On Professional Decline

A gerontologist friend recommended the Atlantic article by Arthur C. Brooks on professional decline after 50 on the social media thingy the other day. I skimmed through it and responded, “Wow, I’m ahead of the curve; my professional decline started a long time ago!”

This is flip, but true enough. I am on, basically, my third career. After college and law school, I started off as a “junior politician,” working on the Dallas staff of then-Senator Phil Gramm as an underpaid and overworked “caseworker”. I was on the Senate staff, not the campaign staff, and missed out on his disastrous 1996 Presidential campaign. I jumped ship and worked for Governor George W. Bush, staying on through his successful 2000 presidential campaign. I wasn’t able to latch on with the White House staff, though, and wasn’t able to make any headway getting any other role with that Administration.

So I ended up reinventing myself as an attorney. In the Governor’s office, I was working on disability issues, and I got a job at Georgia Tech with the regional ADA center for the Southeast. That led to a job as an attorney with Disability Rights New Jersey in Trenton, where I represented clients with disabilities in a variety of different cases. I had a secondary role managing the state assistive technology program. I did that for eleven years, until I was heartily sick of it.

I don’t want to go too much into why I left my last job, but what happened was that the Medicaid program in New Jersey got handed over to private insurance. That meant that it was in the interest of the private insurance companies to cut back on individual services — and every time they did that, they would send out a letter telling the patients that my office would represent them in administrative law court for free. Which we did.

The upshot of all this was that I was spending a great deal of time arguing with first-year lawyers over whether little old ladies in New Jersey should get 10 hours of home health care benefits per week, or 8. This is — without meaning any disrespect to the little old ladies involved — not the stuff that great legal careers are built on. Around the same time, I was up for a promotion, and didn’t get it — and the lawyer who did get it was an advocate of taking on a lot more of these cases. This meant that I would be spending the rest of my career wrangling over the details of the bowel movements of little old ladies, and how much Medicaid assistance that required. (You want to talk about career decline, that was pretty much it.)

I went to look for other work, and found out that I had painted myself into a corner. There just weren’t that many firms that were interested in hiring someone whose specialty was representing indigent clients in administrative law court. And I couldn’t support myself as a solo practitioner handling those kind of claims. I interviewed with several firms where I could have made a lateral move — guardianship cases, special education, medical malpractice — but none of them were a good fit. I had bottomed out at age 48, and I wasn’t sure what to do about it.

I ended up going in a completely different direction. I left my job and enrolled in a master’s program in human resources at Rutgers. I have a very challenging job working for a small human services agency. It is anything but a glamorous role; I do a lot of paperwork and handle a lot of compliance issues. I am never going to get elected to Congress, or work in the White House, or argue before the Supreme Court, and that is fine.

I take a lot of comfort from this Pat Green song, about a hard-luck country singer:

I gave up on Nashville a long time ago.

Damn straight.

So I have, at age 50, become comfortable with the idea of professional decline. I am not exactly thrilled about it. I like to think that I can find a better job, doing something more responsible, perhaps using my law degree. But those opportunities haven’t opened up for me, yet, and maybe they won’t. It doesn’t bother me, or I try not to let it bother me, which is not the same thing.

Professional Decline and Publishing

What does bother me, though, is not professional decline in my career, although that is bad enough. What bothers me is what it means for me as a novelist.

I’ve written and self-published two novels; one in 2013 and one in 2014. Neither were particularly successful, even for self-published works. (I’ve also published an alphabet picture book, which flopped even worse, and had a political short-story collection published by a small press.) I finished my third novel just last year, and I have been querying agents on it over the last month or two.

I’ve had much less success than usual — even though I didn’t get an agent for the last two books, I used to get some kind of response. Maybe it was just asking to look at the rest of the manuscript. Now all I am getting is form rejection letters. And what I am asking myself, from an HR standpoint, is this: if I’ve really hit my creative decline at age 50, does this mean I’m wasting my time?

I’m starting to think so.

  • There is of course the good old self-publishing stigma, which isn’t (supposedly) what it once was, but only a fool would say it isn’t still there.
  • I write kind of slow. Three novels in seven years isn’t going to get anyone excited about representing me, and I get that.
  • I don’t write series, which hurts you a lot in self-pub and doesn’t help with anything else.
  • I write in different genres. I went from literary fiction to chick-lit to YA fantasy. I have no explanation for this; it’s just what I decided to write about.
  • I am old. It is tough to write YA when you’re old.
  • I am an attorney, and attorneys are famously cranky, and twitchy about contract elements.
  • I don’t have any kind of social media audience to speak of.
  • I am not only old, but old and non-telegenic, and a white male Republican in the bargain. (Every single agent, in every single profile, coos about how much they want diverse voices. This is partly to keep them from being eaten alive by the Twitter mobs, which is fine. This is partly because they see value in diversity, which is also fine. And none of this, y’know, is keeping me from getting published, but it sure ain’t helping me none.)

