Sunday, July 15, 2012


Twelve years ago, or thereabouts, I decided to learn to cook.

It didn't go well.

I'd been living in a basement with no real kitchen. I had a little hotplate, a refrigerator, and a microwave, but we mostly lived on bread, cheese, fruit and yogurt. I'd cook the occasional meal, but pasta with grated cheese sprinkled on it counted as a meal to me. But I'd moved into an apartment with a real kitchen and I didn't want to spend the rest of my life needing to go out to restaurants to get a decent meal.

So I experimented a lot, but I followed recipes precisely. I made shopping lists and bought ingredients and made fancy concoctions like pork chops with a cherry Marsala glaze. That was delicious, by the way, which is why I still remember it, but R won't eat pork, so it was also frustrating. I tried to make eggs benedict, which meant learning to poach eggs first -- so much harder than it sounds -- and then making hollandaise sauce. I gave up on that one. I made innumerable pasta sauces, most of them mediocre, and I tried to master making decent rice, but failed. (R makes rice when we want it and has since he was 8.)

Still, eventually, I finally developed a little repertoire of foods I could make and consistently expect to turn out well: stir-fried beef with spinach, meat loaf, chicken piccata. And I kept trying. I mastered holiday meals -- cranberry sauce is by far the most fun, but I can pull together a basic Thanksgiving dinner with a few interesting elements without stress or fear. Eventually, I became someone who liked to cook.

Not a cook, though. I didn't know what the difference was but I knew there was one. I wasn't a cook, just a person who knew how to make a few meals.

Yesterday, I made my way to the kitchen around noon, hungry and feeling grumpy for no real reason. I opened the fridge door. Nothing to eat. Sigh. We have apples but they have that squishiness of fruit that was frozen or has sat for too long. Yogurt, but it was Greek and I wasn't in the mood for the tang. I thought about nuking a hotdog, but both the buns and the hotdogs were frozen. But there was a big thing of leftover cold spaghetti, no sauce.

I pulled it out. Not much, but it was food. Did I want to eat it cold or nuke it? Then it occurred to me that I could saute it to heat it up, like turning leftover rice into stir-fried rice. That'd be interesting, and give it a little more flavor. Olive oil? No, I didn't want to be able to taste the oil. I don't like fried rice made with olive oil, so I pulled out the canola and put a little in a pan and started it warming, then started rummaging through the drawers. No garlic, I really need to pick some up. No ginger, no surprise. A red onion, though. I chopped up a little red onion, tossed it into the pan.

When I went to put the oil back into the fridge, I had to shift a few things around to angle the bottle just right. Ouch, leftover veggies from the tray at the wedding reception. Those wouldn't be in good shape, I knew, and they're weren't, with edges brown and carrots dried and white. I picked through them, anyway, chopping off the bad bits and pulling out some broccoli, cauliflower and cherry tomatoes. Threw those in the pan, too, and pitched the rest.

And then I was starting to feel creative. I've made pad thai before, but I didn't have anywhere near the right ingredients. I did have cilantro, green onions and lime, though. I pulled those out. And an egg, because even though I have no idea why you need to add a scrambled egg to stir-fried rice, it tastes better when you do. And then I grabbed the srirachi bottle. Perhaps I'd test our theory that everything tastes better with a little srirachi. (It is an awesome ingredient to add to homemade chicken soup, incidentally.)

Ten minutes later, I was eating lunch. It was yummy. So good that I wish there were leftovers so I could have them for breakfast.

I think I might just be a cook.

Thursday, July 12, 2012


A year ago Saturday my mom went into the hospital. She never came home again. This year, my dad got married on Saturday. I suppose it was a better way to spend the day than the way we spent it last year. But...yeah. Anyway, my brother and his daughter came to visit for the wedding so there were many photo op events -- the wedding, the reception, dinner at my house, a picnic and inner-tubing at Kelly Park, the Science Museum, that kind of thing ... but that's not what I want to write about.

On Monday morning, I was sitting on the patio when suddenly, "thunk." A little dark blob whizzed across my line of sight, and hit the ground. The dog immediately investigated and her level of curiosity and excitement was so high that after a minute, I followed suit, despite thinking it was a big bug. It wasn't. It was a bird. Maybe a baby, maybe not. It had hit the spinning fan and it was sprawled on the ground, clearly hurt, its wings a mess, its feet curled oddly, but still breathing, still in distress.

What do you do with a hurt bird? I had no idea. It was the damn baby rabbits all over again. I picked it up and set it on the side of the grill, so that it was away from the dog. I watched it lying on its side, struggling to breathe, its heart beating fast, its eyes closing and going from dark beads to cloudy white orbs. The feathers were so soft, but I didn't touch it after I set it down, just talked to it and grieved as it died. I couldn't bear to bury it right away, so I took the dog for her walk and did my morning chores and then I went back out on the patio to deal with the body. I didn't look at it -- didn't want to see it -- until I'd found the trowel. I figured I'd bury it next to the two baby rabbit bodies -- my little garden is turning into quite the cemetery. But when I finally came back to it, it was in a different position. Eyes closed, it was huddled small, but on its feet, and as I watched, I could see its heartbeat.


