You might think that talking about death would be somber, and yes, sometimes it was.
But there was plenty of laughter. One man introduced himself by saying, “Today is a banner day. Today I’ve lived longer than I’ve ever lived before.”
One woman told the story of a friend, who, when she learned she had inoperable cancer, said, “Oh, I don’t have to go to work anymore.”
One man said he was comfortable with the idea of dying, but he couldn’t get himself to move on the paperwork like his will and advanced directive.
We heard about a woman with a terminal disease who was determined to end her own life and planned her suicide so thoroughly, she even sought out a partner for her soon-to-be-widowed spouse.
Another participant told about a friend who was dying who asked to have his funeral before he died, and he did, with a marching band and a theater troupe performing skits, and then he died two days later.
We even heard about a new attempt to use virtual reality to help people prepare for death. You put this contraption on your head and experience entering into a different reality.
But there were also tears. One woman, whose mother had died a number of years ago, found herself unexpectedly crying. She had missed her mother’s death, and is still grieving over that.
This Death Cafe, on the last day of March, was hosted by Sukhasiddhi Foundation (pronounced suka city), a Buddhist meditation center in Fairfax, California. I had attended one in the same venue four years ago — see My First Death Cafe — and for almost everyone who came then, it was for the first time. This time, at least half had attended one before.
Death Cafe is a “social franchise,” which mean anyone can host one, use the name Death Cafe, post their event to deathcafe.com, and speak to the press as an affiliate of Death Cafe. The events are usually free or for a small donation. There’s no agenda, or intent to sell people on a product or idea. And there’s always coffee and cake. It’s a discussion group, not grief support or counseling.
The Death Cafe model was founded and developed in 2011 in London by Jon Underwood and Susan Barsky Reid, and built on the ideas of Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz, who opened a Café Mortel (Death Café) for an exhibition in his Geneva museum called La Mort à Vivre (Death for Life).
Pat Berube, a teacher at Sukhasiddhi, facilitated this gathering and said that since the Death Cafe started, more than 8,000 gatherings have taken place. All over the world, primarily the western countries, but in April, there are Death Cafes scheduled in Lagos, Nigeria, and Lázaro Cárdenas in Michoacán, Mexico. There’s even a Virtual Death Cafe meeting online on April 12 via Zoom.
Since I attended my first Death Cafe, the founder, Jon Underwood, died of leukemia at 44. I also learned that the man who led the Death Cafe in Fairfax four years ago had died as well. (I do remember that when he introduced himself, he said he had a terminal disease.)
What’s also happened in the past four years has been an explosion in the end-of-life movement. More organizations are promoting talking about dying. More doctors and medical practitioners are urging a change in how we approach death.
The Netflix documentary, End Game, gives viewers an intimate look at dying patients at UCSF Medical Center and the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco.
Another documentary, Extremis, which was nominated for a 2017 Academy Award and 2 Emmys, explores end of life-decision-making in the intensive care unit
This fall, in San Francisco, a group called Reimagine End of Life, will be hosting its second gathering exploring death through music, comedy, dance, and the arts.
There are more than 100 Death Cafes scheduled this April, from Denmark to New Zealand to Texas. Sukhasiddhi has hosted more than ten in the past five years.
At the Sukhasiddhi gathering, after introductions, we settled into discussions at tables of four or five, and we took turns talking about why were there. I spoke about my mom dying last year, at 95. But more about her decline—how she lost her sight, then her mobility, then her mind. We had a small crowd on a sunny and gorgeous Sunday afternoon, but it was a very moving, intimate, and profound experience.
No one wants to talk about death, right? Most of us would rather talk about anything, even sex or money.
So it was somewhat of a surprise to arrive at the Mill Valley Library on a March afternoon to find the Creekside Room packed for a “Plan Well, Live Well, Die Well” workshop. (Somewhat of a surprise? Well, Mill Valley.)
The workshop was the first collaboration between the library and Mill Valley Village, a volunteer membership organization that helps older adults remain active, independent, and connected. It was led by the three founding members of Dyalogues — a Bay Area- based company dedicated to facilitating conversations about death and what matters most in our lives.
UCSF palliative medicine physician Dawn Gross, business development consultant Nancy Belza, and marriage and family therapist Paul Puccinelli kicked the workshop off by introducing themselves, describing the goals of the workshop — for participants to “have what they want, by starting with the end in mind” — and then passed out decks of cards.
We each received a deck of 43 cards, and we were to imagine that we were seriously ill, near the end of life. Each card had a wish. Such as:
— To die at home. — To be clean. — Not to die alone. — To forgive (or make amends). — Not to lose my dignity.
We were instructed to go through our cards and put them in three stacks — what we want most, what we pretty much want, and what maybe isn’t all that important.
(It was a challenge for me not to put almost all of them in the first pile, and I’m sure that was the case for many of us.)
Then we were asked to take that first pile, the cards with the wishes that resonated most for us, and narrow it down to three.
I picked: To be at peace. To be with people I love. To keep my sense of humor.
(I figured that if I’m at peace and I have my sense of humor, I can weather losing my dignity and not being clean.)
Then we worked with a partner, or two, to dig deeper. We were supposed to ask questions to help our partner get as clear as possible about what he or she wanted.
Dawn and Paul modeled the conversation for us. One of Paul’s wishes was: To be with people I love. Dawn asked him who those people were. Paul said his wife, his two children, and his dog.
Dawn asked, what does it mean, to be with them?
I’m in a bed at home, Paul said, and my family is being normal and I’m part of it. (Then came a discussion about whether the dog would be allowed on the bed — yes — and how some hospitals now allow animals for end-of-life patients. One participant also mentioned that there’s a way, through the SPCA, to arrange care for your pets after you die.)
