Mark of Words

Mark Cameron: Author and blogger from Canada's Sunshine Coast

What do you do for a living?

“What do you do for a living?”

It’s such a simple question. Why do I find it so hard to answer?

Ever since 2011, when I sold the software company I co-founded, I’ve been trying to redefine who I am and what I do for a living. At times, I’ve been both tempted and repulsed by the idea of returning to the tech sector — of building a new venture based on old skills. Both my temptation and repulsion are based on familiarity — on leveraging skills and experience honed over decades of work in the software industry.

Fortunately and unfortunately, my opportunities within my “first career” have all but disappeared. I have allowed my technical skills to lapse, and my network of contacts has moved on without me. I celebrate the continued successes of people I once worked with as they post their accomplishments on Facebook, but I have little interest in walking beside them on a path I abandoned years ago. Thinking about hectic business trips, client-driven deadlines and competitive landscapes makes my head spin.

So what do I do for a living? Well, I cook and clean. I walk around my small town “gathering” groceries. I volunteer and provide advice when asked for it. I pay bills, do my taxes and take out the garbage. I help my homeschooled/unschooled kids follow their passions and navigate their paths to adulthood. I play as much as possible — music, games, travel … anything that gets my heart pumping or my creativity flowing. I take on the occasional contract — designing other peoples’ books or dipping into my past to solve business problems. And I write novels. I have one book under my belt and another nearing completion, three books under development, and an abundance of new stories percolating in my brain.

Like most writers, I want to write more and “work” less. And like most parents, I want to spend more time with my kids. Yet I fill my days with tasks and meetings, take on projects that don’t interest me, and spend time and brainpower trying to figure out how to earn a living without “working for the man.”

A few weeks ago, after attending publishing conferences in Toronto and Portland, I sat down with my wife, Sheila, to plan the next chapter of my career. Fuelled by a newfound passion for book production and fresh knowledge about the publishing industry, I was ready to build our small independent publishing company into a literary powerhouse. I was ready to blend new skills with old experience to put my own unique stamp on the publishing industry. I was ready to run another start-up!

Then Sheila asked me a question, or a series of questions — I can’t recall the exact words that led me to look deep inside and ask myself what I really want to do with the next few years of my life. A few feelings and thoughts rose to the surface:

  1. I want to be a more engaged parent.
  2. I want to write books.
  3. I want to be an active member of my community.
  4. I want to explore the world.

As hard as I tried to shape those thoughts into something that resembled “building a new publishing company,” I couldn’t. Just like I couldn’t bring myself to commit to a number of other entrepreneurial ventures that I looked at over the past six years.

Every time I think about what it really takes — the commitment of time, money, energy — to get a new venture off the ground, I remember my earlier years. I remember the long hours and the inability to shut off challenges and opportunities that rode with me everywhere, always. I remember the stress of tight deadlines and even tighter cashflow. And I remember standing in front of our local arena, fumbling to answer my cell phone while juggling six skates and two young children, only to learn that an accounting error meant ten people would not be able to cash their paycheques — unless I dedicated the balance of my day to solving the crisis du jour.

After my discussion with Sheila a few weeks ago, I began to rethink my deadlines and commitments, wants and needs. I analyzed bank statements and budgets. I thought about the reality of raising a third “child” — a new venture — while trying to guide two human offspring through the most intense years of life. I thought deeply about the question, “What do you do for a living?” — a question I’ve asked and answered countless times, but never fully explored; a question that, consciously or unconsciously, aims to define us. And I realized that “what I do for a living” is an attribute, not a category. It is a part of me, not the other way around.

It’s going to take me a while to reframe my self-perception and truly embrace a new set of priorities that revolve around family, community, and my passion for writing. This blog post, my first in over six months, is a small step toward answering the question “What do you do for a living?” with an answer that feels right.

For starters, I’m going to try a new answer to this age-old question: “I am a father, a husband, and a writer.”

There. I said it. Now I just need to believe it … embrace it … be it.

 

Outwitted

I might have outwitted myself. My post entitled Vanna Depresses was a tongue-in-cheek look at the division between self-publishing and traditional publishing. But if you’ve never heard of a “vanity press” or a “hybrid publisher,” then that post will probably seem a little obscure. So here’s a quick primer…

“Vanity press” is a term used within the publishing industry for companies that accept money from authors to publish their work. The theory is that if someone is willing to pay for publishing, then they are probably doing it for reasons of vanity — that is, they just want to see their work in print.

