Interview with S.R. Johannes

SR JohannesI have been lucky in my travels to come across some great writers to work and talk with. One of them I have known both personally and professionally is the author S.R. Johannes – or as I know her, Shelli.

Shelli and I go back a long time – though we don’t see too much of each other any more. In the decade or so that I have known her, she has worked on some projects with me and was a fabulous writer who was always dependable. However, doing the corprate stuff was not her goal, and she was busy working on her own fiction as well as bringing up her 2 beautiful kids.

SR Johannes is now an award winning author, always receiving high accolades from multiple sources about her work. But more importantly, her audience LOVES them even more, and it is an audience that just continues to grow – her Nature of Grace series has rabid fans singing her praises and clamoring for more. They can’t seem to get enough of spunky character Grace Wells and all she encounters…allowing Shelli to create two more thrilling installments after her popular first offering hit the streets in 2011.

So You Want to be a Writer?

As a proud KSU alum, I get asked by writing classes every year to shed some light on what it means to be a writer, to me. Dr. Margaret Walters has a great class over there that opens up budding young minds to new possibilities, and interviewing a writer is part of it. I am always happy to help – the students are wonderful.

At the beginning of this year, I approached Shelli and a couple other friends who wrote in different ways, looking to create a series of interviews called So You Want to be a Writer? and addressing some common questions I hear from the KSU students. It is meant to look at some of the ideas we have as students about what it is to be a writer, compared to the actual nuts-and-bolts of the daily grind once you “arrive” (if anyone ever does) – sweat stains and all.

While my whole project idea may not have had enough steam behind it to keep going, Shelli’s answers were great, and it was a shame to be sitting in my desktop, unseen…so here you go. Dedicated to the ongoing classes of Dr. Margaret Walters at Kennesaw State University and the interviews they do – keep them at it, Margaret!

HUGE thanks for Shelli’s patience and candid answers, and apologies it did not get out here sooner…I am indebted to her once again. 🙂

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At what point did you determine you had a knack for writing?

I always wrote when I was little. Poems and short stories. I won a writing contest in Elementary school. But as I moved into high school, I stopped. For reasons unknown. I think business was pushed more than the arts.

Since I got a degree in marketing – I’ve always done business writing in creative ways. Ads, employee newsletters, etc. But in 2004 when my daughter was born, I read Harry Potter and got inspired to write a Fairy series. got great feedback from editors and agents but no one ever picked up the book. I knew then I could write and I’ve been writing ever since.

Who encouraged you? How?Untraceable by SR Johannes

At first, editors and agents gave me feedback around “this story stinks but you can really write.” Then, writing buddies and critique partners. Of course my family was very supportive as well, helping me find time to write.

Who discouraged you and how? How did you overcome this?

Editors and agents are discouraging in general when they give rejections. You just have to know rejections – many of them – are natural for most authors. Learn from them and don’t take it personally. Also know you are one person away from a yes. This business is subjective. It took me until my first book come out until I realized that I was good enough. That my book was good enough to sell. Before that , I took their words and criticisms as law.  Keep in mind – agents and editors are always focused on what sells big. Not necessarily quality first.

What were important turning points or milestones for you, mentally or otherwise, once you decided to pursue writing more directly?

When I got an agent, I knew I was good enough to publish. Unfortunately I didn’t sell with that agent and left her. But you get nuggets of inspiration and encouragement along the way. You have to look for them though. For example: a personal note from an editor is encouraging. A fan letter from a teen saying how much she connected to your book. A writer contacting you about how much you inspire them. Or a winning a contest/award unexpectedly.

Did you go to college for writing? If so, did it help? Did it slow you down at all?

No. But I study craft by reading books, getting critiques, attending conferences and workshops. There are several writing groups SCBWI is for children book writers, Thrillerfest is for thriller writers, and RWA is for romance writers . There are groups for any genre – get involved and learn. In Georgia, there is the Atlanta writers club and the Georgia writers association.

Did you hold any writing-related jobs? Do you today?

I have a marketing degree and worked in corporate America. So I have always been a copywriter and kept busy writing even if it was business writing. I still do that now as I do fiction writing on the side.

How long did you work on your first published book? Were there others before it?

I started in 2004 and wrote a middle grade at 100,000 words. That book didn’t sell. For Untraceable which is my first published book it took 3 years. That book went through so many revisions, I think I technically wrote about 3 different books during that time.

How much of your book was complete when you started seeking someone to help publish/promote it?

All of it. Publishers and agents wont look at partial books or outlines. You need to write the book to sell it.

How many different publishers did you appeal to?

Many – I could not even count. I queried anyone who seemed like a good fit – agents or editors. Use the writers market guide to find publishing houses, editor names, and what they are looking for. You can use agentquery.com and querytracker.com to search for an agent by genre.

Were there a great number of rejections to get through? If so, how did you stay motivated?

TONS. I probably have over 150 rejection letters. You have to look for the personal rejections and hope the rejections give you feedback. If they are generic- you need to go back to square one – something is wrong. If they are personal, that means you have something special but something is missing. Use the rejections as learning tools on how to fix your manuscript. And again, know every author gets rejections. Even Stephanie Meyer (Twilight) received many rejections. After her book was bough for 6 figures, she got a rejection in the mail saying it sucked.

What made you choose the publisher that you did?

After years of trying to get published, I decided to self publish. I researched online and bought books on self publishing and marketing. Self publishing is HARD and a lot of work. But at the time it was the right decision for me. I would not recommend it for everyone and I won’t do it for every book.

Did you have another job while working on your book? Do you have another job now? If so, how easy or hard is (was) it to balance both work schedules? (share any tips for staying on track)

Yes never quit your day job until money comes in regularly. You can be on top one month and then get nothing for a period of time.

Was the editing process what you had imagined it to be?

Editing is hard. My book has gone through many rounds of edits from beginning to end. And it sucks every time I have to revise. After I write a first draft, I send it to my critique partners. Once they read it, I revise it and send it to a few more. Usually in the traditional publishing process – agents and editors also provide edits. IN self publishing, I hired editors for content and copyediting.. So expect edits. They are a part of the process.

