Category Archives: Writing

Substack Hack – Template

I’ve been using Substack for the past few months to send out a monthly How to Japanese newsletter. It’s basically a mini version of my Japan Times column, a little something on beer or booze, and a collection of links/thoughts at the bottom. You can see more about my thinking behind the newsletter in the first issue.

I’m not familiar with Constant Contact or MailChimp or other newsletter services, so I don’t have anything in the way of comparison, but I do like Substack’s features and the way it looks. It took me a second to figure out how to edit the url slug (a feature which I think they’ve added in the past few months; it’s in the “Settings” down near the “Publish” button), but other than that, the only feature I wish they’d add is a template feature. I solved this issue by creating a template draft and just always keep it as a draft.

When I start a new month I just copy and paste the template over into the next month’s issue.

Content Pastures

“Passive income” is a relatively newly minted oxymoron. I’m not certain exactly where the term originated, but my best guess would be real estate and investing. The idea of rental income or dividends steadily filling a savings account over the course of the year is intoxicating (mostly to the Olds).

“Passive income” is trending up in Google Trends from around 2012-2013 onward. Monetizing “content” and the internet economy probably has something to do with this.

The investing podcast “Animal Spirits” recently had a conversation about how passive income is actually quite active. Plunging plugged toilets is far less exciting and less passive than sitting on the couch and checking a bank statement, as is tracking down and paying plumbers to plunge said plugged toilets for that matter.

Writing blog posts each month, each week, or three times each week as I was when I first started blogging is the equivalent of plunging cultural toilets (to loosely borrow a concept from Murakami). Generating money from online content seems like it would be a fun, “passive” thing to do, but I think that’s only in comparison to a regular 9-5 job. It’s actually a good bit of work, and there are very few who are able to turn a content library into a full time job. Even then, once your consumers are accustomed to a schedule, you have to feed them or risk them leaving for fairer content pastures. I get far fewer commenters on my blog posts now than I did when I had something for them to read every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

In September I wrote my fiftieth column for the Japan Times Bilingual page. This is kind of crazy for me to think about, mostly because I vividly remember writing my ninth column during the winter of 2014. It was a cold, snowy Chicago weekend during the extended polar vortex that year. I was single and lonely, but I hadn’t written for the paper in nearly two years, so I was happy and fulfilled at the prospect of being paid for my writing again, and of having something to say.

I put on Beck’s “Morning Phase,” which I believe was streaming as a preview on NPR before the album release, made a cup of tea, and sat in front of the computer for most of the day. It was great.

At some point I stepped outside onto the back staircase of my apartment and took a photo of my mug with the weather.

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Had to pick an appropriate mug for today. #sapporo #時計台

A post shared by Daniel Morales (@howtojapanese) on

And I tweeted out a preview of the article I was working on:

Being a writer these days is a bit like being the captain and sole crew of a ship. You put up new sails, take others down, redeploy things from the past, all in the hopes that a breath of wind will come along and propel you forward.

Strangely enough, this article got a draft from the official Haruki Murakami Facebook page:

There’s a difference between attention and money. The plug on this page got that article far more clicks than it otherwise would have had, and I imagine that didn’t hurt my chances to keep writing for the JT. In a sense it increased my potential earnings. But it wasn’t money in the bank.

I got a more financially lucrative gust of wind earlier this spring when Keio University used one of my articles (“Japanese humor: more universally funny than you think”) on their entrance exam.

My initial reaction:

But it wasn’t totally unexpected. Starting in 2011, I received half a dozen or so requests to reprint a few of my JT articles in Japanese textbooks for prep study courses. I was confused at first but later it became a nice surprise; I would wake up in the morning bleary eyed, find an email from the JT asking me for reprint permission and my author’s fee, and punch in a quick reply.

In these cases, I received money but no attention. The small author’s fees dropped into my bank account silently a month later.

But Keio was big enough that it set off a quick series of requests. Not a huge amount, but about the same as in the previous few years. It’s been a nice little windfall.

And now that I look back at my emails (that I clearly wasn’t reading closely enough), I’m realizing that another article (“Tanka help Japanese express emotions”) was used on the entrance exam for Fukuyama City University and that Senshu University used the same article on their test that Keio did. Crazy.

The last reprint request came in October, and I asked for a 15-dollar increase to cover the international wire fee I get charged by my bank. I haven’t heard back from the JT, so I may have accidentally shut off my stream of passive income, although it’s never been clear to me whether the JT is shopping around my articles (and their own content library, which is quite vast) or these prep courses and universities are discovering the writing on their own.

I did discover that university entrance exams have a history of “borrowing” material from foreign writers. Tim Murphey of Dokkyo University wrote an article in 2005 for “Shiken: JALT Testing & Evaluation SIG Newsletter” titled “Entrance exams breaking copyright law? Academically unethical?

It sounds like things have changed for the better in the past 13 years. As you can see above, I was cited, which wasn’t always the case. However, the JT and I were only paid because the test question was reprinted in an exam book. They didn’t have to ask permission or pay us to use the writing on the original exam, which feels a bit strange.

I’m not getting my hopes up that the work I’ve produced will bring in a massive amount of passive income. This next statement might come from a place of extreme privilege (this is me checking my proverbial self before I wreck my proverbial self), but I’m not sure if earning money was ever the point. I started writing How to Japanese because I needed to produce something. I needed to connect with people and share things. There was a sense of justice, a light outrage that no one was able to communicate certain things to me. And I wanted to pass those things on.

It feels good to have succeeded on that front, to be reaching out from my laptop onto the screens of others learning Japanese. And now onto the pages in front of Japanese high school kids taking their entrance exams…who hopefully glean something from my words despite the testing fervor that surrounds them.

