Thursday, November 6, 2014

Raising your credit score...and possibly your credit limit.


Long story short:  I am NOT a credit advisor.  I only know what has worked for me.  Less than 8 years ago, I was not able to rent a car while on vacation because I had a credit score of zilch.  The only credit card company that would even take a chance on me was Capital One (I mention that in case someone else out there needs to know a good place to start).  And when I got my first credit card, I didn’t know how to use it.

Swipe it.  Yeah, I got that part.  I was very cautious and diligent about paying it off every month.  So I began to have a credit score.  A very small credit score that was not going to grow any time soon.  Why not?  Because, for whatever reason, the credit score companies don’t track how much was spent and paid off—EXCEPT the balance on the card when the credit card company pulls your statement each month. 

So here’s what I did to raise my credit score.  (No, I’m sorry, I don’t know if it will work for people who are trying to rebuild their credit.)  Basically, the credit card company pulls a balance on Month/Date, and then specifies a later date that a minimum payment has to be paid by.  I began leaving a balance on my card, one that I could easily pay off in its entirety before the minimum payment came due.  (Tip: never pay just the minimum payment.  The interest rates on credit cards are horrendous.)

Be careful what kind of “credit card” you get, too.  A JC Penney’s Visa, a Home Depot Mastercard (no idea which credit card those stores actually use, just mixing and matching), an RC Wiley’s Thingamajig—those are reported differently to the credit score companies.  What’s worse, some stores aren’t always careful how they report your card usage.  If they report you as paying late, that will damage your credit score.  But paying regularly and on time doesn’t really build your score.  Unfair?  Yup.  So if you’re going to get a Visa, get an actual Visa, not the kind that you apply for in the checkout line and comes with a store logo on it.   

So now you’ve got your credit card and you’re ready to use it.  As I understand things from a class I took, having three or four major credit cards (no more, no less) is the fastest way to raise your credit score.  But remember this: if a card has no balance for three or four months, it basically goes dormant and is not reported to the credit score companies.  I don’t know why not.  But a good rule of thumb is to put your cards in some sort of order and rotate through them every month.  I have a favorite card, I’ll admit, because it accrues points.  However, I do try to remember to rotate through the others so that they’re still working for my credit score. 
There are all sorts of benefits to raising your credit score.  Offers to increase your credit limit will probably come your way, so be careful to assess the situation realistically.  If you can't keep up with it, your credit score will suffer, so it's not worth it.  For myself, in less than eight months, I have had to rent a car twice, apply for a car loan, and pass a credit score check for an apartment application.  Naturally, my credit score has dipped, as those sorts of things are supposed to be spread out, lol.  (Note: loans and housing do run a slightly different credit course, but following the tips listed above adds up to making you look solid.) 

Well, there you have it.  I thought I had been so smart before I learned that I wasn’t.  My first few years in college I tore up and threw away every credit card offer that came to me in the mail.  That may have saved me from a lot of grief, such as being a teenager who has racked up tons of careless credit card debt, but I didn’t know I could eat my cake and have it, too.  Now that you know more than I did, please take this opportunity to benefit from someone else’s mistakes. 
Tip: Try to have only one card with a reported balance at a time, at less than 13% of your total available credit.  That is something I picked up recently through Google, so I haven’t tested it yet, but it does make a certain amount of sense.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Indie advance marketing—is it for the birds? (Warning: I like lists!)


Once upon a time, a wise old farmer said, “Don’t count your chickens before they're hatched.”  And the people that obey that admonition tend to be happier for it.  Not only do they not get their own hopes up, they don’t disappoint the people around them.  Alas, it’s always not easy for a self-published author to follow that advice.  Particularly when it comes to marketing.  

I was stunned a few weeks ago when I pulled up a newly published book on Amazon.com and saw that it had roughly fifty reviews already posted to it.  There was no way that customers had had time to buy, download, and read the book between it “hitting the shelves” and when I saw the listing—barring time travel, that is. 

I promptly began researching how to get reviews on a freshly publish book and stumbled onto something called “advance reviewers.”  I had seen Goodreads giveaways promising ARCs (advance review copies), but I had no idea what that meant or even that it might be important to me.  My understanding of how this concept applies to self-publishing is that an author has a manuscript that has been edited, formatted, and copyrighted (in short, a finished but not-yet-published book) that they are about to release.  Using the many sites and services available (ex. Goodreads, LibraryThing, Facebook, Twitter, etc.), the author begins advertising for advance reviewers.  And the copy (advertising text) had better be first rate.  I’ll go into more detail on that later on.

