Friday, May 1, 2020

Hope, Waste, and Despair:The Politics of a Pandemic

Photo: Vincent Zandri

As a writer, I rarely let a major crisis go to waste. So you would think by now, I would have chimed in on the ongoing pandemic which has gripped the nation and the world. But other than a few rather incendiary posts on Facebook and Twitter regarding speculation as to the severity and mainstream media misinformation surrounding Wuhan Virus/Covid-19, I've been pretty quiet on the topic, until today. 

Because of my profession, my days have been relatively unchanged. I still get up, make the coffee, head to my desk, and pump out the word count. Break for a workout, then back to the desk. In the afternoons, I write some more and after that, take care of the business of writing--answering emails, setting up promos, creating book ads, etc. In between all that, maybe I'll go for a walk or, in the warmer weather, pull out the fly rod and do a little fishing. Like I said, for a full-time writer, normalcy.

But that's where the normalcy ends. When the working day is over, a feeling of isolation and even despair washes over my body like a wet blanket. I can't shrug it, any more than I can explain it in black and white terms. The POTUS and many of his people equate the impact of the virus to a war. For certain, I understand what they're going for. We have brave and unselfish front line medical workers instead of soldiers combating the deadly illness in Iwo Jima-like hotspots such as New York City, parts of New Jersey, and other cities where all walks of life live on top of one another. 

But up here in Albany, which is mostly suburbia surrounded by rural communities, the viral impact hasn't been so hot. We've suffered less than 40 deaths due to the disease in Albany County but some New York State regions have recorded no cases of the disease at all. The deaths have largely been elderly and/or those with existing medical conditions. By contrast, I attempted to find out how many regular flu deaths have occurred this season. But the New York State Department of Health has suspended all reporting and statistic gathering since having shifted their focus to Covid-19. However, the department reports 2019/20 as one of the worst years on record for the flu. In 2017, 78 Albany County residents of all different age groups died from the flu. One can only assume, given the numbers, the body count is worse this year. Kind of gives you pause doesn't it?

Governor Andrew Cuomo has called for a one size fits all stay-at-home solution to the pandemic problem, which has left many, suddenly unemployed residents despondent, not only over their lack of an income, but their lack of a life.        

I've been trying to put the whole nightmare into some kind of relatable perspective. I've come to the conclusion that war isn't the appropriate analogy. Wars are tangible, with bombs, guns, tanks rolling in, planes overhead, missiles and rockets creating shock and awe. It's all very visual and dramatic. This pandemic is not. It's silent, and for some deadly, and it strikes with a whimper as opposed to military warfare's bang.  

If I had to relate it to something less militaristic, it's more like watching your once vibrant and promising, happy go lucky child suddenly succumb to mental illness. In war, you can outgun the enemy. You can starve them out. You can blockade them. Heck, you can nuke them. But in the case of a pandemic, you feel utterly helpless. You sit at home, and you watch what was only yesterday the most vibrant and promising economy in the world, suddenly succumb to insanity and panic. Panic exacerbated by social media, by the mainstream media, by politicians. You see people who've worked all their lives to build a business suddenly have to close their doors, with no hope of ever reopening again. In a word, you're watching an America commit suicide before your very eyes.  
Photo: The Federalist

For the first few weeks, I took the entire stay at home, social distance, wear the mask thing very seriously. It was the least I could do to try and get over this thing quickly and get America back to work before the cure became more deadly than the disease. But then something very insidious began to happen. Politics entered the equation. 

While Congress tried to rush through stimulus and payroll protection programs, liberal Democrats stopped the process in its tracks. Why? In Saul Alynski, "Rules for Radical" terms, they did not wish for a good crisis to go to waste. That said, House Democrats under leader Nancy Pelosi, insisted the bills contain all sorts of liberal goodies like the Green New Deal, bail out money for near bankrupt cities run by Democrat governors, and even $25 million for the Kennedy Center. 

I recall feeling a slow burn. Were we being duped by the politicians? If they could slow things up in order to fund the arts, were they interested in saving lives and putting desperate people back to work? Then Nancy Pelosi appeared on television along with two restaurant grade freezers filled with $12 pints of ice cream. Talk about out of touch with the American struggle. If this were the French Revolution, she might have been dragged out of her house only to face the Guillotine. 

