I’ll Be in the Same Bookstore as Craig Johnson on Sunday, If That Matters To you

This is not really about me, but about someone whose books I like.

craig johnson mechanicsburg

I first heard about Craig Johnson and his “Longmire” series through Deb Beamer of the Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookshop. Although he lives out in Wyoming, he has family in Philadelphia, and through diligent string-pulling, Deb invited him to the store to chat and sign books.

Much to her surprise, and I’m sure to Craig as well, a lot of people turned out. So many that the fire marshal would have pitched a fit and fell in it if he had seen how many people were crowding the store.

I saw Johnson for myself after reviewing “Any Other Name,” and learned a great lesson in how to handle yourself before a crowd (which I wrote about). I even picked up “Wait for Signs,” his collection of short stories, and loved it so much I wrote a review of it.

(Yes, I am late to the game. Because I don’t have cable, I didn’t know that there was a “Longmire” TV show. A&E cancelled it because its high ratings skewed too old for them, but Netflix picked it up, and fans can expect 10 episodes showing up in August or September.)

craig johnson mechanicsburg dry bones book coverSo I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that he’ll be back at the bookstore on Sunday, 2 to 4 p.m., at the Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookshop, to promote his new Longmire book “Dry Bones”. The event is free, but Deb would like it if you made a reservation for this event by calling 717-795-7470 or by email to MysteryBooksRSVP@comcast.net. At least so she’ll know how many chairs to set out.

I’ll be there to, where I’ll pay Craig the highest compliment any book reviewer can pay an author: by buying a copy of his new book.

Converting Peschel Press to Themify Review

Website design and I have had a long, contentious relationship. It’s not quite so bad as love-hate. More like love-fear-terror.

I love the idea of creating a cool-looking website.

I fear I can’t do it.

And when I try, I break the site and that creates a sense of terror.

I’ve done everything. When I started PlanetPeschel in the late ’90s, I was building web pages using Dreamweaver 3 from Adobe, typing in HTML code. When blogs came along, I joined Blogger, but making changes was like clearing a minefield using a pogo stick. Movable Type and Blogger were in their early stages, but I liked having more control over my code and chose pmachine (now called Expression Engine).

That’s when I learned that the one thing I shouldn’t be responsible for is coding. I loved doing it, but learning how involved dealing with documentation written by coders. I picked up what I could and filled in the holes using the “insert a piece of code and see what it looked like live.” Which is a lot like building a parachute by jumping off the Empire State Building with a bed sheet and four ropes.

Finally, WordPress. Pretty stable. Pretty easy to test things without destroying your website. The plugins were good, when they worked. Documentation was still wonky, but I had at least something I can build from.

Now we come to themes. WordPress’s free themes are adequate for the task, but basic. Perhaps they don’t want to compete too much with designer themes. Or I could be cheap. Or, I didn’t want to sink money into a theme when I wasn’t comfortable with my ability to manipulate it.

There were a couple of companies that I looked at. Elegant Themes, DIY themes, and Studio Press looked appealing. In fact, if you search for WordPress themes, you’ll find tons of possibilities. I couldn’t decide, and rather than sink money into a potentially losing proposition, I chose to wait.

That’s why I jumped at the chance to review Themify’s themes I came across their blog post. I had visited their site several times after coming across MelJean Brooks’ site (my wife loves most of her books, she’s reading “The Kraken King” now). In addition to offering the usual nifty themes, they had something called Builder that seems to imply that you can build individual pages in different ways. In the Venn diagram, I had found a company with appealing offerings with a price point that can’t be beat. I asked to join their review program and they accepted.

The only problem I had was that they wanted a review within a month. I was in the middle of preparing for Art on Chocolate, so I had to delay starting this one until that was done.

Not a Review

So instead of writing one review, I want to write several that give a running commentary of my attempts to work with Themify, sort of looking over my shoulder and cringing in places.

There’s a few things that I want you to understand before I begin:

First, just so you know my skill level, I know something about computers, something about software, something about programming, but I’m self-taught. I’m sure there are amazing gaps in my knowledge.

Second, I’ll be writing this in real time. I’ve had one session with Themify, so here’s the post about it. When I work with it again, I’ll write another one.

Third, I’ll try to highlight the assumptions I’m making about this software. I’ll probably make a lot of mistakes (I’m good at that). Don’t assume it’s Themify’s fault.

Fourth, all of these screengrabs are bigger, so click on them if you need the larger version. Use the Back Arrow key at the top of your browser to return to the post.

Let’s begin.

After getting the confirmation e-mail with the code to buy the theme, I visited their website and learned that I could pick up two themes. If you buy one, you get another one free. Cool! I have two websites to overhaul, so I’ll get one for each. For Peschel Press, I chose Tisa, which is MelJean’s theme. After a long look at the options, I chose ThemeMin for the blog.

Here’s what I didn’t know until now: Themify also offers three of their themes for free: Basic, Koi, and iTheme2. It would have been silly to pick them for my second theme if there was another one I wanted just as much, but I didn’t realize that until I bought the themes (see what I said above about my making assumptions?).

Next, I went into my WordPress dashboard and uploaded Tisa’s ZIP file, just like I would any other theme. It ground away for awhile, a little longer than usual, but I was patient and it loaded successfully.

The quick starter guide mentioned that it has an auto update feature. Which you get to if you activate the theme.

Except I don’t want to activate it yet, since I have no idea what will happen. So lets look at the live demo.

001-live-preview-top

EEEEK! Too big! Scroll down a tad.

themify tisa theme

At least that looks better. Seriously, that’s not bad at all. The odd positioning of the book covers below the “Peschel Press’ Offerings” headline is a problem with the TablePress plugin and not Themify. The menu bar at the top of the page has all of my links displayed, but that has happened with every theme I’ve loaded. You have to change the navigation menu, which . . .

I can’t find the option. It doesn’t appear to be there [I was wrong, as you will see]. If I choose the “Advanced (More Options)” tab, it kicks me out to my website design. Fortunately, the back arrow saves my bacon by bringing me back.

So, let’s activate the theme instead and go down the settings. Pretty obvious; until we get to “Welcome Text”. Huh? Type in “What is the Welcome Text?” and see. Scroll down, see Footer Text 1 and Footer Text 2, with a note underneath: “Enter your text to replace the copyright and credit links in the footer. HTML tags allowed. Enter an empty space will remove the text.” Nice to see full sentences to clue us in.

