An Ode to Toys R Us

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“I don’t wanna grow up, I’m a Toys R Us kid
they got a million toys at Toys R us that I can play with
I don’t wanna grow up, I’m a Toys R Us kid
they got the best for so much less, it’ll really flip your lid
From bikes to trains to video games
it’s the biggest toy store there is (gee whiz!)
I don’t wanna grow up, cause maybe if I did
I couldn’t be a Toys R Us kid
more games, more toys, oh boy!
I wanna be a Toys R Us kid”

As a kid growing up in the 80s and early 90s, I knew the jingle like many of my friends. The commercials blanketed Saturday morning cartoons, and after trips to the mall (remember when those used to be popular, along with mall arcades?) my parents would take us to Toys R Us.

It was a magical place for an 9 year old. It had basically everything you could ever want. You first walked into a maze of filler (even 9 year olds knew the real toys were in back) and then reached the back aisles. For me and my brother, we would go straight to the Nintendo aisle, which was essentially a bunch of pictures of various nintendo games all the way down the aisle along with a ticket you would have to pick if you wanted to take the front to buy. My brother and I would pool our money. If we had 20 bucks each, we would magically spend $40 on one game. If we had $10, we would get a $19 game, and so on. There were games of many price points for a broke kid to choose. The selections were limitless. Kmart didn’t have it. Walmart didn’t have it. K-B Toys certainly didn’t have it.

When it came to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and G.I. Joe, Toys R Us was the joint. It had to display the largest assortment of action figures and vehicles. It didn’t matter what wave it came in. Searching wasn’t required. It was a one stop toy wonderland.

Sometimes, my budget was only $3.15, only enough to cover a G.I. Joe plus tax (I had the largest collection in my grade). I would browse for 30 minutes all the toys I could never buy from all the commercials I saw. Ghostbusters. M.A.S.K. Thundercats. He-Man. Whatever. I didn’t know what the hype was with Star Wars. To me, I found it strange my friend’s older siblings used to collect them, kept pristine in the packaging. For a 9 year old, this was blasphemy. My toys were always opened during the ride home in the car.

We moved to Germany after elementary school, so I never again visited a Toys R Us until I became a parent. In fact, I don’t think I ever saw a commercial again with the jingle stuck in my mind. My kids watch Netflix. There are no commercial jingles to seep into their consciousness. They certainly know the McDonald arches, but Toys R Us, I don’t think they’ve ever asked. It’s a place they go to see a giraffe sometimes and do a lego demonstration.

This is the inherent problem with their business model. It’s outdated.

Sandwiched between Target and Walmart, which cleaner and newer stores, and online delivery with Amazon, Toys R Us is in a pricing vortex of hell. They simply can’t compete on price while supplying enough cash flow to pay off debt. Some blame Vornado Realty Trust and Bain Capital and KKR and the debt load saddled on Toys R Us. I say perhaps. Take one look at K-Mart, and you can see what happens when you don’t win on price and invest very little into your locations. It’s a branding death spiral.

I’ve been to Toys R Us a few times in the last couple years, and in my opinion, it was clear bankruptcy was inevitable. The parking lots were often crumbling. The facade and paint was worn. When you walk inside, there was the same maze of worthless stuff when you entered, except now, to get to the video games it was usually near the cash wraps. The Lego aisle was always the best of any store (even THE Lego store), the board game section had every expansion known to man, and Star Wars had every variant. The prices always seemed above retail so their promotions would seem like a deal (Buy one get one 50% off isn’t a deal when Walmart already sells it for 40% off all year around). Amazon ships faster and has a larger selection and a return policy where you don’t have to look at an employee to get a refund. Who returns their kid’s toys?

Despite the nostalgia, I was guilty of almost never buying from Toys R Us unless I was exploiting a price mistake or flipping some rare exclusive, despite having the funds to do so. Even for a measly $5, I would simply have my kid wait and buy something online, sometimes right there in the store.