First, I don’t think this is a fair assessment. Authors write — and publish — for many reasons. In fact, many of those who are accused of “vanity publishing” couldn’t care less how many books they sell, how many awards they win, or how many positive reviews they receive. Everyone who writes has something to say, and choosing not to wait for permission should not be confused with vanity.

Second, there is a wide range of services available to self-published authors. Sure, many people are only looking to make a buck … but there are also many reputable service providers who do a great job of improving an author’s work in exchange for fair payment. And there are “hybrid publishers” who publish works on behalf of authors while sharing the costs of production and promotion.

Working as an author, a service provider, and now as a hybrid publisher, I take exception to black and white statements that lump writers into two camps: those who pay to produce and promote their own work — the “self-published”; and those who get paid to write — the “published.” As much as some people would like to establish clear lines between traditionally published works of merit and self-published works of vanity, there are many shades of grey on the publishing spectrum.

It has never been easier to produce a book, which has led to an understandable concern by serious writers that their industry — and literature as a whole — is being watered down. Even as a self-published author, I recognize that the tools which help me are also working against me. I see that the relative ease of publishing  leads to such a glut of content that it is hard to stand out against the crowd.

I see every challenge as an opportunity, and I believe that quality will always be valued. It is all too easy to get caught up in the slog of self-promotion, to get lost in a sea of mediocrity. But those who focus on quality — quality of content, design, production … and relationships — will find ways to break away from the pack.

I have nothing against traditional publishing, and most of the publishers I have met are delightful people. There is a good chance that I too will publish others’ works “traditionally” at some point, and I might even shop my own stories to others. My beef is not with those who work in the traditional way — where the publisher pays the author and takes on the risk associated with printing and distributing a book; it is with those who see that as the only way — and look down their noses at anyone who pursues a more independent path.

I chose to self-publish for many reasons, but my main reason was to learn. I felt that by managing the whole process — from hiring an editor to producing the book to promoting it far and wide — I would learn more, and in less time, than I would trying to land a traditional publishing contract. It has been a difficult journey, one that has actually grown my appreciation for publishers. But it has also been an eye-opener about the discrimination that exists within the literary community.

It is easy to see how there came to be an “us” and a “them” … and it’s not easy to bridge that gap. There are many practical reasons for those who promote works of literature — bookstores, distributors, festivals, publications and more — to work only with traditionally published authors. Dealing with established publishers provides some level of quality assurance, and consolidates both administration and communication. Having run a business for many years, I understand how difficult it is to deal with small, unknown “accounts.”   Nevertheless, the tendency to exclude self-published work from consideration is a form of discrimination, and in many cases it is — to some degree — a matter of vanity.

I hope that clears up a few things. So far, the most important lesson I’ve learned about publishing is that it’s important to push aside vanity, work with great people, and emphasize quality in everything we do. No matter how we choose to publish a book, I believe that focusing on the right things will eventually lead to success.

Vanna Depresses

A lot of people have warned me to watch out for Vanna D. Just like her namesake on that long-running television game show, she’s quite a make-up artist. Vanna D offers cosmetic assistance to self-published authors, promising them great results. I wouldn’t be surprised if she struggles with her own self-esteem beneath that well-made-up surface, because almost every writer or publisher I talk to puts her down.

This whole Vanna D issue is complicated. On the one hand, you have this person who is really good at promoting herself — even if she’s not very good at promoting the people she serves. She applies a liberal quantity of lipstick to make a book — and by extension its author — look good. What happens from there … well, that’s up to the author. That wouldn’t be so bad if she stated her limitations clearly from the get-go, but all too often Vanna D oversells and under-delivers.

I understand why people want to avoid a self-serving makeup artist, but there are other sides to the story of Vanna D. While legions of writers seek her help to break free from the self-publishing slog — to stand out from the growing crowd of do-it-yourself writers — countless others subject themselves to a whole different kind of slog: sending hope-and-pray packages to traditional publishers and agents, then waiting months or years to be welcomed into the club of published authors. It seems to me that Vanna D has a hand in that world, too.

