Confessions of an Accidental C.E.O.
The following article begins with an adaptation of a chapter for Tricia Gallagher’s 1991 book, For All the Write Reasons: Forty Successful Authors, Publishers, Agents, and Writers Tell You How to Get Your Book Published. I have followed this excerpt with updates on what’s been happening in the years since this chapter was written.
Over the years, I’ve gotten so many requests from people in my seminars who were looking to start consulting or writing, and often starting up their own businesses that I decided to share my journey and tips on my site. I’m hoping that my own history, as well as a few suggestions and guidelines, will help. (Note: This article is included as a bonus in The Book of Article Reprints.)
If you want to get technical about it, my writing career started with a diary that I got in the middle of sixth grade. Over the years, I had hoped that the entries detailing who I had a crush on and what was wrong with my hair would eventually give way to the Great American Novel. Perhaps one day.
In the meantime, I did end up a writer almost by default, as no one else had bothered to write the particular book I needed for the first-year teachers I was coaching through a graduate training program at the University of New Mexico. What started out as a series of handouts, frantically prepared before each weekly class, quickly evolved into a forty-four-chapter workbook.
For the better part of 1982, only slightly before my first Mac came into my life, I carried around my yellow tablets and pens wherever I went. From the spare bedroom that served as my office to motels on field supervision trips, from the campground after a rafting trip to the back seat of the car on the way home, I jotted, researched, and revised.
Late that summer, I started to type and by the middle of fall, I had more than 400 pages cranked out on what was then a fairly state-of-the-art Olympia typewriter, having mylar ribbons and interchangeable type balls and such. My initial ambition for this book, which I aptly (if not particularly creatively) named The Beginning Teacher’s Resource Handbook, didn’t go much farther than helping the twelve students in my program. For that particular purpose, the typewriter seemed well-suited and overwhelmingly preferable to a $2500 typesetting job, even though the final product did look an awful lot like a cheap cousin to my recently completed dissertation.
The school year had started and I was in a bit of a panic to get this book out so I dispensed with the little publishing details like having the book edited or proofread—a major flaw of many self-published books, I soon discovered. Around Halloween, I took the manuscript down to the University copy center. There was some kind of a price break if I got twenty-five copies, so I went ahead, figuring I’d have a few extra to send to my folks and have a few more to keep on hand for whatever other needs might arise.
The printing and comb binding—you know, those plastic jobs they use on a lot of cookbooks—cost me $300 which, at the time, I simply didn’t have. I wrote a hot checked, begged the guy at the copy center to hold it for a few days so it wouldn’t bounce, and asked each of my twelve students to kick in $25 to cover the printing costs. (Actually not a bad price for a 400-plus page textbook, even then, but what a way to launch a business!)
Despite the plain manila cover, the crooked—and occasionally mixed up—page numbers (which I had typed on little stickers and put on the pages by hand with no guides or templates to help), and a bunch of primitive hand-drawn illustrations, I remember staring at my first box of books as though they could do dishes!
Fortunately, my students were far less concerned with cosmetics and were thrilled to have the information they needed. In addition, other instructors at the university, program coordinators at the local school district, and several other teachers and student teachers requested copies, which meant I ended up selling just about the entire first printing in about a week. Not too bad, especially since I now had enough money to pay for the second printing with a check that wasn’t quite so hot.
I figured if the book was such a big hit with my colleagues and friends, why not try marketing it? Since my background in education offered little in the way of business know-how, I made things up as I went along, although I was smart enough to ask questions and follow up on leads and suggestions from anyone who was a step or two ahead of me.
Learning the Ropes
Figuring out where to go for help was crucial, as I was completely clueless about business aspects like billing and inventory management. When a school called for a dozen copies and asked if I would accept a purchase order, I actually told the caller I was on the other line and would call her back in a few minutes.
I hung up and called my friend Judy Lawrence in a panic, a woman who had set up a business of budget consulting and had sold thousands of copies of her book from her own home-based business. When she explained what a purchase order was and how I was going to deal with it, I called the school back and cheerfully took their order.
As a part of my first big marketing project, I went to the library and got a list of colleges that had teacher education programs and found a directory of every school and district in New Mexico. I bought my first computer and created a crude data base which eventually yielded a mailing list.
I made up my first flyer to send out. It had black ink on dark green paper, and with a dozen different type styles, it looked a bit like a ransom note. Although I cringe whenever I come across a copy today, at the time I thought it was quite beautiful. I sent out about 1200 copies of the flyer which, a year later, was verbally torn to shreds by an advertising expert at a conference dinner. I was devastated by his criticism and, in my ignorance, conceded that this was probably why I only got a thirteen percent return. After recovering his composure (and dropped silverware), he explained that three percent would have been terrific—thirteen percent was unheard of! (I guess there’s something to be said for knowing your market.)
I then set about cleaning up the manuscript for the Beginning Teacher’s book by laying out a real cover with rub-on letters and an optical-illusion illustration from an old Mad magazine that eventually became my first company logo (left). I improved the illustrations and added divider pages.
And I got busy establishing my business, Instructional Support Services for my speaking and consulting work, with I.S.S. Publications for the publishing and mail order components. I did all the business things I was told to do, from setting up a separate checking account and mailing address to ordering letterhead and business cards and filing the necessary tax forms.