How much do you feel outside editors influenced the finished work?

I would say 20%. You have to know when to listen and when to follow your gut. I can’t explain it but I know when I see a comment if it fits or not. I don’t get upset at criticism and I don’t take it personally. I think that is hard for most writers.

How long did it take from the time you had a publisher, to the time you had a finished manuscript? Is there anything you suggest as a way for others to make this time spent more efficient or less stressful?

Manuscripts should be done when they get bought. But the editorial process can take 6 months to a year. Waiting for long periods of time when nothing is happening is part of this business and it sucks. Just write something new to keep your mind off it.

Did you have input into the cover art and jacket design?

Yes but I’m self-published. I chose my cover designer and had input into the book. The concept was all mine and exactly what I pictured. Most authors do not have any input unless it is James Patterson.

What was the moment that you finally said to yourself, “This is a finished book, written by me.”

When I saw it on the shelf! 😛

Was there any promotion of the book on its release?

Yes, tons. Mostly online. Blog tours, online ads, contests/awards, reviews etc.

How was/is it being promoted after the fact? How much do you find you are promoting it personally?

All the time. I do marketing every day. Whether it is social networking, guesting on a blog, price changes, talking to readers, setting up signings. Etc. I don’t think you do as much marketing as a traditional author.

How many books have sold to-date?

Maybe about 20,000

Are you receiving a significant part of the earnings? Is there a break-even point? What constitutes a measure of success beyond the sheer number of books sold?

Yes. But again, I’m self-published so I get 70% of everything. In traditional publishing, you get royalties on sales and an advance but it is all dependent on the publisher. There is no magic number. It depends on what the book sells for and how many you sell.

Has the process been what you expected or how/where has it varied?

Harder. Self publishing is hard. It is a one man show. I wasn’t ever expecting this side of publishing. I spend a lot of time marketing and less time writing that I wanted.

Are you writing a book right now? What lessons from the first experience are consciously in play?

Yes, I’m always writing books – I’m an author. 🙂  My lesson, is to just write and know everyone’s  path is different. I have to focus on my own paper and not worry what everyone else is doing. My lesson is to just write.

Do you look at writing the same way you did before publishing?

No I didn’t know how hard it was to get published. I just thought you wrote a book and someone bought it and put it on a shelf. But now I know it’s possible to do it so I focus on that by writing daily.

Is it time to quit the day job yet – or when does that finally happen?

When I make enough a month on a consistent basis to do only writing. My goal is by 2014. 🙂

Something tells me, going into fiction full time in 2014 won’t be much of a problem for SR Johannes.

My thanks to Shelli, and my wishes for a long and happy career doing what she does best.

Be sure to visit and catch-up with the author SR Johannes socially, and on the web:

SEOBook Membership Review

I decided that I am going to try to encapsulate some of the value that I get from being a member in SEOBook’s Community. Aaron didn’t ask me to write this – I just wanted to. You might want to get a snack – this one has been brewing for five years. 🙂

I think I started following Aaron Wall in 2004-2005, because he was fighting a lawsuit that SEO geeks were talking about and Aaron was actively in the blogs I was reading, commenting. His own work was gaining more and more ground as a solid resource, too. He also got answers from Matt Cutts from time to time, and just had comments I liked (a lot of “me too” was more prevalent then but Aaron had his own ideas)…but I remember wondering, who is this guy: just a really sharp kid that didn’t back down easily.

So I started ghosting him around the web. What I found was a guy whose ideas I agreed with more than not, but he was definitely spunky – and always entertaining as hell to me. He seemed pretty honest and really straightforward too, which stood out in the industry, for me.

By 2007, I was reading his blog regularly, but still pretty much creeping around invisibly. I may have commented once in a while, but hardly much. I had a freelance company and a corporate job, so was gleaning all kinds of great tips though – and again, compared to everything else on the web (more or less) his stuff was really different to me: lacking adornment. Clearheaded. Not pandering to Google, which was the most interesting thing of all to see in an SEO.

Some time around then, I emailed Aaron some questions and was amazed that he answered me in less than 15 minutes – so I pressed for more specific answers, and after he gave me a few, he gently suggested I join the forum if I wanted more of those kind of answers. Not pushy about it, just that he could not answer stuff like that for me and continue to offer value behind his paywall. I think the forum had been operating for a few months at the time.

Back then, I was a huge freetard and hated paying for anything. Partly because I was cheap, partly because I didn’t know any better. But he didn’t follow up by hounding me with emails to join, or put me into some kind of “hot lead” category – he didn’t start on the sales angle at all. Actually, he did nothing more than simply point out the obvious, once, nicely – if I wanted more information, I had to pay. I felt my internal freetard logic beginning to crumble, because I REALLY wanted more answers.

So I finally couldn’t stand it any longer and joined in 2008, talking my corporate job into footing the bill to assuage my freedtardliness: and I have not left the forum since. I took over my membership and left the corporate jobs behind though – based in no small part on the information and the connections I make (still, all the time) in SEOBook’s forums. I am like the ultimate fanboy, you could say…this place has helped me to change my life to be more of what I want.

To say I am in there every day is perhaps putting it a bit mildly. I am in there or dealing with members offline for a couple hours, daily. Unless something really weird is going on, and then I might be refreshing the new posts a half-dozen or more times to keep on top of what’s being shared and observed. But let’s look at why this is the way it is for me.

Approach

SEO is complicated, and growing more so every year. Some forums like to suggest one form of direction is the way to go, and that is a large part of what brings the people together. In SEO circles, a lot tends to gets lost in public, large-scale discussions. People chime in, but answers are not always based on tests or experience – there’s a lot of echo-chambering to sift thru.

