Having worked with Shawn on several of his projects to date, I know that I must always be alert for a new one. Sometimes I’ll think it’s genius, sometimes lunacy, and rarely in between. But he’s always fun to work with, so I’m glad to hear what he has going. If I have misgivings about the concept, the way it works is I tell him what I think, he thanks me for my input and tells me he wants to do it anyway, and I do my best to help it succeed.
This was one where I had the misgivings, with some aspects of the early version needing more originality. What Shawn does well is take that feedback to heart, like an adult and a professional, and then address it. He does this better than most writers I’ve known. His success is an example of what one can achieve when one learns from critique rather than simply tuning out anyone who does less than gush over one’s writing, story concept or whatever. Unfortunately, most people seeking critique and input don’t mean it. They mean ‘praise me.’ And when they go forth to hire an editor, they don’t want to hear ‘this needs a lot of work.’ They want to hear ‘you’re so awesome!’
Shawns are rare. I’d have a much steadier flow of work if I just lied to people who couldn’t write and refused to learn. The process would be simple. I’d tell them how great it was, make some minor changes here and there but make sure it remained the same trainwreck they sent me, they’d delight in the praise, and I’d receive money and referrals. All their fellow writers who praised their writing clearly do not know the difference, and would also seek similar praise.
If I did that, I wouldn’t amount to much.
In this one, Shawn even understood what I was trying to say when I couldn’t quite articulate it, not an easy admission for me. Something was wrong with the flow, and I wasn’t sure of the best way to fix it, so I described it in rather awkward terms. I wasn’t sure what I meant. Somehow Shawn understood me better than I understood myself, because in the next draft that issue of flow was completely remedied by changing the juxtaposition of the tale’s convergence. Abracadabra. Nice work, Shawn.
Second Chance Christmas is e-published at Amazon. If you find the holidays grumping you out a bit, its warmth and quickness of reading (9000 words) might help push a bit of the stress aside for an hour.
Many months ago I did a piece trashing conventional open-end mutual funds. I have no regrets. I promised that if even one person asked, I’d explain about other investments that may be better alternatives for most people who want to make money (rather than pay it to people in return for losing them money). It took a very long time, but someone finally asked.
Disclaimer: I am not an investment professional, and none of this is to be taken as a recommendation to transact any particular security. Examples given are not recommendations, merely samples so that the reader may get a look at one as a starting point for broad-based research. I assume no responsibility for anyone’s independent investment choices, and urge everyone to do careful research before choosing to put money at risk. All investment entails risk, and it is wise to consult a fee-only professional advisor for actual investment guidance.
ETFs (exchange-traded funds) and CEFs (closed-end funds)
These are also mutual funds, and are more similar to one another than different. Both are pooled investments that do not regularly issue new shares, so once they sell off the full initial offering, they trade on the open market like stocks. Both have tickers that look like normal Nasdaq tickers, typically three letters, sometimes two or four, whereas conventional mutual funds have five-letter tickers ending in X. A given fund’s description should say whether it is a CEF or ETF on your brokerage’s website, and the prospectus certainly will.
You will, of course, read the prospectus? With nearly all of them in downloadable .pdfs, it’s pretty rash not to do so. I’d read the most recent annual report, too. You especially want to take a look at what it holds, because what it holds would be what you would own.
Here’s the salient difference: ETFs are designed never to trade too far from NAV (net asset value…the total value of assets owned by the fund, minus any liabilities, divided by number of shares; we might call it the ‘basic share value’). This is because big hitters can swap in their ETF shares for what’s called a ‘basket’ of the underlying shares, and the market has different rules for the big boys and girls. CEFs do not allow this swapping. It assures that ETFs will always trade close to NAV, which itself fluctuates based on the underlying securities’ value. By and large, most ETFs are invested in stocks, and many are indexed–they seek only to mimic a given index, owning that index’s components in exact proportion to it.
