Next week I’ll be riding my bicycle across Indiana on the old National Road. I’ll blog about it each night, scheduling posts to go live at the usual 5 am ET. My only Internet device will be my phone – so I’m testing posting from it. Typing is not fun. But it works!
Every New Year’s Day I announce a theme, usually a single word, that represents the way I want to grow. As I turn 54 today, I want to reflect on this year’s theme, which is congruence — that is, to live a life true to my values and needs, to be honest with my yes and my no.
I’ve leaned into this year’s theme harder than any year’s theme before. I’ve really worked on advocating for myself.
The timing could not have been better. Shortly into the new year I took a new job as Director of Engineering in a software company. Unexpectedly, I’ve found myself needing to set strong boundaries with a particular VP. His function and mine are interrelated; we work fairly closely together. Sometimes he oversteps.
At first, I wasn’t sure of the fellow’s intentions. Did he think I was incapable of my job? Was he trying to take over territory? In time, I came to see that he is acting in good faith. He just has a command-and-control kind of personality, and tends to direct anything that doesn’t seem in order. Fortunately, every time I’ve set a boundary with him, he’s honored it. I’ve even given him critical feedback a time or two, and he’s received it well and tried to act on it. I believe that in time he will trust me and my team and I won’t have to draw lines with him anymore.
Also unexpectedly, in June I had to have a very blunt conversation with my boss. When he hired me he agreed to let me hire a layer of managers to directly lead the engineers — all 21 of them. That’s a lot of direct reports, far too many for me to do a good job of managing them and also do the other duties of my job. But then the money to make those hires kept not coming and kept not coming. And then my company took a very large outside investment, which created a lot of activity, and my already full schedule became double and triple booked. I had barely been keeping up with everything, but not anymore. I went on the fast track to burnout.
My mistake was waiting. I should have held my boss to his promise from day one. I kick myself now. I try to give myself a pass because I could not have seen coming the large investment and the performance pressure it has placed on us. But even without that, I wasn’t doing every aspect of my job well enough because there was simply more than I could do.
At home, I’ve started several conversations with my wife about what we want out of our marriage and our home. The crazy family challenges we’ve lived through have tended to put us in constant go mode. There’s been emergency after emergency. It’s left little time for us to talk about and work out what we want our home and our life together to be. Except where I personally take care of things at home, this home life isn’t what I want it to be. But as we’ve talked about what we want, we’ve both tried hard to honor it, and be honest about when we can’t.
This has been hard. I have not enjoyed it. At my core, I want harmony to simply exist, so I can live placidly within it. I’ve always known that’s not realistic, that you have to work at building and maintaining alignment, but I’ve generally put off doing anything about it unless I was backed against a wall. I hope that as I keep practicing this, it will become a normal part of my behavior.
I don’t expect to be perfect. It’s just that where I’ve had unhappiness and dissatisfaction in my life — and I’ve had considerable helpings of both — at the root, I didn’t live true to my values and needs.
For many years, one of the most popular radio stations in central Indiana broadcast over 1070 AM. WIBC was what used to be called a “full service” station, playing “middle of the road” music with big personality disk jockeys and news every hour on the hour. In central Indiana, everybody listened to WIBC at least once in a while. It was a hugely popular radio station for decades and decades.
Full service died in about 1993 on WIBC, when the station debuted a news-talk format. AM radio was changing radically in these days, as FM had long since come to dominate in listenership. As 2007 drew to a close, WIBC abandoned its historic 1070 AM frequency and switched to FM at 93.1, where it still broadcasts. On FM, WIBC has continued to do very well and remains a top-rated station, although of a much smaller listenership as radio itself has become less relevant.
WIBC’s parent company aired a sports-talk format on 1070, and later added two low-power FM signals at 93.5 and 107.5 to carry that programming.
A sad commentary on the value of AM radio today, but in recent years the land that 1070’s towers sat on became more valuable than the station itself. The owners sold the land and dismantled the towers, with no set plans to continue operating the station on 1070. Here are the last couple minutes of 1070, once a powerhouse radio station in central Indiana. 1070 in Indiana breathed its last at the end of August 2.
Even though 1070 carried a radio station with call letters WFNI in its final years, someone at 1070 saluted WIBC’s heritage by ending with WIBC’s top-of-the-hour ID used from the 1970s through the 2000s. Most people from central Indiana who are older than about 30 remember the Radio Indiana ID. It always led right to WIBC News.
