PROS BEFORE BROS
I treated PROS BEFORE BROS as an MFA/MBA project, and granted myself most of 2018 to work on it. Part of that work was being very deliberate with my intentions and motivations for the project. If you're into this kind of deep-dive nerdy behind-the-scenes process stuff, here you go!
Explore writing style, length, structure, format, topic
On a strictly editorial level, I want to give myself the opportunity to break out of the memoir/service hybrid writing style I've been hammering for 15 years.
Don't get me wrong: I love my default style of narrative nonfiction mixed with advice. It's my comfort zone for a reason! I'm good at it, and people gain value from it. I share my experience (that's gratifying for me!), and then transition into helpful tips and guidance for readers (and that's gratifying for them -- which is then an extra layer of gratification for me!).
Most of my writing goes like this: "Here's a problem I had! Maybe you've had this problem too? Here's how I handled it, and now here's a nice digestible bit of guidance about how YOU might handle it."
But part of my own personal process the past few years is realizing that giving advice is a form of ego theater. Dear unwashed internet masses: I am a wise person who is here to tell you wtf is up. By telling you what to do, I feel better about myself.
These last few years have been profoundly humbling for me. I know now just how little I actually know. Giving advice is still one of my favorite vices, but my personal non-monetized writing has veered off that well-worn service writing rut into something that's less essay and advice, and more about characters, setting, dialog, visceral sensations, deeply felt emotions. Let's be clear: I'm not sure that I'm any good at this new style of writing (those essayist habits die hard! show don't tell! etc!), but it's being really interesting to push out of my comfort zone.
Pros Before Bros is a story with characters and dialogue, settings and scenes. Sure, there's also essay-ish internal rambling and processing, but I'm trying to do something different.
The story is also a weird, unwieldy length. At 10k words, it's too long for a short story, not long enough for a novella. It's definitely too long for typical internet reading, and right on the edge of being to short for your usual book. In researching, I found out that this length is called a "novelette." Printed into a 4x6 format, it'll be 80 pages long... just big enough to feel like a real book (especially printed in hardback), but small enough to read in one sitting.
I've structured the book into 10 chapters, and while chapters are familiar to me from writing the Offbeat Bride book, Pros Before Bros chapters don't have any sidebars or calls to action or prompts for how the material relates to your life. At no point does the book give advice or try to translate my experience into actions the reader could take.
And yeah, the topic is sex. Specifically, sex work. Obviously this is not a topic I normally write about, and now I'm going to try writing about it in a first-person style that I'm unpracticed in? That's, uhhhh... beyond vulnerable? But when I go, I go hard, and vulnerable stories about about the intersection between sex and personal growth are my absolutely favorite kind of story! I wish more people told these stories, and I get that they're somewhat stigmatized... so I guess I'll go first? More about that later.
In terms of writing I've published before, maybe the closest thing might be this post: Scrubbing a naked stranger: my twist on Tinder's disposable dating culture. The response to that post was pretty divided, so we'll see. I've shared Pros Before Bros with a tiny cluster of beta readers and the most common response is just this: "WOW." It's unclear if it's good wow or bad wow, but I don't think anyone's ever read one of my "5 ways to bla your bla to bla bla your bla bla bla" posts and said WOW, so regardless, it's progress?
Support/collaborate with local women artists and business owners
I've founded what became the Offbeat Empire in 2016. I've been the boss for well over a decade. I tell people what to do. I like to think my relationship with my staff has been relatively egalitarian and on equal footing, but the reality is that I'm the one signing the checks, which means I'm in charge.
If I've learned anything in the shit-show of my past few years, it's that I need more opportunities in my life to be less in charge, and more in collaboration. It's fucking exhausting to be in charge all the time!
As I've advanced in my career, I've gotten to a place where a lot of the joy I get out of my work is using my platform to amplify the voices of others. So part of my motivation with this project is using it as a way to support the work of Seattle-area creative women who are doing cool shit.
The theory here is that if I'm going to invest some money in trying new things, I can make sure that the money I'm spending is going towards supporting other local women doing cool shit.
