9.17.2017

Being someone of no reputation.



Philippians 2:7 tells me that Jesus was a man of no reputation, of no consequence.

I have thyme. In my continual search for a 26-hour day or a secret trick to manage my time better, I forget that out on the back deck (in the flower pots I never got around to cleaning out and putting away for the winter) sits thyme. All the other herbs are dead, but the thyme, with its woody and hearty stem system, partly buried beneath this fall’s cottonwood leaves and now an insulating layer of snow, has managed to keep going into December. I can still pick the leaves and use them in cooking.
Thyme is a small herb, rather unspectacular and nowhere near as heady and delicious as basil. Basil grows tall with lush leaves that spread out and curve under. But basil is also the first to take a hit in the cold, the drought, the anything-less-than-perfect. Thyme chugs on, quietly, low, runners dropping into the soil and digging in.

A friend had shared an article from a magazine with me, pointing out a quote by Anne Voskamp. I suppose he’d shared this particular quote with me because it’s something I’ve been expounding on for over a year, both on my own website regarding the changes I’ve made to how I approach “being known” on my blog and social media, and in the conversations we’ve had.

A big part of these changes in my own life, I’ve no doubt, stem from a recent employment situation where I got a chance to see behind the curtain and take in the inglorious workings of modern day online life and the celebration of the social media mini-celebrity. But I can’t discount age as a factor in these changes, and the noticeable lessening of the pressure I feel to be known and to have people like me.

Voskamp nails it, with her succinct description of the idea I’ve been trying to illustrate with thousands of words:

The size of your ministry isn’t proof of the success of your ministry. The very Son of God had a ministry to 12. And one of them abandoned Him. Forget the numbers in your work and focus on the net value. The Internet age may try to sell you something different, but don’t ever forget that viral is closely associated with sickness. Ultimately, what seems like futile work that’s taking an eternity today is exactly what may make the most difference in eternity. And whatever you do, make it a regular practice to retreat to the “back side of the wilderness.” Because when you do not need to be seen or heard—you can see and hear in desperately needed ways.

I want to point out that going to the back side of the wilderness, as Voskamp describes, doesn’t just mean a weekend retreat. That wilderness could be a decade of your life where you accept the path laid out for you not with feelings of failure because you “didn’t achieve your dreams” and instead worked a steady job and didn’t get famous at any level and were faithful to the small sphere God placed you.

Some of you will be blessed with numerical success, but most of you won’t. I fully accept I’m in the latter camp, and do not feel that I’ve failed, nor do I feel like the voices of the crowd, who tell me that I must pursue my dream as they understand and define it, have any sway over me.

In an age where an entire generation of people are being told to live as a personal brand and live with the goal of getting fans to like who you are and what you do, Voskamp sounds off the mark.  Our reputation is our brand, we are told, and we must build and protect our brand!  Everything about what she said, and what I’ve been trying to say and continue to say to this friend of mine and to anyone who might listen, sounds so wrong now.

Even Christians, whose bookstores are lined with books about finding dream jobs and quitting jobs and realizing your potential and living your best life right now and doing what you love, will struggle with the thought that you ought to be using a different measuring stick than personal satisfaction.
Being a servant to others and living a life in which you put yourself last is not a life congruent with seeking fame, fans, renown, fortune, validation, worth, earthly success, and a sense of purpose. There are times when God gives us some of those things, but we are to seek God, not his gifts. This idea stirs up defensive anger in anyone who believes there is nothing wrong with working hard with these types of success goals, who believes in pulling yourself up by the bootstraps, and who in any way has bought into the Christianized version of this one lie: there is something better than God to pursue, and it’s worth the cost of trusting He knows best.

I want to suggest that there are some aspects of culture and the American ideals that cannot be Christianized, and that seeking any kind of renown is one of them, even if you pragmatically defend it saying that a larger platform will give you a chance to reach more people with a message. Because here’s the thing: God builds your platform, not you. 

Without God, modern day “platforms” are like a Tower of Babel, a way to prove your own glory.
When you build your platform, your platform becomes more precious that what you are supposed to do with it. As I said to a friend recently, the “problem with building a platform is you always have to stand on it and talk even if you don't have anything worth saying.” This is always the case when we’ve built our own platform and take pride in what we’ve done, willing to do and say whatever is necessary to preserve our hard work. It is also the case when God graciously gives us a platform and we take it into our own hands.

“Thanks, God. I can take it from here,” we say, making the preservation of platform more important no matter what the cost.

