Alexa and Siri Are My Bitches

via Unsplash

And by “bitches,” I mean “dear friends who help me with things.”

This weekend, I finally upgraded my pathetically outdated iPhone 4. Not even the 4S—the 4, you guys. It was years old and turtle slow. It did make calls, which is pretty much the point of a phone, but in my out-in-the-country apartment, I barely have service. Texting is my main method of communication—that and FaceTime. I’ve long been eligible for an upgrade, but money’s been tighter than tight. Sprint.com had a deal: a free iPhone 5S with a two-year contract renewal. Um, hello!

I’d been using Siri on the iPad, which we got secondhand in December 2015—and it radically changed my life. When it’s plugged in, you can use the “Hey Siri” feature, which is pretty handy. For example, if I’m cooking dinner and the iPad is on the counter playing a podcast, I can plunk my sore body down and say, “Hey Siri… Set a timer for 20 minutes.” Hands-free, which my achy fingers and wrists really appreciate. I don’t have to walk across the kitchen to reach the iPad, which my hip and lower back also appreciate.

Since activating my new phone, I’ve used Siri mostly for texting. I’ve been having a hard time with texting lately, because my thumbs and wrists are so stiff and sore. The simplest messages take me forever, and it’s almost guaranteed that I’ll goof them up somehow. It’s really amazing to hit that button and say “Read my texts” or “Text so-and-so…”

While the tech itself is cool and I nerd out a lot about it, I’m all about the accessibility. If Siri has been helpful to me, imagine how helpful it is for others!

I would’ve been completely satisfied with my Siri, but my aunt got us an Echo Dot for Christmas. Now my little gang is complete with Siri and Alexa.

At first, back when Alexa first launched, I thought it was a tad bit creepy that Alexa is always listening. You don’t press any buttons. You just say “Alexa,” and then whatever command. It was also kind of buggy when it first launched; it didn’t understand a lot of things and often played the wrong songs, etc. But Amazon seems to have ironed out some serious kinks. However, Alexa doesn’t seem to understand my husband. Maybe it’s because he spent its first night home completely torturing it: “Alexa, what drugs do you do?” Now Alexa ignores him completely. (I can’t really say I blame it.)

In the morning, I’m supposed to take my Plaquenil, Prednisone, and one of my two Tramadol for the day with some food. I’ve been having trouble with Plaquenil and dairy, though, so if I have any dairy in my breakfast, I wait before taking my meds. Being that I’m so stiff in the morning and my mobility isn’t the greatest until Prednisone kicks in, I’ve already settled into a rhythm with Alexa. When I finish eating, I say “Alexa, set a timer for 20 minutes.” It can hear me from across the room and starts the timer right away. I can even ask it, “Alexa, how much time is left on my timer?” I don’t have to get up or push any buttons. For me, this is a dream. When the timer goes off, I say “Alexa, stop,” and take my meds with water.

I’m sure I’ll find more uses for Alexa and Siri. I’m trying to figure out how I can have Alexa read my manuscripts to me while I’m editing; it can read Kindle books, but I don’t know if I’d have to format my WIP as a .mobi first or if it’d work just fine if I just load it into my account as a .doc. This would help me catch more errors in early passes.

Siri can also take dictation; I’m planning on setting aside some time to play around with writing by dictating to Siri on my Mac. I know a lot of authors love Dragon, but I just don’t have the budget for it. Dictating my novels—if I can get the hang of writing out loud—would really take some strain off my wrists.

I know a lot of people are kind of weirded out by voice-commanded tech. It seems futuristic and slightly creepy. My dad, for example, wants nothing to do with it. I completely agree that there are certain lines you just don’t cross. I wouldn’t load all of my payment and banking information into Apple Wallet, for example. That’s just asking for trouble—or at least, it seems that way to me. But Alexa can order things off Amazon for you, and you can even set a voice code so that it can’t be abused. I don’t often feel well enough to run errands, and Mike is usually exhausted and raring for a nap after work, so it would be pretty handy to say “Alexa, order some paper towels” or whatever when we’re running low. They’d be delivered straight to my door, saving both of us some time.

You can even connect certain home objects to your Alexa. It’d be so rad to say “Alexa, turn down the thermostat” or “Alexa, turn on the bedroom light.” I can easily imagine mornings, when it’s hard to get out of bed, made a bit easier by my girls: “Alexa, read Let’s Get Visible.” I could still be productive.