Pros Before Bros is absolutely an exercise in collaboration, and here are the main folks contributing:
- Jewelry: Alexis Devine of Squirrel vs Coyote
Alexis is a local jeweler and metalworker whose work has been my default jewelry for the last couple years. My default earrings and default necklace are both hers, and so I asked her if she'd work with me to create some custom pieces to go with the story I was writing. I knew NOTHING about jewelry design, and it's been an interesting process -- who knew sourcing chain would take so long?
- Cover art and interior illustrations: Stasia Burrington
My home is filled with Stasia's art, everything from the tarot deck I pull from every morning to little fabric flags that read "I cum from outer space" to playful black and white illustrations, to a custom diptych I commissioned her to paint for my stairwell. The cover of the book is inspired by the Six of Pentacles from her Sassy Burrito deck.
- Layout and print management: Girl Friday Productions
I emailed exactly one printer to get a bid, and realized instantly that I have ZERO FUCKING INTEREST in that aspect of this project. I also don't have any interest in learning InDesign and getting balls-deep in book layout. Hard pass! Well, turns out there's a woman-owned and operated boutique self-publishing shop in my neighborhood that offers ala carte services for the nitty gritty self-publishing stuff. Thank gawd.
- Sales & Distribution: Ada's Technical Books
I've worked for five years in the coworking office behind Seattle's favorite nerdy bookstore, and it's basically my second home. When I asked the owner Danielle if it made sense for Ada's to be the exclusive in-store distributor of this experimental project, she was immediately like HELL YES. Ada's will be the only place where you can buy the book in person.
There are more people too... Early on, I hired Lucy Bellwood and Beth Jusino each for a few hours of consulting on wtf this project even was. (It was Beth who informed me that this really wasn't a self publishing project... it was an art project.) My beloved old copyeditor (and Offbeat Resilience cowriter!) Caroline has done several editing passes.
My desire to collaborate is because I want this project to financially support folks... but it's also maybe the biggest way I'm covering my ass on this project. I mean, it's fucking terrifying to write something so different than my usual stuff, and what if it crashes and burns? What if no one buys it? What if it bombs completely?
...Well, even if my writing crashes and burns hard and I lose a bunch of money, at least I can know that the money I lost went toward local women whose work I admire!
...Right? See what I did there? Like, if I'm gonna fail, I might as well make my failure benefit someone! Or several someones! Then it's not REALLY a failure.
So yeah: even if this book doesn't sell, at least the lost investment dollars will have gone into the pockets of women I think deserve it? Even if I lose, I win!
Explore books as talismanic objects
Last fall, I snagged a copy of Kristen Korvette's Witches, Sluts, Feminists: Conjuring The Sex Positive after seeing the cover of the book on Instagram. (In an amusing twist, when I emailed Kirsten to say hi, she was all "omg fangirl moment! You featured my wedding back in 2013!" Aww!!)
The cover art is truly masterful, as is the title of this book: I mean, can we talk about that keywording boner? Like, if you are any one of those three things, you want this book in your house. If you're all three? You want this book sitting on your coffee table where everyone can talk about it.
For months, every friend who came over to my house would pick up the book and want to talk about it. As far as I know, no one actually read it, but everyone wanted to talk about it. This book invoked a flow of communication energy, just be sitting there.
We are in the midst of an information age, where communication energy is flowing everywhere. Thanks to the internet, we are mentally drowning in this communication, deluged in stories. Most of these stories are digital, disposable, intangible. They flow into our eyes, into our minds, and disappear back into an ether where most of the time we can't even remember where the information came from... I read this article, or wait was it a podcast? Uh, maybe it was actually just a headline that went by on my newsfeed that I didn't even click but I still had opinions about, or -- uh, I think maybe it was just a screenshot of a tweet that someone posted to Instagram?
Stories flow over us and through us all day. Their energy runs through us. If you've ever woken up and immediately picked up your phone and realized "I don't need caffeine because I just got a jolt of INTERNET in my veins," then you know what that energy feels like. It flows through you, but there's no THERE there. You put down your phone, and the energy remains... but it's untethered and free floating and you forget the source and it just sorta swims around.
