It is the summer of ’98, and by all accounts the American economy is booming. The stock market climbs to new heights with each summary report. Interest rates and unemployment are low. Pundits declare that the good times are unprecedented and imply that they will last forever.
Yet on a personal level, the level of home economics, the picture is not so pretty. Most people nowadays work for someone else, meaning their economic lives are not their own. They are subject to downsizing, layoffs, massive shifts of industry to foreign lands, the paltry wages of the service industry, and the whims of bosses and corporate boardrooms. Millions who are seemingly well employed are nonetheless understandably nervous.
These same people, when they get “time off,” do something entirely different from their day-to-day work. What they enjoy—gardening for example, or fishing, or collecting antiques, or making things, or fixing things around the home—has no connection to their daily employment. The person who feels relief, a sense of escape, upon getting off work may not be well employed at all, regardless of income.
And then there’s the family aspect of our current economic condition. The great majority today are forced by their employment to be away from their children the better part of each day, most days of the year. The children, in turn, have no connection to or understanding of the family’s economics because all work and income take place outside the home. The social costs of this condition are well documented and show up in the morning paper every day.
None of this current dilemma is within the American economic tradition. As recently as 1940, the most prevalent occupation in America was the family farm, a kind of work that employed the entire family on home ground at a cooperative task. Why can’t the work we love be the work we do? Why can’t an avocation become a vocation and produce a living wage? Why can’t the place where we work be the place where we live? Well, maybe it can.
This is the story of one family where hobbies, work, and a reasonable income have coalesced on one five-acre plot. But don’t look for a glorious vision here, or a carefully crafted business plan. Rather, this is the stumbling tale of one family that achieved independent living despite all of the pitfalls and mistakes that can plague the home-based entrepreneur. It means if we can do it, so can you.
Our business is called High-Lonesome Books. It’s an odd amalgam of a book publishing business and a used and rare book trading business. Few publishers are also used book dealers, and vice versa, but the combination works for us. The business is home based, mostly mail order, with no employees. We have some livestock and supplement income with the sale of eggs, goat milk, and cheese, plus I do some freelance writing and teach an occasional class on self-publishing. But the book business carries the load.
The books we publish and the books we trade reflect my own interests: the outdoors, fishing, hunting (in particular hunting with hounds), small-scale agriculture and country living—what the British call “country sports.” Though we don’t have a store per se, people do come by the house to talk books, look at books, and buy books. All, it seems, are curious about what we do. Most assume it’s an avocation and that our “real” work is elsewhere. Eitl1er that or there’s a trust fund somewhere (there isn’t). So I’m frequently asked two questions: “Do you actually make a living at this?” And, “How’d you come up with the name High-Lonesome Books?”
Well, it all goes back to the hounds, coursing hounds to be precise: greyhound-type hunting hounds used to pursue jackrabbits, coyotes, fox, and other swift game on the Western plains and immortalized in Western literature by General George Armstrong Custer, Ernest Thompson Seton, Theodore Roosevelt, the western author Max Evans, and others. Of course General Custer and Mr. Seton and the former president are gone. And Mr. Evans, I understand, let his hounds go some years ago. But I still have some hounds and run them on western hares. I had a pack of them when I arrived in Catron County, New Mexico, in 1980 and named my kennel High-Lonesome Hounds. It was just me and the dogs then. We lived at an elevation of 7,200 feet 15 miles from the nearest paved road; it was the only name that fit.
At the time of my arrival in New Mexico, I was rather at loose ends. For the previous 20 years, I had lived in south Texas and northwest Minnesota and, as to a career, I had floundered. I had taught school and didn’t like it, done freelance writing and couldn’t support myself, and done farm work. The farm work did hold some appeal, but the investment required to start my own farm was daunting. I survived only because I was single, primitive, and didn’t need much to get by.
I had also written a book on coursing hounds and had convinced a small press to put it into print. It sold slowly but steadily, yet I was put off that I ended up having to sell most of them myself. A more prescient individual would have seen possibilities in this, but I, like most deluded aspiring authors, viewed peddling my own book with disdain.
Still, books and authorship had captured me, and upon my arrival in the Southwest, I was determined to write a book that no publisher could resist and that would support me for the rest of my life.
The birthing of that book—Gila Descending: A Southwestern Journey—is not entirely pleasant to recall but will perhaps be instructive to anyone who has thought about trying book writing or book selling as a career.