I do feel kind of weird “bossing” Alexa and Siri around. I can’t help but think of The Matrix and even Dollhouse. It brings up some interesting questions. Does AI have feelings? What makes us human? Sometimes I say “please” or just tell them they rock. I can easily imagine a future where voice-commanded AI is super useful or completely and totally abused—or abusing us! It’s definitely an intriguing avenue to explore in fiction. My Amarie in the f/f companion novel to Just One More Minute always says “please” to Alexa and Siri, because she doesn’t want to hurt their feelings. (Amarie is so sweet, and I can’t wait for you to meet her!)

Security and ethics aside, I welcome our robot overlords. As long as you’re smart about how you use them, they can be extremely beneficial to those of us with limited mobility. I’m even envisioning a future where, instead of the Life Alert lanyard, elderly people have an Echo Dot or something similar in their home; if they fall, they can say “Alexa, call 911” or even “Alexa, call my daughter.”

There are so many fantastic uses for Alexa, Siri, and future iterations. I’m eager to see how this technology progresses!

Do Alexa and Siri creep you out? How would you utilize them in your everyday life? Let me know in the comments!

Liz’s Ultimate Post-Booktrope Self-Publishing Guide

via Unsplash
via Unsplash

With Booktrope closing its doors and so many authors scrambling to figure out what to do now, I thought I’d share some resources for those interested in self-publishing. Before I signed with Booktrope, I was a self-published author. I published a previously published award-winning short story on the Kindle in 2011. When I first started out, I had no idea what I was doing. Since then, I’ve learned a few things that I hope my fellow orphaned authors will find useful.

I’ll be updating this post as I think of more resources. If I’ve missed anything, feel free to post a comment and ask a question or suggest something!

To self-publish your book, all you really need is a properly formatted .doc or ePub file and a high quality book cover image. There are many guides online for ebook formatting (Amazon, Smashwords, and Lulu all have them available on their websites), so I’m not going to get into the technical details here. But if you can write a novel in a Word document, you’re definitely capable of formatting your ebook.

You can upload your ebook directly to Kindle (via Kindle Direct Publishing, also known as KDP), iBooks (via the iTunes Producer app, available only for Mac users), Nook (via NookPress), and Kobo (via Kobo Writing Life). All you need is to sign up for a free account and you’re on your way.

There are also several ebook distributors: Smashwords, Draft2Digital, and Lulu, to name a few. These allow you to publish to all of the major ebook retailers I mentioned above, plus a few more, all with one push of a button. If you’re new to self-publishing and feeling completely overwhelmed, using a distributor may be a good option for you. More experienced self-published authors may prefer to go direct when possible.

Each of the distributors has their own advantages and disadvantages. Lulu, for example, allows you to split royalties with others, so may be an option for authors and creative team members who want to continue sharing royalties. Personally, my favorite is Draft2Digital (D2D). Their user interface is gorgeous, and it’s really easy to upload an ebook with them. They also allow you to create a beautiful table of contents. Smashwords, on the other hand, can be kind of a pain when you’re trying to upload files—although they do offer some perks when it comes to the iBooks store.

Speaking of ebook files, there are a few ways you can create your own.

Like I mentioned above, you can format an ebook in a Word doc using a guide from one of the retailers or distributors. (You can also do a Google search for ebook formatting guides.) You can use a tool such as Instascribe (online tool) or Vellum (Mac app) to make gorgeous ebooks without much technical knowledge. Or you can hire someone to do the formatting for you.

If possible, I recommend learning how to format, because it’s a very handy skill to have.

Once you have a formatted .doc or ePub file, you’re ready to roll. Each retailer has its own wizard for setting up your book, so I won’t get too into detail here. But to sell at any retailer, you will need to submit:

  • ebook file (.doc or ePub)
  • ebook cover (.jpg or .jpeg)
  • book blurb
  • keywords
  • category
  • pricing

Some retailers also require you to submit your author bio, while others allow you to set up a dedicated author profile.

Book blurb writing is an art, but you’ve probably already got one from your publishing process with Booktrope. Your book manager may have included you in the keyword and category brainstorming process when she put together your PFS, but if not, no worries. This KDP help topic on categories and keywords should get you going. I find it’s helpful to keep all of my books’ categories and keywords in a spreadsheet so that I’m submitting the same ones across the board. If you find that the ones you’re using aren’t successful, you can always tweak them later.

