Writers: Westworld and “nothing is original”

One piece of advice for authors that gets bandied around a great deal is “nothing is original”. As a writer, your ideas are an expression of your own creativity, but they’re influenced heavily by your experiences and worldview, and you shouldn’t shy away from this – you should embrace it.

Here’s a recent example – Westworld.

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Westworld, as some will already know, is a re-imagining of a 70s movie.

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In that movie, people visiting a Western-style theme park crewed by androids are menaced when they go berserk.

Sound familiar?

“When the Pirates of the Caribbean malfunction, the Pirates don’t eat the tourists!”

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Recognise that line? Jeff Goldblum’s character speaks it in Jurassic Park. What’s Jurassic Park about? Well, people visiting a dinosaur-themed zoo are menaced when the the dinos get out of control.

Both the original sources of Westworld and Jurassic Park were written by Michael Crichton – so first off, Crichton was content to write two of his own works with a similar overarching premise (never mind worrying someone else might have made something similar), but the modern series of Westworld is, for all intents and purposes, the same premise again.

Why is this a good thing? Put simply, it’s because the premise of the three properties might match, but each of them is a very different take on a core idea.

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Westworld came at a time when people were first starting to become familiar with computers. By 1973, we were on the cusp of seeing how they were going to change people’s lives. Like all change, though, this brought fear, and Westworld tapped into the idea of runaway computers that go beyond human control. It might’ve been set in a Western-style theme park, but Westworld was really about the dangers of computing.

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Jurassic Park came at a time when the race was on to crack the human genome, and to acquire a greater understanding of genetics. The world of science was awash with science fiction concepts like gene therapy and genetic screening… But similarly, people were worried about designer babies and genetic engineering. Jurassic Park may have featured dinosaurs but it was really about the ethics of genetics and where that was leading mankind.

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The new Westworld borrows some themes from the older movie, but it blends them with its own ideas. As we now live in a world dominated by computing, people in general aren’t afraid of computers. We’re largely over that. Instead, it’s about the ethics of AI – not simply “AI could be dangerous” but rather, the responsibilities that AI places upon its creators. If you create a humanoid robot that is a perfect human replica, and you kill it, are you a murderer? Is it a victim? At what point does a mechanism become a person? Even this isn’t new; Ghost in the Shell asked it and it wasn’t even new then.

It doesn’t matter.

What matters is each generation of creators can take a simple common premise and use it to frame their own ideas, communicating hopes and fears that are unique to them, in their era.

Plagiarism is bad, but plagiarism isn’t writing something that has been broadly done before.

So write your own idea about a theme park that menaces the guests. Write your own story about 7 strangers who defend a town from bandits. Write your own story about a haunted house, a political conspiracy, or a suave super-spy. If you have something to say, then it’ll be yours and people will respect that.

What you need to know about Book Trailers. [Part 2 of 2]

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A little while ago, I created a trailer for my book, The Scissors and the Sword. Many authors create book trailers or pay companies/individuals to create them, and it was one of the last promotional methods that I had yet to explore. I’ve since been asked about how I made it. Additionally, most authors don’t provide figures for views/ads, so I thought I’d do that too.

[Part 1 can be found here]

This part focuses on my personal experience with the book trailer I created using the methods described in the prior post, including expenses and figures. Read on for detailed info!

 

The Trailer

If you’ve read my previous post, or have followed my blog for any length of time, you’ve probably already seen this – but for those of you that haven’t, here’s the book trailer:

Having seen that, let’s have a look at cost.

 

Trailer Expenses

I was fortunate in that I already possessed a computer with iMovie, and I was able to download Audacity (a free, open source audio editor) to help master the sound – so in terms of software, there were zero expenses.

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Within the approx 80 seconds that the trailer runs, there were the following assets to account for (all prices are USD, and I’ve rounded a little to make the figures a bit easier to process):

  • The piano sound for the logo – $10 (AudioJungle)
  • The main music track – $10 (AudioJungle)
  • The voice-over – $10 (Fiverr)
  • Collected video clips – $200 (VideoHive), averaging at $9 each

The first version I made used many clips from Adobe Stock; these were amazing quality but I had to replace them as they pushed the cost well above $500, and $200 was supposed to be my budget. To economise, one of the longer clips (of London) was a video I recorded myself, on a train journey. I did try others, but unfortunately this was the only one I was prepared to use.

This gives a total cost of $230 / £180 / 200Euro.

