Dead Squirrels and Empty Vodka Bottles

No, that’s not some snazzy metaphor for 2017. Or a summation of what my house looks like these days. (Although close on both counts. Haha. Just kidding. Sort of.)

The last six months or so I’ve been walking the pup around my neighborhood instead of taking her to the local sixty-acre dog park, because one day she just decided she didn’t like getting in the car anymore and would rather stay on leash and walk around here instead. (I think this has something to do with the number of rabbits that invaded our neighborhood this year. As you can imagine, there aren’t a ton of rabbits at a dog park. Although the day she found a recently killed one is one of my most vivid dog park memories…)

Anyway. Sometimes we go to the right, sometimes we go to the left. And I’ve started thinking of the right-hand walk as the dead squirrel and empty vodka bottle route. There’s a squirrel on the sidewalk about two blocks from here that’s been on the sidewalk for at least the last few weeks. Before that it was on the grass next to the sidewalk for weeks. I don’t know how it died. It must not have been run over, because at this point the skin on its chest is gone and you can see each and every rib on one side of its body and they’re all perfectly intact.

(Why I haven’t taken a picture, I don’t know. Probably for the same reason I didn’t take a picture of the tiny little snake eating a frog ten times its size when I was in Guatemala. It’s a cool thing to see and remember, but not so cool I want to ever look at it again.)

And then there are the vodka bottles we see on our walk. Those little baby ones that it would be easy for someone to swipe when no one’s looking as well as some larger ones that would fit well in someone’s hand. Fortunately, whoever the resident alcoholic is, they haven’t reached the liter-sized bottle stage yet. But whichever direction we go, the little vodka bottles litter every remotely wild space. Empty lot=vodka bottles. Dirt road=vodka bottles. Cluster of trees next to a stream=vodka bottles.

Some days I think I should pick it all up. Bring a bag and one of those little tools the convicts use to grab trash off the ground and erase all signs of the resident alcoholic (or experimental kids or both) and give the dead squirrel a final end.

But I don’t.

I could actually make some profound point right now out of all of this, but I’m not going to. I just thought I’d share. And, really, who doesn’t want to write a post with a title like that?

There’s Usually a Reason Regulations Exist

In my old day job I was responsible for enforcing a set of regulations that a lot of people found annoying and stupid. And, because I was on-site enforcing them, I got to hear about it. Often. And later when one of my areas of expertise was a new, but important area of regulation, I heard the complaints from both those enforcing the regulations as well as those who had to comply with them.

“Do we really have to be so hard on this firm just because they failed to properly identify who owns that account?” and “So what if we didn’t report that one little pattern of suspicious activity? Do you really have to fine us for it?”

Moment to moment, I could sympathize with their frustrations. When you have eight million things going on and deadlines and responsibilities, getting tripped up by something that seems minor or having to take a case for something that seems minor is frustrating.

What a waste, right? Everyone has better things to do, don’t they?

One of the rules that we enforced that people found most eye-roll-inducing was the requirement to file an FBAR. For those of you not in the know, an FBAR is a form that the U.S. government requires U.S. persons to file that “is used to report a financial interest in or signature authority over a foreign financial account.”

Basically, if you are a U.S. person and you have control over at least $10,000 worth of funds overseas, the U.S. government wants to know about it. And, if you fail to tell them about it and they can show you did so willfully you can owe up to $100,000 or 50% of the value of the account.

One little form. Screw it up and you lose half the value of the account. Seems absurd right?

Ah, but there’s a reason that form filing requirement exists. And a reason the penalty can be so high.

That’s because charging someone with failing to file that form is a hook a prosecutor can use to catch those who engage in activity they don’t want their government to know about.

Sometimes (often) it’s good old-fashioned tax evasion. Rich people love to hide their funds overseas where Uncle Sam can’t tax it. (Just Google UBS and tax evasion to get a small idea of the size of the issue.)

And sometimes it’s someone representing the interests of a foreign government against U.S. interests who wants to hide what they’re doing.

Either way, that little form is very handy when these things happen.

