The Nameless Horror

No Names, Jackets, Future

When I launched 3NJ back in June, I always figured on giving it six months before passing judgement. However, since six months from June 24th would be Christmas Eve, that’s perhaps less practical. And in any case, I’m not sure the full six is really justified.

This is going to read like an obituary for 3NJ, and maybe it is, but I’m not going to absolutely definitely pull the plug on it until I’m done working on the current book (in x days/weeks).

Launch saw 9,000 visitors on the first day. By the end of the first month, 3NJ was down to 100-200 uniques per day. A month after that, 50-100, where it’s stayed ever since, with one small bump when the site got a mention in the Boston Globe.

This is not good.

Similarly, the number of live entries on the site was 468 after the first month. Three and a bit months later, that number has risen by about a hundred.

This is not good.

That’s the bald numbers-as-reasoning, but let’s get into a proper discussion about decisions taken, issues I’ve found running the site and that others have had using it because that’ll be a lot more nuanced and, y’know, useful.

(On which note, answers and comments can be directed at me via Twitter or email. (I haven’t gotten around to sorting per-post Disqus on this thing yet. Too busy with work.) I thought about running some kind of survey for feedback, but realised that those I most wanted feedback from probably wouldn’t be reading this anyway.)

No Names, No Content

3NJ went live with only ten entries on show. Did this discourage people from coming back after checking the initial offerings? I don’t know, but I doubt it, to be honest. The amount of submissions in the first few hours was astronomical (compared to expectations at least), and what I saw of word of mouth back then was largely along the lines of “Cool! This’ll be a place worth checking!” rather than “Why is there nothing here?” The only sane alternative would’ve been to do a broader private beta with, say, 20-30 writers on board to give a wider spread at go time.

(Interestingly, on the day 3NJ went live I was emailed by a staff member for another new excerpt-based discovery site to tell me that two samples of VDZ were up, would I like to pad out my profile or upload more? Oh, and if I didn’t want to give permission to host the excerpts they’d take them down. I eventually ascertained that they’d hand-plucked sampled by skimming free books on Amazon because “you can’t launch a site without content”, and when I explained that asking permission after the fact was getting things wildly arse-backwards they conceded and changed their policy. A spectacular lack of thought rather than anything malicious.)

Open to all, used only by some

The only big disappointment I have about 3NJ’s content profile is that it quickly became an indie (a term I don’t like much but which I hereby concede defeat over) site. Indie writing is fine - hello, plenty of skin in that game here - and it was always going to have a hefty slant that way through sheer weight of numbers (not to mention inclination to try new ways to gain readers) but I really, really wanted this to cover all points along the spectrum. A couple of small digital publishers jumped on - and bless ‘em for doing so - but off the top of my head, and without scouring every ‘about this book’ link, I think only one writer has posted samples from print-published (POD-printed via Createspace/Lulu/etc. excepted) books. Certainly only one from books published by bigger publishers.

I saw a fair amount of talk from published writers expressing interest in it - and had a slightly bizarre but supportive email from one of the Big Five asking if they could remote-dump their entire catalogue onto the site if they wanted - but no actual entries. Forgetfulness, uncertainty over the worth of doing so, worries at publisher level about content rights? None of which would be criticism at all; I’m genuinely curious.

(It’s not confined to published writers, mind, nor to those who never used 3NJ; I know from flagging entries with errors that many users never return to the site. Or at least if they do they don’t bother to check to make sure their own submissions are OK.)

I also emailed the publicity arms, which is where in my experience at least most of the ‘promote your book here’ requests come from to authors, of a bunch of publishers, big and small, US and UK, and received a grand total of zero replies. Not so much as a “bugger off, idiot”. Spam filter, a total hash of communication etiquette on my part, the three possibilities in the paragraph above? I don’t know. All I know is, for all the appreciative noise, 3NJ has had all the actual draw for the traditionally-published as a week-old herring down the back of a radiator.

This has hit both the perception of the site - while indie writing has shaken some of its poor reputation over the past couple of years, it’s still looked-down on by many readers - and, in some cases, the standard of what’s on offer. Much of the content on 3NJ is perfectly fine, but there are (IMO, at least) some clunky entries. That’s fine - my tastes aren’t everyone’s and I always said, and stand by the decision, that filtering for perceived quality wasn’t something I wanted to do and should be up to the reader browsing to do. But the more chance there is of Average Reader hitting a clunky one, and the less chance there is of hitting something outstanding, the easier it is for that reader to dismiss the site out of hand.

