Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Donald Trump’s War on Muslims

Taken from DonaldJTrump.com
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

~ Pastor Martin Niemöller

Donald Trump is not the United States of America’s version of Adolf Hitler. However, Hitler and his propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, would certainly understand and appreciate Trump’s tactics of gaining political support by picking on a minority religious group and telling big lies enough times they begin to sound like truth to many. Trump’s invective against the Muslims reached a new moral low when he called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.”

This pronouncement comes fast on the heels of Trump’s statement that the U.S. should “strongly consider” shutting down certain mosques in the United States (likely unconstitutional).

Trump indicated he is open to the idea of a Muslim registry because “we’re going to have to do things we never did before.” Is it much of a step from a Muslim registry to forcing Muslims to prominently display a star and crescent moon on their persons to make the rest of us aware we might not be safe in their presence?

I know; you’re thinking we would never do something like that, right? The German people never anticipated Hitler’s final solution, did they?

Your rights of free speech? Not so much if that free speech happens to infringe on The Donald’s sensibilities. When a Black Lives Matter advocate tried to interrupt one of his rallies and was reportedly pushed to the ground and kicked, his response was, “Maybe he should have been roughed up, because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing.”

We in the United States have a history or forgetting our ideals, not to mention our laws, in times of perceived national security crisis. Abraham Lincoln suspended the right of habeas corpus and ignored a Supreme Court’s ruling that his act was illegal; Roosevelt illegally interred Japanese citizens; Bush authorized torture, and Obama continued Bush’s practice of allowing illegal information gathering on U.S citizens.

Trump admits that he is willing to break international law by reinstituting President Bush’s authorization of waterboarding. He’s willing to ignore the constitution if it does not suit his purposes. He is Machiavellian with his ends-justify-the-means positions. When he has no arguments to refute his detractors he relies on ad hominem attacks against the person rather than disputing their ideas.

Trump exhibits the characteristics of a playground bully. Like any bully, the earlier we stand up to him and call out his lies, the better it will be for everyone, including Trump.


~ Jim

Monday, October 12, 2015

Black Box Concerns

I started out my home computer life an Apple guy. In 1985 I bought an Apple IIe. The “e” meant it was enhanced from the original Apple II. I chose the 128KB of RAM memory instead of the standard 64KB because I was a heavy computational user. My most recent computer, a Dell XPS 8700, has 8GB of RAM (a 62,500 times increase). For a few bucks more I could have had another 8GB of RAM, but I didn’t need it. My first machine handled 8 bits of data at a time; the new one handles 64 bits. Processing speed differences (how quickly data is processed) are just as great.

I opted for two external 5.25” floppy disk drives on my Apple IIe. Each disk held (I think) about 360KB of data. Then came double density disks with 720KB of data. Today I have an internal drive with 1TB of data and external drives with 2TB of data and cloud storage of another 2TB of data. I even have little thumb drives that carry 32GB of data (over 40,000 times as much storage as one of those floppies). Those Apple disk drives were great, though. They could read mud on cardboard. That computer still functioned, as did its disk drives, when I finally gave them to my father (circa 1993) to act as backup for his own Apple IIe system that contained all the backup material for his published textbook.

I cannot tell you how many crashed hard drives and thumb drives I have had to pitch since then because they no longer worked.

But surely, you say, my life is better with this more advanced technology. In my IIe days I had a spreadsheet program (Visicalc) that even in its early versions would still do 99+% of the work I do on spreadsheets today. I had a word processing program (whose name I no longer recall).

The only major word processing improvements in the 30 years since that I would find it difficult to do without are Microsoft Word’s style sheets and review functions. Occasionally in the old days I could get in a typing groove and get ahead of the computer recognizing keyboard strokes. There was a buffer so I didn’t lose the work, but it did force me to slow down every once in a while.

So why do I use Microsoft-based products now instead of Apple? Well, despite writing the first program to determine the cost of post-retirement medical programs for our clients on my little Apple IIe (it took 20 hours to execute with a Fortune 10 company’s data!) my employer moved to the “Wintel” computers (Windows operating system and Intel chips) and it made sense for me to follow suit.

So why, you wonder, this burst of nostalgia? Just the ramblings of an old man who walked ten miles to and from school each day and it was uphill in both directions? A strong desire to return to a circa 1985 squarish green screen and flashing white cursor? Hardly.

No, for the last month I’ve had to deal with Windows 10. Microsoft has reported over 100 million computers now run the Windows 10 operating system. I have two of them and the experience has been anything but satisfactory for me. I won’t belabor all the issues I’ve had; suffice it to say I have spent many hours searching for fixes, finally finding (most of) them, and implementing them. One computer was a brand new desktop that came loaded with Windows 10; the other is a laptop I migrated from Windows 8.1 to Windows 10.

All those hours I spent repairing my Windows 10 installations, a bloated product that includes myriad things I do not want, were hours I did not spend writing, or reading, or watching birds, or photographing nature or any one of the top 1,000 things I would do with my life if I had not tied myself to the computer world. It also got me thinking of the hidden costs of our technology.

My recent frustration and time spent getting Windows running properly is only a small part of the hidden cost of my long-ago choice to use computers. In the Apple IIe days, I could pop the lid and add a printer board to connect to my dot matrix printer or add a second operating system (CP/M) to access a freeware word processing program. There were so few parts, I could fix anything and understand what I was doing.

Now, unscrew the cover of a laptop and you likely invalidate the warranty. And it might not even do much good—one accidental move and you may fry your motherboard. And don’t get me started on the software. Programs were efficient in the dark ages because there was no room for inefficiency. With the early Apple operating system, I could peek and poke and adjust anything (those are actually technical terms). Now almost all software are black boxes.

I give it some input; it gives me some output. I have no idea what happens in between.

