SALES CHANNELS - PART VIII - THE MONEY SHOT

There’s a concept in journalism called a “peg.” Definitions vary, but it’s generally some fact or piece of information that makes a story newsworthy; often it’s an attempt to quantify something. (If you’re doing a story about, say, immigrant families being separated at the border, or firearm deaths in the U.S., you need to know whether 300 families are separated a year, or 3,000; whether 3,300 people die every year from firearms, or 33,000.) A peg is something to hang the story on, something to connect it to reality, something to let you know whether or not it’s a big deal.

We’re putting out our numbers for 2018 because writing and publishing are all too often disconnected from reality. Most people like to present themselves as a bigger deal than they really are. Sometimes it’s embarrassing to admit that that’s not the case. As of the end of February 2019, Tortoise has sold a grand total of 6,508 books since we started in early 2012. Unless you’re really really bad at math, or unless you think we’re somehow making $100 per book, it’s pretty easy to see that we’re not making a living doing this. (We’d love to be, and we’re continuing to explore ways of doing so, but we’re nowhere near the volume of the Big 5 yet; for some of their books, they probably give away as many ARCs—Advanced Review Copies, for those who don’t know—as we sell over the life of a book.) Granted, being small has its advantages: we’re nimble and can take chances bigger publishers can’t take, and we have to save ourselves for books we’re insanely passionate about, rather than just putting out something that’s a flavor-of-the-month, or something we only just kind of like. But we’d like to get a little bigger, so it helps to look at what we’re doing now, and how well it’s working.

So without further ado: the numbers.

Net Revenue by Sales Channel.jpg

There are a few different stories here, so we’ll take a quick walk through each channel, and see how each one compares with the stories we’ve told ourselves.

First off: Ingram. Even with all the returns headaches, it turns out they still net us more revenue than any other channel. Which leads us to a worthwhile point—if you want to make a lot of money, you usually have to have an arrangement that allows other people to make money, too. (Americans fetishize the individual accomplishment, the triumph of the individual ego in hand-to-hand combat with a hostile or indifferent world, and self-publishing preys on that paradigm—but it’s bullshit. Even if you can do absolutely everything yourself, your work is nothing if nobody reads it. And most people can’t do everything well. Besides, numbers-wise, it’s often better to have a small percentage of a huge number than to have a big percentage of a miniscule number.) So Ingram’s our biggest pipeline, even without a formal distribution deal. The indies who are a notch above us, sales-wise, DO have distribution deals; based on conversations with one indie publishing friend, their numbers aren’t always insanely high, but their lowest-selling titles still tend to move 500 units or so, which is nearer the high end of the scale for us. (So far, only our three top titles have sold more than that.) And their highest-selling title has sold about ten times as much as our bestseller. So we want to keep making money in a way that lets other people make money, because that seems best all around.

We knew before we started this exercise that Direct Sales give us much higher per-unit revenue than Ingram. And when we look at the end result for the year and see that we’re earning 2.7 times more per book sold, it’s tempting to just say, “Oh, let’s put all our energy into that, then.” BUT these numbers are just net numbers based on the books themselves—taking the revenue from direct book sales and subtracting the manufacturing and shipping costs of those books. When you factor in additional costs, the math really changes, and sometimes gets fuzzier; there are some sales made at places like Printer’s Row Lit Fest where we’re paying decent table fees, and we might be getting additional opportunities by being there (“The Goodies”), but still it’s quite possible we’re losing money. And time’s an expense, too; we had at 9 days in 2018 that were more or less devoted to direct sales. (Three days at AWP, Evanston Lit Fest, two days at Printers Row Lit Fest, the Indie Press Fest in September, and our two Bookstravaganza days in November.) When you divide $1069.90 by nine days, some of which also took table fees, you realize it’s not lucrative labor—especially since you have to pay royalties on the sales when it’s all said and done. This is an important channel; it’s great to have plenty of regular direct sales opportunities, and sometimes we make sales that directly lead to other opportunities. But we’re never going to get where we’d like to go on direct sales alone.

Createspace and KDP Paperback Sales are decent—not as big of a channel as the two above, but since it doesn’t take a lot of time, it’s well worth our while to set our books up here; if we’d set up everything on Ingram and never bothered with Amazon’s POD service, Ingram would have been the one putting the books up on Amazon. And if we’d let Ingram handle all the Amazon sales, we would have made less than $400 for those sales; instead, it was more than $800. Our indie bookstore friends aren’t nuts about Amazon, and we’d probably feel the same way if we were in their shoes—but we’re in our shoes. People are going to look for our books on Amazon, and when they find them, we’d like to earn as much as we can for them. If we ever do get a distribution deal, we may have to give this channel up—most distributors want to handle all online sales, including on Amazon—but in the meantime, we’ll take it.

It’s interesting to see that the Goodies ended up netting us almost as much as Amazon paperbacks. That was a bit of a surprise. Like it or not, it isn’t all about the books; you need to get your name out there, too, and make money when you can (as long as you’re not screwing anyone over in the process); if it’s between selling books somewhere versus selling books and earning a speaker’s honorarium that’s basically pure profit, well, we’ll take the honorarium too, thanks.

KDP Electronic Sales aren’t as lucrative as we might have thought. We may have high revenues for our average run-of-the-mill retail sales, BUT we end up moving so many units during the discounted sales that it pulls down the average a bit. Still, it’s not a bad channel. It’s nice to have the flexibility to do the cheap ebook promotions; we’ve definitely made sales we wouldn’t have otherwise made. And we’d love to grow this channel, possibly by having a BookBub deal for one of our titles. (If you haven’t signed up for BookBub, it’s well worth doing, unless you’re an absolute die-hard, take-no-prisoners, give-me-paper-books-or-give-me-death type of a person; you get one email every day with a handful of ebooks that are on sale for a buck or two, and some of the books are pretty cool. Some days you get some really amazing deals on books you were going to read eventually anyway; some days there are books you maybe wouldn’t have thought to get, but you realize they’ll be well worth your time.) We’re also going to start tracking this differently this year—so we can split out Kindle Unlimited page turns and see how worthwhile that channel really is.

We’ve split our website sales into author sales and commercial sales, because they’re really two different animals. For standard commercial sales, we’re typically mailing single copies from inventory and shipping them ourselves, but if an author wants to buy ten or fifteen or twenty books at their author discount to handle their own direct sales, or do extra promotional work, we’ll usually just put in a bulk order from KDP or Ingram. (It’s the nature of the book business that we have to give away a decent number of ARCs during the promotional phase, to blurbists and publications and what-not. Being a company of limited means, we have to set a budget for that; we’ll stretch that budget when we can, but if we can’t, we’ll use website sales as a way to help the authors get extra promotional copies out there.) Both are important parts of the business; and since we’ve done some big presales this year for She Said What? and Music to My Eyes, we already know commercial sales will be getting bigger.

Invoiced Sales are low on the totem pole, revenue-wise, but it turns out the margins aren’t bad. And we saw with Adult Teeth that this can be a good channel to help us avoid the large-order/large-return whiplash that sometimes happens with Ingram sales. We’ll probably try to keep this channel where it’s at in 2019—as a good alternative to Ingram that will help us build our relationships with local stores. They’re offering something that can’t be digitized or quantified or replicated online; there’s nothing that sells a book quite as effectively as hearing the excitement in another human’s voice when they talk about it, or seeing the light in their eyes when they pick it up.

Commercial website sales have been low, in part because we only really adopted a retail strategy late this year. These sales take a decent amount of work, but the margins are pretty solid. We’d hoped when we switched our strategy around that this would be a great way to get inventory for all of our titles down to reasonable levels, and that hasn’t necessarily been the case, but we’ve made a few sales this way, and we’ll keep it up. (Also, we already know this channel will look much different when the 2019 numbers are in—this channel is an excellent way to do presales, and we’ve started doing those for She Saud What? and Music to My Eyes. We’ve grossed over $2500 in January and February this way, and while the net will be a bit south of that, 80% of all the website orders we’ve ever done were in those two months, so our run through the 2018 numbers is already a bit outdated.)

Seven years of publishing has given us plenty of time to think about where we’ve been, where we’re at, and where we’re going. It’s also given us a few opportunities to look around, to see what others are up to and to see if we measure up.

It’s easy to get jealous, especially when you’re not doing this full-time and you see people who are, or when you thought you’d be back at AWP but you’re not; it’s easy to see others and think you’d be happier in their shoes. And when we got started, that jealousy was probably more prevalent than we realized. Back then, we tended to think in evolutionary terms; the traditional publishers were the dinosaurs, the comet was coming (or had already struck), and we were going to rule the planet once they were gone. But this would make us rats, and we’re not rats.

Now, it’s far less of an us-versus-them mentality; the people in the traditional industry are, after all, a lot like us. We’ve hung out with them and done business with them; they’ve read our books, and blurbed them. We still think we can do a better job than traditional publishers in key areas such as attentiveness and responsiveness, and we’re convinced we can put out books that are as good or better than anything they’re selling. But Lord knows we’ve messed up here and there in those areas, so we’re a little more filled with empathy for everyone else in the industry now. Besides, it’s a big publishing ecosystem; we don’t need anyone else to fail for us to be able to thrive.

And the real competition is always with oneself anyway—it takes work to keep moving forward, to keep looking for opportunities to improve. Some of those results can’t be quantified—one often finds validation in other places, in the enthusiasm of a reader who’s coming back to buy something new, in the satisfaction of an author who comes back to publish a second book. But it is important to quantify things whenever reasonable. And the numbers continue to head in the right direction. Our revenues for 2018 are a little bigger than they were in 2017, and the 2017 numbers were bigger than 2016, and 2016 numbers were bigger than 2015—not by much, but by enough to make us feel like we’re getting somewhere. (Monthly revenues in early 2015 were usually low 3-digits; for the past few months they’ve more often been high-3 or low-4.) We’re tortoises, after all; we’re pretty well armored to survive the rough ecosystem, and more importantly we’re committed to slow and steady progress, to enjoying the effort, and seeing how far we can get.

SALES CHANNELS - PART VII - THE GOODIES

When we started putting together our sales channel numbers for 2018, we realized there was a whole classification of income we’d never really thought about systematically—money that comes in without book sales.

We’ve titled this channel sort of satirically, based on a favorite scene in The Right Stuff. Betty Grissom is upset after her husband’s spaceflight; his capsule had ignominiously sunk, lost in the Atlantic Ocean, and he’d flown the second Mercury flight anyway, rather than the first, so instead of getting lunch at the White House with Jackie Kennedy, she and her husband have been “treated” to a meager little ceremony in Florida. But when they get back to their hotel room, he’s excited to see someone had filled their fridge with beer. To which Betsy says: “Is this the goodies?”

In other words, this is not a lucrative channel—not a pillar of the business, by any stretch. But it is a channel where money comes your way unexpectedly, based on your work in the other channels.

We listened to an excellent podcast episode (probably the JDO Show episode with Michael Seidlinger) where they talked about how your book is your business card. This does overstate the case quite a bit; for many of us, the books are the end, the whole point, the raison d’etre. But it raises an interesting point; your books are also representation of yourself, a point of entry into the book world.

To put it another way, we’ve heard it said that people generally figure out how to treat you by looking at how you treat you, and this extends to your books, too. If you go about this haphazardly, and put out sloppy work, and present yourself as a dilettante, people will ignore you, and they’ll be right to do so. But if you take your books seriously, and present them well, and make it a point to be as professional as anyone in the business, people will take you seriously. (This is even true if you’re manufacturing books via POD. We’ve met booksellers who were surprised to learn that we were using the same Ingram and KDP technology that any ol’ self-pubbed schmo uses. If you put enough work into the cover and the layout, the only people who will notice are the ones who know the tells. POD covers never have printing on the inside surface, and maybe lack some of the bells and whistles of traditionally printed books, like embossed lettering or mixed glossy and matte cover finish; they also always have an extraneous blank page with printing info on the last interior page.)

So even if you are publishing POD books without a formal distribution deal, take your books seriously. Then if you, say, sell books at a book fair, you may get invited to speak at a library or a school, and get a speaking fee for doing so. If you spend enough time putting out good books, you might be invited to teach a class, or sit on a panel at a writer’s conference. The money isn’t insane—we’ll get into that in the next post, the big reveal, the money shot—but it’s there, and it helps make the dream possible.

SALES CHANNELS - PART VI - WEBSITE SALES

We’ve probably made more mistakes with this side of the business than with any other sales channel.

When we set up Tortoise in 2012, we wanted to have a good solid website, steady and reliable, a place where people could find us and submit whenever the hell they felt like it. Granted, we knew very little about websites, and didn’t want to spend scads of time and money putting one up. Fortunately, someone suggested Squarespace. We were able to put up a decent and professional-looking site without spending the proverbial arm-and-a-leg. (Or even an arm, for that matter.) We could launch it and not think about it, pay our $10 a month, and have a solid and professional-looking presence.

Except you can’t ever really stop paying attention to anything in business. Squarespace has been amazing; we’re still using them, and they’ve been a solid foundation for this corner of the business. But the thing about business is: you have to keep doing stuff. You get new ideas, you develop old ideas, and you make mistakes that you need to correct. (And only the person who does nothing makes no mistakes, as good ol’ František Moravec used to say. Yes, that’s a book plug.)

In the beginning, we didn’t even really want to sell our own books on our site. It was all Amazon links. Our thinking was it would be easier and more convenient for everyone.

This was a mistake.

We like Amazon. In key ways, they’ve made this whole publishing journey possible. It’s nice having a reliable always-up storefront in every corner of the globe; it’s great any time any part of your business is that dependable. You can’t quite ignore them—we’ve learned it isn’t healthy to ignore any part of the business—but you don’t have to worry about them, either. They’re low-maintenance, and that’s nice.

But relying on Amazon completely for web sales, you miss out on some good opportunities. You can’t tailor your business to different types of customers—you lose the ability to make bulk sales to, say, a university that wants to use your books for a class, or a bookstore that doesn’t want to go through Ingram. But you can do all those things well if you’re managing at least some of your sales through your own website. (You can even handle sales by your own authors better—especially out-of-town authors. You can sell them copies of their books at a steep discount, but above cost; they can then sell books to their friends and family, and you don’t have to pester them to get money back for those sales, because you’ve already made money. With the right discount, it works out well all around—they make more money per book than you do, while you get paid up front and have less headache and hassle.)

So after a while, we put up two sales pages—one for retail sales, and one for wholesale. The retail page still linked to Amazon because, hey, we do still like selling books there. And the wholesale page offered our books at 60% of list price, which is a pretty standard bulk purchase rate for book sales. And then we got a little nervous. “What if we get a whole flood of one-off orders from retail customers who are buying books at 60% of list using the wholesale page? We’ll be shipping books out the door as fast as we get them, and we won’t make any money on those sales, because we’ll have to pay shipping on those orders.” And we didn’t want to take the time to figure out what our shipping costs would actually be for those orders. So we added on a $10-per-order handling fee, to dissuade one-off orders.

This was also a mistake.

We’ve heard it said that there are two basic ways to operate in the world: living in faith, or living in fear. We’ve also heard it said that you can’t do both at the same time. (“Faith” here doesn’t mean the capital-F religion-and-dogma sort of thing, but just sort of a general trust that things are going to work out for the best. It doesn’t mean you can stop paying attention; it doesn’t mean you can just kick your feet up in the La-Z-Boy and wait for the sales to come pouring in. But it does mean that you believe that if you put in time and effort and keep putting one foot in front of the other, things will work out for the best, more often than not. Whereas fear, in this sense, means thinking that things generally aren’t going to work out; it means you spend all your time focusing on what you don’t want, spending all your time and energy trying to avoid some negative thing, rather than create some positive thing.) And it seems to us now that having a low per-unit cost, but a high per-order charge that customers didn’t see until checkout, was more of a fear thing than a faith thing.

Besides, we don’t like any buying experience like that. We don’t like pricing that’s confusing or tricky or opaque, pricing where you think you’re getting a good deal and then realize later that you’re not. We tend to like pricing that lets us know up front what we’re getting, so we can make a simple decision. (Also, we’ve come to realize that the Golden Rule is underappreciated as a business model. If you give people the experience you’d want to have yourself, it’s a lot more satisfying than giving them a bad experience out of fear that they’re going to give you a bad experience. That goes for the books we write and publish; we’re trying to put out books we’d want to read. And it goes for web sales, and pretty much every other corner of the business.)

Plus, given the way the other sales channels work—particularly the Ingram channel—we do sometimes end up with returns on titles. So if we have twenty or so copies of a title on hand, more than we could hope to move at our next few book fairs, why not try to sell them online? The old pricing model was based in part on fear of losing money—but if you crunch the numbers, you realize it’s possible to make money selling books one at a time on your own site. You just have to price them close to retail, send them out media mail, and maybe buy mailers in bulk so you can get them cheaply rather than paying retail at the post office. (Shout out to Uline, our bulk mailer provider. This is a top-notch vendor—you get great mailers, you get them right away, you get them at a very reasonable price. We did some comparison shopping before making our first mailer bulk purchase, and there were slightly cheaper options, but the enthusiasm of Uline’s online customers led us to place our first order there, and it was the right decision. Their mailers are great, and their shipping is fast—blink three times and your order’s there, just about. Uline is another company you don’t need to worry about, and we’re looking forward to doing more business with them.)

