Bookstore Reading

My first ever reading at a bookstore happens this Friday!

I’ll be at the Grey Wolfe Scriptorium in Clawson, MI, at 7 PM this Friday, reading from git commit murder. The bookstore is really easy to get to, maybe a mile west of I-75 on 14 Mile Road.

If people show up, I’ll read aloud and answer questions. Otherwise, I’ll just sit quietly and read to myself. They have a whole bunch of books. Maybe I’ll get gelato afterwards. Wait–there’s no gelato near Grey Wolfe? How do people even survive?

Well, I’ll find something. You could join me for that. Even if it’s not gelato.

GWS is really heavily into Michigan authors and publishers. If you’re in Clawson some time that isn’t for my reading, stop and peruse their shelves.

Writing Business Cashflow

Most craft businesses fail. It’s not surprising. Being an expert knitter doesn’t mean you should open a yarn shop. Lots of those hobbyist stores go broke in the first year because the excited, enthusiastic storekeeper doesn’t know how to pay himself and the landlord. In business, cashflow is king.

Writing is a craft business.

Kris Rusch’s writing business blog has a lovely article about business capitalization and implosion. As an IT nerd who survived not one but two dot-com crashes, and as a writer who’s been paid increasing amounts for his work since 1995, I’ve seen exactly this problem hit people in both the technology and writing businesses.

Kris makes wonderful points, but she skipped something. How, exactly, do you manage cashflow in your writing business? Specifically, how do you pay your bills? How do you get groceries in the fridge and pay the copyeditor? How do you decide when you can afford to expand your writing business?

This is roughly how I do it, in both my long-gone consulting career and as a professional writer. I did not invent this method; rather, I accumulated it over decades of largely involuntary exposure to business. It covers how I decided I could afford to become a full-time writer, because that decision is an utterly critical part of cash flow management. There are other methods; I am not offering you the One Word of Truth here.

Every successful business plays some variant of this game. The only difference is how complicated the spreadsheets are.

Premises

You’ll not only have good months and bad months, you’ll have good and bad years. Understand this all the way down into your toes. Burn it into your soul. If you want your business to survive, you must have actionable plans to endure bad years.

Have a business organization, with a separate bank account. Big thick books are written on business organization, and I’m not going to pretend to advise you on the right organization for you. The important thing for this discussion is that the business receives every penny of your writing income. If you’re not doing that, start now.

Start with money in hand. If you don’t have cash in your greasy mitts to pay your bills your business will fail. End of discussion. I had a year’s expenses in my business bank account before I went full-time writer. I accumulated those savings by… wait for it… not spending my writing income. Maybe you have a supportive spouse, and don’t need a full year of expenses. Maybe your savings are in your personal account rather than your business account. Modify my example to fit your reality.

The Cashflow Game

You don’t write for a living. You make a living so you can write, but you play a game for a living. The game is called “Keep The Bucket Full.”

Money irregularly enters the Business Account Bucket. Some months it’ll get a drop or two. Other months, a torrent arrives.

Money leaves the Business Account bucket at an (approximately) fixed rate. Your rent isn’t going to go down just because your books aren’t selling.

When money leaves the Business Bucket faster than the bucket refills, you’re losing.

When money enters the Business Bucket faster than the bucket drains, you’re winning.

Playing the game takes two numbers: how fast the bucket drains, and how fast it fills.

You can be a successful craftsman and produce professional-grade work without playing this game. True professionals are paid, though, and you cannot be a successful professional craftsman without playing the game.

Draining the Bucket

Start with your expenses. Go through your last six months of spending. What do you need, and what do you want?

Only you know how much money you need to pay your bills, and which of your bills are necessary. You require health insurance and you must fund your retirement. I don’t have cable TV, but if you have kids the Disney Channel might well be a wise expenditure. My family lives in Detroit, because of the low cost of living. That might not work for you. On the other hand, my tech writing means I need thirty megabit of bandwidth. You might need much less Internet. You might read a good book on financial decision-making.

Brutally honest self-reflection is essential here. What did you need to spend, what was excessive, and–the hardest category: what did you not strictly need, but you know damn well you’re going to buy anyway even if it’s not in the budget? In my younger days, I most frequently blew my budget by buying books. My budgeting vastly improved once I allowed for that.

Make your choices. You can and will change them later, but at least start.

Perfection isn’t necessary. A starting list is. Preferably, a starting list with pessimistic-but-not-apocalyptic assumptions. Maybe all of my favorite authors will release a book in the same month, increasing expenses, but if I catch wheat rust everything blows up anyway.

