Type I vs Type II Errors

Amazon seems to be in the midst of taking care of some scammer activity. There are reports of a number of customer accounts being closed as well as reports on the indie side of KU page reads from March disappearing. And with every Amazon action to clean up the swampy waters comes a discussion of innocent authors who got caught up in the actions.

For example, Amazon identifies a series of accounts as using botting activity to borrow books and read them in KU. It shuts those accounts down and pulls back all of the page reads those accounts generated. Author A who had paid for their books to be botted shrugs and moves on to the next scam. Author B whose books were read by that account to create smoke and confusion, screams bloody murder because they just lost a hundred thousand page reads they were banking on. (About $450 worth of page reads.)

Every time this happens, I think Type I error versus Type II error. Now, it’s possible that I’m misremembering my misspent education, but this is what that means to me from a regulatory and compliance standpoint. (My background.)

If you build a compliance system that is too lax, it will fail to identify all of the compliance issues. You will let through a certain percentage of activity that you shouldn’t.

If you build a compliance system that is too restrictive, it will flag a large amount of activity for review that isn’t a legitimate compliance issue and you run the risk of bogging down your review teams with false positives that they have to clear and let through.

Every company has to make a decision between those two choices. Which type of error is better? Letting through bad activity you shouldn’t? Or preventing good activity from occurring?

In certain settings–hospitals, food production, car manufacturing–you want to err on the side that saves lives, right? So, sterilize that equipment more than you really need to, because it’s better to sterilize the equipment three times than to kill someone or give them HIV.

In other settings, it can be a trickier line to draw.

I have seen companies be overwhelmed by compliance alerts that were too sensitive. Is it better to be nine months behind on your compliance reviews, but catch everything? Eh, well. I don’t know…Violate OFAC and they don’t care why you did it, they’ll fine you. But how much money do you want to spend to find that one Iranian transaction among millions?

It seems to me the approach Amazon takes sometimes is a lazy man’s approach to compliance monitoring. They do nothing until people complain too much. Then they run an automated process to flag all the potentially bad activity. And then, rather than do what the entities I used to work with would do and review all the flagged activity to find the legitimate problems, they just shut everyone down. And then they wait for the people who were innocent (or who are savvy enough to act innocent), to identify themselves with alarmed emails and complaints.

Saves a helluva lot of manpower and money. But sucks if you’re one of the ones caught in one of their purges.

On the other hand, what we normally see with them is a too lax system that allows everything through. So which is better?

Too much or too little?

Do we want the bestseller lists overwhelmed with books that shouldn’t be in those categories? (Classics? Really? That’s what you call that book?) Or do we want the risk of being purged from a legitimate category or being delisted until we can fix whatever issue Amazon has?

We can’t have it both ways. There will always be one type of error or the other.

(And for those of you who think reviewing these kinds of alerts is simple, let me tell you it isn’t. You’d think screening transaction information for something like “Iran” is simple, right? Well, you’d be amazed how many false alerts you can get from something so simple. And even if it only takes a minute to clear a false alert, when you have 10,000 false alerts to every one legitimate alert, that’s a lot of manpower involved.)

Dying is a Tricky Business

Twenty-three years ago today my father passed away. In one respect, there was nothing surprising about it. He’d dialyzed for over twenty years and been hospitalized in each of the two years before that with heart issues. Not to mention the twenty-plus surgeries, the two failed transplants, the quarter of a lung he lost, the two spinal fusions, etc.

But when the time actually came, it was a complete surprise. I’d just seen him a week before during my spring break. And I’d flown back to Houston fully expecting to see him again at the end of the school year.

Looking back now, I can see how ill he was. But he was always ill. For eighteen years of my life he was dying. For eighteen years every hospitalization, every illness, had the potential to be the one that ended things.

And yet he carried on. And he didn’t just carry on, he thrived. He was President of Kiwanis, the team little league coach, competed in chili cookoffs and chess tournaments, attended pretty much every one of my volleyball and basketball games and every one of my brother’s baseball games, went back for his college degree, ran a successful if not thriving business.