Proving tax evasion and money laundering and criminal intent can take a ton of effort and documentation and chasing money trails all over the world, and possibly years of effort to build the case. But proving that someone had over $10,000 stashed overseas and they failed to file that little form? That’s pretty damned easy to prove. (As we just saw.)

So all hail the mighty FBAR.

And the next time you’re tempted to complain about some useless regulation, remember: there’s usually a reason regulations exist.

 

I’m Not Good At This Self-Employment Thing

The last time I held a full-time office job was right about this time in 2009. I think my last day was September 30th. I worked on-site on a project out of town until 10:30 that night helping my team finish up a report, went back to my hotel, and flew home the next day.

I then took off the next three months, something I had never done before since I worked through college, both during the school year and summers and all breaks. I’d take a two-week vacation most years after college, but the rest of the time it was work, work, work. Often sixty hour weeks.

I spent part of that time off traveling around New Zealand. I cannot tell you how amazing those six weeks were. Such a beautiful country, such amazing people, such fun things to do. I wanted more of that and less of the stress and deadlines of full-time work.

So January 1st, 2010 I got back to work as a self-employed consultant who worked from home (which in those early years turned out to be New Zealand a lot of the time). I’ve stayed working as either a self-employed consultant or writer ever since.

Now, you might look at that and think, “Well, you seem to be doing something right since you’ve been self-employed for seven years now. Don’t most businesses fail after five years?”

But I’m not really. It turns out I was so good at being full-time employed that it allowed me to coast into self-employment.

In two ways.

First, almost all of my consulting business has come from people I knew when I was full-time calling me up and offering me work. That’s what happened in December 2009 and it’s continued to happen since. Only one project I’ve worked on in the last seven years came from someone I didn’t know before I started consulting.

Worse, I like to work from home and I know that if I go out to companies and say, “Hey, you have any work for me?” and they say, “Yes. And it’s on-site in this random city” that I’m kind of stuck taking work that involves travel I don’t want. So I have sat back and waited for people to reach out to me and say, “Any chance you’re free?” so I can then say, “As long as I can work from home (and as long as the rate’s good).”

That’s not a way to run a sustainable business. A successful entrepreneur should be out there hustling for new clients or for more business from their existing clients. Instead I do things like decide that the work a client was giving me wasn’t challenging enough and wasn’t using my expertise (even though it was highly lucrative) and move on at the end of the project instead of hanging around for more opportunities.

That’s a horrible way to run a business.

And the only reason I can do that is because of the other thing that being good at full-time employment gave me: savings. I can walk away from a good-paying project because I know I can cover my rent this month one way or the other out of savings.

But you can only do that kind of thing for so long. And the longer you do it for the worse it all gets. The savings go down, the people who remember you become fewer and more far between. Your skills atrophy or your knowledge becomes stale.

It’s amazing how long you can coast without realizing that you’re failing.

I envision it sometimes as my early career was one of those ramps you see at the X games and I’m some motorcycle that has gone flying off the end. The initially trajectory was even higher, but at some point now that I’m off the ramp, I’m going to start coming down.

I think the year that happens is 2018.

Unless I finally get my head out of my ass and get disciplined about being self-employed and start to treat it like a real bona fide business that requires deadlines and focus (for the writing) or actually pursuing work (for the consulting).

(Before you get out the violins, I am in the five-figure range with the writing this year, so it’s not like I’m selling three copies. It’s just that it’s not enough for how I want to live.)

Anyway. As part of that effort to break myself out of this funk, today I read one of the books in the NaNo bundle: Time Management by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Reading it brought home yet again that I don’t treat my writing as a real business. I’m still treating it as a hobby, which I can’t keep doing unless I want to go get one of those day jobs I’m so good at but hate.

So there you have it. Even though I’ve managed to do this for seven years now, I’m not actually good at this self-employment thing. But I’m going to get better at it, damn it.

I swear. (And I’ll get right on that after I waste the rest of this morning on the internet…)

It Ain’t The Road That Kills You…

It’s the paper walls.

