How to Stay Financially Afloat During Coronavirus

There’s really no way to write the beginning of this post that doesn’t sound like the 42 billion other coronavirus-related pieces of media you’ve read in the last few months. So let’s just get past all the repetitive “We’ve all been hit hard by COVID-19” stuff, and the “so much has changed in such a short etc. etc.” We know. We all know.

Instead, I’ll say I hope you’re staying as safe and healthy as you can. And I hope that this post can be of service to you if you’re in a rocky place financially. I’m going to offer up what bits of advice and resources I know of, plus provide links to other communities with helpful information. If you have recommendations, stick them in the comments or @ me on Twitter so I can boost them (I’m @MissSerenaReads there).

Let’s jump straight in.

Get Intimate with Your Finances

This should be your first step as you figure out how to make it right now. Even if you know your bank balance is negative right now, knowledge is power. Drill down into your finances. Calculate your immediate necessary expenses (shelter, food, utilities, healthcare, transportation, etc.) and add them up. That’s the amount you need to come up with to stay afloat right now.

Add up other recurring expenses that aren’t as immediate: credit card payments, student loans, subscription fees. These are all nice-to-haves. If you recently lost your job or had your hours cut, put any cash you can toward your necessary expenses. The nice-to-haves can fall by the wayside for now. No one likes to be in debt or pay late fees. But these are exceptional times, and right now you need to focus on prioritizing.

What do I do if I can’t pay a bill?

If you’re worried about paying certain bills, notify the company or person you need to pay as soon as you realize you can’t pay. It will also help to have documentation that your financial difficulties are due to the coronavirus. Pay stubs that show your hours were cut or an email from your workplace stating that they are letting you go because of their reduced revenue are great pieces of evidence to have on hand.

Thankfully, many people realize the financial difficulty that the virus is causing. Everyone from landlords to banks to utility companies are offering payment relief, or at least deferment until a later date. It’s in your best interest to reach out as soon as possible and let whoever is expecting a payment from you know you aren’t going to be able to make your payment. When you do this, state very clearly that your loss of income is due to the coronavirus. Most customer service lines have to follow strict rules, and if you aren’t specific, they may not be able to offer you all the resources their organization has set aside for people impacted by COVID-19. Unscrupulous organizations may try to skirt the law by claiming that you didn’t say your financial difficulty was due to the virus, therefore they can’t help you. Don’t give them that opportunity!

Once you let them know you aren’t going to be able to pay, ask what kind of relief they can offer you. Be willing to ask for more than they offer. If they say they’ll defer your payments for 30 days, for example, ask if they’ll do 90. The representative you’re talking to may not be able to comply with your request, but it’s absolutely worth asking. Many utility companies have existing relief programs for customers who can’t pay and have expanded those services. Others are instituting new programs in light of everything happening, including making some services like internet and electrical entirely free. Take advantage of what’s available to you.

Lastly, don’t forget to be as kind as possible when talking with customer service representatives. This is an extremely stressful time for everyone. Being patient and kind benefits us all.

Everything I pay for feels necessary! How do I cut down on expenses?

This advice is pretty standard pre-pandemic advice, but it is truly evergreen, so I don’t mind repeating it.

First: Cancel any extra subscriptions and other excess spending and look for better deals. I won’t tell you to cancel Netflix and Hulu because that would just make hunkering down at home miserable for most of us. Still, subscriptions are definitely worth evaluating, and it’s also worth looking into whether you’re getting the best deal. For example, my partner gets both Hulu and Spotify as a bundle for $4.99 a month, which is a huge savings for us.

Take advantage of student or senior discounts, and ALWAYS check Google for coupons for anything you’re about to buy. That goes for groceries, video games, Disney+ subscriptions, ordering takeout, clothes–you name it, there’s probably a coupon.

If you are currently on SNAP or Medicaid, you qualify for a reduced-price Amazon Prime subscription that comes out to $5.99/month. That would mean paying no extra shipping costs for anything on Amazon. You’d also get access to a huge variety of Amazon services, from audiobook streaming through Audible to grocery delivery through Amazon Fresh. You can read the full list of services you get with a Prime membership here. You can also pay for an extra add-on, Prime Pantry, and get free delivery on orders of pantry staples over $35. (Ideal when you’re trying to avoid going to the store, or your local stores have been completely wiped out. You can also use your EBT card to pay for SNAP-eligible items on Amazon in some states (full list of states here).

There are other grocery stores that allow you to use EBT to pay online, too. Food Stamps Now has a great roundup of stores that let you use EBT online, and also information about how to use EBT online.

It may also make some sense to get “family plan”-style accounts and share with friends and family you trust to chip in regularly, lowering payments for everyone. On the flip side, if you’re single and currently paying for a family plan, evaluate whether you should switch to a cheaper plan that suits your needs better.

You should also get really comfortable with saying no to yourself. Stress buying is very real, and especially with the world being a terrifying disaster, it’s very easy to say “You know what, I deserve this!” and buy something you truly do not need. (RIP my bank account after the month of March. In my defense, it was my birthday month, but I might have overdone it a little.) Maybe you do deserve it, but if you can’t afford it, don’t buy it! You also deserve to be financially solvent. Find other ways to manage your anxiety and give yourself that little endorphin high.

Most importantly: get shit for free! My friends, there is a wonderful world of free stuff out there, thanks to the internet and libraries. (I know, I know, I’m a freak about libraries. But they’re really cool and offer so much more than just physical books!)

In my city, public library branches are currently closed, but there’s a ton of electronic content available. That may be true for you, too. I use the San Francisco Public Library and have access to ebooks, audiobooks, movies, music, and comics on Kindle, Axis360, Overdrive, Libby, Hoopla, Kanopy, and OverDrive. There are also tons of e-learning resources with information on everything from learning Mandarin to painting in Photoshop. Not every library system is as well-equipped, but if finances are tight, looking into library resources can mean reducing your entertainment budget to $0. (Or at least just the cost of internet.) (Which you might also be able to get for free, or at least super cheap.)

You should also take a look at local buy-nothing groups on Facebook, who may be able to provide you with items you need but can’t afford. Freecycle, the free section of Craigslist, and Nextdoor’s free section are also great places to get free items. On Nextdoor, you can also ask for help and see if your neighbors are able to offer assistance just by posting. Nextdoor also set up a “Help Map” feature where you can  In my neighborhood, people have been offering to go to the grocery store for high-risk neighbors, walk people’s dogs, do free housekeeping, and do phone check-ins. Reach out to your community. People are doing their best to come together and create a safety net right now, and it never hurts to ask.

I know how much staying alive costs. How am I supposed to afford it?

This is the real question. It’s relatively easy to cut costs and get your finances down to brass tacks. But covering rent can seem impossible when you’ve been out of work for three weeks and you have no idea when it’ll even be feasible for you to find work again.

In the short term, I’d suggest applying for jobs in industries that are still hiring. Most grocery stores, delivery companies, and warehouses are hiring in huge numbers right now, and if that’s work you’re willing and able to do, now is a perfect time to apply.

There is also a coronavirus relief bill coming down the pike, and many Americans will qualify for the stimulus checks the government is going to send out. You can read more details about the bill, whether you qualify, and the amount you may receive here: F.A.Q. on Stimulus Checks, Unemployment and the Coronavirus Plan.

If you haven’t already, you may also want to get your taxes filed. Tax refunds are a lifeline for many of us, right now most of all. The government will also be using your tax information from 2019 in order to figure out whether you qualify for the checks mandated by the coronavirus relief bill. If they don’t have your 2019 tax info, they will use your 2018 tax information, which may make a significant difference in how much you receive. Even if you didn’t make enough to technically need to file taxes, it’s still in your best interest to do so for 2019.

If you’re unsure of how to file your taxes or find the whole thing confusing and nightmarish, I highly recommend using FreeTax USA to file your return. It’s completely free (except for the cost to file your state tax return, which can be paid for with your return). It uses plain language and simplifies the process as much as possible. I’ve been using it for several years and can’t imagine using anything else at this point.