Armed with all of this information, I began drafting my first publication schedule.  (It’s my fourth book, but I’m still trying to figure all of this out.)  I estimated that in six weeks I could get my manuscript back from the editors (I abuse some good friends and family members that are highly skilled in the areas of grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc.), revise/format/copyright it, and submit it to Amazon Kindle and my printer, Lightning Source International (LSI).  I also estimated that I would be taken away in a nice padded truck after about three weeks.  Oddly enough, that hasn’t happened yet.

I’ve still got a lot to do and my “publication” date is only a month away.  That sounds like a lot, but when you factor in processing and shipping times, it really isn’t.  Frankly, it’s stressing me out.  I’ve never climbed this far out on a limb.  It really would only take one thing going wrong (a car accident, a bad case of the flu, a power outage of any length) and I’m left picking up the pieces of a beautiful air castle.  That’s one down-side of being a self-published author/one-man-band.  I do believe in prayer, though.  I pray every day that I will be able to achieve the publication goals I have set for myself.  I’m also trying to take notes and prepare for next time this time.  Forewarned is forearmed, after all.  (Yes, I love old sayings!)  And I’ve learned so much about the process this time around!  I’m even going to try to boil down some of the more important points for you.

Because the sites I’ve listed above are freely available, they are also the target of a small army of independent authors.  On Facebook, popular groups will often get more than twenty updates in a two hour period, pushing previous postings down and off the visible page.  I know I usually only scroll down through the first four or five listings, so that is all I really expect from others.  On Goodreads, heavily trafficked groups can have a dozen new listings every day, even in the threads that are intended for very selective types of posts.  Twitter changes every few seconds, and my attempt at using LibraryThing to locate advance reviewers just hasn’t panned out (more on that below).

Things I have learned about obtaining advance reviews:

  1. Prepare a publication schedule. 
    1. Put your book in reviewers’ hands a good month before publication.
    2. Allow for time to prepare, post, and repost your advance reviewer offer.
  2. When preparing the offer text, include all the facts.  Some that I would have overlooked are:
    1. If given the option to include a title (some sites have them, others don’t), include:
      1.  Title, genre, and what you’re looking for.  Advance reviewers are a little different from regular reviewers.
        1. Ex.  Troubled Skies, YA light fantasy, advance reviewers wanted
    2. The available book formats: print or digital
    3. How many copies are available?
    4. Your preferred contact method/information
    5. Where you would like the reviews published
      1. Amazon.com, Goodreads, Smashwords, etc.
    6. Pertinent dates
      1. When will the book be available to the reviewers?  Be as specific as you can.
      2. When will the book be formally published? 
    7. An engaging synopsis
      1. Consider your target audience.  Even better than getting dozens of offers to review your book is a handful of offers from users who know what they’re getting and want it.
  3. Site usage (Twitter, Goodreads, Facebook, etc.) 
    1. Research in advance.  There are interest groups specifically for genres, age groups, genres, etc. 
      1. Groups also frequently cross-over from site to site (ex. The Goodreads Clean Romances Group on FB).  Different users favor different platforms, so post to the group wherever you find it.
    2. Tweets can be directed at specific groups using @theirgroupname
    3. Hashtags can be used on Facebook or Twitter to increase your #searchability
    4. LibraryThing:
      1. To post an offer in the groups, search for “book promotion” and limit the search to “groups” on the left-hand side of the page.
    5. Post frequently but respect the group’s rules
      1. On Goodreads alone the potential for posting is mindboggling.  Take your time.  Read the group rules and obey them, even if it means spending five minutes hunting for the appropriate folder to post in.  Posting in the wrong folder could easily result in your post being deleted by a moderator.
      2. Some sites or groups request that you share/like/retweet/favorite postings by other authors.  This only takes a minute and, quite often, increases your own visibility catching the attention of someone who might’ve overlooked you otherwise.
    6. DON’T spam anybody,
      1. But especially don’t pester a group titled the ‘Heroes of World War II’ with your fiction/children’s/whatever book about Unrelated Stuff.
  4. Respond promptly to offers to review your book.
  5. Decide in advance if you’re interested in doing a review swap
    1. If you are, I would recommend a little research each time one is offered to you.  Can you tell if the other author voluntarily reads books from your genre?  Are you interested in the other author’s genre?
  6. Follow-up
    1. Approximately two weeks after providing a copy of your work to an advance reviewer, follow-up with them.            
      1. Say “Thank you” again.
    2. Follow-up again about a week before your book “hits the shelves.”
      1. Remind them of the publication date;
      2. Reiterate that you appreciate their time and efforts.
      3. If possible, include links to the sites where you would like the reviews to be published.
        1. Goodreads permits pre-publication listing of a self-published book; Amazon.com does not (to the best of my knowledge); LibraryThing may.
    3. For purposes of follow-up, it is useful to make a list of when which reviewer received a copy of your work.  (I posted ahead of time for reviewers and limited myself to three days during which I would send out book copies.  That simplifies my follow-up timetable)
  7. LibraryThing
    1. The Early Review program is intended to be used by publishers.  Self-published authors are encouraged to use the Member Giveaway Program.
    2. About the Member Giveaway program.
      1. I only just realized I could apply for Author status on LibraryThing and do a Member Giveaway that way.  (I learn something new every day, as another wise person once said.)
When you think you’re ready to post your advance review request, close your computer and go do something else.  Then come back and reread it as if you were the advance reviewer.  I know you’ve done your best to make the post compelling (and honest), but ask yourself if you’ve left out a pertinent detail.  Providing the right information is a courtesy to the reviewer and double-checking is a small thing that can make a big difference.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Are restaurants aware of food allergies?