We had half an hour to discuss our wishes with our partner(s). My partner and I got through two of our cards. In regards to my wish to be at peace, she asked me if I was at peace now, and I said yes, but not as much as I could be.
One of her wishes was to forgive (and make amends), and when I asked her to tell me more, she said there were people who had wronged her who were no longer in her life, but they were, “still renting space in my head.”
We both noted that what we wished for on our deathbed was just as true for the present, but we didn’t grasp until the wrap-up that that was intentional. That what we wish for the end of our life is generally what we want today.
“Take home number one,” said Dawn, once we finished our discussions. “This is about now. You don’t have to wait to have these conversations. What matters to you as you imagine the end of your life most likely matters to you now. If there’s a playlist of music you want to hear when you’re dying, don’t you also want to listen to it now?”
She did remind us, however, that what we want evolves. “My husband and I play this game every year on our anniversary. It’s one of the most intimate conversations of the year.”
With people we know well, she suggested we play the game in reverse. Instead of sorting the deck for ourselves, we sort it for our partners. See how well we know them.
She uses the cards with her patients, some of whom are too weak to hold conversations. She holds them one by one, sees if they nod.
The wish cards are not available yet — we were the first to use this particular set — but they will be later this year. But, of course, you don’t have to wait for a deck of cards to talk about your wishes.
To learn more about Dyalogues, go to dyalogues.com/. You may also be interested in listening to Dr. Gross’ KALW radio podcast series, “Dying To Talk.”
To find out more about future workshops like this, and other wonderful programs at the library, sign up for the Mill Valley Library email newsletter at millvalleylibrary.org. (That’s how I found out about this workshop.)
Also, the San Francisco Public Library has just started a new series called “Death & Dying: Rest in Peace,” with a free program every month through September.
My wife and I had planned on walking together in the Women’s March this past Saturday. But pressing family issues came up on Friday, she had to cancel, so at the last minute, I signed up to be a marshall at the march, a “peace ambassador,” and I arrived at at Madison Park in Oakland early Saturday morning, where I got an orientation and a neon yellow vest.
The park was still pretty sleepy at 8 a.m. Elderly Chinese were doing tai chi and badminton volleys on the west side of the park, and on the east side, a dozen or two volunteers were gathering and chatting. The sky was overcast, but there was no rain, and the sun peeked through now and then.
We all teamed up with buddies and one member of each team got a radio, and then we went over the route and various contingency plans. They divided us into groups by where we were standing and I ended up as one of three dozen or so volunteers whose job it was to create a wedge in front of the lead banner, clearing the center of the street for the march and creating enough space in front for photo ops.
This proved to be more complicated than I imagined. By the time we left the park, shortly after 10 a.m., the streets were so packed with people, we had to clear a path before the march could start.
At 9th and Oak Street, about 30 to 40 of us peace ambassadors held hands, formed a V-shaped wedge, and walked north on Oak Street, gently herding people from the center of the street to the sides. We walked about two blocks, trying to hold the space behind us as we moved forward. Then about half of us turned around, and went most of the way back, to where the folks holding the lead banner had set up, across four lanes of Oak Street. A man named Stefan with a megaphone was directing us — it felt like a military operation even though we were marching for peace.
(One fellow marshall noted, that of course, we had to have a man with a megaphone giving orders at the front of a women’s march. But he knew what he was doing, and the vast majority of the marshals in the front and the people behind the lead banner were women.)
Later on Saturday, someone shared a CNN video on Facebook of marches throughout the county, and there I was in the upper left corner of a clip from Oakland. With my fanny pack and bald spot on the top of my head. You can see the space we created in front of the banner.
Here it is from further above. See that empty space behind the wedge.
And here’s what the lead banner looked like from the front. (Photo by James Lerager.)
We started marching. We were directed to slow down, speed up, and now and then to stop and kneel, so photographers could get a better photo. “If only,” someone quipped, “someone was documenting this amazing march.” If only.
One of my buddies, Lily, was at the apex of the wedge for most of the march. I shouted over to her at one point, “Hey, Lily, I bet you weren’t expecting you’d be leading the march.” She shook her head and smiled.
I was on her left, about three or four people away, walking sideways for much of the march, holding hands with Jane, my other buddy, a few feet ahead of me on my right, and a man whose name I never learned a few feet behind me on my left. Sometimes both my arms were being pulled, in opposite directions. We didn’t always stay in formation, but the wedge worked the way it was supposed to. I had never given much thought to how to manage a march. It was harder than I expected, especially with crowds in the tens of thousands. We heard estimates ranging from 60,000 to 100,000. I was in no position to assess the size of the crowd, other than it was larger than organizers expected. And everyone was peaceful.
The energy, the camaraderie, the creativity, the love was palpable. It felt as much like a celebration as a protest, though of course, the signs were defiant.
Some of my favorites.
“Girls just want to have fun-damental rights.”
“You’re so vain, you probably think this march is about you.”
“The future is female.”
“We are the wall.”
“I would not want to be the guy who pissed all these women off.”
A wonderful day. A wonderful march. I’m so grateful I stumbled into the opportunity to lead it. Sort of.
I’m going to treat this experience as if it’s a metaphor for something. Now I just need to figure out what it is.
Thanks to all the hard-working folks who organized the march. Now we start the really hard work.
If you haven’t already gorged on march photos, here are more from the Oakland march, courtesy of James Lerager.