While we’re still on the topic of government-related income, you should also take the time to apply for unemployment, SNAP, Medicare or Medicaid, TANF, and any other government assistance programs you may qualify for. While that money may not add up to what you’re used to bringing in with a regular paycheck, it can help keep you in your home and stay afloat during the COVID-19 crisis.

That assistance is likely to not be enough, though, so I’ll talk about ways you can make money. These aren’t get-rich-quick schemes, but ways you can make a little money here and there that will hopefully add up.

This post deals specifically with a bunch of different ways you can earn money from home. It covers a ton of bases–everything from credit card reward churning to Amazon Mechanical Turk to Redbubble. I’ll talk in a bit more detail about some of the stuff mentioned in that post below based on my own personal experiences, as well as a few more.

I also cover some different ways to organize your finances and make some extra money in this post.

Swagbucks

One of the first things I’ll mention is Swagbucks. Swagbucks allows you to fill out surveys and earn cash back in the form of “swagbucks” or “SBs.” You can then redeem your SBs for gift cards or cash in the form of PayPal deposits. You have to reach specific SB amounts in order to buy the gift cards–you can’t cash out with 5SBs (or 5 cents) for example. At the lowest, you’ll be able to get gift cards in 500SB (or $5) amounts. PayPal can take the longest to save up for since you need 2,500SBs ($25). You definitely won’t get rich with it, but I have actually used it to pay bills in the past. (I actually just checked and I’ve earned a little over $140 on Swagbucks since 2018 with some periods of heavy usage and then many months of not touching it at all.) 

If you use my code to sign up, you earn 150 SB (or about $1.50) just for signing up, and Swagbucks kicks back some of your earnings to me. Also, use it on a laptop or desktop computer if you can. Swagbucks can be really glitchy, especially on mobile. I recommend focusing on doing surveys, which will garner you the largest return on your time investment. You can also shop online with the Swagbutton (trust me, I hate the name just as much as you do) browser extension and earn SBs that way, and use referral links on the site to earn points when you shop online. It takes a while for shopping referral SBs to make it into your account, though. You can also earn points by printing coupons, signing up for new services and websites, and playing games, but those options require you to spend money you likely don’t have right now. Sticking to surveys is going to be the most worthwhile use of your time, in my experience.

Ibotta

Ibotta is one of my least favorite ways to earn money, but still worth mentioning. It takes f o r e v e r to cash out, especially if you aren’t uploading literally every receipt from literally everywhere you shop every time you shop.

Still, I’ve managed to cash out with it once before, and every little bit helps. You can also use the different bonus bundles they have on the app to boost your earnings. You can cash out once you hit $20, and it only takes a couple minutes to upload your receipts.

Etsy

Etsy can be a great way to make extra cash, especially if you’re a crafter. I ran an Etsy store for a while selling solid perfume, and I can attest to the fact that the platform is really great as both a seller and a buyer. Etsy has a really solid overview of how to get started selling. It may require some startup funds depending on what you decide to sell and whether you have the supplies to make it and mail it out to customers, but it can make you a decent chunk of change once you get started. Also, I’ve heard some rumors that there’s kind of a huge market for hand soap right now for some reason, so now’s as good a time as any to learn how to make it and cash in.

eBay

If you have a lot of extra stuff lying around that you no longer want and that might actually be worth something, opening an eBay store is a great idea. You can research prices by searching for the same or similar items that are already listed on eBay. You’d be surprised at what sells. Just make sure to factor shipping costs into your prices if you decide to offer free shipping!

Self-Publishing

I wrote a post a bit ago about the self-publishing process. With people hungry for things to do during self-quarantine, it’s a good time to self-publish content and earn a few extra bucks while doing it.

Fiverr

If you can offer a service that can be delivered entirely online (think writing, editing, digital art, logo design, making videos, etc.), you might want to offer your services on Fiverr. Fiverr is a digital marketplace where freelancers can offer their services. I have used it in the past, and while I won’t necessarily recommend it as a great option for long-term income, it can be a good way to gain experience, build relationships with clients, and build a portfolio. I recommend checking out the Fiverr forums to talk with other freelancers and get a better idea of how to use the platform.

Use Your Free Time to Build Self-Reliance

As we start to run into supply chain issues, we’re beginning to see shelves empty at the grocery store and everywhere else, too. Easy access to goods isn’t necessarily guaranteed now. Right now, it makes sense to look into alternative solutions. Grocery store empty? Maybe start growing some of your own food or sign up for a local CSA. Out of paper towels? Use rags and towels in the kitchen instead. Can’t get outside to exercise? Look up routines you can do at home online, or find videos on YouTube. No hand soap available at the store? Pick up some bar soap from an Etsy store, or learn to make it yourself.

Now is a perfect time to get back into old DIY hobbies or pick up new ones. They could save you money in the long run and they’ll give you something to do while you’re stuck inside.

Get Involved in Mutual Aid

The coronavirus has brought a lot of us closer together, even as we’ve been required to stay further apart. Many of us have more free time on our hands. So why not use some of that time to help neighbors in whatever way you can?

There are tons of new mutual aid organizations popping up in response to the coronavirus crisis, often with the aim of serving the most vulnerable in the community. Right now, you may be able to offer help. Or you may be the one in need of help. Regardless, it’s a great time to reach out and get to know your neighbors (from a distance of six feet or more, of course). Start a phone tree or a group chat for your apartment building or street or town. Ask your neighbors (especially elderly and disabled folks who are more at risk) what they need and keep in touch with them. Stay in touch with friends and family, too. We all need people to reach out to right now, and it’s important to strengthen our bonds within our communities.

To find a mutual aid network near you, you can do a quick google search with a phrase like “mutual aid network [your city].” You can also check out It’s Going Down’s list of mutual aid networks.

Advocate for Yourself and Others

This might seem like a weird thing to add to a post about trying to stay financially solvent. In America, we’re often taught to prioritize ourselves and our families, but right now is a time when we need to stand up for our friends, neighbors, and vulnerable people in this country. Take the time to call your city council, write letters to your local and state representatives, and make calls to your senators.

You can advocate for eviction moratoriums, rent freezes, and mortgage freezes in your county that can help keep people secure in their homes during this crisis. You can also ask your representatives to prioritize continued cash aid to individuals and ensure people get the support they need to make it through this, on top of the relief that should hopefully be coming from the federal government toward the end of April. It may seem like a drop in the bucket, but your voice does matter, and taking the time to make yourself heard could encourage changes in policy that will help millions of people.

 

 

 

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What I Read This Week (Dec. 1 – 7)

I Joined a Stationary Biker Gang – The Peloton phenomenon is baffling to me, so this insight was fascinating. Really appreciated the discussion of Peloton’s accessibility to people who might not otherwise exercise, despite how inaccessible their advertising makes it look.

Five Questions to Ask Instead of “Is This Really Body Positive?”

Jack Beloved – The prologue is so compelling! Really looking forward to seeing where it goes.

Real Estate Thought It Was Invincible in New York. It Wasn’t. – I wish this piece had taken more time to focus on what tenants’ rights groups’ aims are now that they are finally beginning to beat back big developers, but it’s pretty astounding just reading how much things have changed in such a short amount of time.

Presidio at 25: Back to nature

My book Tell It to the Bees was made into a film – but they changed the ending for a straight audience – “This bittersweetness is a straight person’s finale. I wanted my couple to have their cake and eat it together, for once: a fully romantic, fully happy, and therefore – in the context of lesbian fiction – a more radical ending.”

Millennials weren’t the only ones gutted by the recession. Gen X has never recovered.

Bisexuality and Me: One Trans Experience – This is so well-written, and makes it a little clearer to me why I sometimes feel more comfortable using “queer” rather than “bisexual.” Queer feels like it encompasses so many more things about me, from aspects of my sexuality to my way of viewing the world.

