My post “In Defense of the Original English-Language Light Novel” has been getting a lot of attention, and as a result I’ve had a bunch of aspiring OELN authors coming out of the woodwork to ask me questions. This is fantastic–obviously–but often I just don’t have the time to sit down with them like I want to. So instead of trying to cram a bunch of information into a private message, I had some time this weekend and decided to make a guide to writing and publishing an Original English-Language Light Novel that I can point them at.
What I’ve discovered during these exchanges is that I’m often not the first OELN author they’ve contacted, but I’m sadly one of the few that have responded. I know from my own experience starting out that there are a few authors out there who can come off as aloof, but others just seem to want to keep the pool of OELN small, even actively discouraging interested writers. What I’ve learned from experience [and practice] is that the larger the pool gets, the more interest it garners—and interest is good! Established authors should mentor fledglings, give them tips, and help guide them toward success. Excluding people gets us nowhere as a community. I have made some amazing OELN author friends in the past year and found wonderful stories in the process. There is no downside to this unless you let ego get in the way.
So this is my contribution to expanding the number of original English-language light novels out there. You can find the guide under the new [aptly-labeled] “Guides” section of the site menu. If you’ve ever considered writing something of your own, [OELN or otherwise] take a look! It can seem a little daunting at first but with good information, hard work, and a lot of passion–you too can write and publish your own OELN!
When I was in high school, I took a semester of Theater as an elective. I forget why I did it originally–I suspect I may have been strong-armed into it by an acquaintance–but I’ve never regretted it.
All my English classes taught the bare minimum: spelling, basic mechanics, and the rules of the language. Only one teacher ever went into anything beyond that, and they went the way of personal interpretation. All of them ignored structure–which would have been helpful, since I remember more than a handful of occasions where we were required to write an original short story as an assignment. Instead, I learned about it in Theater, of all places.
We learned the Three-Act Structure, which consists of the following set up:
Introduction — The Main Character is introduced to the audience.
Exposition — We learn more about the MC and their relationships.
Catalyst — This is the event that motivates the MC and moves the story forward. The resolution of this event becomes the Goal.
Rising Action — The MC is taking actions that intend to move him/her closer to the Goal.
Turning Point — The MC finds a way to reach the Goal. This may be preceded by a backslide.
Climax — The outcome of this event determines if the MC reaches their Goal.
Falling Action — The Goal has [or has not] been met, and the MC is dealing with the aftermath.
Close — A last look at the MC and how the events of the story affected and/or changed them.
This is the classic structure of storytelling, and is the backbone of many tales. This was later replaced by the Five-Act Structure, which is illustrated here as Freytag’s Pyramid:
It’s much easier to understand when it is shown to you like this.
Exposition — Introduction to Main Character, setting, and backstory.
Rising Action — Events that propel the MC toward the climax.
Climax — The major event of the story that reverses the MC’s fortune. [Bad -> Good or Good -> Bad]
Falling Action — The conflict arising from the events of the climax is confronted and dealt with.
Denouement — The end. All previous conflicts have been resolved, and the MC has undergone a metamorphosis.
The elements of those five parts will also have their own shape. They will vary from writer to writer, but there are common ones that tend to crop up. Let’s go over a few of them!
For the most part, you don’t want this. They are boring, tedious areas where nothing happens to develop characters or advance the plot. Think about a book you’ve read where you find yourself skimming the page, hoping to get to the next scene break. That’s Flat. New writers tend to go flat in the beginning of the story, thinking they have to detail everything about the setting and main character all at once, which overwhelms the reader. If a story is flat for too long, readers will give up on it before you have a chance to get to the plot.
But… Flat doesn’t have to be negative. You can use it to your advantage–especially to heighten suspense, or the impact of an unexpected turn in the story. The key is to keep it brief, but just long enough to make the reader start to wonder where you are going. That’s when you can lead into a Sudden Spike, and turn tedium into a form of tension.
When you have tension followed by a major event, followed by downtime, that is the Sudden Spike. Think of a scene where two people who clearly don’t like each other are exchanging dialog. This is the build up of tension. One character will say the wrong [or right] thing, and a fight erupts! This is the spike. After the encounter is over, there is a period of downtime which can be anything from one character having been thoroughly defeated and fleeing the situation, to the two characters realizing that fighting is pointless and deciding to resolve their differences in another way. The event doesn’t have to be physical; it can be anything that causes stress to the Main Character.
