The Real Villain in “Beauty and the Beast”

This week, I’ve been blogging about the principal characters in my new novella, Beauty & the Beast: A Modern Fairy Tale. On Wednesday, I looked at the Beauty character, Rory Bellin. Thursday, I examined the Beast, Caleb Johnson. Today, I’ll look at the true villain of the story, Mr. Nickleby.

The Real Villain

In the Disney version of Beauty & the Beast, the story’s real villain is handsome hunter Gaston. Conceited and arrogant, he bullies the rest of the town and believes he should have anything he wants. He is the opposite of the Beast — beautiful on the outside, hideous within.

When I sat down to modernize the tale, I wanted to take a similar approach in that I wanted there to be a third figure who is the true villain of the story. Given that I set my version at a modern high school, the selection of a fiend seemed pretty obvious to me — a teacher.

Adults, particularly school authority figures, have a unique opportunity to influence young people. Thus, in a story about temptation and obsession, an important teacher is the ideal figure to push the novella’s two teenaged protagonists towards the things that can undo them.

Rory is the editor-in-chief of the school newspaper. So I made Mr. Nickleby the paper’s faculty advisor. That puts him in a position to be extremely influential over Rory, and, because Caleb becomes obsessed with dating her, Nickleby is perfectly placed to manipulate him too.

“So when are you going to ask Miss Bellin out on a date,” Mr. Nickleby asked when everyone else had gone.

Caleb looked as dumbfounded as when he’d been called on a few minutes ago. How had he known?

“Oh, please,” Mr. Nickleby said as though he had read Caleb’s mind. “It’s ridiculously obvious. You weren’t paying attention to my lecture this morning because you were staring at the back of her head. Just like you’ve been doing every morning for the past two weeks.”

“You saw—”

“Of course I saw,” he said. “You’d have to be blind not to see.”

Caleb thought about that. How is it that everyone else could see, but Rory couldn’t?

“She doesn’t see,” he said.

“Because she’s blind,” Mr. Nickleby said.

“What?”

“She’s blind to your interest,” he said, softening his tone. “She can’t see what everyone else can, because she is busy obsessing on other things.”

Caleb nodded. Holly was right. Rory only cared about the newspaper and college.

“I don’t know what to do about that,” he confessed.

“There’s nothing you can do,” Mr. Nickleby said.

“What?”

Caleb looked at him for the first time. He wore his usual outfit – a black dress shirt and slacks with a red tie. Caleb thought it was cool he wore school colors, but it was strange he wore the same thing every day, and the tie looked weird against the shirt. Longish, black hair fell on either side of his head, framing his face in a strange sort of darkness. His brown eyes were penetrating. They seemed to be looking into the depths of Caleb’s soul. It made him nervous.

“You can’t stop her from obsessing on the things that matter to her,” Mr. Nickleby said.

“So it’s hopeless.”

Mr. Nickleby laughed gently. Caleb looked at him in surprise. He was used to his friends laughing at his romantic misadventures, but it made him angry to hear from a teacher.

But Mr. Nickleby didn’t appear to be mocking him. He smiled sympathetically. Then he looked wolfishly at Caleb.

“Nothing is ever hopeless, Caleb,” he said. “You just have to know the right solution to the problem.”

Nickleby knows just how to get to Caleb. He manipulates him expertly, setting him up for his eventual fall from grace.

That in itself is what makes him a villainous character. Students are supposed to be able to trust their teachers. But Mr. Nickleby deceives them and tempts them to disaster.

Mr GoldHeart’s Desire

Writers take their influence from all sorts of places, and I admit to being influenced by ABC’s Once Upon A Time. In particular, Robert Carlyle’s Rumpelstiltskin colored my shaping of Mr. Nickleby. My villain isn’t as over-the-top as Carlyle’s portrayal of the sinister deal-maker,  but the idea of a manipulative magic man who can offer a person their heart’s desire definitely appealed to me.

When he first tempts Rory, Mr. Nickleby knows just how to get to her. He sympathizes with her anger of football star Mike and his girlfriend Holly getting elected homecoming king and queen instead of people who have non-sports achievements. Then, when he’s broken down her defenses, he offers her a chance to do something about what she considers an injustice.

Rory chewed her lower lip. She felt completely depressed.

“I wish there was some way to do that,” she said.