How and Why I Gave Away My First Book to Attract New Readers to My Second
Despite the headline, I’d prefer to frame my book giveaway as an experiment, not a failure. I tested the strategy of making my book free and got definitive results — fewer sales or reviews than my modest projections. A successful experiment, but a failed strategy.
I published Bones in the Wash more than two years ago, and, being new to book marketing, didn’t realize that unless I tirelessly flogged the book, no one would know about it, let alone buy it. I hosted a fun and successful book launch at a cafe near my house in Berkeley, which attracted more than 50 people and I gave talks at the California Writers Club in Berkeley and Marin. I wrote blog posts and pitched the book on Facebook, Twitter, and GoodReads. I started an email newsletter, and sent notes to friends and colleagues.
I tried a variety of blurbs. Here’s one:
One half political thriller, one half family soap, and one half murder mystery — that’s right, it’s a novel and a half — Bones in the Wash careens through the pressure cooker of the 2008 presidential campaign in New Mexico, where straitlaced Albuquerque Mayor Tomas Zamara grapples with a fierce opponent, a volatile new woman, a demanding family. Oh, and he’s a suspect in his wife’s murder.
Response to the book has been heartening. I now have 60 reviews, including the most recent one, just posted a few days ago.
Doesn’t make much difference that the book is good if potential readers don’t know it exists.
I had read many posts suggesting that making your ebook free was a way to find new readers who then might write a positive review and/or purchase your other books. That sounded like a good plan.
I heard a presentation at a California Writers Club–Berkeley meeting by South Bay author Chess Desalls, about how she’s gained readers for her series of four young adult time travel books with a BookBub promotion. For a price, BookBub promotes your free or discounted book to its email list of millions. But BookBub is tough to crack. I submitted Bones twice and was rejected twice. (Desalls did suggest that a giveaway is more likely to be effective for a series — my two novels are distinct, with different characters, different settings, even different genres.)
Despite the BookBub rejections, I have succeeded in getting my free ebook downloaded by more than 5,000 potential readers, far more than I expected. With minimal promotion.
My first step was uploading a new digital version of Bones in the Wash, with an ad for Wasted at the beginning, and a letter to the reader at the end, asking for a review, and suggesting they might like Wasted. Then I made the book free on Smashwords. Amazon will not let you set the price to free, but they will match the lower price elsewhere. (I did, as suggested, first lower the Kindle price from $2.99 to $0.99)
Nothing happened at first. Then I asked four different people to go to the Amazon page and click where it said “lower price elsewhere.) The price stayed at $0.99. Then, a week later, Amazon changed it to free.
The next day, without me doing anything, Bones showed up as a featured free ebook on Digital Book Today, as one of the Top 100 Free Kindle Books on Amazon.
On its first morning, it was one of the top 10 downloads. Within the first week, more than 3,000 people downloaded the book.
Because this was an experiment, I set some goals, which I thought were extremely conservative. I estimated that I’d get one sale of Wasted or the paperback version of Bones in the Wash for every 100 ebook downloads. Here were my projections for April and May.
Bones paperback sales
The downloads kept coming. By June 1, there were more than 5,000 downloads, many times more than the number of books I’ve sold.
The sales and reviews trickled in. Slowly. One here, two there. Two five-star reviews showed up on Amazon. But mostly, nothing. Except more downloads, and even they tapered off.
I got a little obsessed, checked my sales and reviews three, four times daily. I reminded myself that it takes people a while to read the book. They might have other books in their queue ahead of mine. They might like to download free books, but not read them.
Soon enough, I realized my modest 1 percent estimate was too high.
Because I was busy with other things and thought this promotion would spur sales more, I did hardly any other marketing, so I presume most of the sales and reviews I did get were as a result of this giveaway gamble.
I included my email in the book, and got two notes, including a lovely one from woman who’s been fighting voter suppression and appreciated that I was able to illustrate that issue in an entertaining way, and that my protagonists demonstrated integrity and bravery. (She also said she was going to pick up Wasted, and there was a purchase the next day, though Amazon doesn’t tell me who the purchaser is.)
Here are my numbers as of August 15.
Note: The Bones sales include international sales of the ebook, as well as paperback sales.
So the book sales, of 42, which most certainly include some sales not related to the free promotion, amounts to 0.8 percent of downloads. Not too short of my goal. Maybe it’s better to call this a disappointment than a failure.
As for reviews, I didn’t even come close to my projections. I ended up with 11 more Bones reviews on Amazon and four more on GoodReads, and my average rating went down. The 11 Amazon reviews averaged 3.6 — including 1 3-star, 2 2-stars, and my first 1-star. Before the promotion, I only had 4- and 5-star reviews.
Here’s what that 1-star reviewer said:
Truly Terrible: If you can get past the author’s ameturish (sic) writing style, and if you can get past the unimaginative characters, and if you can get past the lack of any semblance of a good story line, and if you are a liberal, then you might actually like this book for some reason beyond my personal understanding. However, if you appreciate good writing, then you would be smart to not even touch this book. It is terrible. Period.
Guess he or she didn’t like my politics.
That’s another downside of free — it’s more likely that people who might not appreciate the book will download it just because it’s free.
That’s the last part of my experiment. To raise the price back to $2.99 and see if anyone buys it now. And to share this post far and wide and see if that finds me any new readers.
When my recent book tour ended — “not with a bang, but a whimper,” to borrow from the Hollow Men — I was relieved it was over. Now I wish I had more readings scheduled.
The “Wasted Author Tour,” which included ten readings in Detroit, Berkeley, Mill Valley, San Rafael, Corte Madera, Albuquerque, and Santa Fe, was stressful, turnout was disappointing more often than not, and it didn’t generate enough audience or book sales to justify the time I devoted to it.
