Self-publishing update: My import/export business

I want to thank everyone who bought my book. I loved the process of selling the book, making it, and shipping it out. I learned so much.

Melissa and I were so excited when the books arrived. But there was not a lot of pause for celebration because the books were literally three months late.

You’d think, since we printed the books in China and then had them shipped on a boat, that the delay would be due to the Chinese. But in fact, the Chinese printer was amazing, and the shipping company was good, too. The problem was a US company: PayPal.

Our plan was to get people to pay for the book first, and then we’d use that money to print the book. But PayPal put a hold on our account as soon as we took in money. And—I’m not joking or exaggerating—PayPal has been holding our money for the last 90 days.

When I twittered about how much I hate PayPal (two tweets, actually) I got a surprising number of responses from people saying they had the same problem with PayPal. So here’s my warning to you: PayPal has put a hold on lots of funds.

Okay. So, PayPal managed to turn our small-scale, smooth cash-flow operation into a mess. Eventually, Melissa caved and put everything on her credit cards.

Here’s a picture of the book cover — not to make you want one, because we are sold out. But it’s to make you want the next book we do. I think there will be another one. It was really fun to make a product I can hold, and give to people. I like that the book is pretty, like a treasure. It’s the type of thing I’d like to have in my hand or give to a friend. (If only I hadn’t sold all the copies I was planning to give to friends…)

So for a week, we had sort of a nice rhythm. While I put the kids to bed, Melissa organized envelopes and labels and numbered books. (There were 1000 books printed. All but six were pre-sold. And each book has a number.)

At first things went slowly. We didn’t really have a system. Melissa gave me an envelope and a book and I signed and put the book in the envelope. I told her that when I signed books (my first book) in bookstores there was someone sitting next to me to open books to the page I was signing. That made it go really fast.

So Melissa did that. And then I couldn’t stop thinking of Esther Williams. Do you know who she is? She was an Olympic swimmer who couldn’t go to the Olympics because of World War II so she went to Hollywood and became a pinup doing swimming pool musicals.

I used to have a job signing her autograph. If you click to her fan site, and scroll halfway down the page, there’s an autographed photo of her. That’s the one I would sign. I’d open her fan mail and sign her name and send the photo in the mail. She would give me oversight like, “make the E’s loopier.”

I found myself making my P’s extra loopy during the nights I couldn’t get her out of my head. I also found myself signing my name a little differently each night. And I remembered the autograph collector who sent me two signed photos of Esther that looked very different and he said one of them must be a fake and he was upset. And I wanted to tell him, “That’s not true. Both are fake.”

So I signed tons of books and then Melissa handled all the addresses and envelopes.

The books were late, but of all the people who bought books, I only got one really angry note. Unfortunately she put the note in my comments section on the blog, for everyone to see. Fortunately, it’s my blog and I can do whatever I want, so I deleted the comment. I sent her a nice response, though. I did not tell her that she is outside the US and because I am a mail-order rube, I gave all international orders free shipping. But at least now I can say I’ve got experience in the export business.

Actually, it’ll probably be Melissa who puts the import/export thing on her resume. She is a resume writing genius. She probably already has something on her resume about building a small planet.

Okay, so we got a pretty good book system going: Just around the time when fireflies come out, the kids would fall asleep and I would want to fall asleep, but downstairs, in Melissa’s room, I’d hear her sliding stacks of books across the floor. I said, “Melissa, let’s go out and see the fireflies.”

She says, “No. We have to do books.”

I go outside for a quick firefly check while she does books inside. And then we begin.

I read each comment I get on the blog, and I read about 300 emails a day, so there are lots of names that are familiar to me. And each name I saw I would think, “I think I know this person.” And my inclination would be to want to check to see if it’s the Mark I know, or if it’s the Kate who comments a lot. But it ended up taking way too much time. So unless you have talked with me in person about 20 times, I probably didn’t recognize your name as your book came up.

