Poisoning Myself: The Bad, The Ugly, and The Unheard Good of Spilled Candy’s MySpace Drama

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When I’d finished explaining the trauma of being the sudden focus of thousands of people calling me a thief and a scammer, the gifted intuitive on the other side of the table suggested I wasn’t telling her quite everything about why I’d made some particular business decisions to temporarily downsize my little publishing company a month before.  She was right:  though I tried to be as open as possible with my intentions—too open, by most publishers’ standards—there was one thing I hadn’t dared to tell anyone.  But after a life-changing meeting a month ago, I’m willing to share something very personal with you that might make a huge difference in your life, too.

The Bad

Okay, so the preceding year was a doozy.   Our little family-owned publishing company had mourned the loss of several people close to us, including my dad’s lingering death and the aftermath we were left to deal with, the bolt-from-the-blue suicides of two family friends, and a couple of major heartbreaks in relationships.  In spite of a depressed market, it had been a good year for us as a niche publisher but on the personal front, a horrible year punctuated by bright spots of love and insight.

My dad had cancelled his life insurance before he died, leaving us with quite a mess to deal with, so I began trying to streamline as much as possible with Spilled Candy Books, including not taking on any new projects, to make time to help my mother with the transition.  I outsourced ongoing projects to a team of virtual assistants and took myself out of the loop as much as possible for a few months while I shifted focus to family priorities.

Then the unthinkable happened.

The Really Bad

After a year on such an emotional rollercoaster, we learned that someone very, very dear to us was dying. We were already at a point where we didn’t think we could take any more! So much loss in one year….  I was crushed, and it really made me rethink where I was spending my time, whom I was spending energy on, and what I might want to do differently if I had a second chance.  I felt really close to the fragility of life.

I didn’t get a reprieve though.  While I was helping to make funeral plans, another very dear person became extremely ill and was later hospitalized.  We didn’t know until a little later that a third dear one, who hid it from us as long as possible so he didn’t burden us, was undergoing major surgery and almost didn’t make it.  At this point, I was wondering how I would have any time at all to devote to my publishing company with so many personal crises to deal with at once.

Then the other shoe dropped.

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The Worst

I told no one.  Not my closest friends, not my family.  No one.  I had too many things to take care of to worry about myself, right?  Except I did worry.  Silently.  I didn’t want to scare the kids and I didn’t want to worry my dear ones who were so ill.  Talking to them about my concerns would have been detrimental to their health.

The first time it happened was a summer afternoon right after lunch.  I sat down at my desk right after lunch, and suddenly I couldn’t breathe.  It was like all the oxygen had been sucked out of the room, and I started gasping for breath.  Before I knew it, my heart was pounding and wouldn’t slow down.  I was dizzy and nauseated.  I managed to get up and walk around, trying to get fresh air.  I was so tired that I could hardly move.  To my knowledge, I was in good health but I kept wondering if I was having a heart attack.  I tried to call someone in the next office, but no one was there.  I realized then that I was the only one in the building, that I was completely alone at that moment, and so I sat down on the floor, gasping for oxygen and trying to calm my pulse. I was too tired to make my way to a phone and call 911.   By the time someone else showed up, I was breathing normally and feeling okay.

I chalked it up to stress.  Yeah, that made sense.  I needed to lighten my burden.

The Solution

The symptoms came and went for the next few weeks as I dealt with terminally ill loved ones and re-evaluated how I wanted to spend the rest of my life.  My mortality had been brought to the forefront in a very dramatic way by so many losses over the previous year but also by my own unexplained symptoms, which evolved to include fatigue so bad that I went home from work and took two naps every night before bedtime.  I had no energy for Spilled Candy, for my family, for my sick and dying loved ones, or for myself.  I had to do something.

I already had quite a few authors whose contracts were running out after being with me for so long.  I had the option to re-new but if they could find new life for their books elsewhere, then I didn’t want to hold them back and I didn’t have the resources to spend on them.  Contracts run out, books go out of print expectedly and unexpectedly, and this is the natural course of the publishing world that I’ve dealt with as an author as well as a publisher.  I gave it a lot of thought, so that my authors wouldn’t be damaged,  and I decided to sell any remaining inventory  while they sought new publishers.   This way, the process of putting their books out of print would be seamless.  It would be sad to say goodbye but no one would be hurt.

The next thing that happened made me decide to take a few other books out of print as well, earlier than I’d originally intended, but get back to very few authors who could hold their own if the worst happened.  And the worst seemed to be happening.

After spending about half an hour gasping like a fish out of water,  I managed to call my doctor’s office, who told me I was having all the symptoms of heart failure.  I was urged to get to the Emergency Room right away, but I’d barely hung up the phone when the symptoms dissipated.  Just like that.  Then I felt fine.  I made plans to go to the doctor but didn’t because it seemed silly when I felt fine, almost like I couldn’t imagine feeling bad.

And yes, I have a long history of taking care of other people before taking care of myself.  I was also afraid of upsetting the delicate health of my sick loved ones if they found out I’d been to the doctor with heart problems.  But, I convinced myself, if I could reduce some of the stress….

I wrote long, heart-felt letters to the authors I chose to let go. They were personal.  They weren’t cold and distant rejections. I gave them the option of purchasing any remaining inventory at half-price (sometimes at cost) if they wished.  I arranged it so there would be as little impact as possible to them while they found new publishers and I returned all rights promptly—something that’s rare in the publishing world.  I terminated the contracts in a private way that was never meant to be front page news and never needed to be.   The only thing I wasn’t open about was my own health and I just wasn’t prepared to look that head-on yet.  I wasn’t closing down Spilled Candy, just downsizing and pulling inward for a while—at least six months—to focus on personal crises.