In SEOBook’s forums, nothing is off-limits as a discussion topic: the general consensus and supported approach in there, is that there is no one answer or single right way to get things done, ever. SEO is approached more as an ongoing balance and reevaluation of risk-to-reward. There is an appreciation for collecting, sharing and trying to interpret data to support or refute the efficacy of different potential directions, but it is not as if one shining ideal brings the forum members together. Unless you boil that down to simply being successful online, I guess…but everybody wants that. As a result, discussions in SEOBook’s forums are definitely a much higher caliber than the majority of public options in my experience: biases are identified and parsed out to try to scrub it down to the true meaning.

I have seen very few things in five years that cannot be discussed by the community. To act like some risky tactics don’t work because they shouldn’t, or pretend all-will-be-well-by-this-recipe is burying your head in the sand, to me. And it simply doesn’t happen in there like that…too many members don’t think that way, and someone is going to call bullshit.

But no outing is allowed, and very strictly enforced – if someone brings up a site that is winning and not theirs, links and direct references are often moderated out so the thread can be about the general tactics used, and not about the specific site who is doing it. People freely share their own sites for help and advice, but the rules are, they can’t be outing others as a professional courtesy.

People in the forum talk about what is happening to them, and their sites as well as what they see on the web. The advantage that you get here, is that there are so many members with so many diverse sites willing to chime in, that insights into any issue or situation takes on new and more rounded perspectives.

In some memberships, a lot of the interactions are driven by the leader(s) needing to maintain/increase the cash flows that come from membership, and increase or drive sales for products and partnered services. There is a soft-sell undercurrent at all times, occasionally peppered by an all-out campaign. Being on “the list” can mean you get a ton of emails. Not to say value is not being shared – just that it tends to come with an advert embedded in there somewhere.

Aaron’s team has not upsold me, once, on anything in my five years as a paying member. They have done some great product reviews (most on the blog, a few only in the forum), and they have vendor discounts and special tools as rewards for my membership – but I have never been pitched because I am a member. There is a place in the forum set aside for different folks who offer services (more on that later), so there are definitely things you can buy only because you are a member. My point, is you are not going to get sales pitched – likely, not ever. Hasn’t happened yet to me anyway.

I do get the newsletter he compiles every month sent here – and the information in it is really staggering. Really: it is much deeper than any other like it, and they do it every month -0r he does it, I suppose. The newsletter alone has tremendous value, but it is the only email I get from my membership, and I could stop receiving that too, if I wanted – there are no forced communications. My name has never been shared, and over the years, any tech issues connected to my account are fixed in hours, usually…or less.

But one thing that made me stop being a freetard and start seeing the promise of value, is the fact that I could always quit at any time. That was super important to me, because I had tried some other things that just didn’t fit – so I did not want to get locked into anything. Instead, I have seen over the years Aaron’s team to be incredibly fair (almost to a fault) when it comes to fees and such. The last thing he wants to do is seem like he is overcharging, so he’ll make sure members NEVER feel that way.  Made me feel like that anyway, and I took the plunge because SEO is complex, and I needed more answers.

To sum up the fundamental approach I find in and from my membership in the SEOBook Community:

  • Appreciation for layered complexity of current-day SEO.
  • Open discussions allowing all tactics air time, and a spot to reside…shielded by rules that protect specific member and non-member efforts.
  • Effort to see clear of personal and professional biases. They are still there of course (often lots of them too), but they are typically identified and addressed.
  • No add-on sales push, or membership drives. Can quit any time.
  • Extra value-adds for membership tucked in, like sweet discounts on tools or directories. More will be in the future there, I am sure. 🙂

Depth and Degrees

In a learning forum, people are going to enter at different levels of experience and need. The conversations and lessons are therefore geared this way, to appease the masses and keep it growing reasonably. What happens in a lot of instances, is the low level entries needed to sustain the business aspects of the community drive the bulk of the content. This can be a great thing when you are starting out and seeking something similar, as there are answers and information to help you drive it into place. And starting out with the basics in SEO is not rocket science and never has been, so it is pretty easy for a forum to offer value in this regard, to me. New players interested in SEO jump in every single day.

Where value is found for many though, is in levels a bit higher than an entry-leveled one. Experience gets you over a lot of the basics, but especially in SEO, the need to understand and be exposed to new and different approaches is constant. A successful SEO forum therefore has to cater to this need, and provide access to or facilitate some kind of advanced ideas.

Here again, though, lies the rub: this is such a common place for people to have needs, that these needs are often exploited by SEO-related groups that promise some kind of advantage, some kind of inner secret. You are promised that you can unlock easy, if you simply join today. I won’t get into my feelings on that business model here, but let’s say it is out there, and pretty common.

In SEOBook’s Community, members are of all stripes and experience. Beginner’s benefit from starting on the right foot, mid-level and advanced folks benefit from having input from comrades and colleagues who may have a lot to offer.

The noise level here, is virtually none…the forum has always been a busy place, but not one full of sales pitches and empty finger pointing. The discussions tend to be on the more informed side, because of the level of experience the members bring in. I don’t think I am out of line at all to say accelerated discourse is possible and happens quite often in here: where member insights often trump what is being shared in the news, or other outlets.

Beginners are always welcomed here though, because most members remember being there. Aaron’s team has compiled an impressive amount of information on SEO in here over the years which makes it easy to refer people to popular threads, or updated ideas. I have used these threads to reaffirm my own ideas, or to see what others are doing successfully…they offer wonderful and practical things to start testing right away.

Honestly, I feel for people who are starting today- SEO is so much more complicated than it was when I started over 10 years ago. But this is why a membership to a place like the ‘book is smart for beginners who don’t want to spin around, or chase dreams. Building things for lasting value is the mantra there, but there is also plenty of appreciation for the things that are really working today. The combo is intoxicating.

I personally started in here at about a mid-level. I had about 6 years of personal SEO experience for my own clients and some for bigger projects, but not a very wide range of knowledge outside of that. I loved testing stuff, but often had limited resources. In there, I met people who had much wider interests, and others representing some really popular and competitive sites.

If you are considering a membership, you might wonder if your level of experience is well suited. In this forum, I would think beginners get a huge boost, mid-level folks get a chance to grow and advanced folks seem to find others in there to commiserate with, and compare notes (I see them in there). Those advanced folks often share case studies and vendor suggestions that are really a huge bonus for us, too.

