Category Archives: Will Ask for Directions When Lost

The Blessing (and Curse) of Mild Success

Anatomy of the Wasted Author Tour

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.

When I launched my first book — Bones in the Wash: Politics is Tough. Family is Tougher — I scheduled one reading, in February 2014, and more than 50 people crowded into Mo’Joe Cafe in Berkeley. I even ran out of books to sell because I didn’t want to tempt the gods and bring too many.  

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.)

Mo’Joe Cafe in Berkeley. Photo by Ned Felden.    

Looking Big

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.

When customers purchase the e-book online for $2.99 (from Amazon, Smashwords, Barnes & Noble or iTunes), I make about $2. When someone buys the trade paperback (from Amazon or Barnes & Noble) for $12.99, I make $2 for Bones in the Wash and $3 for Wasted. (Wasted is 324 pages, Bones is 418.)

It’s a good thing I’m not in it for the money.

New Mexico — it’s Not New and it’s Not Mexico

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.)

Date Venue Attendance Book Sales
Sept. 11 Detroit — University of Detroit Mercy 25 5
Oct. 8 Berkeley — Ecology Center 17 6
Oct. 17 San Rafael — Copperfields 30 11
Oct. 22 Berkeley — Urban Ore 20 8
Oct. 24 Berkeley — Mo Joe 20 13
Nov. 1 Tam Valley Cabin 10 12
Nov. 12 Albuquerque — Flying Star Cafe 0 1
Nov. 14 Santa Fe — House Party 17 10
Nov. 19 Mill Valley — The Depot 5 1
Nov. 14 Corte Madera — Book Passage 20 1
Total 10 Readings 164 68

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.

What’s Next?

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.

Copperfield’s Books in San Rafael. Photo by Nanette Zavala.
Urban Ore reading. Photo by Marilyn Tuilius.

You can see more photos on Pinterest. And like my Facebook page.

My First Death Cafe

Death Cafe FairfaxSaturday, 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.

I also went because I am in the early stages of writing a novel about a man whose father, suffering from cancer and dementia, asks his son to help him end his life. (Here’s a draft of Quality of Life, Chapter 1: The Weight of a Nitrogen Tank.)

Several people shared memorable stories.

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.

Find out more about Death Cafe at

(Also posted at Death Cafe.)

Politically Correct Dating

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.



Exercising Every Day for 40 Months

Not only was Wednesday the last day of April and the hottest day of the year, it marked the 40th month that I’ve exercised every day.* That’s 1,216 days, but who’s counting?

I hiked my regular loops — Tennessee Valley-Coastal Trail-Fox Trail. Four miles. An hour and 10 minutes. About 1,000 feet of climbing. Gorgeous views. That photo at the top of the page is from this trail.

I started keeping track on January 1, 2011. My goal at that time was every day for the year. When 2012 arrived, I kept on going. Of course, my reward for reaching this milestone is to keep at it for another 40 months. At least.

So what counts as exercise? Walking, certainly. That’s what I do more than anything. Then, in order of frequency, there’s bicycling, lifting weights, Zumba/aerobics class, and, hardly ever, swimming and running.

How long before it counts? An hour, though I give myself some slack and 45 minutes counts when that’s all I can fit in. (On the stopover from Ecuador three years ago, I walked back and forth in the small San Salvador Airport at least a dozen times, which was about 40 minutes. But we had hiked the Inca Trail ten days earlier so I decided that was good enough.)

I’m not an athlete. When I bicycle to the city, the only cyclists who don’t pass me are tourists on rented bikes. After 15 years of Aerobics or Zumba, I still feel like a beginner. Most of the time, I do these physical activities myself, though I frequently walk with my wife and/or with friends.

One key to making the every-day routine work is, whenever possible, walking or bicycling to where I need to go anyway. For ten years, I commuted to or from work 2-4 times a week, from Mill Valley to downtown San Francisco. I walk to and from grocery stores, cafés, meetings, friends’ houses.

Since it’s so easy to make charts these days, I made one. This is an estimate, of course. (I kept track off and on, but then figured all I needed to know was that I did something, not what it actually was.)


As you can see, my most common activity, by far, has been a walk or hiking. But when does a walk become a hike. When I wear hiking boots and it’s on a trail? When it’s long and steep? Going to Peets on city sidewalks is a walk. Climbing a 14,000-foot-peak in Colorado is a hike.

Here are some photos of memorable walks and bike rides.

  • Walking from my mom’s apartment in Edgewater to downtown Chicago (about 6 miles). Here’s Lake Michigan on a cold winter morning.


  • Backpacking in a very different Chicago — the Chicago Basin in Colorado’s Weminuche Wilderness — with a wonderful group of Sierra Club folks two years ago. My first three (and only three) 14ers.


  • I took most of my hundreds of rides to or from San Francisco as the sun rose or set. Here’s Richardson Bay on the way in.


  • And here’s a recent hike with my love Z at Goat Rock Beach on the Sonoma Coast, where the Russian River meets the Pacific.


Sometimes this daily habit is a chore. I wish I didn’t have to do it. Like bicycling toward the Golden Gate Bridge on a summer evening, directly into the cold fog. Or dragging myself up the last steep hill home.

That’s when I tell myself that I’m grateful I can still do it, that I’ve avoided injuries, pain, and never really been sick. I’d like to believe my habits have something to do with that, but there’s no denying luck and genes.

I know that can’t last forever, but my goal is to keep this going for as long as I can. One day at a time.

*As to that asterisk above, in the first paragraph, no, I’m not taking steroids. But I did miss one week with the flu in June of 2012. I made up for it.