Since CEFs can trade at steep discounts or premiums to NAV (most are fixed income dividend payers), opportunities periodically occur to purchase their shares at steep discounts to NAV. This is because market fear or euphoria, as I see it, is priced in twice. Suppose the NAV is $10, and it pays $0.70 annually based on NAV. That’s a fairly typical yield relative to NAV of 7%. But you don’t give a damn about the NAV, because the yield you will receive is based on what you pay, not the NAV. So, suppose you waited until you could get it for $8 (or as you would tend to evaluate it, a 20% discount to NAV, assuming the NAV happened to remain at $10 just for the sake of the illustration), and you buy. Your yield will be 8.75%. The yield relative to NAV means little, since you didn’t pay NAV. The annual payout, divided by what you paid, is your yield in an income investment.
1.75% is a significant difference, and since most pay monthly, you get paid often. I believe that the divergence between NAV and market price is the impact of fear (or euphoria). If people are dogging fixed income, the NAV will drop because many people are selling the bonds. However, the market price will also drop because people are selling the fund. I believe that this can present buying opportunities for those with patience and discipline. It is also easy to take the market pulse on high-yield fixed income just by seeing whether a number of bond CEFs are trading at discounts or premiums to NAV. I have zero interest in shopping unless I get a ridiculous discount. The notion of paying NAV, or buying at a premium, isn’t for me. I want to buy when they’re jumping out the windows. Before they jump, if the price is cheap enough, they can sell me their shares if they like. Or not. Someone else will be along soon enough.
What’s the catch with CEFs? Most are invested in higher-risk high-yield bonds. There might be Kenyan government bonds, bonds from some outfit in Pakistan, whatever; depends on what the fund’s prospectus says they hold or can hold. Most are very well diversified, much more so than many stock funds, with issues spread around many sectors. It is possible that this bond or that bond might fail to perform, but it is unlikely that the whole portfolio will go bust. And over the years, you collect a steady yield. The better you bought, the better your yield, and if you bought cheap enough, you probably have an unrealized capital gain at any given time. Now, that yield can decline if the overall interest/dividends paid to the fund happen to decline. There’s no guarantee. However, in practice, it probably will not go too far in any direction. And of course, one must always consider one’s comfort zone. Not all CEFs buy more speculative bonds. If you’re willing to take less return, you can find funds that go with higher-grade stuff, which pays less.
Most of my stock-related investing is in index ETFs, and all my bond-related investing is in CEFs. It is boring and successful, just the way I like my investing. I don’t do this to be excited; I do it to make money, and if I get my money, I am satisfied.
PTPs (publicly traded partnerships)
These are weird creatures. One often hears them called LPs (limited partnerships). They look like stocks until it’s time to make out your income tax. Their shares are called units, and they make regular distributions. It is a mistake to confuse these with dividends, because with PTPs, the payouts are considered returns of capital. From a tax standpoint, RoCs go to reduce your cost basis (what it looks like you paid for the units), so you don’t pay tax on that money unless you hold the units long enough to reduce your cost basis to $0.
Not that you avoid tax. In fact, these complicate tax, because the partnership has to issue you a K-1, which says in essence: “here’s your share of the tax liability based on how we did.” Often the K-1s don’t become available until very close to April 15, and you can almost guarantee that they will issue a revised K-1 as soon as you file your taxes. And if you sell the units, of course, since the returns of capital lowered your tax basis, from the IRS standpoint you made a big taxable gain.
If you can tolerate the tax headache, PTPs can be a good way to invest in energy. They pay you regularly. Like shares of any company, it makes sense to research them. What is a bad idea: buying PTPs in a traditional tax-deferred retirement account. I don’t fully understand how it works, but evidently they can cause havoc leading to your IRA having to file a tax return as if it were a person. Best to just keep PTPs out of your IRA.
LGCY is a PTP.
ETBs (exchange-traded bonds)
Most corporate bonds aren’t sold on a market like stocks. Most are held in brokerage inventories after their issuance. For the individual investor, it’s a little difficult to just buy these bonds, and very difficult to buy them sensibly. Not impossible, but harder than just buying stocks. For one thing, most bonds are sold in multiples of $1000 par value, so non-rich people have a tough time diversifying. This is why bond funds exist, although I greatly dislike conventional open-end bond funds. All the flaws of a stock fund, all the limitations of bonds, and all the weaknesses of conventional mutual funds rolled into one unattractive little package. ETBs are another way to invest in the bond sector while avoiding the crappiness that is conventional bond funds.
