Freedom vs. Responsibility: The US Conundrum

Sorry, folks, another post related to the current coronavirus outbreak in the US.

As of my writing this post Emerald City Comic Con is scheduled to continue in Seattle, Washington next week. This is an event that gathers together 100,000 people or thereabouts each year and crams them into a concentrated area where they are most definitely less than six feet apart.

It’s a bad situation for spreading germs in the best of years. There’s a reason the term “con crud” exists. But when you pair that with the fact that Seattle is a current location where COVID-19 is currently circulating in the population, you have a recipe for disaster.

Because all of those people have homes they’re coming from. They aren’t all Seattle residents. They will attend this conference and then they will return to their homes all across the country and perhaps across the world and, if they are exposed to coronavirus while in Seattle, will effectively and quickly spread coronavirus all across the U.S.

I don’t say this to be alarmist. It is what it is. And it’s already happening in the U.S., we just aren’t testing enough to acknowledge it.

But what this situation highlights is the fundamental conflict we face here in the United States. It’s the issue of personal freedom versus community responsibility.

On Twitter I’ve seen a number of people announcing that they’re cancelling their appearance at the ECCC. Almost all of them have cited personal health, family members with health issues, or, the latest, a young child at home. Those who’ve posted about continuing to attend have talked about their own relative health and giving their team members a choice to attend. None that I recall seeing have talked about their community.

Okay, great, they personally are young and healthy and if they are exposed they’ll probably get over it in a couple weeks. (Probably.) But what about their co-worker? What about the flight attendant who has to be in a plane with them? What about their Uber driver? What about the person who fills their prescription at the pharmacy? What about the waitress at their favorite restaurant? What about the old lady who takes the bus with them to her medical appointments? What about…anyone else other than that individual making their individual decision?

China was successful in mitigating this outbreak because they shut everything down. They are a society where that is possible. (And, no, I’m not advocating for us being that type of society. I’m just pointing out the difference.)

The U.S is so concerned with personal financial cost and personal liberties that we have failed to contain this illness. And that failure will kill people. And if we continue down this path, we will kill more people. Not just in the U.S., by the way, but around the world. Our failure to properly contain this spread will impact every other country in the world.

Now maybe those people attending ECCC won’t be the ones who suffer the consequences, but people in their communities will. And people around the world will.

You know, it’s weird how uncomfortable it makes me feel to call this out. It is so ingrained in me that we respect individual rights in this country that a part of me wants to defend the creators who are still choosing to attend ECCC. Don’t they have the right to make a living? To survive? To be paid for their work?

But this is the bind our country places us in. Because we as a country do not provide social safety nets for our citizens we have put these people in a position to choose between attending this conference, perhaps gettting a little sick, hopefully staying in business, and maybe killing a stranger somewhere down the line and, perhaps, bankruptcy.

A clear personal financial consequence versus a vague societal one. You know what choice the average individual will make in that situation each and every time. That’s why we have regulations and rules and government. Because sometimes the optimal personal decision is the worst societal decision.

Do I have solutions (other than a very strong belief that they need to cancel that damned conference and start actually fucking testing enough people in this country to get their hands on the actual scope of the issue)? No. But I think this situation highlights the central dilemma we need to confront in the United States. How do you allow people those individual freedoms while still encouraging the best social decisions? Because, as we’re about to find out, we’re all in this together.

(And, hey, if I’m being over the top and paranoid about this and it all fizzles into nothing, well, okay. I’d rather look stupid by being too concerned than see the other outcome.)

News Coverage Disappoints Me

This is what cnn.com is showing right now related to the current coronavirus outbreak.

CNN Headline

And I have to tell you it frustrates the hell out of me. Because pretty much any expert or frontline individual handling this in the U.S. would tell you that the headline should be “there are now 158 CONFIRMED cases of novel coronavirus in US”.

That distinction between actual number of cases and reported number of cases is vital for getting people to understand what is actually going on in the US right now with respect to this illness.

See, the thing is, if you don’t test for something you can’t find it, right? And that’s what’s happening in the US right now.

Last week there were news reports that the care facility in Kirkland, WA that has been the source of the majority of the fatalities reported in the US so far had another 50+ individuals showing potential symptoms and another 150 people that were patients or staff of that facility in addition to those fifty. And yet, those people have not been tested. As of 20 minutes ago, CNN is just now reporting on that fact.