You’d think I’d just write the same note for everyone, but I’m not a person who can easily write the same thing over and over again. So I tried variations, but I kept making mistakes in things like spelling a person’s name wrong, because I was thinking about what was a good thing to write. And then I’d have to write a big long apology for misspelling the person’s name. (Although I have to say that there is a trend among my female readers to have names that begin with K that are difficult to spell.)

For the most part, I signed each book, “Good luck with your career! – Penelope Trunk.”

When the Farmer saw the inscription he said, “Good luck?!!!? They don’t need luck if they read this book! They’ll have skill!”

“Melissa,” I said. “This is terrible. He’s right. It’s a bad inscription.”

“No,” she says. “No. No. No. It’s a good inscription.”

We look at each other.

I say, “Talented people make their own luck. I am wishing them the talent to make their own luck.”

“Right,” said Melissa.

“Yeah,” said the Farmer.

And then he looked at our piles and piles of books and smiled and said, “Good luck.”

126 replies
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  1. MHug
    MHug says:

    Any ideas on how you will do your next book without Paypal? Did this venture give you the capital to fund the next one upfront?

  2. CS
    CS says:

    When mine came I was very impressed with the copper tone and what I believe is supposed to be a mirror for self-reflection on the front. It really did look like an exquisite keepsake or a treasure. It looked classy, old, and expensive. Like something a great grandma would give as a First Communion gift. That’s hard to find in books these days.

    Although my friend and I were wondering, if it is supposed to be a mirror, why is the middle part copper and not that beige/white tone, as if it were the glass in the mirror? Or is it not even a mirror?

    895 BABY! YEAH!

    P.S. I loved the story about “don’t wait until you bottom out to make a big change.” I’ve reached my “tears in front of the Magic Kingdom” moment a bunch of times and I STILL don’t know what to do! I’m about to have another one now, but the only thing that can relieve me is going back to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, except that the country won’t allow me a visa to stay, and how to you build a career based around your dream location if that location is barring you from staying and working there? I wish I had an escape!

    • LB
      LB says:

      Hi CS – Why not just meet and marry a Brazilian? That’s what I did 8 years ago and it was the best thing that ever happened to me. You’ll be able to join a rich, positive minded culture and you’ll be able to live/work in Rio. Boa Sorte!

      Um abraco,


  3. Jasmine
    Jasmine says:

    Penelope, This is SUCH a random comment, but I have never met ANYONE else who holds their pens the way I do – until now! Both index and middle finger pressing down on top of the pen (at least that’s how it looks in the last photo).

    • Emily Elizabeth
      Emily Elizabeth says:

      I do that as well! Also, I tear apart my cuticles on a regular basis, which is one of the original ways that I googled myself to Penelope’s blog.

      • dl
        dl says:

        >>>Also, I tear apart my cuticles on a regular basis<<<

        I do that too. Please, someone tell me why and how I can stop. But then, as I look at my parents' wedding photo, I see my dad with his fingers curled in that same motion. It's hereditary.

      • vicky
        vicky says:

        You may be able to stop tearing your cuticles apart by putting nail polish on your nails, and don’t forget the clear top, extra hard coat. Since your nails will look ‘pretty’ you will tend to want to leave them alone.

        But also, very important: choose the worst nail/finger and put a bandaid around that one, even if it is not bad enough to need a bandaid. Then, when you are picking away (unaware) it will be the bandaid that you are picking at. If the bandaid gets wrecked, replace it.

        Keep a bandaid on at all times.

        Nail polish for guys? Hmm…maybe colorless? I dunno. But the bandaid!! Let me know how it works.

  4. Yuse Lajiminmuhip
    Yuse Lajiminmuhip says:

    1000 books doesn’t sound like a lot, but looking at those stacks I can see why the Farmer said “good luck”!

    I missed the boat on this one, but I’ll be first in line for the next book.

