I bought my Dodge Omni in 1986 on my first professional engineering job, shuffling paperwork for a military contractor in New Jersey. It was excruciatingly boring, but I stuck it out five months and left as soon as I could pay back my dad for the down-payment on the car. I mainly remember drinking beer for lunch in the officers club at Fort Monmouth with a retired Army Captain who got me in. He worked for the contractor a couple years while his kid finished High School in the area, after which he planned to start a charter fishing business in Florida. Speaking of water, the image below is the water pump off the Omni which failed after 282,000 miles.
I originally went to engineering school for two reasons, one of which was that I imagined getting a job where I could make or repair all kinds of neat stuff. But the New Jersey job was 100% paperwork, and the next job I was offered (by Raytheon in Boston) was software quality control, just as bad. I turned it down and took a job that paid $5,000/year less because, even though it involved writing computer manuals, they also had technician work for me, building and repairing PCs. I did both jobs by working seven days a week, often 12 hours a day. In the image below, I’ve skim coated the surface of the water pump housing with Permatex gasket maker, as a sealant.
While giving the gasket a chance to set up, I called a friend in Israel to check up on how his job hunt was going. He’s an ex-newspaper editor who worked the last couple years for a charitable foundation arranging education programs in Jerusalem, so if anybody has any job leads for him, let me know. I commented that I’ve been looking for something new to do myself, and when he asked, “Doing what?”, I told him I’ve had more fun the last two days replacing a water pump outside in December than I’ve had publishing this year. He asked, “Can you make a living doing that?” Below I’m positioning the gasket on the water pump housing. Note that the holes line up, but the gasket appears to be for a different version of the housing.
The answer is, I couldn’t make a living as a mechanic, I’m not qualified. If I was looking for a job, I’d make a better Jack-of-all-trades (and master of none) maintenance guy or town engineer (for a desperate town:-) than an on-the-clock mechanic. I’ve never been interested in doing things by the book, I just want it to work. And that’s helped me in publishing whenever something new came along, like the Internet, Print-on-Demand, or eBooks, but once the new field reaches maturity, there’s less room for the seat-of-the-pants types, even if they helped create the business. The image below shows where the pump housing mates with the engine block.
The purpose of a water pump in the car is to keep the coolant moving. It takes in the coolant from the lower radiator hose and pumps it into the engine through the inlet shown above. But the coolant doesn’t flow until the car warms up and the thermostat allows the coolant from the engine, always under pressure from the pump, to flow into the radiator through the top radiator hose. There, it gets cooled by the wind through the radiator (or the fan while idling) and gets pumped back through the engine in an endless journey.
It’s not a bad metaphor for being self employed in publishing, the endless journey part. While some titles are truly evergreen and can persist for decades without little or no updating, most successful self published titles have their time in the sun and then fade away, even if new or revised editions appear. I think part of it is authors like myself who having produced a book that “works” don’t see the point of changing everything in order to meet the latest fashion, use the newest buzz words and fit the current marketing trends. As the water pump below is clearly mismatched to the housing, I see myself and some of my contemporaries having trouble aligning with the current publishing environment.
The picture exaggerates the mismatch, camera angles do that sometimes if you look for them, but in the center-top of the picture you can clearly see the new shiny aluminum pump (and some of the gasket) standing proud of the old housing by as much as a third of an inch. I used the part because there was no way to get another until two days after Christmas. Not surprisingly, it leaked a little after running for a half-hour, and I suspect it’s the manufacturer’s idea of a universal replacement that bolts up on several versions of Chrysler 2.2 liter and 2.5 liter engines of the era. Being a hack, I just tried over-torquing the bolts that I can still get at with the pump on the car, and I’ll find out on the road tomorrow if that bought me anything. As much as I enjoy working on the car, it’s cold out in December, and the bulk of the job is really removing the alternator and the alternator bracket, which is more work than it sounds.
And that’s good analogy for self publishing as well, because most of the effort ends up going into something other than writing the book. One reason a lot of authors give for staying with an established trade publisher is that they don’t want to do “all that other stuff,” especially dealing with multiple contractors for the editorial and design process. I’ve slowly grown more sympathetic to the specialist approach to publishing for established professionals. But I still think it’s a mistake for newcomers, who are spending serious money on speculation for something they could have tested by publishing a simple Kindle eBook or CreateSpace POD version out of Word.
To stretch for another automotive analogy, you can think of newcomers to self publishing as people with no mechanical knowledge. They take a car to a body shop where they are charged thousands of dollars to smooth out the dents and make it all pretty, only to have the worn out transaxle dissolve into gear soup just before the car breaks into pieces going over a speed bump. Experienced authors have a pretty good idea of how a new title will sell, and that often feeds back into the amount of money the author is willing to invest in production.
None of which has anything to do with the fact that I wish I owned a barn or a garage where I could spend a chunk of day tinkering, but I suppose if I expect people to read my self publishing blog I have to say something about publishing from time to time. And I do think I’ve arrived at the interesting truth that in publishing, as in so many other fields, some of us are better at developing new businesses than in growing or exploiting them. My own track record suggests that I’d be better off working on the next thing in publishing than on trying to compete with more polished writers and publishers. Maybe I’ll think of something with the New Year.
And a free at-a-boy to anybody who can spot the major hack in the last photo.