Let’s face it: publishing is a tough way to make a living, and writing is too. It’s not easy to promote a book — even a great book — amidst the explosion of literature that has resulted from the emergence of print-on-demand publishing and e-books. Traditional publishers are fighting to uphold a standard for quality work while dealing with increased competition and shrinking margins. Authors want to establish themselves as artists worthy of respect, while also  dealing with increased competition and shrinking margins. And Vanna D … well, she’s just looking for opportunities to make a buck and prop up an ego or two.

Not every author wants to earn a living from writing. Many people see writing their “one great book” as a bucket list project. Others have something important to say, and they’ll pay for the opportunity to say it. And then there are those who aspire to be working writers. We know it’s a long road, and we are willing to wear out a few pairs of shoes to walk it. But when Vanna D pulls up in her shiny car and offers us a ride, suggesting that we just need to pay for gas, well … that’s a hard offer for our weary legs to turn down.

Wearing my other hat — as a publisher and provider of book production services — I live somewhere in the grey zone of  “hybrid publishing”.  Although I’m not a big fan of labels, I kind of like this one. It makes me feel like a Prius — progressive and economical. And the word hybrid implies a moderate approach — a middle ground — between two extremes. What I want to create is a sort of mid-point shelter that offers reprieve from Vanna D’s effect on both ends of the publishing spectrum — a place where quality and integrity meet. A place where great writing is turned into great books, and everybody — author, publisher and reader — wins.

I believe that most publishers today are being forced to move toward that middle ground, asking more of authors while having less to give in return. And I get it. Publishing is a challenging business that is undergoing a massive transition — a road with an unknown destination. And what about all the authors walking along that road, throwing out the occasional thumb to accelerate their journey to literary success? If and when a car pulls over … will Vanna D be driving?

There are crooks and bullies in every industry — and there’s everybody else: the vast majority of writers, publishers and service providers who are just trying to hone their crafts and earn a living. In this modern world of publishing, it seems that you have to be a little bit audacious to believe you can succeed. You have to be a Prius with the heart of a Porsche.

As for all those warnings to unsuspecting authors … I plan to keep my thumb down and my eyes on the road. I might accept a ride from a thoughtful driver in a reliable automobile — maybe even a Prius — but I’ll let all those impractically fancy cars pass me by. After all, there’s no use letting Vanna D press me.

Paying to Give It Away

Promotion is such a strange game. From now through Sunday (August 14th), I am actually paying to give my book away.

I’ve done quite a bit to promote Goodnight Sunshine. Not a lot by modern marketing standards, but I’ve done what I can with the time and resources I have. Now I’m trying something strange: paying to advertise that I’m giving away my e-book on Amazon. And the best part … I had to convince a reputable advertiser to take my money to tell people about the giveaway!

This was my third attempt to tap into a list of subscribers who look for e-book giveaways — my first two attempts, with Bookbub.com, were turned down for reasons unknown. Based on their advertising criteria, I assume it had to do with either my lack of reviews or the fact that the Goodnight Sunshine e-book is only available for Kindle.

So, let’s see … I put my e-book on Kindle Select — which means it must be exclusively available on Kindle for 90 days — so that I could give it away for up to 5 of those 90 days (you can’t just make your Kindle e-book free anytime you want to). I am trying to give away the book to get more readers, in the hope that some of them will review it. I am advertising to make sure people know it’s available, but the best e-book advertisers (those who have a loyal following of subscribers) require that you have plenty of reviews, and some want you to be selling e-books on multiple sites. But Amazon/Kindle is the dominant player in e-book sales, at least in the United States, and they set strict rules about exclusivity and giveaways.

I feel like I’ve been chasing my tail for weeks. But here I am … poised to give away as many e-books as I can. I can only hope that a small portion of the 120,000 people who will see Goodnight Sunshine as their “Free book of the day” (this Sunday on Booksells.com) will download it; that a small percentage of those downloaders will read it; and that a small percentage of that small percentage of a small percentage will post a review for it. Then, with all those reviews I get, I might be able to qualify to pay even more money to give away my books to more people!