    Also, that last bit would make an amazing inscription: “Talented people make their own luck”

  5. Bessie Cherry
    Bessie Cherry says:

    When we produced a large scale music festival a few years back and accepted ticket money via PayPal, we ran into the exact same problem. In fact, not only did they hold all of the funds we collected for at least 30 days– causing an avalanche of problems, most notably affecting our ability to pay artists as contracted immediately after their performance, I believe my colleague’s bank account which was tied to the PayPal account was also frozen as they “investigated.” For all its charms, PayPal is excruciatingly clunky when it comes to payment acceptance on a large scale. I wonder if Amazon Payments is any better, or if there is a similar service that would be less of a hassle?

  6. Alina Rădulescu
    Alina Rădulescu says:

    Mine will have my sister’s name on it, since I sent it to her address. I think that makes it even more precious. I will still have to wait a little for her to ship it to me. I am sure she will read it before. I feel like one of the girls in The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants only it’s a travelling book.

    Thank you for all the effort, Penelope.

  7. Jessica Thompson
    Jessica Thompson says:

    I think the book is fantastic, I was almost giddy when it arrived. Thanks for the personal signature, I think the Farmer is right. The skills and learning paths you talk about in your blog and by extension in your book have been a great gut check for me. Getting moving, actively pursuing a goal with the right mindset is way better than luck :-)

  8. Mary Budge
    Mary Budge says:

    Oh I am so glad you talked about the book! I ordered one, unfortunately I used my husband’s paypal account so it is inscribed with his name, not mine which is ironic because he has been a stay at home dad our whole marriage and hasn’t had a job since forever!

    But here is the miracle part – I gave the book to my 23 year old daughter – she loved it! She is still trying to figure out what to do with her life, college is clearly not her thing and I thought this book would be perfect for her. She read it in one night and was so inspired afterward. I got a little nervous though when she started quoting from the book. She particularly liked the chapter dedicated to parents of 20 year olds! Actually, that is probably my favorite chapter too.

    Thank you Penelope for inspiring my beautiful but lost, daughter!

  9. Alexa
    Alexa says:

    I’ve received the book; I’ve read the book; I loved the book. My only issue with the book is that it is inscribed to my sister who bought it for me.

  10. R. Gross
    R. Gross says:

    I got my book and the second I was done reading it I gave it to a good friend of mine that is 23 and in desperate need of your advice (after making him swear to give it back someday). In case I have never told you, I am more successful and make more money thanks to your career and salary negotiation advice. Thanks again!

  11. Clinton
    Clinton says:

    What a great inscription idea for the next book!
    “Wishing you the talent to make your own luck.”

  12. Suzanne
    Suzanne says:

    I love the inscription. It motivated me to actually start reading the book. The only problem I have is that I want to practically memorize the book, so I treat myself to a little here and there like you would good chocolate. I’m so proud to be copy 43! Thanks!

  13. Marc Roston
    Marc Roston says:

    As the eldest of your siblings, I assume I get a “good” numbered book, yes? If I cannot have a single digit one (who the heck merits those, if not your siblings??) my next request would be the highest prime number you printed.

  14. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    How many books did you sell again? I must have been at the end of the signing, because I just got your name :-). Glad you had fun with the book! (And yes, Paypal sucks!)

  15. Steven Grant
    Steven Grant says:

    I love my copy! I am going to loan it to a pal who is about to graduate with a degree in philosophy and has no idea how to kick off her career.

    BOOK SUGGESTION: “Penelope Trunk’s Finishing School for everyone”

    At one point I interviewed with PayPal and when doing my pre-interview research all I could find was customers that HATE PayPal for freezing funds with no reason or due process. I assume that PayPal makes a HUGE amount by investing those funds while they “investigate” or whatever excuse they use.

  16. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    P, something strange is up with the blog. My comment has Marc Reston’s name on it, and my name is on this one:

    I put your last blog entry on my fan page wall and now I want to post this one but then I would have to post the other blog entries by you that I love and then I would just be doing an un-automated RSS forward of you or something sooo – what’s the etiquette on this?

    Since it invites a personal response, I thought I should probably alert you to the name switcharoo.

