Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

There is No Popular Vote

 Brandon issues his quadrennial roar: There is no "popular vote".

Every presidential election year I have to gear up to fight the entire army of the Philistines with the jawbone of an ass over the Electoral College, and endlessly explain to people that there is literally no popular vote in the United States; that we don't even have the mechanism required to ascertain the popular vote; that the number that the journalists report is not a popular vote number but consists of adding votes obtained in different elections structured by different laws and thus not actually capable of being added together; that in fact the United States holds not one but fifty-one elections for President, each a simulation of who would be President if the whole of the country were like a given state (or DC), and then partly weights these elections by population; that the President of the United States is literally the one who presides over the union of states; that it is more important in a country as large and diverse as the United States for the chief executive to have to appeal to people throughout the country than to appeal to sheer numbers of people, especially if the latter are heavily concentrated in only a few areas; that for level of interest and general understanding, the Electoral College is the only non-parliamentary system of election that simplifies the election in a way that makes it easy for everyone to follow; that anyone who uses the word 'gerrymandering' in connection with the Electoral College doesn't know what 'gerrymandering' is; that whether the Electoral College favors rural voters or urban voters depends entirely on how you define 'rural' and 'urban' (even Wyoming and Alaska have urban areas, and even California and New York have rural areas, by entirely reasonable definitions of both); that the Electoral College does not in fact structurally favor either Democrats or Republicans; etc., etc., etc. I am very much not looking forward to the iteration of this argument that this year is currently promising.


Friday, September 18, 2020

Prayers for the Cupp Family

 "You know neither the day nor the hour...." -- Matthew 25:13

Six months ago, no one could have imagined the chaos of pandemic and quarantine. Week by week, day by day, life alters, sometimes in small ways, sometimes in irreversible courses.

Longtime blog readers may remember Kyle Cupp, who used to blog. He wrote a book called "Living by Faith, Dwelling in Doubt," about his spiritual journey and the death of his daughter Vivian shortly after birth. Kyle is a college friend of Darwins, and we have fond memories of hanging out with him in his black trenchcoat days.

Last week Kyle had three living children. This week he has two.

Kyle's oldest son Jonathan, after a traumatic brain injury and two agonizing nights in the hospital, died yesterday morning. He was 14.

The costs associated with hospitalization and death are astronomical, and come on top of the shock of grief. Some college friends organized a fundraiser for the Cupp Family, and many loving friends have already donated. But please, if you have a few charitable dollars to spare, consider contributing to defray the costs for this family already staggered by sudden loss and grief.


Saturday, September 12, 2020

A History Buff Reads American Royals

 It is only fair at the outset to say that I'm a completely inappropriate person to review American Royals, a YA-ish novel pitched by the publisher as "Crazy Rich Asians meets The Crown."  I ran across it because I was researching advertising comps for my own novel, and American Royals and its just-released sequel Majesty are selling very, very well .  I was intrigued because the premise of the novel is fascinating to me from a historical point of view: After his victory at Yorktown, George Washington was offered the crown of a new American constitutional monarchy and now in an otherwise similar 2020 with smartphones and social media and WaWa milkshakes with extra M&Ms, America is still ruled by the House of Washington.  Without the fledgling republic in the New World to inspire other revolutions, the Bourbons are still ruling France, the Romanovs are on the throne of Russia, and the world is one big glitzy tabloid for those who just love reading about the latest doings of The Royals.  


Of course, my first big question, especially reading it during the long hot summer of 2020, was: What happened with slavery?  Was there a Civil War in this world?  Is slavery still around? Did a southern royal dynasty nonetheless abolish the greatest source of wealth in the 18th and 19th century South?  Beyond that, I had secondary order questions about how the presence of a monarchy would change the political and cultural nature of America.

So I borrowed a copy of American Royals from our local library.  And the answer is...  It doesn't really address those questions much at all.  The world of this monarchical America is little different from ours, aside being slightly more glitzy and woke than our own world.  (For instance, same sex marriage appears to have come about some time ago in this world, and one of the main characters is the daughter of a lesbian power-couple: mom is a dot-com millionaire and mama is a cabinet secretary in the royal administration.)

