The Sky is Falling (Again)

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via Unsplash

I’ve been working in the indie publishing industry for five years, with a smattering of trad pub experience right before that. I mean a very tiny smattering; I had a couple short stories and poems published in journals before I got addicted to self-publishing, and I was with a small press for a year. But I’ve always been an introvert, and the thing most people don’t know about us introverts is that we’re super observant. We may not say much, but we see everything. And we pay attention.

Lately there’s been a lot of ugliness in the lit community. Some high profile authors were outed for attacking readers, there’s been a lot of mudslinging over diversity in fiction, and now I’m seeing a lot of authors griping about how “oversaturated” the industry is.

I get it. Amazon sales have tanked for everyone this month. In general, there’s been a decline in sales. The industry has been plateauing, trying to find its footing in the midst of this digital revolution. But I’ve noticed the panic really dig in to authors when Amazon changes something. And then things get ugly.

I’ve been doing this for five years. It’s not a long time, by any means, but I’ve seen a lot of things change. It’s completely natural to look for something to blame when the industry shifts, but it seems kind of petty to lob it at the increasing number of authors and books out there.

For one, the market has always been full. Even before indie publishing took off—back when it was considered vanity publishing to go and print copies of your books and sell them out of your car—there was a vast traditional market. Book stores became more and more selective with who they gave shelf space to. It was a game of dollars—which publisher could pay the most to get their star author front and center in stores. And it still is.

New authors are debuting every day in the traditional world. Some never sell. Publishers are taking a huge gamble on them. Many authors will not publish again, or will and remain low- or mid-list. Those who buckle down for the long haul will ultimately have the most rewarding careers. Some will become overnight bestsellers and will be completely okay with their single famous series.

It’s the same on the indie side of the fence. The only difference is whose dollars are backing the production and marketing.

Authors, we’re not competitors. There are millions of readers around the world, with new markets opening up every single day. (Right now India and Nigeria’s ebook markets are booming, by the way.) Readers don’t play favorites. Sure, there are authors they love who they will always buy from right away. But most readers are just looking for something good to read that fits their tastes and their budget—especially while their favorites are in between releases.

We’re not competitors, the same way sushi and pizza aren’t. They’re different foods, with different flavors, but they’re still tasty. Depending on the day, I’ll have a craving for one or the other (or a variety of other foods).

Amazon tweaked an algorithm that slashed sales. Okay. That does sting. My sales, for example, aren’t that high in the first place. Being disabled and low income, I work hard so that my book sales help pay my bills. I more than understand the stress. However, Amazon isn’t the only retailer out there, nor are they the only avenue of income for authors.

For example, over on Kobo my sales are business as usual. I’m participating in a 30% off promotion and my standalone romance The Nanny with the Skull Tattoos is currently selling all over the world, with little effort on my part at this point. All I did was sign up for the promotion. Thanks to Kobo, I just sold my first book in Sweden. A couple months ago, I broke into the UAE market for the first time.

 

Kindle Unlimited is just not a long-term business plan for indie authors. It’s great in the short-term, but as Amazon tweaks algorithms to better service their customers, it affects the authors. And that’s fine, because Amazon is a business and they have to do what’s best for their customers. They don’t owe authors anything. Their job is to keep their business running—and our job is to keep our businesses running.

I was recently listening to an episode of The Creative Penn podcast and Joanna Penn said something like “readers don’t owe you a living.” This really resonated with me.

Amazon and readers aren’t obligated to keep our businesses running. We are. And we do so by being open to other streams of income, such as going wide (maybe rotating series in KU but not putting our entire catalogs in), writing in multiple genres, writing nonfiction, and looking for related work, like teaching courses and workshops.

Our entire careers do not and should not depend on Amazon. Our sales do not depend on whether other authors are releasing. Our sales do not depend on readers.

How well we do is up to us, the author—the entrepreneur at the head of our own businesses.

Our careers depend on how hard we want to work. It’s as simple as that.

I’m in it for the long haul. And no algorithm tweak or market condition is going to change that.

5 Things I’ve Learned About Self-Publishing in the Last 5 Years

Signing at the Monte Cristo Bookshop in 2012. Photo by Kate Randall.
Signing at the Monte Cristo Bookshop in 2012. Photo by Kate Randall.

Today marks five years since I started self-publishing, when I hit publish on my award-winning short story, “Moon Prayer.” To this day I still get that feeling of anticipation and excitement when I publish a new book. It’s a feeling that never gets old, one that I think will be familiar throughout the rest of my career. It’s crazy to think that five years is such a short and long time; it’s only a blip on the timeline of a lifelong career, but it’s also the hardest period when starting a new business. And I’ve accomplished a lot.