Group these expenses into a two-by-two matrix: business and personal, versus “essential” and “stuff you’re willing to surrender if it means you get to keep writing for a living.” Again, you can and will change these later.

expense categoriesbusinesspersonal
essentialessential business expenses (copyediting, book proof fees, accountant)base pay (food, rent, health insurance)
nice-to-havefull business expenses (better covers, more promotion)full pay (vacation, pocket cash, someone else to mow the lawn)

If an expense can be a legitimate business expense, declare it a business expense. This is not a tax blog, so none of this is legal advice, but in general: those writing conferences? Business expense. Microsoft Word and InDesign for your writing PC? Business expense. Lunch while you’re writing? Personal expense–you’d have to eat anyway. Read a book like Tax Savvy for Small Business and consult an accountant.

Arrange them by month or by year. Yearly is more effective for the long view, but many people find monthly more comprehensible. Divide those annual expenses, like tax preparation, by 12. You’ll save money for them throughout the year, so that sudden $500 bill is not a nasty shock to your wallet.

Separately total up the four categories.

Your essential business expenses? That’s how much money the business needs to survive. I’ll call this “essential business expenses.”

Your nice-to-have business expenses? This, plus your essential business expenses, is how much you’d like to spend on the business each month. I’ll call this “full business expenses.”

Your essential expenses? That’s how much you must pay yourself. I’m going to call this “base pay.”

Your nice-to-have expenses? That, plus your base pay, is how much you want to pay yourself. I’m going to call this “full pay.”

Your goal is for the business to pay its full expenses every month, while paying yourself full pay every month.

Armed with this information, visit your accountant. If you’re unsure, ask them to verify the legitimacy of your proposed business expenses. It’s much better to pay a few bucks for a proactive check than have the local tax agencies add you to their list of “Suspicious Bastards We Need To Closely Watch.” Then have the accountant look at your base and full pay. How much must you to pay in taxes to pay yourself each of those?

Your full pay, plus the taxes on that pay, plus your full business expenses, are your expenses, as shown here. The numbers don’t reflect my reality. I chose them to make the examples simple.

expense categoriesbusiness expensespersonal expensestaxestotals
essential$500$2000$500$3000
nice-to-have$500$1000
essential plus nice-to-have$1000$3000$1000$5000

Ideally, I want my company to support $5000/month in expenses. I’m willing to accept $3000/month to have the job I love, though.

Worst Case: Don’t Refill the Bucket

Suppose the business account has $30,000 in it. With no income I can survive six months at full expenses, or ten months at base expenses.

Total annual outgo is $60,000 at full expenses, or $36,000 on base expenses.

Wow. That extra couple grand a month got big real quick, didn’t it? This illustrates one of the most important principles of cashflow: fixed recurring expenses will murder your business.

Filling the Bucket

Now that you know how quickly money goes out, look at the history of your business income.

If you made over $60,000, especially for multiple years, it’s realistic to think that you can probably pay yourself your full expenses.

If you’ve routinely made over $36,000, it’s realistic to think that you can probably pay yourself your base expenses.

If you made under $36,000, your business is in trouble before it starts. It’s better to know that you can’t survive before starting. It’s also better to know what you must change to make your writing a viable business. Now you know why I live in Detroit and not San Francisco. More than one writer I know personally lives in Thailand specifically to destroy their fixed recurring expenses.

Yes, once you’re writing full time your income should go up. The word should destroys more businesses than any other. The year I wrote more books than any other year, my income decreased. The next year I wrote fewer books, and my income increased. The books I’d written the previous year finally started paying off. You can’t control how well a book will sell. Hope is nice, and dreams keep we artists going, but seriously, spending in anticipation of an income surge will tank your finances.

Winning and Losing

Winning at your craft business is easily defined: you can stay in business, living the life you want to live. It’s okay to not meet goals like “write eight books this year,” so long as you keep going. Don’t define “winning” by increased income: remember, you don’t control how money arrives in the bucket.

You might find that being a full-time writer is not for you. That’s okay. It takes a peculiar particular sort of person to sit alone in a room and hammer out words forty hours a week. That’s not unique to writers. My wife’s favorite bead store went out of business after three years specifically because the store owner realized she wanted to play with beads, not manage cashflow. She was successful, but hated the actual work. Today, I can only presume she’s at home reveling in her glorious bead collection.

But then there’s failure.

Failing isn’t the worst that can happen. Most businesses fail. My first three businesses failed, but I learned from each.

But worrying about failure can destroy your creativity. Not releasing new books will also destroy your business. Reduce the worry by setting a Yellow and Red threshold on your bank account.