Unlike these intangible internet stories, books are the objects that sit in your house and stare at you. I had Mark Wolman's It Didn't Start with You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle on my bedside table for almost a year. I'd pick it up and read single paragraphs from it and did some muh-HAJOR deep work from those few paragraphs. It got to the place where just seeing the book would bring up spirals of thought in me, without even getting to the words inside. It was a weird kind of magic where the concepts of the book sorta seeped into me, not by reading but just by its physical presence.
Last fall, a lover gave me a huge bouquet of white lilies. For weeks, that lover would pop into my mind and I wouldn't quite know even why... and then I'd realize I'd caught a whiff of the flowers across the house. It was a weird kind of magic.
My default necklace is a heavy crystal on a thick from Squirrel vs Coyote that reads NOSCE TE IPSUM across the top -- Latin for Know Thyself. I do a lot of walking around my neighborhood, and when I walk, the necklace bangs on my chest and I think to myself Know Thyself, Know Thyself, Know Thyself. I wear the words, but even when I'm not reading them, the weight and movement of the necklace gives me a regular sensory prompt that gently beats against me. It's a weird kind of magic.
Part of Pros Before Bros is wanting to explore stories not just as written content, but also visual, somatic, daily experiences that we carry with us.
I want to explore wearing pieces of stories on your body, where they move against you and don't let you forget.
I want to explore stories that are printed in formats that are so beautiful that you want them sitting out, staring at you. I want stories that because a piece of your home. I want stories that are objects that invite conversation, to breed more stories.
I want to explore stories as objects you want to build into altars, pick up and touch, press them into a beloved's hand with a whisper in their ear.
After decades of digital publishing, I want to try pulling storytelling into tangible space, with visual and physical cues that bring the story back into the reader's daily life. Yes, it's been great to have people all over the world be able to access my writing any time they want on their computers and phones... but that relationship is ephemeral, intangible.
Plus, there's an element of guilt here. As I've worked in my daily life to be more present in my own body, less of a floating brain with dangly little tyrannasaurus arms attached to a keyboard, I've started to feel a little bad about how much of my digital stories have pulled readers out of their bodies and into their minds.
I know I don't need to feel guilty about it. I like to think the stories I've shared over these decades have helped people in all sorts of tangible real-life ways, but I want to explore stories that are a presence both in your mind AND in your real tangible spaces.... Your body, your home, your life.
I'm sick of pulling people out of their lives and into my mental world... I want to explore stories that work their magic in the real world.
Sneaky deep on a different level
I've described my methods with Offbeat Bride as "sneaky deep."
Here's what I mean by that: let's say you're a relatively mainstream, relatively conservative person planning your relatively traditional wedding. You're looking for some unique centerpiece ideas, and you go to your favorite discovery engine (Google, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, whatever) and start poking around.
You find some super cute centerpieces, and click/tap to learn more and all of a sudden you're balls deep in the wedding profile of a pair of Latinx/Canadian trans activists, who used their wedding as a way to celebrate their cultural backgrounds and queer identities... and yes ok that happens to include their really cute centerpieces!
You, relatively conservative person, would never ever have chosen to read this post (which could just as easily be about, say, some polyamorous Ren Faire nerds who are having a pagan handfasting) but suddenly you find yourself relating to these weirdos and their wedding challenges. Aww, we all struggle with family pressure and budget challenges! And maybe, as you're there looking at centerpieces, you start to subtly reconsider some things about your wedding, and yourself, and offbeat people in general, and maybe you're not quite as conservative as you thought?
This has always been the Offbeat Empire's method: you think you're just looking at some fluffy stuff, and SURPRISE! We go deep on you. It's sneaky, and it's deep. It's sneaky deep.
In fact, it's so sneaky that sometimes even I forget that it's deep. Sometimes I talk to people like Canadian philosophers and am all, "Meh, I'm just some silly wedding blogger who posts pictures of centerpieces." And the Canadian philosopher is like, "What the hell, you've pushed cultural narratives about weddings and relationships WAY forward in the past 10 years. Because of Offbeat Bride, quirky weddings are completely normal. Offbeat Bride shows polyamorous couples in totally normal, boring ways. Offbeat Bride features couples with disabilities, couples who are older, couples who are thruples or quads... and you feature them ALL in the same fawning, encouraging, supportive ways as more normative weddings. It's radical! It's important! Don't belittle yourself."
