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An interesting pattern… or is it?

Sunday, February 9th, 2014

When you self-publish on Amazon, one of the services they provide is sales statistics showing how many of your titles have been sold each month. Now admittedly I’ve only been doing this for a week or so, so there’s not much data accumulated. Still, when you’re an engineer, you sometimes have to draw conclusions based on meager data. (Come to think if it, that’s also true for battlefield commanders, but we’ll leave that as a topic for another entry.)

At the end of last month, I posted my first two titles, with synopses and cover images. Now, a week later, I have some statistics to analyze. And here’s the early return: The Warrior And The Lioness outsold Saimon’s Gift by a factor of ∞ percent. Yes, that’s right, Saimon’s Gift sold zero copies.

Now maybe I just need to collect more data. Or maybe it’s that airline pilots are of more interest to my target audience than abused women. Or maybe I should rewrite the synopsis. After all, the only data points a prospective reader has to make a purchase decision are the cover image and the synopsis… and I happen to like the cover image for Saimon’s Gift.

Probably I should wait one more week before making any changes – a week isn’t a very long time. And while <ahem>corporate policy does not permit revealing actual sales numbers, they’ve been nominal enough that it’s tough to extract statistics. I’ve also got another release planned for the end of this month – a pleasant little tale about an impressionable teen corrupted by a disgraced former astronaut: Contributing to the Delinquency of a Minor. And that one will be free for the first month, I’ve decided, which I hope will generate a spurt of ‘sales’, some of which (I hope) will spur purchases of the first two.

There’s a strong temptation to mess with anything that isn’t working exactly the way you want it to. An analogy that comes to mind is when a student pilot glues his face to the attitude indicator and winds up constantly climbing above and descending below where he actually wants to be – chasing the gauges, it’s called. A better way is to make a slight change, and then wait to see the effect before adjusting the change. I don’t know what what the optimal cycle time is for an Amazon product description, but I’m sure that it’s more than a week.

Due to some circumstances early in my life, I find myself with a sense of urgency, to which I attribute many of my successes. More recently, I’ve learned that that sense of urgency is almost certainly responsible for many of my failures as well. So becoming more patient is definitely one of my life goals.

I just wish I could do it more quickly.

Dealing with ‘Creatives’, Part II

Sunday, January 26th, 2014

If you don’t remember part one of this, follow this link. Having been fired by my cover designer after only one cover, I was forced to hunt down a fresh one at And after receiving fifteen proposals in less than a day, I was actually pretty encouraged. Sure, I wasted a month with the first artist, but at least there were more out there to choose from.

A bunch were easily eliminated (too expensive, irrelevant portfolio, etc.) My initial contact was a new artist in New York City, working to expand her portfolio. At first she seemed like a good match, but after some discussion she withdrew from the project, saying it was too complex for her to deliver at a reasonable price. That was pretty much the complaint of my first artist – not exactly an encouraging trend.

So I moved onto the next one, located in (of all places) Columbo, Sri Lanka. Former home of Arthur C. Clarke. An omen?

Well, maybe. I spent a bunch of time Skyping and swapping emails with someone who used just the nickname ‘Black’, describing in great detail exactly what I wanted. I also provided a good amount of information on the story and the characters.

Black took about a week to get back to me. And when he finally did, he came back with something that eventually evolved into this:


Which was, in my humble opinion, a beautiful piece of cover art that really captured the key elements of my story. Far more eye appeal than the first one. Utterly different from what I’d asked for. And almost certainly easier to execute, from a graphic arts perspective, than my original request.

Back in my real life as an engineering consultant, very often I joke about giving clients what they need, in contrast to what they ask for. And here I was, having that exact thing done to me!

What’s ironic about it is that if either of the first two artists had made that leap, I’d be working with them instead of reaching halfway around the world (10.5 time zones) to get an e-book cover made. Now, in both cases, I began my interaction with “…I’m new at this, so I need you to educate me on what’s reasonable to ask for and what’s not.” But neither of them took the initiative to do exactly that.

So it would seem my disdainful attitude about learning how to ‘deal with Creatives’ needs a reassessment. The solution was actually for me to be educated by a Creative.