I do appreciate the extra income, but mostly as a trophy of sorts because I know how awful a writer I was at age 23, and I know how actively I had to work to get where I am now.

The Disease

It’s funny where you find insight about writing. I was listening to the BeerSmith Podcast the other day and was struck by something Homebrew All Stars author Drew Beechum said:

“…if you want to get something written, you have to have somebody who has a sort of disease in their brain that says ‘You know what I have to do? I have to write.’ A lot of people don’t suffer from that impulse.”

It does feel like an impulse. Especially taking that first step. Shaping a finished piece of writing–editing it–feels to me like a more conscious, controllable act. I step back from the impulse to see what it is that I’ve produced.

Goldilocks Homebrewing

goldilocks cover 300 stroke

My first book “Goldilocks Homebrewing: An Introduction to All-grain Homebrewing for Those Who Want Just Enough Information” is now available for pre-order on the Amazon Kindle Store.

Other than reading Murakami, homebrewing is one of the things I’ve been doing the longest. The book, however, is only a recent development which I started after transitioning to all-grain brewing last year. It was frustrating to wade through all the homebrewing noise on the Internet, especially when it came to building a mash tun, but once I’d done it and brewed a few batches, made a few recipes, it didn’t feel so hard. My goal with the book is to make those first few steps easier and more affordable for others.

The publishing part of the process was almost as interesting as the writing part, and I thought I’d share a little of the experience here. Here are my takeaways:

Scrivener produces really good epub files. I composed the project entirely on Scrivener, which was great until I realized I had to compile into epub, which is basically html with a few bells and whistles. For a while I was determined to code the whole damn thing from start to finish, especially after I saw that Scrivener generates hard
linebreaks to render paragraph spacing in epub. This is ugly code.

After talking it out on the Literature and Latte forum, however, I decided to live with the compiled code, and I’m glad I did. I saved myself a lot of time, and judging from tests on the Kindle Previewer and on the Amazon website, it will look just fine. I have to admit that my formatting is extremely simple. If you have fancier things you want to do with your styling, then it might be best to find a way to output the simplest epub code possible and style the CSS yourself.

It’s better to use Sigil to insert images into epub files than Scrivener. After testing out images in Scrivener, I didn’t even bother trying to get Scrivener to format my images correctly. I just left markers where I wanted photos and used Sigil, an easy-to-use open-source epub editor, to input and style the photos.

I was really confused about the image insertion process for a long time. The instructions on the Kindle website are unclear about the process, and I think if you did it manually, it would involve creating a zip file of images, which sounds like a nightmare, but it’s actually very straightforward with Sigil. When you open an epub in Sigil, there is a browser on the left hand side of the program that shows all the html files. At the bottom there are folders that hold the stylesheets, images, and other media that the epub uses. (I think this would include fonts as well if you want to use any special fonts.)

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Just right click on the Images folder and select “Add Existing Files.” This will load the images into the epub file. Find your photo locations within the book and then use the “Insert” menu to choose the file. The program shows a list of the images that are in the epub and a preview of the image, which is really helpful.

Once the image is in the epub, you can style it within the html view using the width tag.

I resized all my images using Preview rather than Photoshop because it seemed to produce better looking (and smaller) images. I’m sure this has something to do with my total lack of Photoshop chops, but it was easy, quick, and produced results I could live with.

The Kindle Direct Publishing user interface is really easy to use. Once I had the manuscript ready, there were only two screens worth of information to fill out: the first asks for basic information and the second asks for rights and pricing information.

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The details you need are: title, subtitle, description, ISBN, categories (which you choose from a list), age range, search keywords, and release date (if you plan to sell pre-orders). You also upload the cover and book file here. Once your book file is uploaded into the system, you can preview it in a browser on the Amazon page, complete with images and everything. Pretty cool.

Once you’ve input all this information, you can also save your progress and complete it later, but you can’t proceed to the second page without uploading a file for your book.

On the rights and pricing page, you choose the royalty rate and price in USD which determines the prices in the other Amazon markets (if you choose to make your book available there).

This page also has “KDP Pricing Support (beta),” which runs some kind of calculation, I assume after searching through your manuscript for things like total word count and other keywords, and then generates a price-sales arc. Strangely enough, the optimum price it determined for “Goldilocks” was $4.99, which was the same price I had been thinking about.

Buying ISBNs is really easy but expensive; assign the ISBN before publishing on KDP. I went with a set of 10, which makes each individual number cheaper. Bowker is the company that sells them, and they also have a relatively easy to use system that you can use to upload information about your book.

Once you have the numbers purchased, they are registered in your account and you have to manually assign the book to them. This process is a little more in-depth than the Amazon KDP forms, but it’s not so bad, and there are very clear help prompts from Bowker that point out what the most common response is. For example, under “Target Audience,” the most usual answer is “Trade,” which is a general audience.

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I wasn’t sure whether to publish the Amazon file first or to assign the ISBN number first, so I called Bowker, and they said that it was correct to assign the ISBN first. Apparently Amazon will return an error if you try to submit a book with an ISBN that cannot be verified as being assigned to the book.

Bowker also asks for a cover image, a description, and a full PDF of the book text. Apparently the text gets indexed for keywords and registered in Books in Print. It was easy enough to produce a PDF version by compiling in Scrivener.

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I think that’s about it. It was a fun process. There are a lot of different steps along the way, but as long as you take them one at a time, they aren’t so bad. Finish the book first. Then work on formatting: Get a good compile, insert images, style the html and CSS as necessary. Finally, buy the ISBNs, assign the number, and upload your book to Amazon. I’d recommend starting to fill out the Amazon form while you fill out the Bowker form so that you can ensure that everything is uniform across the two.

Check out the Golidlocks Homebrewing website to follow progress there.