Sunday, January 31, 2021

Survivorship bias?

I'm aware that by surviving as a business for 41 years I tend to look back with a survivor bias. I succeeded because I did this or that, instead of maybe just being lucky. Or simply by surviving, I give too much credit to my own attributes. 

That said, I do think I managed to avoid that one big, killer mistake. Looking back, there were a lot of decisions that could have gone either way. 

I made a ton of mistakes--some of them were very close calls. I remember walking to the corner near my store every day for years thinking, "If anything happens today, we're done."

I did start to pile up experience after awhile, and much of that experience came from trial and error; learning as much or more from the errors as from the successes.

Eventually, I felt like I could look at other business and judge their viability by the decisions I saw them making. Of course, I couldn't see the hidden attributes--their level of perseverance or how many resources they had in reserve, but generally speaking I could see if they were zigging when the market was zigging or zagging when the market was zagging.

When they zigged when it was zagging, I'd think, "ah, oh." 

So...Killer mistakes:

Over expanding. (My biggest mistake. I call it the Duncan Corollary (😀) to the Peter Principle. A business owner will expand to their level of incompetence.)

Not recognizing a bubble. (We're all forgiven our first one.)

Under-expanding or not having enough inventory. This seems to be fueled by the business school models of turnover and selling only the bestsellers, carrying what everyone else carries,  instead of making your store unique. Either that, or spending too much money on overhead and taking home too much money instead of buying product.

Too many employees. (Don't own a store is you don't want to work it.)

Letting a manager run the store before it is established. If you run a Mom and Pop business, you make enough money for Mom and Pop--or a Manager--but not both. At least, at first.

Moving uptown or downtown instead of improving existing location. (I suppose not moving when you have a bad location would be equally bad, but I never made that particular mistake.)

Losing zest for the business. (Keep looking for ways to renew your interest. I ain't just about the money.)

Overbooking and overworking. (Big one; I think as many businesses fail from burnout as from lack of money--and the two are inextricably linked.)

Trying to underprice everyone else instead of trying for a retail markup. Conversely, you don't want to overcharge either. Early on, someone told me that you need 40% gross profit margin, and that the closer you charge to retail price, the healthier you are. 41 years later, this still holds true. 

Spending too much money on looks or brand or on advertising. People put way too much stock in "image." It really comes down to whether you have what the customer wants at a price they're willing to pay. They may like your shiny fixtures, but it doesn't mean they'll pay more for them.

Having lousy customer relations. (The number of stores who don't greet their customers is amazing to me.)

Not seeing when a product is dying, or guessing a product is dying too soon. 

Not doing the math. Sometimes there just isn't enough longterm demand, no matter how hard you work or how winning your personality.

Not diversifying. This is a big mistake in Bend. Specialty stores will do well at first, but if they falter or their specialty falters or they get increased competition, they have nothing else to fall back on. Up until recently Bend wasn't big enough to do that. And even if it works now, why not have some backup?

I'm sure there are many more, but these are the ones off the top of my head.

Jonesing for Tolkien.

 Wow. The combination of watching "The Dig" and reading a history of the Vikings, "The Children of Ash and Elm," has really got me jonesing to write a Tolkien pastiche again.

Because, let's face it. Almost all heroic or epic fantasy is either a Tolkien pastiche, or some obvious backlash against writing a Tolkien pastiche, which usually results in something awkward, either too much of the same thing, or something that doesn't really work. 

The only way around that is to write something within the framework--dare I say formula--that Tolkein established, but to write it so well it still comes across as fresh. I'm thinking Lois McMasters Bujold's "World of the Five Gods" trilogy, or Patrick Rothfuss's, "The Kingkiller Chronicle."

By the way, Lois McMasters Bujold is the most under rated SF and Fantasy author ever--not by those in the 'know' -- after all, she's been nominated or won more awards than just about any other writer--but by the general public. I try hard to get people to read her, but most turn me down for some reason. Instead they read drudge like "The Wheel of Time" or...well, any number of "Tolkien pastiches." (I wrote a few myself early on: "Star Axe" in particular. My defense is--I started writing it before Tolkien pastiches flooded the bookshelves.)