One of the best, and most valuable things in the forum to me, is the site reviews. People can put up their URL and state what they are trying to do and the members offer opinions. The ability to ask about specific issues you are facing really helps you consider it a couple different ways. The insights shared can be really serious, bottom line ideas too – hitting everything from structure and URLs through design, content and links.

Looking at the various scenarios that might be driving you to consider a membership: If you have been involved in web marketing for a couple years, or have a website that has done well for you and you need it to do better, or have a corporate gig and need help because the suits are getting in the way – these are all great scenarios to get into SEOBook’s Community. If your website is your business, you should be in here. If your niche has suddenly become much different and more competitive, this may be a great place to get new ideas. If you are looking for tactics to help survive, prevent or mop-up behind any of the past or emerging  Google penalties, SEOBook makes a great answer.  If you have a small (or medium or large) SEO shop, and want to offer safe or even aggressive offers to your clients, the ‘book is a very good choice. If you simply want to become part of what I consider the smartest bunch of web marketers collected, it is a no-brainer.

Another crucial element of a forum or community, is the amount of continual activity it sees. Many times what you find, is the lure of a community is pinned on some of the members being in it. Like I did above, where I talked about how many impressive marketers are in the ‘book forum every day, because this is sexy (in this case, true, but still very sexy). Thinking your nothing little web effort gets the eyeballs and helping hands of someone you recognize, is empowering.

What happens in a lot of places though, is the superstars are not really in there, active, as it seems on the adverts and testimonials. They may have dedicated staff to answer questions, but sometimes you get the feeling you are in a ghost town, and the site activity suggests the same. Or, it is mostly chatter by others like you, looking for a bit of something more. So you, like the rest of the members, start coming by less and less, because there is no lure, there is no real reason to keep checking in, when history shows a lack of engagement. The community suffers, or worse: withers and dies.

I led into all this by saying how much time I spend in the SEOBook forum, but I am not alone in being in there every day, adding something when I think I can or should or want to. There are many, led by Aaron, who definitely reads and responds to almost every thread over the course of a day. His moderators are also right there with help – and then, members start chiming in, based on what the discussion is.

This is an active forum though, especially when you see changes in the search ecosystem somewhere. In those days (and they can very dark, depressing days indeed), a thread may get updated over a dozen times in a hour with insights filling in the blanks from all different sectors and verticals, from all corners of the web.

But if you posed a question, virtually any question, you can be sure it gets seen, and typically answered within a day in here. Usually, it is within a couple hours – remember when I said Aaron answered my first email in under an hour? He still does that a lot of times…and he’s positioned employees and moderators in there to do it for him, too. Then you have guys like me, just members, but if I see something I can help with, I do…and there are a couple dozen of us that have been in there for a few years or more, daily.

Maybe it is not always true, but certainly more than not. I may be in there every day, but just reading. Still, I do like seeing what is happening, and the news in there is stuff that matters to me. Even when I am simply creeping around.

I watched it for a week, and the average was 15 new posts a day. Weekends can be a little slower, but this is a place where people are checking in regularly.

I think that is another salient point: these advanced SEOs that I see in there are still there year after year, still chiming in, still active all the time. If I was the only one seeing this community’s intrinsic value, these guys would have long ago stopped the monthly payments, and moved on. I would have, for sure. I promise you though: if something goes wrong out there, many of us are going to go straight to the forum to see what everybody else is seeing before we start thinking anything “firm” at all…that says a ton. And it only seems to get stronger every year, as SEO gets tougher…maybe we’re depending on each others insights other more.

The connections and friends I have made in here personally, make it a truly valuable and attractive place to be.

Some people surely don’t fit – in the five years I have been in here, I have seen maybe two folks get escorted out that I can remember. Man, did they both deserve it. Not for asking questions or using the tools, but for being abusive and obtuse. Both got full refunds, too. 🙂

To sum up the depth and degrees of experience and engagement I find in my SEOBook Community membership:

  • Basic information compiled and available, making a beginner a mid-level player in no time.
  • Mid to advanced levels are well suited here, finding challenging ideas and networking benefits.
  • Members represent a mix of many types of web marketers and business owners, making discussion more rounded.
  • Daily activity and even more, when market conditions are unstable. Helps you see immediate issues through wider lens.
  • Many advanced webmasters have been in here, talking together and comparing notes for years. Nothing suggests ROI quite like ongoing monthly investments.

Community+

In any community, there is opportunity for service providers to find some business. SEOBook makes this possible with a dedicated Marketplace section.

In the Marketplace, people can offer services or sites or related things for like-minded folks.It’s been a popular place in my years there, and people make lots of great connections.

It is very bad form to get a membership, dive in and immediately start trying to hawk your stuff – I did a post along time ago about watching someone blow it in a situation like this (great pic in that one). That kind of behavior  is certainly not going to fly in SEOBook, either – you’ll be asked to tone it down, no doubt.

That said, there is nothing wrong with coming in, interacting a bit, reading a ton and getting a feel for the folks in it. You want to see how things roll back and forth, and who is saying what. Once you get it a little, you will know where, and how to pitch. You would not barge into a social situation like a maniac, so don’t do it online, either. Don’t do it in SEOBook, or I will want to slap you for not listening to me.

In my own case, I found so many like-minded people in SEOBook’s forums over the years, that they make up the majority of my client base today. Through them I have been able to do stimulating projects across multitudes of verticals, and I meet and work with new folks every month, still.

I’ve been able to work on sites and projects in other countries a lot, and hone my own skills in lots of different ways. I like to approach what I do in a kind of fluid way, and SEOBook has connected me to people who think like I do about business, but are better at it. Has been a truly eye-opening perk, to be able to learn on the job that they offer me.

On a personal level, I have made some friends in here that I talk to about lots more than SEO now. The community, for me, has reached beyond professional and brought me even more meaning and value. Sounds corny as hell, but true. I am sure it is not like this for everyone who joins, or maybe even not many of them – but it is what happened to me.