So right there, in one small location, you very likely have at least 50 more cases.

On top of that are all the stories coming out of people with travel history and symptoms who’ve tried to get tested and were refused. One in New York was told to go home via the subway and go back to work if he wanted. Think about that from a disease transmission perspective. How many times has that happened in the last six weeks? How many cases are there that we simply don’t know about because no one is testing aggressively?

If you only look at the fatality number of 11 and use a 2% fatality rate, at a minimum there are 550 cases. But we’ve already seen that some fatalities that occurred previously were only retroactively identified as fatalities related to this virus. So how many more were there that were chalked up as pneumonia or the seasonal flu? And that fatality number is a lagging indicator. This infection takes weeks to reach the point where someone dies from it. (Per the WHO report on China.) So that’s 550 as of a month ago.

It really frustrates me that I get more accurate information on what’s going on from Twitter than I can from my local news or from CNN who I had previously considered a trusted source. (Their coverage of the stock market the other day when it dropped a 1,000+ points in a day was also almost non-existent as it was happening. I had to go to Yahoo Finance to track that.)

I understand the desire to not be sensational and to not cause a panic. Especially with respect to stock market trading which in the short term can be very emotion-driven. And I get that we have a bunch of stupid people in this country who will react to bad news in stupid ways. And that the news very often gets accused of an “it if bleeds it leads” mentality.

But I have a 90-year-old grandma with COPD and a mother who is almost seventy and has needed emergency treatment on multiple occasions for breathing issues. Based on what I’m seeing I think they should both be limiting their public activities for the next couple of weeks.

There are no REPORTED cases in my state right now, but to think that a virus could be circulating freely in Washington state and not have made it to Colorado is wishful thinking. (My last full-time job I traveled every single week from Colorado or DC to New York or Miami or the UK or Germany. There are people whose jobs routinely have them on planes traveling all over this country–and this world–on a weekly basis. And flu transmission on planes is incredibly high.)

I told both my mother and my grandmother this over the weekend, but they looked at the local news coverage which says, “Hey, no big deal, small numbers, small risk” and they ignored me. My mom went to a casino which is a germ breeding ground on the best of days, and my grandma went to church, the store, and the doctor this week.

Hopefully I’m being alarmist about the current situation and the people I love will be fine.

But there has to be a way to provide news in an objective fashion while still applying critical thinking. Not just, “Hey, we’re being told this” but “Hey, we’re being told this and here’s the context in which that information should be evaluated.” Because far too many people in this country just listen to the news that airs at four on the local television station or just read the headlines of their chosen news site without engaging with that content and applying outside knowledge to it.

Anyway. It’s frustrating.

 

 

The Beauty and Danger of Publishing

One of the things that appeals to me most about publishing is that something I created long ago can continue to pay me money. I have titles I published in 2013 that continue to sell today. (Not many copies because those are all dead pen names that I don’t do much to promote, but sales are sales and that effort was done and dusted long ago.)

But most titles won’t continue to sell forever without continued effort to release more material under that name or promote them. So the same thing that appeals to me about publishing (long-term income from a project I finished long ago) is also what I have to guard against.

So far today I’ve sold 36 books on Amazon, which is great and will help pay my rent. But book sales are a lagging indicator. They happen after all the work has been done. After all the words have been put on the page, all the editing and formatting has been done, after the cover and title have been chosen, and after the publishing and promoting have been done.

It can be easy to focus on the sales number and forget about the months of effort that were required to get those sales. And because sales of most titles do trail off over time that means you can be headed for a fall off a cliff and not realize it. And when you do realize it you can be months behind where you should be to get things back on track.

So far today I haven’t written any words. I could probably continue to do that for six months without seeing any sort of huge impact on my income. It would probably require more promotional effort over time, but I could keep pretty steady for a while. But if I did that for a year? Or two? I’d definitely feel the pinch.

That’s why it’s important to track leading indicators as well. My big one, of course, is words written. (And to some extent, titles published. Writing words is meaningless for what I’m talking about here if those words aren’t going to lead to publishable titles.) The words I write are always the first step in the process. Without those, I have no new material.

