How not to advertise on Facebook

For the launch of A Room Full of Elephants I’ve been considering running a short Facebook ad campaign: a couple of days before and after the release date, to drum up some eyeballs.

The release date is next Wednesday. Yesterday, I thought it was about time I made the ad. I should have started sooner, but, you know, I’ve had a book to finish. Priorities!

Facebook’s ad guidelines helpfully supplied image dimensions: 1200 x 628 pixels. They also stated “Your image may not include more than 20% text,” to stop people using text-filled spam ads. Reasonable, I suppose. I didn’t follow the link to “see how much text is on your image” because I didn’t have an image yet. 20% is 20%, I thought to myself, I’ll make something that doesn’t exceed that limit. I’ve been counting pixels since before Zuckerberg was born, you know. I can draw bounding boxes. I can multiply*. I can divide*.

(* I can tell machines to multiply and divide.)

I created an image: not the best ad in the world, but it matched the graphics I’ve been using elsewhere, based on the book cover, and it followed the 20% rule. Here it is, for posterity:

arfoe-facebook-ad-2016-03

Then it was time to double-check using that “see how much text is on your image” link, and…

Oh.

In their tool, you don’t draw bounding boxes for your text. The image is divided into a grid, and you click to colour in each grid rectangle, each cell, in your image that contains text. If you colour in more than 20% of cells, you have too much text. It’s not as accurate as drawing a bounding box, but it’s a much simpler user interface (both to use and to write).

The accuracy of the grid method depends entirely on the size of each cell. Imagine each cell was a single pixel: here, you’d colour in all the pixels enclosed by your hypothetical bounding box, and the answer would be the same. The coarser the grid, the less accurate the answer: imagine a two-by-two grid, where each cell corresponds to a quarter of the image. One piece of text in a single rectangle, and the system would think your image was 25% text.

Would you like to know the size of Facebook’s grid? 20×20? 10×10?

It’s 5×5.

Five by five.

Have it in roman numerals too: V by V. There are only XXV cells, and I’m only allowed to colour in up to V, because V / XXV = XX%. (I’ll stop this now, it’s confusing me.)

Here’s what my ad looks like, with the cells coloured in strictly according to the rules:

arfoe-ad-text

Facebook thinks my ad contains 52% text. Not something I imagine any reasonable punter would guess, and out by a factor of three or so.

How do I fix this? Oh, that’s easy: move text so it overlaps fewer gridlines. Shrink text to fit. Or to put it another way: change my design. Make my ad look worse. (For big brands, this can mean: break your branding rules. Good luck, ad agencies, explaining to your client why Facebook won’t accept your ad. That’s assuming pros have the same term as the rest of us, by no means certain.)

The true question, though, is: does Facebook use this same 5×5 grid when approving ads, or is it just a handy tool for ad creators to see if they’ve gone massively over the top?

In other words, what’s the real rule: “Your image may not include more than 20% text”, or “Your image may not include text in more than five cells when divided into a 5×5 grid”

And the answer is: who knows? Facebook, you would hope, but the evidence suggests they’re not sure either. I’ve seen reports of ads being rejected for failing the grid, and then reinstated on appeal. More than one of those ad-yourself-to-success listicles recommends obeying the grid rule. My guess is there’s a front line of grunts who apply the grid rule mechanically, and a second line who deal with the complaints and spend most of their time eye-rolling.

As to whether any of this truly matters: yes, I think so, at least in part. Such a coarse grid encourages you to use short, shouty text to make “best use” of your five cells, or to cram text together, breaching design principles. The ads are worse as a result: bad for the advertiser, bad for the consumer, bad for Facebook.

This rule also makes it very hard to include important text such as disclaimers required by law. Not an issue with A Room Full of Elephants, admittedly, assuming we don’t get Trumped.

Anyway: I’m not placing this ad right now. I’ll think of another approach. I’m allowed to include an image of the product I’m selling, and text on the product doesn’t count towards the 20% (unless you zoom in to try to cheat the rules, and the extent of the allowable zoom is, of course, subjective). So I’ll do a photo of the book in a relevant setting, and I have an idea. All I need is a copy of the paperback: and for that, I’m still waiting.

Thanks, Facebook.

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Elephants!

A Room Full of Elephants

As you might have noticed, my website has sprouted a new book. A Room Full of Elephants is now available for preorder on Kindle and in the iBooks Store, and will be released on March 16th. The paperback version will appear on or around the same date: possibly earlier, should it please the gods.

You can follow links here, there and everywhere to read the blurb and, I hope, to order a copy. In this post I want to describe some of the background to the book, and the writing process. There won’t be any spoilers.

I’ve noodled with the core concepts in the book for a few years. Not long after The Pink and the Grey was released I started scribbling with no more than an opening scene in mind, planning to follow the plot wherever it might lead. It led to a brick wall in that case, about 15K words in, but the process spewed a number of ideas that I squirrelled away. After Disunited and The Pauline Conversion, looking through my notes for inspiration, I decided this was the story I wanted to tell next.