Having more published work - where, on the whole, and for all the good examples there are on the indie side, the technical standard is higher on average - on 3NJ would, without a doubt, made it easier to retain readers.

Attention span

Retention is the thing. As well as writers, impressed by the basic concept, saying they’d make use of the site, there were plenty of readers saying the same. That hasn’t happened. Some have come back - I can see returning visitor stats - but most haven’t, not in any significant way. Here I think 3NJ is up against human nature and the mechanics of reading.

Firstly, we all have a comparatively limited capacity for following through on initial impulses over time (see: the amount of money wasted on unused gym memberships). And secondly, as individuals, very few of us read that much. I wouldn’t expect a given reader to need to check 3NJ more than once a month, because who gets stuck for new books that often? There are people who read tons, but they’re in a small minority. For most of us, it’s a book on the bus or the dunny, reading in snatches as we find the time.

To have a regular churnover of visitors, then, a site like 3NJ needs to draw from a very large pool. If the average reader only goes book browsing once a month (he said, making up any old number), to see 1,000 readers a day you need to draw from a pool of 30,000 total. Which is achievable, I’m sure, but hasn’t happened here.


The site is deliberately text/CSS styling only. There are no graphics at the front end at all. Obviously that’s part of the concept - but I also chose to do it that way, partly because it makes the site fast (important on mobile devices), and partly because while some assets are readily available for use, I’m not much of a graphic designer. Does the lack of visual sparkle make it less of a memorable place to visit, though? A bit too bland for the ol’ eyeballs to take for long?

There have always been minor issues with the UI and layout, and a couple more fixed in the days right after launch. (There’s a login link, for example, but not a separate register one since registration happens on the login page. No one seems to have had trouble registering - if for no other reason than I linked it carefully at the top of the instructions - but I know it’s something of note.) Again, are these little quirks too much of a turn-off? I don’t know. Tolerances vary.

A dysfunctional back-end

(Something none of us enjoy, fnar.) 3NJ runs on Wordpress because WP is the CMS I know best and could bash something together quickest with. I also knew it could handle a lot of users and deal with an equally large array of content reasonably robustly. And the plugin library for WP is huge and enabled me to include most of the functions I wanted. From the point of view of a submitting writer, I hope the back-end seems to be largely pretty straightforward, clean and clear. I worked hard to bury all but the essentials for the average user and to avoid the cruft that WP offers by default.

However, it is not without problems from the admin standpoint:

  • The backstage search functions for both posts and users turn out to be near-useless. You can search with a reasonable degree of confidence for words contained within content, but not within titles (making it impossible to quickly check to see if something’s been posted already; I have to trust to a near-photographic memory and doing things by hand). You can’t search for users at all. It just doesn’t work. Seeing that a user is a spambot and going to find out their IP address for blacklisting currently means going through 40 pages of users.
  • Similarly, there’s no way to click on ‘user1’ and see their posts as a list, useful mostly for mass-binning spam but also for double-checking for duplicates.
  • Nor can you click on ‘user1’ and ban them and trash their submissions. This is only useful for spambots, but would be very handy - hand-approving submissions means that no spam gets posted, but I have recently begun to have a lot of shite to clear out each time I check.
  • Basically, user and post management is very much lacking once you pass a certain size threshold.
  • There is no way of providing writers with feedback on their submissions. I have no way of alerting submitters to issues with what they’ve posted. I rely on them checking back and seeing that their entry is tagged as needing changes. This is very sub-optimal.
  • The scheduling system works, but not entirely reliably, for no obvious reason at all.
  • Login occasionally throws errors, for no obvious reason at all.
  • WP’s post ID number assignment is baffling. There are ~600 live entries on 3NJ. The most recent one is numbered 4710. I have no control over it, nor obvious alternative, and it could give people the impression that there was a lot more material than there is.

If I were to try something along 3NJ’s lines in future - which is very possible; I enjoy a technical challenge - I think I’d code it from scratch (or at least from a framework like, say, CodeIgniter). I’d need to get a lot better and more formally organised code-wise than the hodgepodge I’ve picked up down the years currently serving for my technical know-how, but it’s certainly not beyond me. Doing so, of course, means running into more bugs in the early days, but at least the code base is tailored and not something as vast and unwieldy as WP.