 

Once it was up-and-running…

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As soon as the trailer was on YouTube and had processed, I waited until that evening and launched it. I posted to my social media channels (mainly Twitter & Tumblr) with whom I have a collective follower count of around 2,500; not an enormous number but it was enough to get some initial views. I also posted it on Reddit, in ShamelessPlug, BuyMyBook and I also started a discussion thread in SelfPublishedWriters as to whether book trailers were of any use.

Soon I had views coming in, but it didn’t all go brilliantly. I’m a big gamer and I frequent the PSVita Reddit, so I tried hosting a giveaway of PSN cards there to help with promotion; this was deleted by a mod, which I guess was fair as it was off-topic.

Additionally, I paid 5$ to someone on Fiverr (who will remain nameless) who was going to set up some backlinks and such to improve the video’s SEO… But all it did, from what I can see via YouTube’s analytics, was get me a few hundred views from some far-Eastern nations such as Vietnam (via bots, I assume).

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Fortunately all of the suspect fraudulent views came in over a short period of time, from mainly non-English-speaking countries – that makes them quite easy to filter out.

10 days in

The video has now been up for 10 days, and has had approximately 2,000 views. Filtering out the sudden influx of views from Vietnam etc., I estimate the video has been seen around 1,000 times. The video also has no dislikes and 6 likes.

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In terms of genuine traffic, the views were dominated by those who came via Reddit, who contributed over 69 views all on their own. There-after it’s a mix of sites.

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This is a closer look at the initial spike. This is just from me telling everyone I could about the video via various channels.

Once the initial rush slowed down, I turned to YouTube ads.

Google/YouTube Ads

With a video on YouTube, it’s very easy to use Google’s interface to turn that video into a YouTube ad; one of those ones which comes on just before a YouTube video of a similar topic. I set up my video with two campaigns…

  • Regions – United States and India*
  • In-Stream ads and discovery ads
  • Marketing to all ages, people who identified as “avid readers”

*I picked India because it has the highest number of English readers of any Amazon region, even if it’s a second language for nearly all of those readers. As views only cost pennies, I thought I’d give it a try.

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The first peak contains the “natural” views, with the bulk of the “bot” views removed. The other peaks are from YouTube advertising. The slither over the top consists of views from other sources.

Having already spent a fair amount of money on the video, I thought I’d just put a small amount into this, so collectively I’ve only spent £16. However, this was enough to get over 500 people to view the advert.

Note: YouTube only counts an ad “view” when someone watches the video for over 30 seconds. Any less than this is just considered an ‘impression’. For those who are interested in such things, my video has an approx 20% ‘view rate’, which means 1 in 5 people keep watching it once they’ve seen the start. This is actually quite a good ratio; apparently anything over 5% is considered good.

As you can see…

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I invested about 30$/£16, which yielded around 550 views – which was around 6c/3p per view.

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This is a closer look at the USA campaign (the two campaigns are quite similar in terms of their figures, which was interesting – India was slightly cheaper per-view but overall the difference was marginal).

The most interesting figure here was the “view rate”. The upper row of in-display ads are the ones that show up adjacent to a video on YouTube – ‘suggested’ videos, whereas the lower row were the “in-stream” videos that appear as usual before a YouTube video (the ones you can skip after 5 seconds). As you can see, after a few days and thousands of “impressions”, the suggested ads only yield 1% of views whereas the in-stream ads yield about 20%. This is a much bigger difference than I was expecting.

Unfortunately, though, I can’t see what percentage of people actually clicked on the video to go look at the product on Amazon. This seems a vital bit of information; I’m not sure why this isn’t provided.

 

Now for a bit of maths…

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My Kindle version costs £1.99/3$, and I get 70% of that from a sale after Amazon takes their cut (I’m purposely ignoring the paperback for now, for simplicity’s sake).

As we’ve observed, £1.30 buys me around 50 views of the video (though I don’t know how many click-throughs to Amazon that yields). This means I would need to get 1 sale per 50 views, or 0.5% conversion rate.

I can tell you straight away that I didn’t even approach this.

 

How did this affect sales?

Unfortunately, this is the bad part.

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1 copy has sold.

However, given my typical sales patterns, this could have sold anyway, even if I had made no trailer, as I sell a few units every week anyway, with no advertising.