The early history of the monarchy is only hinted at.  In the first pages Princess Beatrice (who is slated to be the first ruling queen of the US) reflects on her history:

Beatrice could trace her ancestry back to the tenth century.  

It was really only through Queen Martha's side, though most people refrained from mentioning that.  After all, King George I had been nothing but an upstart planter from Virginia until he married well and then fought even better.  He fought so well that he helped win America's independence, and was then rewarded by its people with a crown.

But through Martha, at least, Beatrice could trace her lineage for more than forty generations. Among her forebears were kinds and queens and archdukes, scholars and soldiers, even a canonized saint.  We have much to learn by looking back, her father always reminded her.  Never forget where you come from.

This would seem to suggest that Beatrice's ancestors are descended from George and Martha Washington, which is a bit odd given that no one is descended form George and Martha: they had no children.  Martha had children from her first marriage.  Did they succeed to the crown?  Later in the book it's hinted that the George II who is mentioned as succeeding George I was actually his nephew (George Steptoe Washington) through George Washington's younger brother.  This would be a more traditional dynastic choice, though it's unclear then why Beatrice is sitting around reflecting on Martha's ancestry.

It's mentioned at one point that George I freed his slaves in his will (as the real George Washington did in real life) but that he had not acted to end slavery and that it was "another two generations" until this was dealt with, but we get no hints as to how it was dealt with.  

 Among the other things we don't learn much about are the development of the American monarchy as a system of government.  We get the impression that the monarchy is much more actively in power than in the modern UK.  For instance, "the king kept his Cabinet evenly divided between the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans" whereas in our world the King of England hasn't had much power in picking the cabinet since...  Well, that's really kind of a tricky question, since the big contrast between the British constitution and ours is that it's unwritten.  The British George III (who was on the throne during the American Revolution) was in fact one of the transitional reigns in this regard from the era when kings clearly appointed ministers of their own choose but who had the confidence of parliament to the later era when parliament clearly chose the ministers and told the monarch who to choose.  Those better versed in British history than I could correct me, but my understanding is that after George III monarchs perhaps influenced the choice of ministers, but really didn't choose them, while before George III the monarch chose, and it was during the long reign of George III that the shift gradually happened.

It is clearly stated that the American monarchy has a written constitution, so perhaps one could imagine that the House of Washington has retained pre-George III British style prerogatives, but if you want this book to be a work of political and historical imagination (which it isn't) this seems like something you'd really want to figure out.

Another thing which is dropped out there but never dealt with is that the American monarchy apparently contains several independent duchies and earldoms.  Among these are noble titles and spheres of control granted to Native American nations.  We hear about a Duke of the Sioux and a Duke of the Iroquois.  There's also the Dukedom of Orange which covers much of the West Coast and is apparently ruled by a noble family that is Black.  All of these suggest some wild departures in history that should have some big impacts on culture, but we don't actually learn anything more about them except for what Princess Beatrice thinks of their various scions as her parents are pushing her to marry an eligible young man.  

One rather hard to swallow bit of world-building which is essential to the plot is that apparently written into the American constitution is a rule that the a monarch can only marry someone who is either from a royal house or a noble family.  America has many noble families who have been appointed to title by the monarchy over the years.  It's stated that early kings mostly married into the European royal houses, but in the book a key plot point is whether Princess Beatrice will marry the heir to the dukes of Boston or her hunky bodyguard with whom she has fallen in love.  Meanwhile, her younger sister Samantha is in love with the Boston heir whom the King and Queen want Beatrice to marry.  And young Prince Jefferson is in love with Nina, daughter of the afore-mentioned lesbian power couple, but of course Gina is a total "ordinary girl" who is totally out of place in the world of royal intrigue and fancy ball dresses, because although she's the daughter of a cabinet minister and the best friend of Princess Samantha since they were both little girls, she's also Hispanic which means that she's totally rooted and not used the high life.  Then throw in Daphne, Prince Jefferson's scheming ex-girlfriend who is sort of a Kate Middleton brought over from the Evil Star Trek mirror universe.