“I beg your pardon?” Mr. Nickleby said.

Suddenly, he looked different. He looked . . . hopeful.

“I said, ‘I wish there was some way to do that.’”

He pushed off the doorframe and took a step forward. The wolfish grin was back on his face.

“Maybe there is,” he said.

She cocked her head. What was he up to?

“What do you mean,” she asked.

He withdrew his left hand from his pocket, turned it over, and opened it. There was a silver ring in his hand.

“Maybe this could help,” he said, his voice barely louder than a whisper.

“A ring?” she said. Was he serious?

“Not just any ring, Rory,” he said. “A ring of three wishes.”

“What!”

This could not be happening. The new teacher at the school, the advisor to The Budget could not be offering her a ring and claiming it was magical. What kind of fantasy story had she just fallen into?

“Oh, I know,” he said. He walked towards her slowly, his hand extended. “It sounds ludicrous. It sounds insane. But what if it’s real?”

There was a wild light in his eyes. His black hair fell across his face, and, this time, he made no effort to sweep it aside.

“What if it really is a ring of three wishes?” he continued. “What if you could use it to get whatever you desired?”

He’s playing on Rory’s deepest desires here. He knows what she wants. He’s been watching her — something he confesses to a few paragraphs later to help seal the deal. He knows she wants to change the social structure at Lawrence High so it favors her. He also knows he can manipulate her into making poor choices, so that she doesn’t really get what she wants. Like Rumpelstiltskin on Once Upon a Time, his deals are designed to sound really good but are actually set up to favor him.

Throughout our lives, we wish for things to be different or better. We wish we could be better than we imagine we are. High school intensifies these feelings. Everything seems so very important in our teenage years. That makes it an ideal time for temptation.

Mr. Nickleby plays on that. He is a tempter, and he has magic to make one’s dreams come true. That makes him the perfect villain for a fairy tale set in a high school.

And he is the most dangerous kind of fiend. He makes people think they can have anything they want, and that the consequences will be minimal. He makes people believe he is their friend, when he is nothing more than a con artist.

Rory and Caleb make their own choices in my novella. They suffer the consequences of things they choose to do. But they are manipulated into believing they are doing something better than they are. They are tricked into thinking the consequences won’t be bad.

That makes Mr. Nickleby a sinister villain. He’s supposed to be their friend, but he’s the worst enemy they have.

Click here to purchase Beauty & the Beast: A Modern Fairy Tale from Amazon.com.

ONCE UPON A TIME and “Sleeping Beauty”

Man, I love ABC’s Once Upon a Time. A modern retelling of every major fairytale mixing magic lands with the real world and nonlinear storytelling with lots of strong female characters? What’s not to like?

(Well, actually, there are some writing issues, a lot of pandering to Disney films, and some special effects problems, but that’s a whole other blog.)

I’ve enjoyed fairytales my whole life, and I like approaching old material in a fresh way. Plus, I love magic and happy endings. Once Upon a Time appeals to a lot of my sensibilities.

So, needless to say, after what I thought was the strongest episode yet last week, I’m a little disappointed we’re already at the mid-season finale this coming Sunday. I don’t want to wait a month or more for more episodes. Things are getting good!

Missing ONCE UPON A TIME already? "Sleeping Beauty" is FREE December 3rd!

Missing ONCE UPON A TIME already? “Sleeping Beauty” is FREE December 3rd!

I’m betting I’m not the only fan of the show feeling this way, so I’m engaging in a little shameless self-promotion to help fill the void. I’m making my short story, “Sleeping Beauty”, free on Monday, December 3.

Much like the show, “Sleeping Beauty” reimagines a classic fairytale and sets it in modern times. Also like the show, True Love is the most powerful magic of all.

But my version of the fairytale is a cautionary story about obsessive love — particularly the kind shown by overprotective parents. It’s not a wicked witch who ensorcells the titular character, but her father — attempting to “preserve her honor” until she is old enough to marry. Her mother is little better, manipulating first her daughter into becoming the woman she thinks she should be and then her would-be boyfriend into breaking the spell.

“Sleeping Beauty” is a creepy retelling of a familiar story that asks questions about how we should treat our daughters. I wish it was less timely than it was.

Regardless, if you like Once Upon a Time like I do, “Sleeping Beauty” should appeal. Hopefully, it’ll help tide you over until we get some new episodes.

