2016-02-14

Paperless statements

Update
I took a day off work to get the taxes done. I use TaxAct to do my own taxes. Since I have a business as well as an HSA I must use the premium version. I have a checklist that I run through every year to make sure I have all the right paperwork and numbers before sitting down. Even so, this year it took most of the day (with breaks) to do the Federal, State, and City taxes. One of the biggest surprises this year was the number of Amazon 1099's I received. Early last year, I switched from using my SSN to my EIN at Amazon and Smashwords. That resulted in double the number of 1099's (one for each tax number from every sub-division). Next year will be better. Lesson learned - if you switch from using your SSN to your EIN, be prepared for a large number of 1099's.

Work on Dragonverse Origins has been moving along but at a slower pace than I would like. Usually, my wife goes out with one of her friends at least once during the week giving me a few hours of time to write. Because of the weather and how she's been feeling recently, she's been staying home. This means my writing time is reduced. I've also been catching up on Colony which is becoming a very interesting show. I just hope they don't stretch out the mystery of the visitors for too long because I'll lose interest in waiting for the answer to the show's ultimate question. Origins stands at 78,627 words. I'm working on moving the story along to the ending.

Endings are not my strong point and I tend to finish things up too fast. I'm trying very hard not to do this in Origins. I do need to time-compress at the end but I've got to figure out how to do it without making it seem like I'm rushing. If I don't compress, then this is going to be a VERY long book. I try to hit a target of around 85,000 words and I'm almost there.

Paperless - The Problem of an All-digital Life
A friend of mine and fellow writer publishes a blog series on going paperless. I've always been a big fan of using less paper but recently, I've been rethinking the logic behind doing so. If you rewind back in time several months you would find that I was totally paperless for all my credit card statements, bank statements, utility bills, etc. I really didn't need them because I would use Quicken to automatically synchronize and balance all these accounts. But there was a sinister dark side waiting for us.

My wife is not a very computer-savvy person. I am (I'm a programmer). Running the automatic Quicken balancing program is easy for me. Not so much for her. Setting up a new account would be a nightmare for her. As long as I'm around, paperless statements make a ton of sense. But what happens if I suffer a sudden heart attack or end up unable to do my part with our finances? I have set up so many computerized ways of doing things that she would be lost. I needed to change that. I decided to return to paper.

The biggest problem I encountered was when it came time to gather the forms for filing the taxes. Because I'd gone paperless, I had to navigate to a handful of websites, hunt around until I found where the tax forms were located, and print them. Even with a checklist, I started wondering if I missed any. Immediately after finishing my taxes I did two things: 1) I went to every website I needed to and opted out of paperless (except for one that would have charged me) and I put together a document telling my wife (or executor) where I store things and how to retrieve them.

My wife and I use LastPass to store all of our passwords. This is a wonderful program and I highly recommend it. But even with this wonderful program, having to navigate to a bunch of websites just to see your statements is a pain in the neck. Now that I'm receiving most of my statements in paper form, I can rest easy that my wife will be able to handle things if I depart before she does. It also means that if we both leave this life together, our executor will be able to figure things out far easier than if I had remained totally paperless.

We also have virtually all of our bills set up to be automatically paid through a single credit card. This is a wonderful idea and we don't have to worry about paying hardly anything. My car loan and my home mortgage is set up the same way -- everything is handled automatically. But what are our bills? Would an executor know about them? To safeguard this information, I wrote it all down: What account is automatically paid via which credit card; What money is automatically going into which account; Where are all these accounts.

These are things everyone should think about - not just writers. If you were to suddenly pass away, would your spouse be able to handle things? If you and your spouse were to pass, can the executor of your will find everything? We live in a digital age that has made things so much easier on all of us. But nobody stops to think about what happens when the person who set up their digital life is no longer around? Unless all this information is written down and maintained up-to-date, things are bound to be lost. If you live a paperless life or you have things computerized and digitized to make things easier -- now is the time to write it down and put a PRINTED copy of all that information in a safe place.

One more tidbit: If a massive solar flare were to wipe out the internet and erase all the data on your computer, could you financially survive? Such a flare is possible - one narrowly missed us only a few short years ago. Write down the phone numbers and addresses of all your financial institutes and other important entities and put them in a safe place. Am I paranoid? No. But I like to be prepared for anything. So, stop reading, gather your information, and put it into writing in a safe place.