The only hope was store exclusives (which got destroyed by resellers simply clearing the shelf and adding it to Amazon’s inventory) and a better customer experience (toy demonstrations and the giraffe (which will be missed). As for more knowledgeable customer service, I would admit, Walmart toy people are really shelf stockers who can’t tell you anything about anything and seemed angry to be there. Target toy people are really teenage employees in the electronics section spending their time hitting on their coworkers. Amazon, well, you’ll get a customer service rep from India. Toys R Us actually had knowledgeable people in most of the store, and some are downright kids that took the song to heart. One time, I bought a video game at 9pm and didn’t leave until 9:20pm because the guy who rang me up talked about the upcoming Nintendo Switch launch and said he stayed up all night to watch the launch and spouted off all the advantages and reasons why it would be huge. This compares to a visit at Game Stop the same month, where a customer came in, and I heard the guru behind the counter saying the switch would fail like the PS Vita (If you are under 28 and working at Gamestop, you don’t realize the purchasing power of the Nintendo generation). Clearly, my sample size is small, but generally speaking, Gamestop hires assholes paid to lowball people on trade-ins and Toys R Us hires people spending their day in a toy store where a lot of children come in (exception: Toys R Us Managers always tended to be assholes for just about any issue).

What did we lose? Really nothing I suppose. The business model is long broken. The only thing that can’t be replaced is customer experience and having a place ours kids can go if they get good grades on a report card. Everything else, parents can fill in for. We can actually play with our kids and show excitement with the toy, not just forking over cash in the store. We can take them to a Lego convention instead of seeing the Giraffe to build 50 cents worth of legos to a “Batman car.” We can pick up another controller and play with them the video game they want. For experts, we can read blogs and watch youtube  toy reviews. One nostalgic experience can be replaced with something newer, and hopefully better for the next generation.

And we can all still pay the lowest damn price possible. May the best retailer win.

I sold $110K on Amazon in December

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Why is retail imploding before our eyes? The statistics of brick and mortar bankruptcies are alarming. Compounded with the launch of Amazon Go with a cashierless experience and an entry into pharmaceuticals, there is major displacement on the horizon.

Or is this just pie-in-the-sky thinking for people who don’t truly understand the mechanics behind Amazon’s success with their FBA (fulfillment by Amazon) program.

To sum it up, Amazon essentially was fighting in the low margin inventory discount business for the first ten or so years. They had buyers of all background scouring inventory channels to keep them stocked on a losing game of “demand prediction.” They were competing against the well funded rise of big box empires of any niche category. Toys. Pet supplies. Office supplies. Books. Food. Movies. Whatever you want. Instead of ma and pa shops imploding through an invasion of big box stores, a revenge is now happening.

As they entered the web services business, they understood the scale and profitability of becoming a services company. The technology would be the strength. Now, Netflix goes through Amazon to stream and store all their catalog of content, despite being a direct competitor.

For the retail portion, Amazon outsourced inventory risk to individual sellers. At first, this caused some price spikes with shortages in supply, especially at key times of the year like Black Friday. After a few years, competition has become so fierce, there is massive discounting that happens from inexperienced sellers as the gold rush to join the program continues. Now, over 60% of what is sold on Amazon is sold via FBA. Our products are shipped and stored and ordered from an Amazon warehouse. Many small sellers, with no business acumen or credit, get slaughtered in their first deep Q4.

The fees are high. In all, about three times as high as Ebay.

We pay to have items shipped to an Amazon warehouse. We eat the returns and pay for storage in the warehouse. Then, Amazon takes a hefty fee on top of that.

FBA has essentially paid for the massive warehouse expansion the last 8 years. Sellers are getting more savvy. We scour price disparities between vendors and arbitrage the difference. We hunt for clearances and buy in bulk. Many, who want scale, go for private label dreams and search on Alibaba and AliExpress for cheap products to “brand” and ship to the US.

This is a gold rush and it is killing brick and mortar. Call it the uberization of retail and nationwide clearances.

In my first full year of Amazon, I learned a ton. As a business major, I’d say more is learned in the first year of a startup operating under your own capital than business school. Application always trumps theory.