My business vocabulary and management skills began to grow. I was now quite familiar with those “purchase orders,” which I had to “invoice” and keep track of in an “accounts receivable” file. All new territory for a former classroom teacher, but I was learning. With the money that started coming in, I could manage a larger print run, which got my unit costs down, and step up to perfect binding with the title on the spine so the books could be displayed and sold in bookstores.
Growing a Business
I completed a second book on an individualized, prescriptive handwriting program to go with a workshop I was starting to do, and a third book, Parents in a Pressure Cooker, was born within the year. These three titles, along with a couple of stationery items for parents and teachers, not only gave me a catalogue, but the parenting book also gave me a mainstream topic for promotion in a far larger market.
I received wonderful feedback on the contents of the book, but the general consensus from the professionals (including other book and magazine publishers, bookstore owners, and marketing specialists) was that it looked like it had been “thrown together on somebody’s kitchen table.”
So my coauthor and I hired a graphic designer and invested about $8000 (borrowed from family and friends) in a new cover, cartoon illustrations, typesetting and a 5000-piece first printing. The investment paid off, although we would have benefited greatly from editorial support, which we did seek for a subsequent revision.
In 1984, I went to my first American Booksellers Association convention (now Book Expo America), sharing a small-press booth back at the tail end of a hall, next to a garbage bin in the basement of the Washington, DC convention center. My display was tacky and hand-made, but I made important contacts as well as a few sales, and I took lots of notes on how to set up a more professional-looking trade-show exhibit.
I started exhibiting and speaking at education conferences and, here and there, met other self-published authors with excellent materials, which I offered to include in my catalogue on a consignment basis. I found some small press distributors for my books as well, most of them working under the same terms I was able to offer.
Although the majority of sales came from my own titles, often in association with my workshops, building a larger catalogue provided additional income and credibility for I.S.S. Publications. This step also offered greater exposure and income for the authors whose books we distributed, so it was a true win-win arrangement.
Taking to the Air
In the middle of the Bookseller’s convention, the friend with whom I was sharing the booth took off to do a talk show she’d set up a few weeks before. On her urging, about a month prior to a publishers’ conference in Utah, I called the Salt Lake City media and timidly asked if they had any interest in interviewing me on parent-child relationship issues.
Those contacts led to an article in the local paper, a spot on the evening news, and a half-hour radio interviewed that aired on the following Sunday morning. Although this exposure did not lead to any actual speaking engagements or book sales (my books were not in bookstores at this time, and online distribution was still more than a decade away), this experience turned out to be most valuable in establishing the beginnings of a media resume—as well as the confidence to continue pursuing other avenues for promotion.
I began to arrange media interviews whenever I had a presentation scheduled, whether on a contract with a school district or organization, or as a part of a conference in another town. One particularly successful trip, media-wise, involved a visit to Minneapolis for an early childhood convention. While I didn’t get paid for the presentation or expenses, I did sell just enough books to justify the trip.
Better still, about six months later, I got a call from one of the producers of the Oprah Winfrey Show who had heard about me through the producer of a similarly formatted show I had done in Minnesota. (A lot of the “results” I’ve seen in this business happen months—or even years—after the initial, often protracted or expensive, footwork!)
The weird thing about the call was that they didn’t actually need me for a particular show, but just wanted to check me out. Despite my disappointment and frustration, my only option was more footwork in the form of some follow-up with the producers, a photo of Oprah on my office wall to remind me of my goal, and a focus on the work that was in front of me every day. I had plenty to do until they called back, which they eventually did, about a year and a half later.
I’ve done Oprah twice and would love to report that my appearances have blown my book sales out of the water. They haven’t. Although I had, by then, turned printing rights over to other publishers, the books simply hadn’t received the distribution necessary to have them all in the chains when the shows aired (and Internet book outlets didn’t exist when I did these shows in the late 80s, nor were they a significant entity at the time of my initially writing this piece).
Things are improving, but we still have a lot of work to do in this area. The exposure has helped, however, if for no other reason than my appearances on that show seem to be the strongest line on my resume, giving me more credibility and stature than all of my writing, degrees, and experience combined. Sigh…
Being Published vs. Self-Publishing
In 1985, the acquisitions editor from Fearon (David S. Lake Publishing) approached me about publishing The Beginning Teacher’s Resource Handbook. After months of negotiations, I finally signed a contract that gave me escalating royalties and, most important, especially at that time, a significant discount so that I could buy the books at a low enough cost to resell them at my speaking engagements. I figured I’d let them take out second mortgages on their houses now, and decided to concentrate on my writing, speaking, and the highly-targeted marketing I was already doing.
The benefits have been tremendous, if only in editorial support. The book needed work. The manuscript came back covered with yellow sticky notes on each page, topped with a two-word cover letter from the editor that simply said, “Don’t faint!”
It took me nearly two months to be emotionally able to open the box again and look at the 400-plus pages, each of which needed significant revision. (None of the sticky notes commented on what a great writer I was.) I was only able to do so by convincing myself that their comments were simply the impetus and guidance by which I was going to make this very worthwhile mess into a real, much improved, grown-up-looking product.