I’m not really that pessimistic. I see value in getting my book into as many readers’ hands as possible, and I trust that the platform I am building now will serve me well in the future. But this whole promotional game is kind of silly, and I can’t help feeling a bit trapped by the machine that Amazon has created. I would far rather be dealing with smaller players — independent booksellers and distributors — but that comes with its own set of challenges. For now, I am learning how the machine works … and paying for my education.

Oh yeah, about that Kindle giveaway … if you’re looking for a free e-book, you can download my novel by clicking on one of the following links or searching for “Goodnight Sunshine” on almost any Amazon site:

Goodnight Sunshine on Amazon USA

Goodnight Sunshine on Amazon Canada

Thank you, Gord Downie

Thank you, Gord Downie. Thank you for the incredible catalogue of songs and poems that you will leave us to ponder for generations. For the candour with which you have spoken since you emerged onto the music scene over 30 years ago. For providing Canadians with a fun-house full of lyrical mirrors in which to see ourselves, fully and completely. For giving hundreds of thousands of us one last chance to see “The Hip”, as we so affectionately refer to your band of brothers. For giving my son — the most musical person I know — an opportunity to see one of the greatest live acts of our time. And most of all, Gord, thank you for showing us that even superstars are human.

When I learned that tickets could be re-purchased at close to face value for the Tragically Hip show last night in Calgary — timed perfectly with a planned trip to visit family there — I made a quick decision to take in the show. With Sheila’s encouragement, I bought three tickets — for me, my brother, Paul, and my son, Simon — and held my breath, hoping the set of “used” tickets would work. Relieved at gaining entry to the Saddledome, a stadium that held so many memories from my youth, I exhaled … then began to absorb a quintessentially Canadian moment through the eyes of a father, a brother, and a long-time Tragically Hip fan.

The seats — in the eighteenth and nineteenth rows behind the stage — turned out to be stellar, and the show was sublime. I felt an odd sense of déjà vu, having seen another of my favourite bands, Spirit of the West, perform one of their last concerts only three months earlier. Two Canadian bands, each having played together for more than 30 years, each fronted by a poetic genius facing grave illness with courage — and grace, too.

It is an understatement to say that 2016 has been hard on music. We have lost too many legendary musicians to count; and here we are, losing two of my favourites — one to brain cancer and another to early-onset Alzheimers.  Both of the concerts I’ve attended this year have been bittersweet affairs, but they have also been celebrations. Celebrations of lives lived, of chances taken, of opportunities seized. When The Hip played Use It Up in concert for the first time in 10 years, I was glad for the huge screen in front of me that projected Downie’s emotion in larger-than-life detail as he belted out, “Use it up … use it all up … don’t save a thing for later.”

But the most human moment from last night’s show — the moment that will stay with me for as long as my own mind allows — was when Downie spoke to the crowd following Springtime in Vienna. “I fucked up some words,” he said. “And that makes me feel down. But it’s not your fault.”

As the crowd erupted in support of the man we had all grown to love through his lyrical brilliance, I flashed back to a recent book reading where I had found myself standing in front of an audience in silence, the words of a poem that I had recited dozens of times stuck somewhere in mid-air, just out of reach. Watching Gord Downie articulate his own struggles reminded me that we all fall short of our own expectations sometimes. Yet, contrary to what we are told by our own fragile egos, we are usually the only ones disappointed when we falter. I believe that imperfection is what makes us truly great, and truly human.

So thank you, Gord, for once again turning a mirror toward us all, helping us to see our own vulnerability with grace and compassion. And for allowing us to see that even you, the great Gord Downie, the most tragic and hip front man of them all, are as human as the rest of us.

20160803_190142

Winning Without Winning

I lost today … and still won.

I learned this morning that I did not make the list of finalists for the inaugural Whistler Independent Book Awards.  I had been thrilled to find my name on the list of 10 fiction nominees — the “longlist” — for what some are calling the first major awards for self-published authors in Canada.  Of course, when I learned of my nomination on July 4th, I briefly envisioned myself on the podium at the Whistler Writers Festival this fall, thanking the academy before delivering a witty and poignant acceptance speech that would quickly catch fire on social media, thus launching my career as a literary genius.

Then reality caught up with me, and I began to research “the competition”.  It was a humbling experience.  After looking at the impressive list of authors who were on the longlist with me, I did not see the other nine people as competition, but rather as a group of competent writers whose names I am happy to be associated with.