Because most have a par value of $25, ETBs are more accessible. However, these aren’t pooled investments. They are individual securities. They can appreciate, deteriorate and fail entirely, in which case you will probably get nothing. If a bond is trading at a ridiculous discount to par, with a correspondingly incredible yield, I’d bet that there’s serious underlying trouble and the odds are high you won’t see that next payout.
PPX is an ETB.
REITs (real estate investment trusts)
These got a very bad name in 2008, and for good reason: some went to zero. They trade like stocks. They often pay nice yields, and if bought well, so much the better. This is because they might best be described as a pooled investment that is required to distribute most of its gains to shareholders.
The hangup is obvious to anyone who watched them bleed out in 2008-09: if their assets drop in value, or stop performing (sending money), the value and distributions will drop. To buy a REIT without a full understanding of where they invest their money is asking for trouble; hell, it’s prostrating oneself and pleading for trouble. For example, what if it turned out a REIT was mostly in outlet malls? How many outlet malls have you seen lately that are half empty, pathetic shells? That might be why it’s so cheap. But, you might rejoin, the yield is currently 17%? That’s literally incredible. People are dumping that because they do not believe they will be paid that 17%. They’re probably right.
SPG is a REIT.
In general, these are classified as fixed income securities (the insider way to say ‘bonds’), though they are neither bonds nor common stocks. I would describe them as stocks lacking some common stock characteristics and adding some bond-like characteristics.
While you might get some capital growth from preferreds if you buy well, the dividend is the main reason for the play. Preferred stock is also senior to common stock in the pecking order for dividend payouts if the issuer comes up short on money to distribute, though junior to bonds. You won’t get proxy ballots for preferred stock; the shares are non-voting, so you don’t get to annoy the company by voting in favor of goofy or quixotic shareholder initiatives. Preferreds come in many flavors, and if you do not check into a given issue to find out exactly how it works, you’re making a mistake.
My own drag with preferreds is that my brokerage, Fidelity, uses a different ticker convention than the NYSE (or at least it did the last time I futilely attempted to place a trade for a preferred). Very uncool.
AHT.PE is a preferred stock.
Recently I had a contact from a longtime, highly respected colleague inviting me to consider co-authoring a book. This was most welcome for a number of reasons: I like working with this author, I know he has the chops, and he is strongest in the areas where I am not.
So, when two people who know the scene set forth to work together on a commercial project they know will make money, how does that happen? And what does that mean?
Obviously, there is the initial approach: “let’s do this.” A thumbnail sketch of the general plan and how the financial aspects will work–because a commercial book is a business deal, never forget that–and some discussion and questions and brainstorming. All of that sounded equitable, doable and enjoyable to me.
When I said ‘yes, let’s do this together,’ then began the preparation phase. Commercial books are planned, not just typed out willy-nilly as Clio or Erato bestows her inspiration. I would develop a given number of topic ideas about which I felt competent to write. So would my co-author. We would schedule a time to discuss these, reach final agreement, and assuming that agreement, get to work. One may safely assume that we will, in the case of that agreement and plan, establish deadlines and expectations. We will hold one another to these.
That is how this works. One is sought out, considered, valued as a partner because one is believed to be a person of his or her commitments and, in the end, one’s word. This is business. In business, much may be done with a handshake, though some of it requires contracts and so forth. As with some collectibles markets, though, the fact that a handshake would probably suffice is what got you in the door. Reputation and professionalism are all, and those are oak leaf clusters earned by performance and consistency.
I mention this because I consider it among the very most important qualities any writer can have: handle your business. Be on time. Do as you say you will do. Back up your words. There is no such thing as ‘writer’s block,’ and you cannot blame anything on it. Most of the money I have earned with my keyboard came about because people believed, with cause, that I would perform. Cast aside all this baloney about ‘just not feeling it.’ I have completed assignments with a bucket adjacent to my swivel chair, or when I was close to using Immodium as a recreational drug. Do your work and do it well, in writing just as in any other profession, and no harm can come to you.
The icy reality of professional writing is that it is full of aspirants who, in the end, can’t or won’t perform. If you are pursuing a literary career, my advice is to offer results and product (and yes, your writing is a product), not excuses and extensions. The world is full of writers and those who would like to write. It is not so full of producers, who take deadlines seriously and will either deliver or perish in the attempt.
