On The Demise of Our Economic Culture

I just returned home after having participated at a major bead and design show as a vendor. I returned with most of my inventory unsold due to what I can only see as the demise of the old culture of buying at the set price instead of at a discount. As a business person, I am subject to the fluctuations of cost and demand and must suffer whatever losses occur. As an artist I am very disappointed by the total ignorance of quality and price most of the customers seem to have. Many are merely looky-loos, fond of attending to look and not buy. They are window-shoppers and consider the show to be like a trip to a museum.

Others want the thing (whatever it is) at a much lower price than I can afford, without caring about how much time it took me to make or how much my materials cost. They have been educated by the explosion of foreign markets offering highly well made goods (in my instance, jewelry) for Wal-Mart prices, and do not know that these goods were made by slaves, children or very poorly paid workers living on nothing more than a subsistence margin. Some even have to buy their own tools and materials, lowering the worth of the their work even more.

While I make all my jewelry individually from scratch and by hand also, I don’t get paid for doing it. I price my jewelry at what I consider “rock  bottom” already, while designers like Van Cleef & Arpel can command whatever they want as steeply as they want. Yet they say absolutely nothing about price. In fact the common refrain has been, “if you have to ask, then you can’t afford it.” This does not work for me. I only charge what I think is fair, but it never seems to be the right price.

But the ignorance is even more distressing to me than price. You have no idea how many people don’t even know what a brooch is. It used to be that these things used to be in high demand, but now they are not. One shopper even said that a brooch I had for sale should be hair jewelry. This does not happen at my other venues. I don’t know what has happened in the last few years but it would appear that the coming generation will be even more ignorant. They are not interested in learning anything either, as I have been cut off in mid sentence by those who don’t want to know. They are only focused on “pretty” and “beautiful work” but they don’t want to buy. I have to shrug my shoulders and say, “fine.”

I had other vendors engage me in conversation, and we are all in the same boat. People don’t want to buy it at that price, or they are not interested in how it was made, or even that the cost to make it has gone up. They want 99-Cent store prices. What kind of appreciation can I gain for my work with that attitude? None. And when there are another 150 artists all selling their jewelry, the competition for buyers’ eyeballs alone is even worse. At one point, I went on a short break and the moment I went out the door to my ballroom I was confronted by a table covered in jewelry pieces, and a bin filled with bracelets. The sign above it said, “Bracelets, $1.50 each.” How am I supposed to compete with that? Nobody else could afford to do this, and as an artisan it was plainly insulting to me that I was in competition with a wholesaler. This was supposed to be a special highly organized show. But it felt like I was selling at a swap meet.

Over the weekend I decided to get out of jewelry and switch to something even more artistic, and I won’t lower my prices anymore. If you can’t afford it, I don’t care. I refuse to discount my prices to suit shoppers’ tastes and expectations. I will gain more respect among my fellow artisans and I will earn what I deserve for my work. I am living in a different world, where respect for workmanship and understanding of technique have been buried beneath ignorance and indifference. I can afford to continue exhibiting, but my economic expectations of making a profit on my work will never be met.

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The Sneaky Little Changes in SEO Are Cramping My Style

Every three months or so, I study changes made in SEO in general and also changes in HTML, since I code in that particular syntax. I also had a chance to update my inventory and tweak the buttons a bit, since I sold so many jewelry pieces on the weekend. There I was, trying to spruce up my product pages, when I came across two problems which kind of snuck up on me.