I believe I wrote a solid debut novel, and — with the help of two editors, a painter, a photographer, twelve beta readers and two cover designers — created a quality product that belongs on a bookshelf alongside traditionally published works.  But I’m just getting started as an author, and though I appreciate every bit of positive feedback for Goodnight Sunshine, I see each milestone on this journey as a building block — and a sign that I’m on the right track.

There was a part of me that struggled with the idea that my debut novel could win an award.  I wondered at first if I was lacking confidence, or if I was fostering a sense of faux humility.  But I knew deep down that it was neither of those; it was a recognition of where I am on my path as an author.  I am growing increasingly confident that I did not belly-flop on my first dive into the deep pool of fiction writing … but I also know that I didn’t make a perfect entry.

There is something oddly reassuring about not quite winning an award.  I had thought it would be a long-shot for Goodnight Sunshine to be on the Whistler longlist, and I am more than happy to make it that far.  Though I have not read their nominated works, I am impressed by what I have read about the three finalists who eclipsed me for this award … and I would like to congratulate each of them for their shortlist selection:

I look forward to reading each of these books, and I would also like to give a shout-out to fellow longlist nominee, Donna Barker, for her darkly humorous novel, Mother Theresa’s Advice for Jilted Lovers — a thoroughly enjoyable book that I finished reading this morning!

I am more motivated than ever to keep writing. External validations aside, I recognize that when it comes to writing, the true definition of “winning” is playing the game in the first place. Whenever I push through my own self-doubt and embrace the vulnerability that is essential to writing, I know that I have already won.

 

39 Days

39 days and 39 ways
To challenge my mind in a confined space
4 people in 19 feet of camper van bliss

39 days and 39 rays
Of sunshine beating down upon my face
It doesn’t get more real than this

We follow the yellow line
We follow our hearts
We follow the road to where she starts

We’re living the dream
Or so it seems
To he who can’t imagine life beyond 2 weeks on the beach in Cancun

39 days of water pumps and sewage dumps
Of cell phone woes
Of highs and lows
As a celebrated guest, a tolerated pest, or something in between

39 days to sing the praise
Of every small town in BC
From coffee shops to local hops
I work my chops to be the best that I can be

39 days
39 days
39 days to live, to learn, to roam
39 days to find our way back home

Thanks British Columbia! It’s been an amazing journey.
#GoodnightSunshine

An Abundance of Inspiration

I am nine days into an epic family book tour around BC, and with each passing day I feel more daunted by the idea of blogging about this trip. It’s not that I’m lacking inspiration; on the contrary, I am overflowing with it! So much so that it would take hours or days to organize my thoughts, memories and feelings into a cohesive post.

So here’s two paragraphs of rambling. That’s all I’ve got for you tonight … 🙂

So far, this trip has been awesome and exhausting and wonderful and challenging. We’ve scorched in near-40-degree heat, and we’ve been caged within our van by torrential downpours. We’ve experienced joyful reunions with friends and family, and we’ve reeled with grief at learning of a friend’s recent passing. We’ve parked overnight on driveways and roadsides and campgrounds. We’ve encountered an “out of gas” sign, a forest fire, and an Unidentified Funky Smell in the van. We’ve searched for phone batteries and electricity and Internet connections and televisions to quench our insatiable appetite for technology. And we’ve done other stuff too, like laundry and eating and dishes and laundry and eating and dishes …

In the midst of all this real-life stuff, I’ve been working to hone my skills as a reader and a speaker. I showed up for my first event in Gibsons about halfway through my own reading — a large part of me was apparently still packing and planning for our departure later that afternoon. Since then, I’ve had four opportunities to test a variety of content — book snippets, blog posts and stories — on four very different audiences. Slowly but surely, I’m learning what works and what doesn’t. I’m learning that jaws get tired after about half an hour of talking, and that it is physically possible to chew on words. I’m learning that reading a passage with six distinct voices is challenging, and that my son is a great accent coach. I’m learning that librarians are awesome and supportive and hospitable. And I’m learning that this whole 4200+ kilometre adventure is one big learning experience.

That’s a whole lot of learning, and a whole lot of inspiration. But at least I’ve opened the floodgates. Stay tuned …

Goodnight, Sunshine.