    • K00kyKelly
      K00kyKelly says:

      @Sarah – the commentor’s name is below their comment. The constantly confuses me even though I know it’s the case. It’d be easier to spot if there was a shading or something around each comment connecting it visually with the name and time.

  17. Sarah R. Barnes
    Sarah R. Barnes says:

    I just wanted to post a comment and come out of the closet as a lurker on your blog. I love your posts, even the ones that seem crazy to me or I might disagree with. I frequently share them on Twitter and Facebook. So when you posted that you were writing a limited edition book and we had the opportunity to help fund it by buying it in advance I jumped at the chance. I know I am but one of your many fans (and one you’ve never heard of or from before), but it felt really special to get the book in the mail. I want my husband to read it, but the selfish part of me doesn’t want to share it lest he mess up the beautiful binding.

    If you guys ever feel like taking a road trip to West Virginia on the way to D.C. or something (?), stop by Arthurdale, WV (Google it, it has a cool history) and we’ll have lunch. Thanks again, Penelope.


    • vicky
      vicky says:

      Can you tell us what else if available out there, for people to make payments on? I need this! By the way, there is a big (and getting bigger) thread on the PayPal site about people wanting to file a class action suit to get their money from PP

  18. Kimberly Rotter
    Kimberly Rotter says:

    It had been so long since I ordered, I completely forgot about the book. And to be honest, I didn’t order it because I was dying to know what was in it. I ordered it simply to support your book launch. And since I enjoy your writings, I figured I’d also get a good read out of it. It was a pleasant surprise when the book arrived recently, complete with an inscription to me (correctly spelled).

    I have heard a variety of horror and frustration stories from friends and colleagues related to PayPal. I wonder if next time you could accept credit card payments straight to your business bank account. I get solicitations now and then for low cost card readers, so you probably do too. Easy enough to check into at your bank. Invest in a secure checkout on your website, and hopefully bypass PayPal altogether? Good luck! :0)

  19. Lady Blue
    Lady Blue says:

    I regret not buying a book but there’s always next time. As someone who is in the process of writing a novel, I’d like to hear more about the Chinese printing company and other details surrounding such a detailed, pain in the ass venture [writing a book, that is]. I love this blog.

  20. Heather
    Heather says:

    Gonna be driving through Madison soon! Can’t wait to see the ‘Welcome to Madison Wisconsin! Home of Penelope Trunk’ sign! Gonna take my picture in front of it! (Sorry this comment has nothing to do with your book, which I do regret not purchasing.)

  21. Harriet May
    Harriet May says:

    I love my book so much. And I love the comment you wrote inside it. I like to think that you know me. Especially since my name doesn’t start with K.

  22. Abbe May
    Abbe May says:

    I have to give a shout-out to the farmer, who had the very same reaction that I did to the inscription “Good luck with your career”. It’s the people who do NOT subscribe to your blog that need the luck. Love everything about the book…congratulations to you and Melissa!

  23. Juliet
    Juliet says:

    I ordered one — but I haven’t gotten it yet. I am hoping it is lost in the mail right now…Hoping…

  24. Diana
    Diana says:

    First, I didn’t buy your book because I don’t need that kind of advise. But I’m sure it’s awesome.
    I saw that rude comment from the person who was tired of waiting and demanded the refund. I wanted to respond, and say how rude, but I have already called out one person for posting a rude comment, and I didn’t want you to freak out and think you had someone always looking out for you. That would be creepy.
    But I like that you wrote about publishing the book, and especially your paypal experience. Good to know. Congrats on the sold out status! Will you do another printing? If so, what will you do differently?

  25. Martha
    Martha says:

    After receiving my book – I couldn’t help but wonder if it really was your signature (after reading your previous books). I appreciate your confirmation and the pictures.

    I LOVE THE BOOK and appreciate the personalization!

  26. karelys davis
    karelys davis says:

    I was poor poor poor when the opportunity to buy the book came up. Poor as in I was so stressed I wouldn’t have enough gas money to get to work so I skipped workouts and go anywhere so I’d have enough gas money.