These occur where the story takes a turn for the worse for the Main Character. You have a rise where things seem to be going well, or maybe the scene begins on a high note. This becomes something the reader expects to continue, which is the flat part at the top of the rise. Then suddenly, something catastrophic happens and the MC plummets from where they had been–losing a dream job, failing to prevent something precious from being taken from them, or being defeated by the villain–all events that become the straight drop of the mesa. At the bottom, you have a flat part where the MC has to come to terms with what has happened before they move forward.
This is one of my personal favorites, because when it is done right it packs a hefty emotional punch. It could also be called “Exchange” because during these one thing is lost in order to gain another. You start during an action scene, and as it comes to its climax the bottom drops out and something bad happens. In order to qualify as a true Rise-Fall-Rise, something good has to come from the bad thing. This could be anything from a precious memento being destroyed in order to save the world, to defeating the villain but having a character die in the process. These moments typically occur at the peak of rising action, or at the end of the climax. It does not count if the reader only thinks the Main Character will lose something, but in the end they don’t lose anything and still gain the benefit. That is a Threatened Rise-Fall-Rise, and while some writers feel it is easier on the reader it comes off as cheap–unless written extremely well.
A great example of a well-executed Threatened Rise-Fall-Rise is the “I Open at the Close” scene in the Harry Potter books; while a classic example of a true Rise-Fall-Rise is during the climax of the first season of the TV series Stranger Things, in the scene with Eleven and the Demogorgon.
While you traditionally see this during denouement–with the Main Character resolving conflict and tying up loose ends–it can also turn up during Rising Action. This may seem counter-intuitive, but there are stories where this is necessary. If you have a tale of redemption, you need a decline of events to show the Main Character hitting their low point before the catalyst makes them change their ways. If a character needs to lose everything before they heed the call-to-action–then you use a Decline–chaining bad events together until the character has nowhere to go but up.
A good way to see how your story moves is to map out the flow of each scene, then string them together to see the pulse of your story. Overall, you should see something similar to the Five-Act Structure, but you will also see all the little things in between. If your story has multiple storylines running at once, then map out each one individually. You will gain fascinating insights, such as discovering that even if two characters share a scene it may be charted differently between them. [Which you will see below.]
I refer to it as a pulse because it should look like the readout on an EKG–with peaks and valleys–proof that your story is alive. As an example, I mapped out two intersecting story pulses from volume #2 of my Atlantis: TVC series:
The whole book takes place over the span of a day, so the peaks and valleys are more exaggerated than what you’ll see in a story that plays out over a longer period of time. The two characters shown here–Achine [Main Character] and Gialasa–are together for the entire book, except when they are separated at the end. As you can see, each girl’s arc is different, despite them going through the same events at the same time.
Achine’s pulse has several Mesas, and the one right at the climax also doubles as a Rise-Fall-Rise. In sharp contrast, Gialasa’s begins from a higher point [part of carry over from volume #1] and continues as a Decline, marked by two small Sudden Spikes that only continue the downward trend. As you can see, this character is having a difficult time. The bottom of Achine’s Rise-Fall-Rise is Gia’s lowest point, and the two arcs begin to rise together just after the climax. During denouement, she ends up in a better position than Achine, and it shows in the ending height of their respective pulses.
What’s interesting to note is that as I stated earlier, the girls are both in the same bad situation throughout the book, but their pulses are vastly different. Achine’s determined personality makes her proactive, which creates sharper rises and steeper falls in her pulse as she tries to improve their situation. Gialasa has a anxious, meek nature, and this causes the steady decline of her arc’s pulse as fear renders her unable to function for the majority of the story. It only rises towards the end, when she is finally forced to act.
If you find your story is receiving negative feedback about pacing, or if you feel it is missing something that you can’t put your finger on, try taking its pulse. Seeing your story in a different way may highlight parts where you can improve.