Later on we'd see Hillary Clinton echoing Alynski (her graduate school hero) by repeating his never let a good crisis go to waste dogma by insisting that maybe now, we can institute Universal Healthcare in America. It all got me to thinking, was the left truly interesting in restarting the economy? Or were they intent on seeing it so destroyed to beyond Great Depression levels that would leave the majority of Americans having no choice but to accept socialism as a form of government. We'd be dependent on the government for our daily bread, our utter existence, and liberals would get exactly what they wanted all along. Ultimate power. 
There's no denying the Wuhan Corona Virus exists and that for some individuals and specific overly populated geographical locations, it is deadly. As deadly as the common flu perhaps. Perhaps even as deadly as the number of opioid deaths that plague Americans on an annual basis. Funny when you think about it. The virus originated in China. China also floods the US with deadly fentanyl. But that's for another essay. 

Today I attended an anti-Stay-at-Home rally in downtown Albany. The weather was the usual early spring upstate gray, cool, and rainy. It was well attended but not overly so. No guns, no violence, no drama. While many protested the governor and his policies, others protested government overreach in general. But what struck me the most, were the protestors who were warning not of a killer virus, but instead, the deadly effects of one's deteriorating mental health. With the crumbling of the economy, there will only be one outcome. Suicides, incidents of domestic violence, and violent acts of desperation will be on the rise. The police need to be vigilant. 

Photo: Vincent Zandri

During the Spanish Civil War, while bombs rained on the Spanish earth and its citizens with alarming regularity, the population did something extraordinary. They went to work, day in and day out. They could have stayed home, but in their minds, life had to go on. A semblance of normalcy was a palliative for violent abnormal conditions. People not only needed money, but they needed to feel wanted. They needed to feel essential. 

If there is a ray of hope in this train wreck, it's that this virus will pass, sooner or later. But in the meantime, if we are going to achieve victory in this war against this pandemic, we will not only need to get back to work as soon as possible, we will need to call out politicians who have blatantly used it to progress their own selfish agenda. 

This is a time of crisis for all freedom loving people. It would be a shame to let it go to waste. 



Saturday, January 4, 2020

5 New Year’s Resolutions Every Full-Time Fiction Writer Must Make in 2020, or Else Get a Day Job

(Courtesy Return of Kings)

It’s the new year and already I can feel change in the air. After all, this isn’t only a new year. It’s a new decade. A new era if you will, where politics are becoming more and more divisive, traditional norms like marriage and religion are eroding, and robots are about to take over the workforce. It will be a time of adaptation and innovation. Anyone who doesn’t plan for the future is making a plan to fail.

That’s especially true of full-time fiction writers. Long gone are the traditional query and wait days (that is, unless you’re a total dolt and choose to go that route), while authors can now get their work to market independent of the New York publishing houses in a matter of weeks or even days with online publishing platforms like Amazon KDP and/or Draft to Digital. If you’re like me, you engage in both the traditional and independent forms of publishing (I guess that makes me half a dolt), or what’s better known as the hybrid method. What this means is, there’s never been a better time to be a genre fiction author.

But unlike ten years ago, when you could upload a full-length novel and expect it to sell, the market is far more saturated than it used to be. Now you need to fight for attention not only with fellow mid-list authors, but also the big leaguers like John Grisham and Stephen King. In order to make your brand stick out from the crowd in 2020, and therefore make a good living, you’ll need to do these five things, or die!

1.     Advertise. For better or for worse, investing even a small amount of capital in Amazon ads is absolutely necessary for getting eyes on your books. I’m not about to get into the nitty gritty of how they work, because it’s still a mystery to me precisely how they work. Just know this: Eyes=Impressions. The more impressions the better chance that someone is going to buy one of or more of your books. That said, I’m going to concentrate on advertising first-in-series books, knowing that chances are, the average serial reader will want to read my entire series. 

2.      Optimize. I have something like 40 indie products. Maybe more. I’ve lost count. After five years of solid writing, and very little attention paid to selling, other than the occasional marketing promo, I’m going to be changing out my keywords with the help of KDP Rocket. I’m also going to take a good hard look at my product descriptions to make sure they pass the quality test. Go for enticement, not a book summary. I’ll also look at pricing. Are my books priced too low, or am I charging what they are truly worth? 