2016-02-07

NEO RWA

Updates
Dragonverse Origins is moving along at a good pace (76,217 words if you're a numbers person). I know what needs to be written and the words are running together in their excitement to get out into the open. As soon as the last one is digitized, the book will be sent to my content-editor so he can rip it apart and help make it better. In the meantime, I’ll be starting work on Peacekeeper 3. I’m not sure if I’m going to keep that as the title or not – suggestions?

NEORWA
Yesterday, I was honored to present a talk at the monthly NorthEast Ohio Romance Writers of America (NEORWA) meeting. I say ‘honored’ because these people have their act together! Seriously – the SFWA can learn a lot from how the romance writers have organized themselves.

To be totally honest, I was expecting to present a talk to a group of women authors of which the majority knew little to nothing about self-publishing. Boy was I wrong! It didn’t take long before I realized I was addressing a very different group of people. These were seasoned authors, some of whom have won several major romance awards (none of which I’ve ever heard of). About half have published novels (traditional as well as self-published).

The room was filled with around 30 women. Male romance writers do exist, but they make up a very small percentage of the existing writers. During my talk and subsequent question and answer session as well as during the lunch afterward, I learned that writing romance is not as easy as one might assume. I’ve heard some people describe romance as “your typical boy meets girl, they fall in love, something tragic happens that tears them apart, they make up and get back together and live happily-ever-after.” If that’s what you think, you would be dead wrong. While some major plot-lines might follow this track, that's not always the case.

Just as in other genres, romance has its sub-categories: Historical, paranormal, erotic, contemporary, etc. The story can take place anywhere and at any time. Sound familiar? As a science fiction author, I can easily imagine a romance story set on a different planet complete with all the science and other trimmings that make science fiction what it is. The over-arching theme of a romance novel is a central love story with an emotionally satisfying ending. The rest is as diverse as any you will find in science fiction or fantasy. Based on what I've learned, writing historical romance is particularly difficult because, like getting the science right in science fiction, you must get your history right or your reviews will suffer.

Unlike SFWA where you must make a certain amount of money selling your books, membership in the RWA requires an author to only have written a book and made it publicly available. Another unique aspect of the organization is that to retain your higher-level membership, you must continue to write and publish. For a full set of rules, click here. During the lunch after the meeting, I learned that RWA authors, no matter how well-known they become, tend to always have the desire to help foster other RWA authors. While this same attitude exists in other genres, it seems to be more prevalent among romance writers. Their use of local chapters that meet monthly and engage in group activities is another strong factor in bringing writers in contact with one another. It’s a model SFWA should look into emulating.

I’ve been an active member of SFWA for nearly a year. The organization’s website is full of useful information. But, other than being able to visit the SFWA suite while at WorldCon, and running into a few members at other events, I haven’t interacted with any other members. Having local chapters that meet once a month is a great idea. The monthly meeting begins with the business of doing business as an RWA chapter. Later on, they discuss upcoming events sponsored by the chapter such as a trip to a fashion museum. These events, as well as the meetings, allow members to interact with each other, exchange ideas, and learn from each other. There’s a lot to be said about face-to-face interaction with other writers.

There are other benefits to having local chapters. Guest speakers (such as myself) can be invited to present to the assembled group. This is a learning opportunity for the members that is very difficult or impossible to obtain without the existence of the local chapter. Experts from the community can be invited to share their knowledge in a wide variety of topics. Granted, much of the same information might be available on the internet, but being able to interact with a live person, ask them questions, and get instant feedback from them as well as the other members of the group is a much better way to learn. Writer groups are a popular alternative but they tend to focus on reading and commenting on what the members are currently working on. They have their place in a writer's life, but attending a chapter meeting dedicated to your chosen genre can provide additional benefits.

I learned a lot by accepting the invitation and I’m very glad I was invited. I came away with a whole different view of what it means to be a romance writer. They are hard-working, authors dedicated to producing a professional product for their readers. If you are a writer of science fiction, fantasy, romance, or any other specific genre, you should seriously consider making a visit to a meeting of another genre’s writers – if you can find one. You will walk away a better person. 