In the spring of 1983, I made a three week, 200-mile canoe trip down New Mexico’s Gila River with a hound-dog and a tomcat. I did this with the full intention of writing a best-selling book about the adventure when I was done. Since my previous book, Gazehounds & Coursing, (North Star Press, 1977) had, despite the arcane subject matter, found a publisher, I assumed a narrative about a wilderness trek with a dog and a cat would leave me scrambling to keep up with a host of publishers bidding for first rights.
No such luck. I ended up sending the manuscript out far and wide, from big New York publishing houses to small regional presses out West. Several said, “Personal narratives don’t sell” (at the time the nation’s best seller was Blue Highways), while others said, “You need a track record” (a book about coursing hounds had no standing).
By the spring of 1986, I was back where I started—a trip, a completed narrative, and no publisher. By necessity rather than intent, I was about to become an entrepreneur.
At the time, I was a stringer for the Albuquerque journal, and a reporter and general gopher for a local weekly, the Silver City Enterprise, so I knew a little about publishing … or thought I did. Typesetting wasn’t that hard, laser printers were just becoming available to make camera-ready copy, and a hometown print shop assured me they could print the book cheaper than a big printing plant. This they did and then, because they weren’t a big printing plant and didn’t have the equipment, we had to collate the entire project by hand. That’s where you have all these stacks of paper, one stack for each page of the book, and page one is placed in front of page two is placed in front of page three … and so on. Two hundred pages printed 2,000 times, collated by hand! I offered free beer and good cheer and the chance to be part of a great literary event to all my friends. They most all showed up, a couple dozen people, and around the room we went, stack by stack, page by page. I freighted all the finished stacks in my pickup to Bishop Printing, Portales, New Mexico, for the binding.
When the first book came off the bindery, I carried it with enormous, almost tearful, pride across the street to a cafe to peruse and admire during lunch. I was about halfway through a good milkshake when I found the first blank page. In time I would fmd many more. My hometown printer had spit these blanks out of his imperfect press, and neither he nor I nor my hard-drinking collators had found any but a small percentage of them. I would spend months thumbing through the 2,000 books, 200 pages each, tipping in the replacement pages by hand and securing them along the spine with Elmer’s Glue-All. I still, on occasion, bump into a reader who’ll say: “That Gila Descending was a pretty good read, but what happened on page 174?”
With 2,000 books filling up an entire room, I was forced to think business, entrepreneurship, and sales. I called myself—what else?—High-Lonesome Books, and went out on the road. I drove all over New Mexico, West Texas, and Arizona and pitched my book to independent bookstores, gift shops, museums and libraries. I put together a slide show of my river trip, advertised it, and always took books with me to peddle after each presentation. I had business cards, stationery, and flyers printed up and did promotional mailings that often produced sales. In a years’ time all the books were gone, and my hand-written receipts indicated I had cleared about $7,500 on the deal. That was big bucks by my reckoning, and several times more than I would have made with a publisher’s 10% royalty. A light came on in my head.
I took some of the proceeds and reprinted Meet Mr. Grizzly by Montague Stevens, an old University of New Mexico Press classic about bear hunting, hound dogs, and ranch life in the old West, that had fallen into the public domain. Outdoor Life magazine ran a column on the book, and I sold over 400 copies direct mail. I ran a couple of ads for the book in hound and hunting magazines and sold another 400 copies direct mail. And some of those buyers bought the second edition of Gila Descending when they got the High-Lonesome Books brochure (two books at the time) in the mail. And by indirection, I was learning the value of a good mailing list.
With a fledgling book business under wing and three successful printings under my belt, I was on the verge of a major expansion. I lacked the skills to turn High-Lonesome Books into a full-time competitive operation. To this day, all I can do on a word processor is type. I have no comprehension of how to use software to design books or keep and use data. I suppose I could have learned. But enter Cherie, my future wife. She was attractive and willing to put up with a guy with half a dozen hound dogs that howled at the moon in the middle of the night. Better yet—for business—she also had an MBA, was computer literate, and could crunch numbers I would never comprehend.
Her talents soon took over the day-to-day management of the company. For example, while I had been wise enough to save the names and addresses of individual direct-mail book buyers, I had those names merely typed out on sheets of paper. In no time, Cherie had all my info in a computer, and with a push of a button our customers’ names came out printed on ready-to-stick mailing labels. We soon had a bulk mail permit and were milking the mail order secret: build a list of those who have bought your products before, for a good percentage will buy again.
By the early 1990s, we were publishing four books a year and Cherie was able to quit her job as an accountant to work the book business full time. When our son, Bud, was born in 1995, we became a true family business.