And I'm all, "Oh right. I forgot." See? Sometimes I'm so sneaky, I even fool myself.
But anyway, back to sneaky deep. Pros Before Bros is sneaky deep, too. It's a dirty story. It's a pretty book! Aww, it's cute jewelry that converts into a sex toy! But the story is ultimately about deeper topics of feminism, power, identity, therapy, emotional healing, self-reflection, surrender, midlife self-reflection, and coming to peace with your complexities.
Come for the dirty story and sparkly jewelry, stay for the existential contemplations.
Come because you're like, WTF the Offbeat Bride lady is writing about WUT now? But stay because you're realizing you've got deep rooted assumptions about your own sexuality that you've avoided poking at. Come because you're a voyeuristic rubbernecker. Stay because you can't thinking about which of your own edges you'd push, if you gave yourself the chance. Come because it's titillating. Stay because you started crying when you recognized your own pain on the pages.
It's sneaky, and it's deep. It's the same as Offbeat Bride, but the candy is sex and jewelry instead of weddings.
And the deep is maybe a little bit deeper.
Explore scarcity marketing and word of mouth marketing
I typically try to write my stories to scale up as big as possible. When I wrote the Offbeat Bride book, I wrote it hoping tens of thousands of people would buy it. (It took 12 years, but I finally crested 20k books sold!)
When I write a post on one of the websites, I write it hoping that maybe hundreds of thousands of people will see it. I write and market my content with huge broad strokes: HEY ENTIRE WORLD!! COME READ THIS!!!
...But what if I wrote a story for 100 people?
What if the goal wasn't to market my writing to as many people as possible, but just to the right people?
What if selling only 100 books wasn't a bad thing (...oh jeez, only 100 people care about this worthless story), but a good thing (fuck yes, only 100 people are worthy of this story)?
For years, I've based my sense of worth, both literally and figuratively, on my writing reaching very large numbers of people. More pageviews means more ad dollars to support my family! More pageviews means more notoriety to support my ego! More pageviews means maybe I have value! More pageviews means maybe I finally am worthy!
I've been playing this quantification game for a very long time.
...But what if I try going hard in the other direction?
What if the lower the number, the higher the marketing value? Does that work? I don't know if that works. Let's see if that works?
I tried scarcity marketing once before, with the Salon of Shame, the Seattle diary reading series I founded in 2005. The first couple shows did well, but the third one was so poorly attended that I had to return people's tickets and started crying. Then I went into extreme overcompensation mode and marketed the fuuuuuck out of it, and since 2006, every single show has sold out. I stopped producing the show in 2013 and passed it off to a coproducer... and the show is still selling out, five years later. Scarcity marketing works with selling seats at events, does it work with books? Does that work? I don't know if that works. Let's see if that works?
And what of word of mouth marketing? I wear the prototype of the necklace that will be sold with the book. It gets complimented all the time, and I tell people that it's an exclusive design I'll be selling with a book, and all the time people's eyes light up. Ooh, it's not just a cool piece of jewelry -- there's a story that goes with it?! They look at the necklace, they get curious about the story. Will that help me sell more books? Does that work? I don't know if that works. Let's see if that works?
I've build my career by marketing my writing to as many people as I can possibly reach, which means I think about how effectively I can market to all people, at all times. When the revenue is pennies per pageview (or $1.50 per paperback), of course I have to reach a LOT of people. It's a numbers game, especially when it comes to a niche brand -- I need to reach XXXXXX wedding planning people, because only Y% of them will be interested in Offbeat Bride.
But if my revenue model was different, maybe the way I'd market could be different. Maybe I'd like it more and hate myself less. Does that work? Let's see if that works.
Is there a shock value?
Let's be clear here, friends: I am a 43-year-old woman at the helm of a 12-year-old digital media company -- which is a LOT, in internet years. The Offbeat Empire is an aging brand, run by a midlife middle-class white lady. Offbeat or no, neither myself or the company seem as cutting edge as we used to.