I understand that most people are actually looking for Tolkien pastiches. They want to fill that hole in the heart that Tolkien carves. 

My problem was, I filled that hole and it started to drown the entire genre for me. Just more of the same thing. I'm talking dozens of trilogy series that people have recommended as "different" but which almost never are. 

I've read mostly SF and mysteries, non-fiction and mainstream novels in the last forty years. To my own surprise, when I came back to writing, I didn't write heroic fantasy. I wrote horror, and rpg lit and thrillers and urban fantasy and stuff I can't really categorize.

The closest I've come is my four novellas in the "Tales of the Thirteen Principalities." Those are written, but need to be coordinated in their plots, so require some rewriting.

I'm going to try to fill my Tolkien jonesing by fleshing out the novellas. I think those will probably be the next stories I put out there. 

Apparently, the Tolkien hole still needs to be filled.

Friday, January 29, 2021



Dream becomes logic

memory becomes puzzle

the puzzle becomes the dream

the dream becomes a puzzle

hidden voices in a box

and forgotten words

"there he goes again"

"I thought that, too, once

but I've forgotten" 

"I wish he'd be quiet"

"hush, he's trying to remember"

a bus trip in darkness

a trip repeated, always wrong

past lives possible futures

I can't tell which

fragments floating, alone, together

lower case words

in unseen boxes 

Hollywood squares

darkness, light, darkness light

repeated and forgotten

a troubling feeling

I've thought it before

someone's fault

the damaged conversation 

a foreign heart, anxious and alone

a villain and saint

the same blemished man

interrupted by life

something's wrong

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Still writing, at least.

Short stories.

I just haven't had the heart to write a full novel again. Writing a novel requires all my attention, every day, every hour. It takes total commitment. Everything else has to slide. 

Basically, I'm lazy.

Then again, I've published 26 novels, 23 of them over the last 8 years. 18 of them were print novels, and 8 more as ebooks. I've had 8 publishers in my career. I've also written a fairly large number of novels that I haven't felt were up to standards. Some of them may still get done, a couple of them I think could be good, but...

I gave it my best. 

The only reason to keep writing is to take it to the next level.

Did I mention, I'm lazy?

I've identified the things I need to do, but they basically come down to working harder, spending more time. Which, you know, is hard for a lazy person. 

But ideas still come to me. The urge to write still nags me. 

I sat down a couple of months ago and wrote a short story. It was fun and fulfilling creatively, and it didn't take a whole lot of time an effort. I published it on my blog. No fuss, no muss.

I sent off a longer story to a publisher, specifically tailored to an anthology. I don't actually expect it to be accepted, but what the hell. It doesn't hurt to try. If it is rejected, I'll just put it up on my blog site. One thing I discovered though was that working within the perimeters of a publisher's needs is a prompt for me. It's much easier to come with specific ideas if I know what they want.

Another small publisher mentioned she wanted to do a werewolf anthology next, so I went to bed wondering if I could come up with an idea. Baby werewolf? Women werewolves who must mate and then eat their mates in order to produce offspring? 

Then I happened on a unique idea, and I've started writing it. Frankly, I wouldn't be surprised if someone has done it, but I don't want to know. I just want to write it. 

Again, writing a short story is satisfying and doesn't bog me down. I have no idea if I'm any good at it. I suspect I'm probably a better long story writer, but...

Came up with another story idea a month or so ago, and I'm still planning to finish that story too. All of these stories will probably end up on my blog and I suppose if I assemble enough of them, I might find a cover for them and put them on Amazon as a collection. 

Still writing, at least.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Bestsellers versus Backlist.

