50,000 Paid Sales

I realized just now that sometime in April I passed the 50,000 paid sales mark. It’s a lot less than a lot of people have hit, but it’s a helluva lot better than the 53 books I sold my first year of publishing.

So what changed? How did I go from just over 50 books sold in an entire year back when things were supposedly easier to almost 20,000 last year? And not at 99 cent price points either. Last year I averaged about $3 in revenue per unit sold.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again and again and again: What you’re publishing matters. All titles are not created the same. The market size isn’t the same, the price points aren’t the same, and your personal ability to deliver to that market is not going to be the same.

My first year of publishing I put out a handful of short stories and a couple non-fiction titles in an area where I had no established expertise.

With rare exceptions, short stories just do not sell as well or for as much as novels. If I were still only publishing short stories I do not think I’d have increased my sales all that much. It let me practice publishing, but if you’re writing short stories, and especially in SFF, you are much better off submitting to the SFF magazines and getting published that way.

I honestly am not even sure short stories as a lead magnet are all that worth it. I remember a few years back an author who got the rights back to a series and republished it and did really well doing so. I read their first book and enjoyed it, but when I then went and picked up their lead magnet I did not. If I had been a reader who found the lead magnet first I would’ve never read that series.

Personally I believe that short stories and novels are two different forms that require different skills and I’d argue that readers prefer one over the other most times and that most writers tend to do well at one given length but not at any length.

(I do think that can vary across genres. My mysteries naturally come in at 45K words, my fantasies come in around 90K, and my romances around 75K.)

What else changed?

I also learned more about marketing and covers.

My first covers were horrible. One might argue that my current covers aren’t amazing works of art, but I do think they get the job done. Those first covers…did not.

But I kept trying until I got something that did work. I didn’t just quit right away. Or leave it as is.

It’s also scary to look back and realize that I didn’t spend any money on advertising until fifteen months after I’d published my first title. Maybe that was a good thing because, like I mentioned, the covers weren’t where they needed to be. So I may have been throwing money away if I’d tried to advertise early on.

Then again, back then there was a lot less expectation of quality covers.

When I did finally start to spend on advertising, I would argue I didn’t initially spend my money on “good” advertising. Some options, like AMS, simply didn’t exist back then. But I was also cheap. So the list-based advertisers I used were not the best. When you are only willing to pay $5-$20 for a promo you’re going to get what you pay for and it’s not going to be a whole lot of anything.

These days I primarily spend on AMS because I can advertise full-price books that way. But if I can get a Bookbub feature or a Kobo promotion I’m all for that, too. With a Bookbub feature I’ll add in Facebook and Bookbub click ads. I’ll also run the occasional other promo with a well-regarded advertiser like Freebooksy/Bargainbooksy.

There are still many flaws in how I approach all of this. And I pay for those flaws. I am not doing as well as I could be. I know enough now to know what I do wrong (for the most part, there’s probably more I don’t know I do wrong yet) but I’ve had to accept that I am not going to be that perfect book-producing machine.

The way to maximize your performance is to test things out until you find what you’re good at or good enough at and then to keep producing in that one area.

And ideally to find something you’re good at that can support that continuous production. That’s why genre fiction is such a good choice. Fantasy, mystery, romance. Any of those will work if you’re giving the readers what they want. Do so consistently and frequently enough and back it up with promotion and good packaging and you’re on your way.

I do think it’s the rare author that can actually do all of that, though. They’re out there, don’t get me wrong. There are hundreds of authors making six figures each year who manage to do that. Who produce a product people want, do so on a good consistent schedule, get it in front of that audience so they know it exists, and package it in a way that appeals to that audience.

But there are probably tens of thousands of authors who don’t do that and never will. And I probably fall on the upper end of that group of tens of thousands.

So am I pleased with where I am?

Yes and no.

I’m glad I’ve improved as much as I have. (I wouldn’t still be doing this if I hadn’t. There’s a difference between having faith in yourself and being blindly foolish about something. I’ve put in enough time and effort to expect improvement year over year.)

And my profit per month is now at a point where I could live on it if I weren’t extravagant in how I chose to live or if I lived somewhere cheap. But I want to be a little extravagant, so I’m not where I personally want to be yet.

(I don’t really want to get back to my consulting-level income, though. I don’t honestly need that kind of income and it creates weird barriers with the people in my life who matter to me. Plus, it’s easy to become a jackass when you’re making a lot of money or maybe that’s just me.)

Also, it frustrates my ego that I’m not doing better on the fiction side. I get good reviews but I haven’t cracked the launch and marketing combination to get the sales I want on that side of things.

I may never crack it, honestly. I have a love/hate relationship with getting attention for my work and I don’t think there’s a way to get to where I want to with sales that doesn’t involve developing a fan base which comes with headaches I really don’t want.

So, anyway. That’s me. Big milestone-yay. Not where I want to be yet-boo. Still going to carry on for the time being because working at home with my dog and not having to deal with office politics is my personal idea of bliss.

 

 

 

 

Random Publishing Thoughts

For any of the writers/publishers who follow this blog I imagine that my focus on other issues recently has been a bit disappointing, so let me see if I can share some writing and publishing thoughts that may be of help to someone else.