Their input and resources brought about a book that was far more attractive, both in what it says and how it looks, than anything I did or could have afforded to do on my own. They retitled the book Being a Successful Teacher to reach a broader audience than the prior reference to beginning teachers invited. And they’ve been far better at reaching the market than I’ve been. Finally, turning over the production aspect—not to mention storage—has left me free to do what I do best (and love most), writing and speaking.
Since the mid-eighties, I sold Parents in a Pressure Cooker to a second publisher and wrote another book, 21st Century Discipline, for a third. I co-published four books with other authors (with their money and my advice, editorial input, production, and distribution) which worked out pretty well for all concerned. Although a creative way to build the business back in the beginning, I’ve since quit accepting manuscripts as I barely have time to read them, much less turn them into books.
Once again, I found that the most effective strategy for me has been to go with my strengths. I’ve gotten increasingly busy with presentations around the country and spend a great deal of time on the road. My husband, Jerry Tereszkiewicz, who was laid off in 1986 from the construction job (which he hated, but which allowed us to eat while I was getting things off the ground with my business), has since taken over the mail order company and most of the “business” part of the business—things like inventory, receivables, payables, and other details I am rarely in town long enough to address.
What I’ve learned from creating and running a business is that in the pressure of day-to-day demands, the first casualty is often my perspective, with balance and sanity running a close second. When things get muddy, I have a phenomenal network of friends who are doing similar work, many of whom I’ve met at professional conferences and publishing conventions.
These are the people I call for guidance, support, and the assurance that I’m not completely insane to be doing what I’m doing. They’re the ones who remind me that I have indeed grown, that the products, money, and recognition have improved, and that I am incredibly well-supported by the Universe. In between, I rely on inspirational and motivational materials that range from professional tapes and magazine articles to Dear Abby clippings and fortune-cookie fortunes!
Had anyone suggested to me that I’d be doing what I’m doing when I was still back in Pittsburgh teaching fourth grade, I doubt I’d have believed a word of it. Writing my history has given me a rare chance to gain a bit of perspective, and with it a great deal of gratitude.
I’ll close with a quote from Goethe, which is hanging on the wall in front of me, and a wish for you for the persistence, resources and guidance to happily and successfully fulfill your own mission, whatever it is: “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”
Update: Fifteen Years Later (2006)
In looking back over the beginnings of those “warrior years,” when I had more time and energy than I seem to these days, there was a definite commitment to build this business, to make it happen and, especially once Jerry and I were fully in this together, to make it work well enough to be our sole source of income. I got creative and endlessly busy finding ways to supplement the writing-and-speaking aspects which, frankly, didn’t pay much, at least not at first.
There was much I was doing during those first few years that I didn’t mention in the original piece above, like all of the classes I taught for eight or nine different universities just to pick up some extra income—usually about $1200-1500 for each course I taught—despite the demands of driving up to 800 miles a week to remote locations to teach, in many instances, every week for the entire semester.
Or the various Speakers’ Directories, in which I was able to advertise my training services along with a couple dozen other speakers, each of whom kicked in a couple hundred dollars to finance the printing and mailing expenses.
Or the twice-a-year mailings we did for many years, assembling flyers that advertised my workshops and a variety of books, my living room stacked with boxes and bins as we hand-labeled and sorted up to 15,000 pieces for a bulk mailing.
Or the weeks I’d spend, once I’d learned a bit about desktop publishing, laying out a catalogue to distribute at conferences, or to include with orders.
All of these things helped us get off the ground. It’s been several years since I’ve done any of the above. Much as I loved teaching at the college level, the amount of work, time commitment, and low pay made it impractical to continue to pursue those opportunities.
Sorting and labeling bulk mail became increasingly complex and expensive, and made first-class postage a viable option in the rare cases when a mailing might still be warranted. And although at one point we actually distributed over 350 books and other resources from over 50 different publishers, with printing and mailing costs continuing to rise and Internet outlets like Amazon growing in popularity, the catalogues and other print marketing efforts became increasingly cost-ineffective! Fortunately, there was another way to get the word out!
In early 1985, I bought my first Mac, a 512k Mac Plus. After three years of handwritten invoices, I was now able to set up a data base that would allow us to print our invoices—a big step in our continuing efforts to present ourselves as professional and legitimate.
I had word processing software that allowed me to compose and revise onscreen—a big improvement, and more consistent with how I tend to think and write. I started taking as many classes as I could to learn the software I’d need to run the business, create print projects and Web pages, as well as what I needed to deal with graphics and presentations for all of the above. (While I hired out my first Web design, I found affordable and reliable help to be rather elusive, and after a year or so, finally rolled up my sleeves and started doing it myself.)
I see myself as a part of a growing segment of intermediate users who fall somewhere between computer professionals—people whose work involves little else—and those who use the computer mainly for entertainment, information, and communications. This means that while I’m scrambling to stay on top of what’s going on in my field, I also have to continue to catch up and refine the digital skills I need to keep my business going.
