The Dirty Little Secret of Self-Publishing

I’m sure there’s actually more than one, but the one I’m thinking about today is this:

How many copies you sell is meaningless.

It’s what so many people talk about and you see it used in advertising all the time, but at the end of the day no author is going to be able to do this full-time, even if they’re selling millions of copies, unless they’re actually making a profit on those sales.

Self-publishing is horribly myopic in this respect. Rarely do I see someone report “I made $X profit.” Instead it’s “I sold X copies” or “I’ve sold $X worth of books.”

And I get it. The gross numbers certainly look a lot better for everyone than the net number. It’s far more exciting to say “I sold a million copies” than “I sold a million copies but it cost me so much that I’m now in the hole $10,000…”

And in this business you gotta celebrate every little victory no matter what. (And perception matters, too. People want to read what other people read. They want to associate themselves with success.)

Anyway.

What prompted this thought is that I realized yesterday that my first-in-series fantasy novel sold it’s 2500th copy sometime in April. Which is a big milestone for me. I had no idea I’d sold that many copies of that title until I stopped and looked at my reports.

Woohoo! Right?

But.

Here’s the interesting thing about that title and that series: it’s my least profitable series. I actually consider it a failure.

It’s only one of three “series” (out of 26) I have that are in the red. And the only one that’s more than $50 in the red. (It’s the cost of those damned covers that I love so much…)

Interestingly, my most profitable series has sold only half as many copies but grossed more because it’s never been on sale and been significantly more profitable because it’s easier to advertise.

It’ll never get a Bookbub. (I can’t even apply for one because it’s under their page count threshold.) I don’t get fan mail for it . I barely get reviews on it.

And yet…

That’s where the money is. Not in the one that’s sold a lot of copies and had three Bookbubs. But in the little workhorse title that just chugs along day after day racking up sales rain or shine.

So if you want to do this full-time. If what matters to you is being able to work for yourself and from home, don’t focus on how many copies you’ve sold. Focus on profitability. Focus on making more in sales than you spend to get those sales. And on leveraging every sale the best way you can. (By writing in series, for example.)

Dying is a Tricky Business

Twenty-three years ago today my father passed away. In one respect, there was nothing surprising about it. He’d dialyzed for over twenty years and been hospitalized in each of the two years before that with heart issues. Not to mention the twenty-plus surgeries, the two failed transplants, the quarter of a lung he lost, the two spinal fusions, etc.

But when the time actually came, it was a complete surprise. I’d just seen him a week before during my spring break. And I’d flown back to Houston fully expecting to see him again at the end of the school year.

Looking back now, I can see how ill he was. But he was always ill. For eighteen years of my life he was dying. For eighteen years every hospitalization, every illness, had the potential to be the one that ended things.

And yet he carried on. And he didn’t just carry on, he thrived. He was President of Kiwanis, the team little league coach, competed in chili cookoffs and chess tournaments, attended pretty much every one of my volleyball and basketball games and every one of my brother’s baseball games, went back for his college degree, ran a successful if not thriving business.

He was a good father. And a good man.

But he was always dying. There was never a question about him making it to old age. It was just a question of whether he’d be thirty or forty or fifty when the end finally came.

And now I have a dear friend in a similar situation. Metastatic melanoma. Tumors in his brain, on his lung, on a kidney. The first line treatment failed. They took out two tumors, treated him, and found three more. They’ve run scans, removed the offenders, but are making no efforts right now to stop more tumors from growing.

He is very likely going to die from this. And like my father, he continues to live his life the best he can knowing that dreams of what he’ll do twenty years from now aren’t realistic. That he has to stay close to his doctors and his home. No worldwide trips, no wild adventures.

Like my father, illness has taken from this once vigorous man part of who he was. It’s damaged his body. He can’t do now what he once could.

But it hasn’t stolen his mind. He’s still passionate, still driven. Still has the same wants and needs he did before illness struck.

He’s dying.