The other one for me–that I also make into a New Year’s resolution–is ad spend. I target a certain amount of ad spend per month with the expectation that ad spend leads to sales.

So while it’s nice to see those sales and it helps take a little of the pressure off to know that money is coming in two months from now, it’s not safe to focus on just that sales number. I need to instead focus on production and building a base of material because it is far too easy to get lulled into a sense of false security with publishing.

 

Revise or Remove

When writing non-fiction you sometimes have to make a decision whether to revise a title or remove it. Or at least I do.

Case in point, Easy AMS Ads. When I first published that book it was current as of the date of publication but then Amazon made a lot of changes that made the material outdated. They removed an entire ad type, for example. So two years later I updated the book.

It ended up being an almost complete re-write by the time I was done because so much had changed in the two years since I’d published the original. And then within months of my publishing the updated version, Amazon made even more changes. They moved where billing info was located, they opened up additional stores, they changed where keywords were displayed, etc.

Which brings us to today. I had a decision to make with respect to that book (and the rest of the books in the Self-Publishing Essentials series.) I could try to update it again and hope that the pace of change had slowed enough for AMS that the book remained useful for a couple of years.

Or I could unpublish it and step aside from writing on that subject anymore. I’ve chosen to unpublish and step aside. Making money off of selling books about how to use AMS is not my focus as an author.

As of today my dashboard tells me I’ve sold over $113K worth of books using AMS ads, so I absolutely believe in the power of those ads. (That’s retail price, not what I actually was paid, FYI.) But I don’t want to have a product out there that isn’t up to date and I don’t want to have to keep updating that book every six months.

I’ve also unpublished the rest of that series which covered Excel for Self-Publishers, ACX for Beginners, and Print Books for Beginners. Excel for Self-Publishers had also become outdated. (It covered how to see your ad performance for a period of time but the AMS dashboard now lets you do that yourself.) And I haven’t done audio books recently enough to even know whether the ACX book is outdated. Print Books was probably fine, but without the rest of the books it didn’t make sense to continue to publish it.

I don’t expect that I’ll be publishing more books for self-publishers in the future. I’ve never directly had anyone say it to my face but I have most certainly noticed the number of times when authors make snide remarks about authors who publish books on self-publishing to “make a buck off of their fellow authors” especially when those authors don’t think that those publishing the books are successful enough by their standards to do so.

I published my books because self-publishing can be confusing and overwhelming and I saw misunderstandings and miscommunications in those particular areas over and over again. It was easier to put what I knew into a book format than to try to counter all the misinformation one forum post at a time. And because I’d put time and effort into creating those books, I felt I deserved to be paid for that time and effort and so sold those books instead of giving them away.

I hope those of you who bought the books found value in them. And I wish you all luck in the future. And, as always, I’m available via email if someone has a question or gets stuck. (Just have done your homework first or you’re likely to have me point you to one of the writers’ forums with instructions to read up a bit.)

A Good Post on Writing Scams To Watch Out For

One of the hardest aspects of getting published, either traditionally or by self-publishing, is knowing what’s legitimate and what’s a scam. And there are people out there who make a very good living by taking advantage of the ignorance and hopes of aspiring authors.

Anne R. Allen had an excellent post on her blog this week outlining ten current publishing scams to look out for.

My one quibble with what she said is that for non-fiction I think print is a much bigger part of sales than it is for fiction, even for self-publishers.

But still. Don’t go paying for a box full of books to sell out of your garage unless you are already established as a speaker with an audience you can sell them to. Print on demand (through KDP Print or IngramSpark) is the best option for print for self-publishing, IMO, unless you’ve pre-sold a large number of books already, like, for example, through a Kickstarter project and can justify the cost of a print run.

(And those scams targeting teens have been around for ages. I once “won” placement in a lovely gold-embossed book of poetry which was only $50 to buy. Fortunately, I was not so excited to see my poems in print that I paid it.)

Knowledge is Power

There’s a thread on Kboards right now where someone posted about how anyone can make a living self-publishing and then shared that they were making $4,000 a month with minimal advertising (they had some free titles) off of approximately a thousand 10,000-word erotic romances.

That’s 10 million words of content. The OP stated that they’re working 15-18 hours days to do this and don’t mind because they come from a background of having to put together a bunch of minimum wage jobs to make ends meet.