This includes being able to put together a flyer (or, for example, in the case of a couple books and projects we still self-publish), lay out this collection of articles and design a cover for a new print project. It also means learning to deal with audio editing for upcoming CD releases and getting familiar enough with business software to be able to do things like print shipping labels, or manage inventory, income, and sales. And probably most important, it means learning enough to be able to develop, administer, and code a website that is well-matched to the information needs and navigation skills of my market.
While neither print nor Web design are exactly my strong suits, I actually love the change of pace these projects offer. For years, I was at the mercy of graphic artists and typesetters, and while grateful beyond belief for the work they did and what they contributed to the growth of my business, I am just as delighted to be able to work in a way that better suits my schedule, my budget, my tastes, and my knowledge of the market. At some point, I may end up hiring these tasks out, but for now, I find the work challenging and satisfying.
For anyone considering setting up your own consultancy or creating products, whether for a publisher or as a do-it-yourself venture, I don’t see any way around the tech aspects of the business. While the majority of my speaking engagements still come from word-of-mouth or from my books, and while the bulk of sales I receive directly still comes from the back-of-the-room displays I have at my engagements, the inquiries, speaking jobs and sales I receive through my website suggests that it’s probably one of the most crucial marketing tools available.
And from a slightly more altruistic standpoint, with several hundred pages of free resources, including articles, handouts, book excerpts, interviews, and links, my site has been invaluable in allowing me to provide support and information for the people with whom I most want to connect—and help.
Further, for projects like the handwriting book or the book of article reprints—things for which there has been a strong demand, but which mainstream publishers would not be likely to accept—it’s been wonderful to be able to add them to my (online) catalogue, print out a handful, or a few hundred if demand dictates, and avoid the initial costs of a large print run and the storage that goes with it! (And like the information on my site, I can change or update the contents of my self-published pieces any time I want without making boxes of product obsolete.)
Connecting with a Publisher
One of the advantages of self-publishing was the fact that it gave me a bit of a track record to take to a publisher to sell my ideas—and myself! For me, it was a great place to start. By the time I started realizing the benefits of having professional editors, designers, and marketing people involved, I not only had an actual book (such as it was) to submit, but I also was able to show that I was well-established in the market.
When it came to proposing new projects, I could point to the work I had been doing (which helped establish me as a writer) and if I’d already done a book for the publisher, I could suggest a new project in the context of existing relationships and history.
Yes, there were rejections, not only from publishers I approached “cold,” but even from publishers who had already done a few of my books if the topics didn’t interest them or fit in with their catalogues or goals. Some offered the courtesy of a form letter and some even returned my materials. Others didn’t respond at all.
In many cases, I got distracted by another project and ended up heading in a different direction. But there were times I persevered until I found a better match. It’s funny how a proposal that holds absolutely no interest for one publisher can elicit great interest and enthusiasm from another. We’ve all heard about the great publishing successes that came on the heels of dozens of rejections, so I encourage authors to hang in there.
To answer another question that often comes up, I’ve never worked with an agent—partly because I didn’t know any and partly because I didn’t know I needed one. This may also have to do with the publishers I approached, who were generally smaller or more focused in terms of their market (education, family, or personal growth, for example) and more open to unknown quantities such as myself.
Certainly, being able to point to previously published work—even self-published projects—and indicate a history of sales and market interest didn’t hurt. Whether or not you need an agent will depend on the publisher and the book you’re writing. Some publishers won’t accept unsolicited manuscripts and it’s possible that a good agent may be the only way to actually land your idea on someone’s desk. A good agent can also help you present your ideas in an attractive way. Still, unless the publisher specifically advertises that they don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts, if you’re confident in your proposal, you might want to see what kind of a response you get on your own.
The Publisher Shuffle
Here’s another thing about publishers to consider: Depending on the publisher, signing with one company does not guarantee that they will be the one with whom the book ends up! My first edition of 21st Century Discipline was contracted with one publisher and almost immediately sold to a second. Six weeks after the book was released, that publisher was sold and 21st went off to a third. In less than a year, this one book had had three different publishers, each with its own look, feel, and voice.
Over the past twenty years, there have been many instances of publishers buying one another, or selling an imprint or a part of their catalogue to someone else. This has a huge effect on the life of a book.
While other authors may have different experiences, having my publisher get bought up by another company has pretty much been the kiss of death for my books. While you’d think the buyout would have been inspired by a certain amount of enthusiasm for all the titles, I suspect it may have been more for the market share or the name brand than the specific books they had just acquired. In fact, I remember talking to an editor at the new publisher who admitted that she just didn’t get my book: “It doesn’t look like our books. It doesn’t sound like our books. I don’t know what we’re supposed to do with it.”
So I spent the next few years going head to head with them, just trying to stay on top of arbitrary price changes (which I never managed to find out about until after I had printed several thousand flyers or catalogues), keep the books in print, keep track of the books they had, or even get my royalties. The final straw came when they went back to print (after being out of stock for months) and produced a book with the occasional missing pages, poorly glued bindings, and the title misspelled on the spine (21st Century “Disipline”—I’m not making this up!)
I eventually got the rights back and found yet another publisher for whom I did a second edition. We had a wonderful and mutually-profitable relationship… until they were sold to a publisher that was even worse than the previous one!