So pass the humble pie. And, given the end result, actually I don’t mind the taste at all.

By Rote

Sunday, January 5th, 2014

There’s a book called The E-Myth Revisited, by Michael Gerber, that talks about the dilemma small businessmen run into when trying to grow their business. The book runs 268 pages, so it may be a bit challenging to summarize it in a paragraph, but I’ll have a go at it anyway.

People who start a business generally do so because they love creating something that they think others will want. This applies to any business, but as the author talks about a baker, I’ll use that example here. So the baker opens her new bakery, everyone loves her pies, and she’s happier than a pig in you-know-what. And she’s making money. Long lines wrap around her bakery every morning, and Life is Good. So she decides she’ll open a second bakery on the other side of town. Pretty soon she’s spending her time running back and forth between the two places, quality of her product is suffering because she can’t supervise both operations, bills aren’t getting paid because she has no time for it, the board of health is sending threatening letters, and her best baker just quit because the place is so chaotic. She’s working sixteen hours a day, but seems to be slipping further behind each week. That’s the point at which she hires Mr. Gerber to help her out of the mess she created.

There, I just saved you reading the first few chapters. And now I’ll save you reading the rest of the book.

Mr. Gerber’s solution to the ‘Baker’s Dilemma’ is process. Put in place a documented process for everything involved with running the bakery, from how to purchase the flour to how to measure the ingredients, to how to arrange the currency in the register to how to which edge of the cake boxes to fold first. With all this in place, the bakery can run with any staff that can be trained to follow the process, and the proprietress will no longer have to always be present.

In the audio book version, the proprietress experiences an epiphany, when she realized she can now grow her business indefinitely and be freed from the mundane parts of the operation so she can focus on finding new recipes and so forth.

Or at least Mr. Gerber meant it to sound like an epiphany. To me, it sounded more like a psychotic episode, as she chants “… a process for this, and a process for this, and a process for this…”

You see, I’m not a big fan of process. I think it stifles creativity and doesn’t deal well with exceptions. From my perspective, process is great if you’re manufacturing nuts and bolts, or opening a McDonalds. But it’s useless if you’re a sculptor or an artist. My real-life profession, engineering, falls somewhere in the middle.

So I never had much use for Gerber.

But lately, I’ve been thinking more about how to get the germ of a story into a form that worthy of publication. It’s tough to get traction, especially in the beginning. Whether you call it lack of motivation, writer’s block, or something else, it’s still tough.

Recently, I learned something from someone in my writer’s group who I’ll call Sue (because that’s her name), about a way to get some traction. She provided me with a three-page questionnaire to be filled in for each major character. The questions range from simple ones like the character’s name and age, through more complicated ones like ‘What sexual experience most haunts your character?’, or ‘If you met your character in a bar, what would he/she think of you?’.

Filling it in can be pretty challenging, but once it’s complete I have a pretty good idea of the character I’m dealing with. And if I do it with two or three more characters, how they would interact becomes pretty obvious. Once there, the first draft almost starts writing itself.

But it’s still only a draft. So off it goes to my writer’s group, for commentary, critique and refinement. And after that, to an online writer’s group that I recently joined, for more of the same. At that point, it’s been seen by somewhere between ten and twenty sets of eyes, and while it may not be as good as it can get, it’s almost certainly as good as I can get it. So off to the copy editor, a final local edit, and it’s ready.

(pause, step back, and catch my breath)

You know, this is starting to look an awful lot like a process. Interesting. I never thought process was even remotely useful for creative activities.

Perhaps I owe Mr. Gerber an apology.


You’re Fired!

Sunday, December 29th, 2013

Well, actually, it seems that I was. By my graphic artist.

One of my inspirations has definitely been Hugh Howey, a self-published author who has been quite successful. And one of Mr. Howey’s core tenets is that those who succeed at this are those who treat it like a business. So I’ve tried to do that, at least to the extent that someone who must engage in other activities in order to eat regularly can.

Like any other business, it’s inevitable that there will be setbacks. And I ran into one last week.