Let’s see what we got.

003-active-site-top

Oooo. The illustration is still way too big (and it’s out of date; the craft show was in November). Gotta fix that.

004-active-site-bottom

So that’s the welcome text at the very top of the page. I’ll take that out, but in the meantime, I need to fix that navigation menu. So where is it?

005-where-is-it1

where is it!

006-where-is-it1

where is it?

007-where-is-it1

there it is!

OK, now I see why it’s there. It’s at the bottom because you probably only want to set it once. What I missed (and you don’t see it in the screen grabs, is that when I was looking for it, the “select” option wasn’t in the box. The box was blank. I was looking hastily, and missed the “Main Navigation” title.

Next, I’ll add the social media links. Wish I knew for sure what they want. Easy for Twitter and Facebook, but Google+? I assume it’s my posts page. https://plus.google.com/u/0/+BillPeschel/posts.

They make getting there easy, there’s a link already in place once you open the “Social Widget” window below (which I didn’t, which is why you don’t see them there).

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009-social-widget-2
I used the drop-down menu (not shown) and typed in all the links.

So where do they appear and what do they look like?

010-social-widgets-at-bottom

A line of pretty small icons at the bottom of the page. I’m not happy with their location. I’ll look into fixing that later. For now, it doesn’t look bad, so I can live with it.

I think that’s a pretty good part of the experience. I understand that a page has to be tweaked, but if the individual elements look terrible, then I have to fix it right now, not later once I’m more familiar with the process.

So let’s fix that map. I would guess I can scale it down from 730 x 730 to 360 x 360 pixels. In WordPress, you see the code for your art in HTML. It can look like this:

[img src=”http://planetpeschel.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/011-winter-arts-show-300×188.jpg” alt=”011-winter arts show” width=”300″ height=”188″ class=”aligncenter size-medium wp-image-9323″ /]

Usually, I can change the “width” and “height” numbers and that changes the size of the picture. That works here, right?

011-winter arts show

EEEEEEEEK! Fixitfixitfixitfixit. This is live, going out across the internet!

Trash it. I call up the post and stab it like I’m killing a zombie.

How does the page look now?

012-slideshow

At least the news story is current.

Eventually, I figure out part of the problem. I was using WordPress’ 2014 theme, where choose a piece of art and tag it so that it would appear in the slideshow. Under Tisa, that option vanishes. I have no idea yet how to fix this.

So I’m scrolling down the Quick Start Guide and I come across a reference to featured images. One click and here I find:

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Then I remembered, from seeing a video about the Themify Custom Panel, that each post had one. So I pull the page out of the trash and scroll down and find this.

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No image. So where does Themify pull this out? All right, I’ll attach it, update page, and find this:

015-featured-images

AHHHHHHH! KILLKILLKILLKILLKILLKILLKILLKILLKILLKILLKILL.

So that’s where I’m at. I have the theme loaded and that’s about it for the moment.

At this point, I don’t know how to deal with the slider at the top of the page. I really wish I knew how it worked and what photo dimensions it prefers.

But on the whole, I like the way the site looks right out of the box. That gives me enough room to breath as I figure out what to do next. I’m looking forward especially to using the Themify Custom Panel.

Next, I’ll make a short punch list and dive back into Themify for another round.

Peschel Press at Art on Chocolate

It took the purchase of a canopy and the acquisition of a screen, a week’s worth of preparation and the soothing of rumbley nerves with portions of alcohol, but we made an appearance at Art on Chocolate in downtown Hershey on Saturday.

Art on Chocolate Booth

The event, which attracted more than 130 vendors, marked a promising beginning for what the sponsors hoped will become a regional event. There were juried and non-juried artists, food vendors, musicians, and plenty of attendees.

Issac Moyer
Guitarist Isaac Moyer provided beautiful music twice near us.
The organizers had a brainwave when they spread the booths out among several locations. We were in the middle, in Chocolatetown Square (actually a small park with a brick patio for the musicians). On one side, across the street, was a field with booths and food vendors, and on the other side in the blocked-off street were two lines of tents where the juried artists hung out. We easily had a couple thousand people walk through, but it never seemed crowded.

Spreading out the vendors spread out the crowds as well.
Spreading out the vendors spread out the crowds as well.

Art on Chocolate also marked another milestone for Peschel Press. It’s the first event where we had a proper booth set-up. For the Derry Twp. Historical Society’s Artisan and Authors Fair in 2013, we made do with a cardboard table, three books, and a patio umbrella. Now, we’re up to seven books, a line of tote bags, and professional-looking banners.

Fortunately, we sold enough books and bags to make our booth rental and pay some of the expenses. It wasn’t much, but events like these are valuable in other ways:

* We got to talk to potential readers, not just to spread the word about our offerings, but about their reading habits, what they liked, and in general anything that might be of interest. If nothing else, readers love to talk about books, and that’s always a worthwhile chat.

* We spread the word that we’re a Hershey business. People like to see something interesting that’s local, and we can provide that.

The duo the Jayplayers showed how to collect emails for a mailing list, and distribute cards and stickers, and sell their CD.
The duo the Jayplayers showed how to collect emails for a mailing list, and distribute cards and stickers, and sell their CD.

* We also got to see how other artists set up their booths, handled themselves, and sold their works. We’ve been to several of these shows, and vendors — when they had time to talk — were incredibly generous with their advice.

Art on Chocolate Everlasting Images
Photo by everlasting images of Hershey.
We also discovered Everlasting Images, local photographers who were taking free photos of the attendees. Fortunately, they were willing to risk their camera on myself as well.

* We got to meet and talk with people who love Hershey and work to make like here better: the board of supervisors, the volunteers (some recruited from the First United Methodist Church) who helped keep the festival going smoothly, the sponsors such as the historical society and the downtown association. We get to learn more about Hershey, and they can see us as valuable partners.

Finally, it was just plain fun to talk to the customers. There was the woman who has visited the William Gillette Castle twice up in Connecticut. She described the beautiful house, with its door handles all handmade, all different, and the little devices here and there that the “Sherlock Holmes” stage actor used to entertain himself. Then there was the South African who looked through the Agatha Christie books, and the BBC Sherlock fan who was happy to talk about shipping and JohnLock stories. I’m now happily into reading “Light of Pure Reason,” a popular pastiche she recommended at Fanfiction.net.