Anyway, long story short, we got rid of the two separate sales pages (which also helped clean up the website a bit) and started pricing everything pretty close to retail. The customers who buy direct can then get a good deal—better than Amazon, especially for the books where we have extra inventory and we can afford to discount them a little—and we are still getting a good deal, because we’re still making decent money on those sales and/or moving returns inventory that would otherwise be sitting in our closet for years on end. And if we want to, we can still do bulk-rate sales to bookstores and universities and what-not, by issuing them discount codes.

Have we arrived at the final perfect answer? No. One of our old bosses in the corporate world used to say Information Technology work was like the Holy Grail: you’re on this quest, and you never quite get there; perfection always feels just beyond your grasp. There will always be changes and adjustments to be made with the website, as with every other corner of the business. We’ve started doing presales for a few titles, which is a lot more work than just shunting those customers off to Amazon, but also a solid way to drum up sales in advance of an official on-sale date. We’re also going to encourage local bookstores to place bulk orders through us, rather than through Ingram; they get a better deal, because they don’t have to deal with Ingram’s returns caps, and we get a better deal, because we can structure those sales to make a little more per book. With a little hard work and a positive vision, you realize it is possible to set things up on your website in a way that everybody wins—and that’s just fine with us.

SALES CHANNELS - PART V - INVOICED SALES

With Invoiced Sales, we arent the retailer; we’re providing books to a bookstore, who then makes the sales and collects the taxes and pays us 60% of list price.

First, we should talk a little about list price. It’s something we didn’t really understand when we got started, so we’ll offer some thoughts that might be useful to anyone who’s new. The cardinal rule of list price: it should be high enough to make money on every sale in every channel. And since Ingram has the highest printing costs and lowest royalties, you need to set your list price high enough that you’re making money (ideally at least a couple bucks) on every Ingram sale.

If you do that, you have the flexibility to price smartly and make decent money in every other channel as well. You can set the list price for a short novel at, say, $15.99, and sell it for $12 at book fairs and still make money—and then your customers that “showroom” you and step away to look at their phones will see that it’s cheaper in front of them than it is online, which gives them an incentive to buy it right away if they’re on the fence. (Another direct sales lesson we figured out over time.) And if they do buy it on Amazon, you’ll earn a buck or two more than you would have from an Ingram sale, assuming you’ve set it up through the KDP paperback platform.

And, of course, if you have a good working relationship with a bookstore, you can sell wholesale to them at 60% of list price. So for the $15.99 book, you’re getting $9.59 per copy—obviously less than the $12 you’d get at a book fair, BUT since you’re paying sales tax on the book fair sales (and if you’re not, you should be, you naughty bastard), and possibly table fees, and doing all that extra work, and since the bookstore is going to have your book out on the shelf while you’re off doing other stuff, that $9.59 is actually pretty decent. And if you’re selling, say North and Central, and getting copies printed via Amazon KDP, you’re paying $4.75 a copy after shipping, so you’re netting $4.84 per book, versus the $3.10 per copy in Ingram royalties you’d get if the store ordered through their distribution channels.

Of course, you might have to work for that extra money.

We talked about returns, and how disheartening those can be; we also talked about the lows of direct selling. This channel, too, has its lows—specifically, collections.

Indie booksellers can be wonderful magical places. Certainly we’ve had some great experiences selling in them, and we’ll get into those later. BUT we’ve also had some frustrations. Sometimes you have an event at a store, and you bring books, and the store rings them up through the register with the understanding that you invoice them later, and then maybe—and this is key—you make the mistake of not double-checking at the event how many books you’ve sold, and confirming with the owner how many you can invoice them for. (Because, if you’re lucky, they’ll want to keep a couple on the shelves, too.) Then after a month or so, you might drop them an email and say, “Hey, how many books can we invoice you for?” And you might hear back from them right away, but you might not. Then after a couple weeks or months, you realize you never got paid for those books, so you call the store, and politely ask to talk to the manager, and they may or may not take the call, or they may just tell their employee, “Oh! The numbers. We’ll email those.” And maybe they email, and maybe they don’t. Then maybe you go to an unrelated event at the store, an event for another author, and you really honestly try to have a good time, but you also make it a point to make eye contact here and there with the store owner—either pleading puppy-dog eyes, or a direct stare-into-the-soul I-know-what-you-did-last-summer sort of a thing, depending on your preference—so they know that you know that they still owe you money. And maybe you’ll buy a book or two at the store, because you do really truly want them to do well, and you want to be a good literary citizen, and you do always need more books anyway, but still of course you’re hoping this will somehow unlock the mojo necessary so that your numbers and your payment will be forthcoming. And maybe they’ll finally give you numbers. Or maybe they’ll stall you. Or maybe the numbers will be less than you think you sold at that long-ago-event, which may have been a few months ago now, so you’re stuck wondering: Are they gaslighting me? Am I being an asshole? What is even happening here? Long story short, it may take you a long time to collect, and you may not collect the full amount you think they owe you, and it may leave a bad taste in your mouth.

This is not an indictment of all bookstore owners, or even most owners. Certainly we’ve had plenty who’ve always paid promptly, and some who’ve maybe only ever required one follow-up email, at most. And all of them, even the ones who’ve taken a while on some invoices, seem to be hard-working and decent and fun-to-talk-to people who honestly love books, and who are doing their damndest to eke out a living in a very difficult and crowded marketplace. BUT we do have our favorites, as well as one or two where we’d prefer it if they ordered through Ingram, because that extra $1.74 per book isn’t worth the hours and hours it takes to collect. (We’re not going to name names, both because it isn’t useful to air grievances in public, and because we’ve discovered, through comparing notes with other local indies, that the bookstore that pays us promptly might be the store that someone else has a problem with, and vice versa. Sometimes. Basically, there are three tiers—stores we’ve never heard anything bad about, stores we’ve personally never had a problem with, and stores that we have.) And certainly we’ve learned that we need to do our part, too—to make sure to tell people that the store has our books, and always always always try to get numbers at the event itself.

Still, this channel can be truly amazing. If you plan your local bookstore events well for a new title, and space the events out just a little—every two weeks or so—you can manage your inventory very smartly. If you have a great event, you can order a new batch of books in time for the next one, and if you have a disappointing event, at least you don’t have to put in a new wholesale order—you can take the books home with you. (“Now wait,” you might be saying. “How is that any different than having them order from Ingram and send the returns back? If they order ten and sell three, and you get seven books back as returns, what’s the difference between taking ten books to the venue, invoicing them for three, and taking seven home with you?” As we mentioned, the margins are still better when you invoice them yourselves—but the bigger issue is time, not money. The returns cycle on Ingram may take months to play out, and during that time, maybe you’ve ordered more books for book fairs and website sales, and maybe those sold, but maybe they didn’t, or maybe they sold and you bought a new batch because you didn’t know you had returns coming. Long story short, the returns cycle can leave you buried in inventory for a certain title, whereas handling your local bookstore sales via invoices and hand delivery can allow you to manage your inventory a little more smartly.) And invoiced sales can work out better for the bookstore, too. If they order through Ingram, they have restrictions on how many returns they can make—they can only return 10% of their total annual spend to Ingram, and they only get 50% back in return credit, so Ingram returns aren’t necessarily a great deal for them, either.

PLUS, when you do establish a good working relationship with a bookstore, and you start having regular events, you get something that can’t be replicated online—something like the high of direct sales, but more communal and magical. (We will name names here.) We had a launch party for Jeremy Wilson’s Adult Teeth at the Book Cellar in Lincoln Square. It’s a lovely cozy store that’s always fun for book shopping, and the owner, Suzy Takacs, is really cool. She requested twenty books for the event, with the understanding that we’d bring home the extras and invoice them only for what was sold, but we ended up bringing five extra books, just in case. And lo and behold, the place was packed—Jeremy did an amazing reading, followed by a really fun Q&A with Billy Lombardo, and the store was filled with smiles and good cheer, and we sold all twenty-five books we had on hand, and everyone made money. (As we said before, it isn’t all about the money, but the money makes the other stuff possible, so you do at least have to try and get it right.) We had two more local events, one at 57th Street Books in Hyde Park, and another at Bookends & Beginnings in Evanston (both lovely places to go book shopping as well, with awesome cool owners), and those events weren’t quite as successful, sales-wise—BUT both were warm lovely intimate evenings, and we did still make some sales, and we were able to put the leftover books to good use by selling them online. (More on that next week.)

Given the ease and the simplicity of the online portals for Amazon and Ingram, it may be tempting to avoid Invoiced Sales entirely. But in our opinion, that would be a mistake. A good book—a really good book—is something you want to talk about, excitedly, to others who’ve read it, or others who might. There’s an energy and an excitement in those conversations that can’t be digitized; you can get a facsimile of it with online reviews and eager tweets, but it just isn’t the same. All the other channels we’ve talked about certainly have their advantages—it’s nice to have the Ingram pipeline to connect with stores on the other side of the country, and it’s great to have Amazon’s global reach and technological innovation and prompt payment, and it’s wonderful to get into the world and meet customers face-to-face through direct sales. But you owe it to yourself to establish solid relationships with your local bookstores, and to get your books in their hands in a way that’s mutually beneficial, so your books will be part of the conversation.

Plus, bookstore sales and events give you the chance to get out in the world and talk books with other book people—local authors and what-not. You can hear about their books, and talk about your books; they may end up blurbing one of your upcoming books, or submitting to you. (Or, heck, they might just be awesome people to meet.) Your books don’t have to gather dust in your closet while you wait to plan your next sales event, and they don’t have to remain bright small icons on the undertrafficked corners of the infinite internet; with this channel, you can make sure that they’re on a shelf in the world, waiting to be discovered by people who really care about books.

SALES CHANNELS - PART IV - DIRECT SALES

Direct Sales—going out in public to make retail sales to end customers—give you some of the highest highs and the lowest lows in publishing. On the good days, you’re in a high-traffic area, selling books at a great margin to customers you never would have reached otherwise, making sales as fast as you can write them down, swept up in the surging adrenaline rush of conversation and money. On the bad days, maybe you’ve spent money on table fees only to end up at a small festival with little foot traffic, so it’s all vendors sniffing each other’s butts: you’re desperately trying to sell to them, and they’re desperately trying to sell to you. Or, even worse, you’re outside and the weather’s turned bad, and you’re worried about all your books being ruined—losing money when you’d thought you were going to be making it. Emotional extremes—that’s what this channels about.

We made our first direct sales at Chicago’s Printers Row Lit Fest in 2012. Our founder (who is writing this post, and who accidentally dropped an “I” in the last post but will still continue referring to himself using the editorial “we,” no matter how absurd it gets) started Tortoise Books in no small part to launch his novel Resistance, so at the time, that was our only title. It was a pretty busy summer; we were getting married that month as well, and were expecting a baby soon thereafter; we’d also funded the project via Kickstarter and sprung for a decent-sized print run of both hardcover and softcover books, so the months leading up to Lit Fest were a blur of wedding invitations and ultrasound pictures and book shipments. (Project video here, if you’re curious…we’re told it’s kind of funny.)

The fest itself offered two days of bookselling, Saturday and Sunday; we lived in a condo overlooking Polk Street, the foot of the festival, and were literally close enough to watch out the window as the festival tents went up that Friday. We’d spent $325 on the table, which was not one of the tented ones, so we’d been obsessively checking the weather; it ended up being blisteringly hot, but (fortunately for the sake of the books) free of rain, and all we had to do to get set up was borrow a cart from the building and roll our boxes of books a few hundred feet out the service entrance to our table.

Everything did not go perfectly. We hadn’t physically inspected all of the books in our shipment, and it turned out there was a printing defect in a few of them; when the first customers started perusing, there were pages coming out in their hands. (Needless to say, this was tremendously embarrassing.) And we were new enough to the direct selling thing that we didn’t yet have any of the necessary accoutrements; we may or may not have had a rudimentary table covering (memories on that point are hazy, but it was probably a repurposed piece of white cloth curtain), and we certainly didn’t have a credit card reader, or any of those folding book stand things like you see at the bookstore. So we were feeling somewhat anxious and idiotic as the first customers started inspecting the books and the first books started falling apart and we waited to make our first sale.

Still, we had done some things right—we’d spent some of our Kickstarter funds on baller print ads in in The Onion and the Lit Fest Literary Supplement (RESISTANCE: A WORLD WAR II NOVEL FOR EVERYONE WHO PREFERS THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV TO THE SISTERS KARDASHIAN), and we still had plenty of good books, more than enough to pull the defective ones off the table and replace them, so we did get customers coming by, taking a look at the book, saying “Huh, I heard of this,” and shelling out their hard-earned cash for a copy. (We, of course, couldn’t help thinking “You heard about this because we paid you lots of money to hear about it.”) So we sold a solid number of books—over $650 worth, when it was all said and done. Not nearly enough to turn a profit, given the table fees and advertising expenses, but enough to give us a taste of the addictive direct-sales rush, and get us thinking about how we could experience that again, hopefully while actually making money.

We didn’t sell at Lit Fest the next year—we didn’t have any new books, so it didn’t seem like it would be a worthwhile expense—but somewhere in 2013 we did do something far more important, and picked up Giano Cromley’s The Last Good Halloween for publication. It was an excellent book, and a perfect pick for our first project from an outside author. We were transforming from an editorial “we” to a literal one.

We had a lovely book launch for Giano—a magical little shindig at Uncharted Books in Logan Square, with food and drink and readings, and family members of his showing up out of the blue from the other side of the continent. (We were pretty humbled to see so many people putting in such great expense to show up; we—and I mean I—were tremendously grateful that it came together on our end.)

But our first real direct selling experience with Giano was far from auspicious, though—through no fault of his. The Chicago Book Expo was held that fall at St. Augustine College in Edgewater; it seemed like a great chance to dip our toes back in the direct selling waters. Unfortunately, the waters were frigid. That was the start of the epic winter of 2013-2014, and somehow in early November it was already bitterly cold. Foot traffic wasn’t great, and we were stuck in the back of the event space with two high-quality but otherwise very dissimilar books on the table, sharing the table with a man selling a book about the War of 1812, and perilously close to an amiable but possibly delusional gentleman who billed himself as “Greatest Poet Alive” and was hawking a collection called The Book of 24 Orgasms. (Come to think of it, “amiable but possibly delusional” could be applied to many people in the book business, ourselves included.)

There are people who tell you to buy books from the other vendors at these events, or trade them. Sometimes that’s good advice, and sometimes it isn’t. We possibly should have sprung for the War of 1812 book. We did not want to sell or trade to get The Book of 24 Orgasms.

We didn’t sell any books. We’d paid $50 for the table.

It was the type of experience to make you want to quit—if we were the type of people to quit.

It isn’t always easy to tell the difference between a positive vision of the future, and a crazed delusion. Or perhaps there’s no clear demarcation point. Perhaps what gradually separates one from the other is the ability to enlist others in the vision, to get them to see the same thing and work towards it. (If so, we owe Giano a tremendous debt for sticking with us through low moments like that when we, too, probably seemed a little delusional.) BUT it’s also necessary to keep comparing that vision with reality, to keep totaling up the numbers and doing the math and staring your wins and losses in the face. Persistence is important, but it must be mindful persistence, focused on the end goal, but also willing to look at different ways to get there, and figure out what is and isn’t working. As they say in Friday Night Lights: Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose! (That exclamation point seems a little aspirational when that motto’s applied to bookselling. But you get the idea.)

We won’t bore you with the details of every other direct selling opportunity since then. We did our best to learn from our mistakes—to buy a tablecloth and a bunch of those little book stand thingys, to get a Square account and start accepting credit and debit cards, to show up to every event with a cash bank of fives and ones to make change, to inspect every shipment of books upon arrival and return any unsaleable ones before the customers see them, to price our books in a way that incentivizes customers to buy right away while also giving us a decent margin. We’ve made it back to Lit Fest every year since (albeit usually by renting tent space from other vendors, so as do so economically), and we went to every subsequent Chicago Book Expo. (That fest also seemed to be learning and changing and growing; it moved downtown to Columbia College, and steadily became a better and better sales opportunity—before somehow, sadly, going MIA; there was no expo in 2018, reportedly because they lost the venue; we’d love to see it come back, because it did end up becoming a worthwhile event.) We had some events where we sold books almost as fast as we could write down the sales. (For the launch of Giano’s second book, What We Build Upon the Ruins, we did a joint event and launched Joe Peterson’s Gunmetal Blue at the same time; it was at a bar in Hyde Park, so we didn’t have to pay any table fees or give them a cut of our sales; we sold 42 books in a couple short hours, which was all of our inventory of one, and nearly all of our inventory of the other.) We had other events that weren’t much better, sales-wise, than that first Chicago Book Expo.