When your business account balance is above the Yellow threshold, you’re the Green zone. Pay yourself your full expenses. Life is good.

When your business account drops to or below the Yellow threshold, you cut your expenses to the base level. You pay only for essentials. Yes, it’s possible that you can get in a situation where the rules say you bounce Yellow and Green each month. If that’s the case, I’d suggest you stay at base expenses for a while until you get a comfortable cushion.

Hitting Yellow is also a good time to revisit your expenses. When I had to commute two hours a day, a good car was a necessity. Now that I only drive to and from the dojo, a new car is a waste. Inside a month any car I drive is gonna have that faint yet utterly penetrating aroma of “Eau de Sweaty Bludgeoned Lucas,” so why bother? Killing the car payment sufficed to drag me back into the green, no problem.

Again: monthly recurring expenses will murder your business. You control those expenses.

When your business account drops to Red: you’ve lost. It’s time to get a straight job.

How do you set these levels? I set them by months. My Yellow level equals one year’s basic expenses. I’m willing to live simply for a year, with zero income. This gives me time to cope with emergencies.

Job hunting while flat broke is terrible, though, so define your Red level accordingly. How long will it take you to get a job? My background is in technology, so my Red threshold allows for two months of base expenses with no income. Plenty of time for a techie like myself to choose the least loathsome employment. If you wanted your old job as a high school teacher, though, your Red level would be much higher. Schools hire teachers once a year.

The advantage of this system is you get to stop worrying. We artists are temperamental, high-strung critters. By setting thresholds, you can quickly know how things are going. When I start to freak out about this month’s cashflow and ask myself if I should return to corporate serfdom, I can check the bank balance. Most often I say something like “Oh, I’m at twice Yellow, everything’s fine” and get back to making words.

The nice thing about losing Fill The Bucket is that you don’t lose at writing. You wrote when you had a straight job before, you can write during that job again. Next time you try, you’ll be better prepared.

Increasing Expenses

Cash Flow Doom sounds like good news.

“A million dollars just landed in the Business Bucket! We’re rich! Maseratis all around!”

“I signed a Hollywood shopping agreement for my novel, I’m gonna be rich!”

Or, most insidious of all: “I don’t like doing this work.”

All of these encourage you to head down the same awful path: increasing your fixed expenses.

Fixed expenses are what kills a business.

Never increase expenses based on expected income. That way lies failure. Maybe you had a massive spike in your Amazon sales this month–but what happens to your business if next month Amazon decides to suspend your account and not pay you for that spike? Act only based on cash in hand.

Increasing your fixed expenses means that your Business Bucket drains more quickly, every month–and that your bucket will continue to drain at that rate, forever, until you reduce expenses. You’ve turned up the difficulty level on your game of Fill The Bucket.

That $5000/month for your full expenses? You hire a flunky, and suddenly it’s $10,000/month. What would have lasted you a year will now last six months. Your flunky doesn’t have base and full expenses, either–they expect their full paycheck, every week. That expense is truly fixed.

Your Red and Yellow levels change. And that person you hired? As people, employees are human beings and not disposable. Treat them with respect. Their employment with you, though? That’s totally disposable. Employees are Yellow-level expenses.

I know more than one writer who hired a friend to handle their scut work. When their income dropped, they chose to let their writing business tank rather than fire that friend. Placing your friendship ahead of your business is a valid personal decision, but think ahead of time what your decision will be. Firing a friend sucks. Don’t hire a friend unless you can cut them loose when times get hard. Worse, good employees tend to become friends. You’ll care about them.

Don’t hire employees unless you can bring yourself to fire them.

Company car? How do you feel about it being repo’d during the next stock market crash?

My rule of thumb is: don’t increase either full or base expenses unless I have enough cash in hand to keep the business above Yellow for an entire year at the increased level, assuming zero income for that year.

Also judge how those increased expenses affect your long term dreams and goals. I have a dream of writing enough to pay off the mortgage. (It’s a dream because I influence but don’t directly control my income.) Hiring an employee would make that dream much more difficult.

That’s why Tilted Windmill Press has no employees. I’ve assembled a team of consultants for cover and interior art, an entire editing and copyediting team, an accountant, and all the other bits I need to have a functional company. I also have a whole list of awesome artists on tap for when Brad is inevitably eaten by a grue, so please don’t send me your portfolio.

Firing a consultant is much easier than firing an employee. You just don’t hire them again.

I had some medical issues last year, and have been in something of a slump since. If I’d hired someone during that flush year, and couldn’t bring myself to fire them, I’d be out of business. As it is, I’m doing okay.

