The Zombie Game Diet: a Tale of Grilled Cheese & Cola

grilled cheese ZombieThere are zombies in my house.

Not actual zombies, mind you, but the blood-less kind on computers screens deftly out-maneuvered by my resident teens and tween. It may seem strange, but I’ve come to enjoy the presence of these video-game zombies in my living room, as well as all the nonsensical hilarity such entertainment brings with it.

As I sat–placidly hemming a set of linen dinner napkins–last night, I happened to overhear a string of sentences emanating from a corner of our living room.

“Do you have any more grilled cheese sandwiches?”, my sixteen-year-old son asked of his younger sister.

“Nope,” Eleven replied. “But, I have four bottles of cola.”

My interest was piqued. Casually, I rolled my chair over and made inquires about the variety of zombie-game foodstuffs that the average survivor might come across in that cartoon-ish realm. While searching the dark corridors of an abandoned structure, my son assured me that a remarkable number of the fatty, dairy-rich sandwiches could be found strewn about the otherwise ruinous landscape.

My theory that they fell from the sky was met with scorn.

“No, they just spawn,” Sixteen informed me. “Like the bandages and ammo. But, sometimes you can get food from animals. See, I just killed this wolf and I got… venison.”

My son’s puzzled expression mirrored my own at this very strange turn of events. Eleven had her own theory.

“Maybe the wolf ate the deer,” said she, “and then, when you killed the wolf, you got what it ate.”

It sounded plausible, but none of us fancied the idea of eating deer already consumed by a predator (Sixteen has, after all, been studying bacteria in Biology) but more than that, we all doubted that said meat would be quite as whole post-chewing as it appeared in the character’s inventory. There was a unanimous feeling of gratitude among all present that the wolf had not eaten any fellow survivors.

As my children’s gaming counterparts plodded from one empty village after another, they found no end of candy bars, sandwiches and sodas, water bottles and sports drinks among the piles of brick and wood, seeded with the odd can of beans… or SPAM.

“Mom,” Eleven said. “What’s SPAM?”

“Compressed pig parts, I think,” I told her. “I’ve never had to eat it.” (Personally, I may prefer the previously-gnawed venison to SPAM, but I digress.)

The limited sustenance aside, the abstract nature of the zombie game continued, highlighted by the nearly-endless ‘slots in a given character’s inventory, a phenomena apparently ‘balanced out’ by the completely random order by which objects are found.

“Huh,” Sixteen wondered aloud. “How did I end up with $1,000, binoculars and a bedroom window in my hand?” I wondered that as well, but it seemed a happy problem to have.

Eventually, I penetrated the point of this game: to gather as many items with which to make and strengthen both bases and vehicles, with the aim of going even farther afield in search of more consumables. “Infected” items were to be avoided, a parting gift from slain zombies of yore.

True to the game’s name, the half-dead (un-dead?) creatures roamed the land, popping up now and again–favoring shadow corners to the point of tedium–and dressed in the most fashionable attire, complete with pricey rips and ‘distressing’ once . complete with their own funny noise… like a cat trying to imitate a bear by gargling Epsom salts.

Try as they might to invoke fear, the characters would have none of it, and for good reason. The zombie were easily dealt with by the swift smite of a stick, or a precious bullet from one of the abundant firearms laying in the corners of nearly every dark room. In a fun twist of irony, the rifles and handguns were often located in a entirely different area of the map than their particular type of ammunition. The only real zombie threat  was in large numbers.

“A zombie got me,” Eleven lamented. “But, don’t worry… I didn’t have anything on me but some money and a pair of pants.” Her character re-spawned and the game continued.

As I sewed, I made a mental note to have another talk with the youngest about the concept of Death and its inherent reality… one of many such talks I’ve had with my kids over the years. I was comforted by the notion that they enjoy playing these rather harmless game with each other, comfortable to play with earshot of Mom. I listened them laugh uproariously as their fictional helicopter glitched through a building and came to rest, half-buried in the ground.

“At least no one can steal it now,” Sixteen said, with immense satisfaction. Eleven agreed. They hurriedly picked up their scattered treasures from the wreckage: a golf club, a can of tomato soup, plate armor, a blimp (yes the Hindenburg kind) and a pair of socks.

This zombie virus must be infectious… for now I, too, crave grilled cheese and cola.

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What They Fail to Understand…

… is that–in a free market–the customer is always right.

batteringram_18054_mdIt is a concept understood by many a small and large business alike across the globe, but–for some reason–when it comes to the book industry, this ‘golden’ rule is seen as brass, to be plucked from the wall, trampled upon and sneered at with startling alacrity.

The book customer, apparently, does not know what they want and cannot be allowed to choose for themselves. They must be told what to read, where and how they can purchase and how much they must pay, otherwise humanity is doomed.

In his rather well-researched blog post–consisting of many a prediction about the 2016 eBook market–Smashwords’ Mark Coker inadvertently joins forces with elitist relics of the traditional publishing world in decrying Amazon–and KDP Select indie writers–as the bane of the book industry:

“Yet despite the harm KDP-S and KU are causing fellow authors and the rest of the industry, indies continue to enroll in KDP-S to receive these privileged benefits,”

The above sentence surprised me, greatly. Smashwords was apparently founded on the premise of giving indies a place to publish and sell their work. Why not simply state the obvious: “Amazon’s KDP Select Program cuts out Smashwords completely, therefore I don’t like it.”