But—and this is important—we learned to keep our eyes open for opportunities, even when an event didn’t go as expected. The event where you drive twenty miles to sell books in a basement may ALSO be the event where you meet a bookseller who sets up another direct sales opportunity for you; the literary festival where you don’t sell any books may ALSO be the one where you meet an author who becomes a new best friend (as was the case at that first Chicago Book Expo, where we first met Ben Tanzer, who, in addition to writing some great books, is also one of the a most exuberant, delightful, and all-around-fun-to-talk-to people we know); the fest where you don’t sell many books may ALSO be the one where you make a sale to a super-enthusiastic customer who not only tracks you down at a subsequent fest to tell you how much he loved your book, but also arranges two paid speaking opportunities for you to talk about the book and make further sales.

It's our oft-stated belief that indie publishing can be as hip and respectable as indie rock. Certainly there are other publishers leading the way in that regards, ones that we admire and try to emulate. (We met Rob Spillman of Tin House Press a couple years back and asked him for advice on running an indie. He advised persistence, and also said: “People do judge you by the company you keep. So be mindful of that.” And that is something we pay attention to—trying to hobnob with, and learn from, people outside our orbit who are writing and publishing great books, while keeping a respectful and friendly distance from the lovably delusional oddballs.) But it’s also worth looking at our heroes in the indie rock world, people like, say, The National, who spent their share of time playing to miniscule or nonexistent crowds. You hear stories about bands like that in their come-up phase playing to a crowd of ten people as if it were ten thousand, and you realize, inasmuch as possible, you need to keep up that level of enthusiasm. It’s a fun game, and like any game, you want to win as often as possible—but you’d get bored if you won all the time. Plus, it’s not entirely in your control how many people show up, or how many of them are willing to spend money; the customer who talks to you for fifteen minutes may turn away without making a purchase, while the one who chats for two minutes may buy $70 worth of books. If you’re making your happiness contingent on reaching a certain dollar amount in sales, you’ll probably be disappointed; if you try instead to enjoy the game, and greet everyone you meet with enthusiasm, you’ll be amazed at how much fun this channel can be.

SALES CHANNELS - PART III - KDP ELECTRONIC SALES

Confession time: we don’t entirely understand the hate electronic books get. It doesn’t all feel rational; many of the arguments boil down to emotion-based appeals to nostalgia, to the smell and feel of paper. There are some studies that suggest that some information is retained better when reading a physical book—but if you do a little digging, it seems the only clear and measurable advantage to reading from a physical paper book is a better memory of the exact sequence of events in the book. For instance, the researcher in this article EXPECTED, based on an earlier study, that ebook readers would perform worse on tasks related to empathy, transportation, immersion, and narrative coherence, but they actually found that “performance was largely similar.” And ebooks certainly have their advantages, particularly in ease of purchase and portability.

We don’t want to get bogged down in these arguments, though; it should be up to the customer how to read. If someone enjoys reading paper books more than electronic ones, or vice versa, that’s their business. Our business is to give them a way to buy our books in whatever format they prefer, and some do prefer ebooks.

There’s a lot to like about selling electronically. This is the channel with the greatest pricing flexibility—if you take a 70% royalty from Amazon, you can price your titles between $.99 and $9.99, and change the pricing any time you feel like it; you can also take a 35% royalty and price the book even higher. (We’ve kept our ebooks exclusive to Amazon because they’ve it worthwhile; unlike other ebook retailers and channels, they’re always building out the marketplace. In the dozen years since the Kindle’s introduction, they’ve continuously improved their e-readers. They’ve also introduced the Kindle Unlimited platform—basically Netflix for books—and continuously improved that as well. When it comes to ebooks, they’re clearly in it to win it, and we have no particular need or desire to sell elsewhere.) This is an area where we feel like we have a solid competitive advantage over traditional publishers, many of whom are pricing their ebooks rather expensively—often only a buck or so less than the physical version. Because Amazon is right about this—traditional publishers are often ripping off their customers with their ebook pricing. After all, if ebooks and physical books aren’t the same, why price them so similarly? Why not cut customers a break on something where you don’t have to physically manufacture or distribute each unit sold?

One other advantage to this channel: Amazon allows you to do countdown deals and limited-time giveaways. If you want to try and juice the sales for a particular title without permanently discounting it, you can drop pricing for a couple days, promote it a little on social media, and pick up a few sales you might not have made otherwise. (We’ve had some successes this way; for our top two titles by number of units sold, over 80% of the sales—not giveaways, but sales—were on Kindle, and many of those came during discounts.) You can also make it completely free for a limited time, although experience suggests that this doesn’t necessarily lead to greater sales once the giveaway ends. (The last giveaway we did, in late December, was for Public Loneliness, part of a disconnected series of space books; we gave away 71 ebooks over the space of three days, but sales for that and other titles in the series only increased very slightly in the month or so since.)

This platform also lets you make your titles available on Kindle Unlimited. KU titles are downloaded but not purchased; Amazon initially tried to compensate authors and publishers a set amount per download, but some authors started gaming the system by dividing up titles into shorter works and trying to earn more money that way. So Amazon started basing their Kindle Unlimited comps on KENP—Kindle Edition Normalized Pagecount, a number that assumes “pages” of approximately 200 words. Amazon divides up a global fund and allocates it to each KDP book based on the number of pages that have been read. Is it a perfect system? No—as with all things Amazon, there are cottage industries that have sprung up around gaming the system. (Almost as soon as Amazon switched to the KENP model, reports started surfacing of click farms and page-turning bots geared towards increasing your KENP, tricking Amazon’s algorithms, and raising your ranking; in the shady corners of the internet, you can find shady people who will take money to do just about anything. Not something we’d try, of course, but it is, allegedly, an option.) It’s difficult to gauge intent online, to sort out the wheat from the chaff—just as social media networks attracted their share of bots and bad actors, Amazon has summoned some disreputable characters from the digital void. But Amazon’s always tweaking their algorithms to try and take these things into account, to figure out what page turns are from “legitimate” readers engrossed in a book, and which ones are from automated operators making money by gaming the system; one gets the sense that, in this endeavor, Amazon’s as fair as it’s possible to be.

Still, when it comes down to dollars and cents, is it worth it to participate in Kindle Unlimited? Without getting into the total numbers (which we’ll do in the last blog post), looking only at the sums for individual titles, it is still a bit of a loss if someone reads our books on KU rather than purchasing them on Kindle. BUT that loss is a little less if it’s a longer title. (We tend to price our ebooks on the high middle of the KDP range—usually $5.99 or $6.99 for full-length novels and story collections. That way, we can be decently cheaper than the Big Five while still giving ourselves some good margins. For a publisher whose ebooks are normally cheaper, KU may actually be better than a KDP purchase.) And a full KU read may result in more royalties than a sale elsewhere, although this does depend on the book’s page count and list price.

A couple examples: For Island of Clouds, a full read of the book gives a KENP of 574. Our royalties for September show a KENP of 575. (Hopefully representing at least one KU reader totally engrossed in the book and reading it to completion, rather than 575 people picking it up, reading a single page, and setting it down in disgust.) For that full “read,” we earned $2.81, whereas for a purchase, we earn $4.82. BUT when we compare that with, say, the royalty for a single paperback sale on Ingram, we earn more on KU—each Ingram paperback sale only yields $2.25 in royalties. (As with many of our paperbacks, we felt the need to keep Island of Clouds under $20. But it’s a relatively long book, with higher per-unit costs than many other titles, so that squeezes our margins a bit.) So Amazon’s subscription-model compensation for this book actually pays more than a purchase elsewhere.

North and Central, however, has a KENP of only 262. Our September royalties show a total KENP of 262, which is presumably a full read of the book, because Bob Hartley is an awesome author and it is an amazing read. We earned $1.28 for that read, versus $4.82 for each sale. And every Ingram sale yields $3.10 in royalties. (North and Central is a little under half the length of Island of Clouds—47,132 words versus 104,207—but more than half the cost, so print charges are lower.) For this title, a full KU read probably results in lower royalties than a full read in any other channel.

Still, there’s a decent chance that a Kindle Unlimited user wouldn’t have purchased the book in a physical bookstore, and there’s a fair chance an indie bookstore shopper isn’t going to look and see if something’s available on Kindle Unlimited. Would we prefer to earn more per copy? Obviously. BUT a certain portion of the buying public is happier with the all-you-can-eat subscription model than with the buy-one-of-each-thing model, and as long as we’re making money from those people, we’re happy to get our ebooks in their hands.

One hopes Amazon will continue to improve KDP and KU; one particularly hopes they start to look intently at which KDP books are usually read in full, versus which ones earn only a few page views. Assuming they have good ways for filtering out page turns by bots and bad actors, they could do something that’s never been possible in the history of publishing—they could get hard data for which books in a given category are most often read to completion, and put out rankings that will help those books bubble up to the top of the turbulent and infinitely vast digital marketplace. (There is something odd and slightly off-putting about watching people read—which, in a sense, is what Amazon’s doing here. Sometimes when I think of KENP, I think of that scene in Funny Farm where Chevy Chase gives his wife a manuscript as an anniversary present and then tries to watch her read and react to it. BUT there is also something intriguing about bringing that sort of feedback loop into the publishing industry; the optimist in me says it’s giving authors and publishers something that, say, musicians have always had when they perform live—the ability to read the room, to know when people are paying attention or walking out.) The traditional industry sometimes seems like their best idea is to monetize nostalgia; they’d rather plaster stores with posters for books that have been out for fifty years than push something new. And this attitude trickles over into their attitude towards ebooks; one gets the sense it’s something they’re doing reluctantly and halfheartedly, something they’ve been forced to do, not something they are eager to do. Whereas Amazon is innovating, working to expand and constantly refine the ebook marketplace. Instead of trying to sell you Slaughterhouse-Five every time you walk into a store, they’re busy building something new. It’s a marketplace we’d like to win in, too.

SALES CHANNELS - PART II - AMAZON CREATESPACE AND KDP PAPERBACK

We’re going to make a controversial statement here, one that may offend our indie bookstore friends: Amazon is not the devil. They’re actually—gasp—worthy of emulation, in some key ways.

Granted, there are contentious questions about working conditions in their distribution centers. (Depending on your sources, those are either downright Dickensian, or not all that different from many other jobs requiring a similar skillset.) But leaving all that, and focusing instead on their role in the independent publishing marketplace, there is a lot to like about Amazon.

First off, they pay well. If you set your books up in paperback on the KDP platform (which has replaced Createspace as Amazon’s preferred POD platform), you’ll make more from your Amazon sales than you will if you just set it up on Ingram. (For every copy of, say, North and Central that we sell via Ingram, we get $3.10, whereas selling a copy via Amazon earns us $5.86.)

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, they pay on time. Relentlessly on time, all the time. We have never, in seven years of publishing, had to go ask Amazon: “Where’s our money?” If you make a sale on Amazon in, say, May, you know that two months later (on July 29th if it’s a weekday, or the next Monday if the 29th is on a weekend), you will have money in your bank account, with no effort whatsoever on your part. (In their defense, Ingram pays reliably, too—BUT it takes an extra couple months for royalties to hit your account. And because of the whole returns thing, you may be expecting money from a certain title in a certain month, and then you don’t get the money, and you’re like, “HMMM,” and then you go to Ingram, and sure enough, you got a big chunk of returns from some other title that wiped out all of your profits, which is not uncommon, since every one return wipes out the profits from three or four sales. So—sell a net of three books for a title, make no profit, UNLESS you get the return and sell it on your own. Which, if you’re drowning in inventory, you might not do for a while.)

We digress. The payment aspect of Amazon’s operations is as reliable as an atomic clock. It is a shining inspiration, a standard we aspire to ourselves—we never want an author to come to us asking “Where’s my money?”

Amazon also lets you update your titles free of charge—and I can’t overemphasize how nice this is for a publisher. You can review printed copies and make tweaks to your files free of charge before publishing. (If you order advance copies through Ingram and you catch some issue on the physical version that you missed online, you have to pay a change fee.) Also, there are, believe it or not, a few of our titles that sell relatively steadily, titles where we haven’t had many returns and we always need to order more copies to keep them in stock on our end so we can do book fair and website sales. (We’ll talk more about those channels later.) Sometimes we’ve gotten great new blurbs or awards for those titles, and we’ve wanted to update the covers to help the books sell well. And since KDP lets us do that—and charges less per book as well—we do virtually all of our post-publication reorders through KDP, rather than IngramSpark.

Amazon’s web interface is also generally better than Ingram’s. The pages are clean and reliable; the reports are simple and clear and easy to generate. And it’s very very easy to upload your titles and make them available for sale—almost too easy. The site is clearly biased towards publishing “now.” There are three relatively straightforward pages to fill out—Paperback Details, Paperback Content, Paperback Rights & Pricing—and the button at the bottom of the last page says “Publish Your Paperback Book.” Once you push that button, assuming there aren’t any issues with your files (title not visible on the cover, graphics in the barcode area, etc.), your book will be up for sale on Amazon; the site says in 72 hours, but it’ll usually be quicker than that.

The problem with that? For one, it’s hard to do the type of pre-pub work that’s necessary to get your book to sell well, because you can’t order production-quality copies of the book prior to publication. (As mentioned in the post on IngramSpark, we USED to be able to order such copies via Amazon’s Createspace portal, but when Amazon shifted its paperback POD production to the KDP platform, it started putting a big gray Not for Resale banner on all proof copies. Which of course doesn’t prevent us from ordering production-quality pre-pub copies—it just means we usually end up ordering them through Ingram, as soon as we’ve ordered a small batch through Createspace to make sure everything looks good.) And if you have done any solid pre-pub work—getting blurbs, reviews, etc.—those won’t appear on your product page unless you also set up an Amazon AuthorCentral page. And since those pages are author-focused, not publisher-focused, it’s hard to manage your product pages as a publisher. If you’ve set the book up on Ingram already, the data will flow through to Amazon and create the product page for the paperback book with all the blurbs. Otherwise, you need to ask the author to set up their AuthorCentral page and manage their own product pages. (OR you can create an email account on each author’s behalf, then use those email accounts to set up an AuthorCentral page for each author, and manage your product pages that way. Which, frankly, is a headache.)

Also, Amazon’s pretty committed to allowing other sellers to sell copies of your books—even in situations when the book is brand new and there’s no conceivable way that anyone could have legitimately obtained a used copy already. If you sell on Amazon, you’ll see that a book is available from other sellers virtually as soon as it’s set up. Obviously it’s Amazon’s right to decide what they want to do on the product pages, but it’s hard to figure out how that sort of selling is even possible on that timeframe, unless the sellers actually can’t fulfill those orders, or unless they’re somehow in cahoots with Amazon. (This is an area that, frankly, we don’t know much about—we’d love an explanation from someone who does.)

Lastly, Amazon’s committed to allowing sponsored product advertising on your product pages. It’s one of those things everyone has to live with. (Even traditionally published authors and classics have sponsored products on their pages.) Still, it is moderately annoying—you really don’t have any control over the types of books that show up here, so you can put a lot of work into targeting a certain type of reader (blurbs from respectable blurbists and news outlets, well-designed covers, etc.) and have that vibe totally undercut by a couple rows of ads for self-published drivel that may be completely unrelated to what you’re selling. (Bob Hartley’s North and Central, for instance, is a literary crime novel about a blue-collar bar in Chicago, but contains two full rows of sponsored links for books about ghosts and vampire rapists, and one about an armed time-traveler—a book called Schröedinger’s Gat.) Again, traditionally published authors and even classic books have this issue as well, but the sponsored products on their page seem to at least have a mix of reputable and disreputable books.

Long story short, you can set up to sell paperbacks on Amazon very easily using their POD portal, and you can do so in the confidence that you’ll be paid better and more quickly than by going through Ingram. (Or, presumably, other distributors.) And their portal tends to be much better for ordering new books once your title’s been published. But one way or another, you’ll need to do the work to make sure the product pages are as professional as possible—and even then, you’re fighting an uphill battle, because Amazon forces you to associate with riffraff.

SALES CHANNELS - PART I - INGRAMSPARK

We’ve been meaning for a while now to use our low-quantity-but-hopefully-high-quality blog to post about sales channels.

We actually got started on this post late last year, and started pontificating for a bit on the pluses and minuses of various ways of getting books into readers’ hands. But then we realized we were missing something important: actual numbers.

Yes, it’s true. We’re pretty rigorous about doing a monthly profit and loss statement for the business at the close of every month, and calculating and paying all royalties due, so we always have a pretty solid idea of WHICH books are selling, but we’ve been lax about classifying all of our sales so we can figure out HOW those books are selling. Which, frankly, is kind of dumb—it’s easy to tell yourself stories about what works and what doesn’t, especially for something as emotionally charged as selling books you’ve poured your heart and soul into, but until you actually crunch the numbers, you just don’t know whether or not those stories are true.