And I think that was the most important lesson to take away from the event: worrying about your sales is fruitless (that’s for after the event). What’s important is to make your booth look the way you want it, make sure everything’s there, and then once the customers come in, focus on enjoying the moment. If you can do that, then you’ve won.

Even Gmail Nods Sometime

I route all of my email through Gmail, which, for the price of them “reading” at my dull messages for marketing purposes, they do an effective job on spam. When I was using Thunderbird years ago, I had to install anti-spam software and teach it to filter messages, and then I had to go through and weed out easily a hundred emails a week. Nowadays, I may get 3-5 messages in the spam folder.

google spam dilbertExcept for one email from Navy Federal Credit Union, which it apparently nuked as spam — I received a letter from them recently about it — Google has been incredible at hashing my spam. Which makes seeing this in my Inbox today a rare occasion:

Nice to contact you,and actually if you don’t mind I am placing a trial order for the items.This order will help me to evaluate your product(s) quality and if I am satisfied I will place a bigger order soon.

The quantity for this first order will not be much because I have to check the quality of your product(s) and if it passes our quality test be sure to receive more orders, I hope it is possible to make arrangement to ship the product(s) to United States before ending this month?

NOTE: we have added your email to our server list and database please log -in the trade portal with your email and password to complete downloading.

I don’t know how Google let this one through, but it’s now reported as spam. With luck, Google will nuke it as well as its account: amina.jalloud58@gmail.com.

Coupon Shopping at the Grocery Store

Suburban Stockade BannerSuburban stockade introduction
Good grocery shopping habits, however, like the price book, the Pantry Principle, shopping and cooking only from sales, sticking to a list, staying out of the grocery store other than once a week or less, and knowing exactly how your stores sales policies work will always save you money. You don’t have to buy specific brands for these policies to work. You just have to be paying attention.

So let’s open up the Giant Foods circular that appears in the Sunday Patriot-News and see how we can cut our grocery bill using coupon shopping.
snapple grocery coupon

We see that Snapple Iced Tea 12 Pack is on sale, BOGOF (that’s “Buy One Get One Free” if you read last week’s post). Personally, I would never buy this. The day I can’t make iced tea from scratch for pennies is the day my children put me in the nursing home. This product can be made at home for far less money. It’s like buying bothered water in bottles. Unless your tap water is contaminated, it will always cost you far less money to use tap water and put it into your own reusable bottle than buying it. And, this is far better for the environment as manufacturing bottles, filling bottles, shipping bottles, and throwing away bottles all have their costs.

But if you love Snapple, you’ll want to take advantage of this sale. When something is BOGOF, that means you get the second item free. It does not mean that you pay 50% off on the first item and 50% off on the second. People seem to believe that BOGOF is equivalent to a 50% off sale. It isn’t. A 50% off sale means you only have to take ONE item home. BOGOF only gives you the discount when you throw the second item into the cart.

Do people routinely only get one half of a BOGOF sale? Sadly, according to the cashiers I ask, they do. My favorite cashier, Evelyn, has told me that she tells customers to go back and get another whatever as it is free and the customer shrugs and says, “eh, too much trouble.” Are these people made out of money or are they bone lazy and stupid? Either way, they subsidize my shopping.

Here’s another trick: Coupons can be used with BOGOF purchases. The mechanics of this vary from store to store so you have to find out what your store’s policies are. Some stores let you redeem only one coupon per pair; other stores let you attach one coupon per item. If you buy the Snapple BOGOF at, say, $6 for the set and you redeem two dollar-off coupons, one for each 12-pack, you pay $4 for two 12-packs, or 17 cents a bottle. It is still cheaper to make ice tea and put it into a bottle of your own, but if you lovvvvvve Snapple, it means you can buy more.

grocery-coupon-bacon

On the same page, we see that Giant brand bacon is on sale at 3 for $10. Since it does not say we must buy three packages, the true price is $3.33 per package. This is the price that will ring up per package regardless of whether we buy one, two, three or ten packages of store-brand bacon.

Let me repeat this, as I have had this exact conversation many times in the aisles of the store. Ten for ten dollars does not, unless stated otherwise, mean you have to buy ten items to get the sale price. It means a dollar each. Grocery stores use this kind of pricing information to get you to buy more than you might otherwise. 10 items for 10 dollars is a good chance to use coupons that ask you to buy four, five, or six of one thing to get an additional dollar off. Match the sale to the coupon and only buy what you need to to redeem the coupon, unless you are stocking up because, coupon or not, the sale is great, you use the product all the time, and you’d buy as many as you could anyway. Coupon usage will improve the Pantry Principle’s cost per item a little, but only if you routinely buy and use the product.

Now, the bacon at $3.33 turned out to be an even better deal. I have a loyalty card with Giant, and they sometimes send me coupons for products in the mail. Lo and behold, just in time for the sale, the mailer included an additional dollar-off coupon for store-brand bacon. So my final price for a one-pound package of store brand bacon was $2.33. The regular price is $4.99 a package, so I was happy with my deal.

When you study the sales flier, look carefully at the tiny print alongside each picture and its description. Sometimes, but not always, the store will tell you how much you saved. There was one with the bacon ad. See it? Let me blow it up for you.

These prices are so bright, you gotta wear bifocals.
Prices so bright, you gotta wear bifocals.

For the bacon, Giant tells me that I will save $4.97 on three packages or $1.66 per package. Not a bad savings, about one-third off the original price.

grocery-coupon-soda

But other times, the savings are miniscule. On page five, we see Giant-brand soda in a 12-pack for $2.77. In tiny print, we see that the savings are 22 cents. That isn’t very much, less than 10% off the original price. Soda can and does regularly get better sales than this, so if you must buy overpriced sugar water, then get a better deal. This is where your price book and recognizing a good sale pay off. When this soda is 40% off, you buy lots, enough to wait it out until the next 40%-off sale.

The only reason for buying soda in cans is so you can put a much cheaper can in you child’s lunch and keep them from hitting the $1.50 vending machine soda. The Giant-brand soda at $2.77 for twelve works out to 23 cents a can. If you have to have soda, buy it at the grocery store and not from a vending machine. Remember: if you consume it, wherever you are, it counts as part of your food budget. Food-like substances from vending machines still count.