Facebook Advertising: Does It Work for Indie Authors?

Advertising is a key component of most business models, and, like it or not, it’s critical to the success of an indie author. People have to know about your book before they can buy it, and, with who knows how many million books available on Amazon.com, the odds that someone is going to just stumble across your book and buy it are really, really low.

Of course, advertising requires a budget, and that’s something (as well as time) most of us indie authors don’t have a lot of. So it’s important to spend your ad dollars effectively.

Regular readers of this blog know I’ve been experimenting with various promotional tools for my short story, “Sleeping Beauty.” The book is enrolled in Amazon’s KDP Select program, so I have twice given it away for free. I’ve also advertised through Digital Book Today, The Kindle Book Review, and World Literary Cafe with varying degrees of success.

This week, I decided to experiment with Facebook advertising.  I had heard from several people that it was both affordable and effective. I thought I would see for myself.

Methodology

Facebook has a number of very cool features for advertisers. First, it lets you specifically target users by their interests. When I bought an ad on Digital Book Today, it was up on their pages for everyone to see. That meant that my potential customers saw it, but so did people who would have no interest in that kind of book. Not so with Facebook. The ad only appeared on the pages of the people who had specifically said they were interested in the things I determined.

In my case, I chose people who are fans of ABC’s Once Upon A Time. The Sunday-night drama supposes that the evil queen from “Snow White” has brought all the famous fairytale characters to our world and wiped them of their memories. Like the show, my version of “Sleeping Beauty” features a familiar tale retold in a modern setting. People who like Once Upon A Time are a natural fit, so I specifically targeted Facebook users who were fans of the show.

Facebook also tells you the size of your potential audience. As soon as I selected fans of Once Upon A Time as my target, Facebook said my ad would reach up to 1.8M users. That’s a lot of people! Had I added other criteria (like for example fans of Amazon’s Kindle) I could have increased that reach, and I also could have narrowed my focus by selecting, for example, only female fans the show.

Finally, Facebook charges on a cost-per-click (CPC) basis. That is, you only get charged for the ad if someone clicks on it to learn more. Facebook offers a bid range, where you set the price you’re willing to pay per click. You also get to set a budget, wherein you establish the maximum amount you’re willing to spend per day or for the lifetime of the ad campaign. I used the minimum bid of 68 cents per click and set a lifetime budget of $100.00.

Facebook also asks you to tell them when the ad campaign will run, and you can set that down to the minute. In my case, I began the campaign at 7:00pm CDT Sunday night — right when Once Upon A Time was coming on the air for East Coast audiences — and set it to end at 11:59pm Monday night. My thought was this would best capitalize on people discussing the show as it aired and for a day or so afterward.

Expectations

Never having done this sort of advertising before, I set my hypotheses based on some basic advertising rules. A two-percent return is considered good for a direct-mail campaign, so two percent of 1.8M is 36,000. At 68 cents a click, that would be 147 clicks before I’d exhausted my budget. I figured I would do much better than a two-percent return on sales, because people who actually clicked through were fish on the line, so to speak. If they clicked, they were interested in reading the book.

Now, here’s the thing. “Sleeping Beauty” retails for 99 cents. My royalty from Amazon is 35 cents per unit. At 68 cents a click, I was going to lose money. My thought, though, was to treat this campaign as a loss-leader. If I sold 50 or 100 (or more!) copies of “Sleeping Beauty” through this ad, that would cause the book to rocket up the Amazon.com Bestseller lists. That would get it higher visibility on the site, which would lead more readers to it. Plus, anyone who buys the book might review it. I’ve got five four-star reviews for it. Assuming I could maintain that average, that would help make some sales too.

So, invoking the old business adage, “you have to spend money to make money,” and setting my total budget at a very affordable rate, I launched my first foray into Facebook advertising to see what sorts of results I could get.

Results

Like my other advertising efforts for “Sleeping Beauty” this one was mixed. The best thing I can say about it is Facebook provides a lot of data for you to measure your ad’s efficacy. I have a much better picture of what happened than with any other promotional effort I’ve made thus far.

My total reach was 180,277 unique impressions. That’s only about 10% of what Facebook claimed was the total audience size for my ad, but it’s also a really big number. I don’t know how many people saw my giveaway offer on Amazon or my ads on the other websites I used, but I bet it wasn’t as many as the Facebook ad.