    If ANYONE wants to sell their book to me I’d be glad to buy it. If anyone feels like it’s not the greatest book you’ve bought I’d love to pay you for it!

  27. Danny T
    Danny T says:

    I am Director of Publishing at KW – that is to say, I sell books. Lot’s of them. We are publishing two in the next two months, and 2 more in the next year… FUN!
    I enjoyed your story… I wish I would have gotten a copy before it sold out. So, I wanted to tell you, there are ways to keep selling the book – by Kindle, which can be “programmed” for about $300, and then you just need to see if Amazon wants to sell it for you, or become an Amazon “partner”, or put it on your site… though I would fins a company that is set up to do larger downloads… that can be a complicated conversation, but the conversation is longer than the actual process… its actually pretty easy to do. Then, there are “Print-on-Demand” products… If someone really wants it, you can make it available that way – it will cost them a little more, but you make a little on every sale. I’d buy one.
    Anyway, I don’t know much other than… It’s amazing what I can research and become an apparent expert on just 2 minutes before a meeting…
    Danny T
    PS – I do not have Aspergers but I have wanted to say I do sometimes to get me out of trouble for some of the very direct things I have said. Only because I value honesty, I won’t do it.. but it is tempting… and some people would find me far more tolerable if I could just pin my “directness” to a disorder/syndrome.

  28. Fred
    Fred says:

    So I have a question for you, Penelope.

    How do you feel about printing only 1,000 copies? Did you pick that number so that you’d be sure to sell out? Do you regret not printing more?

    More importantly, was it a business or emotional decision, or both? Seems to me that if you printed 2,000 copies and had 500 lying around the house, that might be depressing; despite the fact you might have been able to sell 500 more than you did.

  29. lorne schachter
    lorne schachter says:

    That explains the paypal statement I got about your book yesterday. The book showed up last week and looks great. Already got a new job, hope it helps me find the next one

  30. Jen Caballero
    Jen Caballero says:

    I was over the moon elated to get the package from you! The book inside is so beautiful… I wasn’t sure what I was buying but it turned out fabulous. I can’t wait to read it. Thanks Penelope!

  31. sandyb
    sandyb says:

    what i enjoy most about your posts is that there’s always a story. i’m a writer, i like stories. not a lot of writers can blend good stories with good business advice like this. and, these days, writers have to be as good at writing as they are at the business of writing. do you think so?

    this post was a great motivation for me. and great ending.

  32. Sandra
    Sandra says:

    To CS at the top of the post heap, I thought the copper image on the cover was a magnifying glass, as in “Take a closer look”.

    In any case, I agree that the book is beautiful. I received mine at work and read it immediately when I got home. I didn’t have the heart to shelve such a lovely book, so it is sitting on my bedside table in my bedroom. Melissa can definitely add “accomplished bookie” to her resume!

  33. Sharon
    Sharon says:

    I opened the book package, thought how pretty the book looked, glanced at a few articles and was looking forward to reading it at my leisure. My 23 year old daughter just moved home and was lamenting about how it sucks to be looking for a job. I told her that I finally got the book from Penelope Trunk, you know, the online person I always talk about. I asked her to take a look. She finally came downstairs and took a look. Silence, she’s in the living room reading. She comes out into the kitchen and says, “She is really funny, she’s really good (like I didn’t know this), just listen to this.” She reads to me about parents being too worried about their children and their careers. We laugh. I haven’t seen the book since, it’s in her room. Congratulations Penelope :)

  34. Karen
    Karen says:

    I was so pleased when the book came in the mail in the nice package with the gold script. It a real old fashioned book, sort of book, with a solid cover and pages that stick together ever so slightly. It’s lovely, and beautifully written. Thanks to both of you for everything you put into it, and to your family for lending you to us while you worked on it.

  35. Abi
    Abi says:

    Ooh I can’t wait to get this. I’m not bothered about the lateness, I couldn’t have afforded it with postage so I was grateful – in fact it’s cool because I’ve been thinking “I have a present coming in the post and I don’t know when it’s going to arrive” – good surprise. I’ve got about 7 books on the go at the moment anyway and I need to finish some of them first.