All this doesn’t mean you can’t reward yourself. It’s been a good year and you want to replace your decrepit computer? That’s a one-off expense. If you can afford it, and it doesn’t interfere with your long-term goals and dreams, proceed.

Help, My Bucket Overflowed!

If you play this game even moderately well, you’ll find yourself with money in the bank. Keep your accountant up to date on what’s happening.

Many businesses invest in new equipment in December. One 28 December I bought a new laptop, a filing cabinet, a bookcase, and a thousand ISBNs. I needed them anyway, but my income was higher than I thought. Spending that money in that year helped cut my taxes.

Eventually you will need to revisit your business structure. Even one-person author businesses eventually need to incorporate, for tax reasons if nothing else. You’ll need to consider investments, like index funds or your niece’s Schoolyard Savings and Loan. (Sixth graders often charge fifty percent interest, so get in on that if you can.)

Adjust your model as money changes.

Help, My Brain Overflowed!

The first time you do this, it’s a pain. It takes hours.

That’s okay. It gets easier.

Revisit your plan at least once a year. Successful business people review their plans quarterly. Expenses tend to creep upward while you’re not looking. Find and squash the unnecessary ones, or at least classify them appropriately so you know what to cut when you hit the Yellow threshold.

Eventually adjusting and revisiting your full and basic expenses, along with your Red and Yellow thresholds, becomes easier and easier. Soon it becomes reflex. That recurring subconscious wish to hire your favorite cousin will start to drift towards your conscious mind, only to be intercepted and devoured by your finely trained and deeply ravenous Fixed Expense Hunter-Killer Instincts.

And you’re going to need that instinct if you’re to survive as a full time writer.

“SSH Mastery, 2nd ed” in hardcover

I’ve been publishing books for about a quarter century now. At long last, one of my books is out in hardcover. With a dust jacket and everything. Introducing the newest version of SSH Mastery.

Why produce this book in hardcover?

First, because I need to know how to do it. Self-pub hardcover books are a different beast than paperbacks. One day I’ll have a serious need for hardcovers. That’s not the time to learn how to create them. I’ll need those skills in advance.

And second, because I wanted to. Because how cool is this?

Hardcovers are not cheap. This book retails for $39.99. Much like paperback print on demand, I expect the price to drop with time.

In theory, the hardcover will withstand more abuse than a paperback. I love theories. They make spending forty bucks on a book you can get for ten in ebook sound sensible.

I’ve ordered a case of hardbacks, as gifts for the fine folks who sponsored this book.

Also, this book uses my own ISBN, 978-1-64235-022-7. As I have very few combination book nerd/tech nerd readers, let me explain the joke: this is ISBN 22 out of my block of 1000, 978-1-64235-022-7. You have my permission to roll your eyes now.

As I don’t expect anyone to actually purchase the hardcover edition, I let myself have fun with it. The dust jacket is very BOFH, and contains Extra Rat.

Podcast Interview with Yours Truly

Season 2 Episode 7 of Chris Sanders‘ Source Code podcast features me. It’s a tech podcast, yes, but as Chris and I are both writers, we talk writing. Plus growing up in a farm town, reading, and the assorted unspeakable horrors of the literary life.

Chris not only donates his book royalties to the Rural Technology Fund, when he interviews someone on his podcast he donates $100 to a charity of the guest’s choice. I chose the Soroptomists International of Grosse Pointe, who are doing good boots-on-the-ground work on Detroit’s human trafficking problems. They’re less the “Ladies Who Lunch” and more the “Ladies Who Launch.”

The bad news is we, of course, discussed Savaged by Systemd. Somehow, we kept the podcast’s PG rating.

MWL’s 2017 Wrap-Up

It’s that time again. Time to reflect on my myriad personal failures in 2017.

The obvious place to start is my 2016 wrap-up post, where I listed goals for 2017. As usual, these goals were wildly delusional.

The short answer is, my iron was back up to normal. My writing speed wasn’t, though. I’d lost too much general health, and needed hard exercise to recover it. Yes, writing requires physical endurance. Maintaining that level of concentration for several hours a day demands a certain level of blood flow to the brain. I could have faked it in a day job, but when self-employed as an artist? Not so much.

Then there’s travel. I did my usual BSDCan trip, plus two educational trips to Lincoln City, Oregon. The current political mayhem convinced me that if I wanted to hit EuroBSDCon any time in the next few years, I should do it in the very near future. So I went to Paris, where I promptly got pickpocketed. (Thankfully, they didn’t get my passport.) I was actively writing the third edition of Absolute FreeBSD, so I visited BSDCam in Cambridge to get the latest information and a sense of where FreeBSD was going. I also did weekends at Kansas LinuxFest (because they asked and paid for my trip) and Penguicon.