There is one more thing I learned the other day I would like to share with you. I have always viewed indie-publishers and self-publishers as one and the same. One of the authors pointed out that being an indie-publisher means you are an “independent-publisher”. This means you go through all the same steps as a traditional publisher but you are responsible for the cost of these steps (editing, proofing, cover development, marketing, etc.). A self-published person, on the other hand, is someone who simply self-publishes a book. They tend to skip the other steps that turn a good book into a professional product. Although I’m not sure I agree with this definition, I found it interesting that this particular author made the distinction. It’s the difference between being or not being a professional. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on this.

Perhaps I should begin identifying myself as a professionally self-published author, but that sounds like too much of a mouthful!


Time to get back to finishing Dragonverse Origins.

2016-01-31

Self-Publishing: Tax Time

Update
This has been a good week for writing. Dragonverse Origins now stands at 74,436 words. If I have another week like this one, the book will be done by next week. Even though this is the first draft, I'm going to send it to my content editor as soon as I'm done so he can tear it apart. I would rather do major editing at this stage than after I made a couple of editing passes. While I wait for his review, I'll be working on a couple of other side projects: I need to update my web page to show my new Galactic Alliance covers; I need to update the first two books in the Dragonverse series; I want to put together a complete linked summary of all my self-publishing posts; and I need to start work on Peacekeeper 3. I think I have enough to keep me busy for quite awhile!

I will be giving a self-publishing presentation at the NorthEast Ohio Romance Writers Of America (NEORWA) meeting next Saturday, February 6th. I'm looking forward to this event. If you live near Parma, please join us. The meeting will be held at the Parma public library starting at 10:00. I begin my presentation around 10:30.

Tax Time
Tax time is upon us and it's time for my annual reminders concerning taxes. If you've been following my advice, you have a great start on filing your taxes. The Amazon 1099's should be going out soon and when they arrive you need to pay particular attention to them. Smashwords tax forms are already available on their website.

So what's so special about the Amazon 1099's? If you have had any overseas sales, you will have to compare the total of all your Amazon 1099's with the total of all the money Amazon actually deposited into your bank account. If you keep good records, this should be easy. If you have sales outside the United States (and you're in the United States) you will discover that the 1099's add up to more than what was actually deposited. The first time this happened to me I thought Amazon had made a mistake. It took a few back and forth emails to sort it out but the difference is caused by the foreign currency conversion fee you are charged.

I used to think this was a problem with how Amazon reported my income. But, after a few more hard to decrypt emails from Amazon, I don't think the problem is entirely their fault. Their overseas units will deposit the money into my bank account but this deposit is in the local currency. My bank (or theirs) will do the conversion. Overall, it amounts to about 3.3% of the deposit. If you carefully read the Amazon contract, you will find a clause that says you will be charged a fee for this conversion. It does not specify what this fee is because Amazon does not control it.

So why is this important? Why not just take the numbers from the 1099's and plug them into the tax form? Because that foreign currency conversion fee is a business expense. Do the math and take the expense. If you are ever audited, just pull out the 1099's and a copy of your end-of-year report and show them the difference. You will never see this value reported to you from Amazon nor from the bank. You must calculate it on your own.

There are a whole list of other expenses you can claim as well as long as you are treating your writing as a business. These include but are not limited to:

  • Writing supplies (computers, pens, pencils, paper, ink, printers, etc.).
  • Writing related magazine subscriptions.
  • Cost of ordering books.
  • A percentage of your internet cost if you share it with the rest of your home.
  • Meals while you are away from you home office.
  • Mileage that is associated with your writing business.
  • Professional organization membership fees.
  • Travel expenses to conventions and other writing-related activities.
  • Office furniture.
  • Fees paid to editors, artists, and other individuals for writing-related services.
  • Advertizing expenses.
  • Cost of printing business cards.
Some of the above will only apply if you have a home office. This is an area specifically set aside and used exclusively for writing. It does not have to be a single room -- it can be a part of a room. It can even be a small building outside your home (but be careful, there are special things the IRS will need concerning such an office). You can track your household expenses and deduct the percentage of the size of your office from those expenses or you can use a standard deduction calculation based on the size of the office. It's much easier for me to use the standard deduction calculation.