While not all publishers are open to being bought out, the danger in this constantly changing industry is in the fact that when companies are sold, you may not be quite as valued or appreciated as you were with the publisher with whom you developed the project! (Note: This is also true if you stay with the same publisher but they have a big turnover in staff.)
In the latest chapter in the story of this particular book, I am now working with a wonderful new publisher—I believe this is number eight for this title! I recently completed a major overhaul of the contents of this book for a third edition, but ended up having to revise it yet again so it could become an entirely new project when I discovered that I had lost the rights to 21st Century Discipline. (Click here for more details about that little nightmare, and see how 21st Century Discipline became The Win-Win Classroom,)
Working with them from the beginning on all aspects of the project’s development has generated a significant commitment from everyone involved, which is the one thing that got lost every time one of my books changed hands.
And now as I sit between editions of one of my best-selling books, here’s where that publishing/self-publishing bridge gets interesting. When the last publisher decided to let the book go out of print, I bought out the remaining copies of the second edition. As I’m typing away here, we have exactly four copies of that book left in our inventory! The third edition won’t be out for another four months and we already have orders for close to a thousand copies of the original!
So in order to preserve availability of the existing book until the new baby arrives, I spent several weeks laying out a nearly-identical version of the second edition—published this time by my company, I.S.S. Publications. It is at the printer’s now so we should be able to fill those orders sometime in the next two weeks. (All those computer classes, along with a willingness to change hats from time to time, have served me well.)
And this wasn’t the only “shuffling” going on. Parents in a Pressure Cooker was declared out of print when that publishing company was sold (and is on my schedule to scan and make available, eventually, as an online product), as was Being a Successful Teacher, which has been through nearly a dozen different publishers and is up for an overhaul for a new edition with the same company that is doing the latest version of the discipline book! (Update 5/4/08: This is not going to happen as I’ve also lost the rights to this book as well, and honestly don’t feel like dealing with the oh-so-charming people at that company any more. Instead, I’m in the process of developing an entirely new product for beginning teachers which should be out sometime in 2009.)
When Marketing Doesn’t Just Happen
I think the biggest complaint I hear from authors has to do with the shock and disappointment they feel regarding book sales and royalties. Even the ones who claim to not care about making any money off their book end up saddened when the book doesn’t make its way into stores or into the hands of the people for whom it was written.
The fact is, there are millions of books published every year. And as with any mass-market industry, there seems to be room for only a few at the top. Some publishers pay booksellers for optimal placement of their books, but this is often for best-selling titles and well-established, best-selling authors.
Many authors have shared with me their experience with publishers whose convoluted attitude seems to be, “We’ll market it once it starts selling.” And I’ve had publishers who put a tremendous amount of money and talent into producing a fantastic book—well edited, beautifully laid out, gorgeous cover—and then did next to nothing with it once it came out.
One of my publishers, for whom I’ve done six books since the original version of this essay was published in 1991, has been pretty good about getting my books into some of the chains. Even still, the life span of a new book is short, and once the next season’s crop is out, the publishers’ interests are understandably focused on their latest releases.
Occasionally some specific event occurs that will bring your book back into focus or draw media attention, but this is only likely to happen if your publisher happens to be good about getting press releases out to the right people at the right time, or if some dedicated and resourceful reporter happens to come across mention of your work in a Web search, for example.
Plus, publishers don’t always give equal attention to all their new titles and more than one author has shared that even when their books were new, they never seemed to show up anywhere near the front of their publishers’ New Release catalogues, mailings, or announcements, if they appeared at all!
And even when things are going great, stuff, as they say, happens. One of the most involved and important books I’ve done, Creating Emotionally Safe Schools, was released in mid-August, 2001. The release was calculated to coincide with the beginning of the school year and was extremely well received. Who would have predicted that two weeks after a terrific interview on CNN (and concomitant spike in sales), the events of 9/11 would effectively end the public’s and the media’s attention to anything else?
In the past few years, I’ve noticed that it’s gotten increasingly difficult to show up on the media’s radar. For whatever reason, calls or press releases that in past years would have secured at lease one or two interviews, go largely unnoticed today, or require a more sensationalized “hook” to generate much interest.
An entire industry has grown up around helping authors and speakers catch the media’s eye, however they are generally very expensive and may or may not get the results you want. I know at least a couple of authors who have spent between $5000 and $12,000 on media promotion specialists and in the end had very little to show for their investments.
Still, it is an investment and since it takes only one good interview at the right time, it may be worth consideration. Whether or not you need someone else to get you the connections you need will depend on your product, your personality, your timing, and whether or not you have the time or energy to pursue these channels on your own.
Catching my Breath
It’s been 25 years since I wrote my first book, nearly that long since I officially started my business. Reading and remembering this path is a bit exhausting, and interesting to look back and see the number of endeavors I pursued in the beginning that I have been able to let go of in the name of focus and sanity. These avenues, whether the courses I taught for the universities, the books I schlepped to exhibits, the catalogues and mailings I sent out, or all the “freebie” conferences and speaking engagements I did to build up my Speaker’s Resume, were all a part of a safety net I needed during the years it took to get this business off the ground.