But I would do it again.
I always enjoyed giving the talk. And the people who showed up seemed to as well.
My goal with this post is to share an honest account of the tour. This is not advice, because I don’t consider myself an authority. However, it may be useful for other authors who are wondering if a tour is worth the trouble.
It helped that Mo’Joe was a block from where I lived for 25 years, and at least a dozen friends were able to walk to the reading from home. It was also my only reading, and I pulled out all the stops to get people there.
At Copperfield’s Books in San Rafael, my third reading on the Wasted Tour, the store manager had to unfold more chairs to accommodate latecomers. (No one sat in the front row, however.) The audience of 30 was the biggest turnout of the tour and, coming on the heels of a turnout of 25 in Detroit and 17 at the Ecology Center in Berkeley, I was feeling pretty good. Well, the Ecology Center was a disappointment, particularly given that the venue and my book, set in the recycling world, were a good match and the Ecology Center actively promoted the reading. Maybe it was just they set up too many chairs.
The week of my two readings in Berkeley, at Urban Ore and Mo’Joe Cafe, I managed to get an interview in Berkeleyside, and several strangers who attended the Mo’Joe reading told me they learned about it from that interview. (I also sold ten books on Amazon the day the interview was posted, my best day ever.)
In early August, I set my goal: Plan, promote, and execute six public readings in 2015. Sell 100 books.
I talked up my tour to everyone I know, sent out targeted emails to several hundred people; shared posts on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn; and listed the readings on craigslist, SFGate, Berkeleyside, and more. Several of the venues made their own posters and promoted the reading through their newsletters and social media. I also designed a bookmark with all the readings on one side and a brief blurb on the other, which I passed out throughout the tour.
I heard an ad on the radio for a website builder that promises to “make your business look bigger than you really are.” That was not my intention when I promoted my readings, but my emails and website and bookmarks did create that effect. To be honest, even I was impressed that I had lined up ten readings.
Setting Up the Readings
Setting up the readings was easier than I expected. All it took was persistence. And more persistence. I started with an email. Sometimes, I had a personal contact, like Mo’Joe Cafe, where I’d met the owner years ago and did the Bones in the Wash reading in 2014, or the Ecology Center, where I’d served on the board back in the 1990s. Most of the time, I didn’t get a response, but I followed up with another email and/or a phone call. There were also five or six venues that never responded or said no. Like the Berkeley Library, where I had met two of the librarians and I thought it would be a sure thing.
Urban Ore was a bit of a stretch, though I learned they had hosted a few poetry readings over the years. But the epigram of the book is from Urban Ore co-founders Dan Knapp and Mary Lou Van Deventer: “Waste isn’t waste until it’s wasted.” I had also interviewed Dan decades ago, when I was writing about garbage and waste for the East Bay Express and other publications, and I interviewed him again this fall as part of promoting the tour. (See From Sociology to Salvage.)
The Tam Valley Cabin is in my neighborhood, and familiar to me because I’ve been a food tent volunteer for Creekside Friday concerts the past two summers. I paid $25 to rent it for an hour. My wife and I brought refreshments — wine, cheese, and crackers.
My siblings hosted two of the readings, and while I designed flyers and postcards, they did all the work promoting it locally, and setting up the venue and food.
Ten Percent Better
My presentation evolved with each reading, but I gave the same general spiel. On my first stop, Detroit, I was surrounded by English professors. My wife and I were on a family-and-friends vacation in the Midwest, and I had tried to set up a reading at a bookstore or cafe in Ann Arbor or Ypsilanti, where my brother Michael lives. No luck on that front, but Michael organized a panel at the University of Detroit Mercy, where he’s an English professor and chair of the English Department.
Hemmed in as I was between two English professors — there were also several in the audience — I started by disavowing any presumption that Wasted is literature. “My goal is entertainment,” I said, “and if there’s any literary merit in the book, it’s a fortuitous accident.” That got a healthy laugh. I started having fun.
But that’s not really true. What I aimed for with Wasted was that sweet spot between literary fiction and trashy beach reading. Where the story races along and you can’t put it down, but the characters are three-dimensional, the writing is tight. Wasted, set in the gritty and malodorous world of garbage and recycling, is also rich with resonant themes of reinvention, transition, and discarding that which no longer serves us. “Still,” I said, “it’s not the kind of novel you’re going to study in literature class.”
Although I called these events “ readings,” I usually read for less than 10 minutes. I talked first about how I came to write the book, which took about 15 or 20 minutes, then read the first chapter, eight minutes long, before taking questions. I always had a second excerpt prepared, but read it at only two of the gatherings. I wanted to keep the readings under an hour, and there were usually enough questions to fill the time.
One story I enjoyed telling was about my singular experience reading Wasted as a reader, not an author. I started writing Wasted back in the late 1990s, and after finishing it and sending it to 60 or 70 agents and getting nibbles, but no bites, I set it aside and got on with my life. I wrote a second novel, Bones in the Wash, and published it in 2013. Then, in the spring of 2014, I read Wasted again, for the first time in years. I remember one day when I was about two-thirds of the way through the book, and I was hungry and it was lunchtime, but I couldn’t put the book down. I couldn’t remember what happened next, and I couldn’t wait to find out. That was pretty exciting, to read the book as if weren’t its author.
I always talked about the importance of the novel writing group I was part of for more than a dozen years. They read both my books, often in two or three chapter chunks, months in between chapters, sometimes many versions of the same chapters. I could never have completed the books without them, let alone had them turn out as well as they did. One of the group members came to my Urban Ore reading, and before we started, I assured him that Wasted was at least 10 percent better than when he read it last. “Oh, you cut 10 percent,” he quipped. (I repeated that line at every subsequent reading.)