I spent the last month(?) updating my print book covers as well as my interior files that had screenshots. It was one of those situations of you don’t know what you don’t know and when you figure out what you didn’t know feeling compelled to fix it. In this case there were at least four different issues I needed to figure out and the cover and interior issues were not the same ones.

Of course, knowing it in the first place would’ve saved a lot of effort, but that’s the journey of self-publishing. You try your best, you learn that your best isn’t the best possible, you level-up, try your best again, learn that it still isn’t the best possible, and so on and so on forever. And most of what you realize wasn’t the best is stuff that the average person on the street won’t even have noticed or if they did notice won’t have been able to actually describe to you.


For me personally there was a month there where I saw a big dip in sales/revenues because of Amazon and how they chose to handle print books. That seems to have resolved itself although IngramSpark is now reporting printing delays of up to two weeks. And turns out with IS if there’s a pending print order for a book of yours you can’t update it, which is annoying since I submitted updated files for each series at the same time but some books are through and approved with new files and others still are not after almost two weeks. But what are you gonna do? Old processes, new situations, they don’t always work well together.


In the world of AMS ads, I’m pretty pleased. I can’t check AMS spend from a year ago but I’d say that I’m probably spending less on ads right now than I was then but getting a better return on them. Also I think cost per click is down for me from a year ago. Keep in mind that’s very much dependent on what you’re advertising so that may not be true in genres like romance. But it seems to me there was a lot of stupid money in the ads last year that has since gone elsewhere. (Probably Bookbub ads or it seems a lot of folks have circled back to FB ads if public comments are any indicator.)

I have two ads that have generated more than $20K each in sales, so I’m still a big proponent of getting a good ad going and then keeping it alive as long as I possibly can.


David Gaughran posted on his blog recently that there’s now a portal for Apple for uploading books via a PC so you no longer need a Mac to go direct. I used the portal today to update three books and it looks like it worked. No idea why Apple didn’t tell anyone about it yet, but that’s how it goes it seems. Nice thing is that it makes it clear you have to provide your cover with each update even if it’s not changing which I didn’t realize the first time I updated an interior file on Apple.

The last page of the update process acts a little weird if you didn’t have an ISBN, but clicking on the help icon for that field seemed to address the issue for me. And there was no clear easy way to update a second book without going through the whole navigation process again but I assume they’ll smooth out the bugs over time. It was nice to not have to go break out the Mac just to upload those files. (I still need it for Vellum, though.)


A friend in another group recently mentioned the power of backlist. They have a pen name they abandoned years ago that still makes a few hundred a month for them. And I think it’s important to remember that a new reader doesn’t really care when a book was written (unless it’s dated somehow). All they care is that it’s a good read. So don’t give up on old titles just because they’re older.

Having said that I’m definitely an unpublisher. Sometimes it’s because information becomes outdated (for non-fiction) and sometimes it’s because those stories aren’t a good fit for who I am as a writer now. And sometimes it’s just because I want to reclaim the mental space I was giving to that title.

But if you still like a story and still think it will appeal to readers then give it another chance. New covers, new blurb, some ads. I definitely have titles that made more money in their third or fourth year of publication than their first. Often publishing more under a name helps tremendously. You have a new title boost and if you’ve learned better packaging and marketing that can flow back to the first title.


What else? I think the current situation is probably stressing different people in different ways and I’ve seen a lot of talk about how it’s harder to be creative right now than before. I suspect Strengths play into this so that’s not true for everyone. And maybe where you fall on DISC as well.

For me I’ve been working more hours than usual but what I’ve been doing is very rote as opposed to creative. I just finished recreating probably 600+ screenshots and putting them into documents. But since I’d already worked out what those should look like it was moderately mindless work. Detail work, but not in the same way as writing something new.

So if you’re stuck right now, finding tasks like that might help. I had other ideas on my to-do list like checking all of my pricing and streamlining it. With currency exchange rates changing over time my Canadian and Australian prices were out of whack. I like to at least be consistent across a series if nothing else. (And pay attention to the suggested prices from Amazon because those are way off in a few of the listed currencies.)

Or you could spend time checking your book categories. Your blurbs. Your links on your website. The paragraph spacing of your book descriptions on each site. (Paperback on Amazon is a notorious issue. HTML tags are a must.) Basically just all that housekeeping that needs to happen. I’ve let my ad spend tracking fall by the wayside and need to enter all of that. Submit for a Bookbub feature deal or a Kobo promo. Run a few list-based promos. Finally figure out how to list direct on some sites rather than through a distributor. Etc. etc.


I don’t think this whole situation is going away anytime soon. Even if you’re in a country that has it relatively under control if you’re a writer/publisher then the U.S. is probably a big part of your sales and we’re going to be dealing with this for I’d say at least the next year. In terms of ebooks and audio things are probably pretty good although I wouldn’t be surprised by slower response times if you have an issue and perhaps more publishign delays. If you sell heavily in print I’d expect further disruptions due to staffing and supply. And if you’re POD perhaps more quality issues. (My last batch of books from IS that I ordered to check the cover changes clearly showed someone wasn’t being as careful about things as normal.)

All we can do is continue on as best as possible and adjust as needed. As always.

Lost Possibilities

My life hasn’t really been changed by COVID-19 so far. I was already working at home and my social outings for a month involved dinner with my writing group once a month, a lunch with my mom and a lunch with my grandma about once every three weeks, and maybe another dinner in there with a friend each month.