Here’s a taste of what WIBC once was. This is an aircheck from 1982 of disk jockey Orly Knutson. Listen to the slight reverb behind Orly’s voice; it was part of WIBC’s signature sound. This aircheck includes the Radio Indiana ID and part of a newscast, and at about the 6 minute mark, one of WIBC’s well-known long jingles. But more than anything else, hear how WIBC was your friend and companion as you went about your day. Man, I miss radio like that.
Speaking of long jingles, here are a few more. These two videos are courtesy my friend John, a radio historian and a fellow I shared the airwaves with, as our shifts on WZZQ in Terre Haute were usually next to each other.
I first wore Birkenstock sandals after my botched bunion surgery in 2014. I didn’t know it at the time, but the surgeon nicked a nerve that now inflames under normal walking pressure. It’s mildly painful, wildly uncomfortable, and permanent. The only fix is to deaden the nerve, which would make that part of my foot permanently numb. My other option, the one I’ve taken, is good shoes and an orthotic that redistributes pressure away from that spot.
Birkenstock’s famous footbed takes the pressure off so I can walk comfortably, no orthotic needed. As soon as the weather warms up enough each spring, I ditch my shoes and wear my Birks nearly exclusively, until the cold returns in the autumn. I alternate between two pairs, one with black leather and one with brown. A classic Birk is open at the heel, but I buy the style with a back strap so I’m extra sure they’ll stay on.
I have historically bought my Birks directly from Birkenstock, via their online store. I won’t be doing that anymore. Twice now I’ve received sandals with issues, and have run into brick walls getting the company to accept a return.
Their return policy is clear: they accept returns only of goods in “original purchase condition.” Trouble is, it can take several days of wearing new Birks, as they break in and conform to your foot, before you discover whether they are are comfortable or not. By then, the sandals are no longer in “original purchase condition” — your foot has imprinted upon and discolored the footbed, and the sole has curved a little bit.
Both times I’ve wanted to return a pair of Birks, after several days of wearing them some of the lumps and bumps in the footbed found themselves in the wrong places under my feet, and caused considerable discomfort. As you can imagine, when a shoe has a lumpy footbed, the lumps have to be in exactly the right places or walking is painful.
The first time this happened, I argued with Birkenstock customer service until they relented. The second time this happened, which was this year, they would not back down. I argued that this was surely a manufacturing defect. They replied that I was welcome to email them photographs to show the defect. But even if they agreed that there was a defect, the sandals would still need to be in “original purchase condition” for them to refund my money. I would have to ship the sandals back at my cost, and await their judgement.
I replied that I would henceforth buy from other sellers who had less restrictive return policies. I then ordered a pair of Birks from DSW’s online store. Zappos or Amazon would have worked just as well, but they were out of my size. All three companies have return policies that let me return the sandals if they’re not right, even if they no longer look perfectly new. You know — how it should be. Fortunately, it wasn’t necessary, as the new Birks were comfortable.
The official Birkenstock store’s return policy just doesn’t make sense.
Today marks seven months since I published my book, A Place to Start: Stories and Essays from Down the Road. Publishing my book and trying to market it has been interesting and I’ve learned a lot.
It has not, however, been lucrative. I make a fine living at my day job, so thank heavens I wasn’t counting on this book to feed my family. Nevertheless, I’m disappointed.
I did the whole job myself: writing, editing, page layout, cover design, submitting to distributors, and marketing. I chose to have the paperback version of the book printed on demand so I would not have to put up money for a print run and manage the inventory — and possibly not sell through, be out the money, and be stuck with a bunch of spare paperbacks.
I learned a lot about self publishing, and will be able to do it more efficiently and effectively next time. I also learned a few things about book marketing that I’ll use for my next book, too. The rest of this article explains my experience and lessons learned in detail.
Writing and editing
Even though I was publishing material I had already written, it was challenging to figure out how to organize it. The way I ordered the stories and essays in the published book is the third complete organization of the material I tried.
I also heavily edited each story, and even rewrote a couple. I’m a much better writer now than I was in 2007 and 2008 when I first published them on my blog. I did a reasonable job of copy editing and proofreading and don’t regret doing that myself.
I also now think that including so many stories about my faith might have been a mistake. Several readers and reviewers said things along the lines of, “I enjoyed the book even though I don’t share your faith at all.” Some even said they just quit reading that section a couple articles in.