Looking further into the flier we see an advertised item that isn’t on sale at all.

grocery-coupon-finish

On page five is Finish Dishwasher Tabs, $5.99 for a 20- to 32-count package. It appears to be a sale. It is not. I thought it was, but I checked the item at the store and the regular price is $5.99. The item is not on sale and is being used in the ad to fill out space. I should have realized this because if I look closely at the ad, there is not a BonusBuy arrow next to it, and no “Save xx cents” in tiny type. Sometimes, Giant gives you a slogan next to a sales item rather than an exact amount. Then the ad will read “Save with BonusCard.” I don’t know why they do this; I suppose because it is easier than calculating the savings weeks in advance. But in any case, the Finish Dishwasher Tabs are not on sale at all, despite what the ad implies.

Lately Giant has been doing another kind of promotion, one that rewards you for buying a mix-and-match minimum of food items from the same manufacturer. A good example is on the back page.

grocery-coupon-group-purchases

If you spend ten dollars (or more) buying from an assortment of products you will receive, in addition to the sale price, another $3 off of your total price. The way to maximize this opportunity is to buy as close to $10 as you can without going under. Sometimes, but not always, any manufacturer’s coupons will be subtracted from the minimum spend so read the fine print in the ad to account for this. In this case, coupons weren’t counted.

So if you choose Hamburger Helper at 10 for $10, and you buy ten boxes, Giant will take another $3 off at the register, bringing your final price for 10 boxes to $7, or 70 cents a box. The tiny print tells us that we save $4.90 if we buy ten boxes or 49 cents a box. If you make Hamburger Helper once a week, ten boxes will last ten weeks and cost you 70 cents a week plus the cost of whatever else you add. If you pay full price of 1.49 per box and you buy one box a week as you use it, you will spend a final price of $14.90 for the ten boxes. $7 bucks is less than half of $14.90 and your savings can be put to use elsewhere, like the hamburger. So you save $7.90 by buying in advance, and storing the Hamburger Helper in your cupboard as opposed to storing it at Giant on their shelf. If you don’t want ten boxes of Hamburger Helper, there are other items to choose from that you may use regularly. Redeem a coupon or two and you will pay even less upfront.

It is always worth carefully studying this type of ad, to see if the items are ones you use. You don’t want to go too far over the minimum spend as spending twice as much (i.e., $20 instead of $10) will not get you another three dollars off for each increment of ten. You only ever get the first 3 bucks. The best shopping strategy here is meeting their requirements exactly. Should you buy more stuff from this particular deal? Only if your price book says the prices are terrific deals without the additional $3 off.

Whenever you have a question about what, exactly, is on sale or trouble interpreting the ad, ask at the service desk. The staff can be quite helpful and they’d rather explain how an ad works in advance rather than void a purchase at the cash register after you bought something because you misinterpreted the sale.

The service desk is also where you get rain checks. Often, a store will run a great sale and then they will run out of merchandise. This does not mean that you can’t still take advantage of the sale. You go to the desk and ask for a rain check so when the merchandise comes in, two weeks later, you still get the sale price. Staple the ad with the sale item to the rain check so you have a picture of the ad, if any questions arise. Get as many items as you want or that the ad allows. Rain checks are usually good for 60 days, so you should have plenty of time to redeem it. I keep my rain checks in the front of my coupon box, where I won’t forget them. You can use manufacturer’s coupons with rain checks just like you do with any other sale item. You do want to tell the cashier that you have a rain check when she starts ringing up your groceries. That makes it easier for him and thus easier for you.

Next week, we’ll look at other ways grocery stores get you to spend more, and how to take advantage of those deals.

I’ll Be Talking Books ‘n’ Sherlock at Art on Chocolate in Hershey Saturday

I haven’t talked much about being publisher of a small press. I should. It’s been a constant education as we try new things, publish more books, and see everything grow.

How to identify Peschel Press in the wild. We'll be under the canopy in Chocolatetown Square.
How to identify Peschel Press in the wild. We’ll be under the canopy in Chocolatetown Square.
This time, we’ll be appearing at the first Art on Chocolate in Hershey today, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. There’s going to be about 150 craft booths, some juried, music, food, and entertainment.

It’s a new project started by the Hershey Derry Township Historical Society and the Downtown Hershey Association. They hope to make it grow from year to year until it becomes a regional destination for people who like to spend the day in the sweetest place on Earth.

Peschel Press will be in Chocolatetown Square Park, across from the Hershey Press Building. We’ll be selling all of our books, including the latest in the 223B Casebook Series, “Sherlock Holmes Victorian Parodies and Pastiches 1888-1899.”

I’ll be there, talking about Sherlock Holmes, writing, publishing, and answering any questions, including “what is that hat made from?”

I hope you’ll come out and see us, or just to spend a nice day seeing the art exhibits and listening to the music. If you’re looking for a parking lot, we suggest going to the lot at Chocolate Avenue and Homestead Road and walking the block down to the site.

Grocery Shopping and Coupons

Suburban Stockade Banner

Suburban stockade introductionLast week, we talked about how to use a price book and the Pantry Principle to save money grocery shopping. This week, we’ll move on to using grocery coupons in the store.

Double-check the sales price. When you buy a product that’s on sale, make sure before you leave the store that you were charged that price. You would think that with computers, price changes would be handled automatically. But nine times out of 10, I’ve found that the sale price did not ring up at the register.

To handle this problem right, you’ll need to know the store’s policy regarding sales, coupons, rain checks, and how they handle overcharges. Ask at the service desk. They should have handouts for you to take home, and this information might also be available on your grocery store’s website. Do not expect the cashiers or stockers to know the fine print. The manager should know as part of her job, but the part-time teenage cashier may not know or care. You have to know.

Buy the Sunday newspaper. Every week, all the grocery stores in your area will advertise that week’s best buys. Most, but not all, of them will advertise in the biggest regional paper. If you don’t see weekly ads for the supermarket you like best, ask at the service desk where they do advertise. For example, Karns rarely puts its entire week’s worth of ads in our local paper (the Patriot-News) but they advertise their very best sales in the Sunday Patriot and also in The Sun, our local weekly. To get their full ad, we have to go to the store or find the complete sale listing in our area’s Community Courier.

It is always better to study the food circulars at home, with your list and coupon box. You need to be intimate and familiar with your stores ads to get the most from the store. The first things to look for is what is on super sale this week. These items will usually, but not always, be prominently displayed on the front page of the multi-page flier.

