BREAKING NEWS: My first interview with Patricia de Hemricourt at ePublishABook.com, just came out and can be viewed here. It’s a good one, and goes into some detail on my process and general thinking, including some insightful questions on Gazillions. John Locke, and my writing and editing times.
NEW BOOK REVIEW: An extremely positive review for The Geronimo Breach at the blog of J. Landon Cocks can be seen here.
FEATURED BOOK: Fatal Exchange is the featured book at The Kindle Book Review. Check it out.
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Many of my Twitter followers are authors, and of those most are self-published. As we’ve all seen and heard, self-publishing can be a thankless and barren road, and money can be tight, or even non-existent.
The ease with which the self-publishing platforms now enable aspiring writers to upload their work is mind-boggling. The only thing standing between you and being on Amazon are a few mouse clicks. Gone is virtually the entire delivery system that defined the traditional publishing business for generations. Trees don’t need to be sawed down, trucks don’t need to go to and from warehouses filled with freshly printed books, stores don’t need to occupy valuable space that could house another Starbucks or fast food joint. It’s a brave new world we’re writing in; the old rules are dead and the sky’s the limit.
But is it really different this time?
Look, I’m no fan of inefficiency. I don’t particularly like a system that is the most usurious model I can imagine, aside from the record business. Authors see pennies on the dollar under that old model, with the retailer and the publisher pocketing the lion’s share of the product’s revenues. The actual creator of the work sees a sliver in that scheme, just as musicians see nominal bucks while the record companies pocket gazillions.
But is it all bad? Is the entire model worth throwing out?
As with most things in life, the answer is maybe.
It really depends upon the discipline of the writer.
What do I mean by that?
In the old model, there was a presumption that the literary agent had culled through thousands of manuscripts to find the most deserving to represent. Deserving generally equated to well-written and interesting, although in many cases deserving actually meant generated by someone whose name would ensure sales, even if they couldn’t spell their book title. Be that as it may (and don’t start me down the Snooki path), presumably the literary agents were gatekeepers of quality, who then passed their clients’ wares to publishers, who further thinned the herd, resulting in a clumsy industry algorithm that spat out books at the opposite end of the sausage machine – and the presumption was those books were competently written, would be of interest to someone, and were executed in a superior fashion; professional cover designers drew up art, professional editors checked grammar and punctuation and spelling, etc.
Now none of that applies. You can have your dim nephew kluge together some sort of botched abortion for a cover, and can generate books as quickly as monkeys can type.
That’s both good and bad. Because it demands that the writer be disciplined, even to the point where he/she must invest in quality control, in addition to investing the time into writing and then marketing.
From my standpoint, two essential elements I won’t sacrifice on are cover art and editing. I recently wrote a guest blog on my thinking about cover art, which can be viewed here, so this exercise is devoted to singing the praises of editing. Professional editing by a qualified, experienced editor, not a friend who substitute-teaches English as a second language and who has no real expertise or germane education.
A good editor can play an accretive part in the writing process, helping to not only catch errors and correct grammar, but also to take a larger role in ensuring the author’s voice is compelling, and that the story being told is done so in as masterful a manner possible given the writer’s skill level. A good editor adds to the quality of the work, and demands more out of the author, perhaps by asking leading questions or introducing commentary, or in some cases more overtly influencing the process: suggesting areas that need to be rewritten; pointing out gaps in story or plot; checking to ensure continuity and coherence; offering counsel on overall flow and pacing.
A good editor has the luxury of picking work he/she can improve, and will drive to create a superior product. A bad one will spell check and ensure punctuation is at least marginally competent. Or worse, will actually hurt the work, introducing more problems than they fix.
I believe that it’s almost as important to find a conscientious editor who shares a similar vision, as it is to sit down and write. I believe this because I’ve been on both sides of the editing table, and it’s a thankless job in the end, and it pays modestly, at best, and demands excruciating attention to detail and a love of the game of writing, as well as use of language. A good editor suggests alternative word choices, and catches echoes, and calls a spade a spade, and shares the writer’s enthusiasm over turning a phrase in a satisfying manner.
As writers, you owe it to yourselves to spend time interviewing editors, learning about their qualifications and the roster of authors they’ve worked with, and in the end, investing in a quality job. You need to pay for a pro to do the work correctly.
