"Is Foster Girl a Failure?"
"To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle." —George Orwell
This is the fourth installment of “Confessions of a Non-Essential,” a limited series on my being a non-essential worker. I am currently under a government order to stay-at-home. I’ll be using this time during our global pandemic to be introspective about what I’m doing with my life.
On May 9, 2013, I published “Foster Girl, a Memoir,” a book that took me over ten years to write and a few more years of trying to get it traditionally published. Since my book’s debut, I have not landed on any bestselling lists. I have not earned enough money to pay off my student loans. I have not made a dent in the child welfare universe. I have not raised the awareness I wanted to raise. I am not where I feel I need to be professional to do the work I feel I was born to do. For these reasons alone, I have felt like I’ve failed with Foster Girl.
But am I really a failure? Boy, it sure sounds like it! I definitely feel like it…but am I? Allow me to take this moment to put aside my tsunami of emotions, piece out, and see if my life's greatest work was even worth it.
Since our society measures an author’s success by the numbers, we’ll start there. In my second post, I bemoaned that I sold less than 10,000 copies. When the love of my life read that line, he stopped reading and asked me, “Well, how many did you sell?” I had a nebulous idea and gave him a guess. He knew I didn’t know the hard number right off the top of my head. He then nudged (lectured?) me to find out.
I was resistant, as I had always been. It was hard to face the truth and numbers don’t lie. I didn’t want to know how much I’ve failed. But I had to face it. If I’m serious about writing for a living, I need to track my progress.
I was afraid of the story the numbers would tell me.
I steeled myself internally as I did a deep dive into my data. I counted up how many books I sold online and paperbacks in person so far. It turns out, I’ve sold about twenty-five hundred. I sold most of them in America but I also reached readers in Australia, UK, Canada, and Germany. I sold more than I felt I did.
After I got a solid number, I didn’t know if that was good or not. Emotionally, I sensed it was. I mean, to touch thousands of lives with my story is a dream realized. But my insecurities drove me to constantly compare myself to other authors and their numbers. So, I looked up the averages of self-published book sales. I don’t know the average annual sales of a memoir but I discovered that the average sales in the life of a self-published book are about two-hundred and fifty books.
Two-hundred and fifty? In the life of a book? Why I sold 50 books in my very first book signing back in 2013. Since then, I’ve sold ten times more than 250 books! And I sold that many without an audiobook, without a social media platform, without a marketing budget and without a public relations person letting the world know that my book even exists.
After learning the average sales of self-published books, I researched what the averages were for traditionally published books. The results were shocking to me. The average sales for a traditional book are around 3,000 copies in its lifetime. I’m almost at that number! This epiphany is remarkable considering that for years, I didn’t do any outreach due to my low-grade depression. For a book to be considered a success in the traditional publishing world, it would have to sell over 10,000 copies. I had no idea that my sales averages are much closer to traditional publishing than self-publishing.
A great contributor to my depression was that I had been unfairly comparing myself to the traditionally published people whom we all hear about. But only 1% of authors sell hundreds of thousands or millions. This new insight has been definitely eye-opening to me and has given me a broader perspective.
I’m glad I faced the truth.
As for the other numbers story, I’ve mentioned previously that I spent $10,000 putting my book together. There’s still somewhat of a shameful stigma to being self-published but after all that, I went through, what else was I do to?
I had spent ten years plus writing and crafting a book about the worst years of my life. I then hired a developmental editor (John Wiley & Sons) to clean up my manuscript and from there, I spent years courting literary agents and traditional publishers. Most traditional publishers won’t even look at you unless you’re represented by an agent. I eventually got one and after six months of nothing happening, I got another one. For a solid year, my book was out of my hands. I felt powerless in that year. Even though I was properly represented by agents, however, big publishers passed. There was some interest in medium and small publishers, but in the end, no one took Foster Girl on.
At that point, I felt I had no choice but to self-publish in order for my book to exist. When I finally decided to self-publish, the first thing I did was hire a top-tier team of professionals to put my book together. I had already hired a developmental editor, but then I hired a book jacket designer (Crown Publishing) and then a copy editor (Penguin Random House). The money turned out to be well spent. I was pleased with how my book looked, it didn’t look self-published, and I made all of the money back and then some when you combine my sales with speaking opportunities I’ve garnered because of my book.