That’s life in America. Ask Google or Siri a question and a list of possible answers appears. Your answers will not be the same as the ones I get because one of the software’s algorithms has been paying attention to our preferences. Ask two GPS devices how to go from point A to B and you might get two “best” answers. How am I to know which to choose? Do I have to look at a paper map or do a third search to break the tie? When I was traveling from Savannah to Raleigh to attend Bouchercon, my phone’s GPS knew that I-95 was closed through much of South Carolina because of recent flooding. My Garmin GPS (which has in the past told me of even minor delays along a route) had no clue and kept trying to get me to turn around when I took the detour.

It’s a black box problem.

We confront more of them daily. We provide input; a black box provides output; we have no idea what happened in between. We have to trust the process and even when we know it is broken, we can’t fix it.

We don’t know how Google (or Bing or whoever) determines what articles appear first on search. If we’re authors we need to learn about and worry about and fret about SEO (Search Engine Optimization). For example, when you type in “James M Jackson Author” I want my name to come up first. And when Google decides mobile friendly websites will be favored in their searches, we must rush to comply with their desires to retain our prized search rankings.

We shop online and often an algorithm (not a person) determines what price we see based on other posted online prices, the time of day, day in the week, month of the year, where else our cookies tell them we have looked. Everywhere we examine things closely we find more black boxes.

Some say this is efficient, good for us, definitely progress.

I sense this further disconnect from understanding how things actually work is not a good trend. I can’t prove it, but I sense it.

Or maybe I’ve gotten to be the old man who walked ten miles to school each way and both ways were uphill.
  
~ Jim

Originally published on the Writers Who Kill Blog 10-11-15

Friday, October 2, 2015

No Social Security COLA Adjustments for 2016

Unless something really wacky happened to cost-of-living in September that I don’t know about, Social Security recipients will not receive cost-of-living benefit increases for 2016.

Here’s the math:

The benefit increases only occur if the average CPI-W for July, August and September exceeds that for the highest previous average for the same months (which occurred in 2014). In 2014 the three CPI-Ws were

234.525 for July 
234.030 for August 
234.170 for September

702.725 total for the three months (average 234.242)

In 2015 we already have:

233.806 for July 
233.366 for August

Meaning that to equal the 2014 total of 702.725, we’d need September to come in at 235.553. However, the cost of living adjustments occur only in 0.1% increments, which means a small increase in the average won’t trigger a COLA adjustment. It has to minimally round up to 0.1% and that requires the total to be at least 703.077. September’s CPI-W must come in no less than 235.905 to trigger a COLA adjustment, and to do that cost-of-living must have jumped over 1% in September!

The CPI-W is not seasonally adjusted, so it is more volatile than some other measures of cost-of-living, but a 1% jump did not happen in a month when gasoline prices continued to decline.

We’ll know for sure on October 15 at 8:30 A.M. Eastern Time, but the bottom line is: No Social Security COLA adjustments for 2016.

~ Jim

Monday, September 28, 2015

Whither eBook Subscription Services

Last week marked the announcement that the eBook subscription service Oyster will be shutting down in early 2016. This summer, Entitle—one of the original three eBook subscription services—quietly closed its doors. Scribd, the third of the group, had to backpedal from its promise of “unlimited” books per month to throttle the usage of its romance readers. Since the original three commenced operations, Amazon entered the market with its Kindle Unlimited. Google has hired the folks from Oyster and so is presumably considering a subscription service as part of its Google Play.

So the field is changing and Amazon plays a big role. But, are subscription eBook services sustainable?

The Economics of a Subscription service

The basic business equation still holds: Revenues – Expenses = Profit

Revenue

In a standalone subscription service, revenue comes primarily from the monthly fees users pay to enjoy the service. Kindle Unlimited charges $9.99 a month. Oyster charges $9.95 and Scribd charges $8.99. Multiply the monthly fee by the number of subscribers and you have revenue. Unless you can sell ads along the way, or sell your subscription list, or monetize something else, that’s your revenue. To keep things simple, we’ll assume revenues consist solely of subscriber fees.

Expenses:

To operate, the business has to have a website designed to collect memberships, present a searchable catalog, record and deliver selections. While there are some variable costs involved in a subscription service, most of these operating expenses are fixed costs. One subscriber or a million they will occur, so it is important to grow your subscriber base quickly so the expenses decline as a percentage of revenue.

The second major expense are the acquisition costs. Publishers (and authors) want to be paid if someone reads their book.

Subscription services must negotiate with publishers, distributors and, in Amazon’s case, indie authors, concerning their compensation. Oyster and Scribd generally paid publishers something very close to what the publisher would earn by selling the book through an online retailer.

Under the Oyster/Scribd model these are variable costs. The more books lent out, the larger the expense. The more expensive book lent out, the larger the expense. We’ll discuss Amazon’s model in a bit.

Who would buy an eBook subscription?

For a reader the equation to calculate savings from a subscription service is:

Subscription Fee – [(Number of Books I think I’ll read in a month) X (average cost of book)]

Let’s say the average cost of eBooks purchased without the subscription is $2.99. The reader is a winner at 4 books a month (3 Scribd), loser at three (2 Scribd) or fewer. If the average cost drops to $1.99, then it takes six (five Scribd) eBooks to “win.” At $5.00 it only takes two books to be ahead.

Strategies Suggested by the Profit Equation

(1) Feature less expensive books. Free are best. $0.99 are very good. $1.99 good, $2.99 okay and anything more is pricey.

Look at the subscription catalogues and you’ll find they are crammed with “classics” that happen to be out of copyright (and therefore virtually free to the service)

You will see a very limited number of current, higher-priced books from the Big 5 Publishers. They are simply too expensive. I suspect those that are in their catalog provide the publisher with much lower royalty rates—the eBook equivalent to mass-marketing to Walmart or Costco.

(2) Pray people do not read too much.