There are so many mistakes a I made through the year, so even though I sold $110K in just one month, I felt like I didn’t do enough. I could have scaled so much bigger. On Facebook reseller groups, there are people doing ten times the amount every month, which creates a followership cycle of business envy. It’s almost like Reseller Porn. “Hey, look at my sales!” We all have secret tricks. Amazon has gated so many categories and brands that there is an actual economic moat for many small sellers.

How can a brick and mortar store compete against an army of small business with extremely motivated and savvy sourcers who look for the smallest of price disparities on Jungle Scout? How can it fight whispers of special nationwide deals on social media? It can take six weeks for a department store to source a T-shirt in a rush. Now, a teenager in their basement can be the largest t-shirt designer in their state by uploading a design to Merch by Amazon. They don’t have to take on any inventory. They get paid a royalty when it sells.

This is sort of the concept behind self publishing. Anyone can do it. There is no barrier to entry.

There are a few safe places. Large items in particular are insulated. So furniture stores are okay for now. As Tesla knows, there is a dealership network that makes it difficult to do direct sales in the auto market. Walmart remains the only colossus that stands in Amazon’s way to win the last mile.

2018 is here. I’m still sourcing part time, on top of a full time job and other projects. I already have a list of SKUs to go deep on for next christmas season to 10X my sales. Do you?

 

 

 

I made $30K last month on Amazon

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I had become accustomed to Amazon publishing videos on youtube for quite some time and ironically, the google search algorithms must have put me as a huge Amazon fan. My ads and suggested viewings were all related to Amazon. Either that, or I needed to see Tai Lopez with his Lambo in his garage for the 94th time.

I then saw a new video about Amazon. How about selling other stuff? I used to sell books out of college about a decade prior but quit as physical book prices collapsed to pennies where people made money off shipping. I had a full time job, and the hobby soon became a pain. What did the new videos reveal?

Amazon FBA.

Fulfillment by Amazon is the breakthrough Amazon has found to win on price and margin. Instead of taking inventory risk, they let independent sellers send in inventory for them to sell, pack, ship, and any returns are the sellers risk. Amazon just takes a generous cut from brokering the deal that rivals their digital sales cut. The sellers then reverse auction prices to underbid each other with apps, and all of a sudden their prices beat Walmart’s because Billy Bob Inc got in a pissing contest with Sally Joe Inc over a jar of mayo.

Yep, it’s that big.

Anyways, I soon discovered after some light research just how littered the field is with promotional wunderkinds that can teach you anything and everything about the process for the low low low price of ________. (take your guess and multiply by insanity). I joined a couple groups. Paid one, and it was a scam from the get go. Advice: Most of them are scammers, otherwise they would be too busy scaling up with their business. This is the same reason why JK Rowling or Stephen King or James Patterson (oops) doesn’t peddle a “How to make millions by writing in under 30 days” courses. It simply doesn’t work. Only scamsters sell courses like that. On FB groups, they even have the stupid gimmick of posting motivation quotes on instagram filtered stock photos to build up likes, except it’s all business related instead of Elmore Leonard.

So I learned the old fashioned way (circa 2017). I watched a shit-ton of youtube videos and learned to source product. I began with thrift stores (which gets old fast) and garage sales (which is awkward and weird), to moving to retail arbitrage. I can probably write 500 tricks to making money on Ebay and Amazon now as there is a steep learning curve and even the paid scammers don’t know what they’re talking about. This is the thing. When you learn a secret in the reselling game, you basically lose when you tell others. Reselling groups are a highly secretive bunch now. There are seriously secret societies in America who work together to essentially bring the downfall of physical retail. Their partner/big brother is Amazon who has created an army of UPC scanners in stores from sea to shining sea.

There are courses that cost as much as $3000 for shit I learned in 8 minutes watching youtube clips. There is a $8000 course for private labeling that I learned in 50 minutes listening to a podcast. Nobody gives a shit. Some idiot will pay and people will fail and go broke just like gold miners in the Klondike. In the writing world, this is just like the mini-gold rush of people that made a business of formatting old books without copyright and posting them on kindle for a profit when the same book was free somewhere else. It is mind boggling the scamming that is going on in the veil of education and “life changing opportunity.”

This isn’t Tai Lopez pushing 67 steps in his mansion.