Other points

Others elsewhere have raised smaller points when they first learned of 3NJ. I’ll tackle a few here. (Apart from anything else, I’m starting to lose the thread of where I was going and we’re up almost 2,000 words already.)

‘About this book’ links take you to another website and not straight to a ‘buy’ page/don’t take you to Amazon when that’s where I want to get my ebooks from.

There’s no other practical way of doing it, sorry. Hosting files for direct sale would be a logistical nightmare, a rights and accounting disaster in the offing, and so on. Similarly, forcing writers to provide an Amazon link (to which Amazon, pray tell?) is insane unless you’re running a Kindle-specific site, which 3NJ isn’t, while pushing them to an all-markets aggregator like Ganxy is a massive gyp for them and, again, still seems nuts. “Here, run your business this way if you want to be on my site, thankyouverymuch.” If that’s too much of a hoop-jump for readers… well, there’s not much I can do about that.

Send me x anonymised entries to my email every week.

I looked into doing something along those lines, and if 3NJ had taken off I could’ve devoted the time to trying to hack something together, but WP doesn’t make this easy. Coding from the ground up, different story.

Why don’t you pull excerpts from Amazon through their API?

I’m not actually certain that’s possible, not at least without negotiating with Amazon for access to the feed. I’m much more certain that if it was possible, and it was then possible to strip name/author identifiers from material coming down the pipe, and it was then possible to render such content in a manner indistinguishable from direct uploads, that the respective authors might be a bit pissed at having their material displayed anonymously without permission. (See my earlier mention of another site doing this by hand.)

No mobile app?

No. That was certainly beyond me at launch. Not impossible - dealing with a text-only database makes interaction relatively straightforward in theory at least - but a pile of work even if I knew what I was doing. It would have been very useful indeed - the 3NJ approach is ideally suited to mobile reading - but no more than a fantasy.

The end?

So there you have it. 3NJ is probably due to shuffle off this digital coil in the shortly hereafter. It was a fine idea, and still is, I think, and one that was very much worth having a crack at. I regret, to borrow from Piaf, nothing on that score. But this incarnation of that idea never achieved the traction it needed to be worth keeping alive. Maybe future ones will have more success.

I’ll decide for certain in the next few days, but let’s face it, my mind’s pretty much made up.


I’ve been following the arguments/outrage over the widespread availability of very special interest literature (a.k.a. “Forced By Big Brother” and “Fucked By Daddy And The Dog” incest/bestiality porn), mostly self-published, on Amazon and elsewhere.

The Daily Mail jumped on the story. It’s hit the BBC. WHSmith’s shut their entire site over it, because nothing says “we don’t know what the fuck just happened” like hitting the big red SHUT IT DOWN button, Amazon pulled identified titles from their listings, and this morning Kobo yanked all self-published material while it could sift through the mess.

Looking at the mess - which is not something I’ve ever wanted to do when dealing with the aftermath of erotica, it seems this has all blown up very late in the day. This drivel has been available for a very long time on all these retailers (from memory, during the Leathergate affair of last year, one of his loudest defenders was a writer of exactly this kind of stuff and we all pointed and tutted and laughed and this debate never happened then). It seemed, somehow, to spin out of the discovery of dinosaur porn on Amazon. A more innocent, happier time, when we were merely amused and mildly horified at the notion of kink fiction written for people who want to read about dinosaurs having sex with humans.

(To which I wonder: do people not know that there’s porn for everything on the internet? Dinosaurs, robots, zombies, planes (having sex with other anthropomorphised planes). I guarantee if you google for “Chuggington porn” you’ll get some shonky MS Paint images of Dunbar coupling with Olwin’s funnel. I haven’t tried because I believe doing so would put me on some kind of register. But dude, Rule 34.)

It’s important not to forget that what we’re dealing with is fiction, written non-visual fiction which, unless the real-world incidence of incest and abuse is considerably higher than numbers suggest, is probably playing to a fetish market rather than an army of would-be abusers. Yes, it’s a weird and horrible fetish, or cluster of fetishes, but so is scat porn and apparently that has enough adherents to have spawned its own slang terms. It’s also bafflingly specific in some cases - “Yeah, I’m looking for incest rape porn, but only if it involves nappy-wearing. If it’s not that demeaning, frankly I can’t get off.”