Consider the profit formula and how it applies to fitness center memberships. In January in the flush of New Years’ promises, lots of people make the basic calculation that they will win by purchasing a yearly membership. And then by the end of January many stop going. These are gravy memberships. Revenue exists, but no variable expenses. That overestimating consumption phenomena may happen for book readers as well, but unlike the gym membership, they probably will not give up reading books entirely. Even if they have an off month or two, the only bar preventing them from restarting to read a lot again is finding time. For a gym membership there’s a psychological barrier of anticipating the physical pain necessary to get back in shape and the physical barrier once the individual actually restarts.

Subscription services try to limit reading by not providing all the books the subscriber would normally like to read. New best sellers are rarely offered because they will cost the subscription service too much. If people spend time reading those in paper form instead, it saves the service money and cuts down on the total books read on the subscription.

When people read a lot, the subscription service loses money. Scribd found itself in that situation this summer regarding their romance readers. Since they could not limit the number of books selected by romance readers, and they were not willing to increase the subscription price, they cut the number of romance novels available in the service. Drastically cut. They kept the freebies and eliminated the expensive books. Some of those in between remained. Smashwords estimates Scribd cut 80-90% of Smashwords romance titles.

(3) Pay publishers and authors smaller fees. With limited exceptions, Kindle Unlimited (KU) does not offer Big 5 Publisher books. Its offering is largely populated by its own imprints and indie author publications.

For indie authors, Amazon creates a pool of money—it determines the size—and allocates that pool to authors based on the number of pages read. Their previous practice had been to allocate the pool based on number of “downloads.” They found this encouraged gaming of the system whereby authors would split a book into four parts, so a 200-page book becomes four 50-page books, earning four times the income for the author.

Note that Amazon determines the pool size, which from an author’s perspective means Amazon determines the per page revenue. The indie author’s choice is to join the program or not. For the first month of this new payment system’s operation, July 2015, KU paid $0.005779 per page. For a 300-page novel that means $1.73. For August the payment per page dropped 11% to $0.00514, and the same fully read 300-page book would earn the author only $1.54.

Notice that if that 300-page book were priced at the low end of Amazon’s preferred range of $2.99 to $9.99, the royalty for a book purchased would be about $2.09.

Amazon has structured a model where the author subsidizes the subscription service. I’m sure Amazon will argue that the author will make it up in volume, but how can you know, and what is to prevent Amazon from settling on a much lower rate in the future, say $0.001 per page so our 300-page book now earns the author a paltry $0.30?

Alternatives

The Scribd model as currently constructed does not hold economic water. It is too easy for subscribers to determine if they are saving money or not on the service. There will be a small percentage of subscribers who are losing money by participating and are insufficiently motivated to stop their subscription, but they can’t make up for the costs of heavy users.

Amazon can control its costs by defining how much it reimburses indie authors, a large percentage of the KU offerings.

But consider Amazon’s approach to the Audible subscription service. It has a fixed monthly fee, but for that price you get one “free” audio book. The rest of the catalog is discounted. As long as the consumer was going to purchase at least one audio book a month, the customer is “ahead.” Amazon’s costs for additional downloads are offset by additional revenues. Although the audio books are discounted, I’m betting those lowered costs cover the royalty payments plus profit.

Scribd could move to a similar model for books. Say, you get four a month for free. The rest you can have for a discounted fee.

If Google Play (or Apple for that matter) decides to enter the business, they will bring deep pockets. They don’t yet have the indie author network as Amazon does. But what would happen if they offered better royalties than Amazon? It could prove interesting, yes indeed.

~ Jim

This post originally appeared on the Writers Who Kill Blog

Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Allure of a Mystery Series

Panel at 2015 Left Coast Crime

One of my great pleasures of mystery fan conferences such as Malice Domestic and Left Coast Crime is the opportunity to talk with a wide variety of readers. When I get to chatting with a reader I usually ask about favorite authors to compare notes. After a while I’ll ask about how they approach series.

Writers and publishers like series because of the long-tail effect: if someone reads one book in the series and enjoys it, chances are good they’ll read another in the series, and another and another. Each new addition to the series not only has the potential to sell to fans, but bring in new readers who will ultimately want to read the entire series.

A couple of years ago my better half, Jan, and I were attending Malice Domestic. We wanted to read all of the books nominated for Best Contemporary Novel. Jan discovered that Julia Spencer-Fleming’s Through the Evil Days was part of a series. Rather than just read that book, Jan wanted to read the entire eight books in order. So she blitz read her way through the series in about two months’ time (while reading the other new-to-her books as well).

It turns out Jan is not alone. A significant percentage of people I’ve talked are like her. (I wish I had kept an accurate account so I could tell you the exact percentage.) They strongly prefer to read series novels in order—some so much so that they will not read a series out-of-order! Can you imagine how long it would take a reader new to Sue Grafton to catch up on Kinsey Milhone and the now twenty-four alphabet books starting with A is for Alibi and ending currently ending with X? Not going to happen, right?

Well consider these Kindle Book rankings for Grafton’s series (early morning 9/4/15):

X -- #19
W is for Wasted -- #1,603
V is for Vengeance -- #4,603
U is for Undertow -- #8,886
T is for Trespass -- #9,164
C is for Corpse – #7,685
B is for Burglar -- #6,760
A is for Alibi -- #3,137

Not only does Grafton have a top twenty hit two and a half weeks after its release, she has seven other books in the top 10,000 Kindle sellers: the previous three and the first three. People are catching up if they’ve missed a few books, and people are starting at the beginning. This long tail is why publishers like successful series.

To allow that piling on effect, publishing contracts were (and often still are) for three books.

And the three-book contracts are, I suspect, why I have found another phenomena amongst many mystery readers. They won’t start reading a series unless there are a sufficient number of books published. The oft-stated reason goes something like “I don’t want to fall in love with an author and then have to wait a year for the next book.”

When presented with the Catch 22 situation that if no one buys the first books in a series, there won’t be more books, the next response is something like, “I want to make sure the series will be there.” Particularly with small presses and self-publishing they don’t want to invest in a character for only one or two books. From my sampling of folks, those with this attitude often require a minimum of three books, and preferably four or five in a series, before they will become interested.