So I didn’t really lose a lot of social interaction. And I was fortunate enough to be financially stable enough to still be able to buy groceries, etc. and to keep my job.

If I didn’t stop to think about it or check the news, I could easily forget that this whole thing is even going on for days at a time.

I told a friend that it felt like we were all playing a giant game of musical chairs and the music stopped and we all found ourselves stuck right where we were when that happened.

For me that was living alone with my dog and doing a job that requires absolutely no interaction with anyone. Which was actually okay because this is the life I purposefully created for myself over the last five years. I’m pretty much exactly where I wanted to be (barring some larger societal issues that are out of my control).

But there was something about this situation that was still bugging me and I finally figured out today what it was.

This situation took away my possibilities.

I have no real interest in being in a relationship. And I have done nothing to try to be in one for quite some time. But I will often think about the possibility of being in one. More specifically, of meeting someone. The so-called meet-cute moment.

You know, like maybe I’ll go to the bookstore and that perfect someone will be there too and we’ll start chatting and voila, lifelong happiness. Or I’ll go to visit my friend in DC and end up seated on the plane next to someone really interesting and we’ll hit it off and things will progress from there. Or I’ll go out to dinner and someone will start a witty conversation with me while I’m waiting for my friend to arrive.

The possibilities are endless.

Or at least they were.

But now we live in a world where I’m pretty much going to stay at home as much as I can for the next year and when I do go out I’ll likely be wearing a mask and staying as far away from everyone I see as possible.

If I really truly wanted to meet someone I could probably make that happen. I could do online dating with video chats, etc. and take the risk of meeting in person if I found someone promising enough.

But that’s not what I’m talking about here.

I had no intention of starting up that witty conversation while waiting for my friend. And my default when I get on a plane is to pull out a book and put on my headphones before anyone else sits down next to me and then to not look closely enough at them to even know if they’re attractive.

In reality nothing was going to happen. I was very likely not going to leave the house at all and I certainly wasn’t going to strike up a conversation with that strange person sitting at the bar next to me. (Because it’s never in reality the perfert-looking, suave person of your dreams that you end up next to. Real life is far less shiny than that.)

Just like I wasn’t going to move to Lithuania with my dog to take on a consulting project. (Although I did think about it for a day or so.) Or to New Zealand. Or Argentina.

Canada was a remote possibility but no way I’m sitting for the IELTS exam anytime soon given the current state of the world.

So this isn’t about thwarted plans. Or finding a Plan B. Or being creative to make it happen. That I can do.

No, this is about possibilities.

I miss my daydreams. I miss my “what-if” scenarios that kept me entertained. I was perfectly happy knowing I was a misanthropic curmudgeon who had no intention of interacting with actual strangers.

Right up until life came along and removed the possibility that I could actually do so if I wanted to.

Now I kind of want that back. Heck, I might even talk to a stranger if I ever get the opportunity. (Ha! Who am I kidding. I won’t. But I would like to be able to think about doing so at least…)

 

Skydiving and COVID-19

A few friends have pointed out to me the comment going around that stopping the shelter in place orders right now is a lot like saying, “Hey, this parachute worked so well to slow me down, let me cut it away at 2,000 feet.” And I think it’s a good analogy.

But I have a different lesson I pull from my skydiving experience when dealing with this whole COVID-19 issue.

When I started skydiving I was in my early 30s, single, with a good income, no real debts I’d leave behind, no kids, no pets, and no family members that needed me to care for them. In some respects my dying would’ve been more beneficial to my family than my living, at least monetarily.

So the risk of skydiving that I perceived at the time, which was that I would die, wasn’t a big risk to me. I figured it would go fast if it happened and then it would be over. And, sure, living longer would be nice, but if that’s how things were I wasn’t too worried about it.

But as I got more into the sport, I realized that the true risk of skydiving was not dying. It was being severely injured and requiring months of rehab and depending on others to take care of me during that time.

One of my AFF instructors had a bad opening on his parachute and it fractured his pelvis, tore his aorta, and punctured his bowel. He was in the hospital for weeks and in rehab for months. Another girl I knew got caught in the prop wash from a plane that was on the tarmac and broke her leg. There’s even a term in skydiving called “femuring” because it’s common enough to hear that someone broke a femur during a bad landing. That’s the hardest bone in the body and yet skydivers break it often enough that it’s a sports term.

That was when I really had to sit down and reconsider my risk assessment. Because it wasn’t about potentially dying. It was about potentially having long-term pain. Or potentially needing in-home care when I had no one to give that care during rehab.

When I did that I also realized that I was only as safe as the stupidest person in the plane. Or the stupidest person on the jump with me.

Only so much you can do to avoid a canopy collision. And if some idiot launches wrong out of the plane or with a loose handle that leads to an early deployment that takes out the tail of that plane you’re going down with them whether you did everything right or not.

That change in my risk assessment isn’t the full reason I quit jumping. But it definitely had an impact. I was okay with dying. I was not okay with being a living burden on my family. They didn’t deserve to pay for my risky choices.

Which brings me back around to how this ties into COVID-19.

There’s been a lot of focus on the fatality rate. And on who actually dies. In Colorado over 50% of the fatalities are people over 80 years old. The death rate in Colorado for someone in their 20s is about a quarter of one percent. Pretty negligible.