Even still, there were stretches, even when Jerry was working outside the business, where money was a lot tighter than either of us would have liked. A certain amount of faith was, in retrospect, a critical element, as well as a tendency to stay so busy that I might not notice how scared I actually was at times.
These days, I’m finding myself more and more looking for balance in my life. As I’ve gotten busier with travel and presentations, I’ve noticed how both seem to affect my physical and mental health more intensely, and that I need a bit more time to recover from my time on the road.
About a year ago, I blocked off two months, from the middle of November until the middle of January and for the first time since I started this business, I actually declined offers to work during that time. Although the majority of my time at home was devoted to the revision of the discipline book (so technically, I was still working the whole time I was “off”), this was a huge step for me. I’ve already blocked off a similar period for the end of 2006 and plan to continue this tradition, perhaps adding a month or so during the summer as well.
I’m honestly not sure about retirement. I still love and believe in what I do and I still feel called to speaking, writing and all the tech stuff I’d love more time to explore. Over lunch with a friend, I admitted that even if I had every nickel I knew I’d ever need for the rest of my life, I’m not sure I’d change much. Not yet. I’m at a good place in my life and while perhaps I don’t feel the same hunger at 55 that I did in my 30s, I still have a passion for my work and a tremendous excitement about learning and growing.
I look forward to coming back to this article in a couple of years time, to reflect on my growth and experiences, and on the directions in which this work has taken me. And maybe to offer updates for anyone who might care to see what I’ve been up to (which, by the way, I annotate on my blog on a fairly regular basis), what I’ve learned, and where I might be headed.
I’d love to hear from you. Please let me know what has worked for you, if anything in this overlong report has helped. In the meantime, please accept my best wishes for your greatest success and happiness ever in pursuing whatever direction in which you are called.
I’ll keep this short. The reason I have included this article on my site—indeed the only real reason I’ve bothered to chronicle my transition from the classroom to the world of consulting and publishing—is to answer questions I get (most often from other educators) who are interested in pursuing a similar dream. In the now thirty years since this evolution began, many significant changes have occurred.
The consulting work is extremely vulnerable to changes in the economy, as professional development funds are often the first place budgets get cut. As of late July 2010, my calendar is lighter than it’s been in years. I have faith that things will bounce back as they always have, and am OK for the moment, enjoying the break and the time to work on projects I’ve ignored on behalf of deadlines and demanding travel schedules for many years.
I share this because it’s important to know that it can be risky going from a regular paycheck (not to mention benefits) to depending on the phone to ring for any income to come in. Yes, I’ve marveled at the times I earned more in a week than I ever received in an entire year of teaching, either in the public schools or at the University. But trust me, there can be some seriously fallow stretches, so consider keeping your day job unless you have a pretty good cushion or a partner’s income to help you get by if necessary.
There have been significant changes in the publishing industry even since my last entry, only four years ago. Online book distributors have changed the face of how people buy books and what they expect—including big discounts and free shipping. A few years ago, I learned how to set up a shopping cart to make online ordering possible from my site. I also decided to absorb shipping costs, which gets increasingly difficult every time those expenses rise, which seems to be more and more frequent.
My current projects involve digitizing anything I can get my hands on. This is out of necessity. I am working (with my co-author, Lynn Collins) on a fourth edition of Parents in a Pressure Cooker, but rather than print thousands of copies this time, we are going to offer it as a print-on-demand book and as an eBook—both of which I’m still learning about.
TeacherTapes is still only available on cassette. I can barely give them away. I have the mp3 files (available as of 2011) ready to upload and should have this wonderful resource available in a more contemporary format. And I also have several video presentations that are currently only available on VHS, so I am learning how to convert and package these resources on DVD, hopefully by the end of the year.
I’m lining up potential podcast topics and interviews (audio and video), as that will be the next step in adding multimedia to this site. None of these formats existed when I started this business (or even just a few short years ago), but the industry is changing—rapidly, sometimes drastically—and I’m continuing to scramble to keep up!
Eventually, there may even be another book in the works, but for the moment, the well feels pretty dry. I will continue to update the development of my business and career in this article. In the meantime, check my blog for ongoing details.
Update: July 2015
Someone just asked for some entrepreneurial tips and when I went back to this article, I realized that it’s somehow been FIVE YEARS since I last updated it. You might be tempted to think that I’ve ignored this page because nothing has been happening, but in fact, the opposite is true—so much so that I almost forgot this page was here!
Because this post is ridiculously long—the good and bad side of having my own business for nearly 35 years—I’ll do my best to keep this short.
First: Yes, I am still working. Although funding for schools and social service organizations has been stripped to the bone, I have a hard time turning down offers to come and speak when that school or organization has made an effort to come up with funds to bring me in. So I’m still enjoying training and working with educators, parents, and teachers. Maybe more now than ever.
In 2010, I realized that I was tired of doing back-to-back workshops in different locations. As a result, I took a leave from my work with the Bureau of Education and Research and have tried to minimize week-long engagements. Although I still offer two- and three-day presentations, I’ve started noticing just how exhausted I am after a day of training. The idea of doing five in a row has lost its appeal and I don’t expect I will commit to this kind of schedule after this year. (I have one more week scheduled in Singapore in October of this year.)