Conclusions

So, the obvious conclusion is that this wasn’t a good marketing method. I mean certainly, the video wasn’t perfect, and I wasn’t shopping it out to the biggest audience, but despite that, it was a fair wedge of cash for a reasonable ad that produced almost zero return-on-investment. The figures are so stark that it seems unlikely that changing some minor elements of the method would improve the results by several orders of magnitude.

I don’t feel too bad about it, because I believe you need to try these things in order to understand them – otherwise you never try.

Would I make another trailer, for a future book? I have mixed feelings about that.

Financially, hell no. I see zero reason to pursue it as a money-making endeavour.

On the other hand, though, ‘brand awareness’ is more difficult to measure. In the future, if I have a channel full of trailers for different books, that might lead to new cross-linking and metrics that I can’t really predict. I also enjoyed the process and I’m proud of what I produced, so it isn’t wasted time so much as exploring an option that didn’t yield the desired results.

Of course, the trailer is going to remain up on YouTube; who knows how many views it will garner in 6 months?

This is Lilith K. Duat’s trailer for their novella, Balance in Chaos. This was notable among the examples I’ve seen because Lilith’s trailer was practically free, made with a tool called Animoto. I might do something closer to this next time.

The main lesson here is not to try and “punch above weight” and produce a high-end trailer for an indie book project, until I have a bigger readership. I would probably do better making a cheaper, 30-second trailer built up from images and spending a larger amount of money on promotion than trying to make a lavish trailer.

Sadly not the happy ending I was hoping for! Still, let’s see how things go next time!

Follow me either here or on Twitter for more self-publishing info!

What you need to know about Book Trailers. [Part 1 of 2]

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A little while ago, I created a trailer for my book, The Scissors and the Sword. Many authors create book trailers or pay companies/individuals to create them, and it was one of the last promotional methods that I had yet to explore. I’ve since been asked about how I made it. Additionally, most authors don’t provide figures for views/ads, so I thought I’d do that too.

This part focuses mainly on what a book trailer is, and how to make one. Part 2 will deal with my own book trailer experience, and the results of my Google Ads for it. Follow me to see how that works out!

What is a book trailer?

A book trailer is video that advertises a book, usually on YouTube. They can be anywhere between 15 seconds and 3 minutes in length, though in my experience they tend to be between 45 and 90 seconds.

Typically a book trailer takes the blurb for a book along with some visual aids (photos, images etc.) and music. They may also contain a voice-over that reads the blurb in a dramatic fashion.

Typically book trailers end with an image of the book cover, and a link to where the user can buy the book.

If you’re thinking “film trailer”, you’re not far off – but usually book trailers use more static images, as unlike film-makers, authors don’t have a wealth of footage to cut up and use.

What is a book trailer for?

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Ostensibly, a book trailer is a form of advertising. It allows you to communicate the nature of your book to a market who perhaps wouldn’t see it otherwise. Most avid book-readers are very “wordy” people; they don’t struggle to interpret tone and such from a blurb, but some people benefit from the visual and musical nature of a trailer to set the tone of a work for them.

In a purely functional sense, it also allows you to promote your book via YouTube video adverts, which is impossible with just text/images.

How do you make a book trailer?

If you want a book trailer, you have two options – you can either make one yourself, or have someone make one for you.

If you’re having someone make one for you, you could spend as much or as little as you want; for instance, there are book trailer gigs on Fiverr that can cost as little as 5$ for someone to rework a template for you. These are generic and all look quite samey, but they are quick and cheap. If you want something more personal, there are other gigs on Fiverr or you could look in relevant places on Reddit for a skilled professional.

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This is a screenshot of the iMovie workspace for my trailer.

The alternative is to make one yourself. Making a book trailer is quite easy, but of course, making a good one is more difficult (I’m assuming here that you’re not an A/V professional!). Most home-made book trailers are made in iMovie (Mac) or Windows Movie Maker (Windows platform), and if you’re sticking to a straightforward montage of edited footage with cool background music, you should be able to get a good result even with these basic programs.

I think the key, there, is the word “straightforward”. You could make an amazing, fast-cut trailer with all sorts of fancy effects, but I suggest you throttle back and go with simpler, high quality stock images and footage, and let them speak for you, rather than the video itself.

The rest of this guide assumes you’re going to try and do this.