After arranging and editing the stories, I found it surprisingly challenging to write the back cover blurb. That’s when I realized that I had no idea what the book was about. It needed to be about something! I finally figured out a “getting through hard times” theme, and that’s what I wrote about on the back cover.
Lessons learned: I am strongly considering hiring an editor next time, even if it means I take a loss on the book. A skilled outside perspective should help me find a stronger voice among the stories and essays I’ve written so I can create a more compelling book.
I am also strongly considering making my future books be centered on topics, rather than just collecting stories by year as I did this time. I could collect my stories about parenting as a divorced dad into one book, my stories and essays about living the Christian faith into another, and so on. I think that will help my books be appealing beyond my existing audience, and target my marketing more precisely.
Finally, I will think about the back cover blurb all the way through the writing and editing process. I need to determine what my book is about very early in the process, and thinking about the back cover blurb should be a powerful way to figure that out.
Making the book
I used Leanpub to create my book. For about $9 each month, they give you good tools to create a print-ready PDF, a PDF for reading on a computer, an e-book for Kindle, and an e-book compatible with other readers.
You can write your book directly in Leanpub’s editor, but instead I did it in a text editor on my computer and copied the final files into Leanpub’s editor. I did this because I thought I would use Leanpub’s GitHub integration. I never did, but I checked all of my book’s files into a private GitHub repository anyway. GitHub is a source control tool popular with software developers, but you can store any kinds of files in it.
Leanpub demands some specific text markup (a version of Markdown, for the geeks in my audience) so its layout engine knows where the chapter titles and headings are, and how to pull in image files. It was simple enough to learn.
Leanpub offers only limited choices for a book’s interior design, including typefaces. I thought even the best of their interior designs were pretty boring. I could have created a far more attractive layout myself in Microsoft Word. (I have mad Microsoft Word skills and have used it professionally to lay out very attractive books.)
The e-book files Leanpub generated rendered all of my images at a very small size. It took me considerable digging through Leanpub’s forums to find an answer to that. The fix meant downloading a tool that could edit the e-book files directly, and changing a particular setting on every single photo in the book.
However, Leanpub was a reasonable sales platform for my book, and I like very much that I was able to sell a PDF version there. Turns out I can upload finished book files to Leanpub and use it only as a sales platform.
I made the cover in Adobe Photoshop. I’m sure it would have been easier in a desktop publishing tool, but I don’t own one. I made one version of the cover for the e-book (a front cover only). I created two full covers (front, spine, and back), one for Amazon and one for IngramSpark (which lets me sell to retailers and libraries). The two companies have slightly different requirements for covers, and because they use paper of different thickness, I had to adjust the spine width to fit.
I paid a nominal fee for both companies to send me proof copies. I was disappointed in the print quality of my photographs. To keep the book’s list price reasonable, I opted for black-and-white printing, and neither printer did a great job converting my color photos to black and white. They were especially muddy in the books Amazon printed.
Lessons learned: I think I would have spent the same amount of time and gotten a much more attractive paperback had I laid the book out myself in Microsoft Word, used existing conversion tools to generate basic e-book files, and manually tweaked the code until those looked the way I wanted them.
If for my next book I create the files myself, I might still sell my book on Leanpub. I like being able to sell a PDF of my books, and Leanpub handles delivery for me. Also, I like Leanpub’s ethos.
Next time I will convert color photos to black and white myself so they look good, as there’s an art to that. I’ll generate print-ready files using the converted photos. I’ll generate the e-books and the PDF with the color photos.
Finally, I might hire a graphic designer to create the cover next time. Maybe. I really like doing it and I think I did a reasonable job of this cover. But a skilled graphic designer can do better.
Distributing the book
I offered the book for sale as a paperback, e-book, and PDF, and I chose to distribute via Amazon, Leanpub, IngramSpark (which sells only to retailers and libraries), Apple Books, and Google Play. I chose these distributors because they handled delivering books for me, and are popular ways to buy books online.
Because I was going to sell my book on platforms other than Amazon, I needed to buy ISBNs for each edition. These are unique numbers that identify every book available for commercial sale. There was a steep discount for buying ten ISBNs, but even then they were 30 bucks each. I bought ten and used two, one for the paperback and one for the generic e-book. (You don’t need an ISBN for Kindle.) I can use the other eight ISBNs for future books.