Which rather puts me in mind of Black Books and Bernard trying to shelter in an adult video shop by pretending to be a customer.

Bernard: Do you have anything with nurses?

Pornographer: Yeah, sure, all sorts.

Bernard: What kinds of nurses?

Pornographer: Well, ones with big tits!

Bernard: No, I’m more interested in nurses who do paperwork, filing, that sort of thing.

Pornographer: That’s very specific. Oh how about this? {Shows him another video} “Administrative Nurses”, £40.

Bernard: Sorry, that should say “Senior Administrative Nurses”, that’s really the only thing I’m interested in.

{The pornographer lifts his thumb to reveal the video’s full title, “Senior Administrative Nurses”}

Bernard: Well, maybe we could sit down, open a bottle of wine and watch it together?

The principal faults here seem to be, in the case of Amazon, not keeping a close enough eye on their own (fairly reasonable) guidelines and not watching what gets auto-suggested in search box dropdowns, and in the case of WHSmith, not paying any notice at all to what their internal search engine was happy to throw up. Even the Pirate Bay had/has (I haven’t checked which is true) a default-to-no tickbox for including porn in the results of your search. There are other, slightly less “HEY LOOK WE HAVE PORN HERE” ways of filtering results to ensure that Bred By Bigfoot doesn’t rock up in your innocent search for cryptozoological writings, of course. Large retailers don’t seem to have considered that such things might be needed, which rather suggests they haven’t used the internet much.

The pulling of books by retailers is not censorship. It’s simply businesses choosing what they will stock and display on their (virtual) shelves, as they are entirely entitled to do. If I were running a massive retailer with shareholders and public image to worry about, yes, I’d be damned careful too.

(Running 3NJ, the erotica question came up quite early on and I decided not to wall it off into its own sealed garden. Both because it’s text-only, and because it’s all clearly genre-marked so very easy to avoid. A more recent, and much more sticky question, has been whether to separate LGBT erotica from straight for the practical reason that that’s a pretty clear audience split between the two. As of yet, they remain joined.)

I do, though, worry about some of the suggestions and arguments I’ve seen raging on Twitter and elsewhere, most along the lines of BAN THIS SICK FILTH, and the slightly softer “but why wouldn’t you? No one sane wants this stuff and it can’t but be harmful”.

I’ve seen apparently rational people saying that because the acts depicted are illegal, so should be the fiction itself. That’s a frankly silly argument; the acts depicted in many books are illegal. I’ve killed scores of fictional people in books, often in horrible ways. Killing people in horrible ways is illegal unless you’re a government agency. Since you’re not also demanding that the entire crime section of your local store be wiped clear, I think it’s safe to say that the legality of a real-world act should have no de facto bearing on the legality of its fictional counterpart (note: we’re not talking about material that is already illegal under, say, child porn statutes, and/or involves actual real harm to real people in the making of).

(Bullshit straw man counterargument I just made up in my head: “They’re depicted in ways suggesting they’re a good thing (for one side, at least). That’s not right.” To which I say: Clearly, my dear Mr Straw, you’ve never read/seen Fight Club. Or Batman. Or Robin Hood. Or any of the other fiction glorifying the illegal. Look, just shut up; this line of argument is ridiculous.)

People claim that allowing fictional depictions of real-life horrors like, say, rape in a way that will feed the fantasies of those inclined to commit them in real life and cause real-world suffering to real people.

A viable argument if true, for sure, but one where the actual evidence - primarily from visual and interactive media, let alone the written word - is scanty at best, and goes both ways.

For many, many, many years, people have declared that the glorification and availability of violence, sex, or sexual violence in books, film, TV and computer games will inexorably lead to greater levels of the same in society. That by allowing the fiction we invite the reality. That we are contributing to the slide of society into a moral abyss.

(Note the weird bar-setting that goes on between them all, too. You can cut off multiple heads or torture someone to death in film or game or book with nary more than an 18 rating. Show an erect cock happily minding its own business, though, and suddenly you’ve broken the rules.)