For me, seeing my own characters’ pulses side-by-side shows the difference an active character and a passive character can have on the same story. If Gia were the main character she wouldn’t be able to advance the narrative in a meaningful way on her own, and it would make for a frustrating read! But because she is a supporting character–and she has precedence for behaving the way she does–she becomes an important foil for Achine during the course of the story. Gialasa’s weakness is part of what motivates her to act.
However, you can’t tell subtle things like that from pulse comparisons. So while they are great for seeing the rhythm of a story or arc, you can’t gauge whether it is good based on its pulse alone. But when used together with feedback from a trusted source [editors, beta readers, etc.], it becomes a valuable tool for fine-tuning your story.
Nope. I’m not going to trot out the same tired advice to trim word count by slashing plot and/or removing characters. I’m going to talk about literarily killing your characters. [Ha! Puns.]
Since my long-running series is fantasy-based, this will all be from the perspective of a fantasy setting. However, that shouldn’t stop you from applying what you learn here to a realistic world. [Provided it’s not a simple case of the magic-user used magic and the victim totally died, because that’s difficult to pull off when magic doesn’t exist in your world. You’re smart–you’ll know how to glean what you need from this.]
We could go on for hours about swords, instant-death spells, and arson; but those are pretty straightforward ways to kill or incapacitate someone. We’re going to go into the realm of cloak, dagger, and intrigue. That’s right–poison.
Poison is the perfect medium! Need a long, drawn out death? Poison. Need something that kills near-instantly? Also poison. Need something difficult to detect, or that mimics natural causes? Poison can do that. Need a reason to send your characters on a quest where they set aside their differences and come together in order to find an antidote? Poison’s got your number.
And as an added bonus, not only can it do all those things, but it’s discreetly administered. Aside from becoming liquid insurance for an assassin’s blade, it can take the form of an ingredient in a sumptuous meal or delicious tea. It could even be released into the air via deadly but wonderfully-perfumed incense. Poison can be everywhere. Not only that, but most poison is derived from natural sources.
That’s right! There is so much out there that can kill someone without you needing to make anything up. If you want to lean hard into the fantasy setting, you could devise any number of fantastic plants or venom that could be made into a plot point. But if you’re like me and want a touch of realism in your stories, you just need to look at things that are common in our world.
My favorite example is rhododendron ponticum. It’s a beautiful, ornamental shrub common to many parts of the globe. In fact, it’s called Common Rhododendron. Look at this thing. So innocuous.
It’s beautiful for something that will cause nausea, vomiting, breathing difficulty, and heart failure if you consume any part of it. But the best thing about it is that honey made from its pollen is so toxic, even the bees that make and consume it are poisoned. In fact, jars of this honey strategically placed in a village took down almost an entire army of Roman soldiers in 401 BC. Though, to be fair, they were left in 67 BC to take down a different invading army. As a plot device, readers and writers alike would call that deus ex machinaBS. [But it’s history!]
The lovely thing is that honey is so innocent. In fantasy it’s often used as a sweetener in place of sugar, and even in our world it is common to drizzle it on pancakes, over oatmeal, in yogurt, or spread it on toast. No one would suspect a thing.
And that’s only one of the things that you can use. There are agents out there that come straight from the ground itself that can kill. Want to venture into the land of slightly-absurd-but-still effective poisons? Look no further than diamond dust.
Yes, seriously. Though it’s not a poison on its own, when ingested the shards will embed themselves in the organs of the victim, causing infection–which leads to sepsis–and death. It’s a slow process, taking several months to work. It is an older method of assassination used most frequently during the Renaissance. It wouldn’t work in a modern setting due to the advanced medical technology we have nowadays.
The poison a character chooses can say a lot about them. What is more fantastic and decadent than a monarch using diamonds to take out the ruler of a kingdom they are at war with?
Another benefit of poisons: they don’t have to kill. In fact, sometimes there is more to be gained in incapacitating someone. Have a scheming advisor that wants power? Killing the king would make the throne go to the next in line. But what if the king becomes too ill to rule? The advisor might become regent until the king recovers… [Spoiler alert: Unless a protagonist steps in, the king will remain “ill” indefinitely.]
