Wow, SO LONG since I've updated this personal journal of mine, all the way back to October 2012! And that's because 2013 turned out to be pretty much the busiest year I've had in my entire adult life, so much so that it literally prevented me from having the time to sit down and write my little thousand-word essays here on a regular basis. But here on New Year's Eve, while I'm still on holiday break from everything else and therefore do have the spare couple of extra hours, I thought I'd at least get a general bulletpoint list up about everything that's been going on with me in the last year, year and a half; and then if I continue having the spare time this coming winter 2014 (but more on that below), hopefully I can tackle each of these bulletpoints one at a time and make a longer entry about each of them, because there are plenty of fascinating details to go with each that I'm largely going to have to skip over today, just in the attempt to get this entry done in a decent amount of time.
--So to begin with, undeniably the main thing that has choked up my hours in the last year and a half has been the unexpected successes of the small business I've been running since 2007, the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography; in fact, you can almost pinpoint the date, October 2012, when I officially first got behind on everything CCLaP was trying to do, and in 2013 pretty much stayed behind all the way up to just a few weeks ago. And that's great, let's make no mistake, since I opened CCLaP specifically in the attempt to eventually make it the only thing I have to do to make a middle-class living, and we're getting closer by the year -- 2011's gross revenue (the year we first started printing paper books) was $6,000, 2012 was $7,000, this year was $8,200, and next year we're shooting for $12,000 to $15,000 (but again, more details about this plan at another time). But to put it succinctly, fall 2012 was when we started becoming a victim of our own success, and the things that up to then I had found easy or at least manageable to do all on my own (edit every book we publish, hand-make every paper copy by myself, do all the marketing, and write all 150 book reviews a year that appear at our blog) suddenly were no longer manageable to do on my own, and increasing sales started making the bookbinding aspect in particular become more and more of my entire daily routine.
So amidst all the growing pains we went through in 2013, and some very frustrating weeks when I felt like I was literally going to die from stress, I did also manage to profoundly increase CCLaP's core staff for the first time in its history, to a grand total of eleven here by the end of the year: new marketing director Lori Hettler, art director Ryan Bradley, photography director Rex Brink, book reviewers Madeleine Maccar, Travis Fortney and Karl Wolff (who's technically been with us for several years now, but went from one write-up a month to one a week this year), and former apprentices turned senior editors Sarah Bradford, Allegra Pusateri, Robert O'Connor and Nicolette Amstutz. And that's great, because despite all these new positions paying only a pittance, I still held ridiculously high standards to the people I wanted to hire for them, so I'm lucky to have found so many talented people in such a short period who were willing to come on and do so much work for so little pay. And that I suppose is just part of the cyclical nature of the entire beast: because I was so worried about the quality of CCLaP diminishing with each new person, I simply ran the place by myself for as long as I could, which then attracted the exact kind of people who appreciate such a thing, which let me hire all of them without CCLaP's quality diminishing at all. In fact, that's really one of the best pieces of advice I got from my "self-taught MBA" back in 2005 and '06, when CCLaP was only a name on a piece of paper; that when it comes to bringing new people on, put it off to begin with until things are so busy that it's literally painful to not have them on staff; then hire only the exceptional, 100 percent of the time, even if you have to wait unusually long times to find those exceptional people; then once they're hired, simply get out of their way and let them do what they were hired to do. I've followed that with all the people I've brought on this year, and the results have been great, and I feel lucky to have as high-caliber a staff put together now for the center as we do. And that's solved a lot of our scaling problems; I can now skip doing book reviews for entire weeks sometimes and still ensure daily content at the blog, and I've been able to hand off everything having to do with advertising and bookstore placements and virtual tours to someone else altogether, which had grown into two of my biggest time-sucks.
