Worldcon 74 Retrospective

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks for the TimeBangers team. Mostly a good couple of weeks, although some of it has been exhausting. Luna moved out of the apartment she’d been in for a couple of years into another place with a roommate, and moving is always a mixed bag of fatigue, sentimentality, and excitement. I was fortunate enough that a difficult situation I’d been facing in my first profession suddenly resolved itself to near complete satisfaction—I mean, how often does that ever happen in real life?

And two weeks ago we attended our first Worldcon together, which was happily enough, local for me. MidAmerican II, AKA Worldcon 74, was right here in Kansas City, about 15 minutes from my house. Luna flew down and stayed with me, and we attended the convention together. It was kind of amazing. And for me, it was a game changer. Maybe not a huge one, but between our book sales, the friends we made, and the overwhelmingly positive reception we got, I came away from the convention with a subtle shift in my attitude toward what we do, and what we can and could do.

Between an assortment of personal situations and some challenges in our professional lives, we had kind of a rough summer. We didn’t work on TimeBangers 2, and for most of the summer it was all we could to just sort of get ourselves to work and maintain even a minimum baseline of self care. So Worldcon was a much-needed endcap to the weird summer we’d had.

I’ll stop being vague – we sold out of books. It was a huge surprise. That sounds probably like a bigger deal than it is—it was only 80 books. But it was a big deal to us. I haven’t talked about our business model very much here yet, but it’s not a secret. When we got the idea for TimeBangers, we considered shopping our idea for a series of comedy time travel sex novels to a traditional publisher and quickly decided that we weren’t sure how comfortable we were going that route. A traditional publisher, even a small niche press, would understandably want some control over our series—after all, they have to think about how their products represent their brand. Small presses in particular have to be careful what their publications say about them as a company.

And while we know some excellent people who self-publish, we were concerned that the iffy reputation that self-publishing often has with both professionals and readers might be a barrier to some people. I mean, TimeBangers is already an idiotic name—we needed all the credibility we could get.

So we scraped together every spare dollar we could and we created a small press just for us, through which we’d publish TimeBangers, and one day, hopefully some fun stuff from other authors as well. We paid for professional editing, and design services, and illustration, and what we could do ourselves and still have a professional outcome, we did in house. We couldn’t afford to tie up too much money in physical inventory, so for our physical books we did small digital print orders—also known as “print on demand”—instead of an offset print run.

I’m not sure I realized this for a long time, because I am and always have been incredibly proud of the professional quality we were able to produce on such a limited budget, but in the back of my mind there was always this lingering doubt, a qualifier that we were sure, good, but that we were good for small publishing. In the same way that engineering school made me feel like I was smart for a woman.

But at Worldcon we ran into people who were surprised to hear we own our imprint, who expressed disbelief in what we’d wrought out of our own homes and for so little an investment, people who acted like what we’d done was a big deal. And we talked to so many lovely, friendly people, and I think they liked us. We met Zoë Quinn and she bought our book and didn’t even act like our binding was cheap. Luna made friends with Arthur Chu and had a blast hanging out with him. And on the last day, we ran out of books.

The last order I made was for 200 books in May, and at the time I had every expectation that it would take us the rest of the year to sell them. We went to Planet Comicon and ConQuest in May, Luna did the Printers Row Lit Fest in Chicago in June and GenCon in early August, and then Worldcon ran us out of stock completely. A friend asked me if he could buy a copy yesterday, and I had nothing to sell him. 200 doesn’t sound like a lot of copies, but our unit cost through CreateSpace is almost five dollars after freight costs, so it was nervewracking for us in the extreme to put up so much cash up front and then have to worry about how long until we could make it back.

Blowing through all that stock changed things somewhere in my head. Suddenly, we started talking about a real, actual print run like it might be a good idea. If we could drop our unit costs with a thousand or two thousand books, and make a better margin on each sale, we could afford to take TimeBangers further and further. We might take our little company out of the red for the first time in the two years since we started it.

But I think the biggest reason Worldcon was a big deal to me personally was that I’d never thought before that we might be able to make this into our livelihood one day. We’re both lucky in that we basically enjoy our first professions—so we’re not desperate to leave them—but to have the flexibility of not being bound to a traditional work week or to the amount of vacation time that I can ration to attending conventions and other events seems amazing. And when I think what we might be able to do with TimeBangers if we weren’t working 50 hours at a regular job every week… it boggles my mind.

I don’t think it’s something that’ll happen for years yet, and I think I’m okay with that. I’m a pretty risk-averse person and I’ve also been with my employer nearly nine years, so I’m not in a hurry to give up that stability and everything that goes with it. But it’s amazing to think that we could make something “real” out of this one day—that it might be more than a hobby at some point. I feel incredibly grateful to everybody who has talked to us and decided to take a chance on our little book, and who had nice things to say to and about us. We’ve made so many friends along the way, and I think that more than anything has encouraged me on this journey. We couldn’t do any of this without the amazing people who have supported us and gotten excited about this project.

I’m terrible about not blogging very often, but I’m going to try to check back in more often—I’m excited to talk about a couple of the project ideas we have in the works, and something else I’d like to discuss going forward is business topics for indie artists and authors. I’m a CPA (private industry, not in public practice) in my first profession and I’m the one who set up our business and has handled most of the administrative and technical aspects of things. As I figured things out and did my research on small publishing, I was appalled at some of the predatory and dubious services being offered to would-be creatives. There are many other good resources out there, but I was thinking it might be useful and interesting to talk about some of the things I learned throughout our journey (and continue to learn!). It’ll organize some of my thoughts, and if I help even just a couple of people, I think it’ll be worth it.

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