Coker then referenced a famous poem–on a subject that should not be trivialized by commercial comparison–inferring that KDP Select writers are likened to German intellectuals that ignored Hitler’s hideous path to power.

“No,” Coker wrote, “Amazon are not Nazis, but…”

It’s a free country; we can write what we like. Statements like the above quote, however, are why I’ve repeatedly taught my children that “bias” is the most honest word in the English language.

(I may be an indie writer without an editor on staff, but I think it’s “Amazon is not the Nazis…” or, perhaps “Amazonians are not Nazis…”)

I honestly don’t see how offering the consumer choices–in how or when they buy, or for what price–is somehow rendered as ‘fascist’ in appearance to those the free market has left behind. Neflix users are not considered ‘nazis’ but, somehow, Kindle Unlimited users are?

What many in the trad-pub industry fail to understand is that every revolution, political or otherwise, leaves some carnage in its wake. Admittedly, carnage is a terrible word and–like “hate” or “nazi”–it should not be used lightly. I’ll also allow that the rather vague notion of ‘change’ is not always for the better–as Neimoller and millions of others would no doubt attest–but in the case of the eBook revolution, I am biased in its favor.I am biased not only as a consumer of literature but also as an author.

Independent writers are now allowed to choose where and how their work is presented, as well as for how much; these are choices never afforded us before, let alone having our titles given equal billing with trad-pub authors. It is so, very sad that Amazon alone offers indies access to such options.

Who’s fault is that? Considering their collective years of experience in the industry and the amount of money they pour into advertising, I am astounded that big publishing firms haven’t invented a better mousetrap.

Consider this: I am merely an organic gardener who writes novels part time–with little more than a decade of business experience to my name–but even I know that in any free market one must adapt or go extinct. Perhaps trad-pub companies aren’t hiring creative people, aren’t firing incompetent people, are unable to change their ways or all of the above.

If trad-pubs are–as they are very fond of reminding their dwindling customer base–the backbone of the book industry, then they need to awaken from their slumber and procure new, young professionals to give them a swift spinal adjustment. They must build a platform that offers both the indie writer and the reader what no one else has. Only a re-invention of the market will attract attention away from the savings Amazon offers. And, they must do it soon. For, if they tarry any longer maybe Amazon will clone itself to Nile (with Congo to follow) in order to show some semblance of competition in the marketplace.

If Coker’s rather scary sentence regarding KDP Select writers is even partially true, then why would any writer sign up, or stay with it for more than a month? It’s elementary, Watson. The massive amount of Amazon website traffic is an enormous draw for indie writers… and something that Smashwords has yet to imitate, a fact I happen to have direct knowledge of.

When my husband and I first began to sell our indie-published Epic Fantasy series, we utilized the Smashwords platform. We were impressed with the stringent formatting standards (something Amazon could learn from) as well as the variety of proffered platforms on which we could sell our eBooks. Despite these choices, the small number of visitors was alarming; we made $143 dollars in three months, even with a sizable budget for google adwords, facebook ads, coupled with copious social media posts. We ended up in the red that quarter.

The next month, we signed up for KDP and its Select program, which required us to take our books off Smashwords… and we subsequently made $14,980 in royalties during the rest of the year (2014) with no further spending on advertising whatsoever. To this day we still make a cool $300 a month–on average–in spite the eBook “glut” and the various squabbles over Agency pricing. Like other indies we’ve felt the drop in readership in favor of more visual stimuli.

Money not only talks, but it happens to be the loudest voice in the room at the moment. Until there is a viable option to Amazon’s KDP platform, then most Select writers will (insert shocked gasp) likely stay where the customers are.

Put the issue of indie writers aside, the customer still is always right. In fact, the customer appears to dislike–very much–being told that they must give up choices for the greater good of an industry that largely turned a deaf ear towards them for decades  while simultaneously extracting huge fees for access to literature.

Not surprisingly, a mass migration has ensued. Customers turned in droves to Amazon and many indies, giddy with their initial success, began a short-sighted spiral down to the 99-cent book. Some books might be worth only 99 cents, but the majority of hard-working indie authors consider that number as much a slap in the face as charging $23 for an eBook is to trad-pub customers.

All that posts like Coker’s tell me is that the trad-pubs of the world didn’t learn a thing from the eBook revolution, one so recent the smouldering buildings are yet visible. The bandwagon they snootily refused to board marched merrily by them. Now, like a gaggle of disinherited adult children of Old Money–flung out into the real world of the free market–the trad-pubs sit and whine about the loss of their old life. A few of them might make a valiant show for the shareholders, using outdated methods to try to break back into the market, but so far none seem interested in going out and building a rival domicile.

I would like to see trad-pubs stop complaining about Amazon and try to outfox them. Maybe they could streamline and offer readers something other than another price hike. Maybe they could offer indies a free platform to upload their work for evaluation–including throwing out their obsolete elitist system of biased, redundant scrutiny–emphasizing to potential authors quality of service over Amazonian quantity.

Customers do want good literature, but they also want the best deal (especially in an economy that is barely recovering) and in such a market as this they will invariably flock to wherever the best deal is, regardless of past loyalties, nostalgia or the misapplication of the ‘nazi’ label.

The book market landscape will likely change again when the US economy begins to show signs of full recovery. For their own sake, may the trad-pubs be ready–in that moment–to emerge from their tired cocoons to display a wonderful inclusive, innovative platform with which to dazzle indie writers and readers alike.

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L. R. Styles is a KDP Select author with Belator Books