Poker, Zappos, and the Writing Business

I have never bought a pair of shoes from Zappos.  I also don’t read a lot of business books, mostly because they bore me.

But I read Tony Hsieh’s book almost straight through because he’s cool.  He thinks outside the box even more than I do.  Like, it would never occur to me to write a sonnet in Morse code and say, “I’ll get an A or an F.”

I paid particular attention to what he learned from poker and applied to business.  A few struck me as applying to writing.  Click here to read his lessons directly on his website.

Now for my own 2 cents.


Evaluating Market Opportunities

.            Table selection is the most important decision you can make.

.            It’s okay to switch tables if you discover it’s too hard to win at your table.

  • If there are too many competitors (some irrational or inexperienced), even if you’re the best it’s a lot harder to win.


The table is crowded right now.  New York publishers are letting good editors go and the remaining ones are pretty gun shy.  I’m still keeping my hand in the ring.  I went to three major conferences in the past few months.  But I’m also open to the idea of switching tables, which is why I looked into radio drama.  Will it pay off?  I don’t know.  But if the traditional, straightforward methods aren’t working, I’m happy to go sideways.



  • The guy who wins the most hands is not the guy who makes the most money in the long run.

.            The guy who never loses a hand is not the guy who makes the most money in the long run.


I learned this lesson in “the Game” with Dean Smith, Kris Rusch and Loren Coleman.  Basically, Kris and Dean have a Master Class and the evenings are spent playing the game where you roll dice and pick random cards to establish your character’s traits.  For example, Karen Abrahamson, one of my classmates, ended up owning a Lexus and paying expensive rent, so she had to sell more books to make up for those costs.

I was lucky.  My expenses were moderate and I happened to write fast (6 books a year).  Steve Mohan, Jr., who happens to be a talented writer and all-around good guy, nicknamed me “Miss Six.”  But whenever Dean asked me if I wanted to risk more–say, roll the dice, and if I won, I could write seven books, but if I lost, I’d go down to five.  I’d always say, “No, thank you.”

Meanwhile, other people were risking more and getting up to my speed, but I didn’t care.  Steve called me risk averse, which is totally true.

When we had the end of class party, some veteran writers walked up to the board and said, “Who won?”

I found it a funny question.  “Gerry Weinberg made the most money and I sold the most books.”

Loren called my career “a typical midlist career.”  I sold a lot of books (won a lot of hands), but not for a lot of money each.  I got some good breaks, like one of my books got optioned by Hollywood, but I had to replace my roof twice, which wiped out some of that.

Was my fictional career a success?  Depends how you define a success.  But I’d have to say, although I didn’t lose many hands, I also didn’t make the most money.


Always be prepared for the worst possible scenario.

Not a problem for me.  Like I said, I’m always risk averse.  However, as Tony points out,

.            Go for positive expected value, not what’s least risky.

.            Make sure your bankroll is large enough for the game you’re playing and the risks you’re taking.

.            Play only with what you can afford to lose.

  • Remember that it’s a long-term game. You will win or lose individual hands or sessions, but it’s what happens in the long term that matters.

I’m slowly starting to take more risks.

For my book launches, this year, I ended up buying the books at an author’s discount and selling basically all of them (31 Indian Country Noir and 26 Dragon and the Stars).  I took the risk and I made the profit.

When everyone’s paid me for their copies, I should have approximately doubled what I made on straight short story payments.  I probably could have made more money by buying more copies and taking more of a risk, but we already know I’m taking baby steps at this.  Eric Choi pointed out that giving away copies can be good promo, which had honestly never occurred to me, so intent was I on making my money back.  But this time, I experimented on giving the occasional discount (once I’d made my money back) and the copy I’m shipping to Sandra Kasturi in T.O., I will only break even because shipping is prohibitive, but I figure it’s worth it because Sandra is a poetry editor and a reader and a way of expanding my audience.



.            Don’t play games that you don’t understand, even if you see lots of other people making money from them.

  • Figure out the game when the stakes aren’t high.


And now I’m looking at the future.

I have pretty much ignored e-publishing up ’til now.  I have written a bucketload of novels, but I had my heart set on printing them the traditional way.