It was an enormous pain in the rear to publish my book on Apple Books and Google Play. Half of that pain was in signing up for these services, which was surprisingly not intuitive and complicated. Just finding where to sign up to publish on Apple Books took some doing.
It wasn’t complicated to make my book available on Amazon or IngramSpark. Each had their steps and rules, but I handled them with little fuss. IngramSpark charged $49 for the privilege, which stuck in my craw.
Lessons learned: I am strongly considering publishing initially only on Leanpub and Amazon from now on.
Apple Books and Google Play were a great deal of hassle, and I didn’t sell any books on those platforms anyway. To be fair, I barely promoted those channels. I also never figured out how to attract retailers and libraries to my book, so publishing via IngramSpark was a waste of time and money.
However, if a future book ever sells well, I could easily release them on these platforms to increase their availability.
I suspected I would not enjoy marketing my book, and boy was I right. As a result, I didn’t give it my all. To be fair, this is a side project and I have limited time for it. But weak marketing is surely one reason my sales have been meager.
The best marketing advice I got was to build an “author platform,” including a Web site and an email newsletter. The idea is to build a base of people who really enjoy my work and want to follow me. When I publish something new, that base is more likely than the regular public to want to buy it.
At the moment, I’m using my blog (this site, blog.jimgrey.net) as my Web site. That’s not ideal, because it is not primarily about me and my books. It is set up scroll-style like the blog it is, and it covers a wide range of subjects beyond my stories, essays, and photographs. To help with that, I added a banner announcing my book, and a pop-up asking people to sign up for my newsletter.
I launched the newsletter, Back Roads, in May of 2020. I write on about the 20th of each month, telling what I’m working on and giving a more intimate look into my life. I also use it to announce new publications. I have 216 subscribers so far. If you’d like to subscribe, click here. I think I’ve done an okay job with this so far but I’d like to make my newsletter more engaging.
You may not know that I also have a blog about what I do for a living, software development. It’s URL used to be softwaresaltmines.com, but recently I moved it under the jimgrey.net tent as dev.jimgrey.net. I’m not sure how that fits into an overall marketing strategy yet, but at least that blog is firmly in the family now.
Lessons learned: I’ll keep working to build my author platform. I think it’s my best play, because I can do it within the time I give to my side projects.
I consider my newsletter subscribers to be my core followers. If only 10 percent of them buy my next book, but I have 1,000 followers, I will instantly have sold more of my next book than of this one. At my current newsletter growth rate, if I do nothing more to publicize my newsletter, I will attract 500 total followers this year, and another 500 in 2022.
It’s on my to-do list to rework my main site, jimgrey.net, to be a landing page that markets me and my books. My early road-trip writing is on that site, and those articles still get read every day. I’m slowly bringing them over to this blog, but that project will last well into 2022. Search drives most traffic to those articles; perhaps I can figure out how to leave them up and build my new site around them.
This is a kind of marketing where I create content for another platform, such as a blog or a podcast, and plug my site and my book.
I’m connected to the owners of a few very popular film-photo blogs. I reached out to the owner of one extremely popular blog that is a great fit for what I do, and asked if I could write a guest post. He was enthusiastic and eager to help. Here’s the post I wrote. It led to exactly zero sales. It might have led to blog or newsletter followers, but I don’t have good ways to track that.
I found plenty of blogs and podcasts by writers in my genre or in related genres, but they were either part of those writers’ author platforms, or they were about writing and publishing. My content marketing is not a fit, and people I think would enjoy my book are not in those audiences.
I also looked at sites and podcasts about subjects related to what I write about, such as parenting after divorce, Christianity, and humor. Most of them were a poor fit for various reasons. For the rest, each would have required I write a custom pitch, including finding some angle to my work that resonates with that writer or podcaster in what they are doing. I prejudged that I might get one guest post or podcast visit for every ten or twenty pitches I made. I might be wrong about that, but I decided to abandon this idea anyway. Creating those pitches would take away from my ability to work on my blog and on more books. I’d rather create new stuff. That limits my reach, and I’m going to have to be okay with that.
Lessons learned: I will seek to guest on relevant blogs and podcasts when I know about them, but I am unlikely to cold-contact blogs and podcasts. I will research other ways to do content marketing; perhaps I’m missing something.