That’s from a song I happen to love by Marc Cohn:

The portion of the song where he says that doesn’t actually occur until the end. (At 3:39 on that video.) If you listen to it you may be asking yourself what on earth that song has to do with anything except people making really strange choices about who they hook up with and when, but stay with me for a moment.

Because, as always, I take something completely different away from that song than probably anyone else would. See, I hear that line “It ain’t the road that kills you…” and I think that the song is about how it isn’t being alone that’s the problem, it’s knowing that others aren’t and being able to hear (in this case) what you’re missing and how knowing what you’re missing is the real issue.

Now to bring this back to writing.

I ran a promo on Rider’s Revenge this weekend. It ends today. And, good news, I sold at least 374 copies of book 1 and 24 copies each of books 2 and 3. The promo isn’t even over yet and it’s already been profitable and sell-through to books 2 and 3 over the long-term will make it more so.

Fantastic, right?

Except I kind of felt like crap about it the last two days. Because part of the promo was an international-only Bookbub. And according to their site, the average number of sales from this particular list should be 550, but I’m only at about 300 off of the Bookbub.

It paid for itself. And I think I’m still missing Google sales and maybe even some iTunes sales. But I’m not going to hit 550. Which bummed me out.

I had a successful promo. I made a profit. I hopefully have a couple hundred new fans. And yet…knowing that others have done better running the same promo spoiled it for me.

It’s like we’re all trying to hike a mountain here. And I know that as long as I keep going and putting one foot in front of the other that I’ll get there eventually. But it’s harder when someone breezes by like there’s nothing to it or the person you started the trail with leaves you behind because you’re going so much slower.

(Real life experience: I hiked Mt. Quandary, a 14er, years ago with a couple co-workers. They were both in excellent shape and left me behind after the first hour or so. But I made it to the top. Eventually. Just in time for them to be ready to turn around and head back down…)

It’s easy to always be looking to others and feel constantly dissatisfied.  Because there will always be someone selling more, getting more reviews or better reviews, or signing high-profile deals. But you can’t do that. It’ll kill you.

Step back and remind yourself what you have done.  See how far you’ve come. Embrace the positives.

(I say as I continue to sit here and sulk.)

Remember, it isn’t the journey that will kill you, it’s comparing yourself to others and letting their successes (or how you feel about them) defeat you.

Seeing Through the Fog

I’m reading a book right now called Fooled by Randomness.  It’s pretty interesting. And one of the things I’ve taken from it is that we often think that the way things are right now are the way things will always be. Which is seldom true for the long-term.

Life is change. There is no way to create a life that doesn’t involve change over the long-term. (Every single person who grew up in a very small town is looking askance at me right now, but even there things change eventually. The local mine goes bust–like what happened where I grew up–or the old tried and true crops lose popularity or….There is change, albeit glacially slow at times.)

And trying to predict the direction events will take is almost impossible.  And the direction they do take is sometimes counterintuitive.

One of the challenges I constantly face with my self-publishing is what to work on next.  And one of the “mistakes” I make with it is that I rarely work on what I should be working on from a pure numbers standpoint.

I’m good sometimes. I wrote a related book to Don’t Be a Douchebag this year because it’s been a consistent seller for me in audio for over a year now. (The related title doesn’t sell as well, perhaps because of the lack of a half-naked woman on the cover. I should rebrand and see if that changes things.)

But other times, what I choose to do makes no sense from a pure “predict the future” perspective.

In January of this year, 63% of my revenue for the month was tied to my fantasy series. 4% was tied to my romance novel.

If you look at those numbers cold, you’d say, “Write the next fantasy novel.” And I did. But between drafts on the fantasy novel I wrote the next romance novel.  The romance novel released in May, the fantasy novel released in June.

And…

In July 58% of my revenue was from the two romance novels and 26% of my revenue was from the fantasy trilogy. The fantasy series stayed about the same per-title, but the first romance novel caught on with AMS ads. (It was 45% of revenues for the month.)