There is a name for everything I just did in that last bullet list, and that name is whining. I know that. (I spend half my life telling my 10-year-old twins to stop whining; I know it when I hear it.) And you shouldn’t whine. But it’s one thing to whine about gatekeepers, and another thing to realize that, you know, maybe there are perfectly reasonable decline-related concerns that an agent might have with respect to an aging and slightly doddering potential client.

So This Is What I Am Going To Do

I’m not querying anymore. Not on this project, probably not on any future ones. (I am still waiting on several responses from agents that I have queried; I’m assuming that they will reject me — although I’m open to discussion if they’re somehow, inexplicably interested.)

I’m going to start looking for a cover artist for the book. I’m going to slap a high-quality cover on it and put it on Amazon, and see how well it does. If it sells well, great, if not, great. I’m not going to worry about it one way or another. (This last sentence is a lie, but I’m going to try anyway.)

I am going to start actively managing my decline — my physical decline, if nothing else. I am going to try to eat better, and exercise, and lose weight — if only to set myself up for an enjoyable retirement. I am going to keep working — at least for a while — to save money for said retirement. I am going to cultivate my family relationships, and maybe seek out ways to serve in my community.

But I’m not going to slink into the forest gladly or gracefully. Decline, as Arthur C. Brooks ought to be able to tell you, is a choice. Senescence and death may be inevitable, but that’s not what we were made for. Rage, rage against the dying of the light, Dylan Thomas said.

Damn straight.

Commentary, Literary

# 98,201 With A Bullet: Building a Kindle Bestseller

Or, How BookBub Helped One Struggling Author Reach His (Modest) Dreams — Sort Of

12/2/2017 9:14 AM EST — Duckthwacket House, Somewhere in Central New Jersey

Today is the day of my BookBub promotion for my novel, WREATHED.

Nice cover, eh?

If you don’t know about BookBub, they are the premier company out there in the book-recommendation market. They have developed several mailing lists of hundreds of thousands of people, most of whom are voracious readers with a few extra bucks to spend on electronic books. If you’re an author, you can apply for a BookBub promotion to get your name on a mailing list — but there’s a few things you have to do.

First, you generally — not always — need to widen the distribution for your book. A lot of independently published books like WREATHED are Amazon-exclusive, because Amazon consistently delivers better results than any other channel. But a lot of BookBub readers are in the Apple ecosystem, so it’s a good idea to widen your distribution network.

Second, you need to discount the price of your book. BookBub offers promotions for e-books you are giving away for free, and books you are selling for anywhere between 99 cents and $2.99. For this promotion today, I am selling my book for 99 cents. (I did a free promotion for this book two years ago, and did very well.)

Third — and this is the crucial part — you need to convince BookBub to take your money. BookBub is famous for turning down independent authors for slots, a practice that has gotten more widespread as more traditional outlets use the service and crowd out slots. I had been turned down several times recently, but got lucky this time (after I widened the distribution channels).

So it’s early here, and I had to get up early to work on a paper for grad school, and the BookBub e-mail hasn’t gone out yet, so I’m basically waiting for that to happen. I had three sales yesterday, and one sale overnight, so that pushed the initial Amazon ranking for the book to a healthy #98,201. (To provide some context, my children’s book — which hasn’t sold any Kindle copies in months — is at #1,570,774.) My goal is to get in the overall top 100 in the romance category, and ideally in the top 1000 site-wide. But it’s early yet. I’ll check in throughout the day. (The promotion runs through the end of next week, and I’ve promoted the book on other sites, so I’ll keep track of that as well.)

12/2/2017 10:22 AM EST — Duckthwacket House, Somewhere in Central New Jersey

The last BookBub promotion I did was on a Friday, and the e-mail went out around noon. This is a Saturday, and I think the e-mail may have gone out earlier. Or it may not have! I am using multiple services today (a process called “stacking”) and I can’t specifically say that today’s sales are due to BookBub or not. But so far, things are looking pretty healthy, with 89 sales. The Amazon ranking hasn’t updated yet; it’s showing WREATHED at #107,035. It’s hard to be patient; you want that number to go up, not down.