This is where money-saving shopping strategy directly conflicts with what we are taught to do by home economists. Never plan a week’s worth of menus, then try to match up what you want to cook with the week’s sales. Do it the other way around: study the sales first, then plan the menus around them.

Menu planning can make cooking meals more straight forward and less haphazard. I’ll be honest, I don’t plan menus a week in advance. At best, I’ll decide the night before what I’m cooking the next day so I can take the meat out of the freezer. But that’s because I’m a very good cook, I rarely use recipes, and I’m used to looking over what needs to be used up and then making do. I have a fully stocked pantry and all the cookware and seasonings I want to make this easier for me. But in order to do this successfully, you need to be able to walk into a kitchen cold and produce, using only what is on hand, a meal for five. And then those five people have to eat it without carrying on. This demands a high skill level. If you aren’t that good a cook, making up menus in advance may work better for you.

So, we study the ads, look at the sales and the prices, and determine what we stock up on and what we are eating for dinner this week. Does this take time? It does, but I earn a high hourly rate for this. If it takes me two hours (which is generous) to go through the grocery ad and coupon inserts and match them up with my list and my needs, I can easily save more than $20 on my bill. At the minimum, this is an hourly, tax-free rate of $10 an hour. That’s worth my time.

It takes time to become familiar with a grocery ad if you’ve never studied one. Looking at this week’s Giant Circular, we see many of the typical grocery store traps. These traps reward the careful shopper (that’s me!) by penalizing the careless, random shopper (not you, at least not anymore).

grocery coupons
Giant Foods flyer from 4/2015

How does any grocery store get away with giving great deals? By counting on the fact that your typical shopper doesn’t pay any attention at all. “Oh, it’s not worth my time. It’s too hard. No matter what I do, the store will win.” This is loser talk and guarantees that you will be subsidizing me. Like Vegas casinos, the occasional grocery store big winner is more than made up for by the large herd of losers. Every time you don’t pick up both items of a Buy One Get One Free pair, (we’ll shorten that to BOGOF) you subsidize my shopping trip. Do people do this all the time? Yes, they do. I make a point of talking to my cashiers and when I can, I choose the same ones (Hi, Evelyn!). It fits me into the community and the cashier is more likely to chat with me about store policy and how customers don’t seem to see the sale staring at them.

So back to this week’s circular. At the very top, we see the banner of Pack Your Pantry. I didn’t buy most of this stuff as they aren’t products I use or I already did way better last year, and I’m still using stuff up.

Do the Math

grocery coupons

First, we see Campbell’s tomato or chicken noodle soup at 50 cents a can. But, you must buy ten of them and only ten of them to get the sale. Additional or lesser quantities will be rung up at 80 cents a can. Buy nine cans, it will cost 80 cents each for a total of $7.20. Buy the tenth can, your total drops to $5. That’s right. It cost you $2.20 less to buy ten cans rather than nine. If you buy 12 cans, it is $5 plus an additional $1.80 for the two spares for a total of $6.80! Still less than buying nine cans! You have to buy thirteen (!) cans for your purchase price to cost more than buying nine cans ($7.60 vs.e $7.20, a 40 cents difference for four more cans). Many, many people make this mistake.

If you regularly use this soup, you might as well get ten heavily discounted cans. Otherwise, you buy two cans this week and then again next week and pay full price since the sale is over. This is the Pantry Principle in action and demonstrates how much you can save over time by buying ahead. This also lets you stockpile until you end up with several weeks of food on hand at all times.

The other common mistake people make with this kind of a sale is forgetting that you can apply manufacturers’ coupons to the sale. If you have a coupon for Campbell’s chicken noodle or tomato soup for $1.00 off of eight cans, they subtract this at the register for a final price of $4 for ten cans of soup or 40 cents a can. They aren’t giving you the soup, but you aren’t paying anywhere near full price either.

giant foods circular grocery coupons

On the same page we see Kellogg’s cereal for sale at $1.49 cents a box, but you must buy 4 boxes to get this price. As with the soup, smaller or larger quantities raise the price per box to @2.50 each. I had a pair of coupons for $1 off of two boxes so I bought 4 boxes of 18.7 ounce Raisin Bran for 1.49 cents a box for a final price of $3.96 for four boxes or 99 cents a box. ((1.49 x 4) – (2 x 1) = $3.96).

This is how I routinely spend about $150 per week total for a family of five for groceries. And yes, this includes personal care, paper goods, laundry soap, cleaning products, pet food and anything else you would normally buy at a grocery store. I could not do this without the Pantry Principle, excellent shopping skills, and being able to cook well from scratch.

I don’t do a lot of couponing as most coupons are for processed foods which I don’t use very much. But whenever possible, I do clip coupons and I do use them. I keep my coupons in a small index card box, filed in a number of categories. I don’t obsess over it but I do save enough money using my coupons to make it worth my while.

Back when people were doing super couponing, I looked into what was being done to get those amazing three buggies of groceries for 10 bucks. These women traded coupons over the Internet, subscribed to various coupon sites, printed out Internet coupons (I tried this and it wasn’t worth my time or paper at all), and sometimes indulged in fraud when they stole coupon inserts from newspapers in honor boxes and at the newsstand. Super couponers and fraud are the reason why so many coupons these days limit how many you can use in an individual shopping trip; i.e., no more than four of any given specific coupon in one visit, carefully matched to the items purchased.

Most coupons are for products I don’t buy. But if you do buy a heavily advertised product like Dove shampoo, you’d be a fool not to clip out those high-value coupons and save them to match up with the shampoo when it goes on sale. The key here is being organized enough to save your coupons in a file box, where you can easily retrieve them, and then matching them to an item, when the item is on sale.

This is not a high level of organization, certainly not on par with being a lawyer, but it still seems to be beyond many people. My answer to this is: would you pick up a five dollar bill in the street? How many five dollar bills do you see in the street? I routinely save five to ten bucks off of my receipt using coupons. It’s rare for me to go over this amount. I never see five-dollar bills in the gutter, week after week. Coupon money is free money, but not huge amounts. It is enough to be worth my time.

Coupon inserts are the other reason to subscribe to the Sunday newspaper, as this is the easiest way to get them. I sometimes get Catalina coupons at the checkout counter, Giant regularly puts out free magazines of recipes and coupons, I sometimes get them from my neighbors, and I pick them up off the ground in the parking lot. When I am finished with my inserts, I pass them along to my neighbors. I use less than 20% of the coupons that pass through my hands but I still save enough money to make it worth my while.