So, two questions for you, dear readers:

(1) Do you prefer reading series in order? If so, must you start at the beginning, or do you read the most recent and then if you enjoyed it go back and start from the beginning?

(2) Do you have a required minimum number of published books before you’ll start reading a series, and if so how many?

For those of you who want at least three, my Seamus McCree novels are now eligible for your consideration. You can read them in order: Ant Farm, Bad Policy, and Cabin Fever. (Notice I subtly stole the alphabet idea from Sue Grafton?) For those who want at least four, I promise Doubtful Relations will be published in 2016.


~ Jim

The article originally appeared as a guest post on Debra H. Goldstein's Blog

Monday, September 14, 2015

Beta Testing Your Novel

Doubtful Relations Title Page
Last month I sent my current work in process, DOUBTFUL RELATIONS, out to five volunteer readers. I have received feedback from three of them; the other two sets of comments are scheduled back this coming week.

I call this process beta testing and the volunteers beta readers. These terms are used in different manners, so I need to define my terms.

For a few years during my career, I managed a group of software developers. In that environment, alpha testing encompassed the work the group did internally to make sure the software (new program or update) was doing what it was supposed to be doing. When we were reasonably comfortable it was, we performed the second level of testing, beta testing, named after the second letter in the Greek alphabet.

In beta testing, we put the software in the hands of real users in a real environment. We knew the program was not perfect. We were still fixing a list of known bugs (and periodically adding to the list). However, the product was sufficiently close and stable that we needed to expand testing past our myopic vision and turn it over to our users to point out flaws and issues we were too close to the program to see.

For example, let’s say you create a new way of cooking omelets that utilizes the energy from your morning workout. You develop a recipe that includes a list of ingredients and tasks, but fail to include the step in which you remove eggs from their shells. That step is obvious to you, because you always do that. The cook might not realize that your new technology still requires the separation of egg from shell and ruins the omelet. Your directions are not clear.

The combination of plot development and character motivations in a novel take the place of directions in a recipe. I ask beta readers to let me know of plot bumps or holes and of characters who do something that seemingly does not make sense. I will have already addressed any problems I discovered on my own as well as those indicated by my alpha reader, who has read the manuscript at a much earlier stage. [Some writers use critique groups as their alpha readers, others use a trusted writing partner or friend. I rely on my life partner, Jan Rubens.]

I know flaws remain in the manuscript. I have not yet polished the language, and because I have made changes to a draft of the manuscript immediately before releasing the beta version, I may have introduced new typos and included a sentence or two that might make one wonder if I had flunked English as a second language. Readers can ignore those kinds of problems, as long as they are not too frequent, and instead concentrate on the main issues of plot and character.

Unlike software beta testing where, as flaws are corrected, updated versions are periodically released to the users, I now typically have two discrete passes for beta readers. What I have so far described is the first pass. Once I have the manuscript in “final” form—perhaps ready to submit to agent or publisher or for self-publication—I will ask a different set of folks to read the manuscript looking for anything wrong. This is beta testing in the sense it is a real product placed in real users hands in order to receive feedback prior to publication. However, by that point I am in the final steps of my quality control process and readers should not be finding any major problems. I hope they will find the stubborn typo or homonym error, as well as any formatting issues. Perhaps because these tasks are so different from the first beta readers’, I should refer to this group as my gamma readers?

Today’s status:

Are you curious what feedback the first three beta readers have provided me? I have not read their detailed comments because I am waiting for all five readers to respond before returning to work on that manuscript. Based on the cover emails I received, two of the readers enjoyed the story, but had specific suggestions on how I can make it stronger. A couple of their cover comments confirmed concerns I had and other comments shed light on issues I had missed. Great stuff!

The third volunteer was so disgusted with a major character that she stopped reading the manuscript with 60% still to go. Since the character in question acts in ways real people act, I need to look beneath the reported problem. (Tom Wolfe writes best sellers about people I don’t like and don’t much care about, so the issue is probably more than that the character is not emotionally attractive.) When considering this one reaction along with other beta reader observations, I must determine if I have not sufficiently defined that character’s motivations so her actions make sense. Or perhaps I have insufficiently defined other characters’ motivations so their reactions to the unlikeable character are understandable. Either way, this reader’s reaction to stop reading will have done me a great service.

Unlike a piece of software, there are no absolutes in the writing business. What one person sees as a flaw, other readers may love. When I review all the comments, I must do so with the filter of my own understanding of the story and remain true to my writing style and voice. I know the comments include excellent suggestions that I look forward to implementing. I know they will contain hints of problems that will require me to ferret out their underlying causes to solve. There will be individual reader preferences that I will need to ignore to stay true to myself (and sane, since some comments invariably contradict other comments).

I can’t wait to dive into the next draft.

~ Jim
http://jamesmjackson.com

Monday, August 31, 2015

Shoot? Don’t Shoot?

Last week I attended Writers' Police Academy sponsored, in part, by the Sisters in Crime. This year it was at a wonderful facility outside Appleton, Wisconsin. That’s less than a four-hour drive for us (right around the block in Yooper terms), so Jan and I both attended.

I was lucky enough to sign up for several special small-group classes. Crime Scene photography was excellent; it helped me understand how those folks actually work a scene using digital photography. I won a lottery and participated in a “Simunitions” exercise in which three of us attempted to extract an armed person for whom we had a warrant from a house. We were not sure if other people, including a baby, might still be in the house.

The class I want to discuss today is called MILO, an extremely realistic interactive training program.

For fifteen minutes two of us worked with an instructor and the MILO simulator. The instructor first provided a refresher on the basics of handgun control (both of us had experience shooting handguns). Next we discussed when it is appropriate for a police officer to fire his/her weapon: the key being that an officer should not shoot until feeling endangered.

The two of us took turns with the simulations. The first simulation had an angry man brandishing a knife. In scenario one he was (I think) thirty-one feet away. Was I endangered? No. I had plenty of time to shoot before he could run at me with the knife. When he did finally run, I shot. Because he kept moving, I kept shooting until the guy went down.