Why Racists (and Liberals!) Keep Writing for Quillette

What I Read This Week (Nov 17 – Nov 23)

The End of Babies – The first time I’ve read a piece that so deeply and incisively describes my anxieties when I consider becoming a parent. (And that’s coming from someone who once dreamt of having a big family for years.)

Julián Castro: If Democrats Don’t Elevate Voters of Color, ‘Why The Hell Are We Democrats in the First Place?’

All Summer in a Day – A classic Ray Bradbury short story I’d managed to never read until this week.

‘I don’t know about normal love’: A church leader’s abuse and a woman’s years-long struggle – Content earnings for rape, sexual assault, grooming, and religious abuse.

The Magic Kingdom – “Capitalism, like all abusive relationships, creates a sense of learned helplessness in its victims. We are complicit in what it makes of us: we want so badly for what it tells us to be true.

The Middle of Everywhere – A writeup on the importance and beauty of vanishing tallgrass prairie,

The Quiet Rooms – What happens when children as young as 5 are put in “isolation rooms” for misbehaving at school? If I hadn’t already been a prison abolitionist, this piece would’ve done it.

Asians in California don’t believe hard work and determination alone equal success

Will There Ever Be a Me Too-Styled Movement for Bad Bosses? We are taught to take socially imposed power structures as a piece of nature, to believe our place within these systems as symptomatic of our strengths and shortcomings, to understand any drive to succeed and in so doing, get more power than other people, as the ultimate goal (and reward) of working life.” I liked this piece, but also feel it ignores the labor movement and others who have been pushing back against “bad bosses” and bosses in general for a very, very long time.

How to Build a Pinterest Following

I’ve had this post sitting in my drafts for months now. I have been using Pinterest both as a casual user and a business entity for a few years, and while overall I feel like I know what I’m doing, I never felt like I had the stats to back myself up. Sure, I could consistently get a few thousand monthly views, but what did that even mean, really? Other people got thousands or even millions of views per month! Why would anyone listen to little old me?

Am I… actually good at Pinterest?

Last week, I started getting a bunch of hits on my blog. Like, a lot more than usual. Lo and behold, I checked my Pinterest analytics, and there it was: a massive  number of hits on a blog post I’d pinned ages ago! It been repinned by a big account, and it was pretty awesome to see the direct connection between that pin’s success and the volley of hits on my blog.

After that, I took a second to look at the traffic on our eBay store’s Pinterest. I was shocked. Somehow, we’d gone from around 60k monthly viewers to 125k monthly viewers–even though I hadn’t touched the account in months. It had quite literally been building an audience on its own. You know, the thing that everyone wants their Pinterest to do? I’d actually done it.

So how did I do it?

This method does require that you do some work. (I know, I know, we all wish there was a magic wand instead.)

The first bit of work? Figuring out if Pinterest is actually the platform you want to focus on. This might seem like a weird thing to say since you’re obviously trying to build up your Pinterest traffic, but bear with me.

Pinterest is, above all things, an image board. If you feed your Pinterest with lots of cool images and graphics that your target audience finds compelling, your Pinterest will grow. But if you feed it things the Pinterest algorithm isn’t interested in, like text or unattractive graphics, your account will struggle to reach anyone.

So before you start diving in to the Pinterest grind, ask yourself a few questions:

  • Do you already use Pinterest and have some understanding of it?
  • Is it a good fit for your content?
  • Is your audience using Pinterest?

If you’re answering “no” to any of these questions (especially those last two!) then I would suggest looking into other avenues of promotion, like Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, or any number of other sites.

But if it seems like Pinterest is the perfect fit for you and your content, read on below!

Step 1: Visualize your ideal audience.

This is super important! It can be easy to take a “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” approach to Pinterest (or any social media, for that matter). But that’s ineffective and will only waste your time and make it harder to find and retain your audience.

Using Pinterest for promotion works best when you think of exactly who you’re going to talk to. Think of your ideal customer or reader. What do they like? What are they looking for on Pinterest? How is your content or product going to make their life better?

It can help to actually envision an actual person or character and name them. That’s what I did for our Magic & Snacks Pinterest. We wanted to target young women somewhere between 16 and 25 who like anime, kawaii aesthetics, fashion, food and cooking, and Japanese culture because we knew those people would be most likely to buy our products.

Your ideal customer will likely be different than ours. Maybe you’re trying to target young moms, or people who like bowling, or mountain bikers. Step into their shoes and think about what they want to see on Pinterest.

Step 2: Research what your audience likes.

This is closely tied to pinning down your ideal audience. In some cases, your ideal audience might be very similar to you, which makes things easy. Most of the work I do, be it on the eBay store or on the personal Pinterest I use to promote this blog, is targeted at people similar to me. I know what keywords people like me are searching on Pinterest and what kinds of content they hope to find. Even still, though, I’m constantly doing more research and learning about new things my audience is interested in that I didn’t know about. It’s super important to always keep evolving!

If you’re targeting an audience that you’re not as familiar with, then start poking around on Pinterest for things related to your content. If you sell camping gear, look up “camping,” “hiking,” and “nature” and see what comes up and what looks relevant to your audience. Look at what the big Pinterest accounts in your niche are doing well. It can seem complicated at first, but as you get to know your audience and pay attention to what generates traffic for you, it’ll get easier and easier.

Step 3: Curate!

This is the fun part. You can start creating Pinterest boards that are relevant to your niche. (Going back to the camping example, you probably want boards like “Camping Hacks,” “Camping Gear,” and “Campgrounds.”) Give your boards names that make it really obvious what’s in them. Clever Pinterest board names are fun, but they don’t earn you any points with Pinterest’s algorithm.

Naming Boards

If I’m making a board about Japanese fashion, I’m going to call it “Japanese Fashion” so the algorithm understands exactly what is in that board and its contents come up in search results. Calling a board for recipes “Yummy!!” seems cute until you realize the algorithm doesn’t know what to do with it. If you’re making a board about knitting, call it “Knitting.” You can even have really specific boards, like “Plus-Sized Japanese Fashion” or “Easy Knitting Patterns.” At the end of the day, the most important thing is that your boards’ names are simple and similar to what your audience is searching for.

Pinning Content

This will require you searching Pinterest and the rest of the web for relevant content, as well as creating pins for your own content and products. A mix of repins and original content will work just fine, so don’t worry if you don’t have a lot of original content just yet.

“But how do I even make my own pins??”

If you are graphically challenged (a lot of us are), I highly recommend using Canva. I also recommended this site in my self-publishing post, because it genuinely is one of the best sites I’ve ever run into for creating simple graphics. Canva offers boatloads of templates that you can modify as much or as little as you like. It’s easy to use, and you can even make graphics using the Canva app on your phone. They even have templates specifically for Pinterest, just in case it wasn’t easy enough. They do offer some content you have to pay for, but most of their templates and other graphics are free.

You’ll also likely need to provide photos to include in your graphics. For this blog, I tend to use images from Unsplash, which are totally free to use in any context. You can also pay for stock photos from any number of sites, or use your own photos.

Step 4: Pin Consistently

This can be the hardest part, especially for those of us who don’t necessarily use Pinterest every day. Pinterest doesn’t have a built-in scheduling tool, so if you’re not pinning daily, it can mean your content isn’t showing up on people’s feeds.

But even a little activity can go a long way. I usually pin a few things on my commute to and from work. If I could, I would pin more throughout the day, but since I have a day job, that’s not always possible. You don’t have to pin a bunch. Aiming for even 3-5 pins per day can make a huge difference in terms of eyeballs on your content, even if it’s just repins. All pins have the ability to drive traffic to your Pinterest account, garnering you Pinterest followers and clicks on your blog, store, or whatever you’re promoting.

Have more questions about how to use Pinterest? Found a strategy that worked for you? Let’s talk in the comments below!

 

Personal Finance Resource Roundup

There is an astonishing amount of personal finance advice out in the world. The sheer volume of it all can be overwhelming, and it’s often difficult to sort through it all, especially since a lot of it conflicts.

