By late 2015, my family was completely immersed in my publisher, Booktrope. In 2012, when they’d needed someone with project management experience, I’d recommended Adam. They’d hired him, and his role had increasingly grown with the company until he was VP of Production. Granted, it was a startup, so they handed out titles when they couldn’t hand out appropriate pay, but he was pretty much living and breathing that company.
I’d been one of their first authors. Then I took on marketing others’ books. Then I became a book marketing mentor. Then, when they decided to create imprints for their more specialized books, I took the helm of Vox Dei, the Christian division. I later took over their middle grade and parenting divisions, but Vox Dei was always my baby.
Over the course of 2015, with the help of Becki Brannen (an author who has, over the course of the years, become one of my dearest friends), we built something unlike anything I’d ever been part of before.
From a practical standpoint, taking over Vox Dei was stupid. My family was still broke; we still had a mountain of debt. My own book sales were languishing because Booktrope had never quite figured out their book management program (that was supposed to provide each author with marketing support). Sure, I knew book marketing, but I needed someone to help with my own novels. I’m a firm believer that every book, in order to succeed needs both an author who is willing to hustle and at least one other person in their corner. It’s not a solo effort. It’s really more of a team effort. I didn’t have that team.
By taking over Vox Dei, I effectively closed the door on my own book babies. I didn’t realize it at the time. At the time, I thought I could handle both. At the time, I thought the small percentage of book sales I was being offered in form of payment would mean something for my family. As it turned out, I couldn’t handle both and the pay was never even a drop in the bucket for us—far less than I could have been earning back in corporate life. (Or working fast food, to be honest.) Now that I know, I can’t say I would have chosen differently. What we did that year was that special.
The book industry is struggling right now, and the game plan adopted by big publishers (both the big five and established Christian publishers) is to go with the surest possible bets, names they’re reasonably certain they can sell. With Christian publishers, there is an added layer—The Christian Booksellers Association (CBA). They have a set of strict standards that assure bookstores the titles are, in fact, Christian and adhere to Christian values.
While I applaud the intent, I’ve always felt that everyone was trying so hard to play it safe the end product was impacted. So many Christian books wind up looking like a plastic replica of life because they can’t ring true while still adhering to the standards set out by the CBA. Because of this, I was okay with the fact that Booktrope wouldn’t even consider joining it. I wanted to create Christian books for a messy world. Books that honored God while still meeting people where they were.
And boy, did we have some amazing books. Books that moved me, changed me, challenged me to be a better person. Books that reached out to the hurting and the broken, helping them find their way to healing. Books that engaged young Christian readers in a way they’d never been before.
We made good books, and we had an amazing team. We prayed for each other. We supported each other. We became involved in each other’s worlds. We were a family.
Becki and I faced too many challenges to name that year: turnover in the book management program, hiccups in the production line, and the ever-present push to publish more books faster. I look back now and am amazed at what we accomplished together.
By the time 2015 was in its home stretch, I was realizing that my life had been completely absorbed by Vox Dei. I was working from 6 am until 10 or 11 pm with barely a bathroom break. My kids’ homeschooling was turning into a disaster, salvaged only by the fact that I have amazing kids who helped each other and me. But with all of those hours put in, we still weren’t selling books. We couldn’t overcome the hurdle of not being in the CBA. We couldn’t crack the Amazon code.
I had some thoughts there, about what we could do, but I didn’t have the budget to test it. Booktrope had a pretty set formula of what they expected from book managers, of how they saw book marketing playing out. I’m not going to say if it was good or bad, only that it wasn’t complete.
In November of 2015, Booktrope hired me to do some competitive intelligence analysis for them. What were our competitors doing? What were other authors doing? How could we better sell books?
That analysis raised so many red flags for me, confirmed so many of the things I’d been feeling in my gut. Everything in the industry indicated that to survive in the publishing world, you either had to be a highly-diversified giant who could throw lots of money at your titles or a highly-targeted niche publisher who was deeply involved in each book you put out the door.
Booktrope was neither. We were churning books out at a record pace without any plan to sell those books. It was a recipe for disaster. I couldn’t, in good conscience, continue to grow a division that I now knew would never get the budget it needed to succeed. And without an ad or marketing budget, there was only so much I could do.
I also knew that my family was in a state of financial ruin without me actually using my degree to earn a living. Adam didn’t see things my way. He was sure Booktrope would pull through. I, however, was absolutely certain it was no longer safe for us to have all of our eggs in the Booktrope basket. Perhaps it never was, but now my eyes were opened to it.
So I made the heart-wrenching decision to turn in my notice at Vox Dei and return to the corporate world. I had been reminded of my contract and that I couldn’t give explanation as to why I was leaving, even now, there is so much left unsaid. Still, navigating that departure was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do. Trying to do right by my team and my family was a slippery slope.