Lesson one: keep shooting until danger is removed.

I repeated the knife-wielding man scenarios with the guy at twenty-one feet and eleven feet. At eleven feet there is very little time between the man making a threatening move and the necessity of shooting. Very little time.

I managed those three scenarios successfully. The other student waited too long in the eleven-foot scene and was “killed.”

A little cop humor
We did several other scenarios. In all cases I correctly chose when to shoot. However, I did die in one scenario. I responded to a bank robbery by an armed man. He exited the bank, money in one hand, gun in the other. I made the correct decision of when to shoot, but then I made a rookie error. I developed tunnel vision, focusing on the downed gunman because he might not be dead and he still had the gun in his hand.

I missed seeing a car parked at the curb with the getaway driver. The screen went red when that person got off several shots before I located the problem and fired back.

Our last scenario involved both students. We were in a two-person patrol car and had made a traffic stop of an erratically-driven car. Out pops a guy pointing a gun at his head, threatening to blow his head off if we come nearer. Then he starts taunting us to shoot him. This was possibly a suicide-by-cop situation. We’re yelling at the guy to drop his gun and stay by his car. Eventually, he started moving toward us, still waving the gun more or less at his head.

Shoot? Don’t shoot?

He’s still coming toward us, waving the gun more or less at his head.

Shoot? Don’t shoot?

The waving gun is now pointed less frequently directly at his head, the gestures become loopier.

Shoot? Don’t shoot?

Crime scene photography
Both of us made the wrong decision. My partner never shot. Once the gunman reached the back bumper of his car (the line I had mentally drawn in the sand), I fired a shot into the dirt and when he kept coming, I shot his leg. According to the instructor, given the gunman was not following directions and was waving the gun around (and could easily change one of those loops into a shot at us), I had chosen the correct time to fire. However, I should have aimed for the center mass. Police officers do not shoot for extremities (or shoot the weapon out of the person’s hand). They are trained to focus on the chest through head area.

One thing the two of us didn’t do in that exercise, which many students do and which also happens a lot in real life is fire solely because the other person fires. It’s a tension-induced reflex. Combined with training to keep shooting until the opponent is no longer a threat, this reaction is often responsible for the massive number of bullets fired in some shootouts.

The exercise provided me with insight into police shootings I would never have gotten from television and printed news. Sometime it may even make it into a story.


~ Jim
http://jamesmjackson.com

This blog originally posted at Writers Who Kill

Monday, August 10, 2015

Five Ways to Generate Story Ideas

One question I often get at writers' conferences or meeting people in bookstores  is "Where do you get your ideas?" Here are five suggestions for your consideration:

1. Eavesdrop. People say and do the most interesting things; all you have to do is pay attention to them. My two favorite places to eavesdrop are standing in long lines and eating in restaurants. In both situations I can easily overhear people conversing and observe their behavior. Sometimes I’ll overhear a snippet of conversation and wonder how the conversants got to that line—and therein lies a story. Sometimes, I can’t hear a thing, but I can observe body language and start to wonder about their story—which I then start to invent.

2. Hear something on the radio or read something in the paper that strikes an interesting chord. For example, small-town police blotters are a wonderful source of oddball incidents. Again, I am not interested in lifting the real-life event and transporting it to the page. The incidents suggest precursors or aftermaths that contain the interesting story. I keep a folder of these tidbits and peruse them from time to time.

3. Project a concern or fear I have onto a character or situation. For instance, how would I react if confronted by someone breaking into my house? Would it change if they were armed with an AK-47 and spoke Chinese? What if I were only six? What if I had been six and had repressed it and now fifty years later remembered something—or maybe I thought I did, but in fact I had made it up. Keep spinning the idea until one variation calls out, “Write ME!”

4. If you like Thrillers or Science Fiction, try taking a current trend and pushing it forward to a logical, but startling, conclusion. For example, accelerate the melting of the polar icecaps to the point the Arctic Ocean is open for supertankers for much of the year. Does the Northwest Passage replace the Panama Canal? Does China plan to invade Canada to secure safe shipping for their goods to Europe? Toss your character into that ocean of possibilities and see where it takes you.

5. Take two characters, lock them in a room and consider what would happen. For example, put Rush Limbaugh and Barack Obama in a jail cell together in Caribou, ME. Because of budget cuts, the jailer is part-time. The jailer just went home for the evening. No one knows they are there. Oh yes, they both have diarrhea and there is only one toilet and only a few sheets of toilet paper.

You can consider these kinds of situations with real people, fictional characters, even your close family. Then take what you’ve projected and apply it to fictional characters.

There you have it: five approaches to generate story ideas.

~ Jim

A version of this post originally appeared at Writers Who Kill

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Should You Kindle Scout?

There are so many possible paths to publication nowadays, and Kindle Scout is just one possibility. [If you haven’t heard of Kindle Scout, it is an Amazon platform to allow readers to “nominate” books for Kindle Press to publish as ebooks. Think “American Idol” meets corporate behemoth Amazon.]

To help you decide if Kindle Scout might make sense for you, I’ve designed a little decision tree. If you answer “no” to any question, Kindle Scout is not what you want. If you get through all the questions and are still yessing, then I have some links to help you make a final determination.

Is your manuscript fiction? [No? The Kindle Scout program is only open to fiction. It started with Romance, Mystery/Suspense/Thriller and Science Fiction/Fantasy, and later added Literature & Fiction, which includes Action and Adventure. Nonfiction won’t go, nor will children’s literature, foreign languages, etc.]

Do you have a U.S. bank account and tax number? [No? So far the program is only open to people who Kindle Press can pay in the U.S., even though your books are sold throughout the world wherever Amazon does business. Update: In September KP opened this up to other countries, including Canada and much of the old British Commonwealth. Check for their current requirements.]

Will you be satisfied with a nontraditional publishing contract? [No? You need a traditional publishing contract, which Kindle Scout is not.]