This post is a spot where I can list the budgeting resources that I have found helpful in my quest to manage my money, pay down debt, and achieve my financial goals. This list is meant to grow over time as I find new finance tools and resources. I’m constantly finding new people talking about finance in interesting ways, not to mention tons of interesting personal finance apps and budgeting tools, and it’s definitely worth sharing the best of them.

Quick disclaimer: My ideas about personal finance are a bit unique. I am pretty enthusiastic about personal finance. I’m sure my partner could live with never hearing me wax poetic about budgeting tools and high-interest savings accounts again. However, I am also a dyed-in-the-wool socialist. My personal finance obsession often works in concert with my political views, which is a whole other post in itself. That said, the core of my thoughts on personal finance is that your finances should reflect your own goals and values, whatever they may be, so take my opinions on all of these tools with a grain of salt.

 

Budgeting Gurus

The folks listed here are Big Deals in the personal finance world. These are the people who have talk shows and best-selling books, or websites that are consistently linked in personal finance communities. If you’ve heard financial advice before, it’s likely that one of these people originated it.

Dave Ramsey

The granddaddy of modern personal finance. My stepdad kept Dave Ramsey lectures on CD in his truck for years. Ramsey is all about living debt-free and paying for everything in cash. His “baby steps” are a great entry point into personal finance. I will say that I don’t entirely agree with the way he frames things, which falls into the “everyone can be a millionaire if you just try hard and be smart,” which I think ignores some broader systemic issues. However, the core of his advice is simple and fairly easy to work into your own life.

Suze Orman

I’m a big Suze Orman fan. I think she has a lot of really excellent advice to offer. I admire her no-nonsense approach and emphasis on doing what’s right for you. She’s pretty open about the fact that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to personal finance. She’s also a big proponent of women taking the reigns of their finances and really understanding their money, where it’s going, and what it’s doing.

That said, she isn’t always the most… sensitive… to the struggles of the average person (drinking coffee does not mean you are “peeing a million dollars down the drain”), and her advice can be a little overly blunt. I have personally found a lot of value in her advice, but your mileage may vary.

Mr. Money Mustache

I am a lot less familiar with Mr. Money Mustache, but he’s incredibly popular in a lot of online personal finance communities. He’s all about FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early for the uninitiated), which makes him a bit different from a lot of other personal finance gurus. He does offer some helpful ideas about money, and I think parts of his message about living more frugally and reducing consumption are positive. However, his advice is often coming from a place of relative privilege: he’s a white dude with a computer engineering degree who retired in his thirties and now lives off income from rental properties and other investments. He can also be a bit condescending about people still in the “rat race” or who use their money in a way that he deems frivolous. That’s not really my bag, but many appreciate his perspective.

 

Books

The books section is going to be a bit light for the moment! I tend not to read personal finance books very often. I’m much more interested in more compressed blog posts and forum discussions. That said, I am often on the lookout for more books about budgeting and frugal living, so if you have recommendations, let me know in the comments!

The Tightwad Gazette

This is a seminal work in the annals of frugal literature. It was Pinterest before anyone had even dreamt of social media. I’m pretty sure if I had to pick a writer who influenced my life most, it would be Amy Dacyczyn. I almost cried when my mom handed down her copy of the Gazette to me. If you like reading about hyper-frugal habits, you’ll eat this up. Much of the advice still holds up after several decades, and the sense of saving money and taking on DIY projects being fun is really infectious. It also acts as a bit of a time capsule.

The Wall Street Journal Complete Money & Investing Guidebook

I’m generally not a huge fan of the WSJ, but this book came into my life at just the right time. Someone left it on the bookshelf in the laundry room, so I was able to read it for free–and right as I was about to become eligible for my first 401(k) plan. It’s not the most exciting or entertaining read, but it covers the basics of investing and then some. It acts as a great primer for new investors, and offers a wealth of information for those who may want to dig a little deeper.

 

Podcasts

I listen to a ton of podcasts, but I prefer to use them to get my news or relax, so I don’t tend to seek out personal finance shows all that often. I would love to hear more recommendations, though, especially shows with more diverse hosts!

Bad with Money

The host of this pod, Gaby Dunn, reminds me a whole lot of myself. Bad with Money is a deeply personal podcast about everything from Dunn’s financial fears to broader systemic issues that affect people’s finances. She interviews a wide variety of guests about a ton of different finance-related topics. Sometimes, she’s asking an expert investor what a stock is and how one should go about investing. Other times, she’s drilling down into the injustice and cost of the American healthcare system. Some of the episodes are really informative if personal finance is still super new to you.

Planet Money

It may not be a personal finance podcast, but it can definitely help inform some of your financial decisions. It’s an often humorous podcast that delves into the numerous aspects of our lives that money touches. The number of topics they cover is pretty astounding. Their past episodes include “Is the NCAA An Illegal Cartel?” and “Shrimp Fight Club,” along with more serious episodes like “Counting the Homeless” and “Economics, Sexism, and Data.”

 

Communities

Currently, this is really just a list of Reddit communities. If you have some awesome corner of the frugality/personal finance/budgeting internet you’d like to share, please do!

r/povertyfinance

This community is all about people coming together to grind their way out of some of the worst financial situations. It can sometimes be a little grim, there’s also a ton of practical advice. Plus, the solidarity is comforting. There are a lot of people willing to lend a helping hand in this subreddit, plus some great stories about how the community has helped them.

r/frugal

There’s some overlap between this community and r/povertyfinance. The focus of r/frugal is a bit different, though. This sub tends to be more about choosing frugality out of a desire to save more or otherwise conserve resources, unlike Poverty Finance, where frugality is born of necessity. While there are WAY TOO MANY arguments about how much toilet paper is appropriate to use–the real answer is AS MUCH AS YOU NEED, OH MY GOD, WHY IS THIS AN ARGUMENT–there are some interesting tips, tricks, and hacks that crop up regularly. If you’re the type who’s into DIY and finding interesting ways to save a couple pennies, you’ll like this crew.

r/PersonalFinance

The PF crowd tends to be a bit more experienced with the basics of personal finance, and they’re usually working with a bit more money than the folks in Poverty Finance and Frugal. This is a great place for those who are a bit more middle-of-the-road financially speaking. It’s ideal for those not quite dealing with poverty but also not exactly in the position to FIRE. If you’re at the point where you’re getting more involved in investing or simply trying to figure out what to do now that you’ve got an emergency fund and a functioning budget, this’ll be a good spot for you.

 

Budgeting Tools

Everyone has their own favorite budgeting tool. And there are TONS out there, most of which I haven’t tried. Below is a list of digital tools I’ve enjoyed using.

Mint

This is one of the best-known budgeting tools out there. It’s a free service where you can input information for all your various accounts. My Mint lists the balances for everything from my main bank account to my student loan balances. It’s a great way to get a bird’s eye view of your financial situation. It also offers the ability to set savings goals and create budgets. Plus, it offers spending and income reports and allows you to compare your finances over time. However, because I do a lot of my financial planning on the go, I have noticed that the app’s mobile functionality is pretty limited. The desktop version (which you can access through your browser) is much more complete, but I find it clunky. It’s not as intuitive as I would like. Creating a budget on Mint can be kind of a pain, and making adjustments as your needs change is even harder. Which is is why I’m a total convert to this next tool…

YNAB (You Need A Budget)

YNAB is another popular budgeting tool that offers both mobile and desktop browser versions. It is also not free–and, at $6.99/mo, not necessarily cheap. However, after just a month of the free trial, I’m totally in love with it. It’s similar to Mint in that you attach your various accounts to it in order to aid your financial tracking. What makes it different is that it follows the “give every dollar a job” form of budgeting, or a “zero-based budget.” That means that by the time you’re done budgeting, there isn’t any money left without “a job.” The whole goal is to know exactly where every last cent is going.

The budget that you set is also extremely flexible. If you overspend in one category, it’ll ask you to cover that overspending with money from another category. This kind of living, adjust-as-you-go budget is exactly what I was missing with Mint. With YNAB, I get a simple overview of my finances and an easily-adjustable budget. I haven’t yet shelled out the $6.99 a month for it, but I’m hoping I’ll be able to someday.