I deliberately didn’t reread the abandoned draft. I didn’t want to be lured into copy-pasting words and scenes and finding myself stuck in the same mire as before. I took the concepts, wrote page after page of bullet points including random ideas, quotes and character notes, roughed out something not fit to shine an outline’s steel toecaps, and started writing again from a blank sheet of pixels.

Now, I’m not a pantser, as those who write without an outline are sometimes called. I prefer a fractal approach: start with broad swathes of plot, a rough coastline, and add progressively more detail until I can see the fiddly bits of Slartibartfast’s fjords. But this time I wanted to try a little light pantsing to see how it went: much as with the original version of the story, but with a different focus.

Yeah, I shouldn’t do that.

I can’t remember who said it (Stephen King?) but it’s at least partially true: writer’s block is nature’s way of telling you your plot’s taken a wrong turning and the satnav is currently directing it to a dead end. And when that happens all you can do is tell your muse (Siri) to shut his gob, then wrench the gearstick into reverse and try not to run over the sheep.

The good news with these new-fangled computers is that nothing ever gets deleted: it just gets moved to a folder marked OLD, to be cherry-picked for the bits that haven’t turned to mush.

arfoe-old-oldAnd when it happens again, you rename OLD to OLD OLD and make a new OLD.

I wouldn’t like to guess how many words I actually wrote for ARFOE to produce the 100K of the final book.

By comparison, with The Pauline Conversion I had a detailed outline and wrote the first draft from zero to 120K words in under 100 days. A Room Full of Elephants took at least twice as long, for fewer words. That includes two blocks of time when I wasn’t writing: I stepped away to rethink aspects of the story and to give Siri and his slapdash directions a stern talking to. I also went to the Lake District for a week, which helped put some distance between brain and draft. Once a new route was plotted (or a new plot routed), avoiding low bridges and deep fords, I pushed on. This time the drystone walls survived my meanderings, and I reached my destination relatively intact.

I completed the first draft on my parents’ 51st wedding anniversary. (The book’s dedicated to them.)

A month of incubation a Christmas, and several drafts later, here we are. A Room Full of Elephants is done, and despite all the frustration I love it.

Writing is a slog, and a chore, and a delight. The hours can rush past, and time can stop. You can struggle to find one word, any word, to fit, and you can bash out a thousand without blinking. And nothing, nothing at all, beats the surprises. The revelations your subconscious hides from you until just the right moment: and you think yes, but now I’ve got to revise everything I’ve already written, and you look back, and you don’t have to change a word.

I know, I know, it sounds unlikely. Twee nonsense, the ravings of a poor, ruddy-cheeked auteur perspiring into his aubergine ruff. It happens, though, I promise you. (Although my ruff is turquoise.)

And now the cycle begins again. A pile of books to read, a large number of coffee shop windows to stare out of, and a notebook to fill with nonsense. Right now I have no idea what the next book will be.

All I know is I’ll be writing an outline first.

The Perils of Pauline

The Pauline Conversion

No plan survives contact with the enemy. As I wrote in my last blog about researching The Pauline Conversion, as you dig around in the archives you have to be prepared to unearth something that stops your neat idea in its tracks. If you’re unlucky it sends you reversing back to the start line. If you’re lucky it diverts you onto a shinier, more interesting path. The Pauline Conversion is very much an example of the latter.

The journey to The Pauline Conversion started over a year ago after Russia passed an anti-gay law just months before hosting the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi. You might remember the fuss, which resulted ultimately in mass hand-wringing and general inaction. This law angered me, naturally. It was a hugely retrograde step for the country, and the global community fluffed its response.

It set me thinking. Could I write a book satirising this situation in some way? It felt a natural fit for St Paul’s College in an earlier, less equal time than the contemporary Britain of The Pink and the Grey. I’d also been itching to write a story about a younger version of Dennis. One calculation later, I settled on 1972 as a first approximation. In those days the summer and winter games occurred in the same year. Munich, in the summer, suffered from terrorism: not a great backdrop for a St Paul’s story. Sapporo’s winter games were a better fit, mirroring Sochi in 2014.

That took me back to February 1972, when the Sapporo games took place. I noodled with the idea of St Paul’s or the university staging its own games, but nothing grabbed me – and it wouldn’t be Dennis’s thing at all, unless there was a gold medal in tea preparation. In search of inspiration I looked into that time in more detail: what was going on, globally and locally?

A lot of change. A lot of unrest.

Change is constant, of course, and someone’s always up in arms about something. But Cambridge was experiencing a greater turbulence than usual. Miners were on strike across the country, and the energy shortage was about to bring power cuts and disruption. Students took part in a sit-in at a university building, arguing for a greater say in university affairs and changes to exams. Not far from St Paul’s a large rectangle of old Cambridge was being demolished and redeveloped: a multi-storey car park, a modern shopping centre.