You can use poison to enhance tension as well. Finding an antidote can take time your heroes don’t have, and making or procuring it can be difficult on top of that. This is a good way to divide a large group, bring characters together, or send them off to another part of your world. Want a cure to be even harder to obtain? Combine your poisons. Not good enough? Mix real world toxins with ones you invent. The only limit is your imagination and how dead or incapacitated you want your characters to be.
Armed with this knowledge you can now go out there and not just poison your darlings, but do it catastrophically!
I have three main social media pages I try to keep updated: Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter–mostly in that order. I have found considerable positive traction on Instagram [of all places!] and I am gaining a little ground on Twitter now, which I honestly didn’t expect. It goes to show that if you throw yourself at something long enough, eventually something will stick. Though now all I have in my head after typing that is a mental image of me beating the hell out of Twitter like it’s an old console TV on its last legs.
I’ve considered a YouTube channel for a few months now, but that also involves the artistic side of my light novels so it gets backburnered easily. [And we all know what the comments section is like over there…]
Social media has been my bugbear for a while now, but you already know this. I’m a private person by nature, and it’s been difficult for me to come out of my shell while lacking that magic confidence anonymity lends people. As Oscar Wilde said, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth”. Despite this being stated a century before the internet would even become a thing, it seems to be more true now than when it was originally coined. Human nature doesn’t change much, and with the exception of a few outliers, we all want to be liked and accepted. It gives people a sense of value to feel like others appreciate them and their ideas.
Creators put the intimate workings of their mind on display for people to pick apart and dissect–whether it be music, writing, or artwork. Social media makes two things easy: putting your ideas in front of millions of people the world over all at once, and allowing them to judge it–and you–from behind the safety of their own mask.
I don’t like taking off my mask. It’s not that I am secretly a cruel or unpleasant person, [Though I feel that I am much more amicable online than off…] but that I feel my discomfort and worry bleed through my words. I’m scared. I hesitate. I re-word, erase, and refine: “Will they like this? What if someone thinks it’s awful–what if it goes viral for being terrible?” [Like that last one? I always jump to worst case scenarios.]
But to be a writer–nay, an author–you have to have a thick skin! That means you can’t be afraid to take off your mask. You can’t be afraid to put yourself and your work out there! You need to handle criticism and praise with equal parts grace and aplomb. If you even hint at uncertainty, your peers will repeat this as if it is a magic incantation that will remove your doubt. I even find me telling myself this sometimes, which is awkward.
So what is a writer to do when they need to be honest and real on social media in order to connect with others in an authentic way, but find themselves full of anxiety and fear? They either stop writing, or do the exact opposite of what they are instructed to do: they create a new mask.
But… the goal was to not have a mask, right? Well, we see what happens when famous people use social media without their masks on–it doesn’t work. They alienate people, and quickly; a few of them even lose fans, and access to their own accounts for it. So you end up creating this half-mask, like the Phantom of the Opera, where you are both open and honest, but also guarded. Telling people how they should feel is stealing their agency–if something someone says about you or your work bothers you, you have every right to be upset about it! But the way you wear your own mask when others are watching says more about you than any thinly-veiled rant or tear-stained tweet ever could.
Ultimately, the magic author incantation is a lie. You cannot follow it as written. There is no way you can completely turn off your ability to care what others think about you, even if you try to convince yourself otherwise. We’re only human, and fall easily back into old habits… we trade one mask for another. It’s not a bad thing; this way we can fulfill the spirit of the incantation while being honest to both ourselves and our followers.
I believed in it for too long. I tried to bend my own feelings to fit it, trusting that it was right despite it feeling all wrong. I should know by now to listen to my gut, even when it contradicts what seems like solid advice. I took an impromptu trip to visit family recently, and had a lot of time to think about my online presence while not having much of an outlet through which to curate it. I didn’t pack my laptop, so I had what I could reach with my phone. [It was mostly Instagram, and it was largely pictures of the forest around my parent’s place in Missouri. It was… quaint… and you didn’t miss too much. Just some lousy photography of trees, flowers and my poor, misplaced-but-well-taken-care-of cats.]
I worried about leaving it quiet for so long, but it didn’t seem to make a difference. Now that I’m back and updating, having had this revelation about masks, I am seeing a better response to my posts and tweets. It’s kind of magical in its own sense, but I know that it’s because I learned from my past experience, and was willing to go against what I was initially told to do.