In the last five years, I’ve:

  • published nine novels, with my 10th coming out next month
  • been signed by a small press publisher (now closed)
  • done several signings at book stores
  • made a lot of lifelong friends
  • done several interviews—including a podcast

Since I want to look back on posts like this, I’d also like to mention what I’m currently working on:

  • My 10th novel, standalone NA romance Just One More Minute, comes out November 18th. It’s part of a duology; the other book is a standalone about another couple.
  • Throughout the next couple of months, I will be writing and editing the fourth book in my rockstar romance, the South of Forever series. I hope to release it in early 2017.

I’m extremely proud of everything I’ve done in the last five years, and I know that the next five will be just as fun. I’ve learned many things so far, but here are a few of the most important.

Self-Publishing is an Agile Business

In this industry, change happens quickly. No one knows the formula to an overnight success, and what catches fire in the market changes with the wind. Billionaires, for example, are out, but small town farmers are totally in. You can write to market or you can write what’s in your heart and wait for the market to catch up. (It will eventually.) In that same sense, marketing tactics come and go, too. Amazon could tweak one algorithm tomorrow and your marketing plan could come crashing down.

It sounds kind of awful, and though it can be, it’s mostly exciting. I’m always looking forward to what changes will occur in indie publishing. New markets are opening all the time (see Joanna Penn’s comments on the booming industry in India and Nigeria), and people and companies are forging ahead with some really cool storytelling innovation (like Radish and Night Vale).

Good or bad, you have to be ready to pivot and apply everything you’re learning to what you’re doing in the trenches. Sometimes I’ve had to make decisions on a whim based on new information. This business has been one of the most exhilarating things I’ve ever done.

Publishing Exclusively With Amazon is Super Risky

You know how your grandma always said “Never put all of your eggs in one basket”? She was right.

Before I started building my empire, I was a web designer. I ran workshops and did presentations all the time, where I advised clients not to rely on free websites or social media—they needed their own domain where they could control everything. Facebook, for example, could change their terms of service at any time, completely destroying everything my client had built. With their own website, though, they owned their content and held the keys.

When I came to self-publishing, I applied this same philosophy to the retailers I sold at. Being wide—avoiding programs like KDP Select—put the control in my hands. Many a horror story has been told on Kboards about authors who were Amazon-exclusive and one single algorithm tweak brought their income to a screeching halt. Kindle Unlimited can be great to get a new author started—you can make a lot of money in a short period of time—but it’s not a good long-term business plan.

If I was a brand new author just starting out, I would release a trilogy straight to KU. After 90 days, I would go wide and stay wide. Then I’d repeat it with my next series. As I started seeing income rise at the other retailers, I would start publishing directly to all of them—skipping KU entirely.

Setting Up Multiple Honeypots is a Great Way to Maximize Your Income

For the longest time, I was lucky to make $10 a month at Amazon. I was publishing short stories, which I later discovered aren’t the best length for steady sales. However, even with shorter works, when I published consistently, I was able to make at least $10 a month at each of the retailers. This multiplied my income, especially once I joined Kobo’s promotions email list (which is now a tab built into the KWL dashboard for select indie authors).

Each retailer has really great assets. Finding and leveraging those strengths to your advantage is the key to success. For example, distributors like Draft2Digital and Smashwords have reps from Apple and Barnes & Noble that will merchandise your books. I’ve even heard of authors who publish direct being contacted by reps and having their books featured. And Kobo’s promotions, as I mentioned, are a fantastic tool for reaching more customers.

But having honeypots doesn’t just mean being wide. It also means finding related streams of income, like writing nonfiction, speaking, and teaching. I even know indie authors who are also ghostwriters. Another honeypot is doing signings, conventions, book festivals, craft fairs, and art shows. Basically anywhere there’s going to be a crowd of people willing to spend money. There are so many avenues and opportunities—especially in this exciting digital age.

It’s Ridiculously Easy to Burn Out Really Quickly

All of this excitement can easily become overwhelming. After all, indie authors have a lot of work to do on any given day, and that can become stressful. It’s even worse when you get a case of comparison-itis. I often find myself comparing myself to other self-published authors, wondering “How come I’m not making a living?” and “Why can’t I write that fast?”

This is why it’s super important to do two things on a regular basis: put things into perspective, and fill the well.

