Examining ‘To-Do’s, past and present

As I wrote on May 17th, I am Creating Space to Be Myself Now. A key part of that, and one which is probably a bit overdue, is letting go of thinking of my old lists of To-Do’s and projects as still current. What I’ve realized is that my experiences of the past few years are so significant that they change my priorities. If I ever decide to activate any of these ideas again—even to put them on a mental backburner with intention of doing them sometime soonish—they will be informed and altered by all that I have learned. That will make them better, should I ever want to do them later.

The first step to allowing new plants to grow is to turn under the old growth and let it turn to compost. I’ve been picking my careful way through a yard overrun with withered branches. Time to prune and put this fertile matter to better use.

The first category of stuff I want to clear away is the To-Do’s I set up for myself about good habits. Everything they tell you about only being able to install one, maybe two, new habits at a time and about it taking four to six weeks to get a habit into daily practice is true. Huge ‘New Year’s Resolutions’ style lists are only useful as a way of giving recognition to change you want to welcome into your life; honor them as that, but don’t try to tick all those boxes off every day.

The two, and only two, habits I want to work on now are about my wellness:

  • Meditate more often, because it eases my anxiety and inflammation.
  • Move more, because it feels good and promotes both my physical and mental health.

There are no other habits waiting in the wing. When these two are automatically happening more days than not, what I need next will present itself to me. I trust my future self to make the right decision.

So where do I have those old lists, clogging up my thinking space? The most obvious of them is the site Habitica, which is a combo of task manager, habit builder, and fantasy game. Fun! And it was useful at one time—my routine now of making the bed every day was formed using this tool—but I overloaded it. And why did I start using it in the first place? Because I’d overloaded the project and task tracker OmniFocus and needed something less overwhelming. Ha!

I still love OmniFocus as a tool, and find it particularly helpful for less frequent tasks (e.g., routine medical checkups; renewing business license) and big projects that take place over weeks, months or years. Since I’ll be keeping it, it’s time to thank Habitica for its service and let it go.

What load was I carrying in Habitica that I’m now setting down? Mostly lots of things that allowed me to check a box and feel like I’d accomplished something.

  • Habits I already have: make the bed, restore general order in the house, do laundry when it needs to be done, wash dishes every day, avoid caffeine, avoid Twitter, usually go to bed at a reasonable time, water the houseplants.
  • Habits I currently want to build, but for which I clearly need to find motivation in some way other than a checkbox: meditation, movement (listed here in many separate parts: strength-building, stretching, aerobic exercise).
  • Other commendable habits that I am not currently choosing to create as a daily part of my life: read all my backlog of books and digital articles, write letters and postcards, check my blood pressure every day (which seems to fall in the category of things that feel like they don’t provide a reward, only the potential for bad news), scan or document old papers or other souvenirs before getting rid of them, volunteer or do other helpful actions for a cause, learn computer game programming, learn another language, keep the area in front of our house swept and looking nice (much harder since fatigue as a side effect of my medications). (Oh yes, and losing weight, which is not a controllable project when your metabolism is being significantly affected by medication; I remembered this when I was unpinning and closing the tab that had Habitica and saw the pinned tab with Lose It! next to it. Not on the list right now. Bye bye!)
  • Pointers to the task list already represented in Omnifocus with encouragement to whittle that pile down.
  • Pointers to my inboxes, paper and digital, with exhortations to empty them. Ditto the stored collections of “to be processed” materials (e.g., genealogy and other family-memorabilia which I’d like to hand off to someone who wants it or document some of it and then let it go).
  • Creative work, which I am now choosing to routinely provide myself opportunities to do rather than assigning to myself as a repeating task. This includes writing, but also curation/sharing on my websites, sewing, D&D gamemastering,

Look at that massive load of expectations of myself I was carrying every single day! That’s way too much. That’s so much it’s just silly!

I am picturing myself laughing at a huge backpack, overstuffed and with all kinds of things hanging off of it on strings. Completely impossible for me to lift, let along hike along for day after day carrying it.

I wipe my eyes clear of happy tears and take the whole thing apart, tossing much of it away. It flies through the air, transforming into moldy applecores and old packed sandwiches, and lands in the trench I’ve dug down my mental garden, ready to be covered over and turn to new soil.

