Believe it or not, I’d never set out to write books. Strange as it may seem, book contracts just sort of fell into my lap. Recently several people online have expressed interest in my book and internet history, and where I’m at today. So I thought I’d take a few minutes today to share my story, such as it is. It’s not super exciting or glamorous, and definitely nobody’s going to make a movie about it like they did with Julie and Julia. But, hey, like Julie Powell, I actually was discovered online and given a book deal because of my websites.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s back up.
It all began more than twenty years ago.
I’d been given a computer for Christmas from my dad and decided to research freelance writing. I took a correspondence course on non-fiction article writing from The Writer’s Digest School and read all the back issues of The Writer and Writer’s Digest from our local library. Then one summer weekend, because I had a cold, my hubby took our two older kiddos to my grandparents’ house in the mountains for about four days, and I stayed home with the baby and my computer. By the end of the long weekend, I’d put together a small booklet that I titled Simple Living: One Income Living in a Two Income World, which I’d put together for the purpose of handing out to some women I knew at church who were struggling to make ends meet as new stay-at-home moms. My parents liked the booklet so much, my dad paid to have 500 copies of it printed at Costco so I’d have plenty on hand to give out. I remember my mother being so proud.
Fast forward a couple of years.
My mom passed away two weeks after Christmas. The last time I saw her alive was on Christmas Day. The grief over the next couple of months hit hard and heavy, and I found I was having trouble sleeping at night. The grief seemed to hit hardest when it was time to close my eyes. Something about the quiet and the dark and everyone else being asleep accentuated the loss and the hole in my life. To keep myself occupied during those wee hours of grief, I started spending time online. Night Owl chats in the Writers’ Den on AOL were my favorite haunt, but just randomly looking for easy family-friendly recipes and other tips for surviving on a limited budget were also favorite mind-numbing distractions.
I participated in an email discussion group at the time called Frugal-Ed which was designed for folks involved with teaching others about frugality. Most of the people in the group were working at County Extension offices throughout the US. I’d taught a class on living frugally to the young moms at church several times, and ended up sharing my notes from the class with the group. The response was amazing. People really responded to my simple, common sense approach to saving money on everyday expenses. I told them about my little booklet, Simple Living, and next thing I knew, I was mailing copies of it all over the country. Then surprisingly I was contacted by a non-profit, Alternatives for Simple Living, and asked if I would sell them 100 copies of Simple Living so they could include it in their catalog of voluntary simplicity resources.
After seeing the positive and encouraging responses I’d gotten from the other frugality educators on Frugal-Ed and from the Alternatives catalog, I decided to put together a tiny website to share some of my ideas. This was back in the old days of the Internet when a website was considered “cutting edge” if there was just one illustration or photo at the top of the page. My new webpage, DSimple Life, had a small cartoon picture of someone with a brown paper bag over their head. It reminded me of the Unknown Comic from years ago on TV (anyone remember him from The Gong Show?).
Anyway, I decided that a paper bag covering a head expressed my desire to remain in the background of my website because I wanted to foreground the information I was sharing. I didn’t want to be a celebrity. I just wanted to help others negotiate frugality and simple living by sharing some of the ideas I’d learned the hard way.
There weren’t many resources for frugal living online at the time (hard to believe, huh?). This was also back before blogs were a thing—yep, I’ve been online for a long, long time. Around the same time, I also started a small online discussion forum for talking about frugal living and simplicity.
My first website was located on AOL’s Hometown (now defunct) and basically consisted of a single article that I’d written called “One Income Living in a Two Income World,” a handful of links to other frugal living websites, a link to my frugal living discussion forum, and information for ordering the Simple Living booklet (which I basically sold for the cost of printing and postage supplies).
Around the same time, an online friend of mine, Vicki, and I started emailing tips and recipes with each other about cooking ahead for the freezer. There was little information on the Internet at the time about the topic of freezer meals, and only a couple of books available. Neither of us had found the books particularly helpful. Either the recipes were too complex, or too expensive for our everyday meals, or the cooking tips and recipes were buried beneath extraneous information about Christian homemaking. Frankly, Vicki and I just wanted to throw some things in our freezers to ease the day-to-day drudgery of cooking dinners every night—we didn’t really want to wade through someone’s views on the so-called heightened spirituality of cooking ahead.
Before long, I ended up putting together a small website for freezer cooking, and Vicki and I started an email discussion group with some friends. We called it OAMC (“Once-a-Month Cooking”—we were actually the first people to use the OAMC acronym online—our tiny contribution to Internet culture). That original OAMC email discussion group—the very first online group dedicated to cooking for the freezer—grew from just the two of us to 11,000+ folks in just a couple of years. It was definitely a topic that had found a niche online.
Backtracking a bit …
For a number of years, even before I had a computer, I’d had a vision of creating a print newsletter for stay-at-home moms that would include tips and ideas for living within a limited budget, cooking family friendly meals, parenting, and general family ideas. I finally decided to start sending out an email version of my newsletter idea called Simple Times. From its humble beginnings of being sent to a handful of personal friends, Simple Times grew to a subscriber list of over 25,000 people from around the world. No one was more surprised than I was about Simple Times appeal. I’d intended it for women and moms, but found men subscribing and enjoying it, as well. I guess saving money, cooking, and raising kids weren’t quite the gendered subjects that I’d thought. I was never in this whole internet thing to make money, so I actually made a conscious decision not to accept paid advertisements in Simple Times for many years. I felt that selling things to people who were trying to live frugally would be hypocritical, so the vast majority of things I did online were simply a gift of my time and effort to others.