I’ve blogged a lot about why I write. I’m not a marketing wiz, nor do I claim some literary high ground. But I do know a bit about starting businesses. I’ve done more than my share of start-ups, and one thing I know is that you have to invest in your business before you can expect to see income, much less profits. So when you’re done writing your masterpiece, sit down and jot out a rough business plan – a budget, if you will, that captures product development (cover, pagination), quality control (editing), and marketing. Note that few if any business plans have zero committed to quality control, and zero for marketing, and zero for product development. None I’ve ever seen that were successful, at any rate. So what are you committing to your business, in terms of time, and money? How much are you planning to invest, and what do you hope to earn, net of those expenses? In what time frame? And what if things don’t go as planned? How long and how much are you willing to commit to seeing your business through until it is successful?
Being a writer requires intellectual discipline and honesty, if your writing is going to be compelling. I’d liken it to being on a never-ending quest. But once you’re done writing, you’re now a publisher. And being a publisher also requires discipline and honesty – at least with yourself. You need to commit resources to your self-publishing business, or it will fail. That seems elemental, and obvious.
Editing isn’t an optional part of this game. It’s a requisite. You need to expect to pay for a quality job, just as you would expect to pay for any other quality job in any other discipline. I’m very fortunate, as I have a gem of an editor who shares similar tastes and literary aesthetic. If you’d like his info, I’ll be happy to give it to you – just e-mail me via the “Contact” button. He’s the right man for my jobs, but may not be ideal for yours. You’ll need to determine that. But I can tell you that my work is the better for his involvement, and that he’s the best I’ve found. And I looked. I’ve been through four now. This is the fourth and final one.
The takeaway on this is that you need to look at your publishing gig as a business, into which you need to put sufficient resources to have a decent shot at success. Most start-ups fail due to flawed research, failed execution, or insufficient funding. All three of these are avoidable if you do the work and go in with your eyes wide open. So do yourself a favor. Get a good book cover to represent your product to the public. Get a good editor to keep you on track and help you polish your work to as exacting a standard as is possible. Plan a marketing approach, commit time and money and energy to it, and modify your approach if it isn’t working. Develop a habit of discipline – commit X hours per week to social media, Y to blogging and interviews, Z to finding reviewers to sample your wares, and A to writing your next work. Invest time in your product descriptions. Listen to what your readers think of your work. Seek out the counsel of those whose opinions you respect, even if their opinions might seem harsh to you on first blush.
And be disciplined in developing your product, which is the sum of the writing, the editing, and the representation (cover, your blog, your persona).
Is this easy? Nope. Will it work if you do all the above? No guarantee, just as there’s no guarantee of any other start-up business succeeding. But your odds increase the more disciplined you are. I’ve seen plenty of undisciplined talent with oodles of money and energy go nowhere due to lack of discipline. And I’ve seen marginal talents with a good work ethic and persistence, and reasonable commitments of resources, do well.
I’ll leave you with this. The harder I work, the luckier I seem to get, in every business I’ve ever started or operated. I bet this one is much the same. So my advice is hire a good editor to work with you, ensuring your product is as good as it can be, and you’ll be far ahead of many of your peers. Again, it’s not an elective or an option. It’s a requirement for success.
BREAKING NEWS: I wrote a guest blog for author Benjamin Wallace on my thinking about book covers. It’s a good one, and you might want to check it out and introduce yourself to Ben, who is a talent. It can be viewed here.
BREAKING BREAKING NEWS: Fatal Exchange is the featured book at The Kindle Book Review.
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A few weeks ago I wrote a blog about writing. Specifically, about why I write, and positing that there are two general camps of authors — those who write for their love of the craft, and those who write to create a commercially-viable product. Put another way, those who would write if there was no money in it, and those who wouldn’t write unless they could get paid, or thought they could.
The response was unprecedented, with 113 comments at last count
In this new blog, I’d like to examine the opposite side of the coin I flipped the last time, namely effective book promotions. The overwhelming consensus of the last blog was that most write as members of Camp B (if you don’t know what that means, read the frigging blog), but once they’ve written something, the question that arises is, how to best promote it?