I'm comfortable with all those things (the brand is still profitable! the aging midlife lady is healthy and grateful!) but let's not kid ourselves: part of the psychology behind the Offbeat Empire is feeling different and special and super awesome. The brand is built on some special snowflakeness... and it'd be disingenuous to say that the Offbeat Empire brand isn't in a reflection of my psyche.
When Washington State legalized cannabis a few years ago, I was so excited... and then I recognized a strange tiny internal discomfort. I realized that in some ways, smoking weed was one of my last remaining deviant behaviors! I mean, now that weed's legal, I'm just another middle-age white mom-person, going to the grocery store and picking Lego bricks out from between my toes and paying my mortgage like lots of other middle-aged white mom-persons.
Then my marriage abruptly collapsed and all of a sudden I came very close to going insane. I've spent almost three years trying to put my life back together. People told me things like "Just hole up with movies and wait for the pain to pass." But I'm an obsessive do-er who needs to find meaning everywhere. My grief was so intense that I felt compelled to do increasingly intense things just to get the trauma/anxiety mania out of my system.
When your personal life comes crashing down, how do you breathe new life into the corpse of your previous self?
If you're me, you take risks and try to rebuild.
How do you breathe new life into an aging brand?
If you're, me, you take risks and try to rebuild.
And so... this is that risk. I'm publishing a book about therapeutic sex work.
But how much of a risk is it, really?
Is it a personal risk? What will my family think! Meh, I'm very much the product of my parents. They already know I wrote a dirty book and no-one's shocked or disappointed. I mean, they haven't read it (and I don't want them to), but it's not like "Our daughter known for doing shit like this did shit like this" is a big family scandal. My son is 8 and doesn't care much, but even at 8, he knows he has a sex-positive mom. We talk about bodies and their functions in open, positive ways. He's never not known where babies came from. If he read this book when he was older, he'd probably have the same reaction I had in college when my dad told me he was leading Tantra workshops in the suburbs: I rolled my eyes and was like "Gawd, Dad."
Is it a professional risk? Is it bad for the Offbeat Bride brand to have the founder self-publish an erotic memoir? I don't think so... I mean, it's not like it's a radical departure from the Offbeat Empire brand -- "You mean the lady who wrote about weird weddings is weird about other things too, too? Shocker!" If anything, it's a way to demonstrate that the brand isn't just about late-00s wedding trends.
...Then again, maybe a divorced white lady doing weird sex shit to get over divorce grief is already a tired cliche? Didn't we all see that episode of Transparent? And maybe an author who self-publishes an experimental vanity project is a pretty familiar story, too. Maybe there's no shock at all and it's all terribly predictable and tired. ...Yikes! Now that's WAY more scary than the idea of what my family will think.
...Only 100 copies. Only 100 copies. That's how I make myself feel ok about the risk of being too shocking OR too boring.
Destigmatize hidden products and topics
There are some interesting questions of stigma I want to poke at, with this project as a stick. There are certain products that most folks keep hidden — sex toys, drugs and medication (both legal and illegal), dirty laundry, dirty books. Hell, I did an event earlier this year where we talked about the stigmatization of romance novels… not many people leave their bodice-rippers out! I wrote last year about covering my dog-earred copy of The Power of Now in ductape, because I read it a lot when traveling, and was embarrassed by what a self-help cliche I'd become.
Separate from the products, there are also the topics that are usually kept hidden… Deep emotional pain, grief, dark sex, addictions, mental illness. We stick all our shames and confusions into hidden places, and keep the public veneer on social media focused on happy moments and #blessed, and even when I try to post really painful shit on my Studio Haaay account, lots of the comments are just questions about what brand of pants I'm wearing.
I want to try to bring some of those stigmatized things out of the dark. I want to write a book about grief and therapy and sex work and other topics that I probably shouldn't talk about so openly. I want to print it all in a book that's high end and luxurious and begs to be left out and picked up and touched.
You know who's doing this kind of de-stigmatizing work really well? Two companies come to mind: Saints Joints (a cannabis company in Seattle with the most gorgeous packaging you've ever seen) and Chakrubs, who turned sex toys into altar pieces/artwork.