But when? Who knows. Could be years still. Years of slow decline, fighting a battle he knows he’ll lose.

I want to say that space between diagnosis and death is like freefall, like you’re untethered and falling towards that inevitable end. But that’s not right at all.

I’ve been in freefall. And that space of time between knowing it’s going to happen and having it happen is nothing like freefall.

It’s more like that moment in a car accident between when it becomes inevitable and when you register the impact. That frozen point in time where everything seems to stop but you know it’s moving violently forward. Or maybe the moment right after impact when you’re in motion and things are breaking and shattering around you but the pain hasn’t yet registered.

That moment between can last months. Even years. A whole lifetime can be lived in that space between diagnosis and death.

Or it can be over in a moment.

You never know.

Because dying is a tricky business.

 

Purging FB Friends

That sounds more extreme than it is. But I occasionally will go through my FB friends list and unfriend people.

I’m sure that seems harsh to those who notice it, but I’m also pretty sure that the people I’ve unfriended on there aren’t going to notice. And that’s because there’s a certain type of person who uses Facebook not as a place to form genuine connection with others but more like a social rolodex.

Now, maybe it’s my age. I grew up pre-Facebook. Hell, I didn’t have email access until college. And even then it was within your school unless you found the IP address and looked through the student directory of your friends’ schools.

But I digress.

So this weekend I was at a writing conference. I’d been there the year before. And as part of being there the year before I’d added some new Facebook friends. I’m always happy to do that for someone I’ve had a nice conversation with. Because I figure that’s a way to keep in touch with them and maybe take a good initial connection and broaden it into a friendship.

And throughout the last year I’d seen the posts these folks made. I knew about their ski trips and their new pets and their story publications. I had learned a little more about them.  I’d liked a post here or replied to a post there.

But I realized this weekend that that wasn’t a two-way street. That for the folks I just unfriended I was just part of their audience, not someone they were trying to form a genuine connection with. While I knew more about them, they barely remembered we’d met before.

Partially that’s Facebook’s fault. If you have 600 “friends” you’re not going to see all their posts. Facebook curates what it shows.

But it’s also on those people for forming one-way connections. You want to have 600 FB friends? Fine. But if you want those 600 people to genuinely feel like friends and not just voyeurs of your life, then make a point to visit the personal page of everyone in your friends list on a regular basis. Once a month see what they’ve posted and add a like or make a comment. Do something that shows it’s not all about you.

Now, I know that some are reading this and thinking, huh? Do people really care about these things? And I will admit that many don’t. That’s why when blogs were big you could have hundreds or thousands of blog followers and only ten people who actually read your posts. Because people followed your blog just so you’d follow theirs.

But for the type of person I am (Relator being one of my top five strengths on the Strengthsfinder test), this sort of thing actually matters. And I will shut down a one-way “friendship”. Because it’s not a friendship. It’s not a genuine connection. And those are what actually matter to me.

So, anyway. Just throwing it out there.

A Realization

I’ve been trying to figure out what hit me so hard about Courtney Milan’s post about her sexual harassment experience when she was a clerk. (http://www.courtneymilan.com/metoo/kozinski.html)

It wasn’t that the judge called her honey. Or that he showed her pornographic photos. I think any woman over the age of thirty who has ever worked outside the home isn’t surprised to learn that men at all levels have acted in ways that were inappropriate and uncomfortable. Maybe the names of some of the men have been surprising, but not the actions.

When #metoo was doing the rounds on Facebook I posted about it. If the criteria for saying #metoo was sexual harassment, then there’s no doubt that I qualified. By the time I was twenty I’d lost count of the number of inappropriate sexual comments men I didn’t even know had said to me. At work, on the street. Basically, anytime I was going to be out in public it was a possibility that some man would say something sexually suggestive.

And like most women I learned for my own sanity’s sake to draw distinctions between the awkwardly inappropriate and the truly creepy ones. It’s like the definition of pornography that came out of that Supreme Court case.  I can’t write you a precise definition (sorry guys that feel a need for one), but I can certainly tell you when that line has been crossed.