Mileage can be claimed if you have a home office. If you don't have one, then the IRS will most likely disallow mileage because a writer can write from anywhere. If you own more than two cars and you use both for writing activities, you're going to have to treat both cars as if they are one. The tax forms only have room for a single vehicle. I have two and I use them both. I combine the mileage from both vehicles and pretend as if they are from a single car. You can also use this method if you sell a car and buy another one. Just make sure you have a detailed mileage log for each vehicle and you track the total mileage driven over the year for every vehicle.

Many people have an accountant who does their taxes at the end of the year. The fee for this is a business expense. If you have someone else do your taxes, make sure you examine the final product very closely. I've found errors on ones I've had done and had to go back and correct them. I find that it's much easier for me to do my own taxes because I know what needs to go into the calculations.

If you have any questions about what can and cannot be deducted, go to the IRS website and read the following IRS documents. They're actually not that hard to understand if you carefully read them.
  • Publication 587: Business use of your home.
  • Publication 550: Investment Income and Expenses
  • Publication 535: Business expenses
  • Publication 583: Starting a business and keeping records
I know you would rather spend your time writing, but if you want to survive an IRS audit, please make sure you know what is going on with your taxes. Handing your records over to someone else and trusting them to do it all correctly can be a costly mistake. It's your money, it's your business -- make sure you make it your responsibility to at least understand what every line on the tax form means.

Next week I'll talk about how my presentation went at the NEORWOA meeting as well as some things I've heard about concerning the publishing industry.

2016-01-24

Self-Publishing: Sharing

Reminder
I am still collecting funds to help Launch Pad. You can donate by clicking here. This workshop is an experience that will stay with you for the rest of your life. I have been supporting it since going to my first workshop in 2012. It was recently featured on IO9, and has appeared in many other magazines including Locus. Even a small donation will help.


Update
Good progress has been made on Dragonverse Origins. The word count now stands at 69,643 and the end of the first draft is in sight. The Dragonverse series is not my top seller but I do enjoy writing about dragons. As soon as the book goes to my content editor for checking, I'm going to start work on another Peacekeeper. One of the main characters in that spin-off from the Galactic Alliance series is a member of a species that looks very much like a wingless dragon. It's sort of a theme in virtually all of my books. Obsessed with dragons? You bet!

Last week, I was out of town taking a class on how to use a powerful product called Qlikview. The company I work for has had a license for quite some time but not many applications have been developed to use it. I think that's changing. One of the really cool things about the product is the ability to download it and use it's full power for free. I plan on using it to analyze my Amazon sales. Being out of town also gave me a lot of time to write which is how I managed to make such good progress on Origins.

One of the challenges of analyzing Amazon sales data is actually getting the data into a database so it can be analyzed. Amazon does supply a detailed report in the form of an Excel spreadsheet for every month of sales. But the data is not in a format that can be directly imported into a database such as Microsoft Access. I'm working on a computer program (written in VBA) that can scan the spreadsheet and load the relevant information into Microsoft Access. From there, I can load it into Qlikview and generate all sorts of interesting analysis. If anyone is interested in getting their hands on the code or the actual database when it's done, please let me know. I would be happy to share.


Sharing
I enjoy sharing my self-publishing experience with others. That's one of the reasons I started this blog. The sharing of information is the engine that has pushed our civilization forward. Last year, I was invited to speak at a future Northeast Ohio Romance Writers of America meeting. My first question was what the heck does a science fiction and fantasy writer know that can help a romance writer? After a few rounds of emails, the answer was -- plenty! I presented a list of possible subjects, the list was presented to the members, and a selection was made. I will be at their next meeting on February 6th. If you click on the above link, you will see me listed on the right. I will be sharing my knowledge on self-publishing.

The first half of what I plan on talking about is not about marketing. In my opinion, marketing is too expensive for most self-published authors and the return on investment is not great enough to be considered useful. I plan on talking about how to present yourself in a professional manner. Doing so will go a long way towards helping you on the path to success.