A few other updates: Since March 2013, I’ve been buried in a new book, The Perfection Deception, which is currently in production and should be out in August. The book has taken me out of the realm of parenting and teaching—although the topic certainly has significant relevance to both markets—and will hopefully take me into a broader market including self-help, psychology, and recovery.
I have a new presentation to go along with this book, so who knows? Perhaps my career is heading in whole new direction. If so, I’m game. And if not, I’m quite happy traveling, knitting, blogging, hanging out with friends on social media, and working when opportunities come up. That said, I find it exciting to even be considering a whole new career trajectory at 64!
In 2010, I wrote a follow-up to The Win-Win Classroom. Geared more to beginning, returning, and student teachers, Becoming a Win-Win Teacher focuses the same principles of the earlier book on becoming a part of a school community, establishing a professional identity, and learning the system. I had agreed to do another book in the franchise, this one for school administrators, and although I haven’t had the time to work that into my writing schedule, I will be meeting with my editor and, perhaps, my co-authors early in 2016 if not before to get that underway.
Note: The Perfection Deception took far longer and much more work than I initially anticipated. A tremendous learning experience for me with no regrets and… I need a break from major writing projects for at least the next few months! I know I’ve talked about balance here (as well as in that book!) but I’m not very good at taking my own advice. I really can’t afford to just flit from one project to the next without coming up for air or none of this feels like fun anymore.
In this interim, I did two other books. The first was for the publisher of my win-win books, a collection of excerpts on classroom management for a series called The Best of Corwin: Classroom Management. The book included chapters from my two win-win books, and presents a wide range of approaches to discipline and dealing with student behavior.
The other book happened by invitation—a short (10k words) booklet on Managing 21st Century Classrooms, with ways to avoid the most common ineffective management practices. This was my first book for ASCD (the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) publishing, and unlike the perfectionism book, only took a few weeks to write.
We are still selling my books, although tying up money and space in inventory has gotten old. I had written some great discounts into my contracts, but the fact is, direct book sales have fallen and some of the stuff in our warehouse has been sitting there for years. I can’t compete with online discounters and frankly have lost interest in trying. So we keep a small number of our best-sellers on hand, and when we get orders for large numbers of a particular title, will have it drop-shipped from the publisher.
So many changes, but when I was fighting for 60 and 70% discounts on large quantities, we were selling books like crazy. Who could have predicted ePublishing, deep discounts, free versions (or even free shipping) back then—much less the decline (or end) of 800 numbers and fax machines, both of which we will terminate before the end of this year!
During these five years, I’ve also created about two dozen podcasts—audio conversations with a variety of experts on a wide range of topics—and hope to get back to that project now that the perfectionism book is done. I’ve been more active on social media, although that tends to be more of a distraction and time-suck if I’m not careful.
I created a fourth version of this website, shifting from the familiar and comfortable HTML and CSS coding to the (still-bizarre-at-times) world of WordPress, which offered features I had never learned (or no longer knew) how to code. I still have a couple hundred pages from the old site, including the Spanish and French pages, Links, and several blogs, that have yet to be converted.
So it never ends, I suppose—until it does. In the meantime, I continue to shape-shift according to the ever-changing demands of technology and the marketplace. I’m definitely slowing down, if only in getting very choosy about what I want to be doing with my time.
Update 2021: On the Downward Slope
I’ve been putting off this update for over a year now. I’ll start by backing up a bit. It’s the fall of 2019 and I’m down to the last two speaking engagements on my calendar. One requires 4 flights each way to get there, with a tremendous amount of walking between terminals and long lines everywhere.
When I got to my destination, well after midnight, my ride wasn’t there and when I called, discovered that he had never received notice to pick me up. He eventually showed up, but there were other problems. The conference had about a tenth of the attendance I’d been promised and the person speaking before my keynote was allowed to ramble 45 minutes into my time slot.
I know I get paid the same for 30 minutes as 75, but the stress of having to mentally check off points I won’t have time to make or stories I won’t be able to share as I’m waiting (and as my request to get this guy off the stage are being ignored) makes doing a great 30 minutes a lot more work somehow.
There were other problems with this particular event and by the time I was on my 4th flight to get home, I was seriously questioning whether I was cut out for this work any more. My next (and final) live presentation went much better—a good way to wrap a 40+ year speaking career, if that’s indeed what was happening. But I was also aware of the toll the travel and preparation were taking.
No big decisions as we rolled into 2020, but by then a few other things were happening, not least of which involved 7 or 8 of my books being pulled out of print by previously author-friendly publishers, now in the process of downsizing and trashing their backlist. Sigh.
If I hadn’t seen the writing on the wall by March, Covid hit and what was left of my career pretty much ground to a halt. I was creeping up on my 70th birthday (in April 2021) and although I had never imagined I would actually retire (!), it seemed to be happening with or without my consent.
Meanwhile I was tucked in at home for the duration and… loving it!! Who would have thought that after 40 years on the road, I’d end up enjoying settling in for the longest stretch I’d ever spent in one place in my entire life. Jerry (spouse) turned out to be a fantastic quarantine buddy and the past 20 months since I got home have allowed for us to establish a very new, very different, and very gentle rhythm to our lives.