Until now. As part of our year-end financial process—which is fairly involved, since we have to pay state sales tax for the year, and issue 1099s for our authors, and provide various contractors and associates their payment totals—we’ve gone through our revenues and figured out, for all of 2018, just how every dollar flowed into the mighty Tortoise bank account. And so, in the interest of the transparency which is so often lacking in the book business, we’re going to post about each channel. We have a lot to say about each one, so we’ll do one post a week, and tell “the story” for that channel, and then we’ll post the numbers—which, in some ways, contradict the stories we’ve told ourselves. And we’ll post the overall lesson we’ve learned from all of this exercise. (Which, we think, is a good lesson.)

(“Now, hold on,” you might be saying. “Tortoise is a hip cool indie press, and money is uncool. It’s all about the writing, right?” Well, yes, and no. It’s easy to get into this business thinking money is beneath you, unimportant, not worth your attention—and there’s no surer way to get yourself into deep financial doo-doo. Because then magical thinking sets in, and with it, a gambler’s mentality. You start to think a given project will just make money because it’s amazing, and once the world realizes how amazing it is, the dollars will just start rolling in, enough to make everyone happy, enough that you can stop worrying about the nitty gritty stuff like monthly financials, and start planning cool vacations to Paraguay or Bhutan or some other place you’ve only seen on Anthony Bourdain. And then, when that project disappoints you financially, and you have less money to launch the next project, you may end up doubling down, thinking the new project is even more amazing, and maybe you’ll go into debt to finance it, and eventually you’ll end up homeless and penniless, living in a van down by the river. ANYWAY, yes, money is beneath you, but the floor is beneath you, too. And you need a stable reliable floor to do most things in life. So think of money that way, as something you have to get right to make everything else possible.)

ANYWHO, we are going to post about each channel in turn, one a week, in the following order:

IngramSpark

Createspace and KDP Paper Sales

KDP Electronic Sales

Direct Sales

Invoiced Sales

Website Sales

The Goodies (We’ll explain later.)

We’ll be as honest as possible without hurting anyone. (As someone told our founder once: “Honesty without compassion is brutality.”) And hopefully we’ll all learn a little something about how to do a better job of getting great books from amazing authors to awesome readers. And so, without further ado:

IngramSpark

For those of you new to the business, or to this side of it, IngramSpark is a print-on-demand service. Rather than, say, estimating that a book will sell 1,000 copies (the general size of an economical print run using more traditional methods, although that’s not necessarily the case nowadays), you can upload a cover and an interior .pdf to Ingram; once the files pass technical validation, Ingram—which is also a major book distributor for independent bookstores—can then print copies whenever a store orders a book. There’s a lot to be said for this approach; since you don’t need to sell a set number of books, you don’t need to chase fickle trends and publish books about subjects with a built-in following, like sparkly vampires or Jersey Shore castmembers. (Sorry, it’s too easy to hate on these things. We’ll try to be more positive.)

ANYWAY, using Ingram’s online portal, it’s relatively easy to upload files and make your books available for sale. Bookstores can then order the books at terms that are reasonable to them. (A 55% discount off the cover price, and returnable, which means bookstores can send copies back within 90 days for a refund.) And it’s necessary to at least try to do well in bookstores—a physical book is advertising for itself, so having one on a shelf (or, God willing, a display table) gives you a level of visibility and a chance for random discovery that can’t be easily replicated online.

Even without crunching the yearly numbers, it’s possible to say a few things about IngramSpark, financially. Unless you’re setting up your titles with your eyes closed, you’ll see that revenue per unit sold is decently low, lower than if you upload the same exact files to Amazon’s print-on-demand platforms. (The posted technical specs for the two services are slightly different, BUT they are tied together behind the scenes, and they even use the same printers to fulfill orders. More on that later.) BUT if you do a decent amount of publicity and promotion, you’ll sell into more bookstores than you will if you just use Amazon’s POD service, even its “Extended Distribution” option.

Ingram also allows you to order production-quality copies of your book before it’s on sale to the general public—which is essential if you want to do proper pre-publication work. (We USED to be able to do this through Amazon’s CreateSpace, although it was a bit of a hassle—we could order production-quality pre-pub copies through their portal, tweak the files as necessary to get everything right [or just pretend to tweak them, and then re-upload the same files], and order more copies; we could then use those for promotional work, and sell any extras at book fairs. But Amazon now slaps a big NOT FOR RESALE banner on these copies. Which, of course, doesn’t stop us from doing what we used to do—it just means we place more pre-pub orders on Ingram.)

And once you get blurbs and reviews, you can manage them on the Ingram portal—one of the few areas where their portal’s clearly superior to Amazon’s. All you have to do is copy and paste the relevant review quotes, and they’ll flow on through to your various online product pages.

Of course, this channel isn’t all sunshine and smiles. As we mentioned before, if you want any decent bookstore penetration, your books have to be return-eligible. Which sucks, sometimes. A store can order, say, ten copies for an author event, and only sell three, and ship the rest back to Ingram, who then sends them back to you. On the plus side, the books usually come back in decent shape, and you can sell them elsewhere—directly through your website, at fairs, etc. Still, there are few things more disheartening in this business than when you already have decent inventory for a title (for a suitcase press, 10 copies or so), and then you get, say, 17 copies of a book shipped back to you, and all of the sudden you are running out of closet space to store all the books, so you’re stacking up carboard boxes next to the bed, and your wife is yelling at you, and you know even if you discount it, it will take a LOOOOOONG time to sell them all. And of course, you have to pay for those copies. And since the printing charge for a POD book might be three or four times the royalties you earn from sales of that book, it doesn’t take a lot of returns to wipe out a lot of royalties. Returns are, regrettably, a fact of life for book publishers; we do our best to structure our author agreements to take them into account and give ourselves a chance to recoup those losses. But it’s still a kick in the nuts when someone sends your books back to you, and takes money away from you to boot.

Also, Ingram charges setup fees, and revision fees. The setup fee—$49—is actually not awful, but only because they waive it if you order 50 copies within a few months of setup, and ship them all to the same address. (Since you’re probably going to need 50 copies anyway, you’re usually not stuck with that cost in the end unless you really want to be.) The revision fee—$25—is the more shortsighted fee, because it makes it harder to make sure the book looks good in print. (Since we’re usually setting up our books on both IngramSpark and Amazon’s KDP, we’ll print the proofs on KDP and verify them that way—the posted file specs are slightly different, BUT their systems are tied together behind the scenes, and they sometimes print from the same printers. So usually, despite their protests to the contrary, what looks good on one will look good on the other.) The revision fee also makes it harder to do the kind of favorable tweaks that help books sell once they’ve come out. If you set up your books well, and you get a few nice pre-pub blurbs from cool authors, you have a good product that’s ready for the marketplace. But if you then, say, get an even better blurb with the help of one of those initial copies—or if you win an award and want to put the medallion image on the front—you’re usually stuck deciding whether or not to pay a $25 fee to update the cover. And frankly, since you can order books with basically the same specs from Amazon’s KDP platform WITHOUT paying to update the files (and get the books printed at a slightly better cost), it usually makes more sense to just update it on KDP and order copies from them if you need more copies for book fairs and such. Then you can wait to update the Ingram version until Ingram does a free update promo, which they tend to do once a year or so. (At least two of our books are in this situation—WGN Radio’s Rick Kogan called North and Central “a terrific, terrific novel” on air, and we updated the cover on the KDP version to accommodate the blurb, but figured we’d wait to change the Ingram version so as to not wipe out a few months’ worth of profits for the title. So, too, for Joe Peterson’s Gunmetal BlueKirkus Review called him “One of the Windy City’s best-kept secrets,” and we’ve put that blurb on the cover of Amazon’s version, and ordered new copies that way.) So, more money for Amazon, less money for Ingram.

Still, if you’re a small indie looking to make a big name for yourself, you really have to go through Ingram. Even if you set up only on Amazon’s KDP platform, if you click the “Extended Distribution” option, THEY will be using Ingram to get your books out there. (That option is basically a white-label pipeline into the Ingram system; when you select that, Amazon sets the books up in Ingram, but WITHOUT the returnability and discount options the bookstores want, so you’re not going to move a lot of units that way—probably not any, because the bookstore’s not going to stock it, so unless you send a friend to go to your bookstore and have them special order it, you won’t make any “Extended Distribution” sales. And Amazon comps those sales at a lower royalty rate than the Amazon.com sales anyway, so there really isn’t any advantage, other than avoiding the setup fees.)

Plus, there are advantages to bookstore sales that you just don’t get elsewhere—basically, you want your book where book people can see it and talk about it, and while that doesn’t necessarily happen a lot at a bookstore, it still can happen. True, there are other ways to sell books at bookstores—placing books on consignment, or selling to the store directly, both of which we’ll discuss later—and there are times when those ways are best, BUT they also only tend to happen if you have a strong relationship with a bookstore. If you’ve done the right things to sell your books to strangers, like getting pre-publication reviews in trade publications, you want to be in a position to take advantage of that, and the best way to take advantage of that is by setting up on Ingram.

Illinoize, Arthur Meyer, and the Donald P. McMahon Project

In addition to the whole indie publishing thing, I dabble in music criticism. (Not music itself, of course, because I don’t have much talent beyond some so-so karaoke chops.) Generally I’ve stuck to Amazon reviews—which are easy to be snide about, even though they’re possibly the must consequential new writing form of the past few decades, in terms of influencing decisions, democratizing criticism, etc. But I’ve also had a few pieces published in Newcity, so I’m a professional of sorts. Also I was recently picked to write the album-of-the-week selection for a fun little email circle called the Donald P. McMahon Project, run by a guy named Arthur Meyer. The album I picked—Illinoize, a Sufjan Stevens/indie rap mashup—deserves to be a little more widely known, IMHO. (And I’ve been busy with Infinite Blues and slow to post new blog content lately.) Anyway, here goes:

It begins with dancing piano, the high familiar glistening sound of Sufjan Stevens on the keys. But then: a deep rap voice, Aesop Rock as a solid counterpoint to the airy ivory. By and large, this dynamic persists throughout the album: ballast for the balloon, the weight of the world and the lightness of flight. And I can’t get enough of it.

I’m a grown-ass man, forty now but with plenty of residual morals from the twelve-year-old Boy Scout I used to be; for much of my adulthood I was practically an RIAA posterboy, so averse to unpurchased music that I avoided mixtapes entirely. (The four years I spent at West Point certainly helped me along that path; my classmates and I were honor-code-bound to avoid anything that could be labeled theft, so while our civilian peers were gleefully burning CDs and then venturing out into the wild new terrain of Napster, I was stuck buying $17 CDs at the Virgin Megastore in Times Square.) I missed some of the landmarks of the genre, like Danger Mouse’s career-launching Grey Album. But fear of not hearing a noteworthy album softened my morals slightly over the years; it seemed silly to avoid taking something for free if it couldn’t be purchased anywhere, and if the artists themselves wanted people to check it out.

So eventually I set out on an exhaustive tour of the once-forbidden mixtape realm. I liked The Grey Album, but I also learned that Jay-Z had donor-fathered a ridiculous number of others; it seemed any DJ who got bored in the lab could take the a capella version of the Black Album, pour it in the test tube with some unwilling other partner, and release the resulting offspring into the world. (The Slack Album—Jay-Z vs. Pavement, The Black & Blue Album­—Jay-z vs. Weezer, and on and on ad nauseum. Too many to evaluate, but enough to make you tire of the concept and blasé about Danger Mouse’s genius. In fact, a quick Google search tells me there are far more of these orphan children than I’d remembered, way too many to ever get to know—although I will confess a certain curiosity about The Kenny Z Album—Jay-Z vs. Kenny G.) Wugazi’s 13 Chambers was more to my liking; the energy of the Wu-Tang Clan and the power of Fugazi came together like a one-two punch to the eardrums. But the mixtape I keep returning to, the one I can’t go more than a few months without hearing even after having it in my library for eight years, is Illinoize.

It’s an inspired, sly pairing—indie rock and indie rap—made all the more so by Tor’s willingness to cycle through different rappers and rap groups, some (like Outkast) more famous than Sufjan Stevens, and some (Brother Ali) less so. But every one’s impeccably chosen. And while many people beat their good ideas to death, Tor understands how often less is more; this collection clocks in at seven tracks and just a whisper over half an hour. There are certainly high points—for me, it’s tough to top the way the high piano falls into the vocals on “John Wayne Gacy Jr. / Specialize”, or the way the mournful horns make the vocals more melancholy on “The Tallest Man / I Like It”—but it all works wonderfully.

It made me curious enough to check out some of the rappers. (I love Outkast as much as, if not more than, the next guy, and as an indie-minded person I’m pretty much required to like Sufjan Stevens, but most of the other musicians here were new to me.) But it also still strikes me as better than the sum of its parts; I listen to this more than I listen to any of its components, certainly more than the Brother Ali album I picked up based on his amazing rap sample here, and more even than Outkast’s ATLiens or Stevens’ Illinois. (Granted, I don’t know if I like it quite as much as Aquemini or Stankonia, but that’s a damn high bar for any album to clear.) It might seem overwrought to say this, but even though Tor hails from Canada, he’s put together an album that feels like America itself at its Obama-era best: a coexistence of cultures, black and white feeding into and riffing off of one another, and more interesting in their interplay than either one is alone.

I still like to buy music, but I’m weird about it; I love this album enough to be more than a little curious about Tor’s other output, but I also love it so much that I’m afraid I’ll be disappointed by his original compositions. I know enough about the music business (and entertainment in general) to see how financially merciless it can be to anyone who’s not in the stratospheric top tier with Jay-Z and the like. One loose social-media-level friend of mine played and toured with an artist who had multiple albums that earned lofty high-sevens and low-eights from Pitchfork, and glowing New York Times writeups. That friend now has an MBA after his name on LinkedIn, and since he’s apparently retired to financially greener pastures, I can only assume Tor isn’t raking it in, either. (Which I can totally relate to, given that I write every day and have published a few books but still have to pay the bills with a nine-to-five—this is commiseration, not condemnation.) So I should buy something from Tor, given how happy he’s made me with something I got for free. Yes, I should. Yes, I should.

TORTOISE, BY THE NUMBERS

It is Saturday night after AWP18, and we are starting this blog post in a darkened aircraft ascending through clouds, with Tampa and memories fading behind.

By “we,” I mean I. (Jerry.) Or as the Dude said in The Big Lebowski, “You know, the royal ‘we,’ the editorial…” But it’s always been my vision that Tortoise would be a “we,” not one of those Nine-Inch-Nails-is-Trent-Reznor things, and for this, our first AWP, we also had Carlo Matos and Christine Sneed in physical attendance, plus many other tortoises attending in spirit. (And/or via Twitter.) And we are wrapping our tortoise heads around issues of quality and quantity, topics always near and dear to our tortoise hearts.

Publishing professionally (which we believe we’re doing) requires a diligent focus on the numbers, an attempt to quantify a great many things. We prepare monthly profit/loss statements for the business, we tally income and expenses, we pay authors and associates. And while the numbers are important, the business is about far more than the numbers—it’s about the feeling we get when we sell to a new customer, when we sign a new author, when we hear someone talking excitedly about something we’ve published. (And it must be said, it’s about knowing we’re treating everyone as fairly as possible. It’s not worth it to sell a million books if you’re not paying your authors what you owe them, or giving all you can for them—if you have to hide from them when you see them. There is no profit in gaining the whole world at the expense of your soul; nor is there a profit in selling enough to make a living if you have to treat people like shit to do so.) You cannot quantify quality, and all of these things exist in an analog plane, far above the world of numbers.

Is AWP worth it? The raw numbers would suggest not—after paying for a $650 table, we made $442 in sales, which of course does not factor into account travel expenses, parking fees, etc., etc., let alone the cost of the books themselves. (We also paid a bit of a stupidity tax by overloading our good ol’ suitcase-press checked-bag-full-o-books to the point that it tipped the scales at 66 pounds, necessitating a $100 heavy bag fee.) And yet there are things about the experience you cannot quantify—some at least not until year-end financials, and some possibly forever. What’s the value of speaking face-to-face with the president of Consortium Books (a distributor we’d frankly love to work with) when all your books are laid out on the table in front of you? Can you put a dollar sign on George Saunders’ excellent keynote address? How about rekindling an acquaintance with Bonnie Jo Campbell and chatting about gun violence and American politics? And what is it worth to sing karaoke in a private Asian-style booth with Midwestern Gothic’s Rob Russell and a host of other delightful people? (Reader, you should already know this experience is valuable beyond measure.)

We also crossed a sales milestone the first day of the fair and sold our 5000th book! (If you’re curious about a breakdown by title…well, we’ve never done this before, but here you go, dear reader. We trust you.)