The lesson in this is: Don’t be afraid to be yourself online, but don’t forget to protect yourself either. Remember that we’re all wearing masks out here–even when at first glance it may appear that some of us aren’t wearing one at all.
One of the major stumbling blocks I see new writers trip over is research. On writing forums you’ll see variations of these three questions being asked:
How should I organize the information I already have?
How do I perform research?
How do I know when I need to do it?
The answers are as diverse as literature genres, the first point especially so. Since we all think and organize differently, even if you start out mimicking someone’s method, you will eventually tweak it to fit your own habits. Some writers keep large files, while others just keep a running sheet of notes. I personally keep a large file [My file for Atlantis: TVC is so large I indexed it. Fourteen pages of characters, world building, and magic.], and a ton of super-organized bookmarks in my browser. But that’s just me. As I said, how you arrange it is best done in a way that accommodates you. If having individual files for each topic/chapter/character/place is how you roll, then who am I to say it’s wrong?
That’s not the part everyone seems to get hung up on, though. How to do it seems to be the most difficult aspect of research for new writers. It may come as a surprise, but that is the easiest part!
The information of the world is available at instantaneous speeds due to the internet–information just sitting on a server somewhere waiting to be accessed, or even a lone stranger on a backwater forum waiting for you to ask the question that will prompt them to shower you with the data you need–all of it is just a click away. When they ask how to do it, either they are admitting that they don’t know how to use a search engine, or that they really don’t know what they need.
That’s the difficult part. You’re told that you need to research, research, research! But what do you look up? It feels like you’ve purchased a new dresser, opened the box, spread out the pieces, then realized that it didn’t come with directions. It’s overwhelming, but I have good news: the answer is to stop.
That’s right. Stop looking. Instead, write. Whether it’s notes, an outline, or your actual manuscript, getting things out of your head and on to paper will lead you in the right direction.
I can’t tell you how often I will stop writing to find more information on something–the proper name of a weapon, a picture of a poisonous plant, how horses act when they are scared, etc. Depending on the answers you find, you can end up in a several hours-long sinkhole of data that changes the direction of the plot. [Personal experience.] You’ll just be typing away and stumble over something that you need to know more about. Then you search for it. That’s all there is to it. There is no magic formula, or list of topics anyone can point you at, because everyone writes different things. [Unless it’s a technical question, like grammar, or formatting; if you need help with that, I have a wonderful Resource List you should take a peek at!]
If you ask about promotion or marketing as a new self-publisher, people usually say something vague like: “As a self-pubbed author, you need to wear many hats!” as they direct you toward social media, or paid book promotion services, and… well, that’s it. “Here’s a link to Twitter, and another one to Goodreads. Now go forth–and don’t forget to wear your marketing hat! Even traditionally published authors have to do this now.” Others will recommend that you have a nice cover and tell you to try to utilize word of mouth. Barring that, you’ll get told to pay someone else to do it. No one is wrong, but no one is telling the full story, either. To market successfully, you need to use everything available to your advantage. Things like:
A Finished Book
Eye-catching cover that instantly conveys your book’s genre
An edited, polished manuscript beneath that cover
Intriguing back cover blurb that introduces the main character and asks more questions than it answers
The actual book is half the battle, but it’s the most important thing you can work on. This is the end product. Everything you do after you write it will be designed to lead readers to it, and when they leave, they should feel at best satisfied–and at worst, neutral. They should not feel tricked or offended by taking time from other tasks to look at your work.
These are the readers you had in mind when you wrote your book, and the ones you will need to keep in mind as you build your campaign. Who do you think would like your story? Ask yourself questions like:
What type of stories do they normally read?
What element of your story would pique their interest?
What other authors would they read?
The more questions you ask, the closer you will come to seeing your ideal reader. Once you have your ideal reader pinned down they are who you want to aim for as you plan your ad campaign. Any marketing you do should target them, and anyone else you may catch will ripple out from that center.