Which makes it tempting for someone in their 20s to say, “The fatality rate on this thing is so small why should I stop living my life over this?”

Now, I’m not going to rant again about how overwhelming the healthcare system impacts everyone not just those with COVID-19 and how helping to spread this illness can mean that someone with an appendicitis or a stroke or a bad accident could end up not getting life-saving care, but that’s something to consider as well.

What I want to focus on instead is what happens if you get COVID-19 and don’t actually die from it.

We don’t know enough right now to know the long-term impacts of this illness. But there are a few things about it that make me think about rheumatic fever, so I want to talk about that for a second.

I am by no means claiming that the two illnesses are related. But I’m familiar with rheumatic fever because both of my parents were impacted by it when they were children.

For my father it damaged his kidneys when he was probably five or six years old. That damage was severe enough that he ultimately lost his kidneys in his early 20s which meant dialysis or transplants to stay alive. That one illness–that did not kill him–is the reason he died at 45 instead of living a long, healthy life. It also impacted everything he did. Every moment of his life from that point forward was colored by his illness.

For my mother rheumatic fever caused heart damage which may have ultimately lead to her needing open heart surgery and a valve replacement in her early 50s.

It took over a decade from that illness for my father’s kidneys to fail. And many decades for my mom to need heart surgery. But the initial damage was done by the rheumatic fever.

So turning back to COVID-19. We do not yet know what the long-term impacts of this illness are, but they could potentially be very significant.

It is clear that this illness impacts the lungs. It is also clear that for some patients they don’t even know their lungs are being affected.

Do you want to struggle with breathing for the rest of your life every time your neighbors decide to use their fireplace? Or when your neighbor engages in probably illegal home repairs that kick dust or chemicals into the air?

That could maybe happen if you get COVID-19. (Maybe not, but we don’t know enough yet to rule it out.)

Also with COVID-19 there are a non-trivial number of patients whose kidneys are affected by the illness. I’ve read more than one report of seriously ill patients who had to be dialysed because of it. Again, maybe it’s temporary. Not every patient in a hospital setting who requires dialysis requires it for life.

But what if the illness causes lasting kidney damage? Patients who receive kidney transplants do not have a full life expectancy. You get more years than dialysis in general, but not a full life. And if that kidney damage is a long-term effect of this illness, there probably won’t be enough kidneys to go around for everyone to get a transplant, which means dialysis. My dad made it 20+ years on dialysis, but the average is closer to five years.

COVID-19 has also been shown to cause clots which if they don’t kill you can cause strokes, heart attacks, and loss of limbs. The long-term effects of having a stroke can be incredibly challenging. Or what about losing a limb due to a clot. Trust me, you don’t want to go through that.

There may also be a potential for liver damage.

Again, we don’t know exactly what we’re dealing with yet. And some of these other health implications may not become clear for years. We may only see that they were COVID-19 related when we look at the incidence of X in the population prior to COVID-19 versus after.

For all we know those “asymptomatic” patients people love to talk about could just be people with lung involvement who don’t notice the symptom. We may only know they were impacted when they go in for breathing issues a year or five or ten down the road.

So don’t be binary in how you think about this illness. It is not a choice between dying or being fine. For the younger members of the population the main outcome of this could actually be long-term health impacts to lungs, kidneys, liver, and heart.

If you won’t limit your activities because someone else might die, then limit them because you might be permanently impacted if you get this. My dad had a good life, but I’m pretty sure he would’ve rather had a life without kidney disease if he’d been given the choice.

 

 

How to Write a Novel

Patricia C. Wrede has a good post up on her blog this morning, Getting Started, that I think is well worth reading for anyone who wants to write a novel.

At this point I’ve written thirteen novels. One multiple viewpoint fantasy, a YA fantasy trilogy, three romance novels, and six cozy mysteries.

And I’ve pretty much pantsed every single one. Meaning that I had an idea of what I wanted to write and I started writing. Now maybe some would quibble and say that because I’d jotted down four or five plot points that I was really plotting, but no. I don’t do beats or story arcs or have a list of what should happen in chapter ten.

Which is not to say that I don’t end up with beats and arcs and rising and falling action. I’ve been a voracious reader for over forty years. Story structure is in my blood by this point. Stopping to map that out would ruin it for me.

It’s like trying to think about driving a car. If you don’t make me think about it, I know how to shift and which pedal is the brake. (I drive a stick.) But make me stop and think that through consciously and I’m in trouble. I’ll put my foot on the gas instead of the brake because it’s not something that I do at a conscious level.

Same with typing. I’m a seven-finger typer. I think. I use the three fingers on my left hand and the three fingers and thumb on my right hand. Maybe. I’m trying to type this and figure it out without actually paying enough attention to myself that I stop typing and it’s very hard to do.

But make me stop and try to figure out how I type the way I do, because it involves having different fingers type a specific letter depending on the letter that came before it, and I’d fall apart.

Some part of my brain has a spatial map of the keyboard. (Which is why ergonomic keyboards are a flat out nope for me.) But it’s not a conscious place. It’s not something I can deliberately tap into.

That for me is how a pantser works. It’s not that they aren’t looking at story structure, it’s that they’re not doing it at a conscious level.