You can’t compare yourself to someone who’s been writing for decades, for example. I catch myself wondering why I’m not more like Tarryn Fisher or Colleen Hoover all the time. In reality, they’ve been self-publishing much longer than I have. It took me a few years to find my voice and niche—I only just started consistently releasing a series last year—so realistically I’m at a completely different place.

I used to try to jump straight from one project to another. It took me some time to figure it out, but I’m much more productive if I take some time off in between and fill the well. This can mean reading a couple of books and binge-watching a series on Netflix. It’s especially beneficial if I just focus on relaxing.

It’s also important to write a business plan and keep strict business hours. I revise my business plan every six months or so, and usually write a separate marketing plan for each book. I only work Monday through Friday from 9am to 5pm. It took me a few years to realize that even though I wanted to work a lot of hours and even enjoyed it, those long days were wearing me down. Occasionally I break this rule—like when my publisher closed or when I wrote a novel in two weeks. Otherwise, I’m super careful about how many hours I put in—especially since I have a chronic illness. YMMV.

Writing Doesn’t Have to Be a Solitary Career

The best thing that’s happened to me in the last five years was hooking up with other authors who write in a similar genre. I met J.C. Hannigan back in the day when we were both aimlessly blogging through our twenties. After a few years of me harassing her, she came over to the dark side and started self-publishing too. I call her my “work wife” and love her to pieces. I also happen to adore her books! For a long time, I was pretty much on my own, but when she started self-publishing, I was thrilled to finally have someone I could really talk to.

I met my critique partner, Molli Moran, on Twitter. I liked her a lot right away and fell in love with her books. We chatted more and more frequently, sharing story ideas and marketing tips. Eventually we started swapping manuscripts for beta reading, and it was a perfect fit. It only made sense that we become critique partners.

With these two lovely ladies and the sweet Rebecca Paula, I co-founded Romance Readers Anonymous on Facebook. Just the simple act of coming together to do something nice for our readers keeps the ugly loneliness away, but we also bounce marketing ideas and plots off each other. Our group is so lovely in the sense that we respect and take care of each other. Recently we all realized we were a little overwhelmed and decided to make October a roll with it kind of month, rather than scheduling themed posts and games. It’s so easy with these three ladies and I’m so grateful to have them in my life. Eventually we have got to have a meetup!

The last five years have been quite a ride, but I’ve far from reached my destination. In the next five years, I hope to:

  • be making a full-time income ($5,000 a month is totally all right with me)
  • publish at least two memoirs (one about my chronic illness and the healthcare system, the other about PTSD and the mental healthcare system)
  • have several series in genres ranging across YA, NA, and adult fiction
  • train Dragon or some other speech-to-text program so that I can save my poor wrists 😂
  • be losing my mind because maybe I’ll be trying to write books while raising babies

It’s all within reach, because the magic is already inside of me.


Thank you so much to all of my readers, family, and friends for your unwavering support and love throughout the past five years! This journey has never been easy, and many have doubted me—including myself—but your faith has carried me through. As a thank you for being there, I will be sending my email list a FREE copy of “Moon Prayer”—that award-winning short story that I self-published five years ago.

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Authors Acting Like Assholes

Alliteration! 🙃 Okay, but seriously, I strongly feel that this needs to be addressed.

The publishing community—also known as the lit community—is like a small town. There are two major neighborhoods: the trad suburbs and the indie village. Everyone knows everyone, and you’re often as strong as your acquaintances. So I can understand why some townspeople might feel as if they’re better off not standing up to the bullying selectmen and mayors. But when those prominent figures start vandalizing buildings on Main Street, there are only so many times you can scrub the bricks clean.

I think we’ve seen enough episodes of Authors Behaving Badly. As public figures—yes, even those of us who are prawny and barely make coffee money off our writing—we ought to hold ourselves to certain standards. Siccing our Twitter followers on someone who had a differing opinion or belittling another author’s reading comprehension on a public message board falls miles short of that. As writers, you’d think we would understand the weight of our words and actions.

Yet it happens over and over.

Occasionally, it spawns a series of Twitter threads and blog posts calling out the bad behavior and attempting to correct it. Too often, though, it goes completely ignored—especially if there isn’t a group to support us and back us up. We continue our friendships and business arrangements with authors who repeatedly let their tongues go hurtling out of the yard.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I don’t want to be associated with someone who purposely walks all over other people.

Everyone is entitled to a bad day. Sometimes our words get jumbled and what we thought sounded right and correctly conveyed our feelings was simply hurtful. We apologize and we move on. We are forgiven and we learn from our mistakes. But I’m not talking about those people.