Creating Space to Be Myself Now

One of the key lessons for me of the past few years is that it detracts from my wellness to try to have both my list from before the various crises in my life and my list of what I need and want to do now. However much I say, “oh well that old list is on the back burner”, it is still bubbling and using my mental fuel. I can’t have two #1 items, even if I tell myself that one of them is not active for the moment. I gotta recalibrate and bring it together in one calm vision for myself.

The best thing about accepting that is that the process of integrating my expectations of myself is an inherently therapeutic process. Though the enhanced calm is important, most of that benefit is coming from really giving myself permission to drop things. Not just shove them back ‘for right now’ (i.e., years), but let them go. Discardia is good for the soul and for reducing that overwhelmed, inflamed feeling.

The biggest change is re-orienting myself to my writing and other creating. I am refocusing myself on the creative work and away from the idea of producing products on a particular schedule. It doesn’t make anyone less of a Real Writer to give a work the amount of time it needs to come to fruition. Nor is it mandatory to bring out a new book every couple years. The publishing industry would like you to, but I don’t write for a publisher; I write for myself and my readers.

As I’m sure a lot of stay-at-home parents or others who are outside the paycheck economy have struggled with, validity is not measured by take-home pay. Much of our culture sends a different message, so it takes work to find solid footing to appreciate yourself and what you do. In my case finding that footing is helping me recognize a few “to-do” items on my list which were more cargo cult enacting of “being a publisher” than necessary to the process of writing and sharing my work.

One thing that prompted some of this change is that the medication I was prescribed about a year ago limits me to two cocktails a week. I find I really can’t be an active cocktail writer under that constraint and I don’t want my work and my wellness to be in conflict, so I’m giving cocktail writing a big “I love you, man, you’re the best, no I mean it, I love you, all you guys” sloppy hug and going home.

Not writing a sequel to The Art of the Shim: Low-Alcohol Cocktails to Keep You Level lowers the need for a lot of the capital P publisher infrastructure we’d created. Simplifying that part of my life is some of the work I’m doing this month and I’m already enjoying the lightness it is giving me. I don’t have to put out a book this year because it’s been “too long” since the last one. I don’t have to feel guilty over a long list of posts and essays I thought at one time that I’d write. Cool ideas! Okay to let them go!

This exercise in looking at where my time vs. where my mental energy goes vs. my actual current priorities has also unveiled some time sucks that I can prune away. Goodbye, Twitter. It’s not me, it’s you. You make me anxious and distracted and frankly, you have too many nazis and misogynists and racists and homophobes and paranoid dudes who think giving babies free food is gonna take food off their own plate. Ugh. Good riddance to that distraction.

I looked at the carefully curated list of accounts I followed, added a lot of them to the website feed reader built into WordPress.com, let go of the “need” to keep up with some, and made a monthly reminder to check the other two that couldn’t go in the feed reader to see what they’ve been up to. Then I added the Switcheroo Chrome extension to redirect me to my WordPress Dashboard every time I try to go to Twitter.com. It feels fantastic and I am already getting a lot more done with my day.

Yes, I’m on Mastodon, but both it structurally and my decision of the number of people I follow on there are designed to be very quick to keep up with. It doesn’t devour twenty minutes of my time multiple times a day in the way Twitter can.

I’m excited about this paring down and focusing. I’m excited about the space I’ve created for healing and for whatever creative projects I want to do now. I’m grateful to myself for the permission to let go, to be done with things. My shoulders feel lighter.

I’ll be posting more in the coming days as I part with some of these past projects. I hope you enjoy this somewhat random tour through my interests. 😀

Self-publishing stats update

I'm just starting to get acquainted with the latest version, but the release of Scrivener 3.0 reminds me to give an update here.

Definitely still a great tool which I love and highly recommend. I use it for non-fiction, at lengths from 200 words to entire books, and fiction. I use it for my daily journaling. I use it as a D&D gamemaster. 

I've used Scrivener for seven years now. Two of the books I wrote using it have been successfully self-published (and sold thousands of copies each, thanks!) in both print and ebook form, with one of the titles nominated for a major award in its subject area. 

 

Back in 2012 I wrote about how I created Discardia: More Life, Less Stuff and in 2013, while working on The Art of the Shim: Low-Alcohol Cocktails to Keep You Level, I added more thoughts on self-publishing.