Seeking galactic marketing advice

I released my first e-book yesterday.

As usual, the launch itself was anti-climactic. After months of research, weeks of design, days of testing and hours of i-dotting and t-crossing, I clicked on a few last buttons … and voila, my e-book was live on Amazon. I’d planned to tell the whole world about it — I even considered a broadcast to the entire galaxy. But in the end, I opted to Tweet about my latest accomplishment, pin a message to my Facebook page, and write this blog post. Sure, I’ll advertise my e-book and promote it whenever I can, but I’m not expecting to overtake J. K. Rowling anytime soon (she is currently #2 on the Amazon Top 100 — for a book she hasn’t even released yet!).

chimica, contagocce, laboratorioAn experienced publisher recently told me that publishing is like filling a bucket with an eye-dropper. It takes thousands of drops to fill the bucket, but if you’re patient enough, you will eventually fill it. I’m already feeling the truth in that statement, and I’m embracing it. It takes time to develop any new skill or practice, and it takes even longer to establish a reputation for quality work.

I have every intention of becoming a working author, a top-notch e-book designer, and possibly even a “real” publisher (i.e. someone who publishes more than his own work). But I’m walking this new path one step at a time, intent on taking in the flowers along the way. In my past life as a software entrepreneur, I all too often allowed stress and ambition to beat the joy out of an otherwise fascinating journey. This time around, I have no desire to jump back on the hamster wheel or shoot for the stars. That is, unless there’s a planet out there somewhere with creatures who read English and have an appreciation for adventurous, romantic fiction about middle-aged men travelling to faraway places in search of mysterious inventions. If anyone knows of such a planet, I’d like to target it in my next Google ad campaign.

Propaganda and Unicorns

Unicorn Photo

In many ways, social media is the great liberator of our times: an inter-connection between humans around the globe; a way to rage against the machine; the power tool of all power tools for shaping a new age of true democracy.

The problem is that much of what we read online is propaganda. Inaccurate memes that scatter like dandelion seeds across the web, spreading untruths that either tug at our heartstrings or invoke anger within us. Images and quotes that pass in front of our eyes,  seeping into our consciousness, shaping our beliefs.

I have no problem with people stating their opinions. If I did, I wouldn’t be posting this. I don’t even mind the sheer volume of content that covers the walls and feeds of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and countless other social networks. Even those benign posts that fill space without substance … hey, if they make you feel good and don’t hurt anyone else, then by all means go ahead and post them!

I just wish there was a social media filter that validated posts for accuracy. Even the most well-intended posts — especially the most well-intended posts — often spread untruths that evoke people to challenge the status quo. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll realize that I am all for challenging the status quo — through well-reasoned debate and research-based action. My issue with our current state of collective consciousness is that so much of the information we propagate is little more than gossip. We forward “facts” and quotes — often incorrectly attributed to famous people — adding our own version of “Hell Yeah!” as we re-post or re-tweet content without first checking that it is accurate. It’s like we’ve subscribed to a feed called “Consciousness for Dummies.” If we read it on the Internet, then it must be true.

In the absence of an automated truth-checker, I would like to propose a universal guideline for posting memes and quotes on social media:

1. If your post is unconditionally inspirational, go ahead and post it.

2. If your post is a quote from somebody famous, please … at the very least, look it up on Snopes or Wikipedia.

3. If your post is a graphic image of some atrocity accompanied by a quote that casts blame for all that is bad in the world on one person or group, ask yourself these simple questions: (a) is this propaganda? and (b) is this racist, homophobic, sexist or otherwise discriminatory? Unless you answer “no” to both questions, please … don’t post it!

4. If your post makes a brief statement that over-simplifies a complex issue, consider whether there is evidence or well-reasoned social commentary to back it. If not, reconsider your initial reaction that said, “Man, I’ve gotta post this!”

You are, of course, welcome to ignore or disagree with my rant/opinion. Just — please! — don’t copy-and-paste a sentence from this post and attach it to a picture of: a Liquid Natural Gas plant; a pipeline, mine or oil well; an old growth forest; a school; a hospital; anything to do with guns; a kitten, puppy or unicorn; or Donald Trump.

Actually, the unicorn is okay. After all, it is the National Animal of Scotland. (Really … look it up!)

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