I am not the target market for an angsty love triangle story, but I have enjoyed some YA novels with angry love triangles so long as they're heavy on the interesting world building.  This, however, is pretty thin on the world building.  I could enjoy Crazy Rich Asians as a popcorn read that sketched a glitzy world that's utterly alien to me, but honestly I felt like I came away from Crazy Rich Asians with move of a sense of how elite Singapore society worked than I did the elite American monarchy circles of this world.  There characters in CRA, while not deep, also seemed more realistic and individual than these.  For instance, the best friend character in CRA played by Awkwafina in the movie clearly comes from a layer of society which is way richer than the main character, but at the same time not moving in the circles of the male lead's family.  Even within that topmost layer there are layers, and the characters are all conscious of them, how they got there, and in what senses they are and are not permeable.  It's not especially deep, and it may not be accurate, but it's much more layered than a world in which the daughter of a cabinet minister and a dot-com executive is an "ordinary girl" stand in because of her last name.  

Of course, the second half of the publisher's pitch for American Royals is "Perfect for fans of Red, White, and Royal Blue and The Royal We!"  I don't know these, but glancing at blurbs it looks like there's from a genre of outsiders falling in love with royalty.  So if that's your thing, maybe this is running the tropes you love.  But if you were hoping there'd be so interesting alternate history and culture mixed in with the love triangles, give this is a pass.

Saturday, September 05, 2020

Self Publishing: A Man, A Plan, A Canal

 As I mentioned in the first post on self publishing, one of the first things I did when I started planning out this venture was to build a Google spreadsheet.  That spreadsheet is a break-even business plan for the venture.  It makes a huge number of assumptions, as it must because there are a huge number of things that I don't know.  So I don't expect this plan to be an accurate picture of what is to some, but I do need it to provide me with a way to model that dynamics of how things could go.  With this post, I'll explain how I made a business plan for this project and how you could go about making a plan for a similar project.

My overall goal with this plan is to determine what needs to happen, given certain parameters, for us to make back our money on this project.  When we think about making back the money invested in a project, it's important to keep in mind that there are two types of expenses I need to cover.

I have fixed expenses: the cost of getting the cover designed, the audiobook recorded, etc.  These expenses will be the same whether I sell 100 books or 10,000 books.  When I talk about making back those expenses, I mean that I need to make enough profit on selling the books that it will cover these fixed expenses.  So if I invested $2,500 in fixed expenses and I sold 2,500 books, I would need $1 in profit per book to cover my fixed expenses.

However, in addition to my fixed expenses, I also have variable expenses.  My main variable expense in selling self-published books is the expense of making people aware that the book is out there and they may want to buy it.  Some of this will be accomplished via word of mouth.  People I know read the book, enjoy it, tell other people they like the book, some of those people buy it and read it, they tell other people, etc.  It's like trying to get nuclear fission to occur, where readers are radioactive atoms and their enthusiasm about the book are the particles that those atoms emit which can go on to strike other atoms and cause them to break down.  If I have enough readers with enough enthusiasm, the book will eventually "sell itself".  



As with nuclear fission, there are two variables.  With fission, those variables are how quickly the atoms are decaying and how many atoms there are.  If the atoms decay and emit neutrons frequently, and there is a critical mass of other atoms around for those emitted neutrons to hit and breakdown, you get a chain reaction.  If the element is not radioactive enough, or there isn't enough of it together to reach critical mass, you don't get a chain reaction.

So too with readers and enthusiasm.  The more readers enjoy the book, the more likely they are to recommend it, leave positive reviews, buy it for friends, etc.  So the quality of the book and the enthusiasm it inspires in readers is one clear factor.  But the other factor necessary to start a chain reaction is to the number of readers.  If you don't have enough atoms, you can't get a chain reaction.  If you don't have enough readers, even if those who do read are enthusiastic their enthusiasm will not get a chain reaction going.  

