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…

Seriously, UPS, You Suck

For regular readers of the blog you can skip out on this one. I’m just sitting here too angry to write anything I wanted to write today so thought I’d make a public post about why I think UPS sucks.

Backstory: Last week my pup had fresh red blood on her eye. I took her into the main vet and then a specialist vet. Fortunately, it’s not the disease that will blind her if untreated, but it’s still something that is impacting her eyes. The vet prescribed a medicine that has to be custom manufactured out of state. That prescription should’ve gone through last Friday which would’ve put it here Monday, but the vet messed up and didn’t put it through until I called to follow-up on Monday. So I was already cranky before UPS got involved.

Company that was shipping the medicine charged me $10 for the shipping and sent it 2nd Day Air, which meant it was out for delivery yesterday. Because of how they shipped it I was emailed a little link that let me follow my package. This link basically lets you watch where the delivery truck is throughout the day and tells you when they’re getting close.

Weather was fine yesterday until about 2 PM when it started to snow. I had a package delivered by UPS at the normal time they deliver to my house around 10 AM. It was a package of books that had been sent via normal delivery so had taken four or five days to get here.

But that air, priority package? The one I really cared about? Did it come on the regular delivery truck? No, it did not. You’d think if you knew bad weather was coming in that might impact deliveries that you’d prioritize the priority packages. Not if you’re UPS, though.

Yesterday I checked in throughout the day and watched as that delivery truck came within one block of my house but then never delivered to my house. It was out doing its work until 6 PM (a full work day, no weather stoppage there) when I finally got an email that they had failed to make the delivery due to weather.

Yeah, no. You failed to make the delivery because you failed to prioritize packages that you were paid to prioritize. You had plenty of time to deliver a priority package before the weather turned and even after it had.

But it gets worse. Because today I got another little tracking link.

Now you would think that if a customer had paid for priority delivery of a package and you had failed to deliver it on the day it was supposed to be delivered that you would then make it a priority the next day to deliver that package, right? Wouldn’t that be good customer service? To come somewhat remotely close to doing what you’d been paid to do?

Not if you’re UPS.

It’s almost the end of the business day here. I have watched that stupid little truck come within five blocks of my house to the north, to the east, and to the south and then go twenty blocks away and start working its way through the neighborhood it worked its way through yesterday before not delivering to me.

I assume that maybe at some point today they’ll actually show up here. But, seriously, how do you run a business that way? How are you so tone deaf to what you’ve promised customers and then delivered them? How do you deliver a non-priority package and yet fail to deliver the priority one?

(Let’s not even get into the wastefulness of sending two trucks to the same address on the same day…Oh wait. They didn’t really, did they?)

Ugh. So annoyed.

(comments disabled because I just wanted to rant not have any sort of conversation about my rant, especially not with UPS who make it impossible to submit a complaint on their website which is why I ended up making this post because I couldn’t email them instead)

 

The Excel PRODUCT Function

I have to confess that the PRODUCT function in Excel is one I’ve generally considered pretty useless. SUMPRODUCT is much more exciting to me. But this morning I was trying to do some projections for sales of my new cozy mystery and I ended up using the PRODUCT function two different times.

And because I’m a nerd and Excel things excite me, I figured I’d share where and how I used it.

This will also be useful to any writers who write in a series or are thinking of doing so and want to extrapolate from sales of a first in series to sales of the whole series.

So here’s the thought process and how the PRODUCT function can come into play:

At its most basic, if I publish a single book then my earnings on that book are equal to the price of the book times the payout percentage. (In reality, if you’re in KU or have a print version it’s more complicated than that because each format has its own value but we’re going to ignore that for now.)

Now, there’s a temptation to say, “If I write ten books in this series, I’ll earn ten times as much.” But that’s not how it works.

Not everyone who reads the first book will go on to read the other books. I have a series of eight related short romance stories and I see a drop off from story 1 to story 2 and then from story 2 to story 3. But from story 4 onward it’s very close to a 100% readthrough.

If I want to calculate the value of a new customer I can’t just take the price of each story times the payout. I also have to factor in how many readers actually make it that far into the series.

So the value of book 8 to me is not price times payout. It’s price times payout times % of readers of book 1 who read it.

This is the first place you can use the PRODUCT function.