If you want to know more about super couponing, a book I liked was How to Shop for Free: Shopping Secrets for Smart Women Who Love to Get Something for Nothing by Kathy Spencer. This woman makes couponing and shopping strategies into a full time job and it pays off hugely for her. I was amazed. I also know I would never do this much work as I have other things I feel are more important. In addition to this book, there are dozens more how to coupon books available at any library. Read before you buy! Remember that if you don’t use products that are routinely couponed, and you don’t put in the time and effort needed, you will never save the money a coupon queen will.

Coupons only save you money when the coupon applies to a product that you are going to buy anyway. If you buy a product just to redeem the coupon (because it saved you money), then you just spent some cash that could have gone to something else. Only use coupons for what you use routinely and always stack them with sales. This gives you the biggest discount.

Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Groton Schoolboy

One of the unexpected pleasures of researching the Sherlockian pastiches for the 223B Casebook is learning more about the authors. Not just by becoming more familiar with authors who were popular in their time — that’s a post for another day — but the amateur authors whose lives were no less important to the culture as a whole, but who left a mark nonetheless.

In some cases, the pleasure is akin to voyeurism. A combination of the Internet and access to databases have allowed nosy researchers to dig up, recover, unearth, resurrect lives that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.

Yesterday, for example, a story from a New England boarding school opened a window into a family’s history. Not just history; this is social history, a look into a world of moderate wealth (certainly compared to today), high aspirations, a community of boys who grew up and into the lives that carried a whiff of destiny with them.

“Sherlock Holmes at Groton” was published in 1903 in the school’s monthly newspaper “The Grotonian” (which was printed like a small magazine). It’s surprisingly grim for its time and place: a student is found dead, presumed a suicide, and Holmes investigates.

But what was more interesting was identifying the author, known only as “H.M.W.” Fortunately, The Grotonian published the student roster at the beginning of each year. It’s a small school. Only 26 boys in the senior class. With six grades, that’s less than 200 students in all. For many, this was their tribe.

Groton School class list, sixth form.
Groton School class list, sixth form.
Month by month, the magazine charted the changes in the school year with the regularity of the seasons: accounts of football games in the first half of the school year balanced by baseball games in the second; a kind review of the school play, the visits from alumni and brief accounts of where they went and what they’re doing (lots of mentions of Harvard and Yale here, as well as engagement and marriage announcements). The school news briefs announced the members of the Missionary Society, the arrival of new masters, who has left the school and who is studying abroad.

As for “H.M.W.,” the author of “Sherlock Holmes at Groton,” the only candidate on the student list that fit the initials was a chap named Woolsey. The initials stand for “Heathcote Muirson,” which explains why he went with “H.W.” the rest of his life. The Grotonian issues on Google Books made it possible to see the course of his career. Senior prefect. Captain of the football team. He acted in the School Play, a British farce from 1859 called “Our Domestics,” promoted to amateur dramatics as “An irresistibly facetious exposition of high life below stairs, and of the way in which servants treat employers during their absence.” Our H.M. Woolsey acquitted himself in his servant role “with a great deal of dry wit and carried off the part with considerable ability and intelligence.”

Woolsey also makes an amusing appearance in someone’s Christmas poem, published in “Groton School Verses”:

“Oh, have you heard the style of thing
That wily Woolsey wears?
How his binomial biceps are
Encased from winter airs?

I know that Linzee Woolsey is
A kind of fuzzy stuff,
But for the cruel winter term
‘T is surely not enough.

Oh, yes, his shapely person,
From collar down to toes,
From heels to head, is swathed in red
Tomato underclothes.

In fact, he makes several appearances.

After graduation, he pops up a few times in The Grotonian’s alumni notes. Yale for four years. He pops up in the Washington Post in a brief headlined “Seniors Engaged”

Members of the class of 1907 of Yale are out for a new college record. When they receive their diplomas next Wednesday they intend to have more men engaged to be married than any class has ever before boasted. They have also voted to offer an expensive cup to the member who first reports the birth of a son. Returns of engagements are coming in fast. H. M. Woolsey, the class secretary, footed up the totals to-night, and said that seventeen had been received. This is within two of the record held by the class of ’76. Samuel F.B. Morse, the football captain last fall, will probably be the first bridegroom. He will be married Saturday, in Staatsburg, N. J., to Miss Anne Thompson, of Virginia, Edgar Munson, of the law school, to-day gave his bachelor dinner.

This tells you something about the times and Washington Post’s readership.

After Yale, the Grotonian reported, Woolsey went on a trip around the world with a friend, which in 1907 must have been quite an adventure. Then it’s on to Columbia, where he studied architecture, then more studies at the Beaux-Arts school in Paris. Oh, he didn’t help Yale set the engagement record, but he did marry Dorothy Bacon in 1909.

Once Google Books hits the copyright wall at 1923, the trail stops except for one hiccup. H.M. kept his initials professionally, so his self-designed home in Rye, N.Y., appears in an ad for Creo-Dipt Stained Shingles.

Creo-Dipt Stained Shingles ad, 1923.
Creo-Dipt Stained Shingles ad, 1923.

Sherlock Holmes Groton
Public library in Kent, Conn.
Further searches brought up hints of Woolsey’s career that others thought worthy of recording. The Kent, Conn., public library building, which stands today. His house in Rye seems to have been sold to someone named Yale Stevens, and was profiled in American Architecture magazine. There’s news about his wife (who wrote for Harper’s and The New Republic), children and grandchildren. Accomplishments and tragedies. By this time, it crossed the line into voyeurism; I had more than enough to write the introduction, so I stopped.

There’s one more item I wanted to mention. In 1942, Woolsey registered with the Selective Service. It was called the “Old Man’s Draft,” because it was required for men 45 to 64, to see if their work skills could be called on for the war effort. He was 58.

Woolsey's draft card.
Woolsey’s draft card.

He lived for three score and three years, dying in 1957. His headstone is beautiful.

grave-heathcote-woolsey

The only thing I would have liked to have found was a photo of him to use in the book. But he left behind a name, his descendants, and buildings that have stood for nearly a century and will probably hang around for another, and now he’ll be connected in an unexpected and small way to Sherlock Holmes. That’s a pretty good legacy.

