When I wrote my memoir, Another Cheesy Family Newsletter, I placed a checkmark by a very important item on my bucket list, to write and publish an actual bundle of cohesive printed pages, bound by an attractive, unique cover, that you can hold in your hands, read, and place on your bookshelf or give to a friend.
I have always been told that I had a flair for writing, and I have always enjoyed transferring my thoughts to paper…from keeping a diary as a child to writing regular parent newsletters from the high school counselors’ department, to mailing out an annual holiday newsletter. But it wasn’t until I submitted an essay and was accepted into the Community Voices program at The Dallas Morning News that I knew I had a facility with words and ideas that other people actually took the time to read. It was gratifying to see my words in print and to receive feedback from those who enjoyed them. Even the occasional bullying email was proof, to me, that my words had the power to incite emotion.
So, empowered by the reaction from friends and strangers who took the time to respond to my opinion articles, I began to compose a memoir framed around an idea that had been swimming about in my head for a long time. People had told me for decades that I needed to “write a book.” And indeed, the chaos surrounding the mental illness and addiction issues in my family do make for a compelling story. But similar stories, both true and fictional, abound in the vast library available to us literally at the tips of our fingers, so I never took their suggestions seriously. Amazon, alone, offers well over a million books for sale, thanks to the growing popularity of self-publishing. Nevertheless, a tiny seed had been planted years ago, when, composing my annual holiday newsletter abounding with wit and cheer, the thought struck me that people I rarely saw had no idea what was left unsaid – what a mess my life had become. With that thought still fresh, while cleaning out my parents’ home after they died, I found all my newsletters among the cards and letters my mother had saved, so I decided to chronicle the actual events that had been purposely omitted from each year’s jolly missive. The seed took root.
The more I wrote, the more my writing took form, and the more I filled in the gaps with a purpose – to write a cohesive story – a real book. But I was very naïve. I hadn’t the slightest idea what publishing involved, so when an internet inquiry resulted in a phone call from a representative from a press that would publish my book while I maintained the rights, I paid them a fee to help me put my book on the market, bypassing the multiple rejections I would undoubtedly receive if I tried to land an agent and publisher. I don’t regret my decision – they taught me so much about revising, editing, choosing a cover design, font, book size…all the things that take a book from a collection of words in a computer to a palpable, readable book. But when my friend Joe Johnston, an accomplished author himself, said, “Writing the book is the easy part. Now you have to market it,” I wasn’t even sure I wanted to take that step.
I am unquestionably the world’s worst salesperson. I hated selling Campfire Girls candy, and my venture into selling makeup resulted in a mountain of unsold inventory taking up space in my closet and eventually the local landfill. But I was fortified by those who read my book and told me that not only do I have a gift for storytelling, I also have an important message to impart to the world. Thus, I decided to wade into the promotion ocean, despite its unknown depths and often rocky bottom. Through internet research, Facebook groups, and guidance from a beautiful soul in Norway who is developing a business promoting writers like myself, I launched my “brand.” Over the past year, I have developed a website, a social media presence, a blog, and a following to whom I send a monthly newsletter. I’ve broadcast Facebook ads, done a podcast or two, participated on a panel with other writers, signed books at a book festival, and guested on other writers’ blogs, all the while attending classes – both virtual and in-person, on developing my craft. Because every writer knows you must keep writing, since one of your most effective sales tactics is enticing your readers with a taste of your upcoming bestseller. The bonus from all this work is that I’ve gotten to know other writers from all over the world, and reading their books and stories has enriched my world.
But not long ago, one specific experience forced me to doubt the wisdom of my personal quest for paid readership. When I offered my ebook for free for only a day on a popular free book website, my monthly sales report spiked to over two thousand downloads. And I saw the light. Avid readers don’t want to buy books, or even trek to the library, when they can download all they want for free! No risk that they’ll hate the book and waste their money. They can reserve their hard-earned money for the classics, the bestsellers, and their book club choices.
I came to writing for public consumption quite late in life. I’m now 71, retired from my career in education. At this age you realize that there’s a limit to the amount of time you have left to enjoy your family and friends, to travel, to daydream, to pursue your hobbies. I’m not a budding writer, fresh out of college, trying to earn a living with my words. So, the question I have to ask myself is, do I want to continue to spend money to make money, to compose ads and newsletters, to visit and email bookstores in hopes of landing a sales gig, to pursue reviews, to produce an audiobook, to come up with unique new ideas to catch the eye of the next reader? Do I want to force myself to write every day, even when I truly might not feel inspired? Or do I want to write only for pleasure, perhaps expressing myself through my blog or the book my cousin wants me to write about our ancestor who spied for the patriots in the Revolutionary War? Because I will always write.
I still haven’t decided if I want to continue to work purposefully to pursue a wider paid readership, or to let my sales be driven by word of mouth while going about my personal endeavors and pleasures. I suppose time will give me an answer. Any advice?