Are you willing to have different publishers for the print and electronic versions of your book? [No? The Kindle Press contract only covers ebooks and digital audio books. If you want a print edition of your book, you must either obtain a print-only publisher or self-publish.]

Are you willing to have your ebook and audio book only available on Amazon? [No? The Kindle Press contract locks your electronic books to the Amazon platform.]

Are you willing to have your electronic books part of the Kindle Unlimited subscription service? [No? Kindle Press is not for you.]

Is it okay if no digital audio book is made in the first two years? [No? Kindle Press is not required to produce an Audible book; your rights revert back to you if they don’t produce one within two years. In their first six months of operation they have not yet produced any.]

Is your manuscript finalized so it can be published without any further copyedits? [No? The Kindle Press contract does not require them to make any changes to the text you submit. Of course, if that answer is no, you aren’t really ready to self-publish either. Note: Kindle Press has copyedited all books it has published to date.]

Do you have a professional-looking book cover? [No? Kindle Press requires you to have a book cover. During the thirty-day nomination process that is the first thing prospective readers (called “Scouts”) will see. Again, you should have this for a self-published manuscript as well.]

Are you willing to give up pricing and promotional decisions to a ginormous corporation? [No? Then you really need to be an Indie publisher.]

Are you willing to wait two and a half or three months for publication? [No? Because you must have a complete manuscript and book cover to enter the Kindle Scout nomination process, you could be Indie publishing as soon as you format the manuscript and upload it. The Kindle Scout nomination process takes around forty days from submission to approval. Because Kindle Press has been copyediting, add another six weeks or so plus a week for formatting and, best case, you are ten weeks out. With glitches (and I had several) it will be a longer delay.]

Congratulations, you’ve said “yes,” or at least not “no,” to all of the questions. Kindle Scout may make sense for you.

What advantages might Kindle Scout have compared to Indie publishing?

$1,500 advance on royalties paid within thirty days of being selected

Amazon promotion – there are no guarantees, and Kindle Press is only one of a number of Amazon imprints. However, early Kindle Press publications have received various pushes from Amazon.

International sales: Your electronic book will be available in North America, the U.K., Australia and Germany through Amazon subsidiaries.

One final copyedit—again, not promised, but currently they are contracting with Kirkus editors for copyedits. Every author I have talked to has been very pleased with their edits.

Free publicity during the thirty-day Kindle Scout nomination period. If you are selected by Kindle Press, those who nominate your book will receive a free Kindle version (and are asked to leave reviews). If you are not selected, those who nominate your book have recently been given the option to receive an email when your book does become available (from your Indie publishing or from another publisher.)

Decent royalties (given there is an advance): 50% on ebooks; 20% on digital audio

Rights reversions are clear: After two years if book does not hit minimum royalty levels ($500 in any trailing twelve-month period) you may reclaim your rights. After five years if you haven’t received at least $25,000 in royalties you may revert your rights. If Kindle Press does not publish within six months (ebook) or two years (digital audio) you may reclaim rights.

What are the disadvantages of Kindle Scout relative to Indie publishing?

As an Indie publisher you can choose whether to distribute through all channels or receive higher royalty rates going exclusively with Kindle. Thus, if you are going to stay within the Amazon umbrella anyway, you are giving up royalties per book.

[Added 9/12/15: If you are not selected by Kindle Press, people who nominated your book receive an email notifying them that your book was not selected. If you wanted, the email has a link to your website, however, some authors think that notification implies their book is "not good enough." They worry their fans may not purchase that book when it finds a publisher or you self-publish it. Further update: When your nonselected book comes out, Amazon sends a message to those who nominated it letting them know it is available for purchase.]

As an Indie you retain control over pricing, whether or not to have an audio book, promotions, etc. With Kindle Press you are relying on Amazon’s marketing power and self-interest to benefit you.

That, I think is the crux of your decision if you compare Indie to the Kindle Scout route. Will the Amazon marketing power make a difference in sales? So far, most of the Kindle Press published authors have been happy with their results. As the program continues to roll out, I think it will be worthwhile to pay attention to the opinion of Kindle Press’s authors. Recognize that it is in their interest to promote the Kindle Scout program, so if you hear issues or complaints or concerns, dig deeper.

As promised, here are some links with additional details.

Official Information About Kindle Scout: https://kindlescout.amazon.com/about
Official Kindle Scout guidelines for submission: https://kindlescout.amazon.com/submit

Kindle Scout Selected Books: https://kindlescout.amazon.com/selected

This post originally appeared on the Judy's Stew blog, June 3, 2015

Friday, June 26, 2015

Kindle Press’s (Presumed) Long Tail

Earlier this month Kindle Press released Ant Farm into the electronic publishing world. To celebrate I held a virtual release party—a new experience for me. Unlike the physical release party I held for the publication of Bad Policy two years ago, this cost considerably less (the prizes were real, but the food was virtual and Facebook charged nothing for the “room” in which we held our conversations).

Also different: I sold no books during those two hours—although one ebook sold on Amazon shortly after we ended.

For traditionally published authors, presales and first week/month sales are absolutely crucial. Physical shelf space is a scarce commodity (scarcer as bookstores use more of their square footage for nonbook merchandise, coffee bars, and the like).

Only so many books can be featured in high sales locations (new releases, the bookstore’s staff “picks” on a table shoppers must pass). Make a big splash and your book continues to command prime store real estate. Make a moderate splash, and your book remains on the shelves. Not enough of a splash to scare a goldfish and your books are returned to sender, with negative consequences for future book sales by the same author.

This traditional approach is all about the head of the sales beast—the big rush at the beginning—and very little about the tail of the distribution.

Kindle Press with the Kindle Scout program takes a different approach: it gives away the head. [Skip the rest of this paragraph if you already know how the Kindle Scout nomination process works.] As part of how Kindle Press determines which books to publish in electronic format, each book is presented to the public for thirty days for people to nominate. If someone nominates a book that Kindle Press selects, then when the ebook is available for pre-sale, that person will get a free Kindle version of the book, with the expressed hope they will leave a review.