Grocery Shopping and the Pantry Principle (part 3)

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Suburban stockade introductionLast week, we talked about learning basic cooking skills and using simple recipes to get started on saving money and improving our health. Let’s go a little deeper this week on developing our shopping skills.

First, two simple rules: shop with a list and go once a week for your main trip. Go more than once a week only if you have to restock on a necessity (such as milk in our family), or if you’ve run out of a critical item (cat food!). You may be able to cut your grocery trips to every other week if you have a large refrigerator and pantry. This does mean that you don’t take advantage of each week’s loss leaders but that may not matter as much as avoiding the store altogether and spending even less.

If you are forced to make that emergency trip, then make yourself buy ONLY the item you need. Walk into the store and do NOT use a buggy, which would encourage you to fill that empty space with impulse buys. Don’t even take one of those carry baskets. Carry baskets, small carts, and large buggies: each one lets you put more stuff into it so you buy more stuff. If you hand-carry what you need, you’ll buy less.

Shopping with a list does require a bit of organization. You have to know what you use, keep track of what you use, know what you have hanging around the cupboards on its way to expiring, and match these items up with the sales in the grocery store. And then you have to bring the list with you to the store. Knowing what you have and what you routinely use will allow you to take better advantage of unexpected special buys.

Wait, didn’t we just say you shouldn’t make impulse purchases? We did, but with one major exception. If you come across something you already use that’s at a discounted price, then you should consider buying it. But that’s it.

tightwad gazette pantry principle

So how do you know what products and brands you use? And at what price that makes purchasing them a bargain? This leads to the price book. I learned this trick from Amy Dacyczyn of “The Complete Tightwad Gazette.” Take a small notebook and you write down the usual things you buy and the usual prices charged for them. Watch for sales on these items and write down the prices. Over time, you will get a feel for when something is really a good deal or not. If the price is as low as she’ll go, then buy lots more.

I used my price book for many years. It isn’t necessary to be hugely detailed. I didn’t spell out the price for each brand and size of cereal or canned fruit. I just marked down the highest price I was willing to pay. That is, if a large box of Raisin Bran can be purchased for less than $2, then I’ll buy it. Since I have a freezer (highly, highly recommended), I buy my preferred brand of bread only when it is buy-one-get-one-free. Then I buy a lot, enough to last for months. As my cooking skills improved and I learned how to make things like salad dressing and pasta sauce from scratch, I stopped buying them.

Now, I no longer had a need to keep track of those prices. So I no longer use a price book. But it took me more than ten years of regular use to get to this point.

Buying on price leads directly to the next major way to save money: the Pantry Principle. I learned this from a book called Cut Your Grocery Bills in Half: Supermarket Survival by Barbara Salsbury, published in 1982. The updated version is Beating the High Cost of Eating: The Essential Guide to Supermarket Survival (2005). Both are superb books, well worth your time reading and applying the information. The updated book (2005) is not exactly the same as the 1982 book; refunding was a lot bigger in 1982 so the 1982 book covers that area quite thoroughly. The worksheets are different, and the 1982 book has an index whereas the 2005 version, mysteriously, does not. Other areas vary too, so you may want to read both via the interlibrary loan before deciding if you want to purchase one.

What a happy day when I found the 1982 version in the library 18 years ago! The book teaches that when an item you use regularly goes on sale, buy enough to last you until the next super sale. If your brand of tuna goes on sale routinely at 99 cents a can, then you should never buy it when it is $1.19 a can. And, if you get a super sale on this tuna at 79 cents a can, you should buy way, way more.

If you are using a price book and paying attention to the weekly sales flier from your supermarket, you will learn that the food companies puts their products on sale on a fairly regular schedule. Some things go on sale every other week, some every other month, and some only two or three times a year. Some items get a super sale twice a year, other items never do. Becoming familiar with your store’s sales over the years will pay back big bucks if you follow them closely.

What the Pantry Principle leads to is eating and cooking only from your pantry and the weekly loss leaders at the supermarket. You only buy on sale and never, ever pay full price for anything. A well-stocked pantry means that if the car falls apart, you have money to make the problem go away. You don’t go grocery shopping that week and put the food dollars toward paying off the emergency. The Pantry Principle takes time to work up to this level, but it means that if you can’t get to the store for any reason, you don’t have to.

grocery shopping pantry principle
Eating food that came from cans with bulges can have unexpected side effects.
Let me talk about food expiration dates here. This is a relatively new development in the food marketing industry. In some ways, it is very nice to have them, but it can be misused to get you to throw out perfectly usable food. If you store your food items in a place that is cool, dry, dark, and pest-free, they will last far longer than the date indicates. Canned goods can last for decades past the expiration date. They remain perfectly safe to eat, with perhaps less vitamins and a poorer appearance than what they once had. But it is not unsafe. (The one exception is if the can exhibits a bulge. Then it has possibly developed botulism.)

This is also true of things in glass jars and paper boxes like pasta sauce and dried noodles. How you store your food matters far more than what the date says. Putting them where it is damp or in garages where the temperature swings wildly from day to day or where bugs and rodents can get to them, will make those boxes of spaghetti turn on you way earlier than the date on the label would indicate. Store them on ventilated shelves (for air flow), in the dark, at a consistent 60 degrees, and they will last years past the date stamp.

For example, at the time of this writing (Feb. 2015), I made a batch of sugar cookies from a mix. I had been given this package from a friend, I think for composting, as the expiration date on the mix was May 2009. The package was sealed and the mix was inside another sealed foil bag. It looked fine, no mold or weevils, it smelled fine, it mixed up fine, it baked up fine, and the cookies tasted fine. It had the usual ever so slightly off chemical taste I notice in packaged cookie mixes as compared to making them from scratch. But otherwise no problems whatsoever.

The way to deal with food expiration dates is to rotate your stock. In the food business, whether restaurant or grocery, the slogan is FIFO: first in, first out. This is where being organized comes into play. When you make your purchase, label the products with a Sharpie on the front with the expiration date. This makes it much easier to read the date than trying to find that tiny print each time you put things away. Put the newest items to the back of the shelf and the oldest to the front. Use the oldest ones first.

grocery shopping pantry principle
Adjust your food buying according to how much your family eats.
The second part of using food expiration dates is learning how fast you use something up. If you use three cans of tuna a week, then you know how many cans of tuna you want to have on hand. If the tuna goes on sale routinely at 99 cents the first week of every month, then you buy 15 cans of tuna at that price. That gives you three cans a week for five weeks, tiding you over to the next sale date with a comfortable margin. When you buy more tuna when it goes on sale again, you move the newest tuna to the back and use up the oldest cans first.

