At some point every January for the last ten years, I’ve taken an inventory of my books — the books I’ve written — for tax purposes. This is a little random, as I have boxes of my first poetry book in my shed from when the publisher closed its imprint, and I never count those.
I think there are 8 boxes left of 76 books each, but since they were free to me, calculating profit doesn’t make sense. I do count all the others, which I have paid for at various times, and many of them published myself, so we can see how much they cost and how much money they have made me.
The short answer is: very little, if you mean cash money in hand. But the winding, meandering, sauntering, longer answer is more interesting, though useless for tax purposes.
They have made me friends. They have made me mildly famous in my own town. They have kept me out of certain kinds of trouble, especially the kind involving other people’s spouses and motel rooms.
They have entertained readers and listeners and brightened a lot of days, people tell me, particularly when I describe my own foibles, bloopers, ridiculousness, and personal array of human failings.
I’ve had a wonderful time designing their covers with my friend Max. Our first one involved finding chickens on the internet who might look good together, and setting them up on a blind date.
We sat in the original Summer Thymes cafe, in not very great light as I recall, trying to figure out what background would look a little rural and farm-y but not too cliched. I can’t remember who discovered or suggested a weathered gray fence, but it was a great idea.
I’ve had a good time selling them to local stores: book stores, gift shops, and both branches of the local IGA.
I also did readings and once even got a member of 4H to blow-dry an actual chicken (named Sunflower) before the audience, since no one initially understands that the title is not a joke. If you don’t understand either, there’s an explanation in the book.
Readers have sent me photos of them. Many, many photos, not all of which I labeled correctly, alas, but here are some.
Max and I chose the cover colors so they would look cute together but be differentiated. Many years later, my web designer repeated some of those colors to make my website seem related to the books. This was a snazzy idea I’d never thought of and might indicate that my marketing is “on brand,” whatever that may mean. Not everywhichway.
The second book features an orange ’53 Chevy half-ton pick-up, the actual truck I learned to drive on in 1971. My father and I bought it together for $500: $250 each. Three on the tree and its linkage liked to stick but you could open the hood and rattle something to unstick it, which I sometimes had to do at stop lights in San Francisco. We were looking for a turn signal, to point out that Using Your Turn Signal Promotes World Peace, but no good examples showed up online.
Max used a photo of the truck, one of a series taken by my brother Peter when I was going off to college, but for purposes of design and current relevance, she added some mountains near Lake Tahoe. What I love most about the result is that the rear-view mirror is reflecting my hometown of Mill Valley, while the rest of the landscape is outside Truckee somewhere. This is a secret you might not have noticed unless I told you.
For the third book I wandered around looking for appealing possums on the internet and found one in Toronto, of all places. I tracked the photo down to discover that her name is Morag and her person, the photographer Aefa Mullholland, is a also writer. She lives half-time in Wales and agreed to sell me use of the photo for $100.
I did not set out to have only females on my covers, but Ina, the tiger on Naming Your Teeth, (book four) is also a girl, a 10-year-old in the zoo in Vienna, Austria.
Purchasing her visage as she flosses her teeth on a bare winter branch was a little complicated. Once I tracked down the photographer it turned out she did not speak English, and my German is limited to a single high-school semester. We did manage to figure it out, she agreed to the same $100 price, and then I spent an afternoon with my favorite tellers over at Westamerica Bank calculating the exchange rates and transferring Euros.
I didn’t make any books during the pandemic, but afterwards I felt I should resume this practice so people would have something to give their friends for Christmas.
But I could not think of a good title. Months went by, my brain coming up with really awkward, terrible suggestions. Finally, taking the on-ramp to Highway 49 from my town’s main street, it hit me.
I did not crash the car, I didn’t even swerve, but I did shout “Yes!” And then “Hooray!!” Sometimes you need to be your own cheering squad.
I didn’t have a clear enough photo of my own for Everything But the Kitchen Skunk, but luckily Pascale from our cutting-edge local organic news organization Yubanet raised her hand to offer up several. Feral skunks like to eat the birdseed cast off by sloppy avians under her feeders. The covergirl of book five is named Mama.
Well, Ian from the library has just called and asked for 30 assorted titles to make displays with because this year’s Nevada County Reads focus is poetry. That cleans me out. So for the purposes of simplifying my tax math, I’m going to say the January, 2024 book inventory is zero.
Even when we all know a writer’s work is done alone with pen and notebook or computer inside the small acreage of her own mind, you can see that I get help making books not just from my generous community but from the entire wide and turning world.