Because the calculation you’re doing here is: price times payout times % who read book 2 times % who then read book 3 times % who then read book 4 times % who then read book 5, etc.

(In Excel for Self-Publishers I did a similar sort of calculation but used a different approach that just looked at book 1 to that particular book in the series because I had real data at that point. But this is extrapolating when you don’t have any data yet.)

One way to write that calculation is: =A1*A2*A3*A4*… where each of those values is in a different cell in Column A.

Another way to write it, though, is using PRODUCT. You just write =PRODUCT(A1:A9) assuming your price is in A1, your payout is in A2, and your readthrough rates are in Cells A3 through A9.

Isn’t that nice and simple?

I know, it’s a little hard to visualize. And you’re probably not going to set your data up exactly that way.

But let’s look at a simpler example, which is the second way in which I used PRODUCT.

First I had to calculate the value above. I assumed I had a ten book series with book 1 priced at 99 cents and the rest at $3.99 with a fifty percent readthrough from book 1 to book 2 that then goes up to 80% and then 95%, I calculated that I would earn $7.54 for each new reader.

Currently book 1 is priced at $3.99.

So that’s an increase in overall revenue by a factor of 2.70 just based on having more books out. (7.54 divided by 3.99).

But we also have that price drop factor at play. How many more people will read book 1 if it’s priced at 99 cents than are currently reading it when it’s priced at $3.99? For my purposes I said three times as many.

(This is for cozy mystery. Other genres might see no increase or even a drop. Or readthrough might be severely impacted depending on book 1 and book 2 prices. You have to know what you’re selling or have a guess how it’ll behave to do this.)

Next, we have the series factor. Some people prefer to read series instead of standalones. And more books means more visibility. So how much will having ten, presumably well-reviewed, books in a series impact book 1 sales? In this case I assumed that would double sales although there’s a good chance it could do more than that.

So if I want to take current sales on book 1 and try to figure out what I might earn if I have ten books out in that series what I need to do is take the amount I’m earning each month on that book and multiply it by that readthrough factor and then multiply that by the price drop factor (assuming I’m dropping book 1’s price, otherwise it’s just 1), and then multiply that by the series increase factor.

Which is another place to use PRODUCT. Here’s the Excel worksheet so you can visualize this:

Series Value Estimation

I have the increase factors in Cells C34 through E34, so my formula in Cell F34 is =PRODUCT(C34:E34) to get my overall factor of 16.2.

I can then take that number and multiply it by the amount I expect to earn on the first cozy when things reach a steady state. Let’s say $250. (In the image above that calculation’s done in Cell G34.)

(You can use PRODUCT again here, which is what I did. In that case, the formula is =PRODUCT(B34:E34) because I have Book 1 sales in Cell B34. Or you can just do =B34*F34.)

Based on these calculations I can say that if I have a Book 1 in a series that is earning me $250 a month and I write nine more books in that series and discount the first book to 99 cents while selling all the other titles at $3.99 with my assumed readthrough rates and price drop and series increases that I will earn, on average, $4,000 a month from those ten books.

Understand, though, that there are many many assumptions at play here. If my Book 1 to Book 2 readthrough is 75% instead, that number goes up to $6,000 a month for a ten-book series. If I see a four-fold increase in sales from having a series rather than a two-fold increase then it’s $8,000. If I have 75% readthrough AND a four-fold increase, then it’s $12,000 a month.

On the flip side if there is no series increase and dropping the price only doubles sales then it’s just $2,000 a month for a ten-book series. And if people fall off of the series as it continues (say you have lower and lower readthrough rates after Book 6) then it’s just $1,445 a month for that ten-book series.

(Don’t continue a series like that. Wrap it up as soon as you can. Book 1 to Book 2 you should see drop off. Family and friends will buy Book 1 to support you but not read the whole series, some people will find that the book just isn’t for them, and some will buy and not get around to it for five years. Book 2 to Book 3 may have another drop off because people who were on the fence with Book 1 may try Book 2 and then decide not to continue. But from Book 3 onward, you should really have your core audience.)

(I should also add that there could be a time factor at play here. The longer the series the longer it takes someone to read through that series. On a recent podcast someone mentioned six months for how long it can take to read through a series. For a very long one, I’d agree that might be true. For a trilogy, if you’ve really hooked a reader, I’d say one month at the longest. Of course, that’s from when they start reading it. But once you reach steady state for a series that should disappear in the wash because people should always be reading through your series each month even if they’re at different points in doing so.)

