SANDY NATHAN Award Winning Author of Numenon, Stepping Off the Edge, The Angel & the Brown-eyed Boy, and Tecolote: The Little Horse That Could


A couple of months ago, something was bothering me. I didn’t know what it was, just that I felt like I’d swallowed a granite egg. I went about my business of reworking manuscripts my editor had shredded, planning publicity for my new book, Numenon, and hobbling around on my ruined ankle.

Every time I passed the slight depression in the dirt by the side of the garage that marks the location of our septic tank, I thought: marketing. I would rather take a dip in our septic tank than degrade myself by doing some of the stuff the mega-marketers suggested. And yet I knew that if my books didn’t sell, my writing career would be over.

Friedrich Nietzsche could have done something neat with this; I just felt like I’d swallowed a rock.

In this life, you don’t get to sit with something too long before something else happens. In my case, the egg began to hatch and the little darling inside it began to claw its way toward daylight. I felt worse. Conflicted. Weighed down. Desperate.

I felt as though my soul was about to don a slick suit and a plastic smile and hit the bright lights suggested by the big marketing guys. I would begin sending emails to my list three times a day and advertise seminars that promised nirvana for a thousand bucks.

I’d rather die.

By purest happenstance, an old friend contacted me. We chatted, catching up. Boy, had she been through it. Terrible life trials, the kind that have you thinking, I’m glad that happened to you, not me.

Much to my surprise, as she outlined horrible and very expensive events requiring lawyers, she said, “I kept thinking about that horse show you wrote about where you worked really hard preparing, and you kept losing and losing and losing …”

That could be almost any of them, I thought.

“And then finally, at the end––you won the prize for the best barn in the show!”

Oh, yeah. That one.

I wrote about the show on my Rancho Vilasa web site and forgot about it.

A revisit to the article revealed that I wrote it ten years ago. My ten year old write-up gave my friend strength to face the hurdles before her.

The words shelf life popped into my mind. I realized that what had been eating me was the concept of shelf life. What is the shelf life of my work? My life? Our work and lives? Does shelf life matter? Those questions led to contemplation, and sparked an insight leading to the blog you’re reading.

I rewrote the article about that horse show where I lost until I won. Here it is: ON SANDY’S OTHER BLOG. I recommend that you read it. It’s lavishly illustrated, full of spectacular horse photos, lore from the glamorous horse show world (“Barry, where did you put the manure fork?”), and a huge life lesson that I was dragged out of me with red-hot tongs. It’s also longer than a standard 900 word blog entry. It’s more like a book chapter, which it probably will be some day.

The bottom line of the article is: I went to a horse show. I am a compulsive competitor and winner. It just kills me to lose. I will do anything moral and within the rules (of the universe and humanity) to win, including driving myself and everyone around me crazy. I went in one class at the show. My horse and I were unschooled, unready, and out of shape. He bucked every time I asked him to do anything. Buck. Buck. Buck.  All around the arena. Judges frown on horses bucking in pleasure horse classes. We came in last.

Whoa! Did I freak out. The article above is about my freak out and how when I finally went, “I lost. So what?” The instant I finally let go, the horse show committee called my husband and I into the arena and awarded us a gigantic perpetual trophy for being the best barn in the show. I started bawling.

Talk about an enlightenment moment.

But it lasted. I wrote about it and ten years later, a friend told me it helped her.

We got something here. I’ve been through the publishing mill. I’ve read all the books and gone to writing groups for 11 years. Done some big seminars. I’ve popped out my best, best, BEST query letters only to have 22 year old literary agents not even reject me until I called them and asked for it. Me with my massive resume and vast collection of horse show ribbons.

I know the world that writers face: I am one of you. Inevitably, the question arises: Why am I doing this? The literary world is the screwiest I have ever seen, and after the places I’ve gone, that’s saying a lot. Why am I doing this? And why can’t I stop?

What do I want from the enormous task of putting what I think and feel into words so that I can figure out what I really think and feel––and that other people can benefit, too? I didn’t know at the beginning what the granite egg was–-now I do.

What are we really going for? REAL PUBLICATION––meaning publication by a traditional press where they pay you for your words? This is the mecca of the scribbling world.

I’ve seen it many times: “When I’m published …” The speaker’s eyes glaze over and she looks into the distance, the way saints are often depicted on bird baths. The eyes of the members of her writing group look similar. Their heads nod in agreement. “When I’m really published …” My life will begin.

This is bull shit. It’s sick. I know all about it.

Say you manage to snag an agent. Your writing group explodes in applause. The group leader is euphoric.