3.      Serialize. Unlike my standalones, which I sell to traditional publishers (for the most part, that is), the indie game is all about books in a series. I presently have about seven series going, but I’m going to increase that number. In fact, I’m never going to stop inventing new series. Simply said, they result in long tail sales. Now that’s the gift that keeps on giving.

4.      Audiblize. Audio books are presently exploding. People are reading (listening) to books on their smartphones like never before. I saw my audio sales triple in 2019 and I expect that to happen again in 2020. To be honest, I never used to pay attention to the audio market until I woke up in quarter three of last year and suddenly realized their awesome potential as a money maker. 

5.      Capitalize. Capitalize on other paper book outlets, that is. Another thing I discovered quite by accident in 2019. While eBooks listed in Amazon KU are exclusive to that program and therefore cannot be sold anywhere else, paper is not exclusive. That means you can set up accounts at Ingram Spark for instance. As an experiment, I bought 10 ISBNs off and published eight paperbacks on Ingram Spark (that’s not a typo. I screwed up two of the ISBNs and lost them, but that’s another story). I immediately started earning low three figures right off the bat. Of course, that will only increase with each new book published.       

In a nutshell, I won’t be just a writing machine in 2019. I’ll actually slow down with publishing (primarily because I have two traditional titles being published), but on the other hand, I will be upping my selling efforts in a big way. It’s not enough to be an artist in 2020 and beyond. You must also be a businessman or woman. You must sell you junk if you want to survive in this brave new world that’s changing all around us all the time.   

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Are Amazon Ads a Money Suck?

Courtesy Jane Friedman

I’ve been actively advertising my books on Amazon’s advertising platform for a couple years now. Originally it was called AMS which stood for Amazon Marketing Services but now it’s called simply, Amazon Ads. Who gives a crap what they call it? Anyway, I digress. 

Unlike the books I publish with real publishers, including the Amazon Publishing imprint, Thomas & Mercer, I also have a stable of 40+ books, novellas, and short stories that don’t move unless you put them in front of potential buyers. The old rule applies here. How can anyone buy your product if they don’t know it exists?

Enter Amazon Ads. Back in the early days, a few of us made some serious bucks selling eBooks on Kindle. I’d sold hundreds of thousands of them, and this led to some major publishing deals. But as the 2010s faded, many of us were finding it harder and harder to sell our books. Theoretically anyway, Amazon Ads could regain the visibility we’d lost with the influx of thousands of new authors.

Not knowing what I was doing, I created sponsored ads for a whole bunch of my books and while sales picked up, it soon became apparent that I was spending more than I was making. Time to educate myself. I took a course on Ads for Authors and it educated me on the ins and outs of making effective ads. It also told me how much to spend or not to spend. So far so good. But it also taught me something that was far more important. Advertising on Amazon is not necessarily driven by feeding it cash, it is driven by analyzing the data.

Now here’s where things get real sticky for me. I am not a spread sheet guy. I am not a data analyst. I cringe when it comes to math, and I am so dumb, I didn’t even know what an ACOS was before I took the course. ACOS is the most important statistic to pay attention to, because it tells you the Average Cost per click. That is, how much you’re paying every time someone clicks on your ad. If you’re ACOS is above %100 percent, you are losing money. In theory that is. BUTTTT…and this is a big but…if you’re in Kindle Unlimited, an ACOS a little above 100% is okay since it doesn’t count page reads.

Anyway, it turned out that for two years, my average ACOS was something like 600%. No wonder I was shaking my head at how much money was going out as opposed to coming in. So what to do?
I’m now stopping every ad that doesn’t have an average ACOS of 200% or lower. I’m going for a baseline here. I’m also going to concentrate only on books that are pilots of a long tail series. That way, I might attract readers who will give me a read through. I will also check my ads every day, as opposed to once per week. As I begin to achieve some success, I will scale up, and right the ship, as they say. After all, I’m in this to make some money, not hand it over to Mr. Bezos.

Be careful with Amazon Ads. Do them wrong, and you will lose your shirt and your pants. Do them right, and you can make build a nice little fortune.