I’ve spent more time with some of these folks now than I did in either high school or college…I have met some lifers in this bunch. Colleagues, coworkers and friends.

Cost

A membership to SEOBook’s Community runs $300 per month. This puts it on the high end for communities like this. However, I would like to illustrate something in how I decided a long, long time ago to keep my membership going forever. Whatever forever truly means, deciphered in reality, yet very passionately felt.

If you look at the cost as a yearly business cost, $3600 is not too much to consider for most businesses for a decently waged effort. If $3000 is a considerable expense for you to think about in general, then yes you may not quite be ready to get back the value from a membership here – forums with a focus on your level of experience or books and free resources will likely get you what you need to get off the ground. Best practices are easy to decipher, really, just please remember to avoid the easy button – easy is a lie.

In my own case, I can remember distinctly early on as a member, asking a moderator some specific questions regarding titles, and a corporate client’s struggles. I was nervous to share it as a thread, but I needed help. I used the PM because I wanted to keep it off the radar. The moderator’s answer, received in an hour, took me ten minutes to deploy and moved my site up a full page – it was definitely the problem as he identified it. The resulting leads we got from the improved position more than paid for a year’s membership fees in a single afternoon – more like 10x that amount or more over the next couple days. And this was one site, one problem, one issue fixed – just one example of so very many that have been there for me over five years. In addition to specific issues I ask for help with, there are other best practices I glean regularly.

Add in, the amount of work that I have taken in from my connections made here, and I owe SEOBook well over six figures more. And thankfully, that number just keeps on growing – something I never will take for granted…I earn lots more than the cost of membership every month, in healthy multiples.

But lots of folks in there do not offer services like me, and I did not go in there with the intention of offering them…it just started happening because I was talking to people I liked, about business ideas that were really interesting. The folks who don’t offer services do have opportunity to get some though – have I mentioned there is a Marketplace set aside, and Aaron is good about letting everyone hang their shingle? (seriously nice place to see) I have seen businesses get made simply because someone had a good idea and offered it to the community for a trial run. It is a small group compared to lots of communities, but they know a good thing when it is in front of them and take advantage of it.

Conceivably, you could go in there and make all the connections you need to have a revenue generating site operational, or buy one flat out. This is not a cost to measure, but more of a benefit to appreciate against the cost.

When I start adding up the connections, the information, the sheer volume of tips and suggestions I have gleaned over these five years, cost gets pretty murky. Pretty silly, really – I made more in the first couple years in here to ever question staying.

The ideas I have today are colored a lot by my five years of membership so it is hard for me to see it without bias. But it is also a reflection of my connections here that I can now clearly see my own bias even as I write it. 😉

of Art, and Irony, and Family and Fishing

In August, a miraculous thing happened for me. It took a family, a huge fish, some other huge fishes, and then even more family, and then some extra stuff and then contemplation to figure it out a little more – but it gave me a good look at irony as a nice little motif here, but it had a happy ending and I get to share more fish pictures.

And it all started with my family’s art show.

I know what you are thinking immediately: how does your family’s show depicting 3 generations of art and music compare with all those others out there? And to you, I say pish tosh, mostly because effete people get to say things like that, and I should qualify there. Been practicing forever.

{EDITOR’S NOTE: there used to be 3 links to press releases here, but over time, those press releases were not archived, so the links and the mention of them were removed. Carry on. }

And finally, here’s the clan, accurately portraying the way I think of them (I am dork central, spastically holding 2 drinks…my huge brothers are on your left -I am  right next to my dad):

So many months before those poor journalists hurled such positively-spun epithets at my brood, my dad asked me what I was going to do here.

I was a bit perplexed – I wanted to do something appropriate. Art, to me, is often an oddly-shaped prehistoric bird living in my skeleton (but fighting its way out), or maybe more accurately, an inverted funnel that accidentally explodes everywhere…so I have a hard time translating that into terms people can agree with or see the same way. A lot of my art is/was confrontational too, because I think sitting on a fence is not anything even a crow truly wants. It made my stuff primitive at best – hacked, more accurately.

But more to the point, I have not done anything physical with art of a tangible variety in years (decades, probably) so it felt kinda wrong too, to put up shit I did way back in my routinely misspent youth, but don’t do any longer. None of that stuff was very good anyway – not meant for public consumption. My family has practicing artists – I am not of that ilk; I am more of a weekend duffer, and a great appreciator of all things art.  I have found little ways to let art bleed into everyday stuff like cooking or copywriting or web design, so I need to have it concentrated less…which means I am not as driven to it every day, like I used to feel. I don’t draw anymore, and simply don’t have enough time to do any of the many things I like to do most often. But I do play a lot of music, or have most of my life anyway, for better or worse. A bit of a hack there too of course, but more time woodshedding, and more public stuff.

So we worked almost immediately on me doing some music for this thing in some way…I have a lot of toys here, and just enough brass left tucked in the sack to get up and play on them in front of people, as if I can.

Being an art show, I went for piano: I started playing that when I was in high school, and still do a bit. I am a noodler, and play by ear. But there is a caveat here, in that I hardly ever play music at all anymore. Family life was more of my drill. When I do get a gig now, I need to play for a few weeks to re-learn everything my muddled middle age likes to forget, be it on drums or guitar or (shudder) singing…but I hardly ever, EVER get called on to play piano for anything. It has been YEARS, and typically it is only a couple wedding songs or something. Pianos are just too hard to lug around.

Still, this was important to my dad and my family, and piano seemed to be the right thing, so I committed to playing for a few hours, figuring I could fake my way through it all.

…and then, I started practicing like a crazy man. (Thanks again going to my wife and son, who had to listen to it for months, and help me to not spaz out because I KNEW I was going to be terrible. They had to hold my hand quite a bit more than they usually do.)