Chakrubs and its founder Vanessa Cuccia have been a huge inspiration. I mean, I never EVER in a million years thought I would own a dildo that I wanted people to see, but Chakrubs are positively gorgeous... and the way they're packaged takes something that's often hidden and cheap (ug, Chinese dildos made from questionable plastics!), and elevated them into something gorgeous, worth spending money on, and something you want to display and have a conversation about.
I mean sure: leaving a cheap plastic dildo out is always going to start a conversation, but is it going to be a conversation about masturbation as a sacred act? I think of myself as a pretty sex-positive person, but until Chakrubs, I would not ever have imagined there was a dildo I would want to sleep with (it's so pretty and warms up nicely!) or display on a shelf.
Part of that is the product design (masterful!) and possibly even more is the Chakrubs marketing and brand messaging. The founder has invested heavily in setting the intention for how these tools are to be used (check their blog!), and it's working not only to change some people's feelings about their own sexuality and sexual expressions, but it's also helping the founder build a successful brand.
In my wildest dreams, Pros Before Bros would be able to support people's emotional growth and sexual healing in similar ways. Reducing stigma is powerful work, and it's work that potentially puts a lot of goodness out into the world.
We need more healing, and if dildos and dirty books and fancy weed help folks heal, I'm in.
Experiment with pricing and valuation
Oh lordy, revenue models.
I got my start in magazines back in the mid-'90s, editing a West Coast rave magazine called Lotus. The magazines were given away for free at record stores and boutiques and parties and stuff, and the free-ness was a big part of the brand. We weren't about selling out, man! We weren't like those money-grubbing bastards at XLR8R. (...Who, it should be noted, are still in business. Unlike Lotus.)
But of course, the truth is Lotus was about selling out -- we just sold out to advertisers instead of readers.
In the late '90s and early '00s, I supported myself as marketing copywriter for businesses like Microsoft and Amazon. I wrote whatever someone would pay me for, which meant stuff like ear and nose hair trimmers, squirrel-proof bird feeders, operating systems, and urine testing kits. I freelanced for alt-weeklies for a few hundreds bucks here and there, but mostly I wrote whatever I could make the most money writing -- which was corporate bullshit. I called myself a word whore -- you hire me, I write about whatever you want. Voice for hire.
Writing the Offbeat Bride book in 2005 was supposed to be my big ticket away from advertiser-supported or corporate writing. I launched offbeatbride.com just to help me sell books! Of course, I quickly realized that I made only $1.50 per book, and that there was no way to live off of book residuals. Within six months of launching offbeatbride.com, I realized that it was way easier for me to sell an ad for $100 than it was to try to convince 65 random people on the internet to buy my book... and VOILA! The Offbeat Empire was born.
Selling ads worked well on offbeatbride.com, but not on the other sites. Remember when Offbeat Mama was still a thing, and the readership was openly hostile toward sponsored posts? Consistently, sponsored posts would bring out a tiny, extremely vocal slice of the readership who found it personally offensive that a website about nontraditional parenting would promote a $40 organic cotton onesie. Does anyone remember that post I wrote years ago called How to slowly kill a website you love?
Over the years, I've experimented with making the sites more reader supported, but all attempts quickly failed. Big huge publishers with global followings are still trying to make paywalls work, so I can't feel bad that as a bootstrapper in Seattle with way less resources, I'd fail too. Most people do not want to pay for content on the web, the end.
...But what if the content isn't on the web? What if it's part of a luxurious little lifestyle package? What if the book itself is beyond gorgeous? What if the content is a dark and sexy memoir? What if it's written under the author's name instead of hiding behind a pseudonym?
Will people pay $200 for a dirty story? $300?
...What if there's jewelry included?
...What if the jewelry converts to a sex toy?
And wait, if I used to call myself a word whore, and now I'm selling a first-person story about me having sex... does that make ME a sex worker? What am I really selling here? How much is it really worth? If I'm letting you, the reader, in to my sex life... shouldn't I value that privilege? I'm of value. My mind is of value. My writing is of value. My dirty stories are of value. My experiments are of value. If you can't afford it, then this isn't the product for you, and that's ok. If the product doesn't find enough of a market, that's ok -- because the few people who valued it, saw its worth.