He was a good father. And a good man.

But he was always dying. There was never a question about him making it to old age. It was just a question of whether he’d be thirty or forty or fifty when the end finally came.

And now I have a dear friend in a similar situation. Metastatic melanoma. Tumors in his brain, on his lung, on a kidney. The first line treatment failed. They took out two tumors, treated him, and found three more. They’ve run scans, removed the offenders, but are making no efforts right now to stop more tumors from growing.

He is very likely going to die from this. And like my father, he continues to live his life the best he can knowing that dreams of what he’ll do twenty years from now aren’t realistic. That he has to stay close to his doctors and his home. No worldwide trips, no wild adventures.

Like my father, illness has taken from this once vigorous man part of who he was. It’s damaged his body. He can’t do now what he once could.

But it hasn’t stolen his mind. He’s still passionate, still driven. Still has the same wants and needs he did before illness struck.

He’s dying.

But when? Who knows. Could be years still. Years of slow decline, fighting a battle he knows he’ll lose.

I want to say that space between diagnosis and death is like freefall, like you’re untethered and falling towards that inevitable end. But that’s not right at all.

I’ve been in freefall. And that space of time between knowing it’s going to happen and having it happen is nothing like freefall.

It’s more like that moment in a car accident between when it becomes inevitable and when you register the impact. That frozen point in time where everything seems to stop but you know it’s moving violently forward. Or maybe the moment right after impact when you’re in motion and things are breaking and shattering around you but the pain hasn’t yet registered.

That moment between can last months. Even years. A whole lifetime can be lived in that space between diagnosis and death.

Or it can be over in a moment.

You never know.

Because dying is a tricky business.

 

Loved the Idea, Hated the Execution

I just finished watching the first season of a show called Crossing Lines. I remember trying to watch it a year or so ago and noping out of it almost immediately when it opened with some scared woman running through the woods being chased by some killer and then being found naked the next day.

But this time I pushed through and watched it anyway. (I should’ve known…)

I love the premise of the show. An international cast of characters from all over Europe identifying and solving cross-border crimes. That’s exactly the kind of show I can really sink my teeth into. Not only was the team well mixed in terms of geography, they were well mixed in terms of gender, too. I think there were three female main characters and four male main characters on the team in the first episode.

This is a type of show I could watch for years if it were good. And parts of it really were.

But…

SPOILER ALERT – STOP READING NOW IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW

By the end of the first season they’d killed off two of the main female characters. One in the first episode. And they gave that one just enough of a romantic potential to be motivation for one of the other characters. Sort of. Maybe. Not really.

(Everyone seems to have some intense backstory but the emotion really isn’t there except for a few limited scenes here or there and the rest of the time they seem to forget that they have this deep backstory.)

The other female character they just killed for no real good reason. Maybe contract negotiations. But I have to tell you television writer people: there are other ways to have a character leave a series than to kill them. Just sayin’.

So this series that started out with an interesting premise and seemed to have men and women in equal roles had, by the end of the first season, shown itself to be a show that includes female main characters as window dressing instead of legitimate central characters.

(Contrast this with Law & Order: SVU. I watched the first season recently and I don’t think they had a cliched “woman raped and murdered by a man” episode until at least midway through the first season. I want to say the first victim was a man and the second involved a woman as the killer. And Olivia holds her own as a detective, she’s not just there to check a box.)

What’s interesting is that maybe ten years ago I would’ve kept watching Crossing Lines. But maybe it was NCIS killing off at least three female lead characters (Kate, the Director, and Ziva) over the years. Or maybe it’s just heightened awareness of these issues through social media and discussions. But I have no patience anymore for shows that only kill their female main characters.

Life’s too short to support writers who see the world that way. (There are some fiction writers I’ve stopped reading for similar reasons.)

It’s too bad. I’d love to see more shows with an international flair…

Why Aren’t You Making More?

Once  a month I meet up for dinner with folks in my old critique group. I personally hate critique groups because I need to find the story I want to tell and to do it in the way I want to, but I like the people in the group. And once a month they have dinner before critique and I join them.