I played for at LEAST an hour a day (going into 3 or even more in the weeks right before the show) – and started writing out a song list. I was trying to remember anything I thought people might know or that I could play (lucky if it was both), and trying some stuff I never had, but thought I could get away with. I worked on a bunch of songs I wrote myself, back when I used to do that…and then started going thru Beatles songs, and Billy Joel and Elton to find shit I could fake. I saw a movie that used Mad World by Tears for Fears, and added it. I remembered a couple mellow Velvet Underground songs I could play on guitar, so added them. I think I came up with about 68 songs in all…scrawled on one coveted masterlist.

But the point is, it mattered to me a great deal that I could do it, and do it at least marginally well – I was representing, as far as I could tell. My family is VERY musically gifted, so I wanted to be semi-good for all of us, as a way to display it publicly…you know? I wanted to display both taste and style – two things I typically could care less about at a gig. So I practiced, daily, for months. Practice, panic, sweat. Practice, panic, weep. Panic, panic, practice.

But it came together, and I was getting pretty psyched. I had not seen a lot of my family’s work, not like this – especially not all in one place.

When I got down there (rented a car, and drove solo), I went in when they were moving in the art and played on the piano a bit. Mine here at home, is a cabinet grand built in 1908 (rebuilt by me a few years ago)…it is a bit of a chore to hit it properly, but I do love it so. The low range just punches you in the chest – sounds like heaven probably tastes, to me. But the art center had a Steinway grand, that even though it was just a little out of tune in a couple spots, it played like butter, comparatively. I looked like butter, so it was a good match.

I played it for a bit and it felt really good to me though, and so did my head, really – I felt I was adequately prepped, I had my list, the axe was a good one, and I was ready to go…I even determined a few things that this piano would allow me to do that mine kind of make tough…trilly stuff, and happy tinkles. It seemed like everything was a lock – so I decided to go fishing that night.

As I have mentioned out here before, my buddy Darin is an amazing fisherman and guide, and is generous as hell with boat time for me in Florida, taking me out every time he can when I am down there. This was no different: we had arranged our night before I even left Atlanta. Fishing around Sanibel Island is truly spectacular – I can’t recommend it enough. And Darin is an expert, so going with him is even better than simply going out. We have a lot of fun out there.

I got to his house a bit early, but we went straight out on the water with enough gas in the tank to cruise for a while before the bait came up. Truly beautiful stuff…and I was sending my son iPhone videos, asking him what he was doing while I was forced to be out on the boat (he loves the water and fishing as much as his old man).

So after Darin and I checked out the sunset, we caught some bait (ballyhoo!) and went to work.

I dropped the first bait down, and literally within about a minute (not stretching that one either), tied into a big old tarpon.

I love this game fish a TON – and this guy, though not my biggest one ever, was super strong, and a great fighter – he jumped out of the water at least 6 times while I tired him out. I got him to the side of the boat (after about 3 false positives, where he got up there and then took off again), and we decided to haul him in for pictures.

The way you grab a big tarpon if not using a gaff, is with your thumbs under his bottom lip, and your fingers curled into his mouth – you grab and hold. This guy was somewhere between 50 and 80 pounds I would think (about 5 feet long), and I have only held a couple this big before…so while Darin was getting the camera out, this palooka decides to try to wiggle out of my arms, and his full weight came down on my right thumb.

I dropped him onto the deck, and saw stars for a minute – but quickly picked him back up for the pix, because we wanted to get him back into the water ASAP. Darin snapped one, and I tried to move the fish and my hand screamed at me – I knew something was wrong, so held it a different way as you see in this pic. But adrenalin was high, the night was just starting, we got our pix, so we got him back into the water.

He actually floated back up, and we had to motor over to him to help revive him.  I grabbed him in the water, flipped him over and held him in the current until he pulled away from me (again, strong as hell-a feeling hard to describe to you, but immensely powerful to experience). He was fine.

But this was not all the night had for us out there by Sanibel Island – we caught a bunch more fish, including some snook, which are my all-time favorites. But these were not ordinary snook, in the 20-25 inch range: some of these were just monsters.

After a couple decent sized fish, my thumb was obviously not OK. The tarpon had jammed it bad, and it was hurting more every passing minute – but the fish were hot, and I did not want to stop. In this picture, I am trying to hold the snook with my thumb in its mouth but pain made me switch to my never used left hand…I look like I am going to puke, but I am only trying to figure out just how badly I am hurt (this snook was not too big, but I still couldn’t hold him), and panic is rising in me a bit.

…and then, I caught the bad boy.

I knew from the first hit, this was a big fish – and his fight was epic. But about halfway thru it, my thumb quit completely, so I was trying to reel in with a club that was dangling useless digits. I was incensed: I had a huge fish on, and could not get it together to land it properly. The pain was making me spaz out…I got the fish within a few feet of the boat, and begged Darin to take to pole from me, because I could not even hold it right, and started fearing this fish would rip it from my paws. Darin did – and he would not let me let this great fish go…netting him in short order. So technically, I did not actually swing him over the side: Darin did it for me, because my thumb made it impossible to think, much less reel. But biggest snook I ever caught (damn right, I caught him – only a fool would not claim a fish like that!) – he was a beauty. Note, I am holding him lefty, and we could not really get a good pic of him, because my left arm was too weak to hold him dangling full-length, so I’m holding the tail, which put a bend in him (and yes: we let him go like the rest, and he was also fine).

But at this point, my thumb was such a problem, I actually stopped fishing. Sat on the bow, and watched Darin reel in a few.

I use this only to illustrate how dire it was: I was in the thick of big snook biting (which is like an angel’s handjob to me), and opted to watch for a while rather than living it. It’ll never happen again, I am sure – and if I didn’t have to play the next day, I would have ignored the pain completely. Taped it down. Chewed it off. But each fish I caught was making it worse, so I just had to stop and sit down to panic a bit more. Then I tried to fish, but the tides were shifting and things started to slow down anyway.  Needless to say, we ended shortly after that…it was late, we had landed big fish and actually had pix of a few, and I was now looking kind of pathetic and pale, and mumbling things incoherently about pianos, and total idiots, and woe-is-megasms.