It’s work. Treat it like work. The difference between plumbing and writing is minimal that way.
On Sunday, I will have a neat outline of topics and subtopics to offer my collaborator. I will have thought them through, and will be ready to answer any question he might pose about any of them. Are we friends? Absolutely–but this is a business meeting. One of my deepest beliefs is that people do wrongly to shortchange friends and family, ‘because they can.’ No. That is no good; that is unethical and unprofessional. If they are friends or family, they are owed greater consideration and performance, not less. So I don’t care that my collaborator happens to be a friend with whom I have swapped stories, commiserations and so on. Not here and now. What I care about is that my job right now is to show up prepared for the discussion, and to bring my very best to the table. He’s a friend. My duty is greater, not less.
The sooner a writer learns to come to the table prepared to do business, the likelier he or she is to succeed. There are many ways to define professionalism. One of mine is “is willing to volunteer his or her time here and there for the common good, and seeks out those opportunities.” Another is “keeps his or her commitments and does a quality job on time.” All the flighty types, who think business and deadlines are icky, will be frustrating to work with until they mature and adopt professional attitudes. And when opportunities happen, you may easily guess to whom they will happen.
If it wasn’t work, they wouldn’t pay you.
What is malware? My definition: anything you install on a computer that does things to that system that you don’t want and can’t opt out of beforehand. The more wrong it does, the worse the malware. Some companies have terrible histories of malware, such as Adobe, RealNetworks and Apple. The arrogance goes: ‘If you want our product, you must surely want to let us do everything we wish. How could you not Just Trust Us? We’re so wonderful; our products are so unimaginably superior that your mortal mind can’t possibly find a reason not to give us free rein.’
Because, companies, whenever I let your camels’ noses under my tent, I have extra work ahead in order to clean up after the camel.
Apple Itunes is malware. In this case, it caused a piece of hardware to stop working.
Not long ago, my old Hell Inspiron’s power supply died. Not unexpected, but inconvenient to be sure. A glance at the motherboard showed swollen capacitors, which I am advised is a sign of a hosed or soon-hosed board. It was slow anyway (like any XP PC seven years old), so this wasn’t all bad. I had backups and peripherals, just needed a new machine. Of course, I dealt with computer vendor rudeness and failure to listen carefully to me, and as a result the recovery took far longer than it should have, but I’m tech enough to battle through most of that. Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect was buying it from anyone but Hell. Their business model broke years ago when their support became an evasive illusion. I have no idea what Michael Dell could possibly have been thinking to let his brainchild go so far astray.
So, most of the way into recovery, the time arrived to install Itunes and get my music library set up once more. I’m always wary of installing anything from Apple, and especially upgrading it to a new version, because Apple has a department full of evil little elves who work long hours thinking up new ways to make software more irritating for no additional benefit. If you want to have guaranteed headaches, just install some Apple software on your PC and make sure you let it automatically update itself as often as it wishes. The software will do the rest.
What I learned: Itunes can cause your system to forget that it has a DVD player/burner. Evidently Itunes has some facility for playing, burning and otherwise interacting with these devices. Fine, but making it disappear for all other purposes? The short-term fix involves editing the Windows Registry, which is never done casually or with slack attention to detail. Some research has told us that Apple has known about this issue for years, several full-digit versions back into history. And still does not correct it. Why should it? Apple paid those elves good money to come up with such a diabolical ‘feature.’ It’s been a problem since Vista. And by the way, the next time you run Itunes, it breaks the DVD functionality again. You can choose to use your DVD player, or to have Itunes, but not both.
No, I did not pay for Itunes. However, I do own an Ipod, for which I paid, and its instructions did advise me that I could and should use Itunes with it. Thus, I did so at Apple’s instigation after paying for a product. It is very reasonable to expect that this product not behave as malware, at least in a reasonable world.
Apple evidently doesn’t live in that reasonable world. And that’s why you, good reader, should approach any Apple software for the Windows OS as a form of malware. If the Apple camel’s nose appears at the base of your tent, my advice is to hit it hard enough to make it go away.