We pursue a traditional and accepted course of, for example, blogging all the time and saying things we aren’t really meant to say because we have to keep blogging or we’ll lose traffic. We use words and promote ideas and images that bring in the proper level of attention. These things might be bland and full of caveats and compromise, or they might be purposefully caustic. It all depends on the platform we’re maintaining. Sometimes Christians call their platforms a “ministry” to alleviate any guilt on what they have to do to keep it alive, even if it means eviscerating people in blog posts or comments.

And so, unlike what Voskamp describes, this becomes the reality: we censor what we say because we do not want to harm our fan base, the foundation of our platform.  We are slaves to the constant maintenance of the platform we created. We say what we know our fans want to hear (this is, after all, classic online marketing theory) rather than what God might have us say. We protect our reputation and do damage control so that we might gain access to the right influencers who have fans like ours in hopes of having influence. We tailor everything we say with an eye towards numbers, whether those are numbers of fans or the sales and money we rely on.

And absolutely nothing about that says that we trust and rely on God.

God gives platforms and He can also crush them. He hands out success as well as allowing humiliation to bring the proud to a place where their heart is right. He doesn’t care about your fans or your brand or your reputation. Your success isn’t about what you’ve done. It’s about what He’s done.
In conversations with my friend, I tried to explain what appears to be little more than curmudgeonly contrarianism. “I don’t want to get used to the drug,” I said.

I didn’t want to get even a taste of these current do-it-yourself methods of building renown and reputation online, which often meant I purposefully shunned influencer opportunities and avoided partnerships with seemingly benign and even helpful groups and organizations. Because, I came to realize, when you get accustomed to the drug you make the changes in yourself to not interrupt the supply. Do I really want to build a network of people and groups that require me to tiptoe around the things I might be led to say or do or support? Is that worth the reputation?

It is not.

I would rather go back to cleaning offices or working in a restaurant kitchen as I have in the past than latch onto an upward trajectory that takes me straight to a frozen and withered heart.

Instead of seeking out influencers in the hopes of getting attention, renown, and becoming an influencer yourself someday--a kind of popularity Ponzi scheme--we ought to be remembering that we, like Christ, are to live a life of no consequence. Your life, and the work of your hands and your heart and your mind, matters more to others when it matters less to you.

Because, like my stubborn and partly buried thyme, that inconsequential life lives, affects others, and can be used long after the flashy basil withered in the first touch of frost. If you are a Christian, your identity and your reputation is not your concern. You get that from Christ, and that’s way more than enough.

UPDATE: Some interesting thoughts on this here and here.

Note: This originally ran as a Facebook note on December 15, 2015

9.11.2017

Why Self-Published Authors Ought To Reconsider Amazon

I'm a self-published author. My understanding, from every writer's convention or publishing forum I'd participated in was that I could not make it as an author without Amazon. For some who have found significant success, particularly due to the ebook format, perhaps that is true.

But let's be realistic: most of us aren't going to be that smash self-publish success story. Some of us are writing simply because we can't not write. Because of that reality, I want to tell you why you should rethink Amazon.com as a "must" for how you sell.

First, let's get a few minor things out of the way from what I've learned from a pretty standard self-publishing experience in which you get a little local PR, make some sales, get your book in the local bookstores, and are mostly satisfied because you simply have a book of yours finished and on the shelves somewhere.

Minor: Readers who refuse to pay for shipping.


When I published my book, a few people wouldn't buy it if it wasn't on Amazon because they didn't want to pay for shipping.

I guess I'm not too keen on that reader, at this point, considering what I'm going to describe to you further in this post. What Amazon does to you is not worth catering to that reader who refuses to pay a few dollars in shipping. Unless you sell to hundreds of thousands (and most of us won't), the reader who doesn't want to pay for shipping isn't worth the hassle because you don't make a lot of money off of the sale, anyway, and what that person doesn't realize is that Amazon forces a hike in the price that makes it more expensive than if they'd bought the book elsewhere, paid for shipping, and Amazon was nowhere in the selling equation.

Minor: Your electronic content is too readily available.


Do some basic searching. Find out how many authors whose books are only available in the Kindle format have discovered other "authors" stealing their book.

It's easy to steal the copy right out of a digital book.

Real paper books are not only not dead, but making a comeback. Consider making your book only available in paper, i.e. you aren't locked into Amazon because of the Kindle format.

Major: Amazon makes it difficult to remove your content.


Try removing your book from your author page on Amazon. They basically inform you that they don't remove books, even if they're out of print. They don't make it easy to get your books out of their system.

Once you put it in there, it's there. That doesn't seem like a problem, until you consider the next point...

