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The Perfect Is the Enemy of the Good

Sunday, November 17th, 2013

When Voltaire said that, more than two hundred years ago, he surely wasn’t talking about self-publishing. Or maybe he was. After all, the guy wrote more than 2000 books and pamphlets. They couldn’t all have been perfect.

For me, what it means is that after collecting a double handful of rejection letters, I’ve decided its time to try self-publishing. The reasons are many. Part of it is I’ve got a belief that in most creative endeavors, there is a lot more talent out there than there is bandwidth in the traditional distribution network. Take music for example. There are probably hundreds of great songs being written every week, but only twenty slots in the top twenty. That means lots of losers. One of the great things about the Net is that all those other songs can be heard. I think the same thing may be true for the written word.

Another factor is that for the average writer, a first-time book contract may not be such a good deal. The advance will only be a few thousand dollars, and the publisher will do little if any promotion of the book. Six months on the shelves of the major chains and, if it doesn’t turn into a best-seller by then, onto the $1 discount rack. Meanwhile, the author has already spent his $4000 advance and in all probability the book hasn’t earned out; that is, its royalties have never reached $4000. Now the book is in a weird state of purgatory; It’s still ‘in print’; owned by the publisher, who has no interest in doing any thing with it, and the author is pretty powerless.

As for me, I’m not in it for the money. At least, not for now. Would I like a $4000 advance? Well, sure! But after taxes it would be considerably less, and from what I’ve read of the state of the industry, the whole experience would be too much like selling my soul.

Short stories? Again, it seems like there are an awful lot of stories chasing a very small number of slots in Analog, et. al. So the chances of a successful sale are not high. And a successful sale might net a per-word value of about $0.07 per word, so a 6000 words story would fetch $420. Sold on Amazon for $0.99, that same story would need to sell slightly more than 600 copies to reach the same profitability. Is that reasonable thing to strive for, over the lifetime of a story?

I don’t know. Ask me in a year; by then this experiment will be more completely underway.

So what does it take? Well, getting the printed word onto Amazon doesn’t seem to be that big a deal. But, like anything else, its the details that get to you. Details like:

  • Cover Art
  • Copy editing
  • ISBN numbers
  • Typesetting
  • Etcera

So there’s more to this than just dragging a file over to and clicking ‘publish’. At least if you want to do it right. But like any other overwhelming problem, it can be broken into smaller pieces. Take cover art, for example. A quick (and free) post on yielded a dozen graphic artists, in everywhere from New York to Bulgaria, ready to create my cover, at price ranging from $60 to more than $500. With plenty of examples of their work. There are lots of copy editors out there, too, including the one recommended by a member of my writing group. (And even as I was writing this, an email popped into my inbox, from a friend about to start a copy-editing business.) The proper application of money will easily solve the ISBN problem. And so forth.

So, graphic artists at the ready. Copy editors on hot standby. ISBNs entering the pipeline.

Let the Adventure begin.


The End of Retail

Sunday, October 20th, 2013

Most of last weekend was spent installing an electric door opener in a rolling door intended for a golf cart, a task I’d put off for more than three years. Having finally acquired said golf cart, it was time to get the job done.

Like most projects of this nature, one generally has most, but not all, of the necessary materials in inventory. Missing from mine were a decent quality 15-foot extension cord, and a 3/16” Alan wrench with a shaft long enough to reach the back of a deep hole. Well, actually, the wrench wasn’t needed for the electric door project, but it was needed nonetheless.

With plans to head over to Hyannis on unrelated business, I added a trip to Home Depot to the agenda. With the Big Orange Box about half an hour away, going there is not a big deal, but its not a completely casual trip either.

The not-so-big day arrives. Quick trip over to electrical. There are plenty of extension cords to be had. But one with a round cross-section, single female non-right-angle connector, and fifteen feet long is not to be found. Skip parameter two, and a solution is available, but its sixteen bucks, plus sales tax. Seems a bit pricey for something that isn’t exactly what I want.