(Because people will ask: why EuroBSDCon and not AsiaBSDCon? A six-hour transatlantic flight requires that I take a substantial dose of heavy-grade tranquilizers. I’m incapable of making intelligent decisions while on those drugs, or for several hours afterward. They don’t last long enough for twelve-hour flight to Japan, so I need to be accompanied by someone qualified to tell me when I need to take the next dose partway through the flight. This isn’t a predetermined time that I can set an alarm for; it depends on how the clonazepam affects me at those altitudes. A drug overdose while flying over the North Pole would be bad. When I can arrange that qualified companion, I’ll make the trip.)

I need most of the preceding week to prepare for long trips. I need the following week to recover from time shifts and general exhaustion. Additionally, I have to hoard people juice for a few weeks beforehand so I can deal with folks during these expeditions. Travel disrupts my dojo time as well, which impacts my health.

Taken as a whole: I didn’t get nearly as much done as I hoped.

Here’s my complete output of big books.

Or, everything I put out: one novel, one tech book, one story, and one novella.

I wrote more stories, but Kris Rusch bludgeoned me into submitting them to trad markets. (The woman is a brute, I tell you. Cross her at your peril.)

Among my 2017 titles, my fiction outsold the tech books. No, not Prohibition Orcs–all four of the people who buy those love them, but the sales tell me I’ve done something wrong with those tales.

My cozy mystery git commit murder outsold Relayd and Httpd Mastery.

But what outdid them both, as well as most of my older books? What title utterly dominated my sales for the last quarter of the year? It was of course, my open source software political satire disguised as porn Savaged by Systemd: an Erotic Unix Encounter.

I can’t believe I just wrote that paragraph.

The good news is, once I recovered from EuroBSDCon, my writing got better.

I finished Absolute FreeBSD, 3rd edition and submitted it to the publisher.

I wrote the second edition of SSH Mastery (no link, because you can’t order it yet.)

I’m plowing through git sync murder, the sequel to git commit murder. I don’t get to see the new Star Wars movie until I finish GSM, so hopefully that’ll be this month.

All in all, I wrote 480,200 words in 2017. Most of that was after September. It’s annoyingly close to breaking half a million, but after 2016’s scandalous 195,700, I’ll take it.

One of the nice things about being an author is that most of your income is passive. You do the work, and the money trickles in for years afterwards. I had money coming in while I was out of commission. The bad news is, that income slowly drops. If I’m to stay an author instead of becoming a wage peasant, I have to schlep some books out PDQ. I can do it, provided I remain focused on production.

That slump is the big reason why I broke down and started a Patreon. It’s why I started taking sponsorships for tech books. You folks carried me through my health problems. I can’t thank you enough.

The fact that AF3e is trad published complicates the financial picture. I won’t see any money from that book until 2019. No, I’m not complaining–that’s just a fact of life, and I knew that going in. But it provides extra motivation for getting my butt in gear right off in 2018.

So 2018 will be my Year Of Making Words. The finest words, of course. Artisinal. Straight from Detroit, a third world city in America’s heartland.

So what’s on tap for 2018? What’s the plan?

  • BSDCan, Penguicon, and two educational trips to Lincoln City, Oregon. That’s it. Under no circumstances will I leave North America, sorry.
  • write 600,000 words, or 50,000 words a month.
  • Complete and release four tech books
    • SSH Mastery 2nd ed
    • FreeBSD Mastery: Jails (I suspect this will turn into two books, it’s a huge topic)
    • either Mastodon Mastery or Ansible for Legacy Systems.
    • #MWLSecretBook, which I can’t talk about until for now, for reasons which will become clear once the book comes out
  • Write the tech book I didn’t complete above, and release it if there’s time
  • Write four novels
    • git sync murder, a sequel to git commit murder
    • Bones Like Water, or Immortal Clay #3
    • Drinking Heavy Water, Montague Portal #5 or Aidan Redding #4
    • To Be Decided From a List of Candidates, All of Which I Really Want to Write
  • Be sufficiently flexible to kick Ray Percival in the head at BSDCan. A front kick will do, but I’m shooting for the high-flexibility side kick as a stretch goal.
  • Exercise enough to drop twenty pounds
  • Stay married while doing all of the above
  • Stay alive

Other than the last two, these are all deliberately fail-forward goals. If I only get three tech books done instead of four–hey, I’m ahead by three tech books! If I only drop ten pounds, that’s better than gaining ten. “Stay married” and “stay alive” aren’t fail-forward goals, but I have a good idea how to achieve them both.