As I've mentioned before, I came back to working a couple of days a week at the store in September, 2019. For several years before that, I'd been getting more serious about new books, to the point where I was ready to drop used books altogether. But up to that point, I'd been ordering what seemed to me to be the low-hanging fruit; classics, cult books, award winning SF and Fantasy, backlists of best-selling authors. Buying brand new bestsellers seemed pretty iffy to me, because they had no history and because they were more likely to be sold at a discount online and in the big stores.

But eventually I decided that if we were ever going to be taken seriously as a bookstore that I would have to dive into new bestsellers. 

I started off slowly, buying a couple of New York Times bestselling hardcovers per bi-weekly period. That is, I'd look at the bestseller lists and pick a couple that seemed most likely to sell in my store.

Then I started looking at the "coming next week" lists and ordering a couple of those each week that seemed most likely to sell. 

Over the year, I steadily increased that amount of recently printed titles until I had most of the current Top Ten bestsellers in stock, and a couple of dozen new titles each week off the "coming" list. 

What seemed to happen was the some of the bestsellers would sell really well, a few would sell once or twice, and a few would hardly sell at all. It seemed like a pretty breakeven proposition.

Nevertheless, book sales increased, which allowed me to experiment more, and when we reorganized the store during the Interregnum, I was able to create room for an increase in selection. I now order bestseller routinely and it seems to have helped the overall impression we make on customers--especially tourists and newcomers to Bend. Fortunately, there are enough of those to overcome the seeming impenetrable perception by most Bendites that we are a comic or a game or a toy store, but not a bookstore. Fortunately, new customers come in and see books and think we are a bookstore.  

The experiment has been a huge success. I'm getting better and better at guessing which new books will sell, and the selection continues to improve. Books sales have doubled. (And because of that, I've had to add a couple more days worth of work per week. The cost of success, I guess.)

But I have to say: what's been most valuable about the experience is that I'm starting to see how we are different from other new bookstores. 

In short, we focus on the backlist more than most bookstores. We try to carry a strong selection of historically important books; as I said above, the classics, the cults, the mainstream authors with strong followings. So we carry stacks of Vonnegut, and Bukowski, and P.K. Dick, and Murikami, and Palahniuk, and so on. 

We carry most of Steinbeck, and Hemingway, and Fitzgerald.  Victor Hugo, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Mark Twain.  

We carry Emily Dickenson, and T.S. Eliot, and Mary Oliver....Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Nietzsche...shelves of mythology books, a shelf of "cat" books, quirky impulse books, and so on and so forth. 

My basic strategy is that if a book sells, I almost always order it again. My goal is to seek out every perennial seller I can find and keep it in stock. I have yet to return any books, (though I'm thinking about it.)

Believe it or not, this is different from most traditional bookstores. 

Basically the difference is this:

For traditional bookstore, the focus is on recently printed titles, especially bestsellers. It appears to me that most of their budget is buying every book listed on the American Booksellers Association pamphlet each month. Backlist is an afterthought.

Whereas for my store, the focus is on backlist, with recently printed titles as a constant experiment.

It seems foolish to me to focus on churning recently printed titles, gambling each time, sending back what doesn't sell after a couple of months and then buying the next week's titles. Yes, there are bestsellers that will support most of that business plan, but it seems to me that you can get those that are obvious and save some space for perennial sellers. 

Or, more to the point, if you have the space and time and energy, you could do both. (I'm trying to do this.)

What seems neglected in most new bookstores is the backlist. I'm not talking about midlist titles that have a limited followings, but books that have a proven track record. I'm always going to sell "Mythology" by Edith Hamilton, or the Princess Bride, or The Prophet, or The Monkey-Wrench Gang, or The Alchemist, or Dune, or...well, I have a couple hundred years worth of books to chose from. 

So, yeah. Bestsellers are bestsellers--for a reason, right? But the problem is that they seem to require using most your space, time, energy, and money keeping up with them.  

I'm still trying to find the right balance. Sometimes when talking to other bookstore owners and they tell me that sold 50 or 100 of a new bestseller, I wonder if I'm doing it al wrong. But then I look at my sales and think--no, that's more like gambling. 

Selling a copy of Dune is a sure thing.