Resistance, 2012: 1543 copies (221 physical, 1322 electronic. Launched back in the salad days of KDP discounts, which probably helped.)

Ninety-Seven to Three, 2013: 7 copies (7 electronic. Poetry is a tough racket.)

The Last Good Halloween, 2013: 377 copies (272 physical, 105 electronic. Not bad for our first outside author.)

Zero Phase, 2013: 688 copies (94 physical, 594 electronic. Space people like ebooks.)

Project Genesis, 2014: 15 copies (15 electronic. Again, poetry. Although, to be fair, we've never released a physical version.)

Public Loneliness, 2014: 318 copies (115 physical, 203 electronic.)

The Dark Will End The Dark, 2015: 172 copies (148 physical, 24 electronic.)

In Lieu of Flowers, 2015: 91 copies (89 physical, 2 electronic.)

The Fugue, 2016: 291 copies (235 physical, 56 electronic. Not bad for a second edition. And--as is the case with a few of our books--we've made money on it.)

The Pleasure You Suffer, 2016: 42 copies (38 physical, 4 electronic.)

Staggerwing, 2016: 242 copies (207 physical, 35 electronic.)

Island of Clouds, 2017: 140 copies (59 physical, 81 electronic. High returns, unfortunately, but the people who read it seem to REALLY love it.)

North and Central, 2017: 447 copies (329 physical, 118 electronic. Who said crime doesn't pay?)

Forty-Five Minutes of Unstoppable Rock, 2017: 66 copies (63 physical, 3 electronic.)

Old Open, 2017: 171 copies (139 physical, 32 electronic. Getting some traction on Ingram, which is nice.)

What We Build Upon the Ruins, 2017: 161 copies (152 physical, 9 electronic.)

The Quitters, 2017: 41 copies (36 physical, 5 electronic.)

Gunmetal Blue, 2017: 199 copies (190 physical, 9 electronic. Also doing well on Ingram, even though it's only been out since December. It helps that Kirkus called Joe Peterson "one of the Windy City's best-kept secrets.") 

The Virginity of Famous Men, 2018: 50 copies  (All physical, because that's what we have the rights to.)

(Note the list is ordered by date, not number—we absolutely do not want to imply that these books should be ranked by numbers sold. Every one has its own unique charms; like children, you love them all in unique ways.)

So, yes, 5,000 books. And given that our profit margin is around two hundred dollars a book, we’ve actually been earning a pretty comfortable living over the past five years doing this publishing thing. (I kid, I kid. Wait, wrong voice. We kid, we kid.) Book publishing is a tremendously humbling business. Sales feel capricious and arbitrary, and the economics are simply not that great for the average traditionally published author, even the ones that have had the kind of successes (New York Times reviews, major chain sales, advances with commas in them) that make the rest of us salivate. (As one author friend tells her writing students: Unless you see an author’s books on sale at the drugstore or the airport, they’re probably doing something else to make a living.) And while we do our best to treat people better than the traditional publishers—to read submissions without charging a fee, and respond as quickly as possible with personalized feedback, and edit respectfully, and pay promptly—we have certainly fallen short of the mark here and there, at least on the reading-and-responding side. But we keep moving, tortoiseing damn near every day (minus breaks for Sundays and vacations), trusting we’ll win the race in the end.

What, then, constitutes victory? Is it numbers sold? For some, perhaps—although there are plenty of bestsellers that fall by the wayside in subsequent years. (This list of the bestselling books from 1913 to 2013, for instance, includes plenty of familiar titles, but more than a few books like Green Light that aren’t even available for sale any more.) Is it awards? We’ve won some, and Lord knows we’d love to win some more, but a trip through the list of, say, Pulitzer winners (or Academy-Award-winning films, or what have you) certainly reveals plenty of wait-that-other-one-should-have-won picks, and why-wasn’t-this-one-even-nominated moments. (Coincidentally we—and here I mean I—went to Columbia University, and had professors who sat on the Pulitzer committee. They certainly seemed very dedicated to a fair and honest prize process, but they also knew that not all prize winners were created equal; one professor, for instance, described Neil Sheehan’s excellent A Bright Shining Lie as “one of those rare books that enhances the Pulitzers, rather than the other way around.” Not that we wouldn’t absolutely shit ourselves if one of us won a Pulitzer, but you get the idea.)

In the music world, it’s been said of the Velvet Underground that they didn’t sell many records, but everyone who bought one started a band. Was Lou Reed unsuccessful in 1970, when he was living in his parents’ house and working as a typist in his father’s accounting firm for $40 a week—after having already launched four of the most influential albums in music history? Was he unsuccessful when he released Transformer? We’d love to have it all—sales, prizes, and the enduring legacy of a much-discussed body of work—and we’d love to give it all to our authors, but sales and prizes aren’t entirely in our control; all we can do is put out quality books, and tell people about them, and trust that the rest will come in time. So success, perhaps, is to keep reaching readers, and keep learning and growing.

And on that level, AWP certainly was a success. We recently acquired paperback rights to Christine Sneed’s excellent short story collection, The Virginity of Famous Men, and we were able to sell it in public for the first time there; we also sold books by Alex Higley and Carlo Matos and Joe Peterson and Giano Cromley and Gint Aras and Alice Kaltman—not all of our roster, unfortunately, but certainly a healthy chunk. On the first day of the conference, we sold our 5,000th book to a young guy named Allen; on the third day, he reached out on Twitter to let us know he’d already finished (and thoroughly enjoyed) Zero Phase. We learned a few lessons that will come in handy for the next AWP—ship your bags if they’re going to be overweight, sign up early if you want a busy table space, make sure to visit Electric Literature and all the other people you love on Twitter, don’t freak out if second-day sales are slow because third-day is the big sales day, etc. And we made enough money to keep chugging along and doing the next things we need to do to get the next books out there.

I wish I could say I was finishing this blog post in some lofty literary office space; I’m actually writing it the way I write most things, with my laptop balanced precariously on my knees, aboard a morning CTA train headed for my 9-to-5 non-publishing day job. But we at Tortoise are thinking ahead, to Printers Row Lit Fest, and the Chicago Book Expo, and AWP19, and we’re looking forward to all of it.

GUNS AND GUNMETAL BLUE (AND JOE PETERSON, TOO.)

July 4, 2017

I met a local author named Joe Peterson a few years ago at an author event here in Chicago. I remember feeling slightly put off; he gave off a vibe like he felt like he was an underappreciated local genius. Then I read his book Wanted: Elevator Man and realized he was, in fact, an underappreciated local genius.

Since then, Joe and I have become great friends, and we’ve had many wonderful conversations about writing and publishing. I did some advance reading for his great collection Twilight of the Idiots; I solicited a submission from him for a story anthology.

About a year ago, we met up for lunch, and he told me about the manuscript that would become Gunmetal Blue. He said it was about gun violence, and he told me about his personal connection to the topic, and I knew I wanted to be involved.

¤

22 years ago, I arrived at West Point for R-day for the Class of 1999. It was, for most of us, an anxious day, as hazy apprehension about hazing and training materialized into sweaty reality—yelling upperclassmen, uncomfortable uniforms, strange new rituals of drill and ceremony. I wondered what the hell I’d gotten myself into. Just about the only thing I looked forward to was the weapons training, and the chance to fire an M-16 for the first time.

I’d grown up a bit of a gun nut. When we lived in Florida I got a rifle for my 10th birthday, and somewhere in there my dad purchased a 9mm pistol for my mom for self-defense, and we spent many Saturday afternoon out at the range amidst the palmettos and scrub pines, pumping round after round into paper targets. But for a true gun aficionado, all of these things are vaguely unsatisfying compared to the prospect of actually shooting true military hardware.

One of the things that impressed—and still impresses—me about the Army was the culture of respect and accountability and safety when it comes to firearms. We didn’t get to handle them for several weeks after R-day; there were many unpleasant days of shoe-shining and brass-polishing and close-order drill and room inspection in the meantime, many orders given and received between the first day the military issued me a uniform and the first day they handed me a rifle.

During my four years as a cadet, the number of days I spent at the range shooting live ammunition were relatively infrequent, but I took many opportunities to increase them—once Beast Barracks was over and the academic year had started, I spent some Saturdays at the range with the Infantry Tactics Club; during my last three years, I competed in the Sandhurst military skills competition, in no small part because it had a marksmanship component.

I was medically discharged from the Army after graduation (narcolepsy, if you’re curious), and unexpectedly found myself living with my parents back in the Chicago suburbs, but I kept up my gun enthusiasm for some time; I’d purchased a class pistol, a Colt .45, and I’d go shooting at the range with my brother and one of my drinking buddies. Soon afterwards, I moved to New York City for grad school; I was a pretty proud conservative, and I took a certain perverse pleasure in going to the bar, getting carded, and seeing the bouncer’s eyes widen when I’d pull out my Illinois Firearm Owner’s ID in lieu of a Driver’s License.

It took some years for my attachment to guns to fade; in some ways, Chicago itself was responsible. When I moved back after grad school, it wasn’t legal for residents to own handguns. I thought about defying the law, and even flirted with the idea of becoming an NRA test case, the Rosa Parks who stood up to what I believed were unjustly oppressive laws. (Yes. That does sound ridiculous to me now.) In the end, all of that seemed like too much hassle, so my guns remained in the suburbs at my parents’ house, and my trips to the range got fewer and farther between.

It was just as well, for I went through some dark times personally in the early 2000s—some blackout drinking, where I’d make it home with only a frame or two of imagery about the trip home from the bars, and a LOT of brownout drinking, where I’d remember where I’d been and who I’d seen and how I’d made it back home, but I’d have to reconstruct the details of the night with help from friends. There were plenty of good times in there, but the bad ones were really bad—some relationships that turned ugly and angry, and one incident where I got physically violent with a woman I loved. But all that negativity usually turned inward rather than outward, and it manifested itself in some very dark thoughts. In retrospect, I’m pretty glad I didn’t have easy access to a handgun in those years.

I eventually quit drinking, and started taking steps to stay sober. Among other things—meetings with other alcoholics, spiritual work, etc.—I did a lot of reading. In his Confessions, St. Augustine says to God, “…by my own sin Thou didst justly punish me. For Thou hast commanded, and so it is, that every inordinate affection should be its own punishment.” This statement seemed to perfectly fit my experience with alcoholism; I’d certainly loved alcohol over and above almost everything else in my life. (It was part of the reason I moved downtown, and therefore one of the things that separated from my guns; I moved downtown because it seemed like in the suburbs I ‘had’ to drink and drive, but in a city with abundant public transportation and many taxis, that wouldn’t be the case.) In a sense, I’d viewed alcohol as a god. It was an idol I looked to to solve my problems—to relieve my stress at the end of the workweek, to get me talking to women, to ease my feelings of alienation and angst. And it seemed clear in retrospect that alcohol had been its own punishment: using it to numb the pain only increased the pain, and left me with some ungodly hangovers, too.

It wasn’t until after the Newtown massacre that I started to see guns in similar terms—as something that many Americans have loved inordinately, to the point that they’ve become their own punishment. I wrote an op-ed about my own gun experiences for the Chicago Tribune, and I started to read a lot more on the topic, and it didn’t take much digging to find stories where the addiction model seemed to fit. Take that of Chris Kyle, a brave man who perhaps saw guns as the answer to too many questions, and ended up shot to death by a man he’d enlisted for “gun therapy.” Or the case of Philando Castile—a man who bought a gun for self-defense, behaved responsibly with it, but was shot to death by a panicked cop who made a snap decision he wouldn’t have needed to make in a country where guns are less prevalent. Or that of Curtis Reeves, the retired Tampa police captain who shot a fellow theatergoer to death in a confrontation over texting during the movie previews and then sought the protection of the state’s “Stand Your Ground” laws. And the hallmarks of addiction are there, too, in the national conversation about guns—in the voices of the gun addicts who deny or shift blame any time any tragedy happens which can be directly attributed to our nation’s lax gun laws, the voices which claim that the media is engaged in some sort of conspiracy to suppress “good” gun stories (homes defended, mass shootings prevented, etc.) and play up the bad ones. For an addict lives in such a state of denial that they refuse to believe the problem is a problem—in fact, they believe the problem is a solution. They will throw out major facts that don’t fit their narrative, and play up minor facts that do support it, until they are again comfortable that nothing’s going to interfere with their addictive behavior.

I’m writing this letter over the Fourth of July weekend. I made a family trip down to Kankakee to visit relatives, many of whom are longtime responsible gun owners. I have many classmates from the military whom I’d trust with 1 or 10 or 100 or 1,000 guns. I’m well aware that, for many people who live in the country, 911 response times are well into the double-digit minutes, and if anyone did break into their home, they would probably want to use a firearm for self-defense. I fully understand that guns are an integral part of our nation’s origin story, and that the right to own them is constitutionally protected. I’m not suggesting that anyone should pry any guns out of anyone’s fingers, cold and dead or otherwise.

But it would be nice to work towards laws and policies that are as healthy for city-dwellers as they are for people who live in the country, laws that pay as much attention to the “well-regulated militia” part of the Second Amendment as they pay to the “keep and bear arms” part—laws that put additional pressure on those who make and sell guns, to ensure that they’re only selling to responsible individuals, and to make it easier to sue them when they don’t. (When the government was allowed to study these things, back in the late ‘90s, they found that something like 2% of gun stores were responsible for the guns used in 50% of gun homicides.) When I was an active alcoholic, I remember going to an all-you-can-drink event at a bar, asking for a shot, and being told I’d have to pay for it. I got upset; I thought I’d paid for the right to drink anything in that bar, in whatever form I wanted, but the bartender explained to me that it was against the law to serve shots for free at an all-you-can-drink event. I remember thinking (before I proceeded to get brownout drunk) that it was a stupid law—and then realizing, years later, that yeah, it probably made sense. Nowadays I’m glad we don’t have alcoholics in charge of writing laws about alcohol; I’m hopeful for the day when we don’t have gun addicts in charge of our gun laws.

In the meantime, though, I’m happy just to contribute a different voice and a different perspective to the national discussion. The gun addicts tell us “an armed society is a polite society.” They are quick to point out countries like Switzerland where this seems to be the case, while ignoring the many many many more places where it isn’t. (Somalia in the 90s, say, or Iraq in the 00s, or Northern Ireland in the 70s, or Sicily in the 80s, or even our own Wild West, which—the gun addicts will never tell you—had a murder rate approximately ten times as great as present-day Chicago.) They are quick to badmouth Chicago, while ignoring the fact that the city’s murder rate (as opposed to raw number of murders) is below, say, Gary and Indianapolis in gun-friendly Indiana. They used to complain that Chicago was too violent because of our strict gun laws—but now that gun laws have changed in the wake of D.C. v. Heller and McDonald v. City of Chicago, and the murder rate hasn’t gone down, they are busy looking for other gun solutions to our gun problems. The voices of the gun addicts should not be the only ones heard on this topic, even though they are often the loudest.

¤

Getting back to Joe Peterson.

Joe and I live at opposite ends of Chicago. Ours is a city divided, half Manhattan and half Detroit. There are prosperous neighborhoods where one is likely to never hear a shot fired in anger; there are others where it’s a regular occurrence, where the responsible course of action is probably to sell one’s home and move somewhere where you’ll never hear gunshots in the night, or find spent 9mm casings in front of your building, or step over a murder victim’s blood on your way to work. (All of which have happened to me.) It’s a disempowering feeling, in part because so much of it is due to lax gun laws in other states—an estimated 60% of guns used in Chicago crimes were originally sold outside Illinois—and in part because carrying a gun oneself wouldn’t make any difference, as it’s not violence directed towards you. It’s the type of violence that the leaves the average law-abiding individual physically unharmed, while steadily undermining their community, hollowing it out through the steady outflow of internal refugees to the well-policed safe spaces of the suburbs. This type of violence depopulates vast swaths of city until the only people left are the ones comfortable with lawlessness, or actively engaged in it—or simply too poor to flee.

When Joe sent me this manuscript, it read—like many of his works—like a dreamy urban fable, a fanciful tale of male gun fantasies gone horribly wrong. A lot of his gun-related scenes were wrong, too; I knew we’d have to tweak them quite a bit just to make them remotely plausible. To help him rewrite things, I offered to end my longtime gun hiatus and take him to the range. For it is a full sensory experience, covering everything but taste—the look of a proper sight picture, the feeling of trigger-finger pressure chemically converted to the quick kick of recoil, the muffled-but-loud sound of each round, the smell of gun oil and the whiff of spent gunpowder, and the sight, at last, of lead-shredded paper targets. (That’s part of the allure, I think—part of the reason the gun addicts are so reluctant to look elsewhere for their happiness. It’s a fun activity that stimulates the senses.) It seemed best to have Joe experience it, so as to write about it convincingly.