First of all, I discovered that PayPal’s payment system does not allow one to sign into one’s account using the same password for all the email addresses on the account. I discovered this while I was trying to pay a marketplace for booth space. I sent an email to PayPal trying to find out why this was the case. First I got an autobot email in return telling me what I already knew. But I had searched the FAQ and help pages already, and this particular glitch was not addressed there. I got angry and demanded that they actually read the question I was asking. Apparently one is only responded to in that state. Politeness does not work. Finally, a tech replied that in order to use those addresses I would have to open an account for each one. Here’s the kicker: I tried that already once and I had trouble getting the accounts to open in the first place, because the primary account was the only one they recognized. Since the email cache on each account allows one to list a primary and at least five other addresses, I was puzzled as to the logic of allowing one to list all these other addresses and then not be able to use them. The tech did not provide me with a satisfactory answer to that. In essence, I can use only one address and that’s it. It’s sloppy and inefficient, and prevents a vendor like me from conducting business through my two sites (three, if you count my personal one); which is directly contradictory to PayPal’s aims, which is to make money on money. Stupid planning does not make anyone happy, and I hate to think how many thousands of business have simply migrated somewhere else rather than argue for change. The problem is that I need PayPal to transact with entities that prefer it to other payment systems. The option for me would be to transact by credit card alone, which I would rather not do.

The second problem showed up soon after that, which is that the <select> drop down menus associated with my product offerings were now so tiny that one cannot read them on a cell phone. I mean, Google actually emailed me and told me that in order to conform with its requirement that my pages be mobile friendly, I must reduce the space on each one to fit a cell phone screen. At first, the <select> menu appeared at normal size, but the other day I noticed that the options were now presenting at 8 or smaller point type. What was especially disturbing is that I code on a laptop with a resultion of 1024 x 768, and to me the select menu was tiny anyway. If anyone was to try to pick something out, their fingers would have been way to big. The same problem appears with the PayPal buttons, too, since their drop down menus are also rendered in HTML. And there was nothing on the HTML tutorials which indicate how to change the font size in or out of the menu so it would be the same size as the rest of the page font. My CSS stylesheet did not work either.

Since the one problem was linked to the other, I decided to put up a form on each page which contains checkboxes instead. Lo and behold, the font stayed comfortably large, and since PayPal’s buy buttons seem to scare people away, I dropped the PayPal buttons and added the payment option by checkbox, so I could at least send invoices and confirmations to people and be paid, instead of languishing in cell phone hell. Don’t get me wrong: I own a cell phone, too. But that just gives me the ability to see how small things appear on a web page in the first place.

I am passing on this discovery to anyone who needs to modify their pages to be mobile friendly. The issue here is just how much we have to adapt to the changing web environment, and it can change fast if we don’t pay attention. Coding which worked last year has become obsolete, and the WWW people are constantly at work on newer and faster versions of HTML. I have resisted using javascript because some browsers reject it, so I have managed so far to use HTML only. However, there will come a time when I must decide whether to find another marketplace environment which has the ability to process automated payments more effectively and manage my sales. I have tried several and found them wanting; basically they are about the same as if I sat on mine and waited. It’s all waiting. Advertising the sites, promoting the products, is all superfluous if no one is willing to actually shop. It’s cheap to run my sites without paying monthly fees and “add-ons”. Other hosting sites want you to pay ahead, or rely on listing fees. At this point, they are nickel and diming sellers to death, because there are not enough shoppers on the net to make anyone rich.

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So Now The Stupidity Has Grown Worse.

After a while, when I had calmed down somewhat, I checked my email and found out that not only did someone furnish the dealers room coordinator with a fake application with my name on it, the coordinator believed that I was the one who made the omissions on the application anyway. First of all, I do not furnish my private phone number to just anybody. But it was the rest of it, that the rest of the application was blank, is what made me think someone was just being malicious over there. I had a photocopy of the application itself to refer to. I had filled it out with all the pertinent information. I provided my resale number. I signed it, dated it. I sent it to the address specified on the application. And I waited patiently. For 8 months.

The capper is that whoever provided the woman with the fake application was who she believed, not me. She accused me that somehow I had lost my marbles, because whatever she was looking at was not what I was looking at. I finally told her that I was insulted by this turn of events and did not want to hear from her again. Clearly, there is something going on in that committee which I was not privy to, and I have been the butt of some massive joke. If that is the case, then I am done with them. I will never ever do a convention or event which relies on a “lottery” system for selecting applicants again. Either it’s first come, first served or not at all for me. No more taking a risk with these people.