That’s the bare beginning. Your agent likes your work, but sees a few ways it could be improved. (So why didn’t he/she write it?) You comply, happily. The eventual publisher also wants changes. Big ones. It’s not your work any more––but you sold it. What are you going to do, give the money back? The changes happen. The book hits the streets three years after your agent sold it, which was two years after accepting you.

Your book is out, only five years after your agent got it! You get an author copy and do one book signing. The publisher goes belly up, and your book is pulped.

Your shelf  life is about three months, unless a miracle occurs.

If you self publish or start your own micro press, you can go a little longer: until your money runs out.

So here I am, in my writing life. I’m thinking about how long my work will last, how I can get it out without going broke, and without being further insulted by an industry I consider ludicrous.

Let’s consider some books with long shelf life:

Tarzan of the Apes

Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Win Friends and Influence People

The Great Gatsby

Popeye the Sailor Man, Vol. 1

You see, the possibilities for books with long shelf life are many and varied.

Hence, YOUR SHELF LIFE. Why worry about it? Because even if you work and slave and diminish your world so that all the vast grandeur of the universe becomes compressed into squiggles on paper or electronic surfaces––you shelf life will be about three months unless a miracle happens.

I believe in miracles!

6 Responses to “WHAT'S YOUR SHELF LIFE?”

  1. Catharine Bramkamp June 15, 2009 at 3:29 pm #

    I love your comments on publishing and writing, it’s so difficult to “get published” that we forget that it’s okay to write, to be a writer, you can just write and feel the joy of creating scenes, words and a history of your own life.
    Thank you for addressing that.


  2. Felicia Ford October 14, 2009 at 7:56 am #

    Publish American has published by book” Quiet Desperation.” It will be in print shortly. I realize most publishers(unless the renowned ones) are scans, Unfortunately I had no money for an agent or other publishers who wanted money up front. Sandy, what is your advise on marketing you own book? I afraid I’m not that good at computer, enough to get me by. I have a good women’s book on addiction though and I want the message to get out for all those who suffer or struggle. Is faith in one book enough? Any help would be a blessing.
    Felicia Ford

  3. admin October 14, 2009 at 8:59 am #

    Thanks for the support, Catharine & Felicia! I’m glad to see my words are touching people. Regarding marketing your work, Felicia, a couple of things to remember. An old timer in the publishing world told me “the most important factor in the success of a book is the persona of the author.” That means your image or “personal branding.” Also YOU––who you are and how you communicate yourself to others. I find that I sell books any time I am personally present, like at a signing. With your book having a strong message and your personal commitment and enthusiasm, you should do well if you learn and apply marketing skills. Many books and courses on marketing exist. Penny Sansevieri is an expert, as is MJ Rose. Dan Poynter writes about marketing. You can search for their books and courses on line. Penny’s From Book to Bestseller is very good. Another thing to remember is that LOTS of books are published each year. Googling “How many books are published each year?” gave me results of 170 to 190,000 books in the US each year. The author’s problem is to make his or her book stand out in that huge crowd––that’s the job before you. It’s a matter of mastering and applying what the experts say––find your niche and connecting with the people in it––producing a top notch book, and grace. Yes, a successful book in today’s market place nothing less than an act of God. And maybe more. You might want to define your criteria for success in terms of reaching and moving people rather than in the number of books you sell. I wish you the very best in your endeavor and hope my answer supplies some of what you need. We authors need to stick together.

  4. Lois Carey September 4, 2011 at 3:41 pm #

    I have 4 professional books out they continue to do well – I authored one and co-edited three. I am a social worker who has specialized in play therapy, particularly Jungian Sandplay. In January, Fisherking Press released my “quasi-memoir”, A Salty Lake of Tears, which includes about 50 years of various types of writing – memoir, fairy tale, mythology, travels, a play. It has gotten wonderful reviews (Amazon.com) but, since I am an Introverted Feeling type – marketing is a foreign language for me. I know that friends and family have bought it but I have to really get it out there. Any concrete advise MOST appreciated. Incidentally, your site is phenomenal!

    • admin September 4, 2011 at 8:50 pm #

      Lois, just time for a note now. I’ve been editing like crazy all weekend and am pooped. Will get back to you. Your career and writing sounds fascinating. In my experience, marketing is much harder than writing/publication. I get such a kick out of my friends in writing groups and MFA programs who slave to get their manuscripts perfect and think that once they’ve done, the work will be over. From where I sit, writing is the easy part. (Not that you don’t have to work to get it right.) So. Thoughts on marketing tomorrow. I just got John Locke’s How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in Five Months. He’s got the magic!

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