But I’ve been fortunate in my professional career to not be in a position like Courtney was. I once had a man I worked with who tried giving me unwanted shoulder massages. (I told him if he f’in touched me again, I’d take his hands off. He stopped. Until I was remotely nice to him a couple months later and he tried it again and I had to repeat my threat.)

And I did have a job where I reached the point of feeling physically ill every time I had to go into work because of one of my co-workers who I felt was stalking me. (I told my boss. She asked if it rose to the level of sexual harassment. I said probably not but please don’t schedule me with him anymore. She continued to do so. He was her brother, after all. A few weeks later I got into a screaming argument with her over wearing shorts to work and was fired…)

So reading that post didn’t bring up any of those kind of memories for me. Maybe a little of the “oh yeah, I know how that feels to be almost ill at the thought of interacting with someone and having to anyway…”

No. I realized today that what hit me so hard about her post was something that’s not even part of this #metoo movement.

It’s this idea of loyalty. This notion that if someone gives you a tremendous opportunity that you owe them your loyalty. That you will work as many hours as they need you to work without complaint and with a positive attitude. That you never go around them. That you never publicly disagree with them. (And for some, that you never disagree with them at all. Ever.) That you don’t try to move ahead of them. That you are below them and always will be, but that if you play it right you’ll be given lots of money and the opportunity to move up in their wake.

Forget that you worked your ass off to be there. Forget that you bring skills and intelligence to the table that they need in order to succeed. Forget that there are a very limited number of people who can do what you do. None of that counts.

And to be fair here, I realized when I was thinking this through that my first job out of college was a situation where I gave everything I had but my mentor and my boss and my boss’s boss all acknowledged and rewarded that, and supported me enough to even suggest that it was time to move on to bigger challenges after I grew bored about two years in. That’s how it should be.

But so many of the bosses I worked for after that didn’t see it that way. They weren’t monsters. At the time I liked most of them. But looking back on it now I can see all those moments, all those ways in which they took and took and took and never gave back. The better ones gave raises and promotions, but the minute my path diverged from theirs they either actively sabotaged my taking that path or were so non-supportive that they may as well have sabotaged me.

And it’s so hard to try to explain to others. To try to explain why you’re not happy with an opportunity that others would kill for. Because you know even as you’re desperately unhappy that there are so many who’d say “Oh my God, do you know what I’d give to be earning that?” or “Do you know how many people wish they were you? How many people wanted this opportunity that you’ve been given?”

I think the isolation caused by that “you’re lucky to even be there” comments is what makes it so much harder for those who find themselves in a situation like that.

For me, Courtney’s story wasn’t just of a man who was sexually inappropriate. It was a story of getting an opportunity that thousands wish they could have, but only being able to have that opportunity by working for a man who called his clerks “slaves”. A man who expected them to be at his beck and call. A man who went so far as to tell his subordinates what they were allowed to read.

(I’ll tell you, reading fantasy novels is probably the only reason I lasted as long as I did in my corporate career. And I can think of at least one person I worked for who would’ve probably done the same thing the judge did if they’d ever noticed. There are reasons I use pen names for my writing and one of them is that kind of bullshit attitude that you can’t be a serious professional and enjoy something like fantasy or romance novels. Fuck that.)

That was what hit home for me in her story. I’m not downplaying the sexual aspects of it. Not in the slightest.

But the fact that she felt compelled to consult attorneys in order to share her personal experience? Or that she felt bound by an expectation of loyalty from her abuser (I would argue what she experienced was emotional abuse) and only broke her silence when he broke the loyalty code first? That what made it so hard for her to walk away was the prestige of that opportunity?

That’s what shook me. The realization that I, even though my bosses were never sexually inappropriate, had been there, too. Letting someone else control my life, letting them take whatever they needed without complaint.  And all the while with them expecting me to be grateful that they’d bothered to give me a chance…

Dead Squirrels and Empty Vodka Bottles

No, that’s not some snazzy metaphor for 2017. Or a summation of what my house looks like these days. (Although close on both counts. Haha. Just kidding. Sort of.)