Next stop: tools. The kid behind the counter gratefully turns away from chatting up the sweet young thing across from him to tell me: “Allen wrenches? Try the middle of aisle 12.” I head over there. A few kits, but nothing with a shaft long enough to suit my needs.

That evening I head onto eBay, generally my first stop before Amazon. In less than five minutes, I find exactly the extension cord I want, and for only twelve bucks, including shipping. The Alan wrench took a bit longer to find, and at $8.99 (again including shipping) was a bit more than I was hoping to spend. But looked like a nice one, and turned out to be exactly that when it arrived a few days later.

So next time I need something and I’m not in a desperate hurry, where do you think I’ll shop?

Multiply that by however millions of customers are out there, and it would seem prudent to dump your Home Depot stock and buy United Parcel.

Now admittedly one sample point does not a trend make. And if I was buying sheetrock or landscaping supplies, eBay wouldn’t exactly be an option. But if I were a company specializing in small, light items or, worse yet, small, light, expensive items (can you say Best Buy?), I’d be quaking in my boots.

Either that or desperately trying to figure out how I can add some value so people will shop with me. It’s tough to compete on price, when the other guy is working out of his mother’s basement. But who wants to compete on price anyway? Make the shopping experience ideal: fast and convenient, with courteous, knowledgeable salespeople, and… well, maybe the world won’t beat a path to your door, but at least it will show up some frequency, perhaps even enough to keep you in business.

And maybe even enough to keep your shareholders happy. Sure would be nice if someone gave it a try.


Dollars and Dreams

Friday, August 23rd, 2013


I see that Virgin Galactic has announced a 25% increase in the price of their suborbital flights, from $200,000 to $250,000. The close to 600 people who’ve already put down a deposit at the original price will not be assessed for any addition fees; this applies only to latecomers.

What’s interesting to me about this is that as a technology evolves, you’d expect prices to go down, not up. Now whatever else Sir Richard is or isn’t, I think we can all agree that he’s a savvy businessman. When he cut the deal with Rutan, Spaceship One was already flying. And from what I read, it got there for about $25 million. So the budgeting for Spaceship Two was not done in a vacuum.

The revenue from the tickets sold so far is $120 million. I’ve got no idea what it costs to fly Spaceship Two, but I sense that at $200k/ticket, there may be room to make a few bucks, or at least not operate at a desperate loss.

Of course, margins would be better at $250,000. And I think this is an example of an inelastic price; that is, there aren’t a whole lot of people who’d be wiling to plunk down 200 grand, but at 250 would say “No, that’s just too much.” So why not run the price up a bit?

I’m kind of hoping that this is a case where the price is set based on what the market will bear. And I’m also thinking that, once the first few flights take place and don’t end in a smoldering crater, there will be an uptick in demand, from the folks on the sidelines who have the means and desire but also have safety concerns. After all, you didn’t get to the point in life where you can casually drop a quarter of a million on a joy ride without at least a degree of prudence.

So you’re Sir Richard, and you’ve got this unique service that costs $X to provide, where $X is significantly under $250,000. You start at $250,000, and sell all the tickets you can at that price. When sales start getting soft, you drop the price to, say, $195,000, and pick up some marginal customers who were initially priced out. And you keep doing this until you reach $X plus some percentage, the amount you judge to be a worthwhile profit. Or put another way, the percentage below which you don’t want to be bothered with the hassles of running your own space program.

So once he’s flying regularly, I expect the price to drop. How much? Beats the hell out of me. But I’ve said here before, if it gets to the price of a decent car (~$25,000) , I’ll find some way to take the trip, though even at that price, it works out to about $1000 per minute of actual flight time.

A frivolous expense? Perhaps. But I suspect that a jaunt into space would be one of those experience that divides your life into a before and an after. And to me, that’s worth driving a junk car for a few years.