I also have very little idea how to go about e-publishing–how to format it (Smashwords?), where to post it (sure, I want everything from Kindle to .pdfs, but this’ll take time), how to make a good-looking book cover (like pornography, I recognize it when I see it, but how do I create my own–book cover, I mean, not porn.  I ain’t that desperate.  Dean uses Powerpoint, but it’ll obviously be a learning curve).

Once I do feel comfortable, I’ve decided to put up some of my published work–short stories, poems, my medical non-fiction–and just have fun with it.   I’ve always kind of liked my photography.  Why not make a book cover out of some of my pictures?

If I make 35 cents on a 99 cent short story sale, cool.  If I don’t, I’ll live.  I’m pretty terrible at re-selling the rights to my stories because I can hardly manage to keep my encyclopedia of unpublished stories and novels in the mail (as well as aiming for 1000 words/day) without bothering about reprints.  This way, I’ll wet my feet in the e-market and maybe make a few bucks, but it’s the risk-taking that’s imporant and new for me.

One final word on Tony Hsieh.  One thing I like about him is that he’s not that interested in money.  He likes taking risks and building a tribe in pursuit of happiness.  He’s a millionaire, but more importantly, he seems happy.  His bio is that he lives in SF and “sort of has a cat.”

I’m no millionaire.  I’m not the richest doctor and I’m certainly not making a living off my writing.  But I know I would be miserable if my family consisted of a part-time cat, no matter how much money I made or how much my corporation and my friends reflected my values.  (I know he’s joking, but I’m just sayin’.)  I’d rather save a few lives, write and publish some good stories, and end the day with my sweethearts, none of whom are feline.

In the end, we are all authors of our own happiness, and that’s what’s most important.

Writing Goals and Dreams, est. 2010, modified 2016

What does success mean to you?

Kris Rusch’s post on writing goals vs. dreams dovetailed with my exercises from Creating a Life Worth Living and my own reflections from my previous post.  Basically, I like people and I like excitement.  I would also like to save the world, but that’s a little harder.

So when I read Brad Torgersen’s writing goals, I was like, hmm.  These are so logical.  Of course it makes sense to catalogue your sales and set them up, brick by brick, until you make enough money to quit your day job.

But I like my day job.  I may never quit emergency medicine.

I get my jollies in other ways I can’t even anticipate.  For example, when I attended WorldCon after winning Writers of the Future, I bought my brother a first edition book by Guy Gavriel Kay.

The bookseller asked me my name.  He recognized it and said, “Thank you.”  Although I would never have stated that was one of my goals, it made me feel like I’d “made it,” in some small way, when a stranger–and clearly, a well-read book lover–recognized my name alone and thanked me for writing.

So, as the quiz pointed out, I’m an attention whore.  And I might as well work it.

Melissa Yuan-Innes, milestones en route to success:

(X) … I make my first professional sale.

(X) … I make my second professional sale.

(_) … I sell and publish short pieces regularly.

(X) … Someone recognizes me from my name alone and says “Thank you” for something I’ve written.

(X) … First fan letter.

(X) … Second fan letter.

(X) … I write and have kids.

(X) … I write and have kids and do medicine.

(X) … Writing connects me with people, places, and things that excite me.

(X) …  Glimpse enlightenment. Strange but true.  I didn’t think it would happen to me

( ) …  Maintain enlightenment. Turns out to be much harder

( ) …  Continue to do yoga and maintain balance in my life We’ll see how this one pans out. Addendum in 2014: losing the balance part. Yikes. 2015: completely lost it. 2017: trying to chill a bit and still achieve.

(X) … I help someone else achieve publication/creative success

(X) … Someone else makes something beautiful, inspired by my work

(_) … I gain a national audience for my writing*

(_) … I gain an international audience for my writing*

*Not sure what to say about these because I’ve started indie-publishing my novels.  So I do have a national/international audience, but it’s not exactly a following. Yet.

(X) … Publishers Weekly gives me a positive review.

(X) … A major trade publication gives me a positive review. Hooray for Ellery Queen (courtesy of Steve Steinbock, here and here)!