I applied for a job in the marketing department at Incredible Pizza, a family entertainment center based out of Springfield. The pay was about half what I was looking for, but something in me kept coming back to it. There were other jobs I could apply to, other jobs pursuing me, but my gut told me it was the right one. And while the pay wasn’t a lot, it was more than I’d been making at Vox Dei, so I applied. When I met the man I would be reporting to, I was even more certain that was where God was leading me. Tim, the VP of Marketing, and I had an instant rapport and I could see myself working well with him. Of all the times I’ve been wrong in my life, this was not one of them. I can still say Tim is a good human being who cares for his employees—and they’d walk through fire for him.
I took the job at Incredible Pizza, much to my children’s delight. For those who have never been to or heard of America’s Incredible Pizza, let me pause to explain. The front of the house is a full buffet, not just pizza. The back is an entire indoor fairground. Yes, fairground. Video and prize games are just the tip of the iceberg. They also have (depending on the store) laser tag, go karts, bumper cars, a tilt-a-whirl, a roller coaster, mini bowling, mini golf, a trampoline park… it’s insane. It’s incredibly fun. And it was now a part of their world.
Knowing how excited they were made it easier. I was proud to finally be doing something that delighted them. The past few years had been so hard for them; it warmed my heart to be able to bring my children such joy. Still, there were days I cried the whole way into work. I missed my kids. I missed Vox Dei. I missed my farm and my animals. Being in a cubicle for 8 hours a day felt like being in a cage. And since I was THE social media department for a company that was busiest on evenings and weekends, I was tied to my work phone or a laptop all evening and every weekend, too.
Somehow, I’d landed myself in yet another position where I was working seven days a week and not making much money. I have a knack for that.
I was in Tulsa for my first Incredible Pizza store visit when the announcement came down that Booktrope would be closing its doors. I’d found out a few days before but had been instructed not to say anything. Even though I’d had a couple of days to mentally prepare, the official announcement was a huge blow. I had indie-published my most recent novel, but I still had eleven books that were now going to be pulled out of publication. What little revenue I was still getting from them—and five years of work building them up—would be erased. I had two divisions full of people looking to me to help them understand and navigate the implications for their books. And my husband was losing his job.
I cried a lot that weekend. I felt bad, like I probably wasn’t making the best impression on the Tulsa Incredible Pizza, but I took lots of breaks back to my hotel room to cry, then I’d pull myself back together and walk back to the store, where I was surrounded by laughing, happy people. The disconnect was surreal.
So many of my hopes and dreams had been placed in Booktrope. Even though I had seen it coming and had jumped ship months before, I still mourned the loss. Deeply.
Adam was determined to go down with the ship. He was more actively involved right up until the bitter end than even the c-suite. I know it was the right thing to do for the authors who were panicked, struggling to get things in order before their books disappeared. But for our family, it was catastrophic. He was so immersed in the sinking Booktrope ship that he didn’t have time to look for a new job.
Booktrope closed in April. It would be September before Adam found a job to replace it. In so many ways, it’s the perfect job for him. He’s now helping the homeless in Springfield and surrounding counties. The pay is a little over half what he’d been making at Booktrope. On the one hand, he’s helping others and he is fulfilled. On the other, raising a family is expensive and I think there’s a tendency to get so wrapped up in saving the world that he downplays the needs of his own family, he forgets how much his own children have given at the altar of our dreams.
Dylan, our oldest, never does things the normal way. He is so like me in that regard. He had no desire to return to public school, ever. In fact, he once told me he had nightmares that I’d make him go back. I remembered having those same nightmares, so I helped him finish his high school diploma sooner rather than later. He’d been testing at Master’s level work as a seventh grader. Finishing a high school curriculum in three years instead of four wasn’t tough for him. For his final semester, he enrolled in a local community college to take a few classes there while he dotted his i’s and crossed his t’s on his homeschool education.
I re-enrolled my other two boys in public school in Fall of 2016. They aren’t like Dylan in that regard. He would have suffocated had I made him go back and do things the normal way. They, however, are thriving. I love their school and their teachers. I love that my kids are making friends. And I love not being wholly responsible for their education. There was a joy in homeschooling, but there was a serious weight to it as well. I appreciate the teachers who accept that weight not only for my children, but for every other child in the school.
While I stopped mourning Booktrope, there were times when I questioned if I’d heard God right about Incredible Pizza. It was an intense job, to say the least. I was solely responsible for all six Facebook pages with about 180,000 fans between them, both producing content and responding to every single customer comment and complaint. Then there was the rest of the social plan, Twitter, Instagram, etc. In addition, I was responsible for finding, arranging, and often working the community events for each store. With six stores involved in six to 10 events per store per year, that added up. And there is a lot about the business that makes working there a unique challenge and, well, intense.
There are so many things about Incredible Pizza that I love—the team and being part of something that makes kids smile are at the top of that list. But the pressure was unbelievable. I hadn’t had a day off since February. By November of 2016, I had gained even more weight, I was losing my hair from stress, and I was having chest pains. It was the chest pains that got my attention. I knew something had to change.
To be continued...
Rolling hills that had been vibrant green just weeks ago were now muted in tone, as if they were taking a deep breath before bursting into the song of fall.