These are shady amateurs that basically would rather work from home pontificating obvious information with the “get 1000 people to pay you 1000 bucks” scam.

Here is my tip to Amazon. Join  bunch of FB groups, watch a bunch of youtube videos, and listen to a bunch of podcasts. The more you put in, the more you’ll learn. This is like Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting … you wasted your money paying for education when everything can be learned for free.

Don’t worry, I’m not selling shit. No course. No youtube channel promotion or affiliate marketing. I’m just telling it how it is for free. Why? I don’t know. With my traffic at next to nil after my hiatus, maybe it doesn’t matter. The scammers always win. Maybe I just want all my 6 months of learning to be kept a secret. Maybe there are hundreds of people that all know the easy money to make and want it to be kept a secret so the party can keep going.

So where am I now?

I still have a full time career doing something else, but now dabble in Amazon FBA and ebay as a side hobby after I stopped writing, and just about reached the $30k per month milestone in March (Now over $37K in April) which is insane considering how little work I put into it.

IMG_1651.PNGMaybe Amazon is the future. Their drones will deliver me a cheeseburger in 5 minutes or less as they put fast food out of business after big box stores are obliterated from our suburban landscapes. Maybe we’ll end up like those fat kids in Wall-E with everything fed and delivered to us by robots. It’s like David Foster Wallace’s prediction for us. We are a species all about instant gratification. Maybe I need to just get with the program and self publish my stuff and let Amazon make me a boatload of cash on their platform.

The End.

 

 

 

Thrift Treasures (The Tom Clancy Score)

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My bibliophile hobby continues. I don’t know how many books I have at this point. I stopped cataloguing books around 7 years ago. It became no fun if I was constantly inventorying my collection. So now I just buy buy buy, but ensure I keep within a limited budget. In the old days, I use to be a decent seller on Amazon in the days before prices plummeted and before Borders went belly up. This is how I funded my old buying habits. Now, for the price of a couple hardbacks a month, I go out into the wild and pick books up a flea markets, thrift shops, garage sales, along with other things I collect. So for me, the thrill these days amount more to the hunt for treasure.

Sometimes I collect certain author’s first editions.

Sometimes I go for genre (Sci-Fi and Fantasy for me).

A bunch of books I collect just to, you know … read them.

Most of the time, there is little of value to be had. From the picture above, I bought Dan Brown’s Inferno, first edition, that is probably worth the 99 cents I paid for it. When the movie comes out this summer, I think it’ll be worth 99 cents. So many were printed that it is a little pointless collecting Dan Brown first editions. For me, since I found a first edition The Da Vinchi Code, I now have all his books in first edition. I even picked up a swanky Angel & Demons illustrated edition for $2 on the same excursion (5-6 stores). It’s worth $5-6 on ebay, so as a Dan Brown Collector, this was a decent pickup.

I found a copy of a BCE of A Time to Kill by John Grisham, printed by Wynwood Press. When Grisham wanted to become a writer, he did hard work of getting it printed by a vanity press, putting the books in the trunk of his car, and driving town to town to sell them off. To find a first edition out in the wild is pretty tough. Some newbies pick up the reformatted version after the movie came out, which isn’t rare at all (aka the green book). The BCE edition of the original fetches $20-50 on ebay over the last 8-9 years. I’ve followed this as I now have 3 in my collection.

I found two copies of Galactic Empires volume 1 and 2. I already have this set, but to me this was a nostalgic buy. For $75 cents each, I bought a set worth around $20, but to me, this anthology edited by the late Brian Aldiss holds some weight as having one of my favorite short stories of all time in included, The Star Plunderer by Poul Anderson. 

I picked up few gaming guides for my video game collection. Believe if or not, these things are pretty collectible if in good condition. I bought mine for 99 cents each. Worth $5-10 but whatever, I want it for my gaming room. I would do a video tour of it, but I need to complete it out more. It is getting harder and harder to find the really good, vintage stuff, like old nintendo games still in the box.