Many restaurants seem to be clueless when it comes to food allergies, beyond a few that have made the news recently.  But there are exceptions. 
When you have food allergies, a dinner date starts with research.  A lot of information can be found online, but if you’re already in the car the direct approach can be faster.  My sister and I went out to dinner last night.  She is highly sensitive to Monosodium Glutamate (MSG), but was craving Italian food.  Does Italian food have MSG in it?  We weren’t sure.  A phone call later, we had learned that Johnny Carino’s, the restaurant we were considering, had an allergy menu! 

Armed with that information, we braved the restaurant.  As we entered, two smiling women greeted us.  Neither of them was the woman with whom my sister had spoken, but she had left instructions for them to have a copy of the allergy menu ready and they handed it to us promptly.  There were no pictures, but the across the top of the printout was a list of ingredients (eggs, milk, MSG, and wheat) and whether or not the dishes, listed down the left side of the page, contained those ingredients.

A short way inside the restaurant we were seated at a table for four, nestled in a corner with privacy walls on either side.  From where we sat we could see two rows of booths and the open kitchen.  The music was what I would call “soft,” and played just loud enough to be heard over all of the conversations simultaneously taking place.

We were still inspecting the menus when our waiter approached and introduced himself.  One of my primary reasons for suggesting the restaurant had been the wide range of Italian sodas that they carry—ten flavors!  After deliberating between orange and cherry, I decided to try black cherry, just for the fun of it.  The first sip was like ordinary black cherry soda.  Then I remembered that I hadn’t stirred the cream in; it was still floating lazily in the top two-thirds of the glass.  Ah, much better!  A creamy black cherry soda is an experience I recommend enthusiastically!

After a delicious soup and salad (hearty minestrone for my sister, house salad for me), our main dishes arrived.  I had selected chicken fettuccini, a dish I had tried before and liked.  My sister, this being her first meal at Johnny Carino’s, selected the spicy shrimp and chicken pasta and carefully cross-checked it against the allergy menu.  Beware the spicy shrimp and chicken!  It’s loaded with garlic and so good that my sister had to force herself to stop eating it.  She was full, but was enjoying it so much that it was just hard to put her fork down.

The bread was crisp on the outside and soft on the inside.  The minestrone was flavorful and enhanced by the addition of cheese; the chicken fettuccini was rich and creamy; the spicy chicken was unbelievably tasty.  The black cherry Italian soda sparkled.  Then we ordered dessert.  A lemon cream cake with gorgonzola cheese.  I suppose it was my high expectations that made it fall flat for me.  I was expecting a zing of lemon flavor, not tart, but (almost) overwhelming.  The cake itself tasted liked a medium-quality cake mix, a tad dry and given to large crumbs.  The lemon flavor was there, but the faint—worse yet, the flavor was overshadowed by the powdered sugar that the cake top had been dusted with.  Being a practical person, I tipped the cake over and tapped the top with the handle of a utensil until most of the powdered sugar had been knocked off.  Then I tried it again.  I finished it, but I can’t say it was $6 worth of good.

That was the only disappointment, though.  The waiter was pleasant; the allergy menu was above and beyond the efforts I have seen other restaurants make; and 98% of the meal was rave-worthy.  In fact, to quote my sister as we left, “Oh, that was good.”
So for those of you who have food allergies, consider calling in advance to the restaurant of your choice and asking for an allergy menu.  For those of you who love Italian, you'll definitely want to give Johnny Carino's a try!  :-D

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Good customer service or bad form?

I'm on my second Goodreads giveaway and with a only few days left before decision-making time, I'd like to "poll the audience." 
Goodreads provides the host of a giveaway with the names and addresses of the persons who win.  The host then ships off the books as promised.  However, Goodreads strongly discourages said host from directly contacting said winners.  Through Goodreads, I mean.  Last time, I did anyway.  Here's why.
I had tracking numbers for the packages!  The tracking numbers were of only mild interest to me; I got them for the express purpose of providing them to the winners so that they could see what was going on.  I could've put them in the packages themselves, but although they would've been delivered to the winners without my contacting them through Goodreads, I think we can all agree that it would've been worse than useless. 
Neither winner complained (to me) that I contacted them directly.  Neither winner responded (to me) at all, in fact.  So I'm left wondering - is contacting a giveaway winner once, with a tracking number (something pertinent and useful) good customer service? or bad form?
Thanks for your input!