I like this analogy because it makes it clear that quality matters.  If people really, really love your book, it can "go viral" as they say these days with relatively few initial readers.  If the book is moderately enjoyable, you'll need more readers to get things rolling.  If it's a dog, your readers will be like inert atoms and won't create any chain reaction at all.  

And how do you reach that critical mass of readers?  Well, one clear method is advertising.  There are lots of different ways to advertise a book, and I'll get into that in more detail in future posts, but for now we're talking about advertising as our main variable expense.  Let's say that on average I need to spend $2 in advertising for each copy of a book that I sell.  If that ratio holds, if I spend $200 I'll sell 100 books, and if I spend $2,000 I'll sell 1,000 books.  This variation is why it's called a "variable expense" it changes as the scale of my business changes.  

So think again about our two types of expenses: fixed and variable.  Let's work with that $2 in advertising per copy ratio that I suggested above, and let's assume that I had $1000 in fixed expenses.  To cover my fixed expenses, I need to make $1000 in profit after paying for the advertising that it takes to move my books.  If I sell a book for $5 and my profit is $3 on that book, then $2 goes to cover the advertising and there's $1 left in order to go to my fixed expenses.  At that rate, I need to sell 1,000 books to cover my fixed expenses, which means that I need to plan on spending $2,000 in advertising.  

Of course, I could increase my price.  If I sold for $6 instead of $5 my profit per book would be higher and I could pay off my fixed expenses faster.  But here's where the multi-factor model gets tricky: if I increase my price from $5 to $6, my book probably will become somewhat less attractive to customers.  This is called price elasticity: the rate at which people become less eager to buy something as the price goes up.  When I worked in pricing fast food, we used to joke that we'd only need to sell one hamburger a day if it sold for $10,000.  The only challenge is: How do you sell a $10,000 hamburger?

How indeed.

Of course, the price elasticity of a novel in this particular category is yet another thing that I do not yet know.  So in order to have a working model, I've assumed that I need to price this novel in line with the prices that I've seen for other holiday novels and novellas.  If it's basically credible in terms of price, then my remaining problem is to have a large enough advertising budget to make the whole thing work, and enough of a profit margin to pay off the fixed expenses.

What does that look like?

Right now it looks like this:


There's a fair amount of detail in there, and as I say the numbers are fluid because it's full of assumptions.  The overall model is:

Across all formats I'm budgeting to sell 3,400 copies over the course of 60 days.  This is a very aggressive number, it it includes a couple of discount windows including a week of $0.99 for the ebook which will be heavily marketed through discount newsletters.  The total advertising budget is $6,200.  Revenue from royalties is $8,713.  So take the advertising cost out of that revenue, and then the fixed expenses and the total profit is: -$37

All of that work is to break even.  If we're able to do better, we may some money.  If we can at least learn enough that we're covering fixed expenses and paying off a certain amount of our fixed expenses, I'll consider it a fairly successful experiment because next year we'll still have that book in print and we can add another one.  The new novel will have new fixed expenses, but the published novel will have now new fixed expenses and so if we can push both novels next year (and get people who buy like one novel to click through to buy the next) we'll become more efficient as we go along.  

So there's a rough overview of business plan thinking.  More information on the self publishing project to come.

Friday, September 04, 2020

Self Publishing: The Undiscovered Country

 You may have noticed, gentle reader, that I recently had a novel published.  (If you somehow missed out on this, today is your day to discover If You Can Get It out from Ignatius Press.)  It's been a fascinating experience helping to market the novel, but one of the things that I discovered as I dug into resources for authors promoting their novels is that many of them are written by and for self-published authors.  If you're curious to read on the topic, this site by Nicholas Erik is the most comprehensive by far.  Of course, the trick is that self-published authors can do things which traditionally published authors can't.  For example, they can adjust the price and run promotions.  They can insert a live "subscribe to my newsletter" link into the ebook's backmatter, etc.