So how do you write a novel? In whatever way works for you and lets you eventually get those words down.

For some that will mean staring off into space for a week while they think about the story before they ever write a word.

For others it will involve creating a three-inch binder of all of the information they need to create their story.

Others will want a one-sentence-per-chapter outline.

Still others will want a chapter-level outline that’s as detailed as some others’ first draft.

Do what works for you.

For me, I start with (1) story genre (mystery, romance, fantasy with a certain type of conflict), (2) story length (short story versus novel), (3) basic story issue (this can be a theme or a source of conflict or an event like finding a dead body), (4) basic setting (city vs. country, general type of society and technology) and (4) character (who is the main person in this story).

And then I go. If it’s contemporary and real world that pretty much sets up everything I need because the character and setting will drive the rest of the story for me.

If it’s fantasy then about six chapters in I have to sit down and have a little chat with myself about how this world works. What kind of magic does it have? Who has power? Are there magical beasts? Etc.

But usually I only do that enough to keep going and I often have surprises that pop up later. Because no one knows everything about their own world. They often only learn something new when they get out and explore or face a situation that requires them to learn. So I’m there with my character learning along the way.

My last mystery I didn’t even know who the killer was until the chapter before the reveal. I knew who the main suspects were and why each of them could be the killer. But the story world was completely under my control so I could make the killer any of those suspects I wanted to just by choosing which evidence to make real and which to make the red herring.

For me this is why my second draft is just as important as my first draft. Because once I’ve reached the end of the story and understand all the rules and all the players then I can go back through and smooth out rough spots or add foreshadowing or a little more of a reveal earlier on. Although, surprisingly, it doesn’t require as much as you’d think it would. Mostly just a sentence here or there.

(I am also an under-writer on a first draft so I have to add place and people descriptions and actions during dialogue which does increase wordcount by about 25%. But that’s not the main story that’s being fleshed out, that’s just bringing the reader deeper into the story.)

So anyway. There is no ONE WAY to write a novel.¬† You do you and don’t let other people tell you you’re wrong if the way you do things works for you.

You Can’t See What You Don’t Track or Look At

One of the key points I tried to make in Data Principles for Beginners is that if you want to work with data you first need to track the right information. Some data can never be recovered if you don’t track it up front. And some is just impossibly difficult to obtain after the fact.

I want to say that the the example I used in that book, since I’m a writer, was how many hours it takes me to write each title I publish. This is crucial for me because it takes far less time to write a non-fiction book about Excel than it does to write a 120K-word YA fantasy novel. So if I earn the same amount on those two titles it turns out my time is much better spent writing another non-fiction book than another YA fantasy novel because I get the same return with far less time spent to get there.

The reason I bring this up today is because this COVID-19 situation is a perfect example of how important data analysis is to understanding the situation. And many of the concepts I discussed in that book are playing out right now in real life.

For example, it looks like it may be important how those who analyze fatality data bucket age groups. Here, for example, is a chart from New York state:

NY State Fatality Data

Here is similar data from Colorado:

CO fatality data 20200410 morning

Note how Colorado groups anyone over the age of 80 into one bucket whereas New York splits out those over 90 into their own category? And note how in New York that seems to be important. I haven’t run a statistical analysis on those numbers to see if the difference in fatality rate between those two groups is material or not, but it looks like it might be.

Of course, then you need to figure out why that difference exists. Maybe there was a virus that circulated for those 90+ when they were children that has given them partial immunity. Or there’s some commonality among those who live to 90+ that makes them more resilient when dealing with this. Or maybe when you’re 90+ you only bother to go to the hospital for treatment of something like this if you’re generally more healthy, and if we were to account for those who died at home during the same period the difference would go away.

But there’s no way to see that difference if that data isn’t, first, collected and, second, used for analysis. This is why it’s often very important to chart data before you create your categories so you can visually see what you’re dealing with. (I believe in the book the example I used revolved around annual income categories for bank customers. If you’re dealing with high net worth individuals using a top category of $100,000+ isn’t going to work well.)

Now maybe what we’re seeing above is just a quirk in the New York data and if you were to separate out the 90+ age range from the 80-89 age range in Colorado there’d be no difference. But the key is to be able to do so if needed (which means setting the right ranges for your dataset) and then actually attempting to do so.

(There’ve been articles about potential racial difference in outcomes as well. But without information on living situation, health care status, neighborhood pollution levels, income, etc. it’s hard to say whether it’s because of economic disadvantage, systemic racism, or something genetic. Same with the fact that more men than women seem to be dying. Without information on things like smoking history, which was one of the early suggestions that I think has since been disproven, you can’t parse out the actual cause for the differences.)

Another issue I’ve noted is the problem of comparing apples to oranges. I admire Johns Hopkins for what they’ve been doing with their dashboard but it also makes me want a strong drink. Here it is as of this morning:

Johns Hopkins 20200410

What annoys me about it is the Total Confirmed numbers on the left-hand side cannot be readily compared to the Total Deaths numbers on the right-hand side. If you look at the bottom of the total confirmed numbers you’ll see Admin0, Admin1, Admin2. These used to be better labeled. What they do is allow you to toggle between a country-level view and a more granular level of data.

By default for confirmed cases you get country-level case data.