Great. So it was going to take a long time to die. Lovely. Just what I needed. But I bent over it and its eyelids fluttered and then closed again, so it was clearly not ready to be buried.

I went back into the house and found a little bowl and brought out some water and put it next to the bird and then we went off to the park and did our inner-tubing and our picnicking and the whole time, I kept wishing that I'd added some sugar to the water. I'd brought out some millet, too, but it was only after we were on our way that I realized that the shape of its beak meant that it was a nectar drinking bird, not a seed eater.

We drove home, and I came into the house and I dreaded looking out onto the porch. I knew there'd be a little brown shape huddled on the grill and I knew that I would feel helpless and indecisive and miserable, not knowing how to help it. But no. No shape. I went out with such trepidation -- had it fallen off? Had it tried to fly and landed on the hard ground? Why hadn't I put it someplace soft? But I went out and looked all around and it was gone. Just gone.

It lived. It must have. It must have recovered, and then flown away.

It was such a surprise. Such a delight. A little miracle. For the rest of the day, I could be happy knowing that the bird was out there somewhere, maybe bruised, maybe sore, but at the very least able to fly.

Then two days later, I was driving home from the vet -- $160 poorer but with a dog that I could stop worrying about -- when the car in front of me hit a baby sandhill crane. HIT IT. The car saw it, slowed, and then fucking drove into the bird and drove away. The bird crumpled to the ground, but it was still alive. It was struggling to move, spasmodic twitches of its wings and legs.

I was on Dodd Road, which is a crappy road. Two people died in just about that spot ten days ago. There's a curve and no place to easily stop on the right. The car next to me -- a minivan -- pulled over into the turn lane, but I couldn't. Plus, I had the dog in the car. So I drove home, crying all the way. I'd never seen anything so callous and cruel. The person who hit it -- they saw it. They slowed way down. And then they kept going. Who does that? What kind of sick person sees a two foot tall baby in the road and then just decides to run it over? (That's a picture swiped from wikipedia. Sandhill cranes are a protected species, only 5000 left in the wild according to wikipedia, and if I'd been smart enough to get the license plate of the car, the driver could have been fined.)

The moment I got home, I called the vet and asked if I went back and the bird was still alive, if I could bring it to them. She told me to call Birds of Prey, a bird rescue place in Maitland, so I found their phone number, grabbed a sheet to wrap the bird in, and headed back out. 

It was gone. Totally gone. But two adult sandhills and a baby stood in the grass on the side of the road.

I don't know whether the person in the minivan took the bird somewhere but if he or she did, it must have been alive. Or maybe that baby by the side of the road was the same baby and the car had knocked it over but not hurt it. But either way, I drove home with at least hope that the second bird of the week would survive.

Can I call it a weird week? Two birds that I thought were dead, not dead. It's . . . nice. Also a very odd set of coincidences. One bird is just a nice small miracle. Two? Feels like a sign, except I'm not at all sure of what.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

A/B Marketing Test on 2 (4) Self-pubbed Books

On my birthday, my son mentioned to me that the mom of one of his friends, Tawdra Kandle, had also self-published a book and that, coincidentally, it was also her birthday. I came home that night and looked for her book. Turns out, we'd both set our books to be free via KDP Select for our birthday and amazingly, we were at #1 (hers) and #2 (mine) on the Contemporary Fantasy Free list. How cool is that? Then I looked at her book -- she'd also written a paranormal romance, she'd also set it in Florida, she'd also based her setting on the town of Cassadaga, and she'd released her first book on the very same day, December 9th, that I'd released mine! We'd even priced the same, at $3.99.

I left a note on her blog, tweeted her and followed her on Twitter, but it took me another month to realize that this was a perfect opportunity for an A/B marketing test. An A/B test, if you aren't familiar with the term, compares two samples. In Web design, a company posts two pages, and filters half their users to one page, the other half to the other page, and sees which gets a better response for their goals.

Tawdra, author of Fearless, Breathless, and now Restless, takes marketing and promotion seriously. She's following all the advice of the self-publishing community that exhorts authors to promote and sell and build a community. She's working hard at doing the right things, even in the right way. For example, she tweets a lot, but only rarely does she try to promote her own book and only when appropriate, for example when she releases a new book or has a blog post somewhere. She's even following the advice of writing fast -- she released two new books in roughly the time it took me to release one.

I am not working hard at doing all the right things. In fact, I'm not working on promotion at all. I figure maybe when I have three books out I'll start doing that. Or maybe five. Well, or maybe never.

So if she's doing everything right and I'm doing....well, mostly much better could I do if I worked as hard as she did? It seemed worth trying to measure.