I created a Web site for my publishing imprint, Midnight Star Press. It’s here, and it lists A Place to Start and my two earlier books of photographs. My imprint is named for Missy, by the way, a black Labrador retriever my family had when I was a kid. Her AKC name was Miss Midnight Star.
I bought ads on Facebook and Amazon, which generated zero sales. I know what I’m doing with Facebook ads but not with Amazon ads. It’s possible I could optimize the Amazon ads somehow to generate some sales.
I announced my book in various Facebook Groups where either I’m well known and/or are about a topic I write about. I was pleased with the encouraging comments people left. I see that some clicked into my publishing imprint’s Web site, and I see that some clicks to Amazon followed that, but it doesn’t look like any of those people bought the book.
I created a Facebook Group for people who like to read personal essays and stories. It’s here. I share my essays and stories there, each one with a link to where you can buy my book. I can’t track any sales this might have generated, but it is at best a handful of copies. My hope is to attract other writers in this genre so they can share their work, as well, and build a good community.
I didn’t figure out how to make retailers and libraries want to buy my book, but in fairness, I spent very little time at it.
Lessons learned: I’ll learn more about Amazon advertising; perhaps I didn’t target it right and missed my audience. Those ads are surprisingly inexpensive, so I’m willing to experiment. I’m unlikely to use Facebook ads again. I’ll continue to publicize on relevant Facebook Groups, and I’ll keep trying to grow my Group for personal essays and stories. I’ll commit to learning about enticing retailers and libraries to buy books.
Finally, the brass tacks. As of today, I have sold 68 copies of my book and, after the distributors took their cut, I have made $375.52. Here’s a breakdown of where the sales came from and in which formats:
|Amazon.com||e-book (Kindle) and paperback||45 paperback|
|Leanpub||e-book (Kindle and generic)|
and PDF, as a bundle
You can buy from any of those sources except IngramSpark, which sells only to retailers and libraries. Click here for links to where you can buy.
There were costs associated with making this book, roughly $225. I’m pleased that made a small profit. But when I account for the cost of my considerable time on this project, I totally took a bath on it.
Lessons learned: Limiting my distribution to Amazon and Leanpub will let me be where my readers are, and will save me considerable effort and time. Should I be fortunate to build a large enough following someday, I can always go back and release my books through other channels.
I wish there were another viable way to offer a print-on-demand paperback to individuals. A couple people told me they’d love to own a copy of my book, but they don’t buy from Amazon on principle.
I first shared this in 2013 as my older son was about to apply to colleges. Now his younger brother has graduated college, and I’m thinking about this message again.
I overheard my sons talking the other day about college. I found that to be encouraging, because I think they’re both bright and capable and should go to college.
My youngest said, “Elementary school prepares you for middle school, which prepares you for high school, which prepares you for college. And then college prepares you for life.” I was with him right up until the last link in his chain.
My degree itself didn’t prepare me for life. My overall college experience helped prepare me for life a little. But after I graduated college and lived on my own, my adult life was significantly new and different from anything I had experienced before. I had to figure it out as it happened.
Now, I loved my studies. I majored in mathematics and minored in German and sociology, and exploring these subjects made my heart sing. A few things I learned in class have directly helped me in my software-development career, but otherwise, my studies have benefited my life and career only intangibly.
Surprisingly, my time working at the campus radio station gave me much better clues about life and career. I had fun doing my regular air shifts. I learned a lot about working as part of a team and taking care of my commitments to them. When I became station manager, I led an executive board and had responsibility for about 100 staff members. I also learned to deal with difficult people (primarily the chief engineer, who seemed always to look for reasons to clash with me) and still get the job done.
There were no tests and no grades; there was no end goal. We meant to stay on the air indefinitely. (Sadly the station shut down in 2013.) We aimed to deliver the best on-air work we could today, and do it a little better tomorrow.
What I didn’t see very well at the time was that this was a lot like real life. When you run out of things to graduate from, you need to set your own goals and live to make each day as good as it can be.
I’ve lived more than 8,700 days (in Sept. 2013 when I first published this; it’s 11,600 now) since I graduated college. There have been some great times and some really awful times as I’ve figured out what works for me and what doesn’t. I feel like I’ve got a pretty good handle on it now that I’m middle aged. With good health and good fortune, my sons will have many thousands of days after they graduate from college, too. I hope they figure this out faster than I did.
Did college prepare you for life? What prepared you best? Tell it in the comments, or write it on your own blog and link back here.