Problem is that the death values on the right-hand side are NOT country-level data. You can now see this clearly when you look at the fifth entry in the image above which is not even for New York state, but is instead for New York city. Scroll down further and you’ll see additional entries for New York state.

There is no easy way to find the total values for the U.S. nor for the most-impacted states. It’s very frustrating. And until CNN published their U.S. tracker and Stat News published theirs (and got it working so it’s current and not weirdly delayed) I was highly annoyed by this situation. Because the data was there but it was being presented in a very ineffective and perhaps even misleading manner. (Most people don’t dig into the data they’re shown, they just take what they see on the surface so it was easy to look at the death values and assume the U.S. wasn’t as high up on the list as it actually was.)

It should be easy enough to put the same Admin0, Admin1, Admin2 category options on the death data as it was to put it on the confirmed cases data. And then the user could easily compare cases to deaths with just a glance.

Of course, as I’ve discussed before, we’re not testing enough for this data to actually be a full picture of what’s happening anyway.

There are people who have died at home who were never tested so are not part of the fatality data. There are people who very clearly have had it who also were never tested. There are people who are going to die from something else because they will either choose to stay home rather than seek care or because they won’t able to get the care they need to save their lives.

At some point in time someone with good data skills is going to have to go back and look at baseline fatality levels for a similar timeframe over say the last five years, adjust for the current year trend for the last six months or so before the virus hit, and then extrapolate the number of direct and indirect deaths caused by COVID-19 to give us a legitimate picture of the actual impact of the virus. (And of course if we’re going to give the virus blame for the indirect deaths due to lack of care we also need to give it credit for lower traffic fatalities, etc.)

Whoever does that will then have to probably back into total infection numbers once we have some idea of infection vs. fatality/hospitalization rates by region. If that’s even possible.

Of course, no good data, no good analysis. The key starting point to be able to do any of that is the data. Data is key. You have to collect the right information and in the right format. And then you have to use it effectively and ask the right questions. (Which is why one of the first chapters in that book was also about how you need subject matter experts who understand the data you’re working with not just smart people who can run a regression analysis.)

Anyway. Data and how you use it matters.

For anyone looking for the sources I referenced above:

New York

Colorado

Johns Hopkins

CNN Tracker

Stat News Tracker

 

 

The State of Things…

I figured I’d pull a Chuck Wendig and do a post that’s a lot of random tidbits and thoughts rather than one coherent single idea. So, here goes:

I’ve been feeling congested the last few days but I’m pretty sure that’s more because my neighbor is home and doing some sort of work on his house that involves throwing lots of small particles of crap into the air than because I have COVID-19. But I could be wrong and I could have it. Too bad I can’t get tested and find out one way or the other…

But that’s America for you. Heaven forbid we get our hands on the scope of the issue so we can move forward in an effective manner. Far better to turn any little comment on this into a politic battle instead.

On a personal level I’m not honestly seeing much impact from this so far. My mom and stepdad were already retired and kept to themselves for the most part. My brother’s job has been considered essential so he’s still employed. I was already an anti-social misanthrope and I still get to walk my dog daily. My closest friends are in jobs that can easily be converted to work-from-home jobs. No one I know has died yet. (That I’m aware of, but most of the people I knew in NYC are people I’m no longer in touch with.) But I am at the friend-of-a-friend stage.

My author-mind is watching events and seeing some ugly worst case scenarios that could play out. I’d like those to not materialize, but so far they’re still possible. In which case America is sort of like someone exposed to lethal levels of radiation who hasn’t yet realized it. I hope I’m wrong about them, but some little part of my mind is doing the “and what then?” thinking.

I have yet to start a new book, but I am being productive re: my writing business. I realized I was making a stupid error with my print book covers and so I’ve been slowly working through fixing that which involves recreating and republishing 100+ covers. (Between Amazon print, IS paperback, and IS hard cover versions.)

In terms of sales I’ve definitely seen an increase in ebook sales and a decrease in paperback sales over the last couple weeks but I think that’s artificially created by Amazon prioritizing essential items and not shipping books. The drop in print may be lightening up in the last couple days. If so and if the ebook increase remains then I may get back to somewhere good soon, but I definitely took a hit over the last couple weeks. Some was going to happen no matter what because of seasonal demand, but I think some was definitely driven by the current situation.

I’m a person with a plan A, B, C, D, E, F, G so the current situation knocked out plans B, C, and D but I still have E, F, and G left. Not ideal, but not panic territory yet. And if I do get into panic territory I suspect about 70% of America will get there before me so I won’t be alone.

I posted on FB about how I was grateful for the fact that if I had to be impacted by a disaster it was one that allowed me to have heat, water, a stable roof over my head, a working fridge, internet, cable television, and adequate food. Really, of all the disasters that could happen (tornado, flood, blizzard, hurricane, war, etc.) this one has to be one of the best. Note I don’t call it a natural disaster because the extent of what we’re dealing with is very much man-made.

I want to rage against the people who look at our current numbers and think that proves that things were overblown and we shouldn’t have reacted so strongly but I’ve decided that some people will never understand exponential growth and delayed onset and what those mean in a situation like this so I save my energy. I just hope the experts can keep things in check as long as we need them to or the fall is going to be very very ugly.