All this on the back of the great social changes of the 1960s. For gay men the decade brought, eventually, decriminalisation – though there’s a difference between legal and socially acceptable. Even five years after decriminalisation, attitudes towards LGBT people (not that this term was in use) had barely shifted from much darker, more violent times, even in a semi-enlightened Cambridge that would have tolerated St Paul’s for a couple of centuries. And discrimination was rife not just against gay people. Women were poorly treated (they still are, of course), and beginning to fight back: stereotypically, burning bras in the cause of women’s liberation.

In Dennis I saw a man who would be uneasy and suspicious of too much change too rapidly. But he would also be a moderniser, understanding the worst way to manage change is to build a dam and hide beneath it. He would also be a man of multifarious routines, as we all are, with that nagging middle-aged sense of a life slipping away unfulfilled.

Change, then: a rich seam to mine, at many levels. Environmental, social, personal, with Dennis at the core pushing and coping and not coping and blundering.

An idea bloomed and I started to write, but the story lacked fizz. I persevered for a while hoping a light bulb would blaze above my head, but I felt I was writing words to throw away. Changing tack, instead I hugged cups of tea and stared through plate glass at winter crowds, letting my mind wander, waiting for something, something…

Inspiration hit me, eventually, in the shower. (Without tea, plate glass, or winter crowds.) It was the character of Red. Red, I knew, would set the sparks flying.

A complete scene-by-scene outline followed at its own dozy pace, and then when I could procrastinate no more, with research in hand, I started on my second first draft: ninety-four glorious, frustrating days of writing. And after several further months and a few more drafts, with feedback from trusted compadres and the attention of my bluest editing pencil, I decided it was ready. (You can edit a manuscript forever. It’s never finished, it’s just time to stop fiddling and let go.)

There are things I’d like to have covered in the book. I barely touched on racial discrimination. A bolder author would have included a black character and the terrible racism common at the time. But that might have appeared tick-box tokenism and diluted other aspects of the story. You can’t do everything. You’re painting a picture not taking a photograph, and readers aren’t daft.

So it’s done, and it’s out, and I think the paperback looks tremendous. The plan now is to promote the book, and in particular attract reviewers – from “normal” readers and from pro or semi-pro reviewers. On Amazon, reviews are king. Reviews drive sales, and sales drive reviews. That’s the plan, anyway. And as we know, no plan survives contact with the enemy…

Out now: Disunited

DisunitedGood news, everyone! You can now buy Disunited for Kindle in the usual places, such as Amazon UK and Amazon US. It’s also available for Kobo, and via Lulu for other ePub-capable ereaders.

In the next few days, fingers crossed, the book will also be available for iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch on the Apple iBookstore. And within a week or so it should appear on Amazon in paperback form.

UPDATE Feb 1st: It’s also now available for iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch, and on Amazon in paperback.

As usual the cover has been designed by Blogshank. I love it.

The story’s just over 97,000 words in total and the paperback runs to 326 pages. Fans of Thora Hird, and I know there are many, will be delighted to learn that she does indeed make her traditional ceremonial appearance.

As always I’m grateful for any and all feedback, positive or negative. Feel free to leave reviews on Amazon or wherever you park your cursor. Tell your friends! Buy it for your family! Convince me I should narrate the audiobook!

But first, I’m going for a lie down.

The Casual Journalist

The Register has a short piece on the ebook formatting problems of JK Rowling’s new book The Casual Vacancy. It’s a shame the quality control wasn’t up to much for what would undoubtedly be a highly popular ebook.

But what really irks me in the article is this comment:

But as some have noted, the steep cost of the ebook shouldn’t be blamed on Rowling: It’s the taxman’s fault in Brussels.

Many publications, including printed books, maps and charts, magazines and newspapers, are zero-rated, but ebooks are classified differently because they are subjected to VAT.

Let’s pick this apart.

First, as one of the commenters on the article said, ebooks aren’t classified differently because they’re subject to VAT: they’re subject to VAT because they’re classified differently. Rightly or wrongly (wrongly, in my view) ebooks aren’t classified the same as printed books, which are exempt from VAT. This wrinkle can legitimately be blamed on the hypothetical Brussels taxman.

OK, so how much of the £11.99 Amazon currently charges for the book is VAT?

Amazon’s European tentacle is registered in Luxembourg, which means Amazon charges customers Luxembourg’s VAT rates. For ebooks, this is 3%. When I self-publish through Amazon I set the price excluding VAT: I poke at a calculator to work out how to make the number displayed by Amazon, which includes VAT, be the price I actually want people to pay.

Without the dastardly taxman in Brussels imposing VAT, The Register’s correspondent would have to pay the significantly cheaper price of… £11.64. Why, with that 35p saving he could buy almost… something.

And even setting aside the VAT issue, you couldn’t blame the ebook’s high price on Rowling. She’s not the publisher. I dare say the contract she has with her publisher is more to her favour than most traditionally published writers enjoy — I wonder if she receives a better royalty rate than the standard miserly amount? — but I don’t believe she’s allowed to set the price of her books.

Incidentally, Amazon is currently discounting the hardback version of The Casual Vacancy from £20.00 to £9.00. The ebook version currently costs £2.99 more than the hardback.

That’s what The Register should be complaining about.