Joe never took me up on the offer. I did a bunch of editing, and I tried to keep things semi-realistic while still retaining the dreamy qualities of Joe’s writing. Still, we never made it out to the range. Knowing his personal history, I understand why.

But you’ll have to read the book to find out.

 

Postscript:

Although Gunmetal Blue won’t officially be up for sale until December, we got a few production copies ready in time for the Chicago Book Expo on October 1. Interest was very high; we sold all of those books, and even one of the advance reader copies we’d brought along to give away to prospective reviewers. I went to bed content that we’d done something good; I woke horrified by yet another worst mass shooting in American history, a title that’s been claimed and reclaimed far too many times in the last decade.

The awful thing about shootings like this isn’t just that they happen—it’s that they’re the only time when there’s even a semblance of a conversation about possibly making the smallest and most incremental changes to our nation’s gun laws. We are not the only nation to grapple with violence; we are not the one with the worst murder rate—but we are the main source of firearms for the nations that ARE, the countries to the south of us that are riven by drug violence and American guns. (87% of the weapons seized by Mexican authorities originated in the United States, for instance, according to one survey by the U.S. GAO.) And we are the one where a substantial portion of the population acts like events like this are as inevitable as the weather. So all I can ask is: What kind of freedom is this, America?

But in my outrage and disgust, I can at least take comfort in putting another voice out there, a serious story that somehow manages to be whimsical as well. Gun addicts rightly point out that much of the entertainment put out by the so-called Hollywood liberal elites still glorifies gun violence. And they have a point; there is indeed an air of hypocrisy in someone like Matt Damon decrying guns while also fetishizing them in lucrative franchises like the Bourne movies.

This book is something else entirely, something that, for all its whimsy and unreality, still captures some essential truths about life on the gun range, about the fantasies of romantic violence that fuel so many people to spend millions at the range—all these middle-aged civilians fantasizing about being the next Chris Kyle, or stopping the next Omar Mateen. I do hope you’ll give it a read.

NOVEMBER BOOKS

We’re thrilled to finally announce the publication dates for three awesome books—all of which will also be available at the Chicago Book Expo this Sunday! (And at the Heartland Fall Forum in Lombard on October 13th.)

First, from Canadian author Steve Passey, is Forty-Five Minutes of Unstoppable Rock, an inimitable collection about beautiful losers plumbing the depths of the Great Recession. I always want to call it “literary sleaze,” because there’s an element of that to it—bullet wounds and nudie bars and El Caminos and such—but there’s also so much more, a set of flawed-but-intriguing people stumbling through their unforgettable lives. The book will be officially available November 1, but you can get it here.

Next comes Old Open, a tremendously entertaining absurdist road novel about an aging Phoenix widower who discovers his neighbor is an expert on a mysterious UFO phenomenon. It’s been earning comparisons to Denis Johnson and Don DeLillo, but as is the case with all awesome authors, there’s also something inimitable and unique about Alex Higley’s work. This book’s an absolute delight to read; we’re officially launching it on November 7th, but it’s available for preorder as well.

Last—but far from least—we’re thrilled to have Giano Cromley back for another round with his excellent collection What We Build Upon the Ruins. This elegant but hard-hitting set features a devastating triptych of stories about a family that’s been pierced by tragedy; it’s memorable and touching and honest and true, an unforgettable series about being blindsided by tragedy, and struggling to rebuild in the face of great sorrow. It officially launches on November 14th, but along with the other books, you can get it at Book Expo, or preorder it online here.

More announcements to come!

NORTH AND CENTRAL - BOB HARTLEY

It’s been a busy month for Tortoise Books, but amidst all the hoopla, we wanted to officially (and somewhat belatedly) announce the publication of Bob Hartley’s North and Central!

This book’s a beautifully bleak literary crime novel set in a bar on Chicago’s West Side during the winter of ’78-’79, one of the most notoriously bitter seasons in Chicago history. The characters are caught up in the cold cynicism of corruption and cronyism—and yet there’s a warmth to this work, the beautiful amber glow of alcohol and nostalgia. False feelings, perhaps, but ones that feel real enough in the moment.

I grew up watching Cheers and wanting the life they sang about in that all-too-perfect theme song; I craved that place where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came. In my 20s, I found a neighborhood bar that seemed to fit the bill. I made some true friendships, had a few fun flings, and even fell into one of the great loves of my life, but even on those nights when I did know everybody’s name and they were all glad I came, I was starting to feel antsy and agitated and profoundly lonely, an ache so deep no quantity of $2.75 High Lifes could soothe it. (At least, I’m pretty sure there wasn’t a workable number; I usually lost count around 14 or so.) So for me, at least, bar life proved to be a beautiful lie.

And that’s why I fell in love with this manuscript. As I never tire of telling people, it’s an anti-Cheers, a story about a place where everybody knows your nickname, and they’re tired of you coming around because you’re a degenerate. The character dynamics line up well with what I saw of dive bars—the false fronts and phony posturing. And yet behind every façade, there was, and is, something true and real, something ugly, perhaps, but all the more interesting for being authentic.

I’m trying to write the story behind the story for every new author, and this one is (I think) as cool as any. Another local publisher sent Bob my way, all the way back in July of 2015. I’d gotten into publishing in no small part because of my own frustrations with people not reading what I’d sent, and here came an object lesson in how we eventually become what we hate: I thanked Bob for submitting and promptly forgot to read his work. But he graciously wrote me a full six months after our initial email exchange to see where I was at with it. I was horrified that I’d forgotten about it, and even more so when I cracked it open to see what I’d been missing. It was instantly engrossing; it sounded like the kind of thing Bukowski and Springsteen would have written if they’d collaborated. For me, writing’s less about style and more about authentic emotion, and the opening action (a bar owner hammering dents into quarters) had me hooked; it pulled me in to a delightfully cynical world of crime and kickbacks and crooked cops, and it made me want to spend time in that world.

There were issues with the initial manuscript—I wasn’t nuts about the original title (The Ceiling Falls), and the ending of Bob’s first draft didn’t quite work for me. But oddly enough, that actually helped make for a more satisfying publishing experience. For Bob was more than willing to keep honing the manuscript, to work together and turn it into the best possible version of itself. I suggested a few ideas for a new ending, and Bob considered them, and then came up with an amazing ending of his own, one that lingered in my head long after I’d finished reading. He came up with a new and better title, naming it after the intersection where the bar in question sat in a way that evoked the Midwest in general. During the editing process, Bob let me rework some things and add a line of dialogue here and there; he was both gracious enough to allow me to make some changes when I had a good idea, and resolute enough to stick to his guns when I had a bad one.

Of course, finishing the manuscript is only the first finish line in a long series of races. Bob and I both worked to find cover images and source them. (Finding cool pictures is relatively easy—tracking down the rights owners and getting an economical price for a picture can be much harder.) I came up with a cover concept that worked, but I couldn’t quite execute it as well as necessary—our intern, Jaime Harris, did some great work to bridge the gap between a good idea and a great finished product. And Bob and I have both been busy with pre- and post-publication work; it’s not enough to have a perfect product if nobody knows it exists.

A month in, we’re tremendously happy with both the story and with how it’s being received. Our blurbists saw in the finished product what I’d seen as potential in the manuscript—a new Chicago classic, worthy to sit on the shelf with the other great books we’ve published, and with past classics like The Man with the Golden Arm and Studs Lonigan. Kudos to Bob on a job well done!

OLD OPEN - ALEX HIGLEY

We’re tickled pink to officially announce that we’ll be publishing Alex Higley’s Old Open this August!

This story centers on a widower in Arizona, a man living in an empty existential sun-baked suburb who realizes that his mysterious neighbor is an expert on a possible extraterrestrial phenomenon. An odd premise to read about in a query, perhaps—but any premise can be well-executed by the right author, and it turned out that Alex had the chops not only to pull it off, but to do so with panache. There are echoes of Don DeLillo and Radiohead—artists who eloquently speak to the loneliness and longing of modern life. And yet his work is more than the sum of its influences—there’s a heart and soul to it, a warm sensitivity to the plight of its protagonist, and to the quirks and foibles of the people he comes across along the way. What’s more, the book somehow manages to evoke these existential questions while also being laugh-out-loud funny. We’re grateful for the chance to publish it, and looking forward to sharing it with you!

Joseph G. Peterson

We're thrilled to announce that we'll be publishing Joseph G. Peterson's excellent Gunmetal Blue in November!

We (the royal we, you know, the editorial...) met Joe at Book Cellar's Local Authors Night way way back in 2014 or so, and we did the responsible good support-the-local-scene thing and checked out his book (albeit on Kindle), and we're glad we did, because he's a tremendous Chicago voice, a truly inimitable chronicler of the lovable ne'er-do-well. We've since read everything he's written, and picking favorites is tough, but for our money, the best of his published work is probably Wanted: Elevator Man. Still, there's a new contender waiting in the wings--and we get to coach this one along!

You should read his other stuff in the meantime. For real, though!

FORREST, WALLACE, TRUMP, AND ME

When I was a teenager, I wanted to be like Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Forrest, of course, was a slaveowner who went on to become a noted Confederate general. His troops massacred black Union soldiers at Fort Pillow, and he went on to be one of the founding members of the KKK, but it wasn’t these facts that attracted me, per se. It was the knowledge that elsewhere he was indubitably an incredible soldier, the only man to start the Civil War as a private and end it as a general. You can certainly view him through the lens of history as a glaring example of white privilege; for me he seemed like a victory for meritocracy. (At Brice’s Crossroads, for instance, he pulled off one of the most stunning tactical victories in warfare, soundly defeating 8,100 Union troops with a force of only 3,500 Confederates.) In Ken Burns’ Civil War series, Shelby Foote said the war’s only two geniuses were Abraham Lincoln and Nathan Bedford Forrest. One way or another, I wanted to be a genius.

While still in high school, I read Jack Hurst’s excellent biography of Forrest; I remember noticing that his birthday was July 13th. I was so enamored with the Forrest mythos that I was mildly disappointed that it wasn’t my birthday; it was a day that meant nothing to me. I noticed, too, that at the end of his days, after a lifetime of drinking and cussing and fighting, Forrest had converted to Christianity, and genuinely repented of his myriad sins.

After high school, I went to the military academy, but it soon became apparent that I was not a natural soldier; when I left the service, my enthusiasm for military matters waned, and I spent a good decade-plus without thinking much about Forrest. Eventually, I married a beautiful, smart, spunky woman—a woman who happens to be African-American. When she gave birth to our son, I remember looking at the date—July 13th. I pulled up Wikipedia to see if it held any special historical significance; when I realized it was Forrest’s birthday, I had to laugh at the irony. Some months later, in the course of moving some books, I came across the Hurst biography again. And in this racially-charged time of suspicion and mistrust, I’ve been thinking about Forrest, and what he means for us.

While his military prowess once impressed me, now I respect the fact that he had the courage to change, and to repent of his ways. Speaking to an audience of African-American Southerners in 1875, he said: “Go to work, be industrious, live honestly and act truly, and when you are oppressed I'll come to your relief,” and “When I can serve you I will do so. We have but one flag, one country; let us stand together.”

After this speech, Nathan Bedford Forrest accepted a bouquet from an African-American woman, a former slave, who gave it in appreciation of his efforts towards harmony. For this, he was condemned by his peers, including at least one Confederate officers’ association, and roundly lambasted in Southern newspapers. He’d helped start an evil organization that lived on after his death, but in this day of political name-calling, when so many of us think we can judge someone’s heart based on the company they’ve kept, it bears noting that a man who played a key early role in the most virulent racist organization in American history ended his life preaching love, tolerance, and racial reconciliation.

*             *             *

I never much admired George Wallace. He started his political career as a relatively moderate populist, endorsed by the NAACP in a failed 1958 gubernatorial bid; after his loss, he became an ardent segregationalist. When asked about the switch, he said, "I tried to talk about good roads and good schools and all these things that have been part of my career, and nobody listened. And then I began talking about niggers, and they stomped the floor." In the 1962 general election (at a time, of course, when many Alabama counties used poll taxes, racially disparate voter tests, or even outright violence to prevent African Americans from even registering to cast their ballots), he went on to win 96% of the vote.

At Wallace’s inauguration, in a speech written by Ku Klux Klan member Asa Earl Carter, he said: “In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” (It’s worth noting the Orwellian logic in this sentence, the perversion of reality—at a time when white Southerners were violently disenfranchising their black peers, and often killing their leaders, he viewed the federal government’s efforts towards racial justice as “tyranny.”) Wallace later went to Washington and met with President Johnson in March of 1965, in the wake of the “Bloody Sunday” Selma protests which led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

As a cadet at West Point, I wrote a paper about this process; I didn’t know much about it, and I wanted to learn. I read about how Wallace received the “Johnson treatment” during the course of their conversation. The president was willing to use crude language and talk as one Southerner to another. (“Now, George, why don’t you let those niggers vote?”) He also tried to puff up Wallace’s ego. (When Wallace claimed that it was the county registrars that were responsible for black disenfranchisement, Johnson said: “George, don’t you shit me as to who runs Alabama.”) And he appealed to Wallace’s larger sense of self, and every politician’s desire for a lasting and positive legacy. “George, you and I shouldn’t be thinking about 1965; we should be thinking about 1985,” Johnson said. “Now, you got a lot of poor people down there in Alabama…a lot of people who need jobs, a lot of people who need a future. You could do a lot for them. Now, in 1985, George, what do you want left behind? Do you want a great big marble monument that says ‘George Wallace: He Built’? Or do you want a little piece of scrawny pine lying there along that harsh caliche soil that says ‘George Wallace: He Hated’?”

In the end, LBJ got the law he wanted, a law which opened up access to the polls for millions who had had no voice, the true victims of the true tyranny. But he got it with no help from Wallace, for his appeals to Wallace’s ego did not work. The Alabama governor left their meeting having been moved, but not converted. (“Hell, if I’d stayed in there much longer, he’d have had me coming out for civil rights,” he would later say.) He remained committed to his views, for a time; in 1968, he of course ran as a 3rd party candidate, the last to receive actual Electoral College votes. He was running even stronger in the 1972 primaries, picking up votes in northern states from voters who were angry at forced integration through school bussing—until a would-be assassin (apparently motivated by nothing more than a desire to be noteworthy) shot and paralyzed him.

During Wallace’s recuperation, he was visited in the hospital by many politicians—including Shirley Chisolm, a black congresswoman from Brooklyn who was mounting her own campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. The Johnson conversation seven years earlier had been, perhaps, a meeting of two massive egos; it changed neither person. But this was something else entirely—a kind act to a dangerous demagogue, a brave act by a woman who could have just as easily refused to act. For Shirley Chisolm knew she’d be criticized for the visit. As she later recalled, Wallace asked her: “What are your people going to say?” To which she responded: “I know what they’re going to say. But I wouldn’t want what happened to you to happen to anyone.” After she said this, George Wallace “cried and cried.”

Johnson was of course no longer alive in 1985, but Wallace was. Somewhere after Shirley Chisolm’s hospital visit, he’d become a voice of tolerance and compassion. For his last term in office, he’d selected a racially mixed cabinet, and appointed unprecedented numbers of African-Americans to statewide positions. While certainly not a model governor—both his earlier and later terms were marked by political cronyism—he met with civil rights leaders, including Representative John Lewis, who had been viciously beaten at Selma, and had suffered a fractured skull. Wallace repented of his ways, publicly admitted his wrongs, and asked forgiveness from those he had helped oppress.

Wallace, too, was willing to forgive the man who had grievously wounded him; in 1995, he wrote to Arthur Bremer. Although he acknowledged the 20-plus years of pain he’d endured, he also said, “I am a born-again Christian” and “I love you.”

*             *             *

The Reverend Martin Luther King, a man who experienced much hate, famously said: “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Many of us like to think the answer to our social ills isn’t love, but knowledge. It’s a comforting way to dismiss racism and intolerance, to view their adherents as backwards, uneducated, stupid, and therefore worthy of contempt. But this is a dangerous assumption.

The dirty secret about racism and intolerance and hatred is that it isn’t always founded on ignorance. If mere knowledge were enough to make people get along, no marriages would end in divorce. And to my friends who act as if moving overseas and meeting other people of different backgrounds were enough to make people treat each other well, I’m fond of pointing out instances from the rise of modern Islamic terrorism where this was explicitly not the case. (Sayyid Qutb, a key early member of the Muslim Brotherhood and one of the ideological forefathers of violent Islamism, lived in the United States and was horrified by much of what he saw, not only by the treatment of different races, but also by the free association of men and women in public; in the language of modern liberals, he was anti-racist but horribly sexist. Mohamed Atta, who of course piloted American Airlines Flight 11 into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, lived in Germany for years. And Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the architect of the attacks, graduated from university in North Carolina.)

So it is not knowledge that will save us, because knowledge, driven by the wrong spirit, will exacerbate our differences. We filter our knowledge; it only reaches us once it’s been poured through our own experiences and identities—which are subjective, not objective, for each and every one of us. Knowledge can lead us to pick and choose which facts are most important, and to do so in a way that feeds our ravenous egos, rather than nourishing our quiet hunger for peace.