 

Low-Threshold Investing Tools

While you may be interested in investing, you might find yourself in a position where you only have a couple extra dollars to invest at a time. With some investment options requiring that you have a minimum of $1000 or even more to start with, it can feel like investing is out of reach. But there are some tools that have cropped up more recently that have made it a whole lot easier for those of us without much to plunk down.

Robinhood

Robinhood is a free app that allows you to invest in the stock market. You can start with a very small amount of money. I opened my account with just $10. (I think you might be able to start with even less.) The app makes it very simple to purchase stock. You can also invest in ETFs (Exchange-Traded Funds). Overall, this is a great app to begin investing with. Just remember not to invest any money you’re not willing to lose, to try and stick it out even when the market is looking bad, and to try to diversify your investments as much as possible.

If you use this link to sign up, we can both get a free stock!

Acorns

If you’re interested in a more hands-off investing approach, Acorns might be more your speed. The idea behind Acorns is that you’re investing your small change–so you spend $3.79 at the store, and then Acorns rounds the purchase up to the nearest dollar and invests the extra $0.21. It’s a pretty clever idea based on the fact that spare change can add up quickly, but is still small enough that we won’t necessarily miss it if it’s gone. Acorns waits to make any transfers from your bank or attached card until you’ve hit $5. So, really, you’re investing in increments of $5 (or more, if you make larger transfers manually). The app then automatically invests in a specific portfolio based on whether you’re a more conservative investor (i.e., you want a return but you’re risk-averse) or a more aggressive investor (you’re able and willing to risk a bit more for the chance of greater returns). It’s a really simple, relatively painless way to invest.

If you use this link to sign up, we both get $5 invested into our Acorns accounts.

Motif

The way Motif is set up is a bit different from other investment platforms. It does offer the ability to buy and sell stocks, but Motif’s main focus is on investing in… well, “motifs.” Motifs are collections of stocks based on a particular theme. So, for example, you can invest in a motif called Cleantech Everywhere that invests in companies focused on green energy and technology. You can also choose to invest in motifs meant to represent larger sectors of the economy, like Casino Gambling or 3D Printing. There are a huge variety to choose from, and you can even build your own motifs. This makes it easier to know that you’re investing in companies and industries that reflect your beliefs. The big difference is that it’s a bit pricier to invest in motifs–you have to put in $300 minimum to buy into one. This can be pretty prohibitive if you’re just getting into investing, but the peace of mind of knowing you’re not investing money in a company you disagree with is pretty nice.

 

Have a finance resource you’d like to share? Feel like I missed something? Let me know in the comments!

June 2019 Update

It’s six months into the year and I’m having a very “well, this has been a 2019” sort of feeling. Which is wild considering that I’ve actually accomplished a fair amount this year. (But of course never as much as an over-achiever like me would like.)

This year I’ve:

  • Started a new job with great pay where I’m learning all kinds of stuff about content management and content strategy
  • Written another 1/4 of the webcomic project that should come out later this year (it’s! so! pretty!)
  • Joined the Oakland teachers when they went on strike
  • Almost joined the ISO as a full-fledged member just before their complete implosion
  • Joined a local crocheting/fiber-crafting group and started to learn how to crochet
  • Read some books
  • Actually filled up an entire composition book journal and started on #2 for the year

It’s not the most exciting list, but considering the fact that most of the time I could swear to you that I have never accomplished anything in my life, much less in the past six months, I’ll call it impressive.

Right now, I’m reading A Wizard of Earthsea and agog at how lazy of a reader I’ve become. I’m enjoying it very much, but it’s not exactly an easy read. It takes brain power and more commitment than I’ve been able to muster for a book in a while. But I’ve been soldiering on, reading through a few pages during my commute and at lunch, and I think it’s doing me some good. Stretching my brain-legs a bit.

I’ve also been exploring vegetarian foods a bit more this year, both for health reasons and to try to handle some of my climate change anxiety. I definitely haven’t given up meat, but it’s been fun to revisit some of the vegetarian staples I grew up with (Mom, I’m sorry for hating on your veggie burgers all these years) and also try out other recipes that are completely new to me. A new household stable is pitas filled with spiced roasted sweet potatoes and other veggies along with this really tasty harissa mayo sauce. It’s simple and delicious and satisfying, which is all a girl can really ask for.

With a new job and a longer commute, I’ve also tried to figure out new ways to make my own life easier. I can’t say that any of them have really stuck, but I am still really enamored with things like cleaning schedules and bullet journaling.

I can’t say my bullet journal gets used every day, but I do look at it most days. It’s been a good tool for organizing to-dos and some other things, like writing down books I’m interested in reading or reminding myself what TV shows I’ve started and haven’t finished. For those of you who struggle with focus or get that “I just can’t hold everything I need to remember/do/check in about in my head!!” feeling, I highly recommend it. I’ve used a lot of different methods for remembering tasks and other things, but pen and paper tends to be more accessible and easier to remember for me. If you’re interested in learning how to set up a bullet journal, check out this post by Kendra over at The Lazy Genius. I followed a lot of her advice, minus buying a fancy journal and getting new pens. (I just use ballpoint pens and composition books.)

Also, in a similar productivity/brain management vein, I started using the budgeting tool YNAB (You Need A Budget) and I’m kind of in love? I’m going to write a longer review at some point, but if you’ve been frustrated with other budgeting tools, use the trial. As someone who gets pretty overwhelmed by numbers but who also low-key finds budgeting kind of delightful, it’s my favorite budgeting tool I’ve ever used.

All of this is to say: I’m living the life of An Adult and it’s complicated and deeply exhausting, but I’m still out here getting things done, even if I doesn’t always feel like it.

 

October 2018 Reads!

I don’t know if it’s the chill in the air now that October is at its close or the fact that the holidays are fast approaching, but I have been reading voraciously the last couple weeks. It’s been a while since I’ve flipped through so many books in such a short time, and I have thoroughly enjoyed myself. Part of that is getting back in touch with my roots as a reader, which feels like something I’ve drifted from as streaming services have gotten better and I’ve gotten more and more addicted to my phone. But this month, I think it mostly had to do with the fact that everything I read was absolutely delicious.

The first book I picked up this month was The Duchess Deal by Tessa Dare. Tessa Dare is hands down my absolute favorite romance writer. Her plots are always a fun ride, and I always find myself laughing and squealing out loud when I read any of her books. The Duchess Deal was no exception. The heroine, Emma, is brash and strong-willed, but still feels very human and grounded. The hero, Ash, is harsh yet seductive. It’s a bit of a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, mixed with the classic marriage of convenience trope. Though I can’t say it’s my favorite of her books–that honor goes to A Week to Be Wicked–I really enjoyed the characters and plot. It’s a Regency romance, but it grapples with issues that have been centered in our own time by #MeToo. All in all, it’s a really fun read perfect for anyone ready to settle down with a fun, light romance.

Of course, I couldn’t keep things fun and light for long. I crave intensity and dark stories, especially this time of year. Fortunately, I found a copy of World War Z at the library last Sunday. It’s been on my list for months, but there was never a copy at my library branch, so I always ended up picking up other things. Which was probably a good thing, because I basically did nothing for the next couple days besides hurtle my way through it. It wasn’t exactly what I expected, but I found it riveting. I love post-apocalyptic media, but the angle Max Brooks takes in World War Z is decidedly different. First off, the story is told in the form of interviews with survivors. Some have said that this defangs the story a bit–why would I be worried about these characters when I know these are the people who made it?–and I don’t entirely disagree. Still, to me, World War Z was less of a zombie novel and more of a dissection of inter- and intranational politics, human nature, and how governments and individuals react to pandemics and disasters. If you’re looking for a classic zombie story that focuses more on individuals or a small group, you’ll be disappointed. But if you’re interested in reading more about a global response to a zombie apocalypse and the ways that society breaks apart and comes back together, I have a feeling you’ll be very satisfied.