Many of the questions were about the mechanics of self-publishing. I talked about how self-publishers used to have to print up books in advance and ship them out from boxes in their basement. But now, the book is not even printed until it’s ordered. There’s no inventory sitting on a shelf. The online retailer, Amazon or otherwise, has the template in its database, and when you buy the book, then they print it. A lot of people were surprised by that.
How Much I Make
The economics of books are not straightforward. When I sold 11 books at Copperfield’s, I made less than $10, but the 13 books I sold at Mo’Joe Cafe netted more than $100. Like most bookstores, Copperfield’s purchases the books through Ingram, which wholesales books for bookstores and allows them to return unsold books.
I self-published my first book, Bones in the Wash, through CreateSpace, which is owned by Amazon. That makes it all but impossible to get bookstores to carry it. So when I published Wasted, I did so through Ingram as well as CreateSpace. Now anyone can ask their local bookstore to order the book. (Hint, hint.)
At Copperfield’s and the other three bookstore readings, a store employee rang up the books through the cash register for $12.99, the same price as Amazon. I got 74 cents for each book.
At the non-bookstore venues, I sold the books myself, for $10 to $20 sliding scale, or two for $25. I had $60 in change in my pocket, plus a credit card reader I plugged into my phone. More people gave me $20 than $10, so I averaged about $16 per book. The books cost me $5.60 each, including shipping and handling, so I made more than $10 per book.
Two years ago, my sister and her husband, who had lived their whole lives in Chicago, within three miles of where they grew up, moved to Santa Fe to retire. We had been planning on visiting them, and settled on November, which was after my book tour. But then I scheduled more Bay Area readings in November, and since my first book was set in New Mexico, I thought I’d try to add a New Mexico stop to my tour. I asked my sister if she’d be willing to host a house party, and I also scheduled a reading at the Flying Star Cafe in Albuquerque, where I knocked on doors for Barack Obama in 2008. Not only did I hang out at the cafe seven years ago, I set two scenes in the book there.
No one came to the Flying Star. Not for the reading, that is.
I invited a number of people I knew in Albuquerque, from working with them in 2008, and the Flying Star had posted notices in the print and online edition of the Alibi, the local weekly. I also designed and posted a flyer on the cafe’s Facebook page.
My wife and I sat in an visible corner behind a stack of books. Anyone looking for the reading could have easily found us. As 7 o’clock came and went and no one showed up, I began hoping no one would. Reading to one or two people would have felt more like a failure than just slinking out.
We struck up a conversation with a couple at the next table and even sold them a book. They had tickets to a concert, so they couldn’t stay for the reading. The café food was excellent, so it wasn’t a total waste.
Fortunately, the house party two days later at my sister’s in Santa Fe made up for the Flying Star flop. It was wonderful — not only did I meet a bunch of new people, it was so comfortable to do the reading in her house. Plus I had a lot of engaging conversations before and after the “official” reading. Anne did a great job promoting the party, which was open to the public — they had to RSVP to get directions — but as with most of my readings, everyone who came were people she knew.
Attendance and Sales
In retrospect, the early readings of this tour, where I was unhappy with turnout, like 17 people at the Ecology Center, or 20 at Urban Ore, well, that was pretty damn good. What I know now, what I knew already, but conveniently forgot, is that small audiences come with the territory, unless you’re a name author. And no matter how well an event is promoted, few strangers show up. At every gathering, except the two hosted by my siblings — the panel at the University of Detroit, and the house party at my sister Anne’s in Santa Fe — I knew almost all of the people who came.
Here are the raw numbers — reading dates, locations, attendance, and sales. (The links are to blog posts or photos.)
So I exceeded my goal for scheduling readings, but not for sales. (Unless I count online sales during that period.) I didn’t set a goal for attendance, but it would have been higher than 164 if I had.
One of the most common questions at the readings was “What’s next?” At the Santa Fe house party, I I felt like I spent as much time talking about the book I haven’t written yet as the two I have.
The next novel follows Lamar Rose, a secondary character in Bones in Wash, as his father, who has cancer and dementia, demands that Lamar help him end his life. Lamar refuses at first, but then does the deed, and is accused of murder by his sister at their father’s memorial. What follows is a high-profile public fight, pitting the death-with-dignity movement against the right-to-life movement, with each sibling an unwilling front person.
I’ve written half a first draft, and I have already churned through three working titles — Edgewater, Quality of Life, and Cheeks as Smooth as Ice. (I welcome feedback on the titles.) You can read a draft of the first chapter here.
My first reading and signing for Wasted came in Detroit, Michigan, where I was surrounded by English professors —physically and mentally. I was one of three authors on a panel at the University of Detroit Mercy, called “On Telling a Story and Getting Others to Read It,” with UDM Professor Nick Rombes, and retired UDM Professor R.J. Reilly. (My brother Michael Barry, who introduced us, is also a professor, and chair of the UDM English Department. Our father was an English professor at Loyola University for more than 30 years.)
Hemmed in as I was by English professors, I began by disavowing any presumption that I was writing literature. “I’m writing entertainment,” I said. “If there’s any literary merit in my books, that’s an fortuitous accident.”
That said, I added, I did set Wasted in the gritty and malodorous world of garbage and recycling, which is rich with resonant themes of reinvention, transition, and discarding that which no longer serves us.