And as far as the short handmade "Hypermodern" books, although it's painful to admit it, the time has just finally come to say goodbye to them, because we literally just cannot keep up with demand anymore; so I'm putting a final cap at 25 titles for the entire series, which we will reach in December 2014, when we publish volume three of local author Ben Tanzer's "New York Stories," which is especially poignant since volume one was the first of these short books we ever did, way back in 2008. And in the meanwhile, we're finally breaking into traditional trade paperbacks for the first time! Whoopee! I put this off for a long time, because the numbers just didn't make sense for a place as small and unknown as CCLaP was; you make so little spendable profit per copy sold of a paperback book through a physical store, and the competition is so fierce for a product that looks so interchangeable, and you have to buy so many copies in advance to ensure a small per-copy cost, that a press reasonably has to sell at least a thousand copies of any given title to start making any kind of decent profit at all (or at least this was how it used to be). And so this is why we've been doing the handmade hardback books instead for the last three years, and they have indeed done everything they were meant to do: they got us a lot of attention in an industry like basement presses that is so freaking crowded and anonymous, and garnered a lot of press about the interesting business model, especially when combined with our policy to give away the ebook on a "pay what you want" scheme (turns out the sentence "they're just like Radiohead!" is catnip for mainstream journalists), and made us a big pile of profit for every copy sold, and sort of worked like moving billboards every time you put one of the cute artesian things in someone's hand.
But now circumstances have changed: CCLaP has won or been a finalist for about half a dozen literary awards now, got named one of the 15 best indie presses in the country by Poets & Writers magazine, has right around 5,000 copies of its books now floating around in the public sphere (electronic and paper), and has its books stocked in around 20 indie bookstores around the nation now too, and more being added all the time. Plus, in recent years there's been a real paradigm shift in the way that print runs take place, best typified by the hot hot printing plant among basement presses right now, Lightning Source; an all-digital press but with the quality of traditional metal plates, technically they're a print-on-demand company, making the grand total of upfront money required only $50 in setup fees (versus the $3,000 I had to raise to self-publish my first novel in 1997; that was when print runs were still done with literal metal plates, and the labor involved with removing these plates and installing new ones meant a super giant setup fee, which meant you had to pre-purchase at least a thousand copies to get them down to $3 per copy in wholesale costs), and with me able afterwards to buy at little as one copy at a time if I want, for only $4 per copy plus shipping, a little more than the traditional way but not bad at all for such a small upfront commitment. But since Lightning Source partners with the traditional book distributor Ingram, anytime a bookstore or library orders copies themselves, they do it in the same exact way through the same exact people as they do with any other book they might carry. And by hiding the entire "making the sausage" part of the printing process, this removes the stigma among bookstores for print-on-demand titles from basement presses; because the technology of POD was so lousy for so long, it created this lasting prejudice against the tech within the industry, the conventional wisdom being that no one cares enough about a POD book to invest the thousands of dollars to do a "real" print run of it. And so this situation really presents the best of both worlds -- all the prestige and quality of a traditional offset print run of a perfect-bound professional paperback, but literally at a cost commitment of a zine -- which combined with CCLaP's growing reputation means that maybe we actually do have a shot now of making a decent amount of profit off traditional paperback books.
Anyway, as you can tell, there are a million other things I can get into in this subject, which hopefully I'll be able to detail out a little more this coming January and February; but the takeaway is that things with CCLaP are going very well these days, and that we've been literally selling books faster than we can make them, at a time when most other publishing companies are either stagnant or actively losing money. That's kept me in good spirits this year, although it was also an incredibly stressful time, and I'm glad to finally have things sort of under control again. So next...