A word on expense

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Book trailers don’t have to be expensive, but they certainly can be. I would strongly recommend setting a budget and trying to stick to it. The biggest decision you need to make, for this, is whether you’re going to use mainly images or mainly videos. These are a huge generalisation, but to give some idea…

  • A 1-minute trailer of mainly videos may cost $150
  • A 1-minute trailer of mainly images can cost less than $30

Video, as you can immediately see, is more expensive than just using images (which makes sense, really). You can economise, but of course, a book trailer made up of very cheap videos isn’t going to go down well; you need good video if it’s going to have the desired effect.

If you want to economise, use images, and if you want to spend a bit more, go for video.

So what do I do first?

To start, I would recommend you get comfortable with the software you’re going to use. Get a good look at the example projects that come with it (if any) or look through some online guides. If you’re reasonably familiar with how video editing works (on a high level), both iMovie and Windows Movie Maker should be a cinch.

Once you come to work on your actual trailer, there are several places you could begin. For my part, I would suggest you start out by…

  • Choosing your background music
  • Scripting your trailer to the music

The reason for this is that unless you’re going to make your own music, you can’t really control into how many segments your audio neatly divides.

Take your music and write down what you want each part to say, in order, like a script. From this, you can produce an animatic; that’s just a version of your video with dummy images and such; the easiest way to do this is to simply open MS Paint and create images (we call these storyboards). Here’s one of mine below:

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This is a comparison of my storyboard to the final video. I’ve tried to pick one where I got a video VERY close to what I wanted (they didn’t all work out like this!). The storyboard is crude; that’s on purpose – I try to always make things I plan to throw away very obviously bad. It saves time.

You can display a “storyboard” for the length of time you want it onscreen in your trailer, and very soon you can ‘watch’ your trailer start-to-finish and, using a bit of your own imagination, get a feel for how it’s going to work out.

Where do I get my “assets”?

Once you’ve got a good idea of what you need, you’re going to need “assets”; stock music, pictures and video to use as part of your trailer. There are various places online, but I personally recommend…

  • AudioJungle (music)
  • AdobeStock (pictures & video) – expensive but good
  • VideoHive (video) – cheaper, reasonable but not quite as good

A word to the wise – you’re going to need to pay for good assets. Resist the temptation to go to Google Images and start pulling down stuff to use; you don’t want to make a good video on YouTube just to have someone yank it down for copyright infringement a week later.

Alternatively, depending on your book, you could photograph/film some parts yourself and slip these in (FYI – some of my trailer was made like this; try to guess which part, you might be surprised!). If your book is a sci-fi epic this could be tricky, but for a horror or an urban thriller, you may be able to get plenty of footage out-and-about.

Try to take your time and only use good-quality assets, because no amount of editing will cover up poor ones. For each clip, I “auditioned” four or five different possible clips for my trailer.

Be prepared to change your animatic; you’re not always going to be able to find the exact clip you want, and you may need to do something else. That’s just how it works.

The next step

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This is the segment of my trailer which used a great many “fast cuts”; video clips that are each under a second in length. This took quite a bit of time to get it to run in tandem with the music; unfortunately on YouTube the audio/video sync isn’t precise enough, and the effect is sometimes lost.

The next step is to cut up your new assets into your video. Most stock sites will let you download watermarked images/videos etc. for you to do this before you spend any money; that way you can get the video just the way you want it, then buy all the clips (just in case you change your mind).

During this process, it really helps to get friends and family to view your in-progress trailer and get their feedback, rolling it into the design where appropriate.

Once you’ve been through a few iterations and you’re happy with it, you can export the video (ideally as high-quality as possible) and start to use it!

A few tips

I can’t find the clip I want!

This is a common problem; one without a good answer. Sometimes you’re going to search for something and find it right away, sometimes you’ll look for something you’d expect to find in moments but still be there hours later, empty-handed. All I can say is be prepared to make changes from your storyboard.

I’ve found a cool clip that doesn’t actually happen in my book… But it’s sooo cool!

So, keep this between the several thousand of us.

<come closer>

<whisper>It doesn’t matter.</whisper>

Your trailer isn’t meant to be a literal movie of your book; it’s just a collection of images that inspire the reader and set the tone for your work. I mean, I wouldn’t pack a trailer full of stuff that doesn’t happen in your book, but you can sneak a few in if they’re very arresting images. Take the “burning eye” image below that forms the cover of my trailer; that doesn’t literally happen in the book – but fire is a key element of the story and one of the characters does suffer from nightmares. As an image it grabs your attention, so it’s OK to go with it even though it doesn’t literally happen in the text.