(X) … Newspapers and magazines write about me. Thank you, the Standard Freeholder and Glengarry News!

(X) … I appear on TV for my writing. Shout out to Cogeco and Rogers TV!

(X) … CBC Radio interviews me about my novel(s).

(X) … I’m interviewed across Canada on syndicated CBC Radio. Yay, The Emergency Doctor’s Guide to a Pain-Free Back! April 21st, 2016

(X) …my book appears on CBC’s The Next Chapter with Shelagh Rogers

Oh, the wonder. Oh, the loveliness. Stockholm Syndrome hits TNC as one of the “best crime novels of the season” on June 18th, 2016. Then Human Remains is declared one of the great must-read mysteries of the summer on June 19, 2017!

(_) …I appear on CBC’s The Next Chapter with Shelagh Rogers

( ) … I earn regular income from book sales. This comes and goes.

(X) … I hit an international bestseller list with a novel. Yup, I’ve got to keep bragging that I hit one bestseller list (Kobo Top 50) with Terminally Ill!

(X) … I hit an international bestseller list with a second novel. Kobo Top 50 again with Stockholm Syndrome.

(X) … I hit an international bestseller list with a third novel. Kobo Top 10 with Human Remains. Me and Margaret Atwood!

(_) … I make regular and significant novel sales. A more consistent sign of success.

(_) … My novels (note the plural) become bestsellers.

(X) … I make four figures a year from my writing

(X) … I make $5000 a year from my writing

(X) … I make five figures a year from my writing

(X) … I make five figures a year for two years in a row, from my writing

(_) … I make six figures a year from my writing

(_) … I see my books in the bookstore/on other people’s readers/in the library. Our local libraries support me. Yay! (I changed this from Max and Anastasia see my books, because they’ve seen them and they don’t care. It’s me who cares.)

(_) … People laugh and weep when they read my work and tell me about it when they line up for my autograph. Hey, people at the Cornwall library lined up for my book. I was very moved when one of them told me that, for health reasons, she hadn’t read a novel since 2010, until she picked up Code Blues. No weeping yet, though.

(_) … People ask me why I bother to do medicine because I’m such a writing goddess. When I’m wearing my writing hat, people do ask, “But you’re not still practising, are you?” Not quite the same thing, but getting there.

(_) … I could quit my day job and write full-time, whether or not I choose to do this.

(_) … People continue to read my work after I die

Yes, I know I can’t check the last one off.  Maybe my e-executor can do it for me.

Anyone else willing to share their goals?

Zen Marketing 101

One thing all successful writers have in common:  a stomach for failing.  Repeatedly.  Perhaps for years on end.  –Larry Wilde, Chicken Soup for the Writers’ Soul

Plant a tree  –Geri Larkin

I recently joined a writers’ group.  One member had written a story for a market that paid one PDF copy and two percent of royalties.  Translation:  bupkes.  That’s fine if you just want to practice and get some sales under your belt.  But why not aim high?  You might not sell, but a) on the other hand, you might, and b) you’d probably force yourself to work harder, playing up to the game.

The real reason why not?  Rejection hurts.

You have to be able to stomach that, to develop what Karen Joy Fowler called the _pachydermal skin_ of writers.

Let’s start with some basic tools.  You have to know where to send your work.  You already know that you should read the book imprint or magazines that you submit to.

Duotrope lets you search by genre, length, electronic vs. postal submission–a stroke of brilliance.

Ralan covers a lot of speculative fiction markets.  I always check the “pro” and “anthology” sections.

For books, I pay $20 U.S. a month to Publishers Marketplace so I can search deals and cull email addresses and figure out who’s buying what.  Publishers Weekly is great, but I don’t have easy access to it.  In Canada, the equivalent is Quill and Quire.

I also search for editors’ conference bios, interviews and blogs to get more of a feel for what they like.  I read book acknowledgements, noting the editor or agent being thanked.  I like the movers and shakers, but if they’ve got a little spark to their personality–they buy books that push the envelope, or they say something that makes me laugh–that works better for me.  I’ve had at least one editor tell me straight that she wasn’t sure her readers would connect with my voice.  That means she didn’t like my voice.  Which is fine, but it means I have to find the people who do.  (Just like I enjoy wearing my Fête Montreal leggings with one black leg and one white leg.  A guy in the grocery store glanced over me and I could see he thought, “Freak.”  But it didn’t bother me.  He is not my tribe.  If he were an editor, he wouldn’t buy my books.)