--This is also something that's more like a year and a half old now instead of just 2013: but back in September 2012, the Chicago public school teachers went on strike for two weeks, and while my friend Carrie was fortunately able to cover most of the days her twin nine-year-old boys were suddenly home all day (thanks to a middle-aged neighbor who used to watch them every day after school back then), she did find herself with two or three unaccounted days, and begged me to come downtown and take the boys out to the movies and maybe shopping for the day, just long enough for her to get rid of them at the beginning of her work day and then collect them again at the end, so they could all ride back to Hyde Park together. And this was a big deal, because I had never taken the boys out in public just by myself before; and I had deliberately never done this because I was terrified of what might happen, and just would get stymied by the thought of the endless amount of disasters that could befall them while they were on my watch and being too rambunctious. See, one of the big things about my relationship with Carrie's boys (aged ten now) is that, not being one of their parents, I have no authority to dole out punishment or even the threat of punishment, and they know I don't have that authority, which occasionally when they were younger would get them all wound up to a level I simply couldn't control; and when I was younger, I was really afraid of that happening while we were out in public someplace, with there being nothing I could do about it. (I mean, there was of course always the threat of "telling their mom when we get home," which sort of worked as punishment-by-proxy to a degree; but unless we were actually at their home with their mom right in the next room, the lack of immediacy usually dulled the threat, at least to the point where they would continue acting up.)
But I was feeling a lot more comfortable with this by the time they were nine, because even then they were starting to interact with me more like a peer-type friendship; and so I found that this keeps the boys generally obeying me simply out of mutual respect, and from the general acknowledgment that I'm a grown-up and that sometimes I just naturally do know better. But what really keeps their edge under control, I've discovered, is that they have an incredibly sophisticated understanding of where exactly my line in the sand lays as far as their behavior, and when I've reached my limit and am ready to simply take them home, dump them back on their mother, and go home and drink several beers in my blessedly shit-monster-free home. And since I'm more indulgent about some of their behavior than other adults might be (I let them say "damn" and "hell" around me, for example, which delights them to no end), and since I naturally share many of their common interests (videogames, action movies, Rainbow Looms, computers, origami, visiting bookstores, etc.), it's fear of losing access to that which will ultimately self-curb their own worst behavior, not any external threat of punishment that I need to dole out. I mean, granted, they take great pleasure out of pushing me to that absolute last millimeter before that line in the sand, just to see where exactly it lays--they're ten-year-old boys, after all--but in general I've been relieved to find that my days out with the boys by myself for the most part go just fine and with no major incidents, and in fact we mostly end up having a really fun time while we're out just bumming around, visiting the Apple Store for the millionth time, or hanging out at a coffeehouse playing Angry Birds Star Wars.
And this too has profoundly changed my life in 2013, as I try to dedicate more and more time each week to being able to spend this kind of time with the boys; because on the one hand, I think this is a very good thing for them, especially at this particular age, is to have a trusted and respected male adult figure around in their lives (for those who don't know the long story, their dad unfortunately died at an early age in 2008; both he and his wife were artists in their twenties while I was as well, which is when our friendships first formed); but I've also discovered that this is a very good thing for me, which shocks me more than anyone else, given the antipathy I maintained for children all the way up to a surprisingly old age. But the fact is that I'm always in a better mood after hanging out with the boys than I was before; that the activity brings a sense of purpose to my life that nothing else I do does; that it makes me a more tolerant and patient person simply out of necessity (I never want to go on any crazy angry rants in front of the kids, nor do I even curse around them); and that it's made me realize more and more that I think I'm finally emotionally ready to have kids of my own, that I'm actually growing to like the inherent chaos that comes with having a couple of them in the house. And again, there are a million more observations to make about these subjects--I find it fascinating, for example, to examine these fraternal twins' polar-opposite personalities, and to make extrapolations about how they might manifest themselves in their adulthoods--and hopefully I'll be getting to these more detailed observations as the months continue.
