My writing niche was a doubly-disadvantaged one: first, it was religous. I was raised old-time Catholic. There are lots of Catholic readers, and a fair number of writers. But I left all that, then wound up as an enthusiastic Quaker. And ex-Catholic authors who are “fallen away” — souls deemed to be bound for hell— were not high on the Catholics list
Further, not only are Quakers a very small group overall, but I had landed among their liberal branch, which is a minority-within-this-minority. Even a “bestseller” among them doesn’t yield much in the way of royalties.
Yet despite our absurdly tiny “market,” Quakers have had a hyperactive history, producing many interesting people, who did much that was little-known but worth writing about.
Or at least much that I thought was worth writing about, including Quaker mistakes and scoundrels. Not only via nonfiction but fiction too.
During the next two decades, into the early ‘90s, I wrote or edited five more books, and 133 newsletter issues, all Quaker-related (& all online here, with an index, for free). I was reimbursed for some labor on a couple of the books; the newsletter subscriptions covered its costs (except labor). But mainly, they got done while I held day jobs, as a reporter, a Congressional staffer, a courier, followed by a long stint with the Postal Service. Several of them I published myself, on my own imprint, Kimo Press, created in 1981.
What did these five get me? In 1992, another humbling experience also common to many PUBLISHED writers: I wrote a mystery: Murder Among Friends.
Then like lots of others, I sent out 100+ query letters to literary agents. Signed every one, stuffed all the envelopes, licked the stamps.
The queries yielded a few nibbles, but zero takers. That meant the mystery pay rate at that point was $0 per hour.
I stayed at the day job.
I won’t lie: it’s a drag to get one rejection slip. It’s a much bigger drag to get 100+ of them. It could have been the end of the line.
But no! Instead, as the great sage Yogi Berra said, I came to a fork in the road, and after some dithering, I took it.
Looking over the manuscript after thumbing through the stack of rejections, I thought: “Well, maybe this story isn’t the best mystery I ever read, but it’s better than some I have. And if they could find their place in bookstores, why shouldn’t mine, dammit?
Yeah! So I printed Murder Among Friends myself, under the Kimo Press imprint. I put $2500 on a credit card (a lot for me) to pay upfront for 1000 copies (the printer’s minimum order).
Soon cartons were stacked in the bedroom, spare closet, the hallway. There were many late nights, shoving books into mailers, scribbling addresses, lots of stamps, lugging the parcels to mailboxes. I also spent several afternoons sitting at book tables, not selling much.
But I was lucky: the copies sold out; mostly to Quakers. So I printed 1000 more, and they sold out too.
A success! (I didn’t print more, because many hot books squander their profitability by printing more copies just when the market is full. My timing that time was good.)
The credit card was paid off, and I had money left over, cleared maybe $2000. Again, though, that raised my compensation from $0 to about $2 per hour of writing, promoting and shipping. I was no threat to Stephen King, but still this venture was “successful.” That is, if need be, I could afford to do it again.
Yet, of course, I still needed the day job.
In 1994, the day job situation improved a lot, because I went to work for Quakers, at Pendle Hill, to start an experimental social issues program. There was a lot of writing and editing in the work, and I continued writing on the side.
In 1995 I finished and printed a second Quaker mystery novel, Un-Friendly Persuasion. I liked it, maybe better than the first . . . and it was a flop. (Ya never know.) I lost several hundred dollars. Still have a few cartons. $0 per hour. A three-figure loss was a hit, but not a catastrophe. I stayed with the day job, though.
1995-2007– I should add that while necessary, money was not my main measure of writing success. In these years I made numerous discoveries, retrieving forgotten nuggets of Quaker history, uncovering conflicts and scandals some wanted to keep in the shadows, and amassing a large collection of Quaker jokes. Some people even laughed.
All that was very satisfying, and helped keep me motivated. Between 1995 and 2005, I authored or edited a dozen more titles, all Quaker-related. Together they sold enough to cover the expenses.
In 1997, funds ran dry for the Pendle Hill job; too bad. I mostly freelanced for the next few years, but kept writing, Not long after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, I went back to work for Friends, as Director of Quaker House, a peace project near Fort Bragg, in North Carolina. With new wars in Afghanistan and Iraq looming, the days were plenty busy there, and I had a lot to write, especially to raise funds to keep the place going. (It still is, in 2023.)
But I also kept writing on the side. In 1999, I had started a Quaker theology journal, twice a year. Print circulation was small, but I was able to find a “short-run” printer for it, Instant Publisher, with only 100 copies (not a thousand!) minimum per order. That meant much less upfront cost and fewer leftover copies. I also posted a free version online; still there.
If this chronicle stopped here, say in 2005, I would deem my writing “career” an overall success: I had been able to write and publish extensively and productively on what I was passionate about, and was still able to pay the bills (with occasional struggles, true, but overall). Not to mention that reader feedback indicated that much of the stuff was getting looked at, and occasionally it seemed to make some impact.
Even in the crowded Quaker House years, I managed to publish half a dozen more books (and twenty-odd issues of the Quaker Theology journal). Somewhere, I had acquired a tee shirt with the motto, “Wear out, Don’t Rust Out.” Don’t know what happened to it; it likely wore out.
But there’s more, in part because unnoticed amid the ferment and hubbub of those war years, a revolution was about to bust the book publishing industry wide open, and it soon reached me in North Carolina.
More on that tomorrow, in the wrap-up installment. . . .