Syncing audio and video – a Youtube problem

YouTube is a great service and has come on leaps and bounds, but it can still go out of sync, particularly on low-performance machines. I have cuts in my trailer that are around 0.5s in length, so as you can imagine, the video/audio sync tolerance is very low. As a bit of advice, don’t do extremely fast cuts like this (I probably won’t next time).

Where do I put it?

This is my trailer, for The Scissors and the Sword. Based on what I’ve said above and the iMovie images, you can get a feel for how it was constructed.

As of 2016, there’s only really one place to put your video – YouTube. If you don’t have an account, you can create one pretty quickly and upload your video (it’s really quite easy to do). Don’t forget to put a link to where people can buy your book in your description!

ProTip: when you upload videos to YouTube, they default to being “private” meaning only you can see them. You can keep them in this private state as long as you want, until you’re ready to launch your video.

 

Telling the world

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Once your trailer is up (and set to public), tell everyone! Tweet your followers, announce it on your blog, go on /ShamlessPlug/ on Reddit and post about it… Publicise it in any way you can!

 

In Part 2…

That’s Part 1 over with! Part 2 can be found here!

Resumed World-Building on my new 2016 Project today…

…and so far it’s going well.

It’s actually resuming something that I penciled in before I wrote The Scissors and the Sword, but decided it was maybe a bit ambitious for my first book, and shelved it for later use.

Personally I’ve always enjoyed world-building. I know some writers find it dull; maybe it’s the tabletop game GM in me, I’m not sure. I find there’s something really fun in coming up with places, technologies, names and ideologies.

Today I’ve been working on a vehicle; the central vehicle for the characters and the narrative. This is an actual vehicle, too – not some kind of abstraction.

Thinking about it, it’s actually quite difficult to write about this stuff on the blog when I haven’t properly announced the project. I’m going to need to do that soon; it’ll make the regular updates easier.

Watch this space I guess? I’ll come up with firmer info soon.

Should’ve done this much sooner.

And by “this” I mean WordPress. In truth I’ve been putting off creating this site for over a year. Originally I used Tumblr for my site. That was largely because I already knew how to use it from prior work with it.

 

Screen Shot 2016-08-05 at 09.44.16Here’s an image of how that worked out for posterity, as most of it will be wiped once I’ve finished transplanting everything over here (it’s going to stay around as I still use Tumblr a lot; just it won’t be my main website).

It worked… Kinda. Basically I had the blog as the front page, and sub-pages for each book, as well as an About, Bio… The usual stuff. Even so, it was unwieldy. Tumblr’s very selective about what it will and won’t do with HTML; you have to work in its very crude editor and you don’t really know what will work until you hit “preview”. I had to use tables for all of my layouts, ending up with stuff that looked different in different browsers or on mobile devices, and there wasn’t a lot I could do about it. I think if you were a real web design expert you could probably do a lot with its custom HTML option, but I don’t have the time to learn what I’d need to know from scratch when stuff like WordPress exists. There were also things that were genuinely impossible to fix; for instance Tumblr text posts always output images at a set size; you can’t get them to stretch to the width of the post (unless the width is the correct size already) and Tumblr’s default is quite narrow.

In the end though, the Tumblr site was too “busy”. Ultimately I couldn’t get the landing pages up to the standard that I wanted. I’m much happier with the current ones, like this.

I’ve also heard that Tumblr is really bad for SEO. I’m not sure about that, because I don’t know much about SEO (other than the basics), but I’ve been assured that this solution will work better even out-of-the-box. Who knows, though; I guess I’ll find out soon.

Now I’m just waiting for some images I’ve commissioned and then I’ll transfer the URLs over, after which this is pretty much “done” and I can get back to focusing on writing!

Testing out WordPress

Hi everyone!

Following some web-design advice, I’ve decided to move my main website away from Tumblr and onto WordPress. This is partially because I want to make something more professional-looking than Tumblr can currently offer, but also because WordPress is better for stuff like SEO.

This is also due to my new upcoming project, which is going to require some more advanced web hosting.

Tumblr will remain my preferred social network for now for longer-form posts, and I will be cross-posting to it – the WordPress blog is only going to be used for very business-oriented posts.

Twitter will stay as-is, because I use that for different purposes.

Anyway, let’s see if this post finds its way to the correct pages! (if you’re reading this then I guess it worked!!)