    This book definitely looks and feels like a keeper. The energy coming off the picture of the stack feels great and like a good read. It looks gorgeous v. classy. I was expecting a paperback for some reason. I’m not sure if I’ll want to lend it out…not to certain people anyway. Maybe I’ll just gather my book-trasher friends together in a park and read it to them. I lent one of my friends a new book that I hadn’t even read yet, when I saw what she’d done with it I told her to keep it – I didn’t even know you could mash up a book like that. Talk about distress – she had at it like a hyperactive primary school kid.

    One day, when I’m rich and spacious, I’ll have a massive library and I’ll buy tons of copies of great books and just give them to people. I’ll have loads of holes in my stock – but I love sharing books I adore. Then I’ll have my private stock in a secret hidey hole which will probably be the size of a supermarket…

    I need the advice though – the shit has fucked up the fan career-wise, I’m so close but I doubt lots because I’m the last soul standing – everyone else is trying to yank me somewhere else-and no good can come of that. So I hope there’s something in there to help me keep the faith and be bold.

    Happy reading/waiting/anticipating


  36. Sara Eileen
    Sara Eileen says:

    I *love* the book. It was great fun to read, and has been great fun to hand to my friends and watch them read as well.

    I wondered, when I got my copy, if you were doing personalized inscriptions based on whether you knew the purchaser. I have “Good luck with your career” in mine, but the number is 69/1000. I instantly thought, “Did I get number 69 because I sent Penelope that email about writing about sex two years ago?”

    I know it’s a ridiculous and childlike connection to make, but it seemed almost out there enough to be true. But it is almost better as serendipity!

  37. Sacha
    Sacha says:

    I echo all the comments about the greatness of the book. I bought it most of all to support you and your newest adventure (publishing!) and as a limited edition art piece.

    If your goal is to be taken seriously as a self-publisher then I’d like to offer some constructive feedback. #1, Use a good copy editor. There has to be someone in your life (or available for hiring) that has the ability to find grammatical and typographical errors. Those stand out as glaring distractions for me, especially in book form. #2, Have footnotes for the references that would otherwise be links to external sites in your posts. I like being able to go to your sources and, really, you should credit them anyway.

    I like how you didn’t give it a title (it’s art!), and the juxtaposition of a formal book with blog posts reprinted. I read it lying in bed thinking, “This is so much better than linking though a hundred posts in front of the computer!”

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      That’s great feedback. Thanks, Sacha. Initially I thought this would be a very small project for me and a few friends. But now that it’s a bigger project, and I like it, I think I will do another book. And Sacha, you can be sure that I’ll take both these suggestions.


      • Lesley
        Lesley says:

        I’m also a freelance editor (and former book editor) and would be interested in helping on your next publishing venture. And I’m in Wisconsin!

  38. Shelley
    Shelley says:

    The book is lovely. Perfect gift for my friends, but I only bought one copy so unfortunately none for my friends… It’s the perfect gift because it is pretty, and because it has great information. I agree with Sacha on the typos and grammar as well as footnotes. My only disappointment, which is minimal is that the book was dedicated to me using my legal name (Michelle), and I go by Shelley. In Paypal when I paid, I wrote a comment (in the comment section) that I wanted the book to be addressed to Shelley. I guess Paypal didn’t transfer that info to you. Grrrrr.

    Aside from that, I look forward to your next book and I hope it is as pretty, artful and informative as this one! Yay!

  39. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    Well, for all those Melissa doubters, here’s another demonstration of her willingness to come through for Penelope and everyone who ordered the book – “Okay. So, PayPal managed to turn our small-scale, smooth cash-flow operation into a mess. Eventually, Melissa caved and put everything on her credit cards.” Now I wish I had ordered a book. Not for myself but rather to give as a gift. Of course, I would have read through it first but not before putting my nose up to the pages and flipping through it for that smell of a new book. Nothing like it. I’m looking forward to your next book project.

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