Darin offered the whole time to take me home (half-mockingly), reminding me that fish for him, can be a near weekly thing: he was super cool to offset my spaziness. But I didn’t want to leave, even though I was thinking it was probably better to go, and not risk really doing some damage by tempting myself anymore with these horribly beautiful fish.

Driving home was amazingly hard – try that sometime without ever using your thumbs. Try most anything for that matter. 🙂

But the next morning I awoke at my friend’s place to find I could not even bend my right thumb any longer: that fucking tarpon apparently wrecked my gig completely. Months of practice, done. Family depending on me, done. Cue massive irony swell, with Satan giggling as he rides his surfboard on the crest of my crestfalleness.

Sheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiittttttttttttttttttttttt.

I went over to my folks’ house, where my mom, Parkinson’s and all, was busy cooking everything on the planet. She catered the whole evening, which was an amazing feat for anyone to do as well as it went, much less solo – but with her physical issues it was monumental, really. She fed hundreds of people cooking everything in her kitchen with her sister and carting it over to the art center… and it lasted all night long – and people absolutely loved her food. So I had offered to come over and help – but as I drove over there, I just kept trying to figure out how to tell them what happened. They also have a beautiful baby grand, which my mom even had tweaked for me to practice on – so I was going to see if I could play anything at all.

I got there, and made a few jokes about it -but was only trying to downplay it. I sat at the piano and tried, and it did not look good at all, feeling even worse – I was about 7 hours from the gig, and just could not play without the lightning and laser show going off in my hand. The location of the issue could not have been worse –  I kept downplaying it as much as I could, but I was totally freaking out in my head.

My uncle was there, and he has a good number of years being a coach, so he came over and worked on it, which helped a ton…and he told me to start icing it no less than every 1-2 hours for about 20 minutes. I made a mitten out of a plastic ice cube sheet and a rubber band, and did what I was told. I helped my mom with a couple things, but was so wrapped up in my private panic and so useless without my right thumb, I was good for nothing that wasn’t focused on ME, and not doing too well with those things either. She didn’t need me at all anyway, but still.

We carted stuff the rest of the day, and I kept my regimen of icing it down and babying it, and my uncle massaged it a couple more times. I was so distraught about everything, I actually ran right into a truck on the way back to my parents’ house to get changed for the gig – I even dented the rental. Luckily no one hurt, so I simply got out of there as fast as I could and went on with it, but was wondering what the hell was going to go wrong next.

Turns out only one thing: I got there and left the song list in the car, and sat down to play before realizing I would not be getting up for a few hours in a row. Ironic bliss showers over me once again.

But by the time I started to play, I was doing it in part, just to see if I could. I was so worried about my thumb, I forgot to be nervous about playing at all, and sailed thru about 2 1/2 or 3 hours before I even took a break. I was winging stuff, and doing what I remembered from the list – but it just kind of fell into place, and felt perfect. Slightly painful, but emotionally fulfilling to say the least. I can’t say what it sounded like, but it seemed to be going over well.

I took a break, and my nieces both played – they each have waaaay more talent than me, and both can sing like angels. We then switched around for the rest of the night, taking turns entertaining the masses. I was outclassed, but proud to be there.

At the end of the night, my thumb was turning purple and swelling up again – but I did not care anymore, I had made it thru.The show ran for a month, and just ended…but I heard it was a very successful opening night for the art center, too.

The end result, was they sold some art, mom fed half the city, everyone represented well, hundreds of people came and saw it (thanks again, all you kind people) – and I learned even a tarpon is not going to keep me from hamming it up whenever I get access to an open stage. I suggest to hide the mics if you see me coming – not all of them are friendly art shows. 🙂

The Gift of Music Project: A Great Cause

I have an old friend, a guy I worked with in the scooter shop years ago, who went on to become a very accomplished luthier when the Vespa restorations weren’t cutting it any longer. A luthier is a guy who makes guitars, and I remember not being too overly supportive of Kris’ interest when he asked me, way back as it was sparking in him – because I was jaded, knowing in my past more than a couple of amazing luthiers who were broke and bitter.

Luckily, Kris paid no attention to me or my cynical kerfluffles, and went on to became quite an artisan, crafting some truly beautiful instruments – which you can learn more about on his website.

Backstory aside, Kris sent me an email about a thing he is doing with some friends of his, so I wanted to post it here – he wrote:

We have recently organized a unique instrument donation program called The Gift of Music Project and we need your help!

We are currently in the fundraising phase of the project and are in need of pledges from you to make the program a success. The goal of the project is to create and provide instruments to deserving music programs and young musicians.

We have a series of one-of-a-kind “thank you” gifts at various donation levels that will be sent directly to you as a token of our gratitude. Every donation counts so please just pledge the amount that is right for you.

If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions about the project please feel free to contact us directly through the campaign site.

If you are unable to make a donation at this time you can still be involved in the project by sharing the news of this campaign through Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc.

Thank you so much for your help and generosity!

For more information about the project please visit our campaign site:

http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/77688?a=492488

Warmest regards,
Kris Barnett and fellow Gift of Music Members

www.krisbarnettguitars.com

As a guy who benefited from having instruments around to play with, I am all about supporting things like this, to put awesome instruments in the hands of those who want them…so do what you can to help Kris Barnett, and his music project.

 

Building Lifetime Customer Value

There is a great post Geordie wrote a couple weeks ago on PPCblog.com about building lifetime customer value. (in case my link doesn’t work, go ahead and paste this: http://ppcblog.com/building-lifetime-customer-value/)

I have talked before about how much I like Geordie’s style of writing – he has a lot of great experience and knows how to get to the meat of making money, and staying profitable. Had the pleasure to co-write an article with him, and his technical deftness is also top-notch – but you’ll see that quickly.

This post comes soon after a huge shake-up for many online professionals, so I think it is particularly relevant and worth a read. When finding new customers is always going to present unique challenges, being able to serve more to the ones you already have is invaluable.