But what about work? In the beginning of the pandemic, I was called to participate in a few Zoom panels and interviews, and do a guest appearance or two in online classes. These were fun, but nothing nearly as satisfying as working with a live audience.
And… what was I to do with the office, the books, the website, and my time??
The most obvious priority turned out to be getting rid of all hard copies of inventory. I decided to just give away anything anyone wanted, asking only for reimbursement on shipping for any items that weren’t picked up off our front porch. The demand has left us with very few items, all of which will be gone (one way or another) by the end of this calendar year. I moved all remaining inventory and packing material into a big walk-in closet from the adjacent “warehouse.” This is it. All that’s left are a couple boxes in the garage, which I’ll put out for people to pick up (or for recycling) in the next few weeks.
The next item for consideration was our office. We bought this house in 1995, in part, because it included a big, bright downstairs walk-out basement (below the main floor of the house) with three big rooms, a full bathroom, and 5 big closets! Ideal for office space, which we needed up until the these changes happened.
Once the pandemic hit, we realized that we were cruising into a very different time in our lives and that this space, which had served us so well during the busiest times in my career, could be used for something else. The “warehouse” was now empty, with the shelves that had held books since 1995 now filled with stained glass and spinning supplies with project tables and space for the kiln and my wheel. (The rest of the yarn, beads, clay, paper, and other craft supplies are in the center room, and nearly all organized!)
I’ve been cleaning and clearing and purging and shredding, getting rid of desks and filing cabinets, and recycling tons (near-literally) of paper. I’ve expanded and organized my crafts studio into two of the rooms and plan to get a couch and TV for the room that has served as the primary office space for the past 26 years.
This process is taking a remarkably long time. I have—or had—an awful lot of stuff, and selecting what to keep, how to organize it, and where to put it seems to take forever. But I have made great progress, and am down to a huge stack of photos to go through and a bunch of random office things that need to be put somewhere or given away. The dregs. My motivation comes and goes, but I’m close.
What about the work I’ve done over the past 40+ years?
The two other issues that were up for me involved the content of the books—the ones that had been put out of print as well as a few old pieces that had merit—and my websites.
But, wait! I’m supposed to be retired and spending my time making crafts and music and other fun stuff!! I put in my 5 decades, travelled millions of miles, written at least as many words. Yet even though a lot of doors had recently slammed in my face, there was this sense that I wasn’t quite done. (I certainly haven’t lost my passion for the work I do. I just don’t have the energy or motivation to keep chasing my tail trying to re-open those doors.)
I’m still getting requests for my books, and the content is still relevant (except for references to things like “dittos” or having to update examples from when most families only had one landline to share). I have the manuscripts (mostly the edited, final copies) for all the books that have gone out of print, and more importantly, I also have the rights reverted I can republish them if I wish.
So I reached out to Jim Brown, my ePub guy, and a “legacy project” was born. To date, I have 3 of at least a dozen books available on Amazon in print and Kindle versions. (Not ideal, perhaps, but for now, probably the best way to keep this content alive.)
August 2021 saw the release of what had started life as Becoming a Win-Win Teacher, a book that kind of died on the vine when the team I’d been working with all left the publisher and new people in marketing had no idea what that book was about. (It was supposed to be a part of a series that never happened after everyone moved on.)
I updated this book, even including a new chapter on teaching during a pandemic and re-titled it as The Beginning Teacher’s Survival Guide to hopefully connect with the market for which it was intended. I bought an author copy of the print-on-demand version (above) and have been very pleased with how it turned out. Jim is currently working on a new edition of The Parent’s Little Book of Lists and I’m revising the manuscript for a 30th anniversary edition of Parents, Teens and Boundaries, the latest casualty in the publishing scramble.
This content should be around if anyone stumbles on it, which brings up the second issue: the websites. (Note: I’m going to do one last newsletter and can then stop paying every month to not send one out!)
I’ve had some version of this site online since 1997—a fairly remarkable track record for a small site like this. It’s been updated as desirable features became easier to code and as things like mobile devices required a different design. I’ve also hired this work out, and design and architecture have been handled by Tom Todd for the past few years (and at least the last two design versions).
I still handle content and still have many pages from earlier site versions to add. (Again: motivation comes and goes.) And as new versions of books become available, have many pages to update. I’m not sure I’ll end up getting all my old stuff back online, but I’ll keep going for as long as it makes sense.
I had meant for this to be a somewhat unofficial announcement of my retirement, but just as I was gathering my thoughts, I was asked to review and contribute to a curriculum for a course on setting boundaries. So you never know. I still love the work and may, at some point would love another opportunity to work with a live audience, perhaps when the world feels a little safer than it does with covid numbers spiking as they are now (in late August 2021).
But—and this may be the point of sharing the entire (or nearly so) arc of my career, much of which was devoted to getting more work—even generating more opportunities for speaking is no longer a priority for me. I have left a few doors cracked for opportunities, but that’s about it. My priority right now is to finish cleaning up downstairs, using the space for what it’s set up to inspire, and leaving behind a body of work that can continue to help people, whether I’m here to keep driving it or not.
So this may be my last update, but I’ll certainly check in if anything significant evolves after this. In the meantime, it’s been a fabulous ride.
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