I also mentioned that I was in Minneapolis recently and attended a friend’s book reading. He recounted asking a bookseller what was the difference between literature and genres like mystery, suspense, or thriller. The bookseller responded that people read the genre books.
Early on, I asked for a show of hands. How many of the two dozen or so participants had thought about writing a novel?
How many have started writing one?
I think there was one person in addition to the three of us on the stage.
R.J. (Bob) Reilly is 90, and retired from UDM before my brother started there. Though he’d done plenty of academic writing while teaching, including an acclaimed essay on Henry James, he didn’t begin writing novels until he retired. With the help of his daughter, Mary McCall, who teaches technical writing at UDM, he’s published two novels and a volume of short stories. His daughter read a moving passage from The Prevalence of Love about how war dehumanizes everyone in its wake.
Nick Rombes, seated on the other side of me, is a film buff, whose novel, the The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing, follows a film librarian who watches a stockpile of unknown films by acclaimed directors, burns them, and then describes them to a journalist from memory. Rombes talked about the appeal of misremembering.
I read the first chapter from Wasted — you can see the first three chapters here — and then mostly talked about the process of publishing.
What seemed to resonate most, if the questions were at all representative, was how much publishing has changed. Bob Reilly said the hardest part wasn’t the writing, but preparing the book for publication. For me, I said, it’s the marketing and finding readers that’s so challenging. (Of course, I have been an editor and designer for decades, so while I hadn’t gone through the specific steps of publishing a novel before, the publishing process was familiar.)
I talked about how self-publishers used to have to print up books in advance and ship them out from boxes in their basement. But now, the book is not even printed until it’s ordered. There’s no inventory sitting on a shelf. The online retailer, Amazon or otherwise, has the template in its database, and when you buy the book, then they print it.
The ebook is another huge change. They are easy to publish, but it’s increasingly difficult to find readers, because there are more books available than ever before.
Several students asked about formatting for the different versions. “When you publish a print book, what’s on page 23 is always on page 23,” I said, “but an ebook doesn’t have page numbers because what each page looks like is dependent on the device you read it on. Like a web page, the text flows to fill the screen as you widen or narrow your browser, so you have to strip almost all the formatting except for styles before uploading an ebook. But if you do it right, it can be published within 24 hours of your upload.”
The UDM panel was a wonderful start to my “Wasted Author Tour.” I even sold a few books. (You can buy one here.)
Thanks to my brother Michael Barry for organizing the panel and to my two panel colleagues, R.J. Reilly and Nick Rombes. (You may be interested in seeing the UDM Varsity News report on the panel.)
Here are the upcoming dates for my “Wasted Author Tour.”
Saturday, I talked with a group of strangers about death — it was the most intimate and meaningful conversation of my week.
This was my first Death Cafe, and the first one for most of the 50 to 60 people gathered at the Sukhasiddhi Foundation, a Buddhist meditation center in Fairfax, California.
In small groups, mostly four people sitting around café tables with coffee and pastries, we discussed three hypothetical questions —
If you knew you had twelve months to live, what would you do?
If someone you were close to died and you could somehow speak to on from the other side, what would you ask them?
How would you like to die and why?
There were twelve tables around the room, plus a group sitting on pillows in the middle. Each person got three minutes to answer the question, then there was a gong, and it was on to the next person. After the small group discussions, the facilitator opened it up to the larger group and moved around the room with a microphone.
Most participants were middle-aged, middle-class, and white. A few were under fifty. More than a few appeared to be over seventy.
Since launching in London in 2011, there have been more than 1,863 Death Cafes. As of this past Saturday. In the several days since, there have been at least a dozen more — in Zurich, Seattle, St. Louis, Toronto, and Auckland, to name a few locations. Most are small gatherings, according to our facilitator in Fairfax. For our gathering, they had to find additional chairs and pillows to accommodate the crowd.
The concept is simple. People gather to talk about death, with the aim of “increasing the awareness of death to help people make the most of their (finite) lives.”
Death Cafe is a “social franchise” — that is, anyone who signs up to use the guide and principles can use the name “Death Cafe.” There’s no staff and no profit.
In our group, there seemed to be broad range of perspectives on death and what comes after. One person, for example, said that the second question implies there is another side after death and she doesn’t believe there is. What everyone seemed to agree on, however, was that it would be a good thing if we were more comfortable as individuals, families, and societies discussing death.
That’s why I attended. Last summer, my mother, who will be 92 at the end of this month, was coughing up blood and ended up in a Chicago hospital for two weeks. All five of her children, as well as most of her grandchildren, convened from California, New Mexico, Michigan, Illinois, and New York. We thought she might die. So did the doctors. Because she had a DNR (do not resuscitate) on file, we had to discuss almost every procedure. How much intervention? Did we want a breathing tube down her throat if it was necessary? No. What about antibiotics? Yes.
One woman, sitting on a pillow in the middle of the circle, recounted how a couple in her neighborhood, who’d been married for 65 years, “suicided together.” They were both members of the Hemlock Society, and they left detailed notes. The sheriff who arrived on the scene apparently said he had never felt so much love in a room. “As you can imagine,” the woman said, “this stirred up quite a bit of controversy and conversation in the neighborhood.”
Another participant spoke of a doctor who told people when and how he was going to die. The day he took his medication, his wife left and went away, in the company of other people, because if she would have been present, she could have been charged as an accessory.
I thought the question about how we would like to die was the most challenging. I started with the usual answer, the one most people give.
In bed, at home, in my sleep. WIth no warning.
But then I recalled my father’s death, where I was in the room at Evanston Hospital, with my mom and two of my brothers, and we were holding his hands and feet as he took his last breath. We could feel the warmth draining from his body. Being part of his death was one of the most powerful and profound experiences of my life, so I changed my answer. Said I’d like to die in the company of loved ones. At home. With plenty of morphine for the pain, I added.