If you read last week’s post, you'd know I didn’t write Foster Girl for the money, but I had been beating myself up for years because my book was not performing the way I wanted it to. It was so hard to get that book out of me but once it was out, I wanted it everywhere. I have yet to achieve that, but purely by the numbers alone, Foster Girl has not been the publishing failure that I assumed it was.
There are also other markers of success too that I’ve generally neglected to acknowledge because I've been placing too much self-value into Foster Girl’s outcome. But by researching, and thinking about it, because of Foster Girl, I have to acknowledge I've been on television, radio, featured in magazines, sat on panels at conferences, given talks at universities across the country and I starred in “Breaking the Cycle,” a foster care documentary. While local media exposure didn’t do much in terms of sales, I was able to raise awareness by reaching big audiences. In each media opportunity, I highlighted not only my own story but I made sure to discuss what foster kids go through once they emancipate from the system. Who knows how many seeds were planted there?
I didn’t know, until this past week, that books have less than a 1% chance of being on a bookstore shelf. My book is in less than 1% club. Foster Girl has been on bookshelves in a number of Barnes & Noble stores, at universities — my book was once sold at Harvard University’s bookstore — and I’ve had friends who traveled in different parts of the country and they saw my book in a random bookstore. I’ve also had the same experience. I have walked into stores, not knowing my book would be on a shelf but then being surprised and delighted to see it there, staring at me, validating my years of hard work.
Most of the reactions I’ve gotten have been overwhelmingly positive. I’ve had former foster youth of all ages tell me that they related to my story. In those shared moments, I time-traveled into their own pasts with their stories. Often, I left those soulful exchanges with tears in my eyes and I’m still deeply affected by all those conversations to this very day.
I’ve had others tell me that they feel inspired to write their own stories, which is what I hoped would happen. People who worked in child welfare for decades have shared with me that they learned something new from my book. I’ve also touched people who had no real understanding of how the foster care system works. I’ve gotten feedback from foster mothers who got a second wind and a better understanding of the teen in their household and I know of one person who was motivated to take a teenager into her home. In all, if I measured the success of the responses alone, the book was well worth the time spent on it.
I’m personal friends with superheroes without capes, angels without halos and I have formed deep bonds with some of the most incredible people I’ve ever met in my life. I never would have had the immense pleasure and absolute joy of meeting any of these phenomenal people if I hadn’t written my book. Making amazing friends was an unexpected benefit and a wish-fulfillment. I said last week I wrote my book because I wanted to be loved. Well, mission accomplished there.
The Change in Foster Care
Foster Girl hasn’t changed foster care and it’s presumptuous to think one book could even do that, but my memoir led me to Connect Our Kids, which is a non-profit organization that provides a free and innovative resource for social workers and Court Appointed Special Advocates. Connect Our Kids offers smart technology to help connect children to stable family members and support networks. They are currently accelerating their Family Connections Technology pilot program because of the coronavirus crisis.
Recently, I wrote about a story of how I got involved with this organization in The Chronicle of Social Change. So far, they’ve served over 550 foster children, and for the past three years, I’ve been advising and volunteering for Connect Our Kids when I can. As California’s Ambassador, I’ve introduced the leadership team to people who know people who can use this technology. If these partnerships work out, it is then I can rightfully say that my book led me to make a real change in the foster care system.
I can’t wait for that day to happen.
The Fact That I Did It
Lastly, I actually did it. My longtime vision is a physical reality. Against all odds, I wrote my book and it’s published. It’s out there. I wrote the book without an advance, without an audience, without a guaranteed payday, and without support, unless I paid through the nose for it. I mean, the level, the depths, and the pain I went through to make my dream come true…how many people can say that?
I can say that and I’m saying it! I. Did. It. It’s been an incredibly long and emotional journey but I don’t regret choosing this path and then walking it. I feel complete. I may not be successful in the eyes of society because my book wasn’t a blockbuster and also, I’m a “non-essential” worker, but when you factor in everything above, Foster Girl was not a failure.
I’m starting to think I’m not either.