The Single Biggest Regret of my Life
See there, I know what you did—you saw me say “the biggest single regret of my life” and you rushed over here to see if I was going to dish about a certain someone. Or, maybe, even about you.
I’ve tried to live my life without regrets. I understand that I am a culmination of everything that has come before in my life, of everything that has happened to me and of every action and response I’ve had. If I could go back in time and undo any of those things–whether a relationship, an accident, a job decision, an impulsive response to hit send on an email I should never have written, an unkind word to the right person, or an excuse made on behalf of the wrong person–all of those things are part of who I am now.
There is little that I would call a mistake, so much as a lesson learned, so I don’t beat myself up all the time with regrets for what I’ve done, or what I’ve experienced. It is said that, at the end of our lives, we regret not the things that we’ve done, but the things we haven’t done. I believe that to be true, though I am still young enough that things not done still have the opportunity to come to pass, whether it’s hiking in the Grand Canyon or climbing frozen waterfalls. I’ve talked to enough people in hospice or ICU to know that dying regrets are, almost always, for what might have been.
But, if those are regrets among the dying, what about regrets among the living? I’m asked this question more often than you would think, but usually by people who are pondering their own issues with self-forgiveness. I’ve always had trouble pinpointing my biggest regret, or even any big regret at all, until a recent conversation with several friends who are earning high six-figure and low seven-figure incomes from the same kinds of creative projects that I put on a shelf fifteen, or more, years ago.
It boils down to this. I had a vision of the future and, time and again, I did not follow it. That future has come to pass and, during that time, I got tired of waiting and put my projects on a shelf. You see, I’ve always been something of a visionary. I can look at trends and follow them ten years out. Sometimes, twenty years out. The norm is for me to explain my vision to both people who love me and people who don’t, and their response is…almost always…at least in the beginning…that I’m crazy, a lunatic, don’t know what I’m talking about, should stop living in a science fiction world, should just be quiet and go away. Why? Because the vision I usually talk about is something radically different than what they’re used to, or even from the way they want things to be.
I’ve never really capitalized off this talent, because it’s just…so ordinary to me to be able to predict future trends this way. It doesn’t apply to everything, but I tend to be especially good at it in terms of technology and labor markets. I’ve used it mostly to figure out how to make sure I have the necessary resources to get a job done, often in the development of employees, outsourcing, or using unexpected labor markets, techniques, or technologies.
In the late 1990s, I foresaw the collapse of the publishing industry–at least, as we knew it, as traditional publishing. I saw that ebooks were coming, and print-on-demand, and that everything we knew about publishing and selling books was about to be turned on its head. I started my own indie publishing company because the mainstream publishers had become so focused on the bottom line, whereas I could see long-tail economics applied to publishing and coming soon.
Almost everything I tried to publish through traditional means in the late 90s got thrown back in my face. What did the various mainstream publishing houses think of my manuscript or book proposal? It didn’t have a bride, baby, and cowboy in it. It didn’t have a wide enough market. The price of paper was going up. Ebooks weren’t considered “real” books. Neither were audiobooks. I had been writing five or six big, juicy novels a year for mainstream publishers, under a pseudonym, but suddenly none of the mainstream publishers wanted the type of story I wanted to write. Paranormal was on the way out. This was before vampire and zombie books and stories on demon heroines from hell became popular.
My stories were too dark, too complex, too full of plot–I was told repeatedly. Many of my author pals stopped writing altogether during that timeframe, and some took up waitressing instead because the money was more reliable. Some of my writer friends and writers I’ve met since didn’t stop writing during that time, but they did stop publishing. They continued to write the stories they wanted to write, in the way they wanted to write them, and then put them on a shelf for five years, ten years, even fifteen years…and waited.
They waited for the revolution they knew would come. The one that I had foreseen. The revolution which would end in long-tail economics applied to book writing and publishing, with something out there for everyone, and individual writers self-publishing, or indie publishing, their works and making far more money than they did when hitting the New York Timesbestseller list for a traditional publisher.
I foresaw it in the late ‘90s, and I’ve watched it happen, and yet, somewhere along the way, I got tired of beating my head against a wall waiting for it and I lost the bubble. That’s my regret. Ten years ago, I should’ve been cranking out five or six books a year, as I had previously. The kinds of books I love to write.
And storing them, waiting for this time. For these past few years and now.
When I glance back at the time period between October 2002 and March 2011, it would seem I had all the time in the world to create inventory to publish when the revolution came, but overall I wrote very little during that time period and published even less. I still have manuscripts written in 2009, waiting to be edited. Most of what I did write was under pseudonyms anyway.
So why wasn’t I writing more? The question bothered me when I was examining my biggest regret. I had whole series plotted out. Some were trilogies. Some were five or six book series. Others, a dozen or more. There was the Secret Lives of Librarians series of five books that I started in 2003. There was The Coven of the Jeweled Dragon paranormal suspense series, plus three related series of Protect-On-Demand suspense novels, with romantic elements. Sometimes, I find myself grinning at the memory of fully-plotted, half-written novels, like Eye of the Serpent, Guardian of Her Heart, Nights with Wild Bill, O Dark Thirty, Thunderstorms and Convertibles, Witch Doctor, or Bride of the Soul.