A Social Media Presence
A blog branded with your name or pen name*
A Facebook Page
A Twitter Page
*= If possible you should start this before you finish your book
This is the bare minimum for social networking. I highly recommend buying your author name as a domain and having it direct to your blog if you do not open a website. I also advise you to join a third social media of your choice, this one visual. Pinterest or Instagram are great choices, though I have personally found great success with Instagram–especially since it cross-links so easily with Facebook.
That’s another thing–if you are more comfortable on one type of social media than another, there are resources that allow you to make a single post on your preferred platform and send it to others, maximizing your exposure. [This is a great article detailing the most popular options available to you.]
Speaking of exposure, there are several different ways to achieve this. Simply putting yourself on the web will not sell books! You would be surprised at how many authors stop here and wonder why they couldn’t sell to people other than friends and family. The web is a vast, busy place. You have to make yourself visible. You have to make yourself and your book stand out. There are several ways to do this:
People are visual creatures. First impressions are important–some readers won’t even read your back cover copy [or your back blurb, as it is sometimes called] if they hate your cover! With split-second decisions like that being made, you’ll need to have cover art that can work double time for you in advertisements. If you are going to market your book, you’ll need a few visual aids:
A high-resolution copy of your cover art
A high-resolution copy of your final book cover
A photo of yourself that is not a selfie [Author’s Headshot]
These should all be at least 2000 px in height, and 600 dpi; preferably saved in a lossless format, like PNG or TIFF. The cover art is what you are going to use whenever an ad requires a picture, and the image of the cover whenever you want to display an image of your book. [Such as in banner ads] Your author picture will be used when you create an official profile for yourself. You should have one on any website you sign up for, and display it on any “About” pages you have the chance to fill out.
If you wish to get creative and make banner ads, or advertisements with text on the images, I highly recommend paying someone with more experience to do it. It works out well to do it by yourself when you’ve spent the last twelve years freelancing as a graphic designer [like I did], but if you are planning on using any kind of template tool or paint program to create your images, you’re probably going to have a bad time. This is the one point in the self-publishing process where I would err on the side of caution and hire someone. If you can’t afford it, do text only ads. It is so difficult to overwrite a bad first impression. It can be done, but an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Advertising Yourself and Your Work
Social Media Hashtags
Word of Mouth
Getting cataloged by webcrawlers
Don’t underestimate the power of hashtags. Put them on all your social media statuses! Make them relevant to what your book or series is about, but don’t forget about vaguely-associated ones, like the platform you sell from [Smashwords, Amazon, etc.] or the cost of your book–especially if it’s free or on sale! Word of Mouth is another powerful, free tool–especially if friends and family are buzzing about your book! And if all else fails, a webcrawler will eventually catalog your blog or shop page. It could take several weeks or months for that to happen, though.
Social media can work for you despite having a small initial reach or audience.
Promoted Status Updates
Promoted Website Links
These are done through Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. You can set your own budget per day, and set the number of days the promotion will run. These are most effective when used with a sale or giveaway.
These are low cost options that reach many people, and are great for an author who has just launched their first book, or a seasoned author with a slim advertising budget.
I ran an ad campaign simultaneously with Google and Facebook. You can read about my experience here.
This is for authors trying to break into the big leagues! You are set up with a consultant who will tailor an ad campaign just for you. Unfortunately, these services come with strict qualifications and/or a hefty price tag–some starting at a couple hundred dollars. These services target readers specifically, and if you have a large amount of positive reviews that can drive sales, then using a service like these can catapult your book into a bestseller slot.
Most of these require your book have at least 10 reviews and a 3.5+ rating prior to submission.
Giving away your book free for a limited time is a great motivator to pick it up, especially if it’s new and doesn’t have many reviews. If you are writing a series, your first book is a good candidate to offer for cheap [or even free] whenever you can–this drives people who like it to pick up the remaining books in the series, and is known in marketing terms as a Loss Leader. [But it only works if you have two or more books released for the series.]
The chance to win something is a great motivator! People love free stuff, even if it’s a copy of your book. You can offer a simple lottery-style giveaway, or you can require certain terms for entry. On Facebook a popular strategy is to offer a single chance to win for a “like”, and a double chance if they share the contest status. This spreads your message organically, encouraging others to enter while promoting your book or page. How much that prize costs is up to you–a free e-book doesn’t even cost you shipping! [Note: Make sure you read the rules of the sites you plan on running your contest on so you can make sure it doesn’t accidentally violate one of them!]