To start off, I’ll share a few promotions I have going on, or will have within a week. Some of these were a bit unorthodox, as I’m leery of the efficacy of things like contests, trailers, blog tours, and the like. That’s not to say they don’t work, but merely to admit that I don’t know how well they work, when they work at all. I’m hoping I’ll find out more by the time this blog has run its course. That will of course depend on the feedback I get.
The first promotion is a cross promotion in all my thrillers with NY Times featured author David Lender, whose work I’m a big fan of and who’s been very supportive of my efforts.
The way this works is that each copy of Fatal Exchange, The Geronimo Breach and (when I release them within the next 7-10 days) the Zero Sum trilogy, has an excerpt summary page right after the copyright notice in the front featuring samples of my three thrillers, and then an excerpt summary page featuring David Lender’s three thrillers. The actual excerpts are at the back of the book – three samples of my work, and then three of David’s, from The Gravy Train, Trojan Horse and Bull Street.
We figured our audiences would enjoy each others’ books, so have put this into place to see what kind of cross-traction we can get. We’re betting that if someone likes my new Wall Street thriller trilogy, they’ll like his Wall Street thrillers, and vice versa.
This is not uncommon with traditionally published authors under the same publishing house, but I haven’t heard of a lot of self-published/indie authors doing it. If it’s successful, I’ll keep everyone posted on how well it worked, and how long it took to do so.
Another promotion I’m getting ready to launch is with the way the Zero Sum trilogy will be marketed.
I’m going to make the first book in the trilogy free. Then the second and third book will be for sale, with a bundle of book two and three at a special discounted price.
My reasoning is that once a reader has had five or six hours of familiarity with the first book, they’ll be convinced enough to buy the rest of the serial, as well as possibly try my other thrillers. I believe this is a good premise, because the hardest part about breaking to new readers is to convince them that not only can you write, but you are worth an investment of their limited time. In short, you need to get the reader to trust you as an author. But they can’t learn to trust you if they’ve never read you, so my solution is to reduce the barrier to entry to zero.
Free is a pretty low hurdle, and one could look at it as a loss leader, or as an investment — the reader’s willing to invest their time in the book, so I’m willing to invest my cost to create it. My writing time, the cover and the editing.
And third, I’m lowering the price of all my books to .99 for two weeks. For the rest of the month. Again, on the theory that familiarity might breed something besides contempt.
I have no idea how well this will work, but my hunch is that it will work better than nothing, or sending out 100 tweets per day telling you to buy my crap, or a blog attempting to capitalize on a topical figure.
So I’d like to hear from other authors out there. What’s worked for you? What marketing or promotional efforts have yielded results for you, or perhaps as importantly, what hasn’t worked for you? What was ineffective that you’d never do again?
I’m open to being taught new tricks, and I believe that encouraging a constructive discussion can benefit everyone, so I’ve just tossed out my two best ideas for marketing over the next few months.
What’s your input? Don’t be shy; let’s get a discussion going so we know how to save our valuable time and money.
BREAKING NEWS (sort of): Sensational author Kathy Hall has written a wonderful review for The Geronimo Breach. Take a moment out, and visit her blog to see what the fuss is all about. It can be viewed here. And new acclaim for How To Sell A Gazillion eBooks In No Time (even if drunk, high or incarcerated) just came in as the 15th sequential 5 star review at Amazon here and another at this blog.
In Defense of Writing
Everyone knows that selling one’s work is a business.
It’s the selling business.
Some are good at it, some not very, but whether it’s selling plush toys or cars or books, the gig’s the same – convince consumers the wares are worth buying and develop a strong enough brand so they return to buy more. Selling is the transactional part; marketing is the brand-building part.
Enter writing. More specifically, enter the act of writing.
Everyone reading this blog knows I’ve done a viciously snarky parody of the slew of self-help books targeting aspiring authors for whom self-publishing is the new Holy Grail. Its title alone should give one a taste of the cynicism which inspired its creation: “How To Sell A Gazillion eBooks In No Time (even if drunk, high or incarcerated).”
What drove me to write it wasn’t to make millions, but rather because I like to write and I especially enjoy mocking human foibles, my own included — and I wanted to express my frustration and disgust with the foolishness and self-important hypocrisy evident in every corner of the writing and self-publishing game.
Which brings me to the point of this blog.