I couldn’t predict that. No way I’d see such a turnaround for a novel that’s been out close to three years and has done fine when it’s promoted, but not fantastic.

You’d think, of course, that my next course of action while that romance was doing so well would’ve been to write the third in that series. Get it while it’s hot and all.

But I didn’t.

I turned to non-fiction. Partially because I was doing those presentations in September and wanted books out to go with them. But partially because I just wanted to write a couple of the books. They sounded like fun. I enjoy using Microsoft Excel writing those guides let me learn a few new tricks. (Like I could format the fields in a pivot table using Value Field Settings.)

There was a small inkling that the books might sell a bit because the Excel guide in my Juggling Your Finances series is the one that sells the best. But I had no way to predict the other thing that happened because I wrote those books. (Announcement coming soon, probably as Friday’s post.)

So where am I going with this? What are the lessons or conclusions?

I guess I’d say, don’t assume that things will continue as they are. But if you’re well-positioned to take advantage of the current situation and want to, you should do so.  If you aren’t or don’t want to do so, try something new. And don’t ever assume it’s over until it’s literally over and you have no ability to act.

(I’d also say don’t get hung up on making that one thing work for you. Better to try something new than bog down with the old. But maybe that’s more to do with the type of person I am.)

 

Long-Term Thinking in a Short-Term World

I’ve been playing around with my Access database today. It’s where I track all of my book sales across different platforms and I needed to update my reports to link the multiple paperback versions of the Excel guides so they wouldn’t appear on separate lines in my consolidated reports.

Anyway. Long story short, I created a “Net Profit and Loss by Series” report out of all of it that incorporates my advertising spend as well as what I’ve spent on covers.

Good news is out of 25 “series”, all but two are net profitable.

Bad news is that one of the series that’s still a net loss is my fantasy trilogy.

Why? Primarily because of the cost of the absolutely gorgeous covers.

Seeing that negative number on the report almost two years after book 1 launched makes my gut clench.

I feel this compelling need to second-guess all my decisions and hard work and where I’ve focused my efforts.

My top series in terms of net profits? That damned sort of kind of written-to-market billionaire romance series. My number two? My two romance novels that are standalone but related. Conclusion? Write more romance. But…

It’s not that simple.

Because I’m trying to play the long game here.

And part of my strategy meant not pushing too hard on promoting the series until it was done. I launched book 1 of the fantasy series at a price of $4.99.

Sure, I threw some advertising at it, but if my focus had been on getting as many sales as possible as soon as possible, I would’ve priced at 99 cents.

But that would’ve been penny-wise and pound foolish in my opinion. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. I think I’m a good enough author people will read through my entire series if they enjoy book 1, but not so good that they’ll wait me out like they do Patrick Rothfuss and George RR Martin.

If my books aren’t there to buy they won’t be bought. And I don’t write these novels in a few weeks or even a few months.

I knew book 1 was going to be hanging out there by itself for a while and that most of the readers I attracted to book 1 wouldn’t hang around for book 3 whenever it was out. So every reader that bought book 1 before the series was done was probably a long-term loss.

I’m weak, though. I’ve run AMS ads on the books for over a year now, because I just couldn’t stand to see them not selling at all.

And I weakened further in January when I applied for a Bookbub. I got it. (International-only in a small category, thankfully.)

AMS and applying for that Bookbub didn’t fit my long-term strategy of waiting for the series to be complete, but I just needed to know the series could sell.

Because it’s hard to delay that gratification that long. To see other authors talking about the thousands of copies they’re selling and see their great book ranks.

So after succumbing to the temptation of a Bookbub in January I reminded myself  repeatedly that I had a long-term plan.

When I launched book 3 in June and was less than impressed with the results of the promo, there was a huge temptation to drop the price on all of the books and scramble for more sales. To do something that would make me feel like I was good at this writing thing.

But I had a plan.

And doing that would’ve ruined it.

So I kept the price high, waited for my KU period to end, and applied for another Bookbub. A bigger one.

And I got it.

International-only still. But in a bigger category with the hope of a U.S. deal in the future.