I sent the letters out by certified mail to ensure that the authors affected were aware of the situation and turned my focus back to my ill loved ones and to my own health, which seemed more and more drained everyday. At this point, I was so tired I could barely function without high doses of caffeine in my body.  I was literally running on high-caffeine sodas and trying to get my dear ones to a better condition before dealing with what I didn’t want to deal with for myself.

A couple of days later, I began hearing back from authors who’d received my letter.  That’s when everything went crazy.

The Ugly

Almost all my authors were understanding.  Sad, but understanding.  Many knew what a tough year our family had had.  Most told me they were sad to go because I’d published their work at a time when the subject matter wasn’t taken seriously by publishers but they found they could get excited about all the potential new publishers out there.  I cried over many of those emails and notes.

Then I began receiving emails of a different type.  Some were strangers, some were customers, some were reporters—all wanting verification that I was going bankrupt as had been broadcast on MySpace.  That was the beginning of the rumors, and they came at a time when I was emotionally raw and not able to deal well with them—and meanwhile making 5-hour roundtrips to try to take care of things with one of my loved ones who wasn’t doing well at all that week.  The events of the year had taken a financial toll on us, but nothing at all like these rumors did.  Where we were in a holding pattern during a personal crisis, those rumors were devastating.  It spread quickly through MySpace and other social networking sites that I was forcing my authors to buy their remaining inventory, that I wasn’t reporting or paying royalties that were owed, that I was a thief and a scammer.  Bookstores carrying our books dumped their inventory, sending back boxes and boxes of books to us that now will never sell and will never bring in royalties to the authors we released, with us having to eat the cost of the books AND the return postage.  It was the first time in ten years that Spilled Candy EVER operated at a loss.

It is a surreal experience to be given copies of bulletins, emails, and other reports where people who know nothing about you call you a scam and sleaze and wish you the worst they can think of.  And to be completely honest, it stung like hell to see ten years of building our name as a publisher with integrity destroyed literally overnight by a rumor.  I’m an idealist, and I’d like to stay that way but I haven’t completely let go of the bitterness. Part of that is having my integrity questioned and part of it because this happened at the worst possible time for me emotionally.

In the fall of the year, we conducted a full audit to account for every book printed that was in question and for every sale and turned that over to an author and her lawyer.  The questioned royalties had all been paid on time and in accordance with the contract, with only two books unaccounted for.  As of now, we’ve determined that those two books were administrative/review copies that weren’t intended for sale and had been rushed out to a University reviewer we didn’t log.

So while I do feel vindicated and while I am very appreciative of all the emotional support we received, good news doesn’t make good MySpace drama.

But some good things did come out of this awful time, including my cardiologist’s surprising diagnosis.

The Good

It’s now been about six months since that ordeal and things have reached an even keel emotionally.  Customers who stayed away because they thought we were closing have started coming back over the past month and sales have started picking up again.  I’ve also noticed that with skinnying down to a very focused group of books, the level of profit per sale has risen and extremely few books are returned. Financially, it’s much more focused than before and the whole situation has a huge impact on what works we take on in the future–not happy news for a lot of authors who write to us about publishing their books but the situation has forced us to be more bottom-line oriented.

I’ve decided to make a few changes, including focusing more on projects created by a select group of inhouse writers, selling through non-bookstore models,  using more interactive media, reprinting unusual out-of-print non-fiction, and a slight shift toward a different market.  We also started paying advances on the new books we publish, with Kristin Madden’s Pagan Thanksgiving upcoming book to be the first.  Most (but not all) of our orders are now filled direct at the warehouse, so we don’t have to worry about hurricanes here in Florida wiping out our inventory.  There are still lots of new ideas and changes coming and we’ll add those as we’re able to.

Why no rush?  Because we are wrapping up those issues I’d said I needed at least six months of pulling inward to take care of.  Yes, issues on the homefront.  One’s foundation must be strong in order to build on it or even add a few additions to the current structure.

So what happened on the homefront meanwhile?  That’s where the unexpected good news lies.

Two of my three dear ones made almost complete recoveries, and the third one is as well as we can expect.   As for me, my symptoms continued through the autumn months, with me finally being referred to a cardiologist.  After all sorts of tests, we discovered the culprit—caffeine.  Whenever I needed to stay up and work an extra hour or pull an all-nighter, I would grab a soda.  Eventually I got into a vicious cycle of drinking caffeine which would cause extreme fatigue, heart palpitations, and breathlessness (among many other things) and then I’d grab another soda to help me battle the fatigue.  I kicked the caffeine habit cold turkey in early December 2007, and within a few days, all symptoms disappeared.  It feels like my system rebooted and I feel great now!

Last month, my cardiologist pronounced my heart healthy and well, “now that you’ve stopped poisoning your system.”  But the story doesn’t end there.  While he told me I’m healthy now and have great stats, he said he could look ahead based on my genetics and can tell which health problems I’m like to have when I’m older.  It’s rare that he’s able to catch it this young—he usually sees heart problems after they’ve occurred, not before.  Rather than focusing on my present health, he pointed out some things I can change now that should keep any of those genetic problems from manifesting for at least another 20 to 25 years.  Yes, he used the word manifesting.  So I’m having lots of medical tests done now to determine the best way to proceed, but it’s all good.  And had I not been poisoning myself with caffeine to the point of seeing a cardiologist for heart failure, I would never have known about impending health problems I can prevent for many years to come.

The bad that was likely to manifest can now be reversed.  And that’s wonderful news.


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