Novel Rank is a site that tracks the Amazon ranking of books. It's terrible for providing real sales numbers, because it actually has no way to measure them, but it shows the movement of a book's ranking on Amazon. It's an imperfect form of measurement, because it doesn't show sales outside Amazon. That said, both of us had enrolled our books in KDP Select (which doesn't allow you to sell ebooks outside Amazon), so it seemed likely that the results would be reasonably close to accurate. Besides, it was the best tool that I was going to get.

So -- book comparisons first.

Her first book, Fearless, is currently averaging a 4.5 rating on Amazon. A Gift of Ghosts is at 4.6. I'd say that's close enough to a tie. Her second book, Breathless, has a 4.5. A Gift of Thought currently is at 4.7. But Breathless has been out since March and Thought has only been out for a few weeks, and the earliest reviewers always seem to be the most enthusiastic. Rating-wise, I'd say we're equivalent.

Tawdra had professional covers made for her titles, I did my own. Point for her. Many people  in the self-publishing community insist that a professionally-designed cover is essential for success.

Tawdra had her books professionally edited, I didn't.Technically, a point for her (although someday I'll write a rant about the self-published attitude toward editing, and meanwhile, I will mention that more than one of my reviews comment on how well Ghosts was edited. Just saying...)

Create a website. Tawdra has her own domain name at and a pretty typical author website with pages about her books, links to other sites, and a blog. Obviously, I do have a blog, and there are a couple pages for the books, but I’ve had it for years and it’s mostly personal. I don't treat it as a sales tool. I write about my kid and my dog as much as anything else, I think. Definite point for her. 

Facebook -- at the time I'm writing this, Tawdra has 1912 likes on Facebook, with 488 people talking about it. I have 6 likes, one person talking. (I guess that person is talking to herself. Maybe it's me? I don't really know.) Is it too obvious to say she definitely wins on Facebook?

Twitter -- again, at the time that I'm writing, Tawdra has 2500 followers on Twitter. I have 204. She has tweeted 5,475 times: I have tweeted 705 times. I’d actually been on Twitter for 2 years longer she had – since Feb 2007 compared to her Feb 2009, so effectively she tweeted more than ten times as much as I did. Like Facebook, Twitter is a clear win for Tawdra. 

Real-life book events. This is actually one that I think would be fun to do, but I haven't. She's done local book signings and even some long-distance book signings and readings, some here in Florida and some in New Jersey. (I should point out that if she sold paper books during the signings, those sales wouldn't be reflected in Novel Rank, so it's possible that those events were more rewarding than was measurable.)

Blog tours and events and exchanges and reviews. I wrote a guest post for Kindle-aholic back in May, but that's the only thing I've done. As you might expect, she seems to have done quite a bit. I'm drawing the line at finding links to everything, but if you read her tweets, you'll find plenty of links, including a Facebook party for the release of her third book. 

In terms of effort, it's clear that she's working really hard to promote and sell her books. She is doing everything that you're supposed to do. So how is it paying off and is it worth the effort?

The following chart shows our Amazon sales ranks for our first books from the day I started tracking in May, until the day I set A Gift of Ghosts to be free in June. (Novel Rank doesn't track free books, so I had to stop there.)

The lower line belongs to A Gift of Ghosts and it is the higher sales rank on Amazon. The numbers for both of us are...well, nowhere near life-changing. In the time measured, I sold 64 copies of A Gift of Ghosts.The dips at the end of the month where Fearless outsells Ghosts are when Tawdra did her real-life events, so those dips might actually have been even more pronounced (in other words, she might have sold more copies than are shown, so improved her sales ranking even more, but in a way that's not tracked.) 

The following graph shows the releases of my second book, her third (both,conveniently, in June.)

To promote my release of A Gift of Thought I posted a message on my Facebook pages and set Ghosts free for four days. She held a Facebook party, did giveways, tweeted -- I probably should have paid more attention, but I wasn't planning to write this blog post, so I didn't. Suffice to say, I didn't do much work at all, and she did plenty. (I should also mention that A Gift of Thought  is priced at $4.99 and she kept her price at $3.99.)

There are undoubtedly dozens of ways to argue with this test. I don't think it's possible to do a true A/B test in any real sense of the word, because there are too many variables that are outside our control. Our books are different. She does have professionally designed covers, but one could argue that mine are stronger. I've gotten a lot more reviews on Ghosts, probably mostly because of my original fanfiction audience, so maybe that's what makes the difference.

I do, however, feel pretty comfortable with my decision not to worry about Facebook or tweeting or a professionally-designed website or, really, spending hours working on marketing. It may be true that 90% of marketing is useless and you have to do it for the 10% that matters, but until I have some evidence about what that 10% might be, I'm not going to bother.So far, my not bothering has done just as well (okay, slightly better) than all of Tawdra's hard work.

By the way, Tawdra seems to be a very nice person -- you should follow her on Twitter at @tawdra, and if you like paranormal YA, you should give her books a try.