A lot of them are venturing into the self-publishing or small press publishing waters. And last night one of the members essentially asked me, “you have so many titles out, why aren’t you making more money?”

My first reaction was, “I know. Seriously, right?”

My second was “Oh just wait and see and you’ll start to understand.”

I never actually managed to answer the question because we got distracted, so let me answer it here.

According to my titles tracker, I have published 126 titles total. Some of those were republished under a different name. Some are now unpublished. Some are collections of shorter stuff. And two were free from the date they were published.

So if I just look at what I have published now, it’s 84 titles, 47 of which are short stories or collections of short stories.

There’s the first issue. Apart from erotica or erotic romance, shorts don’t seem to sell. At least not for me.

I have one short story series that has made me a couple thousand dollars, but most of my short stories don’t do much. The next most successful short story series has made me about $700.

That leaves me with 37 published novels or non-fiction titles.

Six are novels, the rest are non-fiction. Now, novels do sell and they’re eligible for more advertising options, which is key for getting visibility. And five of those novels are in my top ten in terms of gross revenue earned.

But they’re split across three pen names. Three novels are under romance pen names, the other three are YA fantasy. So basically it’s the equivalent of having an author with two novels out, an author with one novel out, and an author with three novels out.

Issue there is how frequently I publish a novel. My romance novels were three years apart. My fantasy novels were about a year apart. (And the next fantasy novel will be released more than a year after the last one.)

And the number of titles. I don’t write to market, so people aren’t seeking out my books on their own. Which means I need enough titles to catch in a reader’s mind and to give them chances to find me. I don’t have that with any of those names.

Which leaves us with the non-fiction titles.

Those are spread across three pen names and cover ten topics. Some can overlap. I have guides to Microsoft Excel and Microsoft Word, and if you look at the also-boughts you’ll see that people cross over there. But people reading my book about dealing with grief aren’t also reading my cookbook.

So again it’s like having an author with just a few titles out under their name. And with non-fiction there’s only so much you can write about a topic.

I think part of the reason I’m starting to see some traction with this author name (M.L. Humphrey) is because I finally have a decent number of titles out under this name and that they can potentially flow to one another.

I also, especially with non-fiction, tend to write what I feel like writing. I’ve lucked into a few where people actually wanted a book that covered that topic, but I have others that have made me $50 and that’s probably all they’ll ever make me.

Putting out all those titles has been good for me in terms of learning the mechanics of how you do things, which is why I felt comfortable writing the how-to books on ACX and CreateSpace. Put out twenty titles in audio and you learn a few things. Publish over forty paperbacks through CreateSpace and you see a wide range of what can go wrong and how it works.

But having a lot of titles out in the way I do is not the profit-maximizing approach.

If you want that, you focus on one name, in an area where people are going to come looking for your books, stay consistent in what you deliver, deliver on a steady schedule, and promote regularly.

If you can do that, you’ll probably do very well.

I…can’t. Or won’t. I’m not sure which.

Every year I sit myself down and say, “If you want to make good money at this, you need to crank out six books this year under one name in a hot market. Like dragons. Write dragons. Ready, set, go.”

And then I go write something completely different instead.

Despite my inability to do what I know will make me money, it’s slowly adding up. March of last year I grossed $440. Right now for March I’m at $3,500 and my profit for the month is over four times what I grossed last year.

I am incredibly proud of the progress I have made. At the same time I ask myself daily why I’m not making more money doing this. You know, what’s wrong with me that I’m not a six-figure author yet. (See above for the answer. And maybe have a reality check about how common that really is.)

And it’s hard to have knowledge to share that you know will help others but to not be some bright blazing example of success. But it is what it is. And I figure that my true target audience is those who are where I was two years ago. My third full year of self-publishing I grossed $2700. In this my fifth full year of self-publishing I’ve grossed more than that in this one month.

So when that question comes up, that’s what I focus on. Where I started, how far I’ve come, and the fact that my progress may be slow but it’s steady and improving.