I bought lots of hardcover first editions in the haul in the Sci-Fi and Fantasy genre. I might have duplicates, I have no idea. Maybe I’m meet another collector nearby who will want to trade in 10-20 years. There are a couple books made into movies recently, The Fault of our Stars by John Green, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot by Kim Barker (Title change from first book). Why movie books? Well, if you want to be a writer, you better learn what the hell worked from those that broke out.

The grand prize of the haul, was the Tom Clancy book. No, not Against All Enemies by the ghostwriter in small print. (Tom Clancy has been dead for a few years, so this marketing ploy is a bit strange). I’m a Clancy collector, but grow frustrated at the insistence to keep printing off his name. In any case, no, my score was finding a first edition Patriot Games autographed. It was sitting in the cart by the shelves because there were just so many unorganized book madness at that particular store.

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I have no idea if that is to Dane, or Jane, or if Bane himself went to a book signing 30 years ago. Based on the few available on ebay, it seems as though “Best Wishes” was a standard line for ol’ Tom. This is actually better than a flat sign because there is a larger sample of his signature for authentication purposes. Online, they all range from $89-150. A bunch are stalking a buy it now price of $99 for one seller, so I believe this is the value. Like all my autograph finds, I’ll be holding on to it in my lifetime, unless there is some better nostalgic trade. I have two holy grail books I want, in autograph condition. Not sure how long it will take, but I aim to get them someday.

How much were all the books, including the autographed Tom Clancy?

Around $27. How much if I went to Half Priced Books? Probably $175 (not including autographed book). How much if there was as book price collapse and I bought each for a penny on amazon? Probably $110 in shipping.

Garage sales and thrift shops remain the best port of calls for the book collector and aspiring writer.

READ ABOUT MY PINK FLOYD SCORE

What I’m Learning about Cover Design

 

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Two months ago, I had nothing but a couple completed manuscripts. I didn’t know much about querying because up until January, I only focused on writing.

Then I found out about “platforms,” which I had none.

Then I found out about social media, which I had none.

Oops.

Then I researched self publishing, which I knew very little about. I set out to teach myself anything I didn’t know about this new world through other blogs, podcasts, youtube videos, and conversations with other indie writers. I’ve learned a ton, which I’ll share in future blogs, but this one is squarely focused on cover design.

Since joining twitter, and filtering through the non-stop marketing spam and fake followers, I have watched the ways indie authors have marketed their books. I stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night so I can firmly tell you that 75% of the book covers I see on indie books are total crap. It is almost like they didn’t care it was the first impression. Coming into this, my photoshop skills were zilch. I had never used photoshop before in my life (I was a MS Paint guy). With the Midnight Traveler Crowd Sourcing Project I learned to do four simple functions: filtering out color, cropping, adding text, and adjusting text color.

Last night, off a whim when I checked out Chuck Wendig’s recent post on writing tips for new authors, I saw his book cover and told myself, “Hey, now that is a pretty catchy book cover. The font is bright. The blurbs are there. I clearly can see his name is the biggest thing on the book cover. Can I do something like this?”

It took me honestly 90 minutes to click around photoshop to find everything I needed. It works through a concept of layering where take an image and make edits, then slowly add layers on top like a cake. I have zero art skill, but understand this concept.

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Step 1: I used a lasso tool and cropped out a couple raven images from real pictures and then pasted it to a new background.  I then copied it to make two, then rotated and stretched both to look slightly different. This was about 30 minutes of tinkering the first time. When you learn it it should take you 15 seconds to do.

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Step 2: I simply added text. I think anyone can do that. I scrolled through the fonts to find something close, then moved it around and adjusted it to match ok. It took 20 minutes to figure what the hell I was doing in font selection since photoshop offers a ton. Now it would take me 5 minutes to choose a font because no matter what, you are tinkering it to match an original image.

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Step 3: This was the pain in the ass. You have to add a bunch of new layers to match the original picture. This means a bunch of testing of fonts, colors, and rotating some of the images (like “Chuck”) to match. Since my bird wasn’t exactly a match, I made it as close as I could.

Step 4: If you were extra ambitious, there are tools to do little paint brush strokes to try and match the bird in the original. This was only a couple hours of me attempting photoshop, so I kept the black raven look. The practice sessions of me “painting” were pretty poor and might have undid this whole “you can do it too” blog post.