After World War Z, I shifted back into lighthearted territory with Tony Cliff’s graphic novel Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant. Delilah Dirk is a fascinating (and dangerous) woman living in the earlier part of the 19th century. She’s a thief who is constantly getting into wild shenanigans that involve exploding buildings and fast escapes, sometimes on horseback, and other times on her boat… which can fly. This is the kind of graphic novel I wish I’d been able to read when I was younger. Now, I read it and think, “God, I would love to write something like this.” It’s a fun ride with amazing art and lots of great banter. I found myself laughing aloud more than once. Delilah is dashing from the start and you can’t help but love her. Selim, the titular Turkish lieutenant, makes for an excellent straight man and traveling companion for Delilah. This is the first of the Delilah Dirk books and I’m definitely going to be picking up the rest.

Of course, my reading binge isn’t about to stop any time soon. I just started Dietland, which I’m super excited about. Books with fat protagonists who take no shit? Count me in. I’ve also put a few books on hold at the library that I’ve been seeing people talking about nonstop on Twitter. Both Jeannette Ng’s Under the Pendulum Sun and Tasha Suri’s Empire of Sand seem like they’re going to be stellar reads with fresh takes on the fantasy genre. I also put Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway on hold, which should be a nice dive back into sci-fi. I’m also looking to explore more solarpunk fiction. My library doesn’t have a whole lot on hand since the genre is still so new, but I put in a bunch of requests and am hoping I’ll get to read them soon. I would love to hear recommendations from anyone else interested in the genre!

But enough about me. What have y’all been reading lately?

How to Self-Publish a Book

Self-publishing can be an extremely rewarding experience, both financially and otherwise. It allows you to write on your own schedule, set your own deadlines, and have a hand in every step of the publishing process. At the same time, it also means you won’t really have anyone to hold your hand and help you as you publish your book. Luckily, I’ve written up this handy guide that will teach you the basics and help get you started on your self-publishing journey.

I’m going to cover the basic steps involved in prepping your work for self-publishing, tools you can use for different parts of the process, and tactics for getting your work out there. While this covers the basics of what you’ll need to know, there is always more to learn. If there’s something you have more questions about after you finish this post, leave a comment so we can chat further!

Editing – The First Step to a Finished Product

Writing your story is only half the battle. Editing your work is the first step of many to self-publishing your work. I have a few posts about the process of editing your work on your own that start here. I am a big fan of doing some self-editing before asking for help. Once you’ve gone over your story yourself, though, it’s very important to get some fresh eyes on your book. If you want your work to truly be its best, it’s also important that those fresh eyes belong to a professional.

There are lots of different kinds of editors. Some (like me!) are line editors who willing and able to help at all or most parts of the editing process. Other editors focus on specific areas, like developmental editing or proofreading. This article at The Helpful Writer gives a good general overview of different kinds of editors and the services they provide. A professional can give your story the polish it needs.

Paying for editorial services can get expensive, though, especially if you’re hiring more than one person for different parts of the process. If you really don’t have the extra cash to hire an editor, ask friends and family if they’d be willing to help. Check to see if your library or local community college has a writing workshop. Poke around the internet to find critique groups, both online and off.

Whether you pay an editor or get feedback from friends, honest feedback from people who understand story structure and grammar will be your best friend. Get really good at listening to critiques of your work and seek out a LOT of it. It can be hard to have someone tell you “this character doesn’t really leap off the page” or “I found this chapter confusing.” There might even be times when you disagree with the feedback and don’t end up using it. Still, hearing it is good, and getting diverse perspectives on your work is helpful.

Digital, Physical, or Both?

After the editing is done and you feel like your book is ready to go out into the world, you need to figure out whether you want to release your book digitally, as a physical book, or both. Consider your goals for your work and how much capital you have to invest in the initial publishing process.

Digital publishing is going to be the cheapest way to publish your book. Digital publishing is basically free once you’ve gotten editing and cover art out of the way. You don’t have to have an ISBN (more on that later!) as you do with physical publishing. For an indie author who is just starting out and doesn’t have a ton of cash, this is likely where you’ll start.

Physical publishing is a bit more capital-intensive. Your cover will need to be more than just a simple cover image–you’ll need a design that covers the front, binding, and back of your book, which requires more work and skill to create. Then, you’ll need to purchase an ISBN for your book. After that, the process is much the same as it is with digital publishing: you’ll research distributors and choose the ones that work best for you and sell your books.

The ideal option for most writers is to do both. Doing both gives you the broadest possible audience to market to and ensures readers will be able to get your book in whatever format they prefer. Still, a lot of that comes down to your goals for your work and how much you can invest. If you decide to publish both digital and physical editions of your work, you’ll need to make sure you purchase 2 ISBNs, one for each edition. While this will give you more avenues to distribute your work, particularly for your digital edition, it does require some up-front investment.

Every option available to you is valid and they each come with different benefits and drawbacks. The great thing is, you don’t have to stay married to one option or the other. When you’re self-publishing, you have the flexibility to publish a different edition of your work later on. If you start out purely digital, nothing is stopping you from eventually getting into physical publishing. The same goes for starting with physical publishing. Regardless, you should know what editions of your book you’re going to publish when you start out. It’ll make some of the decisions you’ll have to make down the line a little easier.

Cover Art – Because We All Judge Books By Their Covers

Obtaining cover art is an integral part of the publishing process. Whether we admit it or not, a book cover can make or break a reader’s decision to buy your book. A quality cover results in more sales.

For those of us with limited design skills (ahem), this part of the self-publishing process can be nerve-wracking. Fortunately, you can find a cover artist who specializes in the kind of cover you’re looking for.

Hiring a cover artist is especially important if you’re planning on having your book printed or using print-on-demand services. Physically printed books require some extra help in order to make them look truly polished and professional, as I mentioned earlier. Rather than just a standard rectangular book cover, you need someone to design your front and back covers and the spine of your book. If you have the money, paying an artist to create a great cover for your book is 100% worth it.

If you don’t have the cash up front to pay an artist, there are simple ways to make an attractive-looking cover. Photoshop and InDesign are amazing for creating DIY covers, especially if you have a template to work with, but they’re expensive. My two favorite free resources for making any kind of graphic? Canva and Unsplash.

Canva is a simple, free tool for creating graphics. They provide thousands of free templates for every graphic you can imagine, including book covers. It’s easy to learn and won’t cost you anything. They also have a phone app that’s super functional and easy to use. Unsplash is a great source of beautiful stock photos that you can use for any purpose for free–including popping them into a book cover template on Canva. With those two tools, it’s easy to make a simple, attractive ebook cover. Caveat: Canva doesn’t have any built-in templates for physical book covers, so it works best as a tool for ebook covers. However, there are ways to make it work. If you download a book cover template from CreateSpace, you can upload that template to Canva or another tool like Photoshop or InDesign and use the template as a base.

No matter what option you choose, make sure it looks good! Get feedback on your cover from people you trust to make sure it’s eye-catching and attractive to more than just you. God knows there are times when you’re working on a graphic for so long you totally lose perspective. Extra eyes are a huge help.

Formatting – More Important Than You’d Think!

Formatting is an oft-overlooked part of the self-publishing process. Depending on the channels you will be distributing your book through and the format your book will be published in, you will need to format your book in specific ways. Most distributors will provide you with simple guidelines for formatting ebooks. Very simple formatting works well in ebooks, so if you’re only publishing digitally and your book doesn’t contain complex graphs or images, you can definitely do it yourself.

Formatting for physical publishing takes a bit more work. This write-up over at DIY Book Formats is an excellent overview that can help you figure out how you want to format your book. (Seriously, I learned so much from just that one post.) There are also some really good examples of what certain print formats look like elsewhere on the site, plus more detailed instructions on how to format your book using Word and InDesign. It is totally doable to format your book by yourself, and that’s what most self-published authors do.

Of course, some people prefer to outsource this work. There are professionals that specialize in formatting ebooks and print books. If you’re not the most tech savvy, don’t have much of a design eye, or would prefer to hand this work off to someone else, look into hiring someone to handle this part of the process for you.