The last six months or so I’ve been walking the pup around my neighborhood instead of taking her to the local sixty-acre dog park, because one day she just decided she didn’t like getting in the car anymore and would rather stay on leash and walk around here instead. (I think this has something to do with the number of rabbits that invaded our neighborhood this year. As you can imagine, there aren’t a ton of rabbits at a dog park. Although the day she found a recently killed one is one of my most vivid dog park memories…)

Anyway. Sometimes we go to the right, sometimes we go to the left. And I’ve started thinking of the right-hand walk as the dead squirrel and empty vodka bottle route. There’s a squirrel on the sidewalk about two blocks from here that’s been on the sidewalk for at least the last few weeks. Before that it was on the grass next to the sidewalk for weeks. I don’t know how it died. It must not have been run over, because at this point the skin on its chest is gone and you can see each and every rib on one side of its body and they’re all perfectly intact.

(Why I haven’t taken a picture, I don’t know. Probably for the same reason I didn’t take a picture of the tiny little snake eating a frog ten times its size when I was in Guatemala. It’s a cool thing to see and remember, but not so cool I want to ever look at it again.)

And then there are the vodka bottles we see on our walk. Those little baby ones that it would be easy for someone to swipe when no one’s looking as well as some larger ones that would fit well in someone’s hand. Fortunately, whoever the resident alcoholic is, they haven’t reached the liter-sized bottle stage yet. But whichever direction we go, the little vodka bottles litter every remotely wild space. Empty lot=vodka bottles. Dirt road=vodka bottles. Cluster of trees next to a stream=vodka bottles.

Some days I think I should pick it all up. Bring a bag and one of those little tools the convicts use to grab trash off the ground and erase all signs of the resident alcoholic (or experimental kids or both) and give the dead squirrel a final end.

But I don’t.

I could actually make some profound point right now out of all of this, but I’m not going to. I just thought I’d share. And, really, who doesn’t want to write a post with a title like that?

There’s Usually a Reason Regulations Exist

In my old day job I was responsible for enforcing a set of regulations that a lot of people found annoying and stupid. And, because I was on-site enforcing them, I got to hear about it. Often. And later when one of my areas of expertise was a new, but important area of regulation, I heard the complaints from both those enforcing the regulations as well as those who had to comply with them.

“Do we really have to be so hard on this firm just because they failed to properly identify who owns that account?” and “So what if we didn’t report that one little pattern of suspicious activity? Do you really have to fine us for it?”

Moment to moment, I could sympathize with their frustrations. When you have eight million things going on and deadlines and responsibilities, getting tripped up by something that seems minor or having to take a case for something that seems minor is frustrating.

What a waste, right? Everyone has better things to do, don’t they?

One of the rules that we enforced that people found most eye-roll-inducing was the requirement to file an FBAR. For those of you not in the know, an FBAR is a form that the U.S. government requires U.S. persons to file that “is used to report a financial interest in or signature authority over a foreign financial account.”

Basically, if you are a U.S. person and you have control over at least $10,000 worth of funds overseas, the U.S. government wants to know about it. And, if you fail to tell them about it and they can show you did so willfully you can owe up to $100,000 or 50% of the value of the account.

One little form. Screw it up and you lose half the value of the account. Seems absurd right?

Ah, but there’s a reason that form filing requirement exists. And a reason the penalty can be so high.

That’s because charging someone with failing to file that form is a hook a prosecutor can use to catch those who engage in activity they don’t want their government to know about.

Sometimes (often) it’s good old-fashioned tax evasion. Rich people love to hide their funds overseas where Uncle Sam can’t tax it. (Just Google UBS and tax evasion to get a small idea of the size of the issue.)

And sometimes it’s someone representing the interests of a foreign government against U.S. interests who wants to hide what they’re doing.

Either way, that little form is very handy when these things happen.