This isn't a high numbers pageview game. I don't want hundreds of thousand of people reading about my deep inner workings, me bruised and sobbing on a floor in San Francisco. I'm not asking everyone to say its worthy. I'm just establishing what my valuation is. The people who value what I'm doing, will value what I'm doing. It's only going to be a few people.
That's not only ok -- that's fucking awesome.
Explore the relationship between author and reader
Oh now we're getting INTO IT, people.
We all know this: intimacy takes a lot of forms. Maybe you had a partner who was your primary intimacy source for decades, and then maybe suddenly you didn't? Part of what I learned in my process of grieving my marriage is that you can redistribute your intimacy needs in different ways than you might have before. You can find that intimacy in so many places in your life...
For me, I discovered new kinds of of intimacy in the relationships with my family, with my friends, with my coworkers, with my neighbors... and even with my neighborhood itself. I realized I had profoundly intimate relationships with the city where I live, and the other cities that I love.
And I also realized that one of the most long-term intimate relationships I've had in my life is the relationship with the people who read my writing.
I touched on this a bit in the post when I came out about my divorce -- during the six months when I kept my separation a secret, I felt a keen loss of intimacy with my readership. Given the situation, the secrecy was appropriate... but it still felt weird and withholding, and like my connection with readers wasn't able to be in its natural flow. It made me aware of how important that connection is. It made me think about the flavors and nuances of the emotional link.
Part of my motivation with Pros Before Bros is to poke deeper into the exploration of the intimacy between author and readers. Do readers relate differently to material that very few people have access to? Do they relate differently to material they had to invest in? Is it only longtime readers who will be interested in this story, people who've been invested in the longer-term narrative? At what point do readers become more patrons than readers? At what point are they more friends than readers at that point? At what point do my readers know me better than I know myself? What's too much to reveal to readers? How does my story affect their lives? How does my relationship with them shift their relationships with others?
With the shift in revenue model, how does that change the relationship with readers? I'm shifting my storytelling -- away from selling books that get me pennies (150 pennies to be precise), and away from selling ads on free content? Ads in particular frame such a different relationship between reader and writer... with ad-supported content, the primary relationship is actually between the publisher and advertisers. In that paradigm, the readers are just the product. The relationship is just a way to woo more advertisers. (Views are X! Engagement is Y!) If I was a farmer, the readers of my free website writing are just cattle or corn. Their relationship with my writing is just to lure in their eyeballs, that I then sell to my advertisers.
...But what if readers were MORE than eyeballs? What if they had to invest in me directly, and my primary business relationship was directly with them, without advertisers watching and jacking off in the corner?
People who've read the Offbeat Bride book know things about me and my family and my brain that sometimes I barely even remember. Then there are readers go back way farther than Offbeat Bride... they go back to hooping.org, or to my personal blog, and some of them even remember Lotus Magazine. I've been barfing my essential self out into the world since 1996 -- that's 22 years of relationship with readers! I was partnered to my son's father for 18 years... but some of my readers remember a me from even before then. Most of them I've never met, but I have conversations and connections with them that are hugely important to me.
It's hard to articulate what it feels like, without sounding like an asshole. Over the years, I've gotten used to being recognized out and about. People know my work, and they know me. Every once and a while it feels alarming -- I've dealt with stalkers and trolls, and recently got a sheepish instagram DM from an Offbeat Bride follower who took a photo of me when she spotted me on a date at the SF Conservatory of Flowers. ("Please say I wasn't making out," I said, and then once I'd confirmed that I wasn't: "I wish you'd introduced yourself!")
Mostly, though, it feels oddly reassuring... I have this profoundly comforting sense of ambient connection to the universe that really is probably more about spirituality than technology. Sometimes when I'm traveling alone in a city, I can almost feel a net of connection around me... like if I lost my bag, an Offbeat Bride reader would probably show up and help me get myself sorted. It's a weird and amazing feeling.