Leo Tolstoy, in his seminal pacifist work The Kingdom of God is Within You, identified three possible concepts of how to make sense of the world. There is, he says, the personal (or animal) concept, in which people primarily work to gratify themselves. Most societies rightly recognize that this is a recipe for strife and frustration; if everyone’s looking to sate themselves, we will inevitably wind up in conflict with one another, for our egos are insatiable. But it is Tolstoy’s second concept which is perhaps most intriguing; this is what he calls “the social, or the pagan.” In this, “man’s life is not contained in his personality alone, but in the aggregate and sequence of personalities—in the tribe, the family, the race, the state; the aim of life consists in the gratification of the will of this aggregate of personalities.” Such a person, Tolstoy says, “sacrifices his personal good” for the sake of the group. “The prime mover of his life is glory. His religion consists in the glorification of the heads of unions—of eponyms, ancestors, kings, and in the worship of gods, the exclusive protectors of his family, his race, his nation, his state.”

To me, this concept is the root of our present troubles; when we live this way, there is a tendency to conflate morality with what is good or bad for whatever identity we cherish most—our own nation, race, occupation, gender or religion. And there’s a tendency to cherry-pick facts, too, to play up items that feed our egos and look good for our group identity, while discounting those that don’t. Those whites who are truly racist can then decry the sad state of America’s inner cities, blaming blacks en masse for criminality and drug abuse and unemployment and the collapse of communities—all while ignoring the ongoing decline of so many of our small towns and rural communities from the ravages of heroin abuse and the decline in well-paying blue-collar jobs. Radical Islamists can harp on the collateral damage casualties caused by drone strikes, or the suffering of Palestinian refugees, while rationalizing and excusing and minimizing the thousands of people murdered on 9/11, or the Israelis killed by terrorist bombs. When we live by this concept, agitators on the fringes of the “Black Lives Matter” movement can tell themselves that other lives do not matter, and attack police; when we live by this concept, police can blithely dismiss the BLM protestors by saying “Blue Lives Matter,” as if choosing to put on a police uniform for part of the day (and getting a salary and a pension for it) was equivalent to wearing a skin not of your choosing for your entire life. When we live by this concept, Muslims who live in Western opulence can choose to become terrorists, and rationalize that choice because other Muslims that they’ve never met have suffered defeat and death and oppression in unjust wars. When we live by this concept, non-Catholic women can tell Catholic women that they should avoid their own preferences and vote for a woman who didn’t always seem to like Catholics. When we live by this concept, Catholics can call employer-provided birth control—birth control that nobody has to take—“persecution,” and then turn around and vote for a man who openly talked about restricting the freedom of movement of 1.6 billion Muslims.

But Tolstoy’s third life concept is rooted not in the individual identity, nor in the group identity. People who live by this concept are motivated by love, a love that knows no boundaries or borders, no distinctions of race or class or religion. This is, perhaps, a Christian love—but it’s an expansive love, completely unlike the so-called Christianity of, say, the KKK, or the Westboro Baptist “Church”; it’s a love that calls us to treat people well even when they don’t look or act like us, or even when they haven’t treated us well. It’s a love that follows Jesus’ admonition that “Whatsoever you have done to the least of my bretheren, you have done unto me.”

This kind of love is a true, active love. It’s not a blind love, but rather a love that sees the best in those around us, and sees the potential for better things, still, and calls forth those better things, not only in them, but in us. It’s this love (I would argue) that led Nathan Bedford Forrest to accept a bouquet of flowers from a black audience, and earn the condemnation of his fellow former Confederates; it’s this love that led Shirley Chisolm to George Wallace’s hospital room; it’s the love that allowed John Lewis to meet with the governor whose minions had fractured Lewis’ skull; it’s the love that let George Wallace reach out to the man who’d shot him five times.

*             *             *

For those of us who voted against Donald Trump, there are reasons to be profoundly concerned by his election, inauguration, and early presidency. His legacy is, to say the least, racially charged. He was sued for refusing to rent apartments to African Americans, and ordered to change his practices—and he resisted the settlement. After the arrest of five black and Hispanic youths in connection with the brutal rape of a jogger in Central Park in 1989, he purchased a heated full-page ad decrying the crime and calling for the reintroduction of the death penalty—never mind the fact that the boys were innocent, and ended up being exonerated. When the city of New York paid settlement money to the now-grown exonerees, who’d spent a combined total of forty years in jail for a crime they didn’t commit, he blasted the deal. Trump has openly advocated policies that violate the First Amendment of the constitution, and done so in a way that seems designed to exacerbate racial tensions. There are legitimate concerns that Trump won the 2016 election, in part, because of voter ID laws that are, according to liberal activists, a resumption of the poll tax by other means—a partial reversal of the gains for which Martin Luther King and John Lewis and many others marched at Selma. Trump’s picked a chief strategist who’s been all too willing to seek support from belligerent white nationalists. And his selection of Ben Carson for the Secretary of Housing and Urban Affairs certainly gives off an odor of both tokenism and racism; rather than giving a neurosurgeon a post related to his career (such as, say, leadership of the Department of Health and Human Services), it certainly seems like Trump’s giving a black man a post in charge of something he associates with blackness—urban affairs.

And yet, the key question isn’t “Is Donald Trump a racist?” It is “Can we respond to Donald Trump with love?” Only God knows Trump’s heart, or his motivations. (Besides, if my 39 years have taught me anything, it is that nobody responds well when you accuse them of bad motives. Even if they are, in fact, motivated by such negative emotions, they will never admit to it; they will come up with some other nobler-sounding reason for their actions, and they will probably believe it.) But we can certainly learn a lot from The Donald by looking at his actions, and if we temper that knowledge with a loving spirit, we might indeed learn something worthwhile.

Ben Franklin once said “Love your Enemies, for they tell you your Faults.” And this may be part of the key to loving him—realizing that he is, in a way, showing us our truest selves. His career in real estate and reality TV, and his relentless Twitter usage, suggest that he is, perhaps, the quintessential Ugly American, the apotheosis of all we dislike about our country and ourselves. For who among us, in these days of relentless social media self-promotion and façade-building, has not engaged in the same behavior as Donald Trump, albeit on a smaller scale? Who among us does not get distracted from necessary work to get caught up in useless spats on social media? Who among us hasn’t been lured away from the real and thankless chores in front of us by the need to puff up our online egos, by these endless vain attempts to look bigger and more important and more successful than we really are? Trump is, perhaps, a funhouse mirror that distorts and exaggerates our worst traits as a country—our hunger for fame and money and power and success and, most crucially, attention.

There are those, of course, who refuse to see any part of themselves in Donald Trump, who choose to focus on the differences instead of the similarities—and that’s certainly their right. Many of these people have pointed out Donald Trump’s apparent emulation of Richard Nixon, a man who appealed to white fears of black crime, a man who was often described as an epic hater. Trump has certainly harped on similar themes; he even leaned on Roger Ailes, former head of Fox News and one-time media consultant to Nixon, for debate preparation help. It’s certainly worth remembering that Nixon’s hatred and paranoia led to resignation and disgrace, and a country temporarily united in dislike of him. And yet in the interests of love and positivity, we might do better to remember the nobler and more benevolent side of Nixon, the side that acted, as Trump might say, “bigly.” This was, after all, the man who presided over the first nuclear arms limitation talks with the Soviets; this was the man who opened diplomatic relations with China, an act that helped that country move away from the extremism and genocide of the Mao years. One hopes Trump, in between angry tweets about SNL cast members and recalcitrant judges, remembers that his occasionally-petty predecessor was willing to show true and lasting leadership in ways that really did make the world a better place.

But we might do better still to remember Nixon’s surprisingly warm and wise words upon his departure from the White House: “Always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.” If we respond to Trump’s actions with hatred, we will be ruining ourselves, while leaving him intact, and further set in his ways. For hatred tends to harden people’s hearts, rather than softening them, and a hardened heart will never change. But change is possible. And if it was possible for Forrest and Wallace, surely it’s possible for Trump, and for ourselves.

FRIENDS OF THE TORTOISE - MARTIN SEAY (PART II)

OK, it's time for the second installment of our Q&A with Martin Seay, author author of The Mirror Thief, which you should most definitely check out, if you have not already done so. (Click here for Part I.)

Q:  In one interview, you said you were initially worried about finding enough material to connect the various Venices, and you eventually ended up with the opposite problem. It sounds like you ended up with a surplus of material. How much research did you end up doing after you started the book, versus before, and how did you balance the research and the writing?

A: I am fond of quoting (or more likely paraphrasing) something that I heard the novelist Kathryn Davis say once in a Q&A when asked a somewhat similar question: I do research when I’m stuck, she said, and when I’m not stuck anymore, I stop doing research.

It’s the second part of that remark that’s particularly awesome; lots of writers experience something that’s been called “research rapture,” when one gets so carried away with making connections through all sorts of disparate material that one forgets to, y’know, actually get back to writing.  I suspect there’s also a danger of absorbing so much material that one finds oneself paralyzed, unable to sort signal from noise, or to locate the thread of a compelling narrative.  I’ve been lucky; I’ve never been anywhere close to managing that degree of expertise in any subject.

Q: Did you ever feel like you’d fallen down the rabbit hole, research-wise?

A: This is a great question, and one that I’m going to try and answer in a way that’s more informative than boring.

Back in 2002, while taking Richard’s Experimental Fiction class, I wrote a 25-page fragment that gradually grew into The Mirror Thief.  Richard’s class was generative: he had us write nine stories over the course of a semester (which is a lot) and we had to write them all to very specific and somewhat off-the-wall prompts.  As a result, I had very little time to work on anything prior to turning it in.  The prompt for my 25-page fragment was to “write a story in which someone tells a story in which someone tells a story.”  I decided—quickly!—that I’d do something inspired by the emergence of the flat glass mirror as a consumer good in Venice circa 1500; in order to achieve the triple temporal displacement that Richard’s prompt demanded, I decided to set two of the three stories in “reflections” of Venice: Venice Beach (which was built in 1905 as an explicit imitation of the original) and a Venice-themed hotel and casino in Las Vegas.  My research for that first 25 pages was limited to a Las Vegas travel guide, a cursory glance through The Mirror: A History by Sabine Melchior-Bonnet, and a lot of frantic Googling.

Looking back now on those initial pages—something I hadn’t done in years prior to answering this question—I am struck by 1) how bad much of it is, and, despite that, 2) how much of it actually did make it into the published book, if in a very, very revised form.  (Perhaps unsurprisingly, the content from my original Page 2 is now on Page 7, Page 13 is now Page 84, Page 15 is now Page 341, etc.)  Even given the half-assed—hundredth-assed—research I’d done to get started, I could see that I had hit on an idea that was worth pursuing; I begin reading more widely and attentively in a bunch of different directions, trying to make thematic connections and identify motifs that I could tease out into scenes, characters, a storyline.  This wasn’t even research yet; I wasn’t looking to solve any specific problems or answer any particular questions.  I was just thinking in very general terms of what the book would be about, and how it would work.

In 2003 I started my MFA program—the low-residency program at Queens University of Charlotte—with the 25 pages that I’d written for Richard and the intention of expanding them into a novel.  The first teacher I worked with at Queens was the novelist Jane Alison; Jane immediately handed me my ass.  She helped me realize that what I thought was the beginning of a novel was really a very sketchy outline and a few notes; its ostensible “characters” were just blatant mechanisms for getting to and from various conceptual set-pieces.  Jane encouraged me to be respectful of my made-up people: to imaginatively inhabit their pasts, their fears and desires, their embodied experience of the situations that I’d chosen to put them in.

This was by far the most difficult and most rewarding aspect of writing the book.  Much of this process was purely meditative: thinking hard, for example, about not only what taking a boat across the Venetian lagoon in the late spring of 1592 would have been like, but what it would have been like for a 35-year-old physician who’s working as a spy for the Ottoman Empire, who’s operating on no sleep, who has a slight cold, and who murdered somebody a few hours earlier.  But a lot of it was research-driven, too.  Some of my characters are professional gamblers, so I read a lot about blackjack card-counting.  Some of my characters are glassmakers, so I studied up on how glass was manufactured circa 1600.  Some of my characters are alchemists, so I learned about the Neo-Platonic intellectual tradition in which they partook.  A lot of what I came to understand as the deep structure of the novel was concerned with technologies that people have adopted over the centuries in order to regard themselves—along with a bunch of metaphors that these technologies have encouraged—so I researched mirror-making, publishing, painting, poetry, architecture, film, etc.  As I was reading, I’d stumble over specific details that would spark aspects of characters’ biographies, or give me ideas for scenes, or suggest lines of dialogue; pursuing these would generate more of the others in turn.  The process was fairly accretionary.  By this point the amount of actual writing I was doing had slowed to a trickle—not the best situation when one is enrolled in a writing program. 

Once I had outlines of the plots of the three sections worked out well enough to really start writing, I tried to follow Davis’s advice and only research what I needed to get me from chapter to chapter.  (Certain topics were bottomless: reading about alchemy, for instance, turned out to be a power-dive that I desperately needed to pull out of.)  An important thing to keep in mind is that unlike an academic researcher—who’s trying to achieve comprehensive knowledge of a chosen subject—I was mostly just hunting for details to steal: evocative images and language that would shore up the authority of the book’s narration and induce readers to imagine their way into a vivid and transportive experience.

The only thing that I turned up in my research that I regret not being able to feature more prominently is the crazy story of of John Whiteside Parsons, one of the founders of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory who was also an avid practitioner of the occult: a follower of Aleister Crowley who was laying the foundations of the American space program during the workweek and collaborating on the weekends with a pre-Scientology L. Ron Hubbard on rituals intended to summon the goddess Babalon.  It was just too much, man.  The story deserves its own novel.  By someone other than me.  (I did work some of this material into a short play I that wrote last year for the Chicago-based Runaways Lab Theatre.) [Editor's note: ZOMG! You should read about John Whiteside Parsons, for real. Like, just open the link and leave the browser window open and read it later in the bathroom, if you have to. You'll thank me]

Q: You mentioned in one interview that you’re more of an idea-based author than a character-based author. Did you have any big ideas or epiphanies during the final stages of publication, or post-publication, that you kind of wish had made it into the finished product?

Not yet!  It could still happen, I suppose.  The one thing that I did add at the last second was a slightly stronger evocation of the residential building boom in 2003 Las Vegas; that’s something that my original draft touched on, but that became somewhat more compelling after Vegas got clobbered in the housing crisis.  I figured that folks who read the book without knowing that I finished it seven-odd years before it was actually published might wonder why I didn’t play that up more, so I played it up more.  (It’s consistent with many of the book’s broader themes anyway.)

A thing that I tried to do—because novels that are obviously more interested in lecturing than storytelling are invariably terrible (Ayn Rand, I’m looking at you)—is cover my conceptual tracks as much as possible.  While I do have sincere and strongly-held convictions about the world and the project of living in it, I hope these aren’t ever stated baldly in the book.  There’s plenty of theorizing and bloviating in there, but I think it’s only done by the characters, not the narrator—more specifically by characters who may be full of shit.  What I really hoped to accomplish was to create a space and an occasion for readers to think about certain ideas and patterns without directly prompting them to do so; I tried to make my arguments elliptically, through the book’s structure and motifs.

Q: There’s certainly something Pynchon-esque about the book, particularly the parts set in old Venice, but the 2003 parts have a very noirish feel to them. Do you have any particular favorite influences (books or movies) when it comes to noir/detective fiction? Were there any other big influences that people haven’t really mentioned?

A: An obnoxious but honest thing that I feel obliged to say when I’m asked about influences is that the book was, to my way of thinking, definitely influenced by Pynchon—and by Umberto Eco—not despite but because of the fact that I’ve barely read anything by either of them.  I keep picking up and putting down Foucault’s Pendulum, never getting more than a dozen pages in, and while I read and loved The Crying of Lot 49, I haven’t attempted anything else by Pynchon.  But as I was writing The Mirror Thief, I thought often about what I imagine Pynchon’s and Eco’s novels to be like—or maybe more accurately what I wish they were like.  (To be clear, I’m not remotely saying that my book is better; just that it’s closer to the sorts of things that I connect with as a reader.)

I pull a few metafictional stunts in the book—characters’ names very often refer to something outside the text, and there are quite a few unidentified and unattributed quotations scattered throughout—but I decided not to use them as distancing or alienating effects in the ways that Pynchon and Eco might.  I wanted the book to play by (most of) the rules as a literary thriller, and for (most of) the metafictional elements to function as Easter eggs—as the gamer kids say—for readers who catch the references.