I'm not getting paid for doing this (they are buying me lunch though) and one would think that making an hour-long trip to talk to a bunch of romance writers is not good business sense. But that would be wrong. I'm sharing what I've learned with other writers and helping them improve their final product. It's also a chance for me to meet with writers who live in another genre and perhaps learn something from them.

There was a time when the term 'self-published' was associated with trashy, poorly edited, grammatical nightmares that were dumped on Amazon by amateurs in the hope of becoming rich. That's slowly changing and I hope to be part of that change. A self-published novel should go through the same steps as a traditionally published novel. Granted, the results will not be perfect, but I've read traditionally published works with plenty of mistakes in them.

There's been some complaining floating around on some of the social media from other authors about not being paid to make an appearance. The vast majority of writers don't earn enough to make a living at writing. The rising complaints I've encountered deal mostly with being invited to a conference or a convention and then being asked to pay your own way, buy a conference ticket, and pay for the hotel. In my mind, this is a valid complaint. If you're a writer and you were planning on attending the conference anyway, then I wouldn't complain. If you were not, I would refuse unless you received compensation for your appearance. That's good business practice.

On the other hand, I've read some statements from authors who believe their local library should pay for them to appear. If the library is local, you should be supporting it, not asking them to pay you to walk in their doors. Even if you've made it to the big time and you make enough to quit your day job, you should be willing to support your local library by accepting an invitation to talk to the patrons without asking for money. Doing so indicates you've fallen victim to what I think is the biggest problem in this country -- Greed.

Yes, a writer should be paid for their work. Yes, a writer should be compensated if they are asked to travel more than an hour or two from their home. But asking to be paid to speak to a classroom full of kids at the local high school, making an appearance at a library, or giving a talk at a nearby coffee shop, is being greedy and inconsiderate. I'm not a very opinionated person -- my most commonly used phrase is: "I don't care". But, when it comes to dealing with greed, you will find I am VERY opinionated. It's a cancer that seems to have infected most of America.

I will always accept an invitation to appear at any local establishment without asking to be compensated in any way. I like to share what I've learned over the years as a self-published author. Granted, I'm not the most successful author out there, but I've learned plenty over the years and I won't keep it to myself.

Two posts ago, I said I would begin my round of tax-tips for writers. I plan to start that next week unless another, even more important topic, surfaces.

Time to get back to writing.

2016-01-17

Self-Publishing: 2015 Year in Review

Updates
I've been making very slow progress working my way through Dragonver Origins. I have not yet reached the point of adding additional material because I've been doing some major rewriting of what I wrote before I started on my project to professionalize all of my books. It took several months to finish reworking the Galactic Alliance series and while Origins sat idle I was thinking about what I had written. Changes were needed and I decided to start from the beginning and edit what I had written. This is not how a book is supposed to be written but there are times when the rules need to be broken. I've added at least 3,000 words so far and some of the rewrites have taken a considerable amount of patience. Finding the right way to word something to get across a concept is not always an easy thing to do.

I will be out of town for a few days living in a hotel and that will give me plenty of time to write. I hope to make significant progress on Dragonverse Origins in the next few days. While the book is being looked at by my content editor, I will be starting work on a new Peacekeeper novel. I've never done two projects at once but that's the plan. While Origins is being reviewed by my content editor, gone over by my wife to fix my dumb mistakes, and then looked at by another fan in Germany, I will be working on a new Peacekeeper. It's going to be a busy year.

Income
I'm following up on a promise I made over a year ago to continue to post my writing income on this blog. Writers don't know if they are doing well or doing poorly unless they share their writing income with each other. This time, I will also share with you the number of books that have been sold.

Year     Income          Books sold
====     =====          ========
2009          $66                     58           This is the year I published my first book
2010        $302                   342
2011      $2,929               3,577
2012    $92,772             46,379
2013      $9,753               3,879
2014      $8,528               1,360
2015      $3,804                  457

Looking at the above information, you should be wondering what the heck happened in 2012? The answer is -- Amazon. One of my books was featured in an Amazon daily deal or recommendation or something (which one I'm unaware of) and sales took off. I could literally sit at my computer and watch the book move up in the ranks. This is the power of advertising. The question is, can it be duplicated? Advertising is expensive and unless it reaches a wide audience with the right interest it's not going to give you a good return on your investment. The advertising I received in 2012 was free and it targeted the perfect audience. I doubt I could have done better with any type of paid advertising campaign.