ISBNs – What the Heck Are They and Why Do I Need Them?

If you are only planning on publishing an ebook, this is a section you can skim. However, if you’re planning on having your book physically published or are interested in wider distribution for your ebook, listen up!

First, a definition: ISBNs (or International Standard Book Numbers) are unique numbers that can be used to identify your book worldwide. ISBNs are not required for ebooks, though they can be helpful and boost your visibility as an author. For physically published books and audiobooks, though, ISBNs are a must. Giacomo Giammatteo explains how ISBNs work and the process of purchasing them in great detail here. (One important detail that he mentions that I want to emphasize: you should purchase your ISBNs directly from Bowker or whoever your local provider of ISBNs is rather than from CreateSpace or a similar company. Purchasing your own ISBNs gives you more freedom in terms of distribution avenues.)

If you’re in the US, you’ll need to purchase your ISBN through Bowker at this link. Bowker offers discounts on bulk purchases of ISBNs. They also provide barcodes that you can print on your book, which are required for many physical distribution channels. Keep in mind that you need a separate ISBN for every edition of your book. This means that an ebook would get one ISBN, a physical book would get another, and an audiobook would get a third. If you come out with a new edition of your physical book that’s in a different size, that would need another ISBN.

As a budget-conscious writer, I can’t really justify spending the money on ISBNs at the moment, especially since I want to focus on ebook publishing. However, as Giacomo points out in his article, ISBNs can allow you to include your book in more distribution channels and therefore earn more. By skipping out on an ISBN, you miss out on potential sales through libraries and services like OverDrive, even if you’re just publishing digitally. Weigh your options and decide what’s best for you. You can always purchase an ISBN for your ebook after you publish it.

Picking Distributors

There are a huge number of distribution options for a self-published book.

Amazon Kindle is often the first choice of many authors. It’s easy to use and gives you access to millions of readers all over the world. But there are a whole lot more self-publishing options than Kindle, and they’re all worth looking into. Aside from Kindle, you can publish through Apple iBooks, Kobo, Barnes & Noble’s Nook Press, the Google Play Store, and more. Working directly with each of these channels is possible and ensures that you’re getting the maximum amount of profit out of your book. Still, managing all those individual channels can be exhausting. That’s where aggregators come in.

In a nutshell, aggregators allow you to publish your book through them. They then get your book into a whole bunch of distribution channels without you having to do a whole bunch of extra work. It’s a good way to maximize the number of eyes that will see your book. The drawback is that aggregators take a cut of every purchase, usually somewhere around 10%. For the amount of work they handle, it seems fair. Aggregators are also usually non-exclusive. You can use multiple aggregators who have different distribution channels to increase your book’s footprint.

There are also lots of options for aggregators, and new ones pop up all the time. The one you’ll hear about most often as an indie author is Smashwords, which distributes to all of the channels I named in the paragraph above along with numerous others. This blog post gives an awesome overview of the top aggregators in the market.

Most of those aggregators are focused on ebooks. Ingram is the top distributor for many physically published books, and is used by indie authors and publishers. Ingram distributes both ebooks and physical books and has a worldwide reach. They are trusted by independent bookstores and chain retailers alike. Amazon’s CreateSpace offers similar services, and many recommend that authors use both CreateSpace and Ingram.

And, Finally, Publish Your Book!

Once you have all your ducks in a row, publish! your! book! Give yourself a pat on the back, go grab a mimosa, and relax for a bit. You earned it.

Have more questions about the self-publishing process? Have some information or resources on self-publishing you’d like to share? Let’s talk in the comments!

A Simple Guide to Self-Publishing

A Guide to Digital Publishing

If you’re a writer who is just starting to seek out publishing opportunities, you may be feeling overwhelmed. Should you self-publish? Go traditional? What about digital publishing? It’s a lot to take in. The publishing world isn’t easy to navigate and it can be difficult to understand exactly what you’re getting into.

Thus far, my career has been entirely in digital publishing. I more experience in this field that most people could not lay claim to. That said, I still find digital publishing to be one of the most confusing parts of the publishing landscape. I worked with dozens of authors who had varying levels of experience with a bunch of different digital publishers, as well as people with no experience outside of free publishing sites like Wattpad and Archive of Our Own (AO3). Some people came to me with lots of great questions as they tried to learn more about the industry and their options. Others seemed to scared to ask anything at all.

In this day and age, a guide for digital publishing is a necessity for any writer, even if you’re planning to query traditional publishers. Read on to learn more about how to navigate the digital publishing world.

So, what is digital publishing?

When I say “digital publishing,” I don’t mean self-publishing sites/tools like Kindle or iBooks, at least for the purposes of this post. Though works published through these services are published digitally, I consider digital publishing to be something else entirely. In the same way that there are traditional publishers like Hachette and Penguin Random House, and self-publishing tools like Kindle, there are also digital publishers like Radish, Tapas, and Inkitt. Digital publishers are similar to traditional publishers in that you are usually working closely with an editorial team that works for the publisher and not simply doing all the work yourself.

You have to sign a contract with a digital publisher the same way you would with a traditional publisher. Digital publishers also provide varying levels of help. Some will provide line editing services, help you get a cover made, and most of them will help promote your story on their site, app, and social media. Because of the services they provide, digital publishers wind up being a kind of middle ground between self-publishing and traditional publishing. This makes them very appealing to more inexperienced authors who feel that they are not quite ready to start querying agents or publishers. They can also be great places to build a paying audience (something difficult to do on free sites like Wattpad).

How does digital publishing work?

I can only speak to my experience working with one digital publisher. Usually, we sought out authors whose work we wanted to publish. We would send authors a contract and talk it through with them to make sure they understood it. (Always read your contracts thoroughly and ask lots of questions! Don’t be afraid of being annoying. I loved answering authors’ questions. It let me know that they were really reading the contract and fully understanding everything.) After that, we would begin the editing process and start working with an artist on a cover. Once the editing and cover were done, the book would be published on our site where readers could purchase the story chapter by chapter. Authors would receive 50% of the revenue on each purchase.

From what I know of other digital publishers, many of them work similarly in that authors make money off of the number of reads they get, either through ad revenue or making money off of direct purchases by readers. Each publisher is different and has their own specialties. Radish, for example, sees more success with erotica, so they promote that more heavily. Tapas tends to focus on romance. Inkitt has a little bit more variety, but they also don’t have the best reputation. There are also other small presses that are now digital-only that will get your book out into digital markets like the Kindle store. I have less experience and knowledge when it comes to that breed of digital publisher. Fortunately, this article gives an extremely detailed and helpful overview of what you should keep in mind when looking into digital publishers, whether they are small presses or a more app-focused publisher like Radish.

Why should I work with a digital publisher? Is it something I should even consider?

It really depends! What are your goals as a writer? If you’re just looking to share your work but aren’t all that interested in making money off of it, then posting on Wattpad or Royal Road might make the most sense for you. But if you’re looking to make money, you either need to self-publish (which is a whole other post), go the traditional publishing route, or go to a digital publisher.

There are pros and cons to each option, which I will detail below:

Self-publishing: Self-publishing gives you the most freedom when it comes to your work. You don’t have to worry about who has the copyright or publishing rights because you never sign them away to anybody. You don’t have to worry about your publisher asking you to make changes. On the flip side, though, you don’t get free editing services, help with covers, or any help with marketing. Paying for these kinds of services out of pocket is expensive, and for a writer just starting out, it can be difficult to produce a book that would rival what they could produce with a publisher behind them. This isn’t because the writer’s work isn’t any good, but because polishing a first draft is difficult without outside input. Still, it is possible, and if you’re willing to put in the extra work in order to have more freedom and keep a larger chunk of the profits for yourself, it’s totally worth it.

Traditional publishing: This is the holy grail for writers. Every author’s dream is to eventually be published by a publishing house (be it big or small) and become the next George R.R. Martin or J.K. Rowling. Traditional publishers have more resources to market your book, a whole team of people who can help you polish your book until it shines, cover artists, people to format the ebook, people to format the print copy, the money to offer you huge advances… basically all the resources we hope to have when we publish a book.