I’ve decided that the short stories I offer for sale individually should have covers. In reality that’s not quite a necessity, but despite the proverb, people do judge books by their cover. So I went out looking for a graphic artist.

Elance is really pretty amazing. In less than 48 hours, I received close to twenty replies from artists on every continent except Antarctica. I picked one in Serbia initially, but the language barrier made it difficult for me to express abstract concepts. Possibly this was my own limitation, but it was a limitation nonetheless. So we moved onto one from the states.

Communication went well initially. The artist had the required credentials, seemed to understand what I was looking for, and offered a reasonable price. This being the first time I’d ever tried this, I was surely a bit clumsy in communication, but there still seemed to be some rapport. I was surprised at the amount of guidance I needed to provide, but seeing as this was the first time around, I assumed that both I and the artist would be better at it for future covers. An acceptable final product was delivered, money changed hands, and I was ready to move onto the next one.

But apparently the artist wasn’t. I was told that the work took nearly ten times the anticipated effort, and that she had no interest in repeating the experience.

Given that I specified the task, and the artist specified the process and the price, I’m really not sure how I might have managed this differently. Could I have been clearer on what I wanted? Could I have managed the process more closely, and identified that we were off track earlier on? Or is this just the nature of working with ‘Creatives’, as they call them on Mad Men?

One thing I was definitely disappointed in was that I was left hanging for a week before the kiss-off. It’s the artist’s right to not take a project she doesn’t want. Good business practice dictates that the bad news should be delivered in a timely fashion. So does good manners. And in addition to the week lost, I’ve lost whatever time it will take to identify a replacement and bring them up to speed.

So I’m back to Elance. The effort I made bringing this artist up to speed on my likes, dislikes, and means of communication is lost. What I learned about the process, though, is something I get to keep. Hopefully it will be helpful the next time around.

And I’ll also admit that I’m curious to see how the next experience compares to the first. Maybe the third time will be a charm.

(In case you’re wondering what all the fuss was about, here’s the cover for Saimon’s Gift, planned to be released as a Kindle Short by the end of January (It was going to be mid-January, but, well… see above).

Saimon's Gift_small

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 Most Valuable Cargo

Monday, October 28th, 2013

Aloft again, this time in 27F between ATL and HSV, in what must be one of the few remaining DC-9s still in service in the US. Mercifully, Delta has maintained the interior of the tired old bird in a way that belies its years, though the 3+2 seating gives away the fact that the machine has been flying since Clinton was president.

Atlanta is one of the largest airports I’ve ever been to. Not the biggest airspace; that honor goes to New York, with three international airports in each other’s shadow, sharing the same piece of sky. But Atlanta has four runway of its own, well over 100 gates, and a railroad to get between them. There’s a saying in these parts that if you die and go to hell, you’ll have to change planes in Atlanta.

I arrive late AM on a Monday, a time during which the vast majority of my traveling companions are doing this for business reasons, not for vacation. And because of that, if they’re not paying top dollar for their tickets, they’re certainly paying more, on average, than they’d be paying if they were heading to Disney World.

I’m heading out this morning to visit a customer of a client; to investigate an elusive technical problem. The folks around me could well be on a variety of missions: sales people calling on prospects, executives making business presentations, experts resolving problems. How much of this might be done on the phone, or by FedEx? Presumably not much; after all, most people would rather go home after a day of work than check into an anonymous hotel. And surely most employers would prefer to avoid the expense of business travel.

It dawns on me that the most valuable cargo, the thing worth shipping thousands of miles, is talent: skills, abilities, instincts, or perhaps even an impossibly deft touch. What makes it special is that, whatever the talent might be, it’s not available anywhere closer than thousands of miles away. And so it makes sense to ship it, however far it needs to be shipped.

I reflect for a moment, in the pride that comes with realizing that someone thought enough of my skills to ship me down here. It almost makes up for the fact that I’ll be spending the next few nights away from my home and bride.

The perspective might also bear on my thoughts as I catch the train between terminals at ATL on the way home in a few days. Everyone around me will have proven themselves good enough at something that they were worth shipping all that distance. Viewed from that angle, my fellow road warriors seem just a bit more noble. And that’s something worthwhile.

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.