Proving tax evasion and money laundering and criminal intent can take a ton of effort and documentation and chasing money trails all over the world, and possibly years of effort to build the case. But proving that someone had over $10,000 stashed overseas and they failed to file that little form? That’s pretty damned easy to prove. (As we just saw.)

So all hail the mighty FBAR.

And the next time you’re tempted to complain about some useless regulation, remember: there’s usually a reason regulations exist.

 

I’m Not Good At This Self-Employment Thing

The last time I held a full-time office job was right about this time in 2009. I think my last day was September 30th. I worked on-site on a project out of town until 10:30 that night helping my team finish up a report, went back to my hotel, and flew home the next day.

I then took off the next three months, something I had never done before since I worked through college, both during the school year and summers and all breaks. I’d take a two-week vacation most years after college, but the rest of the time it was work, work, work. Often sixty hour weeks.

I spent part of that time off traveling around New Zealand. I cannot tell you how amazing those six weeks were. Such a beautiful country, such amazing people, such fun things to do. I wanted more of that and less of the stress and deadlines of full-time work.

So January 1st, 2010 I got back to work as a self-employed consultant who worked from home (which in those early years turned out to be New Zealand a lot of the time). I’ve stayed working as either a self-employed consultant or writer ever since.

Now, you might look at that and think, “Well, you seem to be doing something right since you’ve been self-employed for seven years now. Don’t most businesses fail after five years?”

But I’m not really. It turns out I was so good at being full-time employed that it allowed me to coast into self-employment.

In two ways.

First, almost all of my consulting business has come from people I knew when I was full-time calling me up and offering me work. That’s what happened in December 2009 and it’s continued to happen since. Only one project I’ve worked on in the last seven years came from someone I didn’t know before I started consulting.

Worse, I like to work from home and I know that if I go out to companies and say, “Hey, you have any work for me?” and they say, “Yes. And it’s on-site in this random city” that I’m kind of stuck taking work that involves travel I don’t want. So I have sat back and waited for people to reach out to me and say, “Any chance you’re free?” so I can then say, “As long as I can work from home (and as long as the rate’s good).”

That’s not a way to run a sustainable business. A successful entrepreneur should be out there hustling for new clients or for more business from their existing clients. Instead I do things like decide that the work a client was giving me wasn’t challenging enough and wasn’t using my expertise (even though it was highly lucrative) and move on at the end of the project instead of hanging around for more opportunities.

That’s a horrible way to run a business.

And the only reason I can do that is because of the other thing that being good at full-time employment gave me: savings. I can walk away from a good-paying project because I know I can cover my rent this month one way or the other out of savings.

But you can only do that kind of thing for so long. And the longer you do it for the worse it all gets. The savings go down, the people who remember you become fewer and more far between. Your skills atrophy or your knowledge becomes stale.

It’s amazing how long you can coast without realizing that you’re failing.

I envision it sometimes as my early career was one of those ramps you see at the X games and I’m some motorcycle that has gone flying off the end. The initially trajectory was even higher, but at some point now that I’m off the ramp, I’m going to start coming down.

I think the year that happens is 2018.

Unless I finally get my head out of my ass and get disciplined about being self-employed and start to treat it like a real bona fide business that requires deadlines and focus (for the writing) or actually pursuing work (for the consulting).

(Before you get out the violins, I am in the five-figure range with the writing this year, so it’s not like I’m selling three copies. It’s just that it’s not enough for how I want to live.)

Anyway. As part of that effort to break myself out of this funk, today I read one of the books in the NaNo bundle: Time Management by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Reading it brought home yet again that I don’t treat my writing as a real business. I’m still treating it as a hobby, which I can’t keep doing unless I want to go get one of those day jobs I’m so good at but hate.

So there you have it. Even though I’ve managed to do this for seven years now, I’m not actually good at this self-employment thing. But I’m going to get better at it, damn it.

I swear. (And I’ll get right on that after I waste the rest of this morning on the internet…)