When tuna goes on a super sale of 79 cents a can, which it does here every six months, then you need to decide how many cans you need to carry you over to the next super sale. This would be three cans times four weeks times six months or 72 cans of tuna plus a few extra to meet the next super sale date. When you buy 72 cans of tuna at once, it is worth going through the cans at the store looking for the furthest away expiration dates. Do not assume the store automatically put the oldest ones to the front and the newest ones to the back like they are supposed to. Grocery store stockers are quite likely to put the newest cans in front and keep pushing the older cans to the back. It is way easier to do this than moving around all the cans. You need to check the expiration dates on the cans to be sure.

In fact, if you are buying on the pantry principle you should ALWAYS check the expiration dates of what you buy. I sometimes run across items that are already expired on the store shelf. They aren’t bad but because I am going to store them at home for more time before they get used up, I want to be sure I get as much of a time window as I can. When I find already expired cans or jars on the shelf I pass them along to a store clerk; I do not leave them on the shelf for some other, more careless shopper.

I check the expiration dates on everything that I plan on storing for any length of time and ALWAYS on perishables like cheese, eggs, and dairy products. Cheese by the way, can have lengthy dates which can be useful for stocking up at a good sale. Shredded cheese will turn on you far faster than brick cheese, so watch out for it. For storage purchases, it is always better to buy bricks than already shredded. It lasts longer and is often cheaper per pound.

Since the grocery industry provides me with expiration dates, I take advantage of this information. It gives me an idea of how much shelf life is left, which I can maximize through my ideal storage facility. The grocery industry wants you to throw away expired food, not eat it. They make more money when you do this. They also have to err on the side of caution for storage dates as they don’t know if you are going to be storing your cans of corn in the trunk of your car or in the crawlspace under your house, or in that unheated, leaky, bug infested tool shed. They choose a worst case scenario to accommodate idiots. If you aren’t an idiot, and use the best food storage procedures, then don’t worry too much about the expiration dates.

So food storage, whether you store for a few weeks to get from sale to sale or whether you store for five years to meet the apocalypse has two components: first in, first out; and cool, dry, in the dark, and pest free. The Pantry Principle leads automatically towards storing extra food so you should set up your pantry to meet both components. Always having extra food on hand means more flexibility if you can’t make it to the grocery store. Bad weather, unpaid furloughs, transmission falling out of car, medical emergencies, job loss; all become less of a problem when using the Pantry Principle let you stockpile a month’s worth of groceries at discount prices. You and your family still eat and you spent less money to do so, leaving more money to go towards emergency funds and debt reduction.

Using a price book and the Pantry Principle both demand that you pay attention to what the grocery store does. No reputable supermarket tries to deliberately cheat its customers. Their policies are plain, their sales are promoted, the prices are marked on every shelf for every item. After that, it is up to you, the consumer, to make the most of it.

Friends Don’t Let Friends Hire Author Solutions

David Gaughran has marshalled the facts, lined them up, and had them open fire on the Author Solutions scam, and its enablers Penguin Random House, Publisher’s Weekly, The New York Times, the New York Review of Books, Reader’s Digest and other publications, book festivals, and organizations, such as the AARP (which, you would think, would be reluctant to expose its membership to scammers).

Author Solutions' International Sales Staff, Christmas Party, 2013.
Author Solutions’ International Sales Staff, Christmas Party, 2013.
In short, Author Solutions makes its money off selling services to you. It has no stake in how many books you sell, it does not care about the quality of the work it gives you, since few authors ever use them twice.

It’s a long, detailed post. David and his allies have culled the testimony from the various class action suits and detailed how Author Solutions scams its customers, using high-pressure sales tactics, and at the same time underserving authors by not delivering what was promised, delivering shoddy products, delivering incomplete and inaccurate royalty reports, and reselling services at enormous markups from their partners.

For example, the cost of their “web optimized” press releases is $1,299. Do you know how much it costs to send a release through services such as PRWeb? FREE. At their high end, their premium service, will set you back only $369.

Author Solutions uses hundreds of “consultants” (read salespeople), most of them in the Philippines, who have to meet insane monthly quotas, from $20,000 a month if they’re working for AS’s “core imprints” to $60,000 and $75,000 if they’re selling on behalf of the partner imprints (those are the New York publishers).

Yes, Penguin Random House is scamming authors. So are Simon & Schuster, Lulu, Hay House, Barnes & Noble, HarperCollins, and Random House’s MeGusaLibros imprint.

Companies such as Writer’s Digest, Harlequin and Crossbooks terminated their partnerships in 2014.

authors solutions scam
Credit: John Allison’s excellent Scary Go Round comics.
Imagine a job where you’d have to sell crap like book review packages from Kirkus for $6,000, Publishers Weekly ad packages for $10,000, and Hollywood pitching services for $17,999. (If you want to see what you get, one of AS’s “core imprints” Trafford Publishing, lists four services: Hollywood Gatekeeper ($859), Hollywood Audition ($2,149), Hollywood Storyteller ($3,749), and Hollywood Topliner ($16,299, but you must buy the Storyteller package, so the cost is $20,048). What they don’t list is a single sale from anyone using these services.

That alone tells you how worthless Author Solutions’ “Hollywood” package is, because if someone had spent $20,000 to get a movie/TV deal, you’d bet they’d be crowing about it (yes, I Googled this first).

So, if you’re considering dealing with Author Solutions, its core imprints (iUniverse, Trafford, Palibrio, AuthorHouse, BookTango, WordClay, and Xlibris), or if you’re talking to a major publisher and they offer to sell you “services,” my advice is to take your money and run. There are plenty of resources out there, plenty of nice people and websites (such as The Passive Voice) to ask about how to get your book edited, how to write a cover letter, how to deal with agents. There are writers’ groups and organizations such as Pennwriters (I’m a member), who are happy to help. Heck, get in touch with me and I’ll try to help.

Anyone, in fact, but Author Solutions.

Author, Editor, Anthologist, and Owner of Peschel Press, the Publisher of Histories Behind the Mysteries