Facebook also tells you the average frequency with which a user saw your ad. At the end of my campaign, that number was 2.7. So, of the people who saw it, they viewed it more than once — almost three times. Unsurprisingly, this number grew steadily over the course of the campaign. It started at .5 during the East Coast run of Once Upon A Time. Thus, to meet another business assumption of making seven impressions to make a sale, you have to let your campaign run for a bit.

I got a total of 284 clicks, which is a click-through rate (CTR) of only .059% — way below the two percent I was hoping for. However, it is more clicks than I was expecting. That’s because the CPC fell steadily over the course of the event. At the end, it was 35 cents. I’m not sure why this was. I did use a $50 ad credit Facebook gave me, so that may have been factored into the CPC given my $100 ad budget, but the CPC number changed several times over the life of the campaign. I don’t know why that was.

So, with 284 click-through’s the big question is how many of those turned into sales. That’s where the campaign was most disappointing. I sold five copies of “Sleeping Beauty.” That’s a 1.7% rate of return — close to the standard two percent for direct mail. It seems the leads that click through aren’t quite the fish on the line I was hoping for. They were only fish in the pond. (That’s too bad too, since 284 clicks for $100 works out to 28.4 cents CPC, which would have made the campaign profitable if they’d all bought.)

There were a few encouraging numbers from Amazon. I hit new highs for “Sleeping Beauty’s” rank in the paid store. It got up to 50,000 at one point, and I peaked as the 1036th bestselling author in the Fantasy category. That surely raised the book’s and my visilibility, although not to levels that would have a significant impact on sales.

Analysis

There’s no way not to look at this experiment as a failure. My return on investment was minimal. Five sales isn’t very many at all, considering the exposure I got and the amount of money I spent for it. Advertising “Sleeping Beauty” on Facebook to Once Upon A Time fans for two and a half days (I hadn’t spent my full budget when the campaign was shceduled to end, so I extended it for 24 hours) wasn’t a good idea.

However, I did glean some useful data from it and an hypothesis about the book. First the data.

  • Return on Investment: Advertising a 99-cent eBook probably isn’t a good idea. The potential return (35 cents per copy sold) just doesn’t justify the expense. Even with the CPC at a final rate of 35 cents, I’d have had to sell a copy to every person who responded to break even. That would be fine if the rate of sales to those who clicked was pretty high, but it wasn’t. It was at the standard, two-percent return. So the potential exposure from a sales bump just wasn’t there at an affordable rate.
  • Time is a Factor: Also, you have to give Facebook some time to work its magic. I saw my total number of impressions, my average number of views, and my CTR all rise over time, while my CPC went down as the campaign went on. Advertising on Facebook requires a long view. It’s interesting to note that my sales went up over time too. The first night — the night I thought would be best given that the show was fresh in people’s minds — resulted in zero sales. I made two the next day, and three the following. Who knows how long that trend would have continued, but it seems clear you need time to build momentum on Facebook.

My hypothesis on the book is that my blurb may not be good enough. I have five four-star reviews, I gave away over 650 copies of the story, and I’ve pushed it to the moon in various advertising venues. But sales are sluggish. It could be I’m getting people to the book’s page but not convincing them they should buy it. Afterall, 284 people clicked on the Facebook ad, but only five of them decided it was worth spending a dollar to buy. It may be I need some better copy.

And that leads me to my thoughts on future advertising on Facebook. I think it may be a good move in conjunction with a KDP Select giveaway. If 284 people thought “Sleeping Beauty”  was interesting enough to want to learn more, how many of them would have downloaded it if it hadn’t cost them anything? I bet it’s a lot higher than five.

I also think it might be useful for a higher-priced book. If the book was $3.99, that’s a 70% royalty rate, which translates to $2.79 per sale. With the same $100 budget, I’d have to sell 35.8 copies for the investment to pay off. Obviously, I didn’t do that last time, but it’s possible I didn’t run the campaign long enough or that my marketing copy wasn’t good enough. Both of those things are changeable.

At any rate, this particular experiment failed, but it produced some interesting information I can apply to future attempts. If you’re contemplating Facebook advertising for your eBook, remember that the ROI can be tricky.

If you’ve tried Facebook advertising, I’d love to hear about your results. Please leave a comment.