier to sell to more people who see all those huge ratings and erroneously assume the book is GOOD. 

In the meantime, authors who did things the right way, who paid for editing, cover art, formatting, interior design, copyediting, etc. stagger along in the cheaters' wake and wonder what they're doing wrong. 

You know--my writing isn't for everyone. I write genre, I write lots of gory battles, I don't write explicit sex scenes. And I don't self-publish all my work either. My new work goes to my literary agent, who submits them to publishers that are closed to unrepresented authors. I have a backlist of books that were small-press published, and that's what I self-publish. 

But I don't cheat. I don't ask all my friends and social media followers to run off to Amazon and rate/review my book. I don't manipulate the system. 

Hence, discouragement brain. 

Maybe I've been going about this the wrong way. Maybe I should manipulate the system too! Maybe I should get all my friends and acquaintances to run right over to Amazon and rate and review my books. You don't have to buy or read them. Who cares about reading them anyway? Just review them. And then maybe, just maybe, people who actually would enjoy reading my work will actually see my books and maybe, just maybe, they'll buy them.

Sure. Sounds kind of shabby when you put it that way, doesn't it? 

Food for thought. Unfortunately, discouragement brain binge-eats food for thought, and lately even looking at this situation has made my discouragement brain into a glutton. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Quit Lying To Yourself--It's Theft, Not EPiracy