So goes one of the first questions I pose to writers who contact me for some guidance about the publication process. I have to ask it somewhat gently, but I can’t fail to ask it. I decided that the distinction would make a good subject for a blog post.
A vanity book is not expected to be a money-maker. If it makes money, great, but often the author just wants to say what’s on his or her mind, tell a story or a series of stories, what have you. Grandpa wants to tell his life story to the world. Mom has a wealth of advice for teachers. Jim believes that his Vietnam experience will pass on a message to the current generation. Sue knows more about quilts and quilting than a whole grangeful of Kansas grandmothers. The vanity book is motivated more by a desire to ‘get this out there,’ whatever ‘this’ may be. It’s usually based on a certain level of conceit that one’s knowledge, experiences or ideas are going to be fascinating to the public, but that’s not a negative. Without that conceit, one can’t really put oneself out in the shooting gallery of public comment, can one? The conceit may be fairly placed; it may be misplaced; but it is needed. The writer should embrace it and call it by its right name, at least in private with colleagues.
The main issue with the vanity book is that I so bluntly call it that. Most writers bristle and refuse to acknowledge that; ‘oh, no, no, this is a commercial book, we want to make money.’ The unspoken assumption is that a vanity book is pure frippery, something no one (perhaps including me) takes seriously, making the label intolerable. They are rarely being self-honest, because most haven’t thought too much about finding a way to sell books.. With a vanity book, you market as and when you feel like it. Once you cover your costs–if you do–the rest is gravy, right. Unless you outshine your costs by a lot, it’s not much gravy.
That’s the problem. Suppose after it’s all said and done, you net $2000, which is more than many self-published writers will net. How many hours did you spend on this? 500? You worked for $4/hour, which is barely half the US Federal minimum wage. If your goal was money, you could have earned more asking people if they wanted fries with that. So, in reality, if that’s an acceptable outcome, it is a vanity book because you could have made more money doing something else. You might have enjoyed it less, but remember, you said it was commercial and rejected the label of ‘vanity book,’ right? ‘Commercial’ means a focus on money, revenue, profit, and other yucky non-literary stuff.
Which is why a commercial book, naturally, will have a marketing plan. Yes, I know that marketing is icky to many writers, as is much discussion of money. If I were better at it, I might make more money myself, so I know what it’s like to lag in marketing. However, if you insist that it’s a commercial book, you must support that with motivation, a plan and the willingness to invest some funds. Above and beyond the basic production value issues and costs–a capable editor, quality proofreading, cover design and typesetting–the author must be ready, willing and eager to market the work. ‘Hope it gets discovered’ is not a marketing plan. Neither is ‘but my life has been really interesting, it’d be a really good story.’ They’re fine sentiments, but they are not marketing plans.
Even if you are not going to try the small-press or New York routes for publishing, a query letter and book proposal (for nonfiction especially) are good exercises. Your query letter is how you advise publishers that you have a finished ms that is ready to market, and try to attract their interest. If you can’t come up with a good query letter, can you really market a book? If you find it distasteful to write a simple letter pitching your work, how will the rest of marketing feel to you? The book proposal goes into greater depth, and is in effect the book’s business plan. Both the letter and proposal will make you see your book through the publisher’s eyes as a commercial prospect. If you’re self-publishing, the publisher obviously is yourself, so this will force you to see the commercial side. Who is the audience? Why? What’s the competition, and why is this different/better? How will you get it noticed and purchased? It’s a commercial book–you insisted–thus surely you have thought this through?
If you have not thought your book through well enough to write a book proposal with ease (and the aid of a guidebook to the conventional format), I submit that calling it a commercial project is self-deception. Look, it’s okay to call it a vanity book. That is simple self-honesty, if true. Just admit it, accept that you have no marketing plan and don’t plan to develop one, and be at peace. Your editor will work just as hard either way, since s/he gets paid the same either way. Nowhere on your Amazon page are you required to call it a vanity book. To thine own self, and to thine editor, be true. Others aren’t entitled to know.