The three biggest influences on the book are probably 1) Cormac McCarthy’s novel All the Pretty Horses (specifically the way that he smuggles a lot of his philosophical content into the reader’s head by way of his descriptions of landscape), 2) Lipstick Traces, Greil Marcus’s book about the Sex Pistols (and Dada, and the Situationist International, and, um, everything else), and 3) The Optical Unconscious by Rosalind E. Krauss, a fairly theory-heavy book about visual art that really rearranged my thinking on a bunch of stuff.  Moby-Dick was also something I was thinking about a lot; the hugeness of its conceptual universe was weirdly reassuring to me.  I reread quite a bit of Shakespeare to figure out how to approach the language in the 1592 sections, and his rhythms and constructions crept in as a result.  And a few days ago I was reminded—by the untimely death of its author, unfortunately—of how important Mark Fisher’s blog k-punk was to me while I was writing the book.  Fisher always drew clear and surprising connections between culture, theory, and politics; his writing on ghosts, hauntings, and “the weird” definitely affected the tone and content of my book.

None of that is noir, or detective fiction, obviously.  The portions of the novel that are the most directly influenced by that kind of material are actually the Los Angeles 1958 sections, even though those are the parts that fit least obviously in a genre box.  In order to get the voice right for those sections I reread a bunch of Raymond Chandler, which is a dangerous thing to do (since he’s so easy to get carried away imitating) but a total pleasure: at least a couple of his novels are as good as anything by anybody.  In order to figure out the baroque and paranoid atmosphere of the Venice 1592 sections, I read some of Alan Furst’s very stylish spy novels; although they’re set in Europe in the years during and around the second world war, not in the early-modern era, they were still very helpful.  I’ve read quite a bit of Dennis Lehane’s stuff over the years, though not while I was writing the book; still, I’m sure it was influential, particularly on the Las Vegas 2003 sections.

I fairly recently harangued my buddy Logan Breitbart into watching one of my favorite guilty-pleasure movies, Angel Heart, Alan Parker’s noir nightmare from 1987, and he later asked me if it was an influence on my book.  At the time I was like: “Not at all!” . . . but the more I think about it, the more I’m inclined to believe that it was a huge influence.  I probably shouldn’t spell that out any more than I already have.

Friends of the Tortoise - Martin Seay (Part 1)

Our novel The Fugue was recently a finalist for the Chicago Writers Association's 2016 Book of the Year Awards, alongside Christine Maul Rice's Swarm Theory and Martin Seay's The Mirror Thief. And while we were disappointed not to win, that feeling was tempered by the privilege of being in such great company, with two wonderful authors.

Martin's book is a big book that's still very light on its feet--a compelling and thought-provoking work that calls to mind both Thomas Pynchon and Raymond Chandler as it takes readers through three iterations of Venice: the original, in 1592; Venice Beach, in 1958; and Las Vegas' Venetian in 2003. He was gracious enough to answer some questions for us about his writing and research process, and we're publishing the first part of that interview here:

Q: Each version of Venice in the story is drawn very fully and (presumably) accurately, and I think in one interview you mentioned having visited the original Venice prior to having the idea for the book. How many times did you end up visiting each one?

A: I hope they’re accurate! In a few instances I intentionally departed from geography and/or the historical record a little—for the sake of the story, or to play up a motif, or to emphasize a point—but I tried to get it right as often as I could. It’s very difficult to make up details that are better (or weirder, or more surprising) than reality.

Prior to starting The Mirror Thief in 2002, I had been to Venice—the original Venice—once, for a couple of days, while doing the typical middle-class post-collegiate backpacking-through- Europe thing. I had been to Las Vegas a couple of times. I don’t think I had ever been to Venice Beach in LA, unless maybe for a minute during a long-ago family vacation. I didn’t visit any of the three while I was actually writing the book.

In the years since I finished it—it was pretty much done by the autumn of 2007, aside from minor revisions—Kathleen and I have been fortunate to travel to all three places, and fortunately I didn’t find anything that I had obviously screwed up.

 

Q: Your author bio is refreshingly devoid of some of the normal small publication credits one often sees in author bios, and even devoid of a normal author-type teaching job. Did you consciously decide to avoid working on and/or shopping smaller pieces while this was taking shape? Do you feel like writers write better with a non-writing day job? (T.S. Eliot being one prime example.)

A: I’m glad you like the bio! The credit for it goes entirely to the good folks at my publisher, Melville House, who in their wisdom decided that brevity was the best approach. Left to my own devices, I avoid brevity at all costs.

The bio on the book’s flap reads in its entirety “Martin Seay is the executive secretary of the village of Wheeling, Illinois. The Mirror Thief is his first novel.” I gather that the Melville House gang was charmed—and believed that readers would be charmed—by the notion of a big, weird, ornate literary thriller being penned by a mild-mannered civil servant, maybe in furtive and/or idle moments between processing liquor license applications or whatever. This picture isn’t quite accurate; I wrote almost all of The Mirror Thief before I started working my municipal gig, during my longtime employment at a national-chain book retailer, and also during an eight-month fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. I’ve done a little writing while working for Wheeling, but it’s been nonfiction pieces: essays and reviews and whatnot.

Normally I do drop a few credits in my bios mentioning places that have published my stuff; I’m grateful to those folks for their encouragement. (I actually started writing The Mirror Thief in a class taught by Richard Peabody, who also took the first short story I ever published for his journal Gargoyle; it’s hard to overstate the debt I’ve accrued to Richard.) I can’t say that I consciously avoided submitting short fiction while the Mirror Thief manuscript was making the rounds; I’ve just written very, very few stories that I’m satisfied with, and by 2011 they had all been published.

I do think there’s a value to approaching creative writing from the perspective of someone who’s employed outside the world of books and letters, but I’m wary of overstating it. It seems to me that most writers need a certain quantity of time, brainspace, and security to produce what they want to produce; any place they can find those things is probably an okay place to be. The trouble is that such circumstances seem to have become increasingly difficult to achieve, both inside and outside the academy. The pace of the workday of an average insurance executive, for instance, is almost certainly more hectic now than it was when Wallace Stevens was vice-president of Hartford Accident and Indemnity; meanwhile, as universities rely more and more on adjunct faculty (who often have to teach a horrifying number of classes at a preposterous number of institutions to earn enough to make rent), academic careers have become less and less of a compelling option for writers. I’m very fortunate that my employer has been accommodating enough to let me restructure my job to part-time in order to get back to writing fiction again.

Election 2016 - A Concession

As someone who profoundly dreaded the prospect of a Trump presidency, and voted (albeit reluctantly) for Hillary, I wanted to write a concession of sorts. It may seem silly to do so, given that I wasn’t, you know, running for office myself, but some of my friends and fellow citizens seem unwilling to publicly acknowledge what’s happened, so I want to do my part for healing.

I wish Donald Trump well. I really do. Not in the sense that I want him to enact any of his more outlandish or unconstitutional proposals (which, frankly, still horrify me), but in the sense that we’re all Americans, and I want my home to be a nice place to live for my family and friends, and even for people with whom I disagree, and people I haven’t met yet. So I have to swallow my pride and wish him a presidency that is somehow good for America.

Having said that, America, you’ve got some ‘splainin to do—on both sides of the aisle.

For starters, Democrats. Why did you think Hillary would be a successful candidate? Why, why, why, why, why? All of these fantasies about her winning in a blowout were always just fantasies—plenty of Americans made their mind up about her 24 years ago, and nobody really likes to change their mind, especially when someone else tells them they have to. Like it or not, people decided long ago that they disliked her, and some of their reasons were, in fact, valid—the presidency is not a 2-for-1 deal, and someone who wasn’t elected or appointed by an elected official probably shouldn’t have been crafting public policy in secret on an issue like health care—so there’s been a bit of a ritual going-through-the-motions about all of her subsequent efforts in the public sphere, and all the investigations she’s faced. Nobody who disliked her ever got a truly convincing reason to change their mind. Unless she had literally made peace across the globe as secretary of state (and, let’s be honest, she did tend to rattle the sabre instead) she was always going to face an upper ceiling to her popularity—and that was the real glass ceiling in this election. Plus, you were faced with an adversary with huge and glaring problems in his personal behavior, but you’d nominated someone whose apparent tolerance of her own husband’s behavior left her ill-suited to really hammer him on these issues. That's like the Republicans nominating Romney to fight Obamacare. Another woman—say Elizabeth Warren—would have mopped the floor with the Donald’s toupee.

Because here’s the thing: voters crave candidates who, at the very least, appear authentic. We’ve reduced our political thinking to an absurdly simple right-left axis that’s literally a holdover from the French Revolution, and the pundits tell you that all you have to do is be left enough to win the primaries and center enough to win the general election, and it’s a load of horseshit. No politicians really win by doing that. When Michael Dukakis rode in the tank, it seemed fake; when John Kerry went skeet shooting, it seemed fake. Everyone knew they wouldn’t have been doing those things if it weren’t for the cameras, and the chance to appear to be doing them. And Hillary’s always come off as somewhat calculating, even by political standards—the type of person who thinks that if they check all the right boxes, and look good on paper, nobody will have a reason to oppose them. (I’ve tried to be that person, too, so I can relate, at least.) Politicians don’t win that way; they win by being themselves, by saying to the electorate “This is who I am, take it or leave it.” That’s why Bernie Sanders would’ve been a far superior candidate. That’s why Obama did better than Kerry or Gore, and better than Hillary—his name was a true political liability, but he never changed it to win an election, and he used it proudly to swear his Inaugural Oath.

Also, please tone down the identity politics already. (No, wait. Hear me out.) There is, particularly in certain Democratic circles, a tendency to see people first and foremost as the sum of their group identities: male or female or trans- or cis- or whatever else; person-of-color or white or what-have-you. The inevitable corollary of that is a tendency to assume that someone “should” vote a certain way based on their group identities, or that a candidate “should” automatically win a certain percentage of the vote based on same, that someone like Caitlyn Jenner or Omorosa “shouldn’t” ever vote Republican, as if you know better than them what their priorities should be, and what emotions should most move them. This is a cancer on the body politic. Yes, everyone notices these things about others, and yes, certain classes of people have been historically disadvantaged, but we want to get away from that! (I hope.) And the true test of our progress is how quickly we see each other as individuals, as unique human beings, and not as the sum total of their identities. (Although Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech has been quoted ad nauseum, I have to bring it up here because it is the guiding star for behavior in this area: we have to work towards judging everyone solely by the content of their character. Yes, like all standards, it is impossible to reach, but we have to keep trying.)

We have to keep trying, for two reasons: 1) The inevitable corollary of minority identity politics is majority identity politics. If you don’t aspire to elections whose sole criteria of success is whether or not we elect the right person, if you are at all interested in breaking a historic precedent purely for the sake of breaking it (and then clapping yourselves on the back just for doing so), you are signaling to certain elements of society that you are hypocrites, that you do not in fact want people to be judged fairly: you just want to invert the prior power structures and create new ones that suit you. And by trying to do so in a democracy, you will have built your own glass ceiling, because there will always be more votes in the majority than there are in the minority. (I’ve worked in companies where my minority and female coworkers weren’t getting a fair shake based on those factors—but I’ve also worked in places where I, as a white male, wondered if I wasn’t getting opportunities for promotion because I wasn’t “diverse” enough. Neither situation was pleasant.) Also, 2) It leads you to assume the worst of whoever opposes you. There’s a smug comfort to saying someone else is racist/sexist/homophobic, etc., but when you assume the worst of someone, it always, always, always rubs them the wrong way. The best way to win isn’t by conquering enemies, or by de-friending them on Facebook when they don’t agree with your assessments. (This only turns yourself into the right’s caricature of you—an overly-sensitive person who can’t engage in public dialogue without “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings.”) The best way to win is by turning enemies into friends. To do that, you have to assume a certain amount of good faith on their part; you have to acknowledge that, if you were in their shoes, you may well have made the exact same decisions they made.

But I’d be more than remiss if I didn’t say something to the Republicans. Republicans, Republicans, Republicans. You, too, have condemned yourselves to squeaker elections, to late nights eyeing returns from Florida and Ohio, to elections where you win the Electoral College but lose the popular vote. Why? Because lately you have been far more interested in winning than you have been in actually, you know, governing.

By my estimation, the last Republican president who actually governed was Reagan. That is to say, he had a set of ideals that he thought were best, and he sought to win, but he also sought to be a little above the fray afterwards, because he knew he was the president of all Americans, not just of the ones who voted for him. He never would have shut down the government out of sheer spite.

Since Reagan, there’s been a bit of a tawdry triumphalism about the GOP, a sore loserdom and a sorer winnerdom, a “fuck ‘em—they didn’t vote for us” mentality that ignores cities and does indeed leave the losers thinking, “Well, he’s not my president.” You’re never going to have a Reagan-in-’84 steamroller of an election again so long as you have that mentality; you, too, are never going to turn enemies into friends.

What’s worse, you are so out-of-whack on the winning that you have no claim whatsoever to be a party of principle. It appears you have sold your soul to a man who can convincingly fake authenticity better than anyone out there, a man who’s spent a lifetime building facades, and then hiding behind them until they crumble, and rebuilding them elsewhere. You impeached a man for lying about consensual sex, only to go on and elect a man who may well be a sexual predator. You would be wise to at least pay a little more attention to identity politics; you cannot ignore or belittle or talk over minority concerns and ignore their very real pain and then wonder why they don’t vote for you. (Former provocateur and recently-woke pundit Glenn Beck seems to understand this, at least; he has learned that he can’t just talk, that he has to listen to people whose experiences he can never feel himself.) I’ve heard plenty of stories of minority friends who were treated unjustly by police; I’ve heard plenty of stories from women who have been victims of sexual assault and abuse, and are understandably uncomfortable when they see a man behave the way the Donald has, and then win election to the highest office in the land. You may not share someone else’s feelings, but you can’t blindly discount them and then expect them to listen to you. You can’t ignore the pain of the rape survivor, or the family member of a police shooting victim, and act all surprised when they say #NotMyPresident.

In short, Republicans, if you focus solely on winning arguments and elections, while ignoring the fact that you then have to govern the losers, you will end up destroying yourselves with your hollow victories. The only Republicans in the last few decades who’ve had any real constructive ideas about actually doing something once they got into power—something other than attempting to starve the government until it starts kicking and screaming—have been Herman Cain and Steve Forbes. Both of them sought fairer and more straightforward taxation—and both were shot down early. (Cain’s national sales tax is actually an idea that’s long, long, long overdue; it will be an immense good to the body politic if we can truly say that everyone pays for the government, and everyone benefits from it.)

And here’s the thing, Republicans—we do need government. Markets work well, to a point; personal responsibility is great, to a point. Because there will always, always, always be at least some people who are operating in bad faith, who are only too happy to use wealth and power and privilege simply to amass more wealth and power and privilege. There will always be bullies; the answer to bullying isn’t to fault the weak for their weakness, and their inability to protect themselves, but rather to protect the weak, and to give them a chance to grow strong. Because if we don’t—if we are only a government of, by, and for the strong and powerful and wealthy, we truly are no better than Nazi Germany, and we'll eventually end up that way.

Throughout his business career, and on the campaign trail, Donald Trump showed signs of being a bully. That can be seductive; if you don’t feel powerful (and many in America don’t), latching on to someone who seems to project power seems like the best option. If we have, in fact, elected a bully to the highest office in the land, our first best hope is for him to do whatever work he needs to do behind the façade to grow his heart, and have a change of heart, to realize, like Reagan, that he is in fact the president of all Americans, and that the best way to build a lasting legacy is to be a good winner, to shed the temporary trappings of shabby triumphalism and govern with the grace and magnanimity that converts enemies to friends. (If someone like George Wallace—perhaps the most presidential candidate in history—can have a change of heart, surely it’s possible for Trump.) To his credit, Trump showed signs of that in his victory speech; for as much as I dreaded seeing him up there, I had to admit he looked somewhat presidential.

We can’t truly know what’s in anyone’s heart, so as a backstop to hope, we need to trust laws, to trust government as being bigger than human whims and failings. The presidency, as Obama mentioned in his absolutely stellar remarks yesterday, is bigger than any person, and bigger than any ego. There are, certainly, reasons to be truly pessimistic about this election: we have yet another president who lost the popular vote; we have a president who, if not racist, does seem too comfortable with their support. And there are reasons to be cynical. (The cynic in me still says Trump’s a con man; the super cynic says the establishment is playing the long con, throwing him the presidency now so that, if we do go through a deep economic collapse, we can throw Trump to the wolves and put the presidency back in more familiar hands.) But there are reasons to be truly optimistic: we’ve had yet another peaceful transfer of power. Both of 2016’s attempted coronations—Jeb Bush’s, and Hillary Clinton’s—have failed, and we have a leader who was indubitably elected by the voters. And what’s more, Trump does seem like he could be a man who will not govern as he ran. We need to keep an eye on him, yes, but we must at least allow him a chance to grow into his role. We cannot afford to wait two years, or four years, to be happy—especially since we will then be paranoid about losing our gains in yet another two or four years. We need to learn to be happy now.

- Gerald Brennan