So – how to begin the story of how I became a business owner? I suppose that the very beginning came about when I realized that I was sick to death of working for other people, answering to sometimes erratic bosses, metaphorically (and sometimes in reality) punching a time-clock or logging my hours as an admin/office-manager/executive secretary or whatever the temp agency sent me to perform. I had also realized that I was good at writing, wanted to write professionally, and was on the cusp of transforming the amateur word-smithing into a paying job. I was encouraged in this ambition by a number of early blog commenters on the old Sgt. Stryker site who basically said I was very good at the writing and story-telling thing and they wanted more – mostly in the form of a printed book – while some other bloggers with slightly more extensive and professional writing credentials also said I was very, very good and ought to consider going pro myself… and then there was one commenter who didn’t have internet at home, and wanted to read my posts about my admittedly eccentric family – so he inquired after my mailing address, and sent me a box of CD media, so that I could put an extensive selection of early posts about my oddball family on it – one for him, the note said, and the rest for any other readers of the Sgt. Stryker site who wanted a such a collation. I swear unto all, this was about the first time that it ever occurred to me that yes, I had an audience, and one willing to pay money, or at least, for a box of CD media.
Eventually, I did produce a book – a memoir cobbled together from various posts about my family, and growing up – and there it all rested, until another blog-post sparked my second book and first novel. Again, a blog-fan encouraged me to write it, and one thing led to another, resulting in To Truckee’s Trail. About two and a half chapters into the first draft I was let go from a corporate job – a full-time job with which I had become increasingly dissatisfied. On many an afternoon, walking through the duties expected of me, I kept thinking of how I would rather be and home and writing. It was a small shock being fired, actually – but I kept thinking Whoo-hoo! I can go home and work on the third chapter! I was oddly cheerful throughout the actual firing process, totally weirding out the HR staffer in charge of processing my dis-engagement from the company involved.
I went home and worked on Truckee. Which, scout’s honor and all, I did market to traditional publishers through the established route; find an agent who would be dazzled by my brilliance, and market Truckee to an establishment publisher, et cetera, et cetera. I gave it a go, for a good few months; I did have agents interested, one of them so enthused that he asked for the whole MS. Alas – although he loved it, and said many complimentary things, he regretted that it just wasn’t ‘marketable’ to the establishment publishing trade. Historical fiction was a hard sell, he said. Especially if it was about an event that hardly anyone had ever heard of – which I thought would have been a selling point, but what do I know of the New York publishing scene? He did give some good advice overall, so the experience wasn’t wasted. The other agents that the MS was submitted to said very much the same thing on a shorter sample … and at that point I realized that I already had a nice, solid readership and fan-base, so I ran a fund-drive to publish and print Truckee through the same POD publisher which had done my first book. In the meantime, I worked the odd week or two, or even a day, through various temp agencies, and for an old friend, Dave the Computer Genius, who had his own Tiny Bidness in computers – as in teaching, repairing, de-bugging and general installation of same. Dave paid me to work two days a week in his enterprise; marketing and keeping his accounts was the most of it, but he also taught me to build websites and started me off by helping me set up one for my own books. Working for him wasn’t so much a job so much as it seemed like hanging out with a cool high-school friend. This marked a line, though, in the way that I thought of myself. I wasn’t an admin/office-manager/executive secretary who wrote on the side. After that bright and defining line, I was a writer who worked as an admin/office-manager/executive secretary or even the ultimate professional hell – a year in a corporate phone bank taking hotel reservations – as a means of supporting my writing. I will never publically say anything bad about that one firm, BTW. I had racked up a fair number of paid holiday hours during that year, which I never took. For some months after I had turned in my notice and walked away, they sent me a check for those paid holiday hours which I never took and which I had pretty much written off. So, yay, corporate America – some promises are delivered on.