As a businesswoman, I have the capacity to do all their jobs efficiently and with alacrity. But I was forced to stand around and wait because the paperwork was lost, or altered, or in some other manner did not match the document I signed.  These are people who have been doing conventions for years, yet in all the years I have participated there has been one snafu or another, or simple laziness or inefficiency for which there is no practical excuse. If they did not want me, then why didn’t they just tell me? I would have gone, and willingly, because if there is one thing I understand it is when I am not wanted. But to be insulted like that, to be told that the paperwork is incomplete despite all my efforts, then an illegality has occurred and I HAVE THE RIGHT TO SUE for false or misleading statements which were proferred to me by someone who I had come to believe knew what she was doing.

I am terrifically angry about this, so angry that I am breaking things, punching walls, etc. rather than concentrating on what is really important: getting on with life and not having to deal with stupid people. So this is a warning: don’t believe anyone or trust anyone, because sometimes they don’t have your back. And some people are shady and shifty, or too busy being proud of themselves to bother owning up to the truth. Because in the end, the truth will bite them back.

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When Stupidity Takes Over, It’s Time To Let Go.

There I was waiting for the decision by a Westercon 68 committee staffer to accept me (or not) into their dealers room. I waited for 8 months, after having sent the application way back in September. Finally, on Friday I sent a query email trying to find out what was going on. Today, I read an email back from the coordinator today saying that they had been trying to reach me for weeks, and that I had not completed the paperwork properly. According to her, I had not put my address, phone number or email address on the application.

Now, here’s the thing about me. I have been in business for decades, and I would know if I had omitted something vital like those. I keep copies of the paperwork so I can keep track of my schedule and whatever legal obligations are involved. Very often, I will also visit the convention’s site to find out what developments or changes have occurred. So you can imagine my shock and anger at such a cockup being laid in my lap. What application form was she looking at, that she should accuse me of incompetence? The only thing I could conclude from this is that they lost my paperwork altogether and were trying to deflect the blame.

When I thought about it further I decided to cancel my application. There was no point in trying so hard to fix things so late, and the damage was done. I let go of the date knowing that so far I had been accepted into several other conventions and also been invited to show my work at more professional shows, and they were confirmed early and timely. I was not going to waste time mending fences because I am too busy and not gracious enough to let things like this pass without at least expressing my dissatisfaction. As the saying goes, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.”

It’s not just this convention which goes lacking. At another convention this year the coordinator upped and vanished, leaving the con chair to arrange things. And a full page ad which I paid for never appeared in the program book as scheduled. These instances of incompetence is one of the reasons why I keep copies and have to watch some conventions like a hawk. It also why I have to think long and hard about doing a convention before I even submit the paperwork. So moments of stupidity like this is just a wrinkle for me, and so it’s easy to let go. After all, it’s their loss if my work is not there.

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To Write or Not To Write?

That is the question. As I consider the likelihood that my books will never be read in my lifetime, I can find no incentive to write further. I have already suffered the slings and arrows of trolls and idiots; I have already been through the publishing and marketing wringer. I have spent thousands of dollars of hard earned cash to produce the best works I can, yet no one wants to read them. One of the expectations I have seen from readers is that my work be cheap enough to afford. I hardly think that pricing a 300 page ebook at $4.99 will break the bank, but apparently readers think otherwise. They want it free, or as close to free as possible. They don’t buy the print books. They pass by, study the title and cover, then move on, as if they can’t be bothered to read the back or the introduction.

Why are my ebooks not on Amazon?, you ask. Well, there are several reasons, chief of which is that Amazon is not my friend, and its business practices made it clear to me that it was not. Amazon wants to commoditize books as mere widgets to sell without any objection from someone like me, who worked so hard to get my titles read; and to market and sell them any way they want at any price they want. This included offering my ebooks for free without my permission, removing customer reviews, hiding the titles inside market classifications without regard to their formal BISAC classifications as defined on Bowker’s Books in Print, and lastly (and this was the deal killer for me) displaying older editions of a title first, instead of the latest. I was not given the opportunity to let time determine whether my books were good to readers or not.