Like I said, I'm trying to do both, but I'm not sure the current model of carrying all the bestsellers, churning through, buying the next batch, churning through, buying the next batch, week after week--well, I don't think that lets a bookstore really ever fill-in the backlist, and I think that's a mistake. 

I know, I sound like a know-it-all, but I do think the point of carrying more backlist classics is something that most bookstores could profit from.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Writing a short story: "The Bone Spinner"

Started writing "Bone Spinner," a short story I've been percolating for awhile. 

It's amazing how I pull from my own experiences when I write a story, even if they aren't really comparable in reality. It's the emotion and the details I can use to fill in. 

"...we all have triggers to any stage of emotion," Hugh Jackman says about acting. "It’s not always easy to find but it’s still there."

The same is true of writing.

The protagonist is a foreign exchange student, circa 1966, who has fallen into a friendless depression and spends most of his time in his dorm room.

This cuts a little close to home. That's what happened to me at the U of O the first time around. I basically quit going to classes. Deep depression. 

I've tried not to revisit that time too much. One of the ways I came of of the depression was to stop trying to regain what I'd lost, but to start over from scratch. It's dangerous to wallow.

But it exactly fits the needs of the story so I'm going to try to get it over quickly and move on. 

This story has so much potential that I'm once again aware that a better writer could really do something with it. But I'm the writer the story has, so I'm doing it.

I'm doing a stereotypical Russian in the story, quaff-er of vodka and burly comradery, but that's a shortcut to getting the story going--that's what I mean by a better story writer could write a more realistic character. I've done some preliminary research. I want there to be rock and roll music in the story, but it has to be as early in the Cold War as I can reasonably make it. I'm choosing 1966 so I can include rock groups I listened to. There were American students in Moscow then, somewhat to my surprise and fortunately for the story.

I pretty much have the tone and the concept of the story, but I'm lacking an ending. I'm hoping that will come to me as I write.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

A valuable lesson.

 In 1995, a comic bubble burst, leaving me with about 20% of the customers I had at the peak. I realized that the 20% were the customers who actually read and enjoyed comics and who couldn't care less about perceived value. 

Since the speculators had disappeared anyway, I decided I would try to rebuild my base by appealing to readers.  Encouraging people to buy on the basis of the quality of the art and writing of comics. I even came up with a saying. "Speculators always quit. Readers keep reading."

I didn't think I would see it again in my career, but speculation has re-entered the market. I'm not changing my policy. I don't care about comics that suddenly shoot up in price. I don't care if a variant cover is in demand. I still cater to the readers.

Yes, I'm missing some short term customers, but I'm not building castles on the sand. Every sale in my store is on the basis of content, not a mirage. 

This applies to everything in life--content is content, image is just image. This include politics, by the way. Build your base on what you believe; don't cater to things you don't believe to gain money or power.

Just saying.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

State of the store.

I know that my store can look chaotic to some, but every element I've added has increased the bottom line. In the last year, we've jumped to an entire new level. Managing an increase in games, books, game cards, puzzles, and toys without neglecting what we were already carrying has been challenging, but I think we've done it. 

We're in really good shape. (It only took 40 years to finally have year with a cash surplus instead of lingering debt.)

I don't think it would be a terrible thing to take a step back. Not try to be on top of everything all the time. Let the store coast for a few months. 

I probably won't slack off completely. I want more smaller piece puzzles, more Pokemon, definitely more Magic boxes. 

I guess I'm really talking about books. I went for bestsellers and it wasn't a disaster, but they are starting to accumulate a little too much. So instead of ordering five or six new "bestseller" titles each week, I probably should cut back to one or two. (Unless I plan to change strategies and send books back. I still have that option with Ingram.)

I still want to keep my eyes open for quirky or cool books--but let them come to my attention rather than hunt them down. The budget for books is more or less taking care of itself--less sales, less back ordering. We've kind of reached a threshold on some categories--games are proliferating beyond measure and so are young adult graphic novels. It's gotten to the point where I can't order every new game or GN, even if I limit myself to the bestsellers.