Major: Amazon has policies that make their system a haven for online bullies.


There was a protest in my area that lasted half a year, and because I did not support the violent actions of the protesters, I became a target (as did hundreds of others in my community). I locked down every social account I could find (they found a few I'd forgotten about), but I still received filthy threatening messages and emails. I was doxxed and harassed and had photos of me made to look like Hitler and Satan. In at least one case, I had to contact the police to report the harassment.

Most social networks make attempts to deal with trolls and harassment. They aren't perfect, but they try. They also give you the ability to block and restrict access to those folks who simply want to harass and troll.

Consider Amazon a social network that doesn't give you any control. Anyone can leave a review, with an anonymous fake name if desired. They don't even have to be a verified purchase to leave the review, so Amazon runs no checks to attempt to make their review system legitimate. In an effort to build the biggest product review database in the world, they allow severe abuse that has a direct financial component. The review and one-star rating have a direct and negative impact on your sales i.e. your livelihood. I have not problem if a verified purchaser leaves a one-star review, because at least they put their money where their mouth is. But anonymous non-buyers having the ability to hurt the author and tank sales? Not acceptable.

While you might not agree with me on my stance at the protest, keep in mind that what happened to me can happen to you for any reason. You simply need to make someone angry. That's all it takes.

I reported the comments, some of which were protesters who had harassed me in other forums, and left a response explaining why they were left. After several days and multiple email messages and winding support systems as I was passed from one support person to another as they slowly "escalated" my complaint, I was finally told that they "understand your concerns, but the review doesn't violate our posted guidelines, so I'm unable to remove it in its current format. We try to encourage our customers to give their honest opinions on our products while staying within our guidelines. As a retailer we are interested in cultivating a diversity of opinion on our products. Part of that is allowing our customers to air their honest thoughts on items they have received."

Having your book listed on Amazon provides trolls a place where they can both damage your reputation as well as your income, and there are no safeguards or possibilities for you to get any serious justice out of it.

I'd highly recommend finding another way to sell books and not even open up that avenue of abuse on Amazon. Find another place. They do not take this issue of fraudulent reviews seriously, because they are simply more interested in "cultivating a diversity of opinion" instead of protecting the creators who generate the content they make profit off of.

Major: Amazon makes your book more expensive, but less profitable.


Unless you publish your book through their self-publishing system (CreateSpace), you will not make much profit listing your self-published books there.

I did not want to use CreateSpace, because it put my book's entirety of existence in the hands of Amazon as both publisher and seller. I did my book through another print-on-demand publisher.

Amazon's rules are that if you want to list your book with them, they must have the lowest price. If that book is found anywhere else online available for less, they mark their price down to remain the lowest. Readers think that's great, but consider some realities.

The actual cost to print my first full-color book was $17.87. To account for standard wholesale discounts, I have to add to that cost or I would lose money. That wholesale discount, however, has an Amazon component to it, as you'll see in a minute.


Amazon has additional markups that add to the cost and make that wholesale discount as high as it is.

In the end, to meet the profits that Amazon wants to make on each sale of my book, you can see from the first graphic that I only make about $1 for every book I sell on Amazon. Sure, I could mark it up higher, but $30 is high enough for a softcover. Even for a full color book with lots of imagery in it, my goal price had been to charge the reader no more than $22. Had I not listed on Amazon, I could have charged less (even with shipping, it would have been less) and still made more than $1 a book.

Books I sell on Amazon amount to next to nothing (I've done better selling off of my website), but Amazon makes about $7 off of each sale, all while letting online trolls abuse the review system.

Even if you make the decision not to list on Amazon, your book will find its way there (sans profit to you) through other systems (e.g. used book sellers). But at least you can have some up-front control on initial release and a lower price by not putting it on Amazon.

In summary: to get my first book on Amazon for the convenience of consumers who don't realize how Amazon works, the book was made far more expensive than it would have been simply so that Amazon could make the cut they wanted which were more profits than the author of the actual work made. You might think you're getting a deal on Amazon because of free shipping with your Amazon Prime, but if I didn't list with Amazon and set my price as I had intended, even with shipping, it would have been less than ordering off of Amazon with "free" shipping.

To be honest, when I sold my first book in person, I chopped the price down to what I had originally intended, about $8 less. I simply couldn't list it cheaper online or Amazon would respond negatively.

We're all familiar with Amazon's fight with the publisher Hachette. If you've ever bothered to dig into it and get past the consumer mantra of "but Amazon gives me cheap books", you'll realize that there are a lot of creators who are doing hard work for not much, and are also opening themselves up to losing control over their listings and what people use the reviews for.