Of course my books were not going to be read, much less bought, against the walls which were put up in order to dump my titles into a black hole. I was not treated this way on Barnes & Noble, Powell’s Books, Vromans, Books-a-Million and many other on and offline retailers whose chief product lines are books. On Amazon, a book is a widget with no more importance than a monkey wrench. This is the difference between the giant retailer and them. Amazon was not transparent about the “glitches” caused by hackers, protestors and other authors in the same predicament. Amazon simply pocketed the money if there was any to be had, and moved on like a juggernaut. I decided to jump ship rather than sink with the rest.

Now, I am up against a different enemy: apathy. As long as I cannot sell enough books to make the effort worth it, I cannot finish the one I am working on. There is no point to try harder; the market is simply not strong enough and saturated now with so many other books by other authors that it appears to be faltering. I keep reading the same comments over and over on sites like Salon and Huffington Post that “most self-published works are crap”, as if it was true. But it is not. I started writing 45 years ago, and I aced all my English and Lit classes. This did not seem to make any difference. I edit and publish my own work because I can, and because I spent the first 10 years applying to publishers who simply returned my manuscripts unread, or with a polite note which said my work did not match the genres they published. How long does a writer have to go before the point is made: we don’t want you. Now run along like a good girl and find something else to do.

I had to wait 30 years before technology caught up with my aspirations. I used whatever there was at hand in the meantime. Now that POD has become viable, suddenly I am up against similarly frustrated and newbie writers with the same aspirations I have. The marketplace has become so crowded with badly written books that it would appear like all self-published books fall into that classification. But again, it’s like mining for diamonds and throwing away the good rough with the bad, then complaining that there are no diamonds to be found. This attitude is what motivates me to put down my pen and do something else for a while, because I can’t fight the attitude anymore. Fighting for the right to be read is simply not worth it anymore. So I am suspending any future publications I had planned until I see some kind of change in the status quo.

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*SIGH*. It’s Worse Than I Thought

Ok. So I thought that transferring from Lightning Source to Ingram Spark would be a cake walk, rife with easy publishing and also global distribution for ebooks. Only it did not pan out that way.

I moved there way back in October. While both offices were closed for the winter, thanks to several waves of super snowstorms making transportation and work impossible; I waited patiently. This was six months of patience. Finally, around late March I was able to plan ahead and revised covers, republished one book with a different title and cover, and set up my ebooks for sale. Not all of them went through, and I was not about to pay 6 cents a page to convert a 430 page book. I put it up on Smashwords instead, where it actually went through in several different formats. I waited a month for things to settle.

Only in April did I discover that my printed books were only available in the US, and they had not been set up for global distribution as with LSI. I had to go in and manually check every box to enable that. Then, I had access to both print and ebook sales reports, but this month I discovered that the ebook sales report hung up with a line about multiple currencies requiring an email report, when I was clicking on only one currency. I emailed ISpk about it, and received no response. Today, I went in to check on May sales, which would have reflected whatever happened in April. Again, the same response on the page. I emailed them again, then looked at BBB and found that they were not accredited. It’s not a hard requirement, of course, but it’s a sort of indication that any business might be legitimate.

Then I did some more digging and found that I was not the only client complaining about ISpk’s lack of motivation to respond to anything. Several other authors began comparing CreateSpace to ISpk, and while the distribution thing is very desirable, I knew all along that most book stores were not going to order anything POD, ever. It’s sort of like finding out that the neighborhood messiah is a fake. Anyway, I looked at my efforts over the last few years and found no practical advantage to stay with a company which apparently cares very little about its customers. The Facebook page they maintain is a little strange, too, with one of the admins apologizing for the phone system being down in March. Other than that, very little feedback about day to day operations. The page was really a sort of bulletin board for the employees and nothing else.