Needless to say, there are things which a publisher does for you which represent a clear advantage versus self-publishing.  They pay you an advance on royalties, cover the expenses of cover design, copy-editing, typesetting, etc., and do a certain amount of marketing themselves.  But having just gone through the experience of launching a book while not being a publisher, I'll admit I was curious to try it as a publisher.  

One night, as I was looking at Amazon Sales Rank data and talking about things it would be interesting to be able to do, it clicked with us: We have multiple quality manuscripts sitting around, waiting to be revised and to find their way to readers; we have enough money to professionally package a novel and market it; and we now have spent a good deal of time researching novel marketing.  We could do this.

And so we are.

MrsDarwin's mashup of Hallmark Christmas genre and King Lear, now titled Unstable Felicity, will be coming out this fall for your Christmas reading pleasure.  It has been entirely revised from its original draft version of two years ago, and we'll be bringing it out in ebook, paperback, and professionally narrated audiobook.  

This endeavor, and potential future ones from either one of us, required a name.  Normally an author might create an email newsletter and gather a subscription list simply to promote his or her own writing.  However, since in our case we are both novelists and we believe that our writing shares enough essential characteristics that readers of the one might be interested in the other, we decided to create our own private little imprint.  Meet Oak & Linden Press.  And indeed, if you'd be interested in being kept up to date on these fiction endeavors via you inbox, go ahead and sign up for our newsletter.  We certainly won't spam you.  The newsletter will go out roughly once a month with occasional extra newsletters around novel releases, and it will feature book reviews and personal news as well as occasional tactful encouragement to buy our novels and get everyone else you know to do so as well.

But of course, we're also bloggers to the core.  So we'll also blog the self-publishing process as transparently as possible, including discussing the costs involved our what things worked and failed for us as we go along.  

Part 1: You've Got To Have Money to Make Money

I'll be blunt while hopefully not being jerky: this is not something we could have afforded ten years ago. The world of self publishing on Amazon is such that one could publish a book for next to nothing: make your own cover, be your own copy-editor, etc.  However, to put out a book which is going to look as good and be as well marketed as a professionally published book takes money.  In our case, we decided to plow money that I made form my advance for If You Can Get It into this new venture, along with the money that MrsDarwin makes for singing weddings and funerals and recently reselling some homeschooling supplies.  

When we decided to try this, I started out with a Google spreadsheet where I calculated the costs of putting the novel out, planned prices for different formats, tried to estimate the number of copies of each format we could sell from Nov 1 to Dec 31 and accounted for royalty rates and advertising costs.  

We'll be investing roughly $2,550 into getting this book out.  The breakdown for that is:

Cover Design: $800
Copy-editing: $500
Audiobook Production: ~$1000 (roughly $300 per finished hour, and this is quite a short book at just over three hours)
Book layout software (Vellum -- strongly recommended): $250

Obviously, some of these are choices.  There are places one could probably get a cover done cheaper, but we have a graphic designer we want to work with and really believe in.  Doing an audiobook is perhaps an extra complication (and clearly an extra cost) but we wanted to learn how to market an audiobook in connection with ebook and hard copy, and we had a narrator that we really wanted to work with.  

These expenses represent the sunk cost, money that we need to spend before the book is even available.  But of course, it's not true that "if you build it, they will come".  Any kind of internet sales (as Nicholas Erik notes in the novel marketing site that I linked to above) consists of three basic elements:

1) Drive traffic to a site where you hope to make a sale
2) Convert those visitors into actual sales
3) Calculate whether you made a net profit

Driving traffic usually costs money, though there are ways to drive traffic "organically" which do not necessary cost much.  Converting visitors into customers involves having a product that people still want to buy once they see more details about it and the price that you're charging.  And whether you made a net profit has to do with whether you are successfully charging a price to cover the expense of getting the customers there plus a portion of your original production costs.  

And thence the spreadsheets to try to balance all those factors and make the venture pay.  I'll discuss that business plan in the next installment.