--Okay, so third big thing in 2013--I moved into a new apartment for the first time in 16 years. And this too turned out to be a profounder thing than I was first expecting; because for the last 16 years, I've been in this shitty, dirty, rundown studio apartment over on the other side of my neighborhood, in one of those shitty rundown pre-war apartment buildings full of dying elderly loners and petty criminals, one of those places with a hallway full of handwritten admonitions from the building super with all the words misspelled. And I never realized what a psychic toll this place was taking on me until I got out, and moved into my first-ever apartment with contemporary creative-class accrouchements (dark wood floors, maroon accent wall, steel kitchen appliances, gray slate bathroom, gym on the first floor, outdoor patio on the roof, free WiFi, etc etc); ever since I did so in August, I've been fond of telling people that it's like a giant weight has been removed from my chest that I never knew even existed, and certainly I think it's a major contributing factor towards things going so well with CCLaP at the same time, and me being able to handle the boys okay at the same time too. And so this too has caused a lot of profound change in my life in 2013 -- I've been throwing parties again for the first time in a decade, and in fact created an entire jokey little underground lit theatre online called CCLaP's Studio 505 just so I could hold monthly readings in my apartment, plus have started regularly working out again for the first time in several years, plus have a place for the boys to come visit me instead of me constantly going down to Hyde Park (not so important now, but something that will be of great importance when they're teenagers soon, and will be able to travel the city by themselves for the first time). Plus I now have several thousand dollars worth of nice furniture for the first time in my life, other places to sit besides either exclusively my mattress or my one chair like in my last apartment, and a nice new way to display my growing rare-book collection. And speaking of which, that leads us to the fourth big thing to happen in 2013...
--I've finally started making significantly more money than I have in recent years...although to be clear, it's still not enough to live off yet. But still, I've made it through another year without yet having to break down and take a 9-to-5 office job again; as long-time readers know, the last time I had one was 2002, and that particular one was so terrible and soul-killing, right at the end of a whole string of terrible and soul-killing office jobs, that I vowed at that point to go as long as I possibly could before getting another one again, to go literally until threatened with homelessness. And that was eleven years ago now; and while it hasn't been a pretty existence, let's make that very fucking clear, I am at least now entering my second decade of defining my entire life exclusively by my own criteria, which to be honest is probably the one thing most responsible more than anything else for me not yet buying an assault rifle and just taking out as many of you worthless sacks of meat one day at a fast-food restaurant as I possibly can. And so partly that can be thanked by my growing success as a rare-book dealer, which as regulars know is something new to me -- I deliberately chose to pick up the habit only two years ago, as a way of building a long-term asset that can be used as collateral for future small-business loans, but lo and behold it turns out that I'm actually quite good at hunting through stores and fairs, finding little gems that everyone else passed up, and selling them for massive profit margins at eBay, and in fact I had a regular habit in 2013 of finding books for only $5 or 10 and flipping them at eBay for $100, 150 and more. (The single biggest money maker, though, was my first edition of Mark Twain's The Innocents Abroad, which I got for around $200 and sold for I think around $350; it was hard to give that one up, but the money was really great, and it actually got purchased by a distant relative of Twain himself.)
And then partly that can be thanked by the handmade blank notebooks and journals I sell at Etsy, and their growing sales this year once I finally found the right price point for them; once I lowered them from $15 to $10, they started selling on sometimes a literally weekly basis, and since I only pay $2.50 in parts for each one (and count labor as free), I'm still making a pretty decent profit at $10. And then part of that money can be chalked up by the growing amount of traditional administrative work I'm now doing freelance at a new Amazon service called the Mechanical Turk, which is basically a big marketplace for the kinds of jobs that computers would normally do, but that for one reason or another need a human eye and human brain. So the best paying jobs over there are things like accurate transcriptions of audio files, and I'm trying to do more and more of that kind of stuff like a traditional secretary would; but you can also go there and literally look at a photo from some photo service and add the right tags that describe it, and you will get paid exactly two cents for tagging that image, and if you want you can sit there for an hour tagging images and make approximately minimum wage, if you're just unemployed and bored and have no particular job skills. (It's really kind of a fascinating place, and warrants its own thousand-word entry here just on its own.) Add to that the money I'm making through CCLaP, the occasional traditional freelance job I do, and plans next year to start offering online paid writing workshops and to start occasionally dog-walk, and I'm finally making enough money from all these odd jobs to not feel ridiculous anymore about calling myself "self-employed."