These two options are great if you are willing to do some legwork, and are often free! Don’t be too discouraged if people don’t get back to you right away–they often have large backlogs of requests to go though, so a reply time of several weeks isn’t unheard of.
As I said earlier, using all of these will drive sales; but for some self-pubs things like concierge advertising are a pipe dream. That’s okay–there are plenty of free and low-cost options here that will help you out! Mix and match the ones you feel will work best with what you have, and you will still bring readers to your book!
I know–this was a long, serious article. Have a cute kitty for your patience!
It has recently come to my attention that an unscrupulous website is using one of my novels as bait to phish data and garner illicit revenue from unsuspecting fans!
This brings up a subject near and dear to my heart. That subject is how humanity can suck, and Sucky Humanity + Money x Anonymity + The Internet = Scammernado Central. So I decided that it might be good to have an entry detailing all the ways people on the internet can be jerks when money is involved, and how you can protect yourselves from them.
The scum of the internet rely on people being one of two things–desperate, or uninformed. If you are desperate, I cannot save you. But on the other hand, knowledge is power, so here we go!
Note: For the purpose of this entry, I will be using the term e-book. You can replace it with anything: MP3s, Programs, or Apps–and it will still be applicable.
First of all, I won’t get into antivirus software, malware monitoring programs, script limiters, or adblockers*, because if you aren’t using one already then this post won’t convince you to. Plus, these sites can still trap you by manipulating you into disabling these features, or by being designed to work around them. [Still, it doesn’t hurt to have them. I highly recommend you pick at least two.]
* = This may seem like I am going against myself, but malware can come from infected ads that even the webmaster or content provider does not realize are infecting people. You can whitelist providers you trust, or you can consider making a donation to a site you enjoy while blocking their ads. The choice ultimately lies in your hands.
General Safety Tips
First and foremost–trust your gut! If something seems like it is too good to be true, it often is. If e-books that would normally need to be purchased are being offered for free through an unfamiliar site or service, then the cost is made up in other [usually unscrupulous] ways.
If a website is asking you to sign up for something else in order to receive a free e-book, then it isn’t free. Only download e-books from authorized retailers!
If you see an unfamiliar website or service offering paid content for free, look up the name of the site plus a keyword in your favorite search engine, such as going to Google and keying in the search string “notreallyfreebooks.com+scam”. Often you will find links to watchdog sites in the results–these have ratings and testimonials that can help you decide if it is legitimate or not. Best of all, you can see that info without needing to sign up for anything!
Email the author! I probably would have never realized my book was being used as bait if not for a concerned reader pointing it out to me–an author will always be happy to point you to legitimate places where you can purchase or sample their book. Always.
If you hover over a button or link on a website, you can usually see a preview of the url that you are sent to when you click it. If it leads anywhere off the site you are currently on, it could be an Integrated Affiliate Advertising Redirect–also known as a Forced Click. If it’s not disclosed, then this is usually a sign of shady business practices, and should send up red flags!
If you have to click a link or button, or perform an offsite task to “unlock” or “decrypt” a file, get out of there!
Click Fraud and Affiliate Links
Affiliate links are links through which website owners send their visitors to access products and services they would normally look for. The innocent ones will reward the webmaster for sending you to a site you were going to anyway. For example, DIY blogs often include Amazon affiliate links to buy the materials needed to create a project they are detailing. If you click that link to go to Amazon, the blogger will get a small reward when you purchase the items. You can buy your materials in one convenient place, and the blog might be able to remain ad-free through that reward revenue. Everyone wins! But if you don’t want to click that link, you don’t have to in order to enjoy the post. Most places that are on the up-and-up have programs in place to make sure that someone can’t sit there and click a link over and over to artificially inflate the amount they get paid. Some people use click farming to get around it, employing people to click site links at a low wage. This is usually done in countries where labor is cheap.