This time next year, come back to see exactly how I failed!

“SSH Mastery” 2nd ed tech reviewers wanted

Last night, I finished a first draft of the second edition of SSH Mastery. The book covers OpenSSH as a server and a client, and PuTTY as a client. There’s small updates throughout the book, plus some new topics–most notably, SSH certificates.

I’m looking for SSH mavens who’d be willing to review the manuscript before publication.

I’d need any comments back by 2 January 2018.

I’d like comments in plain text, with enough context that I can find the spot you’re talking about.

Interested? Drop me an email at mwl at mwl dot io.

If you’re a sponsor and want to be a tech reviewer–you already have a copy of the manuscript. Read it. Send me comments. You’ve already helped me a bunch, but I won’t turn down your thoughts.

MS Word auto-recovery files and Dictation

Today, I learned about Microsoft Word auto-recovery files.

If Microsoft Word crashes and can’t auto-recover the document, find the autosave file. The location is given in File->Options->Save. Sort the directory by date, and your autosave should be at or near the top. The file name ends in .asd. Copy that file elsewhere and open it in Wordpad.

Your text will be therein, stripped of all formatting but present.

In related news: I’m trying dictation. I know several authors who produce several thousand words per hour with dictation. I would like to produce several thousand words per hour.

Seemingly unrelated fact: I habitually hit the “save” button after typing every sentence. Note the key word: typing.

In more related news: installing Dragon 15 has made Microsoft Word lock up three times today. The third time, it couldn’t auto-recover the lost text.

And I hadn’t even thought about saving. Because I automatically hit “save” every sentence.

Beware your habits. They will cause you pain when you change.

Also: computers are terrible. I need a stenographer. Who understands MS Word styles.

I have a Patreon now

I’ve done it. I’ve sold out. I’ve joined the trendy hip crowd.

By popular demand, I now have a Patreon.

Why announce this now? Well, I’ve finished the intensive work on the third edition of Absolute FreeBSD. I won’t have the rights to distribute electronic versions of AF3e to patrons. (Why? Remember, authors don’t sell books; they license copyright. I’ve licensed those rights to No Starch Press.) I will have the rights to distribute all of the Tilted Windmill Press ebooks, though. I feel it’s wrong to ask people to patronize me for working on stuff I couldn’t share with them.

Stupid ethics.

Financially, your best choice is to look at the books I write as they come out and purchase the ones you want. And I am perfectly good with that choice. I’m perfectly good with people who never read my stuff at all. My Patreon is for people who want to offer ongoing support, and get a couple tidbits in the bargain.

If you want to throw me a couple bucks but don’t Patreon? I have a tip jar. Or buy another book.

Short on cash? Reviews at the ebookstore where you bought a book are always nice.

Utterly indifferent to my existence? Then why did you read this blog post all the way to the end?

Self-Imposed Split Personality

Pardon the long post, but this might both save me some time and help other authors in a similar position. (I’m not aware of any others in my position, but I’m sure they exist.) Also, I try to make data-driven decisions rather than jumping on the Latest Bandwagon, which is notoriously difficult in a business like publishing that provides very little data.

I’ve been writing under the name Michael W Lucas for decades now. I used that name on the very first book that I published. For my first tech book I used Michael Lucas, but changed it immediately afterwards because I couldn’t compete.

A few years ago, I split into Michael W Lucas (tech) and Michael Warren Lucas (fiction). Publishing in two wildly different fields confused both readers and Amazon’s recommendation engine. While my long-term plan involves reducing Amazon’s importance as a sales channel, other sites use similar algorithms. And I doubt I’ll ever eliminate outside sales channels–even James Patterson can’t swing that.

So I have to ride the algorithms.

I’ll use Amazon as an example because the public can easily extract data from them. Amazon says “Hey, enough people who bought X also bought Y, so we’ll point that out and try to sell them more stuff.” Observe Amazon’s algorithms in action by using Yasiv’s Also Bought visualization tool. Here’s my Kindle Also Boughts for my nonfiction. Amazon has also noticed that people who buy books on TLS, PGP, ZFS, and PF have bought SSH Mastery.

When someone looks at the entry for, say, Bulletproof SSL and TLS, Amazon shows them an ad for SSH Mastery.

These ads are critical for expanding my readership. Books with incoming links are my best-sellers. While correlation is not causation, from talking to readers and observing my own behavior I’d say they clearly work.