One “How To” book, in particular, by self-publishing sensation John Locke, contains a host of tips and steps for aspiring self-publishing authors. I take no issue with 99% of the counsel Mr. Locke offers, and believe that much of it serves as a decent platform for book marketing in the modern internet-connected world.
But there is a section I have a problem with, specifically where his approach to writing is to do so as though creating a product – essentially, if you follow his model, you’re to profile your target audience/reader and stereotype them, figure out what your hypothesized reader wants (chocolate or vanilla or strawberry), and then write what your target market will consume. Some quotations: “I set project goals: 1) Determine my target audience. 2) Complete a manuscript. 3) Write a book that will sell.” And “…understanding who your target audience is, and what they want, and writing to it (and only them!) is the most important component of being an author.” And “Selling downloads is nothing more than writing to a specific audience, and knowing how to find them.” All good marketing-driven advice. I have no issue with it from a marketing standpoint, nor from a salesman’s. It’s good counsel if you measure success as a writer in sales terms.
And if you think about it, the counsel makes sense if one views writing as product development. It’s a marketing worldview which treats writing as a product, much like any other. For me, it would be the same as treating painting as product, versus art – the inevitable result of which is a world filled with Thomas Kincades instead of Van Goghs.
When it comes to writing there are basically two camps, once you strip away all the hyperbole: Those for whom writing is a business and writing is a product-engineering process; and those for whom writing is an art/craft, separate from the business of selling the work once it’s produced (again, I have no problem with the business of selling and this is not anti-selling in any way).
I would describe it as Camp A, the “writing as product” camp, and Camp B, the “writing as expression of art/craft” camp.
Part of me rejects Camp A at a fundamental level, because I’m a Camp B guy. I write because I enjoy doing so. I write what I want; I do so in genres I myself read, and I don’t attempt to second guess how the work will do in the marketplace. I’m aware that the work is a product, but when I write I do so because I love the act of creation, not because I want to be in the “book widget” design & marketing business. I desperately try to avoid self-censorship, or creating a book because I’m hopeful it’s what the market “might” devour. In truth I’d be terrible at it, because then I wouldn’t be creating what I want, enjoying the craft for my own selfish, guilty pleasure – at that point, I’m churning out a product.
As I read Locke’s counsel to write what your audience wants, I found myself thinking of the scene in Amadeus where Salieri is counseling the commercially-struggling Mozart to craft heavy-handed operas with pedestrian execution and a bang at the finish so the audience knows the opera’s done.
Now, I’m not saying I’m any Mozart, but my point is that I do believe that we owe it to ourselves, as artists and writers, to aspire to be Mozart, even if our talents largely fall short. You can’t be the next David Foster Wallace if you never try to be. And if most don’t strive to excel, and instead focus on cranking out “sellable” product that panders to the lowest common denominator (not a bad commercial bet, incidentally), then it’s likely we will all be the poorer for it in the long haul. When we abandon the pursuit of excellence in favor of the pursuit of commercial reward, we are doomed as artists.
Note I’m not saying commercial reward is bad, or shouldn’t be aspired to. I just don’t think it’s the reason one should write. The odds are better of being struck by lightning or winning the lottery than becoming a bestseller, so setting out to write with commercial success as the reason for doing so is a lousy justification, in my mind.
I think you should write because you love the act of writing and creation, and I believe you should hone your craft with the sedulous devotion of an aspiring Yo Yo Ma – and perhaps if my perspective resonates and finds purchase in the world, the next Mozart of literature won’t be wasted writing the equivalent of greeting cards, pulp fiction, or “Penny Dreadfuls.”
Again, I’m not being artsy fartsy, or taking a high moral tone. But writing is, for me, about self-expression first. If a million people wind up thinking my work’s worth reading, super. If only a handful, I’ll be disappointed, but in the end, it won’t diminish my pursuit of the next well-crafted sentence, or plot twist, or memorable character. It’s the process I enjoy, not the selling or marketing part, and while my end-result may become a product I then market, I don’t set out to produce one for any other reason than the joy of doing so.
I’ve been fortunate, financially, so it won’t kill me if nobody wants to buy my books. I’ve made plenty of money marketing and selling things in my life, and I’ve churned out plenty of products that could be described accurately as mediocre. I never confused that with art or striving to master a craft. It was commerce, the business of selling, and it paid me generously. I apprehend the value of marketing and the importance of selling – as a commercial enterprise, not as an artistic endeavor.