 

Excel for Self-Publishers is Done!

Late yesterday the Excel for Self-Publishers video course went live. When all was said and done it was almost four hours long! Wowza. But nice thing is, even with the captions situation, this one went faster than the last one. I’m now at the point where I can pretty much just sit down, record, edit, do captions, and done.

Which means the next one will hopefully go even faster.

If anyone is interested in the course, here’s an early sign-up discount link: https://www.udemy.com/excel-for-self-publishers/?couponCode=E4SP_INTRO

And there will also always be some sort of discount link available on the video course page on this site.

(And because of how Udemy pays, please don’t hesitate to use those links. I have one good friend who refuses to buy my books when they’re on sale because they want to support me the best way they can. But in this case, I get 97% if someone uses one of those links and only 50% if they go to the website and buy the course without a coupon. So if I offer a 50% off coupon, I’m basically getting the same payout but a student only has to pay half as much.)

Also, if you’re enrolled in AMS Ads for Authors, you should’ve received an announcement about the Excel for Self-Publishers course that also comes with a link you can use for an even better discount. And it included an announcement of a new bonus video I added to the AMS course. So be sure to check that out even if you’re familiar with the subject already. The video includes a how-to as well as some pointers for making your ads more effective.

And now I should take a few days and rest. But in this sense I’m finally acting like someone who is self-employed. I look at my to-do list and think there’s just too much to be done to waste a whole two days. (I have a friend coming from out of town on Friday so am going to have a chance to relax and celebrate for at least a couple hours then.)

So much to do, so little time to do it all…

Camtasia, Udemy, and Closed Captions

I almost cried yesterday. I’m doing final review of the Excel for Self-Publishers videos and I clicked on the MP4 files to watch them and couldn’t see my closed captions. A little digging on the Camtasia site and it turns out they’re only visible in the HTML version of the video.

So I thought I was screwed. That the twelve hours or so I’d spent adding closed captions to the course videos had been wasted, and that I was going to have to redo all of that work.

But a little digging and I found out that wasn’t the case. Which is good. Because I was quite upset until I figured that out.

So for anyone thinking of doing a video course, here’s a the recap of all of this drama and how to deal with.

I did my first video course without closed captions. Didn’t even occur to me to create them.

When I uploaded the course to Udemy they added captions to the videos for me. Which some would’ve just shrugged their shoulders and said, “great”, and continued on their merry little way. But I couldn’t have captions on my videos that were auto-generated.

Especially when the system seemed to think I was saying “H.M.S” every time I was saying “AMS”. I also had at least one instance of “fake news” and “ass” show up that weren’t legitimate. So I spent hours going through those videos and fixing the captions. (Think 3 minutes per minute of video to do captions. Minimum.)

That took care of the AMS course, but on this course I didn’t want to do that through Udemy. What if I want to take the course videos elsewhere later? Doing it in Udemy means I lose that work and have to redo it.

So I dug around. And it turns out that you can do captions in Camtasia.

(Click on More. Choose Captions.¬† Click on the little gear icon and then choose the Speech to Text option. Add to Entire Timeline, and then go through and edit them. Use Enter to play. Don’t click on that little play icon unless you want to hear the same clip repeat over and over and over.)

(Edited to add: And make sure that you don’t have any blank sections in your captions. Camtasia seems to generate them for every transition point, but Udemy won’t accept them, so merge them with the prior or next caption.)

So I managed to get my captions added and figured it was all good. But then I pulled up the MP4 and nada. No captions. I dug around to figure out why.

Turns out they don’t show in the MP4 file unless you burn the captions into the video. What they like to call open captions.

But that’s not what I wanted. Not everybody will want captions burned across the bottom of their video. Especially an instructional video where you might need to see what’s under that text.

And I also had the issue of how to proof those captions if they weren’t visible in the MP4.

The proofing part turned out to be easy. Just use the HTML file that’s generated when you use Share -> Local File. I had to tell my computer it was okay to play the “dangerous” content, but then I was able to watch the video with captions on by clicking on the little CC option in the bottom right corner of the video.