Still, now that self-publishing is so simple and the services used to sell self-published books are often the same as the ones the traditional publishers are using, a traditional publishing deal may not be all it’s cracked up to be. Traditional publishing is by no means dead or bad, but writers should see it as one of several paths rather than the One True Path. Why? Traditional publishers often ask for significant rights to your book. (Writer’s Digest gives a great rundown on what kinds of things publishers might request in a contract here.) You lose the kind of freedom you might have if you self-published or digitally published, but you also get a ton of resources to help you produce your book.

However, even that is often hyped up more than it probably should be. Many writers who aren’t big names don’t get big advances. You’ll get the standard editorial services and help with covers and formatting, but that huge marketing machine might not do a whole lot for you. Most big publishers expect their authors to do a lot of the legwork. You’ll also earn a smaller percentage of the profits in the form of royalties, especially when compared to self-publishing. This can make it difficult to earn back advances or make much money at all. Still, the fact that traditionally published works continue to dominate the literary market, and the fact that self-publishing your work seems to decrease its value in the eyes of both readers and the wider literary community, means that there are still a lot of benefits to a traditional publishing deal.

Digital publishing: This is similar to traditional publishing in that there is some expectation that you’re going to be doing some of the work besides writing the book. Digital publishers are usually not large enough to provide the kind of financial backing that traditional publishers can offer. You’ll be giving up some of your rights in exchange for having your work marketed to their audience, but you’ll likely have to handle the marketing outside their site. You’ll have to split your earnings with the publisher, too. The ways those earnings are split will vary depending on the digital publisher you work with.

While digital publishers often have a smaller audience than a traditional publisher, they likely have a broader readership than you have on your own. They can send people toward your work and give it their stamp of approval, which helps convert their readers into your readers. Getting organic, targeted traffic to your book is incredibly difficult, and digital publishers have it in spades. You do lose some freedom (the amount you give up and for how long depends on your contract), but you also gain a broader audience.

Some digital publishers can also handle the editing process for you, pay to have cover art made, and possibly even give you an advance. And, because their overhead is usually lower than that of traditional publishers, digital publishers can offer more competitive revenue sharing. (The standard split for the company I worked for was 50/50, which would be unheard of in the traditional publishing world.) They can also help you with adaptations of your work into other mediums, like comics or movies, and potentially help you land a deal with a traditional publisher. However, they often only ask for the digital publishing rights at first, and some will even settle for non-exclusive digital rights.

In short, digital publishing is a middle ground that can help you take that next step toward living off of your writing. It’s a good space for new writers, and though it may not suit everybody, it’s an option worth considering, particularly if you can get a non-exclusive publishing contract and continue to pursue other sources of income from the same work.

 

How can I be sure this digital publisher isn’t a scam?

There are a lot of ways! The first thing you should do is look into their track record. If you can, try talking to authors who work with that publisher. Ask them if there are things they wish they’d known before they signed. If the publisher is promising things, like that they’ll get your book physically published or help you broker a movie deal, do some research to see if they’ve actually put any deals like that together.

You should also get to know the platform before selling anything to them. This helps you understand the kind of content the publisher is interested in, what’s popular on the platform, and how your work fits in. If you sign with them, it will also help you figure out how to market to that specific audience in the future.

Once you’ve done this detective work, you should have a solid idea of whether this is a publisher you want to work with. If you’re still interested, you can start asking one of their representatives questions. Ask to see a sample contract as early as you can and have someone you trust look it over.

You should carefully read any deal you’re about to sign, no matter who it comes from, and always do your best to negotiate the best deal for you. If there are parts of a contract you’re uncomfortable with, either voice your concerns or walk away from the deal. Even though the playing field might not feel even, you have to realize that you have something that they want, and in the end, you’re the one who has the power. A publisher may not be willing or able to give you what you want, and that’s okay. You can choose to either shift your expectations to suit a particular deal or hold out for something that feels right. If their contract asks for anything beyond digital publishing rights without giving you anything in return, pay attention and make sure you’re comfortable with giving them those rights. You’ll also want to keep an eye on how long the deal will last. Are they going to own these rights in perpetuity, or just for a few years? What rights do you have to end the deal? Are they open to negotiation?

If the contract looks good but they haven’t given you information about how you might be paid, given you a way to check how much revenue you’re owed, or otherwise indicated that they are going to compensate you in return for signing your rights away, that’s a huge red flag. If they tell you that you need to pay them in order to publish on their site, you should run as far and fast as you can.

Basically, if you get a terrible contract and zero room to negotiate it, you have no idea when or how you’ll be paid, and the publisher who is offering you a deal has a well-known track record for screwing over writers or lying to them about the kinds of opportunities they can provide? It’s a scam, and you should look for another opportunity.

How do traditional publishers feel about stories that were published digitally first?

This varies depending on what you’re writing and who your audience is. A lot of traditional publishers really like it when authors come to them and already have an audience behind them. However, while they might like your audience, they may want to publish a fresh, new title that the public hasn’t read yet. Still, this varies depending on your individual situation.

If you’d like to read more about this, definitely check out Phoebe Morgan’s write-up about whether to publish digitally or in print first, and the benefits and drawbacks of both. Jane Friedman also has a ton of great insight on the subject. (The long and short of both of these articles is that publishing digitally first is unlikely to hurt your chances unless you’re working in a niche market, like literary fiction.)

How do I submit my work for a digital publisher?

Look into their submission guidelines! It’s different for every publisher (as with traditional publishing), but they will probably have an email you can contact them at, as well as some basic guidelines for submitting. Follow their guidelines as closely as you can. Keep your email professional and focus on selling your story–they want a strong synopsis that lets them know whether your story will be the right fit for them. Talking about the book’s following (and your own) can also be helpful. If your story is posted online, provide links. You should also attach a PDF of the first few chapters and the synopsis.

Have more questions about digital publishing? Have some experience you’d like to share? Let’s chat in the comments!

 

A Guide to Digital Publishing

It has been a very long time since I’ve been able to look at the day ahead and know that it is entirely empty. I can’t really remember the last time I was able to wake up whenever I wanted and know that I didn’t have anything pressing to take care of. Each day is my own to do with as I please… for better or worse.

I’m doing my best to enjoy this time and relax a bit. I’ve been playing a lot of Frostpunk (which is genuinely one of the most entertaining, brutal strategy games I’ve ever played) and digging back in to my Baldur’s Gate playthrough. I went out with a friend this past weekend and enjoyed the sunshine. Once I’ve gotten my fill of gaming, I’m going to start going after my TBR pile and fall into all the stories I’ve been missing for so long. I might even do some of my reading (gasp!) outside! I’m also hoping for some time to reconnect with my partner and give back all the attention and affection he’s given me all these years.

I have a whole host of things I want to take care of. A house deep-cleaning needs to happen soon, along with some decluttering. Blog posts need to be planned and written and graphics need to be made. There are stories I’ve been meaning to write that I have had to bury for years that can finally see daylight now. But the break from the pressure to be as productive as possible is incredibly pleasant.

There is a small part of me that is going absolutely insane without extrinsic motivators. Who am I without a seminar to prepare for or a work project to complete? What is my value if I am not actively contributing to society in some way? My answers to these range from the positive and positively anticapitalist (“I am not my productivity.”) to the terribly dreary (“I am nothing.”).  But rather than allowing myself to turn into a puddle of anxiety and existential dread, I’m forging ahead and reminding myself that I am whoever I choose to be. If I want to cozy up to my desk and play games all day with the aim of relaxing as much as possible, I can. If I make it my goal to whirlwind through the house and dust and scrub and spritz until everything is as clean as I want it, then I have achieved everything I set out to.

I am not entirely sure that I am suited to being unmoored like this. But I figure it’s a new challenge and will give me a new opportunity to grow. Let’s hope I can rise to the occasion.