So I’m not a neophyte at the commercial aspect of the job. I understand its role. But I also question whether the world is better off with writers aspiring not to craft work that is the ultimate expression of their gift (such as it may be), but rather to spit out mediocre dross, because that’s what they believe will sell. Do we really need more literary sausage machines grinding forth mundane, unimaginative screeds?
On the flip side, I’m also a realist. I understand the argument that it doesn’t matter how good the work is if nobody reads it. I’m fully aware of that. I’m nothing if not pragmatic, and skilled enough with a pen to write monosyllabic action screeds of marginal inventiveness, if that’s what the world is clamoring to buy.
Only I don’t, and won’t. The reason I don’t is a selfish one. It’s because when I write, I’m not doing it for the money. Sure, some cash is a nice reward for a job well done, and a decent indication others believe the work has value (as well as a reasonable measurement for success), however given that I’m comfortable in life, my motivation is different than one driven to pursue a financially-defined success. Regardless of ultimate sales, I’m already successful if I can create intelligent, well-written books I’d enjoy reading, in the genres I like. That’s just me. I write because I’m passionate about the process of invention, of creation, of using language to evoke emotions; and because I’m intent on becoming a better writer every time I sit at the keyboard.
The line of demarcation really comes down to this — I would write even if there was no money in it; no hope of making bank. For those who view writing as commerce, they likely wouldn’t. Why build it if nobody will come? Would you go to your accounting job if nobody paid you? Would you write tech manuals for fun or out of love? That’s nonsensical.
I’m not being sanctimonious. I’m not arguing that one philosophy is superior to the other. I’m not dissing the business of marketing and promoting, which are essential to getting the work into the world. I’m simply saying that I think the act of writing can happen for multiple reasons, and I’m sharing why I do so. Perhaps I’m all wet, and naive, and should treat my act of giving birth to new worlds roughly the same as determining which type of potato chip texture tests best in my target market segment. I just know that when I write a thriller, I do so because I want to, and I want it to be a book that is the very best example it could be, and if others love it, super, then hopefully acclaim and reward will come. If not, so be it, but I’ll still write, either way.
I fully understand I could bastardize even this pure expression of creativity – I know better than most how to do so.
I just don’t want to. I think it cheapens something special, at least for me, and with a finite period on the planet, I’ve learned to jealously protect and cherish the special.
What about you? Which camp do you fall into? A or B?
I’ll be curious to see the responses. Remember for this discussion there is no C – “I write because I love it, and just happen to love writing what I believe my profiled reader would want.” That’s a camp A person who enjoys the work. That’s the bus driver who enjoys doing a good job and is conscientious, but drives a bus because he’s paid to do so.
Camp B is the “I’d write even if people paid zero for books” crowd, camp A is the “I am trying to write something that will be commercially successful and modify what I write accordingly” crowd. One is workmanlike as I see it, the other is more about artistic self-actualization.
Which are you?
Russell Blake is the author of Fatal Exchange, The Geronimo Breach, and the upcoming Zero Sum trilogy (all thrillers), as well as the satire/parody How To Sell A Gazillion eBooks In No Time (even if drunk, high or incarcerated). Excerpts can be viewed at Amazon.com, as well as Goodreads.com and at WattPad.com.
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I was first going to write this blog about clowns, but that seemed just too creepy, because as we all know they’re usually alcoholic pedophiles and sex offenders hiding behind the makeup, red noses and oversized shoes so they can’t be easily identified by their victims.
Not that I’m encouraging stereotypes or profiling, but when I see a mid-forties man wearing face paint and working for peanuts at the circus, I’m judgmental. That doesn’t end well. Don’t even get me started on what series of wrong turns in life have you dodging elephant poop while wearing a funny hat and spraying other reprobates with seltzer. I think I’ve spent enough time heavily-medicated and at the therapist to put the obvious trauma my early run-ins with them caused behind me, but it’s still uncomfortable to go there.
So instead, I decided to do a blog on editing, and the value a good editor brings to the table for self-published authors.
Then I had a few drinks, and decided to change the topic yet again, to the topic of money.
Look, whoever said that writing was its own reward was obviously delusional in the extreme. It’s not. You can’t write your landlord a sonnet to keep a roof over your head. And the groupies aren’t anything to get excited about.