This, despite the overall opening up of all forms of media to the depiction of events and actions that would never have been allowed in the past, has clearly not happened. Indeed, as far as I’m aware, the occurrence of violent crime and abuse of all kinds has lowered over time (from memory, in the UK at least). One could point to better reporting methods, better policing, increased prosperity, greater awareness of issues such as child abuse etc. etc. as factors in this. I’m not sure popular culture (or, in this case, distinct subculture) influence really deserves a look-in either yea or nay. For every argument that it raises tendencies to commit in the real world is a counter-argument that relief through fantasy, whether by blasting the shit out of people in GTA or by wanking to My Little Pony porn on the net, lowers the desire to commit.

(If someone has actual evidence, of course, I’d be happy to change my mind.)

Where there have been examples of people acting out something they’ve seen (generally, rather than read), you could easily argue in such cases that the person in question has seen/obsessed over the material in question as a result of a pre-occurring mental disposition towards sadism or violence, and that the viewing is symptom more than cause.

Until someone comes forward with evidence of harm done by reading weird and, to my mind at least, deeply unpleasant fetish porn fiction ebooks, stories written without anyone else being involved let alone harmed by the experience (compare with abusive practices and power dynamics in, say, legal gonzo porn films), I can’t see any rational reason to ban them. I would, were I a mainstream bookstore, be a lot more careful about selling them, and in particular about how easy it is for customers to accidentally find them, though.

Don’t make it too hard, though. I rely on Bred By Bigfoot for my standard joke ebook link.

The Matchbook damp squib

The high profile Amazon executive used his last few minutes to promote MatchBook, the program that allows customers to buy digital editions at a fraction of the price if they buy the print edition too. “Only a fraction of 1% buy both print and Kindle editions of the same book,” he stated, suggesting that publishers joining the program would lose few full-price sales.

An interesting - and not entirely surprising - figure. I like the basic idea behind the Matchbook program in so much as it’s at least an attempt at the sort of cross-medium selling that happens with movies. I still don’t and never will understand why publishers don’t figure out some way of bundling a digital edition with an ebook themselves (there are practical considerations to printing unique serial codes for download, for example, in a product anyone can pick up off the shelf and copy from). I also don’t understand (OK, I know it’s “money” but…) why they don’t do so for free, since that’s the approach that makes sense.

Otherwise you’re just asking someone to pay for the same thing twice, however discounted it is second time around. A thing they were happy to buy and consume in just one format anyway.

Double-dip selling surely only works when you’ve got something more to offer second time around?

Andrew Wylie is no Amazon fan

I think we’d be fine if publishers just withdrew their product [from Amazon], frankly. If the terms are unsatisfactory, why continue to do business? You think you’re going to lose thirty percent of your business? Well, that’s OK, because you would have a thirty percent higher margin for seventy percent of your business. You have fewer fools reading your books and you get paid more by those who do. What’s wrong with that?

The whole interview is a quote goldmine.

Holy living shit

Kobo updated their self-publishing portal to (finally) show free download numbers yesterday.

I released VIRGINIA DAY ZERO, a litle 6,000 word short, originally a self-contained sub-story within DAY ZERO that we cut in editing because it was unrelated to the rest of the book, for free on Kobo in February this year. (It price-matched free on Amazon in late May.) And largely left it be. It’s never been pushed or promoted at all, at least not as I recall, and certainly not on Kobo.

I knew it was being read by people on the platform because (before they seem to have pulled ratings) it was getting rated (only so-so), sat in the 1,000-2,000 chart range and there was a slow trickle of DZ purchases presumably following it. But I never knew the numbers. Kobo’s a smaller market than Amazon, so I had no idea what its pick-up rate was.


Roughly 20-25 a day at present (so presumably it spiked at some point in the past, I guess on first release) according to October’s figures. Add in Amazon numbers of roughly 5,000 and that’s pretty respectable. Pushing 30k downloads for one little short.

I’m aware that such figures are small potatoes for a good number of writers. I’m also very well aware that downloads =/= reads or readers. I could also point out that you can do the maths on the number of people who downloaded it, read it, and liked it so much they wanted to also read DZ, and that that fraction is tiny. (Either because no one reads all the free stuff they pick up, or because the story’s so bad that no one would ever want to read anything else I’ve written.) Less than 0.5%.

But still, I’m going to call that a success, goddamnit.

Now I just need ALL YOU LEAVE BEHIND to join Price Match Club and I’ll have a trifecta in three genres I can compare. Probably badly.