After all this, I finally decided to move my print titles back to LSI and my ebooks back to my site and Smashwords, and said goodbye to book stores. I do a slightly better job of selling them on my own, and I know that the online bookstores take my books readily enough. Brick and mortar has finally become an impossible dream for me. Maybe it never would have worked, but I had to try. Now, I don’t care anymore. It’s just another time-wasting headache, and I’ve got better things to do. I am planning to close my account at Ingram Spark and chalk it as an expensive failure and a lesson learned. Just because it may be cheaper to do does not mean it will have the same results as at LSI. And as long as I feel like rolling with the punches I’ll keep trying somewhere else.

I don’t count myself as a failure. Any good business enterprise is risky, at best. But I am tired of counting on others and finding that they don’t have my back. If anyone wants to read my books I’ve got them to sell, in any format. Just don’t look for them at your corner book store. http://www.antellus.com.

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When A “Pro” Service Fails To Perform

I don’t like to blog about incompetence, but I think in this case I must make an exception.

My latest experience with Ingram Spark has left a bad taste in my mouth about relying on self-styled professional printing and distribution, especially from a service which touts about its global reach. I would have done better if I had simply gone up to the local FedEx Office and printed the damn things myself, then sold them direct from my site to anyone who wants them. But I wanted the distribution, which I cannot manage on my own. When I was working with Lightning Source alone I had access to global distribution. Now, I have discovered that Ingram Spark set my distribution to just the U.S., with the failure to notify me or indicate on the help module that I must set distribution myself for several different channels, and whether to destroy or not. With the ebooks, I had to indicate separate pricing for other channels and Apple. I did not see the difference since I was charging the same price. Even numbered pricing was not possible, apparently. So I set the prices according to page count rounded up to .99. Then I had to indicate what prices should be set for each currency involved.

In 2014, Ingram Spark started sending me compensation reports by separate sources, so in other words a report for Barnes & Noble and a report for Apple, as well as other reports. I don’t see why they could not just lump them all together on one report. It did not seem logical to me, because all of it was going to go on one sales account record anyway. But that was not what got to me.

What got to me was the idea that I had absolutely no control over what was going on with my books, and day before yesterday I received an invoice for a group catalog fee which I should have received back in November. Now, today Ingram Spark told me by email that they were adjusting the invoice to March 31, and I would be charged for it accordingly. Also, emails to them to cancel a title I have already set to “out of print” at Bowker went ignored. The title was still on sale today. I got on the phone to talk to support and was left on hold for almost an hour before I gave up and emailed them that I was thoroughly angry at their incompetence and if I did not receive satisfaction for my frustrated efforts, I would sue. It was not just the frustration, it was the thorough disappointment that a publication service which I had come to rely on did not perform as promised. I was patient for over six months, as the weather prevented any kind of normal operations, but now it is April and by now they should have returned to some kind of regular schedule. Then I reasoned that I was left on hold so long because they were understaffed or there were other angry publishers giving them grief. If that is the case, then perhaps I should be looking at other options.

Since my books were not being distributed as I expected, I had already lost thousands of dollars making them attractive to readers without knowing that a significant sector of the marketplace did not even know they were there. This is another facet of service incompetence which makes me angry. It was bad before, with Lulu and CreateSpace, but this is even worse. Since I discovered this lack of attention to detail I have tried to correct the problem myself. But it’s like fighting with one hand tied behind my back.

I am also trying to redesign covers for my back list, while trying to finish one book and begin research for another. Now, I may not be publishing them in print first, and I may begin using Smashwords again for the ebooks. Smashwords was extremely limited with distribution, but I had access to some of the majors and subscription sites. It was not global but it was better than nothing. Hell, sometimes I think I should give up on print altogether, and statistics show that people are reading less than ever. But thanks to all the frauds and incompetents in the book world, none of my books are going to enjoy their day in the sun. I did not expect to be a #1 bestselling author, I expected a reasonable return on my investment; but it looks like it’s all money down the drain.

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