I could probably make a lot more money playing along with writers’ conceits about commercial books without taking a moment to give them some honesty, but I believe that would betray the editor’s role. If as a writer, you cannot count on your editor to tell you the truth, that’s sad. What is more, your editor isn’t much of an editor for what you paid him or her. The idea behind hiring anyone for anything in life is that the person knows more than you do about a specific subject. Would you hire a plumber who didn’t know more than you about how a household water piping system worked? The other idea behind that hire is that the person will trade their knowledge and expertise for your money. Failure to offer that equals failure to deliver value. Failure to deliver value equals ‘no point in paying you.’ Third rail.
And since my editing and proofreading and freelance writing work is definitely commercial in nature, what I may not do is touch that third rail.
While I’ve never been much of a cook, I’ve long believed that even non-cooks need to know how to make a few things well. The ideal specialties are low-effort, high-flavor, high leftover, and inoculated against fails due to temperature issues or cooking time.
Deb always made good chile, but her recipe really took off when I suggested we put chorizo in it. She is more the type to substitute than I, and when she couldn’t find chorizo one time, she threw in sausage and it wasn’t the same. I prefer fascist measuring, precise ingredients and an exact recipe that will produce the same thing every time. Once it’s good, one doesn’t need to mess with it. I am going into unusual levels of detail here to help non-cooks best handle the annoying little details. Experienced cooks can rewrite this without the complete sentences and extra details that they already know to do.
Hardware you need:
- A big wide pot (16″ wide x 5″ deep will work) with lid
- A smaller wimp pot with lid (size depends on how many wimps you are feeding)
- The usual utensils: skillet, knives, cutting board
- Plastic bag to stick garbage in as you get it (don’t slob up the kitchen)
- 1# hamburger (get the low fat kind)
- 1# chorizo (beef is best)
- 2 qts spicy tomato vegetable juice
- 4 oz. chile seasoning (watch the packets, some brands are less than an ounce per packet)
- 4 16 oz. cans chile beans
- 1 onion (your choice which kind and size)
- Grated cheddar (shredded is better)
- Sour cream (optional)
- Wash your damn hands. Fascism in kitchen cleanliness is a virtue.
- Don’t heckle the wimps, and don’t tell them the wimp pot is called the wimp pot. Their deficiency of taste is its own penalty, and in the end, you want everyone to have an excellent meal that they enjoy. If they are around, hide this recipe paper so they don’t see it.
- Put on a big apron. As cook it is your right and privilege to wear this emblem of status. Plus, it’ll keep chile from splucking onto your shirt when you do a sloppy job of mixing it around.
- Dice the onion in this way: put on goggles. Cut off the ends, without going overboard. Set on the flattest end, and split it in half right down the vertical center. Peel both halves. Turn one half on its side and start cutting it downward from the wide middle to the end, without cutting all the way through. Rotate 90° and cut downward again from one side, and this time go all the way through. Repeat for the other half. Fish out any skin pieces, especially at what were the ends. Dump in pot.
- Dump the chile seasoning and beans in the pot. Yes, including the bean juice. Everything but the empty cans and packet paper.
- Fry the hamburger and chorizo in skillet on wide burner on 5 until all the hamburger is brown. Make sure it gets well mixed up. But happily, even if there’s a spot you missed, relax. The later process will cook all those. Turn the wide burner down to 2. Dump meat in pot.
- Put pot on wide burner on 2. Pour in spicy veg juice. Should just about fill the pot to 1″ from top. Mix it up real well, cover. Keep shoveling the chile around every so often with a spatula because on 2, some of it will stick to the bottom now and then.
- After an hour on 2, turn the wide burner to simmer (1). Turn on a small burner, also set on simmer.
- Ladle enough chile into the wimp pot (hold it over the main pot to avoid mess) to feed the wimps generously. Put the wimp pot on the smaller burner.
- If you like it medium hot, put 1 tsp cayenne in the main pot. If you like it a lot hotter, knock yourself out. Cover both and let simmer for 3-4 hours, mixing them around now and then.
- Everyone gets to set theirs up how they like it, but to make it really delicious, top the bowl with grated cheese and then a bunch of fritos. Sour cream is also good to add, either for taste or those terminally averse to even mild spiciness. The end result is sort of like liquid tamale.
- Serves two hardworking, hungry, big, strong Canadians plus one hungry adult male, and still produces a bunch of leftovers. Leftovers make excellent topping on nachos.