I admire the OP’s work ethic and what they’ve accomplished for themselves. (At my current writing rate it would take me another twenty years to hit 10 million words published. I currently have about 2 million.)

But what it really made me think about was class differences and knowledge and opportunity and how incredibly-hard-working people can almost kill themselves working hard for small rewards simply because they don’t know that there are better options out there.

For example, I took a year off in college. I had this notion that I’d become a stockbroker and earn enough to go back to Stanford and pay for it with cash if I could just work as a stockbroker for five years. (Turns out I hate selling people things and would almost try to talk them out of investing with me since I was twenty years old at the time and it made no sense for someone to trust me with a hundred thousand dollars they’d worked hard to earn for decades.)

When I went back to college the next year I needed a job to make ends meet. (Kids, check the cost of living where you go to school. Seriously. Palo Alto is not cheap.) As a kid from a lower middle class family my immediate instinct was to go get a job at the local mall. Which I did. They were happy to have me and to pay me some amount a little above minimum wage, but not that much above minimum wage.

Which meant that while I was completing that triple major I’d decided on, that I was also working forty plus hours a week to pay my rent and car payment and put food on the table.

But there were so many other choices I could’ve made that would’ve made my life easier. I ended up getting fired from that job about two months before graduation. (About a week after I’d complained about being made to feel very uncomfortable by the manager’s brother who followed me around all the time and then got into a shouting match with the manager over the fact that I was wearing shorts and he was wearing shorts but she said I wasn’t allowed to while he was, but that’s another story for another day.)

When I lost that job, I learned a few interesting things that I wish I’d known earlier.

First, I was working enough to earn vacation time at that job but had never been told about it. So on my last day they handed me a check for something like $400 I hadn’t even known I was due.

Instead of working through finals week because I needed the money, I could’ve taken a few paid vacation days. Who knew? (My manager…)

Second, turns out I was able to go down the street to a temp agency and immediately get a new job that paid me twice as much as the bookstore had. For stuffing envelopes and updating a database of customer addresses. Brainless work.

I had grabbed the first opportunity I found because as someone who came from my background and had no financial reserves to take the time find “the best job” and no one to tell me there were other options, I didn’t know I could do better than that almost-minimum-wage job at the mall.

(Honestly, if I’d been really thinking about how to make the most while working the least I would’ve taken one of those “we’ll pay you $25K for your eggs” ads in the back of the school paper seriously and not had to work at all. But, ya know. Hindsight. And growing up with a mindset that expected to work hard for what I received.)

What’s interesting is that I almost fell into that same mistake again when I graduated. Working full-time to barely make ends meet while trying to complete a degree like that meant that I hadn’t followed the proper path to get a consulting or investment banking job. (Or to prepare for grad school.) I had no clue how any of that worked, so I failed all those interviews.

Which meant after college I found myself back in Colorado with no access to the fancy campus recruiting options and no job prospects.

Not knowing what else to do, I applied for a manager position at a local ice cream shop. The salary was enough to pay my bills and I was qualified for it. Not based on my degree. Based on my prior experience managing the cashier’s office at an amusement park for a couple of summers.

But that manager did the biggest kindness to me that anyone has probably ever done me. He told me they were willing to hire me and that they’d give me the job if I really wanted it. But he also told me that he thought I could do better than that job and encouraged me to keep looking.

So I did.

And about a month later I was able to get my first regulatory job which ultimately led to my consulting job.

That one difference in which job I took after college meant the difference between working sixty hour weeks to earn $40K a year with minimal benefits and working sixty hour weeks to earn $160K with good benefits and promotion potential.

(Not immediately. We’re talking ten years out. One job had career potential with an upward trajectory, the other did not because it was a small family-owned business.)

I was lucky. Because a complete stranger was kind enough to share with me that broader perspective that they had but I didn’t. No one in my family had been down that path before. My brother and I were the first to go to college straight out of high school. And I was certainly the first to end up with an “elite” degree.

(One I still didn’t leverage properly even where I ended up. Starting i-banking salaries plus bonus the year I graduated were probably more than that $160K. But coming from where I had that wasn’t even something to imagine let alone expect.)