These free copies of the Kindle book are a significant portion of what would have been the distribution beast’s head. Given the extensive campaign I undertook to make people aware of the Kindle Scout nomination process for Ant Farm, there are very few people I know who read electronically who will not already be receiving a free book. No one who came to the virtual release party needed to buy Ant Farm; they already had it.

For someone like me with a small following (although loyal, thank you readers), the only way Kindle Press will recoup its upfront costs is through their marketing of Ant Farm. Not that I can’t and won’t continue to promote the book, but the choir to which I can preach already know the hymn. It is up to Kindle Press to find new churches in which to sing Ant Farm’s praises.

Picture traditional publishing as a controlled flood (an oxymoron?) They hold back a reservoir of books until publication date, open the sluice gates, and in a massive rush the books pour out, hopefully to be purchased by the buying public. If not, then the detritus from the flood is cleared away in bargain bins, sold to remainder operations, or recycled.

Consider the Kindle Press experiment as akin to a leaky faucet. It steadily drip—drip—drips its way to success. Oh sure, from time to time someone opens the faucet and lets it run wide open for a while, but even when that gush of promotion turns off, we still hear the steady drip, drip, drip as a book here, a book there finds its way electronically onto someone’s reading device.

Some of the Kindle Press books have taken off from the start—the faucet is wide open. Many of the romances have done particularly well, rising into the top 1,000 ranking of Kindle books sold, meaning many people are buying the books daily. Others books, started with the drips, but with a blast of Amazon attention suddenly sell a bunch before returning to the drips as the promotion ends.

The Kindle Press advance is $1,500. They also have their time and money invested in each book (editing, layout, overhead, etc.) Let’s say that’s another $1,500 (they won’t say). Since royalties are mostly at the 50% rate, it takes selling roughly 1,000 books to cover the advance and the estimated internal costs. (It varies based on the book price, but Kindle books have been initially priced between $2.99 and $3.99, with the average currently at $3.45). Recently a number of the Kindle Press books entered a month-long $2.00 promotion and sales for those books increased significantly, but at a smaller profit.

The Kindle Press contract locks authors in for two years. To cover the $3,000 initial outlay they need to average selling a bit less than one and a half books a day. Drip, drip, drip. To continue to control the book for the next three years means Kindle Press needs to generate royalties of at least $500 a year. A book a day will accomplish that. Drip, drip, drip.

After five years the author can exit the contract if Kindle Press has not paid at least $25,000 in royalties. I predict many books will not reach that payout. Regardless, let’s assume all a book accomplishes is to make enough sales to keep the author in the contract for the five years. That will be a minimum of 2,000 sales over the five years.

Rounding liberally, that means that book has gross sales of $7,000. Royalties are a something over $3,000 (reflecting transaction fees); gross income is the same $3,000. Profit is $1,500, or 100% after 5 years. Not a bad return on investment. And remember, that’s on a drip, drip, drip of sales—just slightly more than one a day. When one of the Kindle Press books has the faucet wide open, the profit margins for Amazon are quite high.

It is easy to understand why Amazon would like the premise behind Kindle Press. What about an author’s perspective?

I have a series. People who read my books like them (average reader ratings are well over 4 out of 5), but not enough people know of the books because most people don’t like them so well that they buy them for other people or insist that their libraries stock them. In what I consider a worst-case scenario, if Amazon only sells 2,000 books – those are 2,000 new readers (remember my old readers received the book for free). Some percentage of these folks will buy other books in the series. That means the distribution of my sales tail is even fatter than Amazon’s!

And if Amazon works magic and Ant Farm becomes a big seller, it’s all to our mutual benefit. What that means is I am not stressing out that as I write this Ant Farm’s ranking is just around 100,000, It’s early days of a very long tail, and I am planning on enjoying the ride.

Oh yes, if you would like to add to my drip, drip, drip, here’s a purchase link for Ant Farm.

~ Jim

[An earlier version of this blog appeared on Writers Who Kill 6/21/15]

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Ant Farm Virtual Release Party



Ant Farm's Virtual Release Party is set for June 16 from 2-4 pm Eastern Time on Facebook. Click this link https://www.facebook.com/events/892564370790795/ to indicate you are going and to invite your friends.

I have four talented mystery authors who will also be giving away prizes, Kaye George (appearing in her Janet Cantrell disguise), Maggie Toussaint, Tina Whittle and Edith Maxwell.

So join us for good conversation, games, prizes and the grand prize, a chance to name a character in my next book.

If you would like a one-time reminder email the morning of June 16, I've set up a link especially for that: http://tinyletter.com/AntFarmReleaseParty

~ Jim

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

There's No Place Like Home

Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz closes her eyes, clicks the heels of her red shoes, says, “There’s no place like home,” and magic transports her back to Kansas. Dorothy’s trip to Oz was unplanned; Jan and I took our recent road trip because we wanted to. However, after 8,411.7 miles and forty-seven days, we agree there is no place like home.

The trip was great. We saw places new to us; we visited family and friends; we had lots of outdoor time; we identified at least 115 species of birds. I’d do something similar again—just not for a while.

Once the topography changed and the woods resembled my woods, I felt my soul begin to recharge. Exiting the car to unlock the driveway chain, I stopped and took in a long snootful of our vernal freshness. It will take some time to recover from forty-seven days on the road, but I’m not in a hurry.

No one was up at the lake when we arrived. At roughly N 46.4 degrees of latitude, spring had barely begun. The first thing I had to do was turn on the power (we’re off grid with solar panels and huge batteries) so I could run the well pump. Given the high temperature for the day was only forty-one, starting a fire in the fireplace was next on the list.

The only sounds besides us unpacking the car were wind caressing the evergreen branches and occasional bird songs. At one point the quiet was so intense all I heard was the whoosh of blood flowing through my arteries.