Stop right now and open up your Downloads folder. Take a look at what’s there. Apps, obviously.  Probably some memes and .gif files – my favorite .gif at the moment is Tommen jumping out of the window, thereby proving how King’s Landing got its name. And then most likely you have music, movie, and eBook files you’ve purchased.
But that’s not what untold thousands of people see. Many Downloads folders are full of music, movie, and eBook files that were not purchased. They were downloaded for free, from pirating sites that stole those files from the copyright holders. I chose the word “stole” deliberately. I realize that most people who download from torrent sites justify their theft by thinking, “It’s a big company. They’ll not miss my money. They’ve taken my money for years. It’s not stealing; it’s sharing.”
Well, no. It’s not. It’s theft, both legally and morally. And if you don’t think the copyright holder is missing the money, let me tell you a story.
I am in the process of self-publishing my backlist, starting with my first fantasy series. This is a reissue – the series was originally published in the late 2000s. However, I decided to get the books back on the market and to do it correctly. I paid to get each book (of the four-book series) re-edited – that was $250 per book. I paid for cover art and design ($140). I paid for formatting  ($80). I paid for promotional art and advertising ($300-$500). Each book has cost me a lot of money – almost $800 per book – money I didn’t begrudge spending because I wanted to make sure the quality of my product was as high as possible. I listed each 600-page book at $3.99, which I think anyone would agree is an extremely fair price.
The third book of that fantasy series was released on Friday afternoon. When I woke up this morning, one e-piracy site had over a thousand free downloads of it. Let’s put that into monetary terms on a personal level. As I am publishing these books myself, I make 70% royalties on each book sale. So those one thousand thefts of my intellectual property literally took $2,800 out of my pocket.
What makes this so sad is that they don’t think of this as theft. For example, from the Huffington Post article E-Piracy: The High Cost of Stolen Books by Karen Dionne:
But most file-sharers see themselves as a community. They believe they offer a useful service, and their hackles go up when authors and publishers take steps to shut their websites down. After one site bowed to pressure and removed their e-books section entirely, hundreds of users bemoaned the loss. One posted a warning: “One word to the Publishers and Authors who created original trouble — Do whatever you want you cannot Stop readers from getting free Ebooks. You people don’t stand a chance against [the] entire Internet. As Long as [the] Internet is alive, we readers will continue to share Ebooks.
Or perhaps this comment, from the article “Is Downloading Really Stealing? The Ethics of Digital Piracy” on The Conversation:
The same is not true when I download a digital file of your copyrighted property. In downloading your film, I have not excluded you from its use, or your ability to benefit from it. I have simply circumvented your ability to exclude me from its use. To draw an analogy, this seems more like trespassing on your land than taking your land away from you.
Criminal sanctions seem warranted in thefts where one person’s gain is very clearly another person’s loss. But things are not so clear when the relationship between gain and loss are [sic] more complex.
And of course there are ways that owners of intellectual property can gain, overall, from infringements of their rights. The more accessible their products become, the more people may want to consume them.
And therein lies the problem. Entitlement. Believe me when I tell you that I do not gain one single benefit if someone steals my intellectual property. A book thief isn’t trespassing on my land. He’s building a house on it and driving over my daffodils. He may enjoy my property and think it’s awesome, but that doesn’t give him the right to be a squatter – to think he is entitled to enjoy my work without somehow compensating me for it in some way. Because trust me – a book thief feels perfectly comfortable emailing me to whine about how a book ended, but will not take the trouble to rate or review that stolen book and thus provide me with some tangible benefit from his theft.
And even that would be like picking daffodils from my yard and giving them to me in a bouquet. Thanks so much.
E-pirates think they are entitled to enjoy an author’s books – books that represent hundreds or thousands of hours of work – for free. I’ve personally had people email me and ask me where they can download my books for free! I’ve had emails from readers who stole my book and then wanted to complain because the next book wasn’t out yet or because I killed their favorite character. God forbid I reply with what I’m really thinking, because then the Twitter outrage begins in 140 characters or less.
“She was so mean to me b/c I torrented her book. Never read her books again.”
Well, darn.
The IP Watchdog site is full of great material regarding copyright theft and piracy, as evidenced by this March 13, 2016 article by bestselling author Rhonda Rees called “An Awareness Crusade Against the Online Piracy of Books”:
According to the Association of American Publishers, the publishing industry as a whole has lost $80 to $100 million dollars to online piracy annually. From 2009 to 2013, the number of e-book Internet piracy alerts that the Authors Guild of America has received from their membership had increased by 300%. During 2014, that number doubled. I’m certain that in 2016, the statistics will go even higher.
I am too. All that being said:
There is a fly in the book thief’s proverbial ointment. Many of the free download links you find when you’re searching for your favorite author’s books to steal have all sorts of nasty little surprises in store for you instead of the actual book – malware, for example, or spam. A nice expensive ransomware likeCryptoLocker might cure a book thief’s criminal habits. At that point it’s either pay the hacker hundreds of bucks or lose all the files on your computer permanently. Some authors might consider that to be poetic justice, and I have to admit, looking at all the stolen copies of my book 36 hours after its release makes that CryptoLocker curse look like a nice little slice of karma.
Might make you wish you’d spent the four bucks instead.
But even if that happens, it’s not vindication for the author. Writers spend hundreds of hours working on their books, typing away in dark little rooms. We create worlds that enable our readers to escape their own for a while. But in the end, we are creating a product for sale, and rely upon those sales to keep working – to create those new worlds.
Think of it this way. What would happen if payday rolled around and your boss said, “We are a community, sharing our work with the world. So instead of paying you for your work, we’re going to give it away for free because the target market for our product is entitled to reap the benefits of what you do without paying for it.”
I can hear the riot beginning from here.
In the end, eBook piracy is a misnomer. The word “pirate” invokes imagery of courageous rebels who sail the seven seas online stealing from the rich. A Robin Hood with sails. That’s not what’s happening here. The proper term is intellectual property theft. Copyright infringement. And yes, it is a crime internationally, thanks to the Berne Convention, of which the U.S. is a signatory nation.
The author’s side of eBook theft doesn’t seem to bother intellectual property thieves, who are busily making money off clicks, malware removal, and ransomware because of illegal book downloads. But that’s not what you should be concerned with. What you should be concerned with is that intellectual property theft, if it continues unchecked, will drive your favorite authors away from continuing to write. And that would be a shame for all of us.
So many stories would remain untold.