Here are how the statistics have changed since Discardia's first 16 months:

  • Kindle sales have become an even bigger percentage of revenue, growing from 34% to 65%.
  • iTunes sales have dropped from 16% to 9.5% of revenue. Apple's never treated their shopping experience for books with any seriousness and the bad browsing experience seems is likely a big factor in inferior sales.
  • Physical book sales are only 11.6% by copies sold, but 23.6% by revenue. Createspace represents 20.5% of that.

I need to go back and locate my pre-2013 detailed data before I draw any conclusions about which platforms I wouldn't bother with on subsequent books, but I can say that Amazon is and will remain the core of my self-publishing channels.

 

The Art of the Shim: Low-Alcohol Cocktails to Keep You Level came out in fall 2013 and I have the full stats for it. It's a beautiful hardcover with high-quality photos, so the breakdown is radically different.

  • Physical sales are 66% of the copies sold, but represent 93% of the revenue. 
  • Ebook sales revenue is 6-to-1 Kindle to iTunes.
  • 44% of physical sales revenue has been through Amazon.com (I use Amazon Advantage to stock them) and 20.5% were through Ingram (before they killed their small publisher program in mid-2016).
  • Small retailers—not only bookshops but specialty retailers with cocktail items—represent just over 15% of revenue.
  • In-person sales—"handselling" and events—represent almost 13% of revenue.

 

As business projects, not including any of the costs of our labor or of the business generally, Discardia is well into the black and Shim is still a loss. The rate of catching up from that loss is getting better since we stopped having to pay for a storage unit to hold all the inventory. The good news is we're finally also getting a lot closer to not having every corner of our apartment full of cases of the book. 😉 Would we self-publish a physical book again? Probably not, but boy are we glad we did this one!

Laments of the death of old-school blogging are missing something

Kevin Drum's piece "Blogging Isn't Dead. But Old-School Blogging Is Definitely Dying" is not without some truth, but overlooks key things. Most importantly, that when old-school blogging was in its full flower, text was the only easy way to share yourself online. Now it's almost as easy to create and distribute art or audio or video or combinations of those as it was to submit a long post in the Blogger submission page. We have a great diversity of expression happening, particularly in video.

Beyond which now, with a good computing device in everyone's pocket, it's no longer necessary to save everything up into one chunk you laboriously craft over a long evening at home. The conversation truly can be dialogue, with reactions and riffs taking place within minutes or even seconds. Yes, Twitter and other easy technologies for portable sharing of ideas and images are sometimes knee-jerk, but heaven knows so have the comments under blog posts always been. Nor has >140 characters ever been an unusual length.

One of the strengths of new-school sharing is that it allows conversations to easily extend and expand not only over a growing audience but also over time. Yes, we had follow-up posts back then—and that inter-blog dialogue was always a joy—but it was hard to find and even harder to maintain momentum. Now, between Twitter and, to my mind the best combination of the old and the new, Medium, it's possible to more easily find the pieces of reaction which wander around the web, rebounding from and influencing each other.

I started blogging before the word was coined and have never stopped, but—like many—my means of output have expanded as opportunity grew. Wordy posts pour out of us when words are all we have, but we have so much more we can do now, and more ways to use our words. Since Flickr and Twitter and Medium and the opportunity to take my long-form work into finished books through self-publishing, I write fewer blog posts, but I am even more creative and connected through the web than I was back in the day.

Old-school blogging isn't dead, it's growing up, and growing up beautifully into something new.

Watching my author rank, but not too closely

Not sure I ever got a screen shot or noted my Amazon author rank numbers during my first year as a published author, but before it rolls off the chart, here's my second and much of my third:

Screen Shot 2014-07-30 at 6.16.50 PM

It fluctuates a lot—do not base your self esteem on this number—but it's clear that having two books out helps a lot. It'll be very interesting to see what happens when I add a third to the mix, which I hope to do next year.

I suspect that the few dramatic drops in 2014 (one of which was on my birthday, which I find rather uncivil) relate not so much to my books' performance, but rather to dramatically good performance of one or more other books in their category. That July downturn correlates well to a lot of social media chatter, for instance, about Jeffrey Morgenthaler's Bar Book, and I'm guessing many purchases of that excellent tome.

How to Avoid Setting Yourself Up for Ebook Disappointment

Some lessons drawn from the how-not-to-do-it example in Tony Horwitz's New York Times op-ed, "I Was a Digital Best Seller!"