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Indie Marketing

I've spent part of, well, most of, my morning researching how I should be running my marketing.  I've gotten a lot of great tips and even bookmarked a few sites (ex. http://www.thebookdesigner.com/2014/03/5-things-you-should-know-about-working-with-beta-readers/), but I've also picked up on a trend.
Realizing that authors have to live, too, I still get a little creeped out every time I read about how some of them decide what to write and how to market it.  The pattern I'm seeing is, 1) pick a really popular genre; 2) determine what makes a book fit into that genre; 3) make sure you cram as many of those things into your book as you can; 4) write it as quickly as possible; and 5) count your money.
I'm afraid I'm going to sound like the woodworker or artisan who prefers to do their work by hand, really I'm not, I'm just a person who loves to write...  But if I used that approach, I would very quickly come to hate writing.  It wouldn't have any substance to it anymore. 
I remember reading the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books as a teen and then learning what a "hack house" was.  Loosely defined, a hack house is a group of writers who are all given the same basic storyline to write a book around.  While that would make for an interesting creative writing class, fascinating even, I shudder to think that this is what's happening to our reading options. 
It could be argued that all the world has left is the rehashing of what's already been written.  I might even catch myself being on that side of a discussion before too long.  However, that doesn't mean I'm going to make writing like that my goal.  And I'm certainly not going to include things in my books just because it's proven that they're "moneymakers."
Enough about me and my opinions.  I'd like to hear from you.  Do you feel that more and more the books you're trying to read all seem like clones?

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Disappointed in Disney

I tried calling in to Disney's Customer Relations department on Monday.  I expected long hold times because I've seen the warnings on Facebook.  Hey, no problem; I was eating lunch at a restaurant by myself, which adds up to time to kill.  Besides, I had more than one thing that I figured I could get taken care of with one call - I wanted to ask about some classic titles being released onto DVD (ex. Horsemasters, Chips the War Dog, Love Leads the Way), and to see if there was a single release of Frozen that had all of the bonus features.
So I called anyway.  Much to my surprise, I got through to someone in less than 2 minutes.  Then the young woman put me on hold because she was "brand new" and didn't know how to check on titles to see if they were being released.  After roughly 20 minutes I hung up. 
When my food arrived, I tried again.  I got as far as giving this representative all eight titles that I wanted to check on and agreed she could put me on hold.  It wasn't long before she came back to tell me she needed to transfer me to a Customer Care representative.  Because I had dialed the same number I always dial for this kind of call I was a little surprised, but I took her word for it.  43 minutes later, I started my car and ended the hold.  (Let's not talk about the hold "music.")
Finally, a couple of hours later, I decided to try once more.  Third time's the charm, right?  In fact, I decided to just keep it simple.  Instead of trying to find out about the classic titles (at all) I just asked my question about Frozen.  She said no one had ever asked her that question.  Assuming she was looking it up, I began ranting lightly about how annoyed I am that Disney has released however many different versions of Frozen.  Target has these bonus features, Walgreens has those, Best Buy got an alternate set.  I was floored at the rep's response: "How else are they going to make money?"
I recognize an honest answer when I hear one.  It wasn't that she told me something I didn't already know.  But I even told her how shocked I was that she would dare to say it and asked if she was new, which she said she was.  Maybe that did it.  Maybe that's why we spent the next five minutes with her trying to "help" me get all of my calls that day consolidated into a single log.  I don't know.  I do know I asked her if I needed to hang up and call back to speak with someone else to get my question answered!
Now that the long story has been told, the sad ending is that I didn't get a single question answered.  (I may tell the next piece of the story, which involved going in circles on the Disney website to try to find a way to email them, another day.)  I didn't even get a single classic title requested (I do that every six months or so and after a few years, they'll actually release one on DVD).  I couldn't even get a straight-up answer on whether or not it's possible to buy just one copy of Frozen and get all of the bonus features. 
Disney, are times that hard?  Are you so poor that you have to think of new ways to rip us off?  Or are you just greedy?  I've never heard people complain about too many bonus features, so I wouldn't believe it if someone said Disney was just trying to specialize the releases for the benefit of the customers.  As for the customer service, I will say this was the first time I've had trouble.  I usually call later in the evening, though, and get an agent in another country - WHO GET THE JOB DONE. 
I'm more disappointed than angry.  And I'd like to know what others think.  Please comment below (keep it clean) - What do you think of Disney's approach to releasing Frozen?  And what has been your experience with their customer service lately?

Friday, February 28, 2014