12/2/2017 11:17 AM EST — Duckthwacket House, Somewhere in Central New Jersey

I am working on a grad school project this morning, and the person I am working with was supposed to be on a conference call with me to discuss it, but I had uploaded a lot of content to the project and she hasn’t had time to read it yet. That means I am sitting here at my computer, trying to figure out ways to not check sales numbers every five seconds.

Since my last BookBub, the program has gone international, so there are going to be sales in the UK, India, Australia, and Canada as well. Whee! Most of the international sales are from the UK so far — that makes sense, because people are awake there now. I am very curious as to how well the book will do in India (it’s not the least bit Indian) but there is only one sale there so far. My guess is that those will come in overnight, but who knows.

The Amazon ranking is sitting at #112,872, which means that the sales-rank algorithm is behind on calculating the last two hours of sales. (I shouldn’t complain; it is going to take days to figure out if I had any sales through Apple or Barnes & Noble.) But it’s still frustrating. The main reason for doing this is to see if I can drive this book on some kind of bestseller list, and that’s not showing up as of yet.

12/2/2017 12:17 PM EST — Somerset County YMCA

Since it’s the season of giving, I took the Mrs. and the kids to an Operation Shoebox packing event here in the boro. Operation Shoebox sends care packages to American troops overseas — in this case, gallon Zip-loc bags full of travel-size shampoo and soaps and Q-Tips and whatnot. What you do is this: they hand you a bag, you take one item out of each bin, and put it in the bag. You get enough unskilled labor to do this, and many hands make light work.

Teamwork makes the dream work.

But the problem is that so many people showed up to help that there was a line to go through the process. This is the kind of problem you want to have from the organizational perspective, but you leave a lot of volunteers standing in line. So I checked my phone, and sure enough, the algorithm had updated. WREATHED is now up to #2,757 overall in the Amazon US marketplace. It’s starting to show up on category lists, too, although it hasn’t broken the Top 100 in romance or new adult yet.

12/2/2017 2:16 PM EST — Duckthwacket House, Somewhere in Central New Jersey

A much smaller jump this time, to #2,166. The problem, of course, is that just because you’re on BookBub, it doesn’t mean other people aren’t. Even some big-name authors are doing the BookBub thing today — Michael Chabon’s publisher is discounting The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and go read THAT if you haven’t. You’re competing with all of those guys, and everything else that’s new and popular, so it’s hard to break through to the top 100, even with a lot of sales. Over 200 sales in the US so far today for WREATHED, and another hundred or so worldwide, so that’s a fair amount.

12/2/2017 4:58 PM EST — Duckthwacket House, Somewhere in Central New Jersey

Child A somehow managed to knock over the gasoline can, leaving a good-size puddle of fuel on the floor, so I spent a productive fifteen minutes breaking up charcoal briquettes with a hoe and spreading them on the garage floor to absorb the fumes. Fun!

WREATHED continues to climb up the charts, to #1,628 overall, and #81 in contemporary romance. That’s 354 sales overall (I’ll wait to break down the international sales later).

12/2/2017 7:58 PM EST — Bahama Breeze, West Windsor, New Jersey

Out to dinner with the wife and kids. (I got the chicken tortilla soup and coconut shrimp, and an interesting Puerto Rican cocktail that was basically coconut egg nog with rum.) The Mrs. takes the kids to the potty while I’m trying to flag down the waiter to get the check. I check the sales rank on my phone. WREATHED is at #861 overall on Amazon. I resist the urge to get another egg nog.

12/2/2017 8:46 PM EST — Duckthwacket House, Somewhere in Central New Jersey

The sales rank is up a tick more, to #763. What has happened (what I think has happened) is that the month-to-date tab on the Amazon KDP site (which shows you how much you’ve sold that month) has caught up with the sales dashboard tab (which shows authors real-time sales). Usually the month-to-date figure lags a little bit. I don’t know which they use in their sales algorithm, but if it’s the month-to-date, well, that figure seems to have caught up, hence the rise in sales.

The real metric for a promotion like this is return-on-investment. I paid BookBub $270 for this promotion. Right now, I’ve probably made something like $150. I need more sales to break even, and I don’t know if I will get them. A lot is riding on how well I do with the next round of promotions, and sales in Australia and India.

12/3/2017 11:08 AM EST — Duckthwacket House, Somewhere in Central New Jersey

So far this morning, WREATHED has maintained its place in the top 1000 books on Amazon, at#879. And that’s fine, but it’s not going to put the book on a bestseller list, which was kind of the point. I did OK in Australia (38 sales) but lousy in India (only one sale). I have three other promotions going on at other sites, so we’ll see how well I do overall. But I am worrying that we have hit a sales peak, and that I won’t make enough over the next four days of the promotion to break even.