(Thanks I’m sure in large part to those expensive covers.)

It’s killing me to watch my book ranks right now. To know that I’m not getting page reads through KU anymore.

But I have a plan.

I have to remind myself, it’s not about my Amazon U.S. ranking today. It’s about that Bookbub next month. And it’s about the series I’m going to write after this. And the one after that.

Twelve books. Four trilogies. That’s the goal. That’s when I’ll know.

I have  to remember that I have a strategy. One that requires white-knuckling it through the between times and having an oversized ego to believe for that long.

I know I’ll stumble along the way. The high of a sales spike is too tempting to resist forever. But I have a plan. A goal. A strategy. One that involves higher prices and slow but steady releases.

One book at a time, like bricks in a wall, I’m going to get there. Building up my catalog until together those books make something strong and powerful and lasting.

Or at least that’s the theory…

It’s True Until It Isn’t

Long before I got into this writing thing, I was considered a national expert in a little niche area of securities regulation. Well, not too niche, but niche enough. Part of my job at the time was working with a very small group to decide how serious various violations of those regulations were.

Now what made this really fun is that we weren’t the final authority. We had our own regulators who sometimes informed us of their view of the seriousness of those violations that we then had to follow and convey to our staff.

And, of course, the rules and guidance changed over time, too. What wasn’t a violation one year was the next.

Which all meant that I could tell someone something on Monday and by the next Monday the answer could be different. (Not often, fortunately, but it happened.)

I learned then that what I told people was true at that moment for that situation, but that it could change.

It makes putting yourself out there as an expert on anything a bit fraught. You give the advice you know as you know it at the time, but no one ever knows anything 100%. Ever. And if they do, only for that moment.

Why am I on about this today?

Well, first, after writing a book about CreateSpace just a month or two ago and saying in there that publishing a book in color is cost prohibitive, I just published three books in color.

And I do stand by it being cost prohibitive for a full-length novel. You’d have to list a novel at about $36 to publish it in color while using expanded distribution.

And it was still enough of a bump in cost that I also did black and white versions. (I went with $17.95 for each of the color versions of the books instead of the $12.95 for the paperbacks. And even then one is not going to be available on expanded distribution because it would’ve had to be $21.95 before I was at a point where I didn’t have to pay CreateSpace for each sale.)

But still. It makes me twitch that I made that statement and then turned around and did the opposite.

The fact of the matter is you almost never have time to discuss all the ins and outs and nuance of a question in such finite detail that you’ve covered all your bases. Especially if you want to give people a level of information that they can use without burying them in what they don’t need.

I’ve been thinking about this with respect to AMS recently too. I hope in the book I wrote on AMS that I set forth the mechanics of the ads, how I use them and why, and made it clear that they’re a constantly shifting target and that what works today may not work tomorrow or that what works for me may not work for others.

But still it’s in the back of my mind all the time that I put that book out there. And because of that people will look at my books and their U.S. Amazon ranks and judge what I say in that book based on that.

Even when AMS isn’t the strategy I’m using on my books at the time.

When I was knee-deep in the Excel guides, I actually turned off almost all of my AMS ads. I had been experimenting with a low-bid strategy on a lot of them since that’s been the topic of discussion lately, but I decided the experiments were a failure. I didn’t have time to get new ads up and running, so I shut down the old ones.

But no one would know that. They’d just see the book ranks and think, why listen to that idiot? Which, fair enough. It’s why I tried to spend as much time on mechanics and thought process as I did on what to do. So readers would still have that base of knowledge to work from for their own ads.

Now I’m just rambling. So let me bring this home.

No matter who the expert is. No matter what they say. You need to weigh that against the current environment and their current level of knowledge on that subject.

Especially in publishing where things are changing at lightning speed. Remember that any advice someone gives is very likely true at the time they give it and given what they know in that moment, but it may not be true later or if they had other facts. Your best bet is to learn the fundamentals, find the most up-to-date knowledge you can, and apply that to the fundamentals.

(I know, easier said than done.)