Leaving reviews on Amazon simply as a consumer is bad enough; as I've written elsewhere, it opens you up to annoying online marketers who see what you've reviewed and contact you to tell you that they think you'd be interested in their book or product. But creators and sellers have long known the reviews are a serious tactic competitors use to sabotage sales via reviews and ratings, and now authors can experience the same thing if they dared express an opinion that runs contrary to a particular zeitgeist.

Reality check for most self-published authors.


Most of us aren't going to make it big. And if you're like me, you don't care. I simply want to write, and I like having a book to hold and read when I've finished a project.

If you can't let go of the idea of being one of those breakout self-published authors, you'll always be owned by Amazon.

My plan, then, is to continue the book I've been working on for several months regarding what my community experienced at the hands of some of the protesters. I won't be listing it on Amazon. The price will be lower because of that, even with shipping. I'll sell it directly from my website or in person. And I'll probably sell just as many without immediately giving the single-celled trolls of the internet yet another place to attack me for daring to disagree and write about that disagreement at the place of sale.

Side Note: In a recent incident in which my work was plagiarized by someone using Amazon's self-publishing system (CreateSpace), Amazon was willing to work with me as far as taking the information I provided and plugging it into their system to make a determination. I want to give them credit for having a system to review complaints and taking them seriously.

7.06.2017

What keeps you up at night?





Once upon a midnight dreary,
While I slept, weak and weary,
There came a scratching at my bedroom window.
And that was pretty much the end of a decent night's sleep.

My bedroom is in the basement, and its window, with a deep well surrounded by corrugated metal, is known for periodically trapping critters down there who die of starvation and exposure if I don't find them in time.

It's terrible, really. I look out my window and have this glassed chamber of death to observe.

Last night, around 3 a.m., I heard a frantic scratching at the window. It wouldn't go away, no matter how hard I willed it to.

I got my flashlight from the bed stand, and went to the window. The beam of light shot through the glass and I could see the critter, clamoring for the light. It was cute, but not at 3 a.m. Or at 3:30 a.m. Or at 4 and onward, which is how long the racket continued.



Clearly, it was frantic to get out.

I don't blame it.

There were the remains of two little mice who had the misfortune to get trapped in there while I was gone for the weekend. No doubt it was terrifying to realize you'd fallen into a pit of death with little sustenance beyond some weeds.

I tried to sleep, but it was mostly an orchestra of scratching at the window and grumbling under the covers. Periodically I'd go to the window with the flashlight to yell some vague threats only to see a little head and paws pop up at the edge, begging for salvation.

Now, with the sense that comes with daylight when the befuddled illogical thinking of night has been pushed away, I see that the decision I should have made was to just go sleep on the couch. But, at the time, I had this thought that the little critter might chew his way through the wood or the window latch and get into my room and I ought to stick around just in case that happened to keep him from getting to the rest of the house.

This is a non-story, really, other than to explain I'm super tired today and that if some emotive reporter thought to ask me what keeps me awake at night, the answer would not be some kind of deep philosophy, but would be simple instead: rodents.

(Yes, the critter was safely removed in the morning and sent on its merry way.)

5.24.2017

Not every day.

So this might be heaven, telling the dental hygienist that you don't floss every day, telling the chiropractor that you don't do the three pages of stretches every day or the neck roll every other day, telling the dietitian that you don't start every day with warm lemon water and take a pro-biotic and a fish oil pill, telling your doctor that you don't get vigorous exercise every day...

...the day is so full of ways I should be taking care of my physical body for optimal health that I fear I'm going to live quite long in this joyless state of concerned maintenance. Ever step or non-step, ever fork of food or skipped meal, every moment seated or walking -- they all come with a price tag of pride or guilt. There is no agnostic eating or moving these days; it's all quite religious in one form or another.

It is hard to be still and know that He is God, to rest in his presence, to meditate on His word, when my FitBit keeps sending me cheerful reminders on my wrist that it's time to move again if I want to hit my step goal for the day.

In the middle of reading my Bible I find myself stretching my leg so I don't remain motionless too long, or getting up for a glass of water because I haven't had enough today.

Our physical bodies matter. This isn't about Gnosticism, or some way of pretending that I can do what I want with my body and it has no effect on the spirit, that the sins of the body are acceptable in the service of my emotional needs. When I read Colossians 1:22 and see that Jesus' physical body mattered, I have to acknowledge that mine does, too.

But no, I don't do all those things daily, and I wish to not fall into bed weary, tabulating all of the health failures I stacked up during the day.