Anyway. You can make all of this insanely complicated if you want, but this was just a basic calculation I wanted to share using PRODUCT which I had so unfairly misjudged. Once you set something like this up, it’s easy enough to play with the numbers and see your full range of values.

 

 

Excel Essentials Quiz Books Now Available

I wrote Excel for Beginners, Intermediate Excel, and 50 Useful Excel Functions to standalone, but it occurred to me that some people will want to test their knowledge of the material covered in each book.

So to accommodate that I have just published three new titles: The Excel for Beginners Quiz Book, The Intermediate Excel Quiz Book, and The 50 Useful Excel Functions Quiz Book.

The-Excel-for-Beginners-Quiz-Book-Generic     The-Intermediate-Excel-Quiz-Book-Generic    The-50-Useful-Excel-Functions-Quiz-Generic

 

 

 

Each quiz book includes a series of questions that cover the material from the original titles as well as providing written answers to those questions that you can review. There are also five bonus exercises in each one that let you practice applying what you’ve learned with real-world scenarios.

The books are available in ebook on Amazon, Kobo, Nook, and Apply. Print books are available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble and should be available on other retailers in the next few weeks.

Also, you can also always buy direct through Payhip using Paypal at https://payhip.com/mlhumphrey. And, in fact, if you think you’ll be buying more than one book and are comfortable buying that way, you can get some discounts that way. Just select your first book and look for the pop-up offer for other titles at 10% off.

Please to enjoy and for those in the U.S., Happy Thanksgiving.

Save the World, Grow a Rose

There’s a book I want to write about a grandmother who saves the world by growing roses. It seems like a ridiculous premise, right? What’s interesting about that? Where’s the conflict, the tension, the struggle, the triumph?

But, see, I think sometimes we focus too much on the conflict and triumph. We focus too much on escalation.

Today another disturbed person lashed out and took innocent lives. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they did so in an environment of escalating tension and rhetoric. That they did so during a time when people are being encouraged to take sides, to protect what’s “ours”, to see those who aren’t like us as a dangerous other.

It’s so tempting in times like this to lash out. To take the hurt that others cause us and spread that hurt. To receive hate and return hate. They hurt us, let us now hurt them. An eye for an eye, right?

It’s so much more difficult to take hate and turn it into something beautiful. To take the negative energy of others and instead of spreading that negative energy with our reactions or our words, to instead transform that negative energy. To use that awful momentum from an act of evil and somehow use it to produce a thing of beauty.

Because we each have a choice. To spread darkness or light. To push others down or lift others up. We have a choice to take what comes at us and spread it onward or transform it.

I haven’t written that novel yet, because I’m not sure how to write it. And I’m not sure anyone wants to read it. Think how boring or how frustrating it would be to see someone’s world attacked or destroyed and to see them take that pain and heartache and instead of fighting back to dig in the soil, plant the seed, water the soil, pull the weeds, and grow something of beauty in the midst of loss. To see them not fight back, not take an eye for an eye, but instead just…grow a rose.

I’m not sure I could do it if it were me. I’m not sure most of us could. I’m not even sure most of us should. What would that mean. Would you have to let evil run unchecked? What happens to hatred when it’s met with silence? Does it grow? Does it become more powerful? Maybe it withers. And dies. Maybe it tries harder for a time and then dies without fuel to keep it going.

I don’t know.

But I do wonder what the world would look like if each of us took the ugliness we experience and found a way to stop it instead of spreading it. If each of us found a way to transform this pain and loss into something beautiful or productive.

I suspect the world might be better for it. But I’m not sure I can do it…I’m not sure any of us can.

Annoyances

I wrote a post earlier about how furious I was with Amazon for disappearing a large chunk of my paperback sales for the last six weeks. I took it down not because I am okay with what happened, but because I was giving them too much benefit of the doubt. I assumed it was just some mis-reporting on the dashboard glitch that they’d fixed. Nope. Turns out they have disappeared all print sales for my top-selling print title. I emailed about it as soon as I realized the sales were missing and emailed again when I realized the cause but six hours later they haven’t even bothered to acknowledge my emails.

With business partners like Amazon who needs enemies?