So bringing this back to that post on Kboards.

I see this woman who is happy with her accomplishments and happy with her income and I think of how many people come from those environments where you have to work tremendously hard to stay above water. And where it never occurs to you that you can work in a different way to accomplish that same goal. And where you don’t have the time or energy or connections to show you that easier path or to even tell you it exists.

A part of me wants to take that woman aside and say, “work smarter”. Write longer. Advertise.

But I don’t know that that’s an option for her. Maybe the quality isn’t there for that to help. Maybe it will just destroy what she has created.

So instead of reaching out to her, I wrote this blog post. To say that if you feel like you’re working at your max to barely get by that maybe it’s worth taking just a moment or two to look around and see if there isn’t a better option out there. If you’re good at what you do, see about a raise. If you’re not using the skills you trained on, see what’s out there job-wise. Ask yourself if there’s something else you could do that would pay more for the effort you’re putting in.

It’s too easy to get a little bit of something and cling to it when you’re right at the edge. But that can keep you at the edge.

Sometimes head down, full speed ahead isn’t the best choice. It got me a lot of what I ended up with, but looking back I know there were better choices I could’ve made.

Maybe that’s the case for you, too…

Writing Speed

One of the conversations that often happens around writing is how much can a writer feasibly write in a day or a week or a month or a year.

Often people will discuss how many words per minute they can type and try to extrapolate that to some number of words they could write if they just had the time. “Oh, I write 50 words per minute, so if I have sixty minutes that gives me 3,000 words which means if I quit my day job and write for six hours a day I can write 18,000 words a day. That means I could write the first draft of a 70,000-word novel a week.”

Now most people aren’t that extreme about it. But there are definitely people out there who argue that it’s easy enough to write 5,000-10,000 words per day. And that doing so for five days a week gives you 40,000 words in a week which gives you a novel a month easily.

What got me thinking about this is that I started the next cozy mystery this morning. And in the space of about an hour I wrote the first 2,400 words of the cozy, which for me was two chapters, each written in a thirty-minute chunk.

It’s only eight-thirty in the morning right now. I have a call in half an hour and need to feed the dog and spend time with her, but I have at least four more hours I could write in this afternoon. Which makes it look like I could easily hit 5,000 words for the day. And if I can do that today, why not tomorrow and the day after and the day after.

But it turns out that, at least for me, how many words I can write has nothing to do with my typing speed. It has to do with my idea-generation and refilling-the-well speed. I wrote 2,400 words this morning but none the past three days. And I’ve been pondering the way into this story and the plot for the story for months now. (The general idea–a cold case–was actually going to be the idea I used one or two cozies ago, so I’ve been trying to come up with a good cold case idea for months now. Which, because it’s a cozy, also has to be a bit light-hearted, too.)

It’s quite possible I’ll be able to sit down this afternoon and write the next chapter or two. But it’s equally possible that I’ll sit down to write that next chapter or two and not quite be ready for them yet. Or that I’ll write them and then need to go back after five or six chapters and smooth things out and ramp things up to keep the story momentum where I want it.

After many years of this I’ve found that for me the steady writing pace that helps me keep moving with a novel and not burn out averages around 2,000 words a day. (Non-fiction averages closer to 3,000 words a day and requires less downtime between drafts.)

And that’s still a higher number of expected words than I actually produce in a year because I need downtime between projects where my mind is working on the ideas and turning them this way and that and imagining scenes or dialogue I might include but I’m not writing.

Others work differently. Some people are binge writers. They just dive in and write for hours on end until they’re ready to collapse. Some people extensively outline so that when it comes time to write they can also put words on the page for hours at a time. Some are so high in Ideation that the ideas are always there and they don’t need that pause.

And some have to achieve perfection the first time they type a sentence so only get down 250 words an hour.

The key is to learn what’s reasonable for you and to plan accordingly. Don’t push yourself to be something you’re not. Find that steady pace that you can hit comfortably and work from there.

And also understand that others work differently and so will have different results than you do. Which means you shouldn’t tell someone they’re not capable of writing faster than you do just because you can’t do it. But it also means you shouldn’t tell someone who writes at a slower pace that they’re just not trying hard enough.

We all work at our own unique pace.  The key is finding what works for you and is sustainable for you.