An eagle flew by to check us out. At night the frogs sounded from the vernal pond.

The next day the hummingbirds found their feeders. Chickadees, nuthatches, purple finches and goldfinches discovered proffered sunflower seeds. A mink strolled across an open area near the house. Sharp-shinned hawks called to each other (although unlike last year they don’t have a nest right in front of our house.)

In the coming days we’ll experience our seventh or eighth (and last) spring this year. (We lost count as we crisscrossed the country). Just a few miles south of us, trees are swathed in myriad shades of new-growth green. Here, the buds have just exploded; the leaves will shortly follow and the woods will soon close ranks, closing down long sight into their interiors.

Coming home reminds me how blessed I am. Is there a place that recharges your soul?


~ Jim

[This blog originally appeared May 24, 2015 on Writers Who Kill]

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Wanderlust

Sharp-tailed Grouse strutting for the ladies
Wanderlust is yin to my staying-at-home-hibernating’s yang. I am content to remain in one place until I am not, and then I hit the road, which is where I am now as I write this blog. This 47-day road trip will take us (my much better half, Jan Rubens, is with me) from our winter abode in Savannah, Georgia out to Hood River, Oregon, back east to Greece, New York and finally to our summer home in the wilds of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula woods.

Air travel is my least favorite way to get from point A to spot B. I do love trains, but they run on rails and more or less on schedules; both inhibit our ability to get outside and enjoy seeing, hearing and touching ground. Walking would be great, but I don’t have sufficient time (or energy). That makes automobile travel the happy compromise.

We plan our day-to-day travel to include National Wildlife Refuges, National Parks and Monuments and other outdoor attractions whenever possible. We’re not much for cities and museums. This trip we have added a different twist: every 50 miles as measured by the car’s odometer we stop and take a picture. This methodical approach does not capture the highlights of the trip, but it has captured the topography changes as we moved from east to west; from lush to dry to lush again; from low to high to low. (The album is on my personal Facebook page.)

Yellow-headed Blackbird
The saying, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” is not accurate for me. However, I do find that pictures stimulate my memory. Often when I see a photograph I have taken, I recall not only the specifics of that locale, but what led up to it and what happened afterwards. One added enjoyment of this trip has been to see how these more or less random pictures have triggered memories in folks who follow my Facebook posts.

We usually prefer taking backroads, which can make for more interesting pictures than those taken along interstates. On this trip, time constraints on when we could leave and when we had to be in Hood River made it necessary (well, at least very convenient) to do much of our early travel on interstates. Given that, these pictures provide a sense of the modern American society, rushing by the land at 75 miles an hour in our air-conditioned, nearly hermitically-sealed autos.

Northern Gannets billing
As much as these roadside pictures draw comments, the photographs I periodically take of the birds we see always bring responses. Some people have never seen the particular birds before and marvel at their colors or shape or antics. Others of my friends are avid birders and share their own experiences with the birds or the location.

This sharing, initially from me, but then back to me, provides a continued sense of community with my friends and acquaintances regardless of how physically far apart we are. Even those who do not comment on Facebook will, when I see them in person, often engage me in detailed conversations about a recent trip. Those conversations, which can occur months after the trip, allow me to relive my wanderings.

I’ve found writing mysteries has a similar communal affect. I write the mysteries and then some time (often a long time) later a reader will talk to me about the story, or the characters, or the setting, and I have the opportunity to relive the story, yet experience it through the filter of someone else’s eyes.

That is the essence of my wanderlust: to experience, to share, to re-experience and to learn.


~ Jim


Toward the infinite
Originally published on Writers Who Kill Blog 4/26/15

Monday, April 13, 2015

Drawing the Reader In

Think of a book you really loved. I mean really loved. Was it because of its perfect plot? A twist ending so surprising it astounded you? Because every word was exactly the right word?

I will go out on a limb and suggest that while those elements may have been present, you loved the book because you became deeply invested in at least one character. You cared about what happened to that individual, in how they would fare in the world they inhabited, which may be very different from any world you will experience.

Writers are beaten about the head and shoulders with the mantra to “show, not tell.” As I write this blog, I am participating in a weeklong Donald Maass workshop. We spent a good portion of day three discussing how to tell, not show.

What?

Yep!

Here is a diamond of understanding I picked up. Writers, you might try it out and see whether it deepens a story you are working on. Readers, see if you can catch a favorite author sucking you into their make-believe world with this technique.

Have your character tell (yes, tell) about an emotion they are feeling. Incorporate the following elements in the description. [My parenthetical example happens to use first person, but it works as well in third.] Include this in an action scene (not as a reflection or reaction scene) to make it immediate. Make it short so it does not feel to the reader as though the action has stopped.

Step 1. Use an analogy to describe the emotion. This objectifies the emotion and makes it safe for the reader. [My anger glowed as hot and fragile as a freshly blown glass figurine. One false move and everything would shatter.]

Step 2. Have the character make a moral judgement about their emotion. [No matter how much justified, surely God despised this much anger.]

Step 3. Include inner conflict regarding what the character is feeling. [And yet, within that fire, that blinding white rage, I felt a corner of my mind evaluating my posture, the tightness around my eyes, noting sagely that I was showing none of what I felt. The fury, should I let it slip its leash, would come as a complete surprise to the other wedding guests.]

Step 4. Add a touch of self-reflection. [There, I said it: should I let it slip its leash. It would be conscious if I did, and even if others called me insane, I would know it for a conscious effort. It was my beast to wrestle, to control.]

Had you read this on the first or second page would you be interested in reading more about this character? If you read it later in the story, would it deepen your understanding of this character? If this telling occurred while the individual stood as best man, watching the bride-to-be walking down the aisle on her father’s arm, would it have stopped the action, or indeed would it have been part of the action, even though it was all exposition?

Remember, I just learned this and so am practicing, but I do think it works. What about you?

~ Jim

This blog first appeared on Writers Who Kill 4/12/15