I could easily have had 50 interconnected suspense novels for sale right now, earning similarly to what some of my other, more successful, writer friends are making, who are doing the same thing that I started in late 1998, when I published my first print-on-demand book as an ebook on a floppy disk, and sold thousands of copies to a world that still wanted their books to arrive by mail, if not in a store, and was reluctant to pay with a credit card online. Hard to even imagine those days now.
But I saw the world now. I saw it coming, even back then. And yet, I didn’t act on it.
So that’s the regret. That I had the vision and I didn’t act on it. When I was first contemplating how to let such a magnificent opportunity get past me, when I clearly knew what was coming, I gave myself plenty of mental kicks. How had I let that happen? What was I doing during that time? Yes, going through a divorce. But I was also in a new job that didn’t force me to work overtime, or travel, or work weekends. By normal standards, or even by today’s standards in my life, that was a rarity.
Previously, I had been a very heavy producer of publishable material. Working 60 hours a week or more on a day job, taking care of a husband and two small children in the evening, and then writing from 10 PM to 1 in the morning after everyone had gone to bed, before getting up at sunrise. Between three hours a night of writing and carrying a mini tape recorder with me on my 30-minute commute to and from work, I steadily produced at least one 20-page chapter a week.
“I don’t understand,” I said to a friend of mine about that missing decade. “I thought I was more disciplined than that.”
During most of the years of that era, I wasn’t even trying to sell because I knew the market wasn’t ready yet for what I wanted to write, and it was before the standard for e-books was set with the Kindle. However, I could’ve been writing during that time and waiting it out. Why wasn’t I writing then the things I knew I could publish now?
Then my friend reminded me of a single incident and it all came back to me in a whoosh. I had certainly had much more time to write during those nine years, and I was even in a work situation where I could’ve taken off four weeks, in a single block, to focus entirely on getting a book written, and either into the hands of a publisher or quietly waiting for the revolution. I had had time, yes, and energy, but very little went into any of my own writing.
It did go into publishing. Every spare minute I had went into publishing. Just not my own work. Or, at least, not very much of it. My own work was always an afterthought when I could get to it.
In hindsight, I was incredibly productive, even though I have very little to show for it now. Simply put, I was productive in places, and in ways, that benefitted other people and seldom benefitted me. I’ve learned my lesson about allowing people to guilt-trip me into things, pressure me into things, talk me into things that aren’t right for me. Things that benefit them, but not me. I didn’t know it at that time.
Now that I’ve learned my lesson, I seldom think back on those days. I think a big part of it I’ve repressed, or maybe just released. Until now, when I needed to look at it in yet one more different way to understand what it cost me to not follow my vision when I saw it so clearly and actually had the resources at the time to make it happen.
Like other peers of mine, who saw the coming revolution, I started my own small independent publishing company in the late 90s, and started first with my own books–non-fiction writer’s guides that didn’t have a national platform and so the major publishers passed on them, and a 729-page novel that I was repeatedly told, in two years of shopping it to major publishers, was too long and if only I would take out the paranormal elements then they would publish it. I wasn’t willing, so it became the first novel that my little publishing house produced. It was deemed highly original in 1998 but new readers sometimes accuse me of copying popular women’s spy adventures shows of a decade later.
I watched friends of mine create similar publishing companies of their own, except most of them pretended that it wasn’t self-publishing because in those days the term self-publishing was such a vulgarity. In most of those cases, their publishing company was in the hands of a husband or wife or, in some cases, a sibling. While the publisher produced the books of only one person, they still pretended it wasn’t self-publishing. They may have seen the coming revolution, but they knew how preconceived ideas could hurt their small companies’ reputations, even though all of us were paying independent professional editors to make sure our work was up to par.
I let two people in my life at the time, two people I loved and trusted, talk me into doing what wasn’t right for me and what in the long run cost me this opportunity. All because I trusted their instincts more than my own. The advice was well-intended and it wasn’t really bad advice. It just didn’t work out well for me. The reason I went with it at the time was that I wasn’t listening to my intuition. I was listening to logic. And logic said that I needed to expand my small business to include other authors. As many as I could handle.
“Just write off the backs of their successes,” one of my advisors told me. “You’ll write your books and get them out there. And people will follow their books to yours.” That didn’t feel right at the time, but I was presented with enough data that it made sense. I did want to expand, just not necessarily to the masses. What pushed me over the edge, into this expansion, was the promise of various people in my life to help me, even to join the business. That didn’t work out so well, either.
The people who partnered with me to make this dream happen looked at it and saw the prospect of green. In reality, they spent more time talking me into following their dream for me than they ever spent doing the share of work that they had promised. They still shared in the profits because I didn’t want to see a project fail. You cannot, for example, agree to take on the invoicing and fulfillment part of the process and have too many other things you’d rather do, for weeks at a time, than fill orders. Or ask for booksellers to pay what they owe. These were tasks that my biggest supporters–emotionally at least–promised to take on as their part of the business, but it just never happened. Nothing more than a few hours early in the process before the understanding that such promised tasks were drudgery that I would do myself rather than allow the project to fail.