Ignoring 2012, do I think I'm doing good? I would consider 2013 and 2014 to be good years for a self-published author. 2015 was a not so good year. I've heard it said that the best way to boost sales is to write the next book. I did not release a new book in 2015. I also raised my prices (based on feedback from a number of people). That is a deadly combination! Late in 2015, I lowered my prices and sales seem to have picked up again. I'll let you know how that works out as more data comes in. I'm also pushing to release at least one and maybe two books this year. Sales should increase.

I've also moved my books out of Smashwords and made them exclusively Amazon products allowing me to join the KDP movement. This, I believe has also increased sales. But, with all these changes, how is someone to know if a price change or a book release has an affect on sales? The answer lies in analytics. I'm a computer programmer and I will be going to school next week to learn how to build complex analytics using a product called QlikView. Our company uses it. QlikView has a free version you can play around with at home. I plan on trying to use it to analyze my Amazon sales. If that product does not work, I will write my own program.

Amazon does a great job of providing you with a ton of information in the form of a detailed spreadsheet. All you need is the right software to analyze the data. One of my goes for 2016 is to develop a useful writer's tool that incorporates everything a writer needs to manage their business. That includes performing analytics on Amazon's data. Good data analysis is a must when you're trying to make a business decision.

2015 in review
Last year was both good and not so good to me as far as being a self-published author. On March 31, I received an email stating I had been accepted into SFWA. This was a big milestone for me. I attended Launch Pad in the first week of June. As usual, I had a wonderful time and met another fine group of people. In mid-July, my wife and I took a trip to South Caroline to visit my dad. Two weeks after getting back from that trip, I drove to Washington D.C. to attend the week-long Schrodinger Sessions.

On August 18th, I left to attend my first ever World Science Fiction Convention (Sasquan) in Spokane Washington. It was also my first experience of sitting on a panel. I was very nervous! I'm not a well-known writer, I'm self-published, and I was sitting on panels with traditionally published authors who are well-known. All-in-all, I believe I did well. One panel in particular, however, bothered me for a long time afterwards because I was definitely out of my league. But, I came away from that conference with a very different view of who I should be as a writer.

A few days after returning from WorldCon, I started on my re-editing and reformatting project (professionalization). I realized this was going to delay the release of Dragonverse Origins and would most likely hurt my sales this year. But, in the long run, it will be worth it. The Galactic Alliance series has been professionalized and the results are easy to see. The books look great on the shelf providing a consistent look for the entire series. If you open them up, they look professional on the inside, formatted properly and all of them presenting a consistent look. The Kindle versions are also newly formatted and edited and look just as good.

I also changed how I blog. Instead of rambling on and writing about writing in general, I focused my posts on self-publishing issues. Readership has slowly gone up. A friend of mine recently posted that it took him many years of focused blogging to achieve a high readership. This is my goal and I don't expect it to happen over night.

From a business perspective, I will end the year with a loss. The cost of the WorldCon trip as well as my continuing support of Launch Pad, exceeded my writing income last year. I took a hit in sales because I raised my prices and I did not release a new book. My new dedication to producing a professional product, a heightened involvement in SFWA, and the release of one and perhaps two new books this year will help improve the business side of my writing. I'm also not going to any conferences (including this year's WorldCon in Kansas City) unless sales are high enough to support it. That's sound business.

All-in-all, I would say 2015 was a year of learning for me. I hope to share this information with other writers who are just entering the self-publishing field so they do not make the same mistakes. If you're reading this and you know of anyone who is thinking of self-publishing, please have them read my past blog posts (especially the recent ones) and if they have any questions, ask them to write me.

As always, if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to write to me. I will always get back to you. I do stay busy and if I tell you in an email that I'm going to do something and I fail to do it, please remind me! I don't mind being reminded. If there's a topic you want me to write about, I want to hear about it. If there's a storyline you want to see in one of my books, please make the suggestion. The next Peacekeeper will incorporate at least 2 suggestions from my readers. I appreciate hearing from you. If you just want to say hi - well, that's okay too.

Have a great 2016!