However, aggressive advertisers and companies make affiliate links dangerous. They will pay well per click, but force the webpage user to sit through an ad or promotion–or even worse they may install malware on the their computer without them realizing [or authorizing] it. The webmaster then has to trick their visitor into clicking on the link, since no one is going to willingly watch an ad they can’t close or go somewhere where they might pick up a virus. A method that has popped up to get clicks is the “Free File Site”.
The site will advertise something that is not normally free, as being free through them. Once you are on the site, they will force you to click their affiliate links in order to receive the file, or a download link leading to the file. The fun thing about these sites [from a legal standpoint] is that they do not get in trouble for hosting copyrighted content, because they do not actually provide it! Once you click the download or unlock link, they are done with you. All they needed to do was trick you into providing that click.
Special Offers, Surveys, and Malware
In addition to tricking visitors into giving them money through force clicked affiliate links and ad revenue, some sites will take their deception further. They may require you to fill out a survey, apply for a free trial of a service, or “accept a special offer”. These things give the webmaster or affiliate a bonus–your information.
Information is valuable! Social Security Numbers [SSNs], bank account info, and credit card numbers are all primo bits of information. You’ve probably heard time and time again to never give these things out. But what most people don’t realize is that people who seek this data network, and even innocuous things like your name, or an email address are valuable commodities.
For example, you go to BadSite B, and they have you take a survey where they ask your name and email address. “Oh well,” you think. “What’s a few pieces of spam mail? My filters are awesome–I’ll never see it.” So you give it to them. Using that information alone, they can bring up aliases and usernames for you–they can find your social media, and glean things like your exact location, age, phone number, photos of you, and plus your current and past addresses. That is scary by itself, but if the owner of BadSite B talks to the owner of BadSite A, where you were required to apply for a credit card a few months back to obtain a “free” book, it gets worse. She has your name, definite billing address, and the last four digits of your SSN. She either buys the missing data from BadSite B, or she sells her data to him. Either way, someone is opening a new credit card in your name and going on a shopping spree! And that is just a best case scenario–with a little more data, they also have the ability to become you.
You don’t even have to willing agree to give them data, either. They can just quietly infect your computer and steal it slowly over time–passwords, login info, your search history. This is done through malware and viruses. These things are written to install silently and only need one click to get in. They hide in ads, and masquerade as files you may get access to for completing “special offers”. Once they are in, they are complicated [or impossible] to remove–if they’re even detected at all!
My brother–who for the most part, is fairly tech savvy–had a virus on his computer for six months, and never knew until I found it while trying to figure out why he was going over his data cap every month. All he knew was that he was receiving several gigabytes of overage, often to the tune of a $300 internet bill! The virus recorded every keystroke he made through screenshots that were then uploaded to a file storage server. It took a new screenshot every five to ten seconds. It was so ingrained in his system that it would restore itself after a low-level disk format and operating system re-install. He had to change all his bank cards, put a freeze on his credit, and throw out the hard drive–losing five years of programs, save files, and pictures in the process. How does he think he got it? He was looking for a serial code for an old game he owned, but had lost his legitimate serial for and went to a shady site. It’s not worth the risk.
Some especially insidious sites will use all three methods–forced clicks, mandatory “surveys” in order to unlock a file, and said “unlocked” file that turns out to be an installer for malware that gives them unlimited access to your sensitive information.
How to Spot a Malicious Site: A Checklist
If a website is offering an e-book you would normally have to buy, for free–but they require you to do something that seems digitally unsafe to obtain it, then leave. This includes the following:
Asking you to click a link or button to “unlock” the file or download link to said file.
Asking you to fill out or participate in offers that require you to submit sensitive data. [SSN, Home Address, Phone number, etc.]
Directing you to a different website while browsing.
Appearing sparse or like a generic template.
If there is no contact information for the webmaster on the website.
Hotlinking to cover images from legitimate sites.
If all the comments or reviews are the same across all available files or seem to be entirely posted by anonymous people.
If the website is taking too long to respond, or causes your web browser to ‘hang” [Stutter, or freeze entirely]. This can be a sign that an unauthorized add on, widget, or program is installing itself without your permission.
If the website asks you to turn off or otherwise disable safety software such as running antivirus programs, malware monitoring services, firewalls, etc.
Using the information found here, hopefully you will not fall prey to these tricks. I want my readers to stay safe!