Yasiv also shows that people who buy one of my books have also bought a bunch more of my books. This shows that my writing appeals to a certain group of people. Folks who try one of my books get hooked. Amazon is validating my writer skills here, in graphical form.

Note that the Also Bought recommendation engine clearly splits books by genre. I’m highly confident that my readership includes a bunch of folks who read, say, Peter F Hamilton, John Scalzi, Heinlein, Asimov, and so on. But the recommendation engine mostly chops those things off. You have to sell a whole bunch of stuff to get the recommendation engine to cross genres. My Kindle nonfiction Yasiv graph shows that folks who bought my DNSSEC and Tarsnap books also bought git commit murder, but it’s very much an outlier. It’s even graphed as an outlier.

Now let’s hit the clutch, and look at fiction. My fiction is gaining popularity. Measured in dollars, the sales each month are usually a little better than those beforehand. I write crime thrillers, science fiction, and mystery.

So let’s consider Amazon’s Kindle Also Boughts for my fiction.

This really isn’t good.

My fiction exists as a little island. My books all connect to each other. People who like my books tend to buy several. Once my audience finds me, they stay. My readers also like Octavia Butler and Charlie Stross, though, so I’m reasonably confident in the writing itself. Those links are one-way, however: people leave my island for Stross, but never return.

(Note that not all of my books are here. If I wanted to be really depressed, I’d check out the Also Boughts for the latest Montague Portal novel… but I don’t want to be really depressed, so I won’t. Plus, reader reaction to that book was excellent, so Amazon’s recommendation engine can go jump off a bridge.)

Without those incoming Also Boughts, there’s no career here.

I’ve been doing a bunch of reading on how Also Boughts work. Amazon divides the Also Boughts by consistency of readership. I write in multiple genres. An author name with fewer sales and fewer titles but greater consistency of readership gets recommended to other readers. An author name with more titles but inconsistent readership… does not.

Some writers have recommended concentrating on one genre. I understand their reasons for that recommendation, but in my case that’s not likely to happen. The stories I want to write do not respect genre. The book I’m writing now deals with today’s human trafficking, and I don’t care to thinly disguise the topic to write it as science fiction. And there’s no way to write my SF as crime novels.

Fiction readers rarely cross genres. A few do–I have a few loyal fans who read damn near everything I write. (Hi, Meg and Kurt!) I love those readers. But they’re the exception.

So it seems I need to split my name again.

I’m not looking forward to self-imposed multiple personality disorder. It’s a bunch of work. There’s a whole mess of covers to redo, not to mention a whole mess of ebook reformatting. I’m equipped to do it, don’t get me wrong, but it’s tedious grunt labor that I’d rather not repeat.

Which means I only want to do it once.

Rather than going with my gut, I’m requesting input from other writers who’ve been here.

The obvious split seems to be mystery & crime thrillers under one name, and the SF under another name.

I can also argue against that, though. The Immortal Clay books have very little cross-readership with the Montague Portal stories. This is not surprising: the Immortal Clay books are post-apocalyptic “Carpenter’s The Thing, but after we lose”, while the Montague Portal tales are comparatively lighthearted “let’s explore the multiverse!” romps. Similarly, git commit murder is a cozy mystery, while Butterfly Stomp Waltz and the forthcoming sequel (Terrapin Sky Tango) are crime thrillers–technically mysteries, yes, but mysteries full of blood and booms and bad language. Decidedly not cozy, if you get my drift.

But splitting into four names? Oh, come on now. Each name imposes overhead. Never mind that if my fiction takes off, I plan to write an urban theological fantasy series. (Working title: you should have learned. A couple of you probably got a funny look right there, so for you few: yes, it means exactly what you think it means.)

So I think it’s two names, plus a possible third later on.

The SF would stay under my name. The biggest reason being that it’s a suitable SF author name, while modern thriller authors who have started writing recently have shorter, punchier names. Yes, James Patterson is a long name–but he’s been around for decades. Today’s perfect thriller author name is something like, say, Brad Thor, Lee Child, Ben Coes, or Dale Brown. Single-syllable names. (Of these, I’d say Brad Thor is the best–a metal rivet and a Norse god? How much tougher do you want?) Slightly longer names like Tom Clancy and Stuart Woods also do pretty well. No, I’m not saying that these authors did well because of their names. But the names of the authors of these kinds of books in the trad published world fit into a type, and if I’m going to switch my name I want it to fit that type as well as possible.

git commit murder is something of an odd duck. The target audience is people who read my nonfiction. It’s probably going to stay under the Michael Warren Lucas brand, simply for the name recognition of “he’s in our tribe.” That book will never appeal to the Traditional Cozy Reader, and that’s okay.