12/3/2017 8:57 PM EST — Duckthwacket House, Somewhere in Central New Jersey

You know a great way to keep yourself from checking your sales figures every five seconds? Catch a cold. I got tired of working on my school projects, sat down to watch a little NFL football, and slept for the next two hours. And then I was so miserable and stuffed that I couldn’t get off the couch. Over 100 total sales today, which sounds good but doesn’t look good next to the 462 sales from yesterday. The book is still in the top 100 contemporary romances, and is #1,335 overall, which is not too shabby. And I’m #277 overall in Australia, which has to count for something.

12/5/2017 1:05 PM EST — Duckthwacket House, Somewhere in Central New Jersey

Only 4 sales today. That was fun! Sorry it’s over.


The Five-Tenths of One Percent Solution


It’s a really good book, honest, and it’s still legal to buy for full price.

Back in July, I put my book, WREATHED, up for free on Amazon. (That’s the cover over to the left. Nice, isn’t it?) I wrote about it at length here on Medium, so if you want to read that article first, go ahead. But to summarize, I spent $65 on a BookBub promotion and gave away about 25,000 Kindle e-books while taking my kids to Sesame Place, which is pretty sweet.

I thought I would be able to sell a few copies of WREATHED after the promotion, enough to cover my costs, anyway. But I was disappointed. The promotion ended right at the end of July, and I sold 8 copies of WREATHED in the US, and 54 copies in the UK. (I have no — absolutely zero — idea of why the book did so well in the UK. I am not complaining, mind you, but it is a puzzlement.) That netted me about $120, which in and of itself is an 84% ROI. Nice, but not stellar.

I was not quite prepared for what happened next. As you know if you’re in the self-publishing business — or, more accurately, in the part of it that is controlled by Amazon — the new update to the Kindle Unlimited program rolled out in July. Kindle Unlimited allows you, the reader, to download and consume vast quantities of e-books for free for $9.99 a month. The catch is that most of these books are self-published books, and the hot trend at the moment for self-published books appears to be werebear pornography. (I am not judging, just pointing something out.)

On July 1, Amazon switched its method of paying authors for Kindle Unlimited downloads from a per-download model to a per-page read model. Instead of getting a dollar or two per download, authors started getting a fraction of a cent per page read. (That was $0.00577 in July and $0.00514 in August; we won’t know the September payout until October 15.) I did not think that the change would matter to me; I hadn’t gotten more than a pittance out of Kindle Unlimited reads in months.

And they’re also cheap as hell. Not that I’m complaining!

What I did not fully understand is that the core audience for BookBub — power readers, mostly older women who like genre fiction and have a lot of free time — overlaps considerably with the Kindle Unlimited audience. How much? I can’t say. But when you market to BookBub readers, you are marketing to Kindle Unlimited readers — and when Kindle Unlimited readers read your book, you make money, even if you gave away the book in the first place.

In the first couple of days of the promotion, I had 9600 page reads. My book is 487 “pages” long by Amazon’s reckoning. That’s something like 19 people reading the whole book (or 9600 people reading just the first page, who knows). That’s not a lot of readers, and that’s really not a lot of money (about $55).

On August 4, right after the end of the free promotion, I had just under 20,000 page reads. That’s in one day. And it kept going, never dipping below 5,000 page reads per day until August 19, and hovering around 2,000 page reads per day for the rest of the month. Here’s the graph.

It’s a thing of beauty, really.

What that adds up to is over two hundred thousand page reads over one month, totaling out at over $1300 when you add in the meager book sales. About two-thirds of that is from the UK (again, for reasons I do not understand). Just for comparison, in May 2015 — a month where I did no promotions — I made maybe $2o from book sales. And that was a good month.

Now. This is pre-tax dollars here, for one thing. It is certainly not enough for me to quit my day job. But it is easily my best month ever as a self-published author, and I am solidly in the black for the year even if I don’t do another promotion.

Will you get results like mine with your book? I don’t know. All I can say is that giving away a lot of books is more profitable for me than selling them has ever been.

Curtis Edmonds is the author of WREATHED (well, duh, as if you hadn’t figured that out by now), RAIN ON YOUR WEDDING DAY, and LIES I HAVE TOLD. He is a frequent contributor to McSWEENEY’S INTERNET TENDENCY. Other works have appeared at Untoward Magazine, Yankee Pot Roast, The Big Jewel, and the Tulane Maritime Law Journal. He works as a civil-rights attorney in the crumbling ruins of downtown Trenton, New Jersey.