The final chapter in this tale of books involves the trade of used, rare, and out-of-print volumes. About 1990, to make better use of our mailing list, I gathered up a bunch of used books I owned and no longer needed and offered the list in one of our brochure mailings. I saw this as a one-time thing, but the response was almost over-eager, with many respondents disappointed we only had one copy of a given title and it was sold. We now deal in used books, too, in the same fields that we publish: Western Americana, outdoors, and country living.
I buy old books from other dealers’ catalogs, from estate sales, off the Internet, and sometimes people just show up at the house with a box of used books and ask, “What’ll you give me for these?” And whenever I’m out on the road, selling our new books to retail bookshops, I’m also stopping at used book stores, looking for bargains.
Offering advice to those contemplating the start-up of their own home business is risky, for the variables are myriad. If you want to sell books, know that starting up in used books is cheaper than starting up in publishing. Used books are generally purchased in small quantities; you can build up your inventory a piece at a time. Publishing a book means at least 2,000 copies, an initial investment of $5,000 to $10,000 at today’s printing prices. The profit margin on used books is generally better than new books; I figure about 50% for used, 33% for new. That’s because with new books, dealer discounts of 40% to 60% are common; 20% is the usual dealer discount for used titles.
Find a focus and publish within a field that you yourself are interested in. The trick in small press publishing is to find and reach an identifiable market. The more specific your topic, the easier it is to zero in on the potential readers. This advice applies equally to the used and out-of-print book businesses.
Set yourself up as a sole proprietorship, or partnership, using your social security number as your tax ID. Corporation status is a much more complicated arrangement and you lose control.
Get a tax number from your state of residence to put yourself officially in business. This is not only required, but also allows you to buy all sorts of supplies tax free. It also means that you can start to take advantage of all manner of tax breaks and deductions that only those in business can claim.
Work out of your home and do as much in-house as possible—remember that profit comes as much from what you don’t spend as what you bring in. I’ve had numerous business people suggest to me that we could sell more books and make more money if we would open a retail store in town. That’s probably true. But an in-home business with no retail store is virtually trouble-free, and you don’t have to farm your children out to day care during the years when they need you the most.
Try to avoid having any full-time employees. Through no fault of their own, full-time employees will wrap you up in an assortment of new taxes, workman’s comp payments, insurance payments, and a tangle of clerical work. Here at the High-Lonesome, we are fortunate in having Cherie’s mother, Katharine Muma, to help out with taking orders, baby sitting, etc. Part-time help involves fewer hassles than full-time help. But free help is the best of all!
Don’t believe that stuff-and-feathers about, “You have to get big or get out.” You do not need to get bigger every year. You should try to get more efficient; a stable business is not necessarily stagnant. For example, I finally caught on to the fact that it takes no more time to catalog a used book worth $100 (that I paid $50 for), than to catalog a book worth $10 (that I paid $5 for). But the rare book is worth volumes more upon sale. So we’re slowly trying to upgrade our used book list.
Even a primitive anti-technocrat like me must recognize that modern communication technology is the friend of home business and the great equalizer in your bid to compete. For less than $5000, and with an office the size of an alcove, you can equip yourself with a computer, appropriate software, fax machine, copier, phone, answering service, and Internet access that will allow you to produce communication and sales materials the equal of anyone. It will also give you access to markets you didn’t know existed, whether your product is books, antiques, handmade quilts, cuckoo clocks, farm products, or your own invention or idea.
This same technology allows you to set up your home business in any city, town, or rural area. You can sell from Chicago or from Wink, Texas. All you need outside your office is a post office.
What are the dangers in starting an in-home industry? The first, of course, is that you may fail. Most small businesses do fail within the first five years, and this applies to home businesses as well. So don’t cut all ties to your current income at once while you borrow a small fortune from the bank. Start small, slide into your new venture over several years, and get a feel for the business, then take the plunge.
The other great danger is that your small business may end up owning you. We got caught by this here at the High-Lonesome. For a while, we tried publishing more than four books per year. We had too many goats, too many dogs, too many chickens and turkeys, more garden than we could properly farm, and more used books than we could catalog. There was little apparent increase in net profit and we were losing control of the proper mix of work time, play time, and family time. When it’s time to go fishing, by golly, just go; your cottage industry will survive until your return. Home business should be a part of your life, not life itself.
Is the American economy really in great shape? How about American society? Those of the boomer mentality think we’ve never been so well off. The rest of us realize there is cause for concern and reason to change. I’m inclined to think the real question is, “Can the American family, can home economics, survive the boomer mentality that drives current economic trends?” The American economy begins in the home. It’s time for more people to take control of their economic lives.