It's been a little over a year since I got really serious about ordering books. I can't tell if the lessons I've learned are normal or are unusual, since things have been anything but normal.

Were sales given a boost by Covid? Or were they perhaps not as good as they could have been?

Are the constant stock shortages of bestselling books normal?  Or is it because of Covid?

Have the sales of bestsellers been better than normal, or worse?

How can I know until things become "normal?" (Will things ever become normal?)

Pretty much the same questions with puzzles and games.

Comics are still having a rough patch, but graphic novels are doing extremely well, evening everything out. 

I'm asking my landlord for a long-term lease extension and feeling very optimistic about the future. It's been fun to have a fully operational store; though the disaster surrounding it has been scary.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Luck's gratitude buried by privilege
where rich meet poor at severe gates
paychecks as the bullied proof.
Living in history, helplessly watching
as the world spirals out of control
Nothing to do about it.
Context and reason shrink rapidly
Confusion expands faster each and every day
We keep fighting the entropy 
At home, illusion of safety
surrounded by both seen and unseen danger
waiting, not sure for what


Wednesday, January 6, 2021

I dreamed this last night. "Guinea Pig Circus!"

I am down to my last $100, so I buy a cheap rope and a tarp and wrap them in a circle around some trees by the side of the highway. Then I scrounge up some cardboard boxes and sawdust and go to the local animal shelters and adopt the five guinea pigs as they have. I buy three more for $10 each, for a total of eight. I pull a couple wilted heads of lettuce out of a dumpster.

I cut out the side of one of the boxes and scrawl on it: 

"Step Right Up! Come one, come all! A herd of guinea pigs in their natural habitat! Watch their amazing antics! Yes, sir and ma'am, come gaze upon the natural wonder of the guinea pigs. Watch them perform amazing tricks. 

"Your satisfaction guaranteed! Only a dollar, folks. One dollar is all it takes! You can't lose! One dollar, guaranteed!"

Then I sit back at the entrance and wait.

A family of five comes and hands me $5.  I lift the flap and let them in, meanwhile going to the box with the lettuce in it and taking out a couple of leaves. The guinea pigs squeal because they know the lifting of the lid means food.

The family stands there for a few moments. 

"So what sort of tricks do they do?"

"Oh, they eat and they shit. That's what guinea pigs do."

The family looks at each other and shuffle along and I know they're too embarrassed to ask for their money back. They leave and another car drives up. 

There the dream ends, but I'm sure I was well on my way to great riches. 

(Enough to pay off all the lawsuits from salmonella and biting pigs.) 

Monday, January 4, 2021

The final accounting for 2020 will be on January 5th, when all the revenues and bills will be finalized. The last four days have been good, so I think it's going to be a little more than I expected a week ago. 

To restock, I'm probably going to be pushing the outer limits of my estimates--but, of course, I'm more likely to reach those estimates by being fully stocked. 

There is no way to conduct business without risk.

When I originally looked at possible sales in December, I couldn't quite believe it. If we, as we had been doing for most of the year, increased sales by 30%, it would be an impossible number. 

Well, we hit that number almost exactly.

So if I extend that rate of growth into January, the restocking bills should be covered. If not, I'll back down in February onward.

As I say every year, I look forward to Christmas--and every year, I look forward to Christmas being over.

Yes, sales are down January thru May, but that means we can relax a little, not be overworked. As long as we stay within budget, no harm is done. 

I was talking to another retailer the other day, and I asked him how he thought January would be. He said, "I'm not worried about it--we did so well in December."

That answer kind of puzzled me. I have the opposite reaction. The pressure never really eases. Success needs to be followed up. It's self-imposed pressure to be sure, but as I said above, business is never without risk, and pursuing lines of success is one way to reduce that risk. The better you're doing, the better you'll survive a downturn. And a downturn is always in the cards. It will come eventually. It's a cycle. 

At the same time, I'm feeling very relaxed. We just had a very good year in a very bad time.