The facilitator cited a recent California poll, showing that more than 70 percent of people would prefer to die at home in their beds. But in fact, about 70 percent die in a hospital.
You might think it would be morbid to sit inside on a sunny afternoon and discuss death, but for me, it was uplifting and fascinating. Death and how we want to die was on the agenda, but mostly we talked about how we want to live.
Here’s a silly piece I wrote a long time ago and dusted off last year for an audition.
I pride myself on being a sensitive enlightened feminist man. I’ve read Our Bodies Our Selves twice, once in hardback, and I never exploit women by opening doors for them.
I have a tough time at dances, however. I love dancing, but asking a woman to dance without compromising my integrity is where I get hung up. I can’t ask a pretty woman to dance because I’d be imposing my patriarchal standards of beauty on them. So I look for a woman I’m not attracted to. It’s even better if she doesn’t like me. Or men.
But then my body language gives me away. She can sense I don’t find her attractive, and I end up oppressing her by judging her with my internalized sexist standards, and we both feel terrible.
Fortunately, when I met Jenny, the music was loud, and we were dancing before I had a chance to think through all the socio-political implications. We made a date for the next night.
She came over to supper, because it’s hard to find a restaurant that can accommodate my diet. I used to eat meat and other oppressed foods. But now I don’t eat anything that requires the killing of any animals — or plants. I only eat fruits and vegetables that have already died of natural causes. (Of course, I also include onions in my diet because cutting onions is how I learned to cry.)
I was sobbing over the cutting board when Jenny arrived. One look at the wilted carrots on the table, and she said, “Let’s just catch a movie.”
But I had already made plans—to ride our bicycles to a civil disobedience against fracking. The perfect first date, I thought, getting arrested together for a good cause.
But on the way, she ran over some glass and got a flat tire. “It would be patronizing of me to offer to fix this,” I said, “so I’ll let you do it.”
“I’ve never been treated like this before,” she said.
I explained that that was because most men put women up on pedestals and don’t allow them to achieve their full potential as human beings or, in this case, bicycle mechanics.
“I don’t believe what you’re saying.”
“I forgive you for that,” I said, “because I understand that your mistrust of men is based on centuries and centuries of brutal oppression of women by white men, like myself. And—”
“You are one of a kind,” she said, “And why are you putting that broken glass in your pocket?”
“To recycle it course,” I said, but by then, she had hailed a cab and vanished. She didn’t even write or call me in jail.
I guess I’m just not as sensitive as I thought. So I’ve recently started a support group for men—the White Man’s Burden Support Group—because it’s crucial we men become more attuned to the plight of women.
Our first act of solidarity—since we’re not able to menstruate—is to go down to the Red Cross once a month and donate blood.
My first book, my first launch. Pretty exciting. And nerve-wracking.
More than 50 people showed up—standing room only—and though most were friends and family, there were a few strangers in the mix, which was heartening. (It helped that the Mo’ Joe Café, where we did the launch, was a block from where I lived for 25 years and walking distance for a bunch of my friends.)
My friend Bob Schildgen, author of Hey Mr. Green, served as M.C. and read a passage. My wife Nanette and my son Sean also read excerpts. I delivered a brief intro about how I came to write the book, read a few pages, and answered questions.
I was thrilled with how well it went—it felt like a smash success. (Scroll down to see some photos.)
I even ran out of books to sell. I sold 22 books, including the one I was reading from, which had a couple of pencil marks. (I thought I would be tempting the fates if I came to the launch with too many books.)
That book launch was my single best day for selling the book, but sales since have been disappointing. A year later, despite continuing to get positive response and reviews, I can sometimes go a month without selling a book. I did a better job writing my novel than I have marketing it, but I believe that even if I were a marketing superstar, it would be an uphill climb.
I expected that marketing my self-published first novel would be hard, and I was right about that. I thought, however, that I had managed my expectations pretty well. Looking back, even my modest projections seem overly ambitious.
The actual publishing wasn’t too hard—I mean, other than rewriting the book a dozen-plus times and incorporating suggestions and corrections from many readers and editors. Getting the book formatted for Kindle and trade paperback took at least a month, and a lot of careful proofreading, but it was straightforward.
I am close to completing my next novel, Wasted, a “green noir” mystery set in the world of garbage and recycling in Berkeley. I wrote Wasted before Bones in the Wash, and am now rewriting it one more time. Response so far has been positive—most everyone has enjoyed it and three people said they raced through it in a day or two. That’s what I like to hear. And that was the advance reader copy. It’s now at least 3 percent better! 🙂
My hope is that when I launch Wasted this spring, response will continue to be favorable and maybe I’ll sell a few copies of Bones in the Wash along the way.
Last year, I devoted many months writing and designing the Conservation Investment Strategy for the Russian Far East—which was about, among other things, growing markets for wild salmon in Kamchatka, scientists and indigenous hunters teaming up to monitor walruses in Chukotka for climate change impacts, mobile fire brigades fighting wildfires accidentally set by farmers burning their fields. More fascinating than you might think.
The client, Pacific Environment, was thrilled with the report and I was proud of it too. It’s some of the best work I’ve ever done.
What I found interesting, though not surprising, was that almost all the kudos were about the design, even though that accounted for only a quarter of the work.
That’s probably because most people didn’t read the entire 80 pages. And those few who did appreciated that the design elements reinforced the message of the document.
It’s a reminder to me, as a writer and designer who identifies more as a writer, that in many cases, design is as important or more important than the words.