And there I was – two books out there, and another one – subsequently three – in the formative stages. After giving the two-finger salute to the corporate phone bank, I never worked in another ‘regular’ job again. I had met up with Alice G., who had founded the Teeny Publishing Bidness some twenty-five years previously, after having decided that she also would rather work for herself. We had a mutual good friend in Dave; Alice was one of his regular clients, and he mentioned now and again that I ought to go hook up with her and learn publishing. He thought we would get on very well … but such plans as I did have for doing so came to an end when Dave died of a sudden heart attack. It was six months before I thought that maybe I ought to give Alice a call … and Dave was right. We did hit it off, something which I hope amuses Dave, wherever he is now. Alice was in her eighties, and considerable of a night-own: Dave was under orders never to call her before 2 in the afternoon. She did her best work at night, and slept during the day. Likely being a night-owl was another reason for being an independent business owner.
Alice and I went into partnership; first with a 60-40% profit-sharing arrangement. She had made a living for years with her Teeny Bidness, publishing specialty books for a variety of fairly well-off local writers, producing as many as six books a year, or as few as one. She contracted out things like layout and cover design, printing and binding, but she did editing herself, and part-timed for another slightly larger local publisher. She was absolutely one of the best and most exacting editors around; likely I will never be in her league, even with the aid of certain software functions. We used to joke (especially to prospective clients) that she had been married three times; twice to mere mortals and once to The Chicago Manual of Style. The books that she produced over the years are all beautifully done, to the highest standard. One or two of them are works of art in themselves. Such does not come cheap, though, and although Alice was well-connected in the community, business was slowing to a trickle. I thought it very likely that we were losing business to the various POD publishing houses which had sprung up to utilize digital printing – which is ideal for small print runs, rather than the traditional lithographic printing, which requires a large print run (north of 250) to be profitable. I suggested that we start doing POD books as well, setting up an imprint to print and distribute small runs of books through Lightning Source/Ingram. She was not especially keen on it, since the quality was a titch less than what she was accustomed to produce as a final product. But I finally convinced her that we had to compete, and that clients able to spend $10,000 to $15,000 on their book project were going to become mighty thin on the ground, given competition from Booksurge, Author House and the rest … as well as the economic situation overall. Finally she told me to go ahead – and for the last year that she was active in the business, the POD imprint provided most of our publishing projects.
Alice had no children, and none of her nieces, or grand-nieces or grand-nephews were interested particularly in the business. It was expected that I would take over the running of it all – and eventually the business itself. When her health began to fail, about a year ago, I had already been shouldering most of the work. By March, Alice’s niece and executor, who is a CPA for a fairly high-powered firm in Austin, suggested that the time had come: I should buy out Alice, for a sum which I could just about afford, since I had funds from the sale of some California real estate. Alice’s niece and I disentangled the various files and projects, sorted out the business bank accounts, and worked out what I had to do to get a DBA and open new accounts in my own name. I wrote a check, brought home the three shelves of Watercress-published books and several boxes of files and took over paying the hosting fees for the Watercress website. It turned out that we did this just in time, for Alice’s condition worsened rapidly over the following two months. Still, I was able to tell her that there are are some promising prospects on the horizon; people and establishments who want very much to work with a local publisher they can meet with, face to face, and not a website with an 800-number on the other side of the country. I’ve inherited the relationship with the local printer and bookbinder, quite a lot of the local connections – and there we are, since I am going to train up my daughter in what is essentially a small family business.
5 thoughts on “Annals of the Tiny Bidness”
What a great story of the spirit of this country. Hats off to Alice and to you. I have greatly enjoyed your books and now I know the rest of the story!
This is lovely and self-reliant – and such a story. So much energy, so well directed, so loving of others, of the work, of the word.
Ha ha quite a different world than the world I’ve been through in my “25 stories about business”.
But you are your own boss! Best of luck.
Thanks, guys! I had my absolute fill of working for a big corporation in being in the military. And then, in small and medium-sized family business, some of who were flakier than others. I like being able to organize my time and do the work on my own schedule. Which means that I am often laboring at stuff over weekends, evenings and holidays … but I can kick back and go to a movie on a mid-week mid-day, if I feel like it!
Just exhausted right now. Came back from a half-day long book event, at which I sold no books but handed out a lot of information about them. Two hour plus drive there and back … but on the fun side, we stopped by the Ikea in Georgetown on the way back!
This is a great story. I’ve read your stuff for years, first at Stryker’s and then elsewhere, and I’ve always enjoyed the historical vignettes you provided. Best of luck with the business and the new book.
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