And more? Oh, sure, lots more to share about all the things that happened to me in 2013, and all the things I learned about myself; but I've already been working on this entry for so long, I want to start moving to a point where I can wrap up soon. So maybe let's stop for now and look ahead to what 2014 will hopefully (probably, maybe) be bringing...
--I'm getting health insurance. Thank you, Barack Obama. More as news develops, and in fact I'm sure this will be warranting its own thousand-word entry once I'm successfully signed up.
--CCLaP's publishing plans are taking a big leap forward. Now that it will only cost me a couple hundred dollars to make each new book, and now that I no longer have to hand-make each copy we sell, I've decided to try doing a lot more of them -- 16 new titles next year, in fact, including five full-length original novels, the last four of the handmade short "Hypermodern" books, a new anthology next fall, and six "in-house" books that collect up material the center already owns (much of it having already appeared at the blog in the past). And now we'll be selling them at Amazon and through chain bookstores (well, whatever chain bookstores might want to carry us, anyway), and trying to generate some mainstream national publicity for the first time, so there's the real possibility of revenue not just rising next year but rising by quite a jump. Plus we're now doing a monthly magazine out of all the book reviews and other material that runs at the blog each month (yet another new thing in 2013 I need to find some time to talk about), and with Lightning Source I'll be able to now do those as 150-page color paperback books too (just like mainstream literary journals like The Paris Review), that will retail for only $7.99, which I think is going to significantly increase revenue next year too. So while I absolutely think that we'll do at least as okay as last year in terms of gross revenue ($8,200), I also don't think it's ridiculous for us to be aiming for an absolute top potential level of $12,000 to 15,000, with a realistic goal of finally crossing the $10,000 threshold in 2014. So we'll see!
--I'm going to start devoting regular time again to this personal journal. And that's because I've missed the self-examination of my life I get to do here when writing entries; so now that my life isn't going to be so dominated anymore with bookbinding, and I'm actually going to have a little spare time back in my life again (because let's be clear -- when I say that "I was busy" in 2013, I mean I was mostly working 14-hour days every single weekday all year, and dedicating my weekends to spending time with the boys), I hope to get back to doing regular updates of this journal again, so sad and neglected after being such an active and popular thing so many years (and so many youthful random sex partners) ago. So sad! Jason's gotten old and pathetic! But at least I'll hopefully be able to get this journal up and running regularly again, because I know there are other people besides me who used to enjoy it and probably miss it too.
--I'm hosting CCLaP's first-ever literary convention next June. A mini-convention, mind you, under constraints that will make it a manageable event; I'm finally bringing together the 40 writers, artists and staffers who are involved with the center in one way or another, currently scattered evenly across the United States and even now in the UK, for a series of parties and public readings the second week in June. And since that's going to involve something like ten or fifteen authors reading from their books, I'm calling it a "literary convention," although in reality it's mostly an excuse to throw a big party that Saturday for everyone who works for CCLaP, so we can all hang out in the same physical space (my building's rooftop) for the very first time in the center's seven-year history. So that'll be fun too!
--I've decided to start dating again. Er, probably. Maybe. I'm at least open to the possibility again. Slightly desperate thirtysomethings with existing kids are welcome!
And more, more, always more; but this seems as good a place as any to leave off for now. Whew, fourteen months since my last update; that's been too long, and I'm sorry I haven't had a chance until now to get this thing updated. Hard to believe, but we just passed the 15th anniversary of this website, and I'm proud to say that it's one of the few sites from around the relative birth of the web to still be up and active; it'd be a shame to let it fall into disuse, even though I don't use the site itself for nearly the same purposes as when it first opened (back when I was a writer myself, and used the site to distribute books and promote upcoming live appearances). I look forward to getting back into communication with all you again, and here's hoping for another busy but perhaps this time not so overwhelming year in 2014.