I do also think that if America continues to mismanage this scenario that we’ll be taking significant steps towards making ourselves far less relevant on the world stage. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the rest of the world sort of wall us away and continue on without us because if we’re not well-managed they need to keep us locked out. But no one was willing to say that six weeks ago so they may not be willing to say it three months from now either. But the more we screw over our allies and withdraw from international groups, the more likely it becomes. (Which is maybe the goal with some parties?)

I hate that our current environment makes me feel like I’m a conspiracy theorist now. But then again, is it paranoia if it turns out to be right?

On other news…I read a book the other day that drove me up a wall because the character was forced to do things solely for the plot. And worse the character was forced to sit still long enough for the author to set the scene. Like, would you really stand there by the buffet table while all but the three major characters are slaughtered so you can describe the slaughter in detail? And then somehow manage to be at the side of one of the other major characters long enough to hear their dying words? No. In real life you’d be dead. And I’m pretty sure that after that happened you wouldn’t go and watch an event in an arena to give everyone a good feel for your new home.

I don’t think I’m alone in being more critical of the books I read these days. I had an author in a group I’m in mention that they’re holding books they read these days to a higher standard than before. But that they are also more likely to binge read a series when they do like it. I think I may be in the same place.

I have no interest in writing about nasty people right now. But that makes it tricky to write a story with conflict in it, which is what SFF always seems to demand for me. Unless I were writing a story full of adventure and wonder. But those aren’t my particular writing strengths. And so I continue on with the covers. Working on already completed work doesn’t require those decisions.

And I continue secretly hating my neighbor for whatever he’s doing that fills my house with micro levels of dust that make my chest hurt. (It looks like he may be repainting his house using a sand blaster to remove the old paint? That would do it.)

Hope you’re all well. Take care of yourselves.

Twenty-Five Years

Twenty-five years ago today my father passed away. I was able to fly home from college to be by his side, but he was so far gone he never recognized me. Except maybe for one brief moment when he was lucid enough to say my name before returning to whatever half-world he was living in by then.

I grew up knowing my father could die. Fearing he’d die more than once. I was too young fortunately to actually remember the three months in the hospital when his second transplant was such a spectacular failure that it not only cost him the kidney he’d just received but a quarter of a lung, too. But I was there for the years of dialysis and the deteriorating bones that meant multiple spinal fusions and long-term pain.

And I was there at the very end when he was gone but his body remained fighting on even though it was over. (I was also there when his body finally gave out but that damned ventilator kept right on going and the nurse didn’t rush in to turn it off because she was trying to give us time to say goodbye…)

I think about that when I think about the coming months and all those people who will die alone because it’s not safe for their family to be there or because the medical staff are going to be so overwhelmed they’ll be rushing from one dying patient to another without a second to spare to call in family.

And I have to say that for me being there when someone you love dies is not an experience I want to repeat. I was also there when my grandfather died and neither my dad nor my grandpa were aware enough at the end to care. Seeing them reduced that way was not the last memory I wanted of them.

It was very hard to move past that last horrible image of my father to all the memories of good meals together and chess games we played and him coming to all my games in high school and us sitting on the couch watching Star Trek after he’d get home from dialysis. For years that image of that damned ventilator still going after he’d flatlined stood between me and all those good memories that had filled my life.

I know that for others it’s different. I took some Jungian psychology class the year after my dad died and one of my fellow students talked about being with his grandma when she died and what a wonderful transcendent experience it was. (I honestly wanted to throttle him…) So maybe for others it would be different.

But if in the coming months you lose someone you love and you’re not able to be there with them in those last moments, don’t let that eclipse all the moments that came before. Don’t be bitter or angry about not being able to say goodbye. Tell them you love them now. Focus on the good moments you shared. Look through the photos or the emails or the texts or the Facebook posts. See them as they were when they were vibrant and alive. Carry that forward with you.

My dad has now been gone from my life for longer than he was in it. (By a number of years.) But he is still the single most important person in my life. I was blessed with a father who knew what it meant to be a good father. Who loved and supported his kids unconditionally. Who treated us with patience and forgiveness even when we were at our worst. Who showed us how to treat others to make the world a better place.

I miss him still. And today I’ll have a good steak dinner in his memory and I’ll think about all the good moments we shared and how fortunate I was to have him in my life for as long as I did. And how fortunate I am to have his memory with me always.

 

So Here’s The Thing…

This is something I’ve been thinking about for a long while now when people talk about universal health care and basic income, but that I’ve never really wanted to spell out because I have no solutions to offer and it’s a very bleak view of the world.

But I think it’s maybe time to voice this thought?

I’ve thought for a long time now that we were heading towards a branching point in society. And that the United States was very likely to fall on one side of that branch while most other Western countries were going to fall on the other side of the branch.

What it revolves around is this idea that we all deserve universal health care and a basic living which those who advocate for believe to be a basic human right. But the thing is that there’s a large portion of U.S. society who either implicitly or explicitly don’t actually believe that.

See, if you want to take a very cynical view of the U.S. (and many other countries quite frankly) you would look and you would see that those at the top have built their wealth on the efforts of all of those below them. He who makes the most is he who is best able to leverage the work of others.

Not really a new concept, actually.

For hundreds of years those at the top have needed the physical labor of those at the bottom. They needed bodies. Lots of them. If you’re going to ship thousands of products all over the world, someone has to box up all those products and deliver them, right? If you’re going to have retail stores someone has to stock the place and take customer payments. If you’re going to have a consulting firm someone needs to do the analysis and presentation.