To get woo about it, I want to energetically prod at that connection with readers even more. I had one moment of debating how "performance art" I wanted to take this project... Do I wear all the jewelry I'm selling with the books, soak it up with my excess energy (there's a lot of excess energy) and then send it out into the world? How will I be connected to the people who've read this material? Who wear this jewelry? What are we sharing? What do you call this relationship?
Who am I to you?
Who are you to me?
Proof of concept
As y'all are no doubt aware, a lot of my strategy for this project has included hedging bets on failure: even if I lose money, it's gone to small women-owned businesses I want to support. I'm only going to make a few books, because I don't know if that many will sell. Even if none of them sell, at least I got to explore different styles of writing. Even if, even if, even if. Clearly, I'm a guarded about letting myself dream... I've had some crash 'n' burns, and it's scary to let myself hope.
...But what if put on my optimist hat for just a moment, and dare to imagine this project doesn't fail? What if this experiment succeeds? What then?
I mean, sure: The first step would be to print additional editions of Pros Before Bros and its line of jewelry. That'd be a cool success! First edition is a print run of 100, and then I go back to Squirrel vs Coyote and tell her that I need to write her a huge check because the second print run is 500! That'd be amazing!
Ok, that'd be cool, but why stop there? Let's keep the optimist hat on -- what if that second print run does well? Where does it go from there? A third edition with 1000 copies? And from there? I mean, I have lots of dirty stories (I'm kind of a frat boy that way) and so I could probably do a whole series of sneaky deep porn 'n' processing heady first-person erotica... but actually, that sounds pretty limited and boring.
See: I'm only one person. Even if I'm an interesting person with lots of stories, I only have my one perspective to share.
This is why I've always tended to be more of a publisher than a writer.
The Offbeat Bride book may have established me as the flagship offbeat bride, but I then it was my deepest joy to immediately hand the title off to the thousands of brides whose stories we've featured on the site in the 12 years since. Ultimately, Offbeat Bride hasn't been about me for a very long time, and I wouldn't want the Beat Off Empire to be about me for very long.
Ultimately, I like using my voice to build my platform to give others a voice.
Ok, so what if instead of turning it into Ariel's Dirty Narcissism Project, this grew into a niche publishing project for other people's writing? What if the Beat Off Empire became a side imprint of the Offbeat Empire, an ongoing series of curated erotic literary/lifestyle parings? What if Offbeat Bride and Offbeat Home were digital, and the Beat Off Empire became its own separate thing, a publisher/producer of erotic luxury-lit lifestyle packages, where interesting sexy stories were printed as beautiful books and then paired with thoughtfully selected jewelry, accessories, home decor, altar pieces, and other talismanic objects!?
Ooh, I think I like that vision.
What if my voice was still in there -- but only via the selection of the stories that push the cultural edges that I think need pushing? You know, my usual favorite angles of pushing tolerance around different identities and subcultures? My longtime favorite focus of increasing the visibility of marginalized people and unusual narratives? What if I could push the cultural narrative about love and sex forward, via sneaky deep erotic literature written by other people? People I get to pay to distribute their work!
And the pairings! What if I could promote the work of unheard of artisans who've never gotten an order for 1k pieces before? What if I could bring on investment and build the company with resources, instead of being a bootstrapper like I've been doing for the last 12 years? What if I got to hunt down awesome up 'n' coming creators, place wholesale orders that would pay their rent for months, and then package up their work beautifully, and get it in the hands of people who actively value this kind of thing. What if I could make everybody happy -- writers, artisans, readers, myself?!
...Ok, reign it in, Stallings. We're talking about dirty books paired with tchotchkes, not world peace.
But what if? What if this tiny weird experiment could grew into something awesome?
What if this weird project grew into the next phase of my business, where I get to share dirty therapeutic stories and explore tangible products and beautiful books and support writers and artisans and and and!
The mind boggles. I get scared to hope too much and dream too big. It all came crashing down before.
For now, I focus on these 100 books.
Order your PROS BEFORE BROS pairing now
The first print run was 100 copies and less than 40 books remain. If you're in Seattle, the sets can be purchased at Ada's Technical Books on Capitol Hill. Or you can order online...