I’m dismayed and nauseated when I see respectful authors buddying up with authors who have a history of attacking readers and bloggers. My reputation—my business’s brand—is much more valuable to me than thousands of dollars in royalties. I’d rather stay prawny than know I got to the NYT bestseller list because I turned the other cheek while friends were steamrolled. I’ve put my foot down and walked away from seemingly amazing opportunities because I couldn’t stomach the Napoleon-esque, demeaning behavior.

I want more of us to do these things.

What one of us does and says reflects on all of us. Even though it sometimes may seem like everyone out there is an author, we’re actually a very small community. While I’m not arrogant enough to think that we should have a blacklist along the lines of Writer Beware, I do believe more of us should have a little more pride and integrity in our little town.

This shouldn’t be a witch hunt; we’re no better if we start publicly outing people and burning them at the Twitter stake. But maybe if, while we’re strolling down Main Street, we see someone pull out that graffiti can, we can say,

“I see you, I disapprove of your actions, and I will not work with you.”

via Unsplash
via Unsplash

Quitting Is For Quitters

via Unsplash
via Unsplash

I’ve been having that “maybe I should quit writing” talk with myself again. It’s an internal monologue. I’m lying awake in bed at 3am thinking You know what? I gave it my best shot. It’s been five years. FIVE. And I’m not seeing any major results. So maybe it’s time to go back to school for something I can physically handle and give up this ghost.

I’m supposed to be creating a takeover schedule for tonight or at least putting together a Crockpot full of sauce, but all I can think about is how tired I am. How overwhelmed I feel. We’re behind on all of our bills. I’ve racked up over $2,000 in credit card debt to afford covers and advertising and swag. And while part of this journey has been a blessing in disguise, giving me something to focus on while tackling my health issues, I have to wonder if maybe I’m just kidding myself.

The last two months have been amazing. I was cut loose from my publisher, who in fact did not help advance my career. All throughout May and June, I surged forward. I put together a new business plan for recouping from my publisher tanking. I set a release date for a new book and wrote up an eight-page marketing plan for it. And now, a little more than a month away, I find myself frustrated by my finances. I can’t afford the last piece, the cover design I need. The book is otherwise done, but I’ll probably have to postpone its release. I don’t know when to even reschedule.

And that kind of makes me feel like a failure.

There’s nothing glamorous about this job—not in a financial sense of the word, anyway. It’s grueling, hard work. I’m not in it for the paycheck, though; I do it because I love it. I also do it because I have a debilitating illness that prevents me from working a normal job for more than two months.

I’ve been writing and submitting articles like crazy to various magazines. Usually I get crickets, which means “Sorry, we’re not publishing it,” and just re-submit elsewhere. This morning I got a brutal rejection letter that basically said “Your article sucks.”

Honestly, that fucking stings.

I’ve received rough 1- and 3-star reviews on my fiction, but that skin has long since thickened. Usually I ignore them or even laugh them off. This rejection caught me completely off guard. It’s sort of the last nail in the coffin.

Maybe I should just walk away.

But the truth is, I’m always on the run. Like the Lenny Kravitz song. When things get hard and I lose self-confidence, I’m out. Nine times out of ten, I don’t follow through on things because I get nervous and tell myself, “You know, never mind. This is not a good idea and you aren’t capable of carrying it out anyway.”

I’m brutally hard on myself.

A lot of that has to do with being bullied throughout elementary and middle school. Some of it has to do with being a sensitive kid who certain family members weren’t exactly gentle with.

And yet in the last five years, I kept coming back. Maybe it’s stupidity or insanity. But there’s a rumbling fire inside of me that argues with the internal “I should quit” monologue. I love writing. Actually, I fucking love writing. It’s the only language I really speak. Through writing, I am really, truly me.

Which is why it’s so devastatingly heartbreaking when I start to think I should quit. Quitting writing is like permanently muting myself.

I can’t bring myself to walk away from the page.

So I dry my tears and blow my nose and, while I calm down, consider another option. A middle way. I don’t have to quit—but I also don’t have to beat my head against a deadline that I set for myself. I’m the boss, after all.

Though I absolutely cannot wait to share What Happens On Tour with the world, I don’t want to just toss it out there with a DIY cover just for the sake of being on time. So I’ll wait. Which is incredibly hard to do, considering how impatient I am. Just ask my husband.

I don’t know when I’ll be able to release this book, but I do know that when I do, it’ll be right, not rushed. Besides, the summer is a terrible time to release a new book anyway.

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.