Contests.  I generally don’t pay to enter contests because, as Kris Rush and Dean Smith emphasize, money should flow to the writer.  I made an exception for the CBC and Golden Heart–basically, if I think the benefits outweigh the pain of forking over the money.  I prefer free contests by generous souls like Brian Agincourt Massey and the Glass Woman Prize, individuals who take their own time and money to foster the arts.

Education.  I attend Kris and Dean’s workshops as often as I can to force my writing craft to a new level, to learn about the business, and to meet a ton of dedicated, hilarious fellow writers.

Finally, if you are at all serious about making your living through your work, read Kris Rusch’s Freelance Survival Guide.  She covers everything from the nuts and bolts of negotiation and when to quit your day job to how to deal with mental mind traps.  If you can’t afford their workshops (or even if you can), read these as an excellent roadmap on how to deal.

Now I hear you asking, where’s the Zen buddhism?

A lot of people think Buddhism means aspiring to nothingness, but the tenet I apply here is that clinging causes suffering.  So if you are stalking editors at conferences while they try to use the bathroom, you are clinging.  If you are beating yourself up (Why didn’t I start writing seriously when I was 16?  Why don’t I submit more?  Why did I eat a bag of chips and watch _What Happens in Vegas_ instead of writing tonight?), you are clinging.  In fact, you are practicing mental violence against yourself.

C’mon.  We’ve all been there.  If I’d been a risk-taker, I would’ve skipped medicine and arguably university altogether and started writing seriously out of high school.  I never market as much as I want to.  And I just watched _What Stays in Vegas_ as a reward for finishing my novel.  I ate chips, too.  I could cling endlessly about that and many other issues.

Buddhism doesn’t mean you shouldn’t strive.  It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write or try to achieve publication.  It just means you should do your best every day, in this moment, without attaching yourself to the outcome.

Will I become a bestselling author with my fans sending whatever I fancy, including embroidered Korean toilet paper a la Diana Galbaldon?

Who knows?  All I know is this:  I set a daily goal for writing and marketing and then I try to just enjoy whatever I’m doing, whether that’s playing Thomas the Tank engine with Max or cleaning up the kitchen with my husband.  I know that makes my life sound super glamourous, but that’s where I find joy every day.

I can’t redo my life.  And when I’m honest with myself, I like the intellectual challenge and economic security of medicine (my father called it my “iron rice bowl,” meaning it was a solid way to earn my living).  Plus the whole life-saving thing is pretty cool.  Even if I don’t achieve as much as a writer or doctor or a mother as I would if I’d concentrated on one job, overall, I am happy.  And that is what matters.  See Anna Quindlen for more about figuring out your own measure of success.

I keep writing.  I market.  I plant my trees.  Even if the world is heating up.  Even though we are all going to die.

I’ll end with two Geri Larkin stories.  I can’t find her books, so I’m paraphrasing.  The first is from _Plant Seed, Pull Weed._  She’s agonizing about global warming and what to do.  An enlightened guy keeps responding, “Plant a tree.”  “But what if it’s your absolute day on earth?”  “Plant a tree.”  “What if we get hit by meteors?”  “Plant a tree.”  In other words, keep going.

The second is from _The Chocolate Cake Sutra_, I think.  Geri’s teacher sends her out with a difficult problem and says, “You have 24 hours to solve this.”  She meditates, she prostrates, she tears her hair out for the next day, but she can’t figure it out.  In the morning, she goes to see her teacher and says, “I’m sorry.  I failed.”  He looks at her with great compassion and says, “You have 10,000 years.”  Her whole body relaxes, just knowing that she has time.

This is what I’m trying to do.  I’m planting trees.  I’m sending my stories out.  And whether I have 10,000 seconds or 10,000 years, I’m putting one foot in front of the other.