Eventually, I became online friends with Gary Foreman from The Dollar Stretcher and started submitting articles on frugality and cooking for the freezer to his newsletter. This brought an influx of new visitors to my website, new participants on my discussion forums, and new subscribers to Simple Times. Gary and I teamed up when he decided to sponsor Simple Times on his own listserver which saved me a ton of headaches (and money!) over the years.
One day, I unexpectedly received an email from a woman who told me she was writing a book for single parents and that she’d stumbled on my cooking for the freezer website. She was writing to ask permission to reprint one of the webpages, “A Day in the Life of Once a Month Cooking,” in her up-coming book. She thought cooking ahead was a great idea for use by time-strapped single parents. I was honored to be asked. I said yes, and several months later I was mailed an autographed copy of her book with my chapter in it. Wow. I was so excited to see my name in a book! Not something I’d ever thought would happen.
A few months later, I received another email from the same woman, asking if she could call me on the phone to discuss an idea she’d had. Long story short, it turns out she wasn’t just the author of that single parenting book, she was actually the CEO of a small publishing company. She said she hadn’t been able to get the idea of cooking for the freezer out of her mind, and had presented the idea of asking me to write a book for them to her business partner. He was equally intrigued and before I knew it, I had a three (3!) book contract in hand, and was working fast and furiously to grow my little website into a full-fledged book. Not a small request, believe me. Fortunately I’d already started collecting recipes for my own use, and had put together several 30 day meal plans, so Frozen Assets: How to Cook for a Day and Eat for a Month came together much more quickly than if I’d completely started from scratch.
I thought it was sort of funny that I had a three book contract, because I honestly didn’t think I even had one book in me. Well, I ended up writing a follow-up to the first book, Frozen Assets Lite & Easy, and then completed A Simple Choice: A Practical Guide for Saving Your Time, Money, and Sanity, which was a book based on 100+ in-person and email interviews I’d conducted over a three year period time with people who were choosing to live frugal, simple lives.
Even my for Dummies book wasn’t something I’d actually set out to do. I was contacted by a literary agent who represented the for Dummies people because the publishers were looking for someone to write a new title, Frugal Living for Dummies. The agent thought my Simple Times newsletter, the Frozen Assets books, and assorted articles I’d written for The Dollar Stretcher qualified me to write a book of basic ideas for people new to frugal living who had no idea where to start saving money on their everyday expenses. Frugal Living for Dummies was what is called a “work for hire,” which basically means I was paid for doing the work of writing the book, but there were no royalties. Evidently that’s how most books in the for Dummies line are contracted. It was nice to get paid up front, but odd later on to not really have a vested interest in whether or not the books actually sold.
Sadly, my early book contracts were such that I only made about 50 cents per book after all was said and done. So to make even $10,000 per year (which I never even came anywhere close to, by the way), I would’ve had to sell 20,000 books per year … and that’s only about how may copies sold total of the “bestselling” Frozen Assets book. The original Frozen Assets title made Amazon’s Top Ten Small Press Books in 1997 which then qualified it to be called a “bestseller”—which sounds a lot more impressive than it actually was, believe me.
After things in my personal life sort of fell apart due to some family-related health issues, I needed to focus on surviving as essentially a single mom of three teenagers. I pretty much dropped all of my online and writing activities, gave up my discussion forums, stopped publishing Simple Times, and looked for steady and more secure forms of income. I even sold my nice little house on a suburban cul de sac (I could no long afford to pay the mortgage), and bought a double-wide mobile home in a mobile home park in order to keep my expenses as low as possible. I worked seasonally at the REI Call Center (loved it!) but it was only a seasonal position. I also worked for two years as the Outreach Director at my local church. That job was tremendously satisfying and rewarding, and work that I’d probably still be doing today, but unfortunately, the church had to close its doors permanently after monetary giving dropped below the levels needed for it to continue.
Because churches aren’t required to pay into Unemployment insurance for their employees, when the church closed down and my job ended, I consequently found myself unemployed but without the ability to collect unemployment. Can you say, “Scary”? This was also in the midst of a bad downturn in the economy (probably the reason for the drop in giving at the church), so jobs were scarce and hard to find. I was willing to do anything–work fast food, clean motel rooms, anything! But I kept being told I was “over-qualified” for entry level and minimum wage positions, and the jobs I was actually qualified for usually had hundreds of applicants, all who were more qualified (and usually a good deal younger) than me. I discovered that the lack of a four year degree also shut doors constantly.
Thus began a long, sparse season of life when we learned the “joys” of visiting food and clothing banks. I also discovered how humiliating and disheartening it can be to be a single mom receiving welfare and Food Stamps. I was lectured by angry self-righteous strangers on my supposed laziness while at the supermarket quietly buying groceries with food stamps. I had cashiers treat me like I was one step up from pond scum when I bought something like generic laundry detergent or cheap shampoo at the store using cash benefits. Eventually I was accepted into a job-training program at the local community college, and after about a year began receiving regular Financial Aid so I could finish my Bachelor’s degree that had been put on hold nearly 30 years before.
Fast forward another couple of years.
Here I sit today, the proud owner of a Bachelor’s degree (magna cum laude) from the University of Washington. My actual degree is a bit of a mouthful: “Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences: Arts, Media, and Culture – Literature focus.” It’s essentially an English Lit degree. And I recently completed my lifelong dream of receiving a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing and Poetics.
So now you know my writing history, my internet history, some of my work history, and a bit of my family’s story, as well. Like I said at the beginning, it’s not very exciting and nobody’s going to be making a movie about my life, but it’s definitely had a lot of semi-interesting twists and turns, some windfalls, more than a few heartaches, and a great many lessons learned along the way.
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