  • If you've had a negative digital publishing experience, talk to a wider range of those who've published in digital format before concluding that your experience represents "a cautionary farce about the new media and technology we’re so often told is the bright shining future for writers and readers." It's possible that the farce wasn't entirely about the platform, but also your use of it.
  • Ensure when you're contracting with a publisher that the expenses they've said they'll cover are covered as you go and that you are contractually well-protected should they not publish the piece as originally planned.
  • Also budget your own expenses and degree of risk and, with those and what you've agreed on with the publisher, stay within the boundaries.
  • Use potential future income as motivation to complete the contracted work, but by no means assume that that compensation will actually come to you. This holds true also for dreams of glorious enhancement of your reputation. Bear in mind, also, as expected sales figures get tossed about that the typical non-fiction physical book sells less than 3000 copies. Be excited about potential upsides, but be realistic—and don't count on them.
  • Once again, ensure your contracts exist and that contingencies are in place which will incentivize the publisher to honor their deal with you and, ideally, publish and pay, or at least pay an exit amount and revert rights to the work to you.
  • If you aren't great at the contractual/financial sides of the business, make sure to involve professionals who are on your side, and preferably with whom you have a long history of working together. They, like you, should be taking the long view of building your success and security. They, like you, should not assume that a single project will guarantee that success or security.
  • Get realistic estimates of potential sales and income not only from the digital publisher who wants you to do work for them, but from others with experience in that industry and with that publisher. Get an understanding of how volitile sales indicators (such as Amazon Kindle best sellers) are and what kind of total sales they represent. It's important to know what kind of sales spike can shoot you to the top of a list and how those spikes relate to aggregate sales of the work over time. Do not assume any understanding you may have of physical book sales indications will translate to these new areas.
  • Do not assume your publisher—digital or traditional—will put in the effort to bring readers and buyers to your work. Get a clear picture of what they will be doing to attract readers to your piece specifically. Above and beyond their planned effort (which like the potential returns must be taken with a grain of salt), you need to prepare to promote the work yourself.
  • Before you take on a project, research and understand the audience(s) for it. What do they like? What formats will they pay for? How much will they pay? Use this as a reality check for the proposed compensation and expenses for the project.
  • Before you take on a project, get a basic plan outlined of how you will reach those audiences. How do they learn about new works of interest to them? Whose recommendations do they trust? What communities do they participate in, and are you excited about participating in those communities too as you promote the work?
  • If your past experience is with traditional publishing only, talk to a variety of authors who've had both success and failure with digital publishing. You should pay particular attention to their experiences with promotion, both what they did and what their publishers did, as well as to what worked and what did not.
  • Thanks to frequently poor online browsing setups for ebooks—yes, iTunes Store, I am looking at you especially—random discovery of your work will be one of the least common ways for a reader to find it. People aren't generally poking around the shelves the way they do in physical bookstores. It's word of mouth and reviews on which you need to focus.
  • Plan to prime the pump for those reviews by building enthusiasm for the piece through your own professional social network. (You have been building a Twitter following around your past work, yes? And you don't have that all muddled up with your personal tweeting, right? Ditto for your professional blog or regular community participation in your areas of expertise.) Thank your readers and encourage them (without being pushy) to review the work or spread the word about it.
  • Work with the publisher to ensure that review copies will be sent out as quickly as possible, including—if you'll be releasing a physical version of the work as well as ebook—a giveaway through Goodreads.
  • Do not assume that enthusiastic readers, the kind who'll recommend your work repeatedly, will be fooled by fake glowing reviews written by publicists or pals of the author. Build enthusiasm in those whose opinions would be trusted and whom you can expect to engage with the work in detail, writing a review that is clearly by someone who cares about the topic.
  • Ensure that you have a contracted and reliable way to get copies of the work for yourself to use in direct sales (for example, at speaking engagements) and as another means to get review copies in the right hands.
  • Once again, make sure that your rights to the work are very clearly spelled out in your contract and that there is a clear path for any rights the publisher has to revert to you under conditions of them ceasing to publish the work.
  • Bottom line: Know the kind of writing you want to do, the hats you're willing to wear in the course of getting it in the hands of readers, and the realistic market for compensation for that writing with different kinds of publishers and (important and different!) through self-publishing.

    Writing is a tough job to make pay; don't enter into the profession with just a dream and crossed fingers.