But I still had the issue of how to get those captions loaded to Udemy.

Turns out it’s a multi-step process.

You can export the captions from Camtasia under Share->Export Captions. But you can only export as a .srt or a .smi file. Still, at least it’s possible. (Not well-explained anywhere, but possible.)

Problem is, Udemy requires that you use a .vtt file format for your captions.

So I had to do an Internet search to find a program that would convert from .srt to .vtt. I found one. It does the work in about two seconds. But I have no idea how reputable it is, so I’m not linking to it, and my computer may be overcome by ransomware in the next week or so if it’s a bad site. But it is what it is.

Once you do that conversion, you can then go to the Captions section of the course dashboard on Udemy and upload the captions file for each of your videos. So it’s a separate upload, but it does the trick.

Do all that and voila! You will have captions that you created in Camtasia on your videos in Udemy.

Good times.

But I figured I’d share to save others the couple of hours it took me to figure that all out.

Competition

I’m hip-deep in producing the videos for the Excel for Self-Publishers video course. (Two and a half hours of video done, probably half an hour worth to go. Woot!) And it has me thinking about competition a lot. Partially because it’s such a business-focused class/book.

When I first started self-publishing, the indie mantra was “we’re all in this together”. And everyone talked about sharing everything and how there was room for everyone. People were encouraged to self-publish and you’d see authors openly share the genres where they were finding success. It was an all-for-one environment.

I’ve seen it on the trade publishing side, too. This idea that there’s room for everyone. That authors don’t compete with one another. That we’re all just one big happy family of writers who will conquer the world together.

Now, you may have noticed that I’m a bit of a cynic. If you hadn’t, I am.

So this message never sat well with me.

(One of the lessons I learned in business school was that there are some people out there who’d stab their own mother in the back to get ahead and they won’t hesitate to lie, manipulate, or cheat to get what they want. Not taught in class, by the way. More a matter of observation and listening to what some people chose to brag about. Suffice it to say, I have some classmates I would never, ever do business with.)

Anyway. Over the years I have tried to reconcile this message of “help everyone and we’ll be better off” and the fact that we don’t live in a limitless world.

And here’s where I’ve come out on this whole issue:

When it comes to growing a genre so that it’s recognizable and people can ask for it by name, we’re in this together.

When it comes to growing a sales platform so that readers go to that platform to find a new book, we’re also in this together.

By working together to drive discoverability of what we write and where it can be found, we all benefit. When people read a Twilight or a Harry Potter or a Hunger Games or a 50 Shades and want more, all authors who write that type of book benefit from that new reader hunger.

Anything that expands the potential number of readers is good for all of us. And so early on having quality writers self-publish and raise the respectability of self-publishing benefited all self-publishers.

But…

There are only so many spots at the top of the lists. And there are only so many hours a reader has to devote to reading per day. And only so many dollars they have to spend on new books.

And there are only so many advertising slots available. We’d all love a Bookbub on all of our titles, but that’s not an option. They only have so many spaces available to run ads and more than enough books to choose from.

And with pay-per-click advertising (like AMS), the more people who are using them, the more it costs everyone to use them.

So it’s sort of a love-hate thing.

We need our fellow authors to keep readers engaged with books as a form of entertainment between our own releases. No one author (unless they’re insanely prolific) can meet the reading needs of their readers. And it’s in all of our interests for people to read instead of turn to tv shows or movies or laser tag or what have you.

But when there is enough product out there to keep readers engaged, and I’d argue there is, then we all start competing with one another for what is now a limited resource — reader time and money, as well as visibility.

(And if that competition then leads to people releasing subpar product or taking shortcuts that damage the reader experience…well, that damages us all, too, right? Readers throw up their hands in disgust and either go re-read their favorites or turn to tv and movies for their fix.)

Anyway. A few thoughts for a Friday afternoon, partially based on something I see going down right now but don’t want to post about, because, ya know.

Time to get back to producing a product only about a dozen people will want. Because that’s how I roll…