My first mistake in all this was expanding well past where I was comfortable. Though I believe in taking risks where the intuition says to take it and getting outside my comfort zone, I went well beyond intuition. At one time, I had almost 20 authors and around 30 books in print, very few of them my own.
Being a writer myself, I had very author-friendly contracts and business practices. Probably a little too friendly. Around 80% of the authors I worked with were absolutely fantastic. Some of them I’m still close friends with. I adored them then and I adore them now, even though we no longer work together through my publishing company. True to the Pareto Principle, the 80/20 rule was in full effect. About 80% of my income came from publishing and 80% of my authors were fantastic to work with. It was the 20% that, ultimately, brought my company back in house for anything that was produced and I released all my authors from their contracts with full rights back immediately–something that, in the traditional publishing world, almost never happens.
The 20% turned out to be needy, controlling, and some of the most negative people I’ve ever had in my life. I had no time for my 80% and almost all my expenses were going to handle the debacles caused by my 20%. Debacles? Yes. Such as calling bookstores and having them order hundreds of books for a book signing that sent 500 copies back at my own expense. Or calling me during rare weekend outings with family and threatening to sue me. Not for anything I had done, but because someone in the publishing industry had stolen one of their other manuscripts not related to my publishing company and, since I was the only one in the publishing world they knew, they somehow thought they could force me to intercede on their behalf, with a pirated book that I had not contracted for. These were the authors who wanted to call and chat about their personal lives, for hours on end. Or worse, to tell me how I should run my business.
If that 20% had actually been 100% of my authors, and I had worked in publishing full-time, I still could not have had enough resources to do for them what they wanted, and what they demanded. Anytime I said no, or refused what amounted to extortion, I was featured prominently on their social media, and then badgered by all of their friends and family to put my full attention on whatever they wanted. When I say badgered, I mean anything from begging to threatening.
There was no time for other authors. There was no time for my own writing. There was no time for anything but them. And publishing, for that reason alone, became a somewhat miserable experience.
The other mistake I made during that time was expanding outside of the types of books I wanted to publish. If you’ve read the book Start with Why, this would be expanding outside of my why I published. I started the company to publish, primarily, books for writers with a somewhat spiritual tone and paranormal suspense novels. Those were my two markets. My niche. Because they were what I was writing at the time. Spiritual non-fiction and paranormal suspense. Unfortunately, not only did I take on authors that my gut instinct told me to run away from (and no, I’ll never tell you which ones, but I’m not Facebook friends with them now!), but I expanded outside my niche market. My intuition said it was a bad idea. My logic and business analysis said it was a bad idea, too. But, once again, because of the person who was pleading with me, I went way outside my niche market.
All these two mistakes did was further splinter my focus and my resources so that I had nothing left for myself. By the time the publishing revolution actually hit, around 2012, I had pushed away from publishing all together. Do I regret my foray into independent publishing? Never. I learned far too much. Do I regret expanding and taking on other authors? Truthfully, some yes. But the rest, no. I can never regret some of the partnerships I made to publish important spiritual books.
That was on odd time in publishing. Not just for me, but for everyone. With the publishing industry dying, there were so many wonderful books that I did want to publish that had virtually no opportunities at that time. The mainstream publishers were looking strictly at bottom line. Some of these books were incredibly niche but still deserving to be available and out there for those who needed them.
As technology improved, and other markets opened up. By 2008, 2010, 2012, now, most of my former authors have found much bigger venues that I, or anyone else, could offer back then. It was a transition time in publishing and, just as in childbirth, transition can be exceedingly difficult before the reward.
It was a transition time for me, as well. A time when I became independent again in my life and yet still relied on the opinions of people around me, above and beyond my own intuition. For a long time in my life, I didn’t really take care of myself because there were so many other people to take care of, and then, for another while, I didn’t take care of myself because I knew I couldn’t take care of everyone else. I pulled within, hibernated a bit. For a while in my life, there was something else that was more exciting than writing, and I put my focus there because I knew how quickly the wheel of fortune turns, that that opportunity would pass within a few years.
So, yes, I have a big regret. That big regret is that I went for years without writing what I wanted to write so that I could take care of specific needy people and follow the advice of people I didn’t want mad at me rather than follow my intuition in how I wanted to expand both my writing and my publishing careers. I think that I would have come together, regardless, with the best of the best of the people from that time period and that we would have worked together anyhow, somehow. As for the people who are still in my life from that time period, I have no regrets whatsoever.
As for all those unpublished novels? They’re still stashed away, fully plotted, some half-written, some almost entirely written, some edited and waiting in the wings. They’re still there. I can’t change the fact that I detoured down an interesting and educational path that might have cost me in many ways and that I have so many novel ideas that I set aside for a long time.
What counts is what I decide to do with them now.
Key Takeaway: Sometimes, regret comes in when we are capable of seeing what’s going to happen but didn’t act on it at the right time. However, the more important matter at present is the action or decision they are making now.