Overall, you can see at the two comparisons. I think mine looked pretty damn good for a simple effort. It was a couple hours of teaching myself what buttons to press, but now, I can recreate most of this in 15 minutes.

I will continue to press more buttons and learn more skills in photoshop. Given some practice, all of you should be able to successfully make a simple eye catching design that will pull your readers in.

SEE MY NEXT LESSON IN PHOTOSHOP 

OR, LEARN ABOUT THE FIVERR BOOK MARKETING SCAM

 

1000 Word Book Reviews: Roko’s Basilisk by Michael Blackbourn

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Roko’s Basilisk by Michael Blackbourn

The author was up front in saying the story picks up around 2800 words in. For me, he was right. Much of the first couple pages involves the main character’s daily routine except the character was going through pain. Much focus is spent describing the way his body is feeling and giving sensory descriptions. This continues for a few pages and didn’t quite hook me.

Eventually, the focus of the story became more clear on page 5, which I think is way beyond 1000 words. The story is about a VitaVax shot, which is nanotechnology that repairs cells. This is what was causing much of the issues of the first few pages.

To me, the author should have dived into the plot narrative a little faster. Other than that, I didn’t quite know the time or setting or any background to the story.

Does the first 1000 words show it as edited?

Yes, however some of the formatting was off. The thoughts of the character were not italicized as usual in a third person point of view story. There a couple odd uses of words likeShe looked up from her phone and smiled. Smiling from bed.”  Some of the sentences didn’t have a noun and a verb, which can be fine, but was a little weird in the context. “The VitaVax shot” and “Casual pants and a dark button-down shirt” and “Go” and “Stressed about the Presentation.” None of the sentences were dialogue or part of a POV narrative, so to some, I could see how it wouldn’t be typical. Note: I write short truncated sentences, but mostly in my first person POV stories. Additionally, sometimes stream of consciousness stories almost require the story to be filled with this. 

Do I care about the characters after the first 1000 words?

The first 1000 words doesn’t do enough to get me to care. By the time it gets to the VitaVax shot, I am a little more interested in the story. There wasn’t much to identify with Thomas yet early on. Perhaps it picks up later.

Do I like the world building?

I didn’t gather in the first few thousand words what the world was. So I couldn’t assess this. For me, consider this as not observed.

Overall Assessment: Would I continue reading past the 1000 words?

If reading this on Amazon, the first 1000 words wouldn’t get me to continue past. If it would have started with the VitaVix shot paragraph, and given a single flashback/filler paragraph to get me up to speed on the headaches, it would have propelled me enough to the next plot point. 

One thing I would have liked seeing:

For a man with so much pain, I would have liked to see a little more interaction. We get that Thomas is suffering, but that can be told in one paragraph. He can describe his pain in one interaction with Jane while also establishing the world and the shot he got. It doesn’t really have to be a mystery. Just jump into it and go.

Overall Story Beginning Rating: 1/5 Happy Go-Lucky Red Pandas

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———

Q&A with Michael Blackbourn
How long did the first draft take to write?
About a year. this was my second story after my kids book and the first ‘grown up’ sci fi I’ve written. Everything seems to take longer than I would like. When I used to jump out of planes and blow stuff up for a living everything seemed to go more quickly. Writing takes me a frustrating length of time to get right.
Did you change the ending in the middle of writing?
I added an entire parallel story inter-weaved with the main plot after I finished. It made the entire concept of the short much much stronger and I couldn’t imagine the book without that element now.
Did you submit traditionally?
No. This story is about to hit amazon as soon I as I have part 2 completely edited. They are going up as a pair. Both have strong endings (no cliffhangers) where I leave no room for a sequel, so I’m hoping the fact that there is more will be a draw to people, wondering how it might go on.
Where do you want to go with the series?
I have a second part that is done and I’m just polishing, it’s 3 times longer than this initial piece. And I have a third part outlined. There is a lot of room in this concept for more.
Favorite author who has influenced your writing?
Howey and Heinlein. One when I was in highschool – he was my into to science fiction, and the other more recently for how well he writes the internal monologue of characters.