Finally, you’ll need to set the pricing. This is another one of those things that will be an ongoing experiment. You may want to go with the same price that Booktrope put on your book, or you may want to try another price. Personally, I use a formula to help me decide each book’s price point.

  • Short story: $0.00 or $0.99
  • Novelette: $0.99
  • Novella: $2.99
  • Novel: $3.99, $4.99, $5.99
  • Series box set: $7.99, $8.99, $9.99

Many indies find that pricing a single book over $5.99 actually hurts their sales. Depending on the genre, though, you can price higher or lower than the industry average. For example, erotica short stories often sell best at $2.99. For best results, take some time searching Amazon for other books in your genre and noting the most common price point. Chances are, that’s your book’s sweet spot.

A note on sales and promotions: If you think you might run sales in the future, it’s best to price your book accordingly. For example, if you want to run a $0.99 promo, it wouldn’t make sense to make your book’s regular price $1.99. That’s not much of a deal for your readers.

Speaking of $1.99, research conducted by self-published authors tends to show that $1.99 is a dead zone for most books. Books just don’t seem to sell at $1.99. Also, there doesn’t seem to be much difference in sales between books priced at $3.99 or $4.99. Your mileage may vary, though. You’ll have to run your own experiments to see what works best for your books, genre, and readers.

Here are a few resources that are invaluable for indie authors:

  • Kboards Writers’ Cafe: This is a little forum where self-published, trad-published, and hybrid authors come to talk shop, share tips, and cheer each other on. Chances are, if you have a question about something, someone here will know the answer.
  • Lindsay Buroker’s blog: Indie author Lindsay has been immensely successful with her books and frequently shares marketing tips.
  • Self-Publishing Podcast: Johnny, Sean, and Dave are three more veterans in the indie author community. In their podcast, they talk shop, writing, and marketing, as well as interview other successful indie authors.
  • Rocking Self-Publishing: Simon interviews indie authors every week and they share their successes, failures, and strategies.
  • The Creative Penn: Superstar indie author Joanna shares self-publishing resources and also has a podcast where she shares her latest projects and interviews other indie authors.
  • Wayne Stinnett: Wayne shares a wealth of knowledge on his blog from his own experiments.

A note on marketing: Once your books are live, your work is far from done. You’re going to have to put constant effort into marketing in order to gain visibility in ebook stores. Booktrope was heavy on social media, but that’s far from the beginning. Personally I found that investing most of my time into writing my next book was much more productive than spending hours on Facebook, Twitter, etc. I strongly recommend setting up an email list. You can start one for free using MailChimp, and both AWeber and Constant Contact offer 30-day trials. I don’t suggest using any other email list service, as these three are CAN-SPAM friendly and won’t get you blacklisted.

I can’t stress enough how important it is to work closely with another author or group of authors in your genre. You can cross-promote each other, cheer each other on, and lean on each other when you need a shoulder to cry on. Shout out to my work wife J.C. Hannigan, critique partner Molli Moran, and the lovely Rebecca Paula. These three ladies are my home team, not to mention the countless other authors I keep in touch with. Even if you “only” have one writer friend, that relationship is invaluable as you both navigate the ever changing waters of the publishing industry. Stick together, bounce book and marketing ideas off each other, and you’ve got a fighting chance.

A note on print books: You may notice that I didn’t cover self-publishing your book as a paperback in this post. This is because it’s not really something I like doing myself. I have a lot of trouble with formatting, so usually hire this service out. There are many guides and templates for self-publishing a paperback, though. Just give it a whirl on Google and see what you can come up with.

Finally, don’t give up. Stubbornness is the main quality of every successful author. Remember that you’re in this for the long haul. There’s no such thing as an overnight success. Keep at it and you’ll already be more successful than most. I see a lot of Booktrope orphans throwing in the towel and that makes me really sad. You can do this!

If you have any questions, please leave a comment below and I’ll do my best to get back to you. Keep in mind that I’m working around the clock to get my own books squared away, so I might not be able to answer very quickly.

Thanks for reading! Please share this with a friend if you found it helpful.

If you’d like to tip me for this article, please buy me a coffee or buy one of my books!


Update, May 30th, 2016: Thank you all so much for the lovely feedback! For more tutorials and help, please visit my story studio at MaiettaInk.com.