Because of this need for bodies to create the value that those at the top leverage, there has always been at least a minimal motivation to make sure that enough bodies were available to leverage and that those bodies were educated in such a way that they fit into the slots they needed to fit into and that they stayed healthy enough to do what was needed and were paid enough to keep them from going to work for the competition.

But to be clear it was never about caring for those people. It was never about seeing them as human beings and wanting them to be happy and fulfilled. It was always about putting the right widget in the right spot to maximize value where that widget happened to be a person who demanded certain treatment.

Now, here’s where the upcoming branch occurs.

With increasing technology, especially in robotics, automation, and advances in health care, we are reaching a point where we have more bodies than those at the top need to create their wealth. They can replace the bodies they used to need with robots or self-driving cars or smart computers that can duplicate human thought processes. Or they can have one person do the work of ten.

And with extended life expectancy the wink-wink, nudge-nudge promise of retirement suddenly becomes something that people could realistically live long enough to achieve.

But those who leverage others for wealth have no interest in people who are not providing them with value. They don’t really want to pay out for years to someone who is now doing nothing for them. Or to all those workers who they don’t need anymore because a robot does the job just fine now.

Those people used to leveraging others now want those excess people to go away.

Sometimes when I see people talk about universal healthcare I will see someone ask, “Do they really want people to die?” and I want to quietly whisper to them, “Yes, they do, actually.”

Because once they don’t need those workers to create their wealth for them, they really truly have no need for those people to continue to be alive. They don’t believe that we’re all in this together or that we should help one another out. They believe in a transactional world where you only receive in proportion to what you give and if you can’t give, well then f you.

That’s the dark path the U.S. is headed down. It’s not UBI and health care and we’re all in this together. It’s “if you don’t provide me with value, then you can die for all I care.”

And I honestly think that’s part of the tug-of-war we’re now seeing over COVID-19. There really truly is a certain portion of our U.S. population with the attitude that those older people who can no longer be leveraged for value can acceptably die as long as it doesn’t interfere with their day-to-day lives.

(I have no doubt there are some looking at what we spend on Social Security and experiencing a sick little moment of glee thinking how much less we might be spending in a few years depending on how high those fatality numbers go.)

Which is why the messaging that we’re all in this together and that we need to stay home to protect the most vulnerable among us is wasted on those people. They simply don’t care about the most vulnerable among us.

The only way to appeal to that sector of society is to make it personal to them. To make them understand that they could personally die or be impacted. That breaking our healthcare system means that broken leg from their ski accident goes septic instead of being treated by a top surgeon or that cancer goes undetected or that appendix bursts or that heart attack isn’t treated in time to save them.

And the only way we’re going to get things like UBI and universal health care and better income equality in the U.S. is by making it clear to those at the very top that they risk losing everything if they don’t share some, a lesson that’s been learned over and over again throughout history in the most brutal of ways and then is promptly forgotten until it happens yet again.

Oh, and the other branch of course is the one you see in other Western countries where the belief is that we’re all in this together and that we collectively create the wealth our country sees and that therefore that wealth should be distributed at a basic level to all members of society.

Somehow I don’t see the U.S. ever getting there. Which means twenty years from now this will be a really ugly place to live. If not before then.

And on that cheery note…

Writing During Wrenching Times

It’s weird. I’m about to dive into the third and final draft of my sixth cozy mystery. I only finished the first draft on March 2nd and the second draft on the 13th and yet I know going back to it will be odd.

Because it’s a contemporary series and this story ends on the first day of spring, which is basically right now. And I know, for example, that there’s a little back and forth scene in there where my hero and heroine (because there’s a romance subplot) are bantering back and forth about all the places where they could go for a weekend getaway. My heroine suggests Iceland or Argentina or Guatemala. My hero is all for San Diego.

It’s a conversation that I could’ve seen happening when I wrote it a month ago. But now…

Not so much. I’m still going to finish it up as if it wasn’t happening in this world and this spring. But something that should’ve passed by as a nothing scene will have a different resonance for readers now.

My thought had been that I’d turn to a fantasy novel next. I’ve had three of them percolating away in the background of my mind, but in the last couple weeks it’s like those three novels just dried up and disappeared. Maybe because in my fantasy I like to wrestle with big ideas and I’m not sure what ideas I can safely wrestle with right now.

(I had a post I’d written yesterday that I chose not to publish about all the dark things I’ve thought about as part of this whole thing. Those squiggly little thoughts that were well hidden under a rock but are starting to see the light as people reveal themselves through their actions. But who wants to write about that when it’s playing out right here, right now?)

It’s a challenge. To write at all. To figure out what to write. To keep going and keep focused rather than watch the chaos and try to figure out what’s coming next or how bad it’ll get. To not take the anger and anxiety and amplify and spread it further, either in person or through my writing, but to at the same time make sure that people understand what’s coming.

But what’s the other choice? Do you write about happy fluffy bunnies when the world is on fire? People do need them, but wow that’s a tough one to pull off.

And I know the wrenching change isn’t done happening just yet either. So what seems good to write today may not seem so great in six weeks when that first draft is done…But if you want to keep moving forward you have to do it regardless.