My plan here is to deconstruct my design process to see if I can learn from what I did, and maybe others can as well. It’s not that I didn’t consciously make decisions along the way as much as that I’ve been a designer for decades and some of those decisions were almost intuitive. Looking back I can see more clearly what I did.
A word about the writing part. There was heavy slogging along the way—I had to distill hundreds of pages of dry scientific language into a compelling narrative, and there were moments when I was pulling out my hair. It’s not that the content I had to work with boring, though some of it was. But it wasn’t exactly high in entertainment value, so one of my goals was for the casual reader to get the basic message from the decks and captions and headlines.
Here’s an example—I didn’t have a photo for this story, but the concept was pretty straightforward, that satellite photos could document pollution much more effectively than a government agent who has to make an appointment to visit the mine.
What Do Readers Read?
Photos, of course, play a huge role, not just the images themselves, but the captions, which get read, depending on who you listen to, four times more often than the body text. The best captions reinforcing the message of the document. So, for example, the caption for the photo below of two tigers growling at one another doesn’t reference the photo directly, as much as it provides important context—how there are only 500 Amur tigers left in the wild, but they are on the rebound.
There’s no need for the caption to repeat what the reader can see in the photo.
I also looked for ways to feature people, in the narrative and the images. So much of the content I had to work with was scientific, like the names of threatened species, or fishing harvest data.
The chapter on Chukotka, which is across the Bering Strait from Alaska, and equally frigid, didn’t have a lot of compelling stories. All of the photos I had to start with were of stark landscapes. None of people. In my search for better images, I came across a wonderful website and story by a photographer from California, Sasha Leahovcenco, who was born in the former Soviet republic of Moldava and journeyed to Chukotka to take photos of indigenous people there, most of whom had never seen photographs of themselves before. He was happy to let me use his photos. Here’s one of my favorites.
Five-Column Grid—It’s Great to Be Odd
Even though I’ve designed dozens of reports like this, I deliberated carefully on what kind of grid to use. Mostly, for reports that are standard 8.5” x 11” size page, I use a simple two column grid, but for something long and complex like this, with maps and photos and charts, I chose five columns, which allows for both uniformity and variation. The default layout was two blocks of text, one two columns wide, the other three. It’s more interesting than two columns the same width.
It also allows for one column of white space when necessary. I found this very helpful for fitting copy. When text was added or cut, and I didn’t want to add extra pages, I could expand or contract the column width and still have a unified look.
Here are two chapter-opening spreads where the left-most column is primarily white space, and the right page uses the 2 + 3 grid. Then comes a text-heavy page with 2 + 3 on both the left and right side.
Note also how the map, which is a dominant element in the first spread above, is used on a smaller scale at the bottom of the second spread, as a locator map for the particular region being addressed, in this case, Chukotka. Maps are especially important when readers may not know the area, but even when they do, they help anchor the story.
Another design element that helped orient readers (pun intended) was including a mini-contents box at the bottom of each chapter’s opening page to supplement the map. This was a big and complicated document, and though these mini-tables of contents were redundant to what was in the main table of contents, I wanted to make it as easy as possible for readers to know where they were and what was coming.
Arguably, the most important design decision was to use wide horizontal bars in gold, olive, and rust to feature what I call “decks.” (They are often referred to as “pull-quotes,” but for this project, I more often distilled an important point into a sentence that might been a paragraph in the text.)
Like the grid, the regular use of the color bars contributed to a unified design, but they were even more versatile than the grid.
Because I used the color bars in a slightly different way each time, I was able to use them more than a dozen times without being repetitive. What was consistent was the color palette, the height of the boxes, and the typeface, and what varied was the length and placement of the stripes, and the specific colors. In some cases where there were three lines, I used all three colors. In some cases, all three stripes were aligned on the left. But other times, I staggered them or only used two colors. (In a few places, where I was already using the olive green as a background, I added a fourth color, a darker green to the color bar palette.
Below are a some examples. You can see that the placement, alignment, colors, and length vary, and of course, the words do too, but the palette and typeface keep things unified.
From My Kitchen Cabinets to the Russian Far East
Choosing a color palette is one of the most important parts of a design, and there are almost an infinite number of options.
I knew I wanted warm colors to counteract the arctic content. I started with rust, one of my favorites, and before I realized it, I was working with roughly the same colors I painted my kitchen cabinets in Berkeley a decade ago. (I know I can’t keep using the same colors over and over, but recycling a palette every ten years doesn’t seems to be a problem.)
Back around the turn of the century, my kitchen cabinets were medium brown wooden doors and drawers that were becoming increasingly ugly with wear and tear. On a trip to Mexico, I purchased colorful ceramic (Talavera) knobs from street vendors in San Miguel de Allende, and my plan was to paint the cabinets white and add the knobs for color. The first few I painted didn’t look as interesting as I’d hoped.
So I played with some richer, more intense colors, and after some trial and error ended up with three colors—rust, gold, and olive green. You can see the cabinets here.
Reinforcing the Message, Telegraphing the Character
Design that is visually appealing and memorable is a strong start. But not enough. The most critical element of good design is that it telegraph and/or reinforce the message and character of the content. Is it authoritative? Whimsical? Serious as death? Important, but not self-important. In the case of the Russian Far East document, it was important to get across the comprehensiveness of the report. Because the length of the report and the long list of contributors at the beginning already characterized it as comprehensive, I didn’t need to do much more with the design to reinforce that. Instead, my primary design goal was to make the report more engaging and welcoming. The colors and the maps and the intimate closeups of people helped with that.