This post also shows you the kind of teaching/writing style Geordie uses. He is more personal inside the forums, but it is the same direct, no BS approach with suggestions you can really use. PPC is one online marketing oasis many webmasters are seeking as organic becomes even less predictable, so get on their membership waiting list. The community doesn’t appear to be accepting new members right now, but things always change. They maintain a limit, so it doesn’t get weak. I would put in your interest if this is something that appeals to you. I can talk from personal experience about how valuable I think this community is – in fact I have. Twice.  🙂

Geordie Carswell of PPCBlog

image borrowed from http://www.purposeinc.com/pwp/geordie-carswell

Bedbug Dogs: Buy a Friend, and a Business Partner

I don’t often talk directly about my clients here on the site, but I am working right now with some new folks who are training and selling bed bug sniffing dogs and thought it would be worth sharing some information on them. I think they’re doing some cool things anyway – so buckle-up, give it a gander and see what you think.

bedbug photo

What is a Bedbug Dog?

I’ll be honest: when I first heard about this, I had no idea what to think…but I am learning. 🙂 I found out a bedbug dog is a dog that is specifically trained to sniff-out bedbugs. In the same manner that a dog might be trained to lead the blind, locate a cadaver buried in the woods, or find the pot stashed in your luggage, so to can they be trained to find these pesky little intruders.

A bedbug dog might be any number of breeds – though Labrador Retrievers and Beagles seem to be among the more popular choices. My new clients (the good people of ACES) tend to prefer labs for this work. ACES Master Trainer says that these dogs have a natural temperament and great disposition for this type of work. Trust me when I tell you their work ethic is pretty persuasive…but I love labs anyway, so had no reason to question this logic.

ACES looks for dogs from about 8 months old to 3 years old to select them for training. They personally vet the dogs to ensure they display some of the traits (obedience, intelligence, etc.) of the best workers – but not every dog makes a good bedbug dog.

How Do Bedbug Dogs “Work?”

ACES primarily serves hotels and the hospitality industry. However, residential folks also might call upon a service like this, if they have reason to believe they might have an issue.

Discreetly, the ACES team shows-up at the place being checked – the team being a minimum of a bedbug dog and its handler. The team will enter a room and systematically make sure that there are no live bedbugs in it anywhere – and that is one thing I thought was really cool…the dog’s ability to sniff out any problems (ignoring false positives) – even through a wall! The handler will lead the dog around the room, and if there is a scent of live bedbugs (be it in the bed, the carpet, the walls), the dog “Alerts” on it (sitting, or “pointing”) – signaling that the handler needs to perform a more detailed visual inspection. If the live bedbugs are found, then the room can be properly treated.

The bedbug dogs ACES uses could tell the difference between live bedbugs, and dead ones. ACES said the live ones have a scent that dead ones lose – so if a dog alerted to a pile of dead bugs, it would be because a live one has passed by numerous times, leaving the scented trail. But I saw the dogs completely ignore the dead stuff, but they did not miss the live ones. I think this is pretty cool – and from a hotel or homeowner’s perspective, dead bugs are nowhere near the issue that live ones are.

Who Buys Bedbug Dogs?

I learned that many pest control officers buy these dogs so they can offer more services to their customers. But interestingly, I also found out that many entrepreneurs also buy bedbug dogs, commit to training, and then open a business to offer the service. (that’s what the title of this post means) It is certainly becoming a more popular way to handle the growing bedbug problem, and more of the larger cities in the US are seeing the emergence of bedbug detection and treatment service providers.

The dogs I saw working were amazing animals: they were smart, happy, and extremely well disciplined. But they truly loved their work – they do it purely for reward (treats) and hearing “Good Boy!” when they do well.

Though the handler’s role is very important, ACES proved it was the dog doing everything by having a kid serve as handler, and the dog worked like a champ anyway – the normal handler was not leading the dog, or helping at all. The live bug were hidden in different places (once, next to a gasoline can to throw off the scent) but the ACES dogs found the live bedbugs every time.

Hope You Never Need a Bedbug Dog

While I was impressed by the way these dogs went to work and what they could do, I sincerely hope none of you ever need to call on ACES or a similar service to come and find the bedbugs in your home or establishment. Bedbugs are nasty little things, and their bites hurt. While it is best you never deal with them at all, if you do run into a problem it is a good thing these dogs are highly trained.

Bedbugs are not caused by a lack of cleanliness. One final thought before I move back into the exciting world of SEO copywriting as my motif, is that bedbugs have nothing at all to do with a room being clean or not – they are simply insects that travel a lot, and might hop a ride in your luggage or something, and set-up their home when they get to yours.

If you are dealing with a potential bedbug problem, ACES tells me the best thing is to get in there and treat it early. Don’t ever be ashamed or embarrassed (it’s not your fault) – be aggressive. Call ACES, and have one of their bedbug teams come out and see what they can find. Hopefully, nothing. But if a bedbug dog alerts, at least you are then on your way to finding the bedbugs and getting rid of them, once and for all.

**UPDATE**12/22/12

ACES had some changes since I initially wrote this post, and the food-driven aspects of bed bug dog training I talk about up there, are not the ones employed by their current senior trainer, Ray Figueroa.

Ray believes in toy training his bed bug dogs and after seeing the difference, I am a believer myself. Here’s a clip of Ray talking about how he selects bed bug dogs to become an ACES Lab:

With food trained dogs, they are driven by hunger while a toy drive dog seeks for toy rewards. I also saw all the food-drive dogs being led to the places they needed to seek – whereas, a toy-driven dog just runs his work all on his own…it is a huge difference in the way the animals work, very clear to see.

I shot a video of a dog at ACES doing a couple simple training exercises, but you can see it in how this dog works – there is serious drive, and focus going on here. Toys win!

ACES is offering bed bug dog services in the greater Atlanta area for bed bug detection, and selling toy-trained bed bug sniffing dogs to people all over the country. There are testimonials and videos of dogs in action on the site, so if you have a need for these specialized canines, I highly recommend ACES to you. Still. 🙂