I’d like to continue using https://mwl.io as a generic author landing page that branches out to specific sites for all of my names. Middle initials are not punchy. So let’s go with initials of M and L.

But what name? The first names Mack and Mick appeal to me. A surname, though? I could go for a variant on my name, like Luck. Perhaps something ominous, such as Last?

So, for those author sorts still reading this:

1) Is splitting my name a waste of time?
2) Should I split the names a different way?
3) Suggestions for a good M.L. thriller pseudonym?

Penguicon 2017 Schedule

Next weekend, April 28-30 2017, I’ll be at Penguicon. Two weekends after that (12-14 May), I’ll be at Kansas LinuxFest. But we’re on Penguicon right now.

Here’s my events and the description for each. Each is 1 hour unless specified otherwise. And I’m asking your help for some of these events. (Updated to add the LN2 events, which I’m not running but a guy has to eat sometime.)

Friday:
8PM: LN2 Ice Cream
9PM: The OpenBSD Web Stack – OpenBSD is best known for security and networking. But they also have a highly secure web server and load balancer. This talk will take you through the OpenBSD web stack, presenting its strengths and disadvantages. We’ll cover the httpd web server, free globally valid SSL certificates through ACME, the Common Address Redundancy Protocol for two-server clusters, and the relayd load balancer. Many of the security issues common on web servers are simply not an issue on OpenBSD. Come find out why!

Saturday:
9 AM: Writers and Traditional Publishing – So you want to sell a book to a publisher. How do you do that? What should you expect? How do you optimize your chances of getting not just a deal, but the deal you want? What gets some people into traditional publishing, and keeps others out? Come hear authors discuss the good and bad of the publishing biz!

10-11:45AM: Author Meet & Read, Vol. 1 – A big room with Clif Flynt, Mary Lynne Gibbs, Jen Haeger, Christian Klaver, James Frederick Leach, David Erik Nelson, John Scalzi, Clarence Young, and myself, all showing off our books, talking to our readers, and signing books. I will have my books still in print for sale. I’m expecting that the others will all have long lines and I’ll be there alone, so this is your chance to heckle me in person.

10:54-11:03AM: reading from git commit murder – Readings are tightly scheduled, so I expect this to begin and end sharply on time.

1PM: self publishing in 2017 – Self-publishing is an increasingly important channel for authors to reach their readers. It also changes constantly, with new tools and distributors opening daily and existing platforms changing. This panel brings together veteran self-publishers to share their experiences, discuss the changes of the last year, and give new authors an edge in the business.

2PM: 90 second reads – Join a handful of Penguicon authors as they read 90-second passages from their novels. The selections will be thematically linked based on keywords, such as sorrow, fury, funny, love, etc. Timing is crucial! After, there will be a Q&A with the authors.

3PM: LN2 ice cream

5PM: Writing High-Performance Nonfiction – Writing nonfiction is not merely reciting facts. It’s a specialized form of storytelling, very different from your college essays and book reports. Whether you’re writing memoirs or computer texts, using storytelling techniques transforms your work for the better. This talk takes you through making your nonfiction not only readable, but memorable.

7PM: BSD Operating Systems in 2017 – I’ll be discussing the current options in BSD-based operating systems, the big news from recent projects, new developments, and where we’re going from here.

8-10PM: LN2 ice cream

Sunday:

10AM: breakfast – LN2 ice cream

11AM: Senior Sysadmin Panel – Storage – The years know things that the days and weeks never know. We’ve gathered half a dozen people who’ve been sysadmins for over 20 years to talk about the one of the most dreaded and annoying topics in computing: storage.

12PM: Self-Promotion for Creatives – Independent creators are their own PR departments. We have to not only make all the things, we have to spread the word about all the things. Here we have a bunch of artists and writer types who successfully spread their work across the world. What works? What doesn’t? How can you be shamelessly self-promoting without being a jerk? Come find out!

Where could I use help?

In the 90 second reads panel, I get a few 90 second periods to read a selection from my fiction. Each read should have a theme. Our group has four themes: Betrayal, Heartbreaking, Scary, Funny.

For those of you who have read my fiction: I could use suggestions for parts of my books that you thought fit these themes. I have a few thoughts, but what I think fits a theme is probably not what struck you lot as fitting that theme.

So: if you’ve read my fiction, what of mine would you suggest for a brief reading in any or all of those themes?