So let’s be honest. I, and most other authors, would like to see some cash for their books, assuming the work doesn’t suck a bucket of d#cks, to borrow a phrase from someone I stole that from. But then there’s that whole process where I have to write something, and then you have to be discerning enough to hear about it, and then buy and read it – although in truth, my interest in the process stops at the point you buy it. I really don’t care if you have to sit, lips moving, sounding out words to get to the end you likely won’t get anyway. I’m more concerned with the part where you pay for it.
But having said that, the process is grossly bloated. Kindle and the other eBook readers are doing away with the publishers, so that makes it more streamlined from one side, but from the other it still has drawbacks, as mentioned. So I’m thinking we can make it even more efficient by you disintermediating (that’s an erudite way of saying eliminating, and erudite’s a fancy way of saying scholarly – or close enough for our purposes) the part where I have to create something you then read, and instead, we just cut to the chase and you send me money!
I know, I know, it’s frigging brilliant. Magic, really. We do away with the entire system, and you just paypal me a few bucks so I can buy tequila and carouse with women of questionable virtue or buy black market organs to keep me fingersnapping till the wee hours.
You probably haven’t read half the books you downloaded for free on your eReader anyway, so let’s not kid around that you somehow are getting shorted on this. I actually just saved you the drama of feeling really stupid when you can’t make out half the ideas or concepts I sculpt with words, presuming you ever tried to read my work in the first place.
I recently saw a statistic (actually I just invented it, but you’ll never know the difference) that says that 81% of all eReaders have a large backlog of downloads they’ll never get to reading. That’s a huge resource drain those readers have to face. And the guilt will slowly poison their souls, as the weight of obligation crushes their spirits and creates yet more misery in their otherwise likely empty and meaningless existences.
So let’s just do away with that, and get very post-modern, and you send me money. We can eliminate the part where I become an investment banker and cheat you out of it in the markets, or a politician and tax it out of you – again, that’s inefficient. Better for both of us is you send it to me, just a little, mind you, hardly anything that will be life changing for you; but it will be a game-changer for me, I guarantee you, especially if we get some lift for the concept and millions of you send me a few bucks.
I mean, I suppose if you want to stay all medieval on me, we can stick with where I churn out a few thousand words about some hackneyed ex-covert operative who gets into improbable and poorly structured and executed pseudo-adventures written in mono-syllables, and then tack on 20K of self-congratulatory reviews and blurbs and such in exchange for your loot, but I’d much prefer if you just wing the shekels my way, and we just proceed from there. I see no downside for either of us. So that’s really best.
Just think about it, OK? Pretend I’m a starving, mewling little third world kid with flies laying larvae in my eyes while I’m sucking the water out of a mudhole to stay alive, if that makes it any easier for you. In fact, we can set up a program where you send a few bucks every month, and you’re “sponsoring” me! Change Russell’s life for only $5 a month? Christ, I’ll crank out some form thank-you letter from Sally Struthers or whatnot if that’s the only thing standing in the way. Because you can sure as hell change my life, if enough of you sign up for this.
Are you with me? Do you feel the change? Are you excited? I feel it! I feel it ENOUGH TO USE CAPSLOCK AND LOTS OF EXCLAMATIONS!!!!!!!
I know a few of you are selfish, money-grubbing misers, whose every waking moments are spent only thinking of yourselves, so I have yet an additional incentive!
I can set up a fraudulent 501c-3 if you want to write it off on your taxes – the IRS will never question $30 bucks of charitable contribution from your side, and I’ve got a beancounter who was doing Madoff’s books, so we’re golden.
If you still don’t see it, don’t make any hasty decisions. This has merit. They laughed at Ford before he invented the lightbulb, and look at how that turned out. You’d still be debating the shadows on the cave wall by burning dung patties if it hadn’t been for him. So don’t be a Luddite and stand in the way of progress. This really is the new new new thing, and you can be in on it for once, at the ground floor.
In fact, maybe the way this works is, everyone send me money, and then every week I’ll hold a contest where I give some of it away in a lump sum to those who contributed! Like 10%! Are you seeing it now? You’ll be rich!
Get back to me on this, OK? It’s for a good cause. Really. I think we can make this work for everyone.