How toothpaste changed my life

DE cover, anniversary edition
Fluorescent pink diatom? I hope it’s click-bait.

I‘ve got an important anniversary coming up, and I almost forgot all about it. It’s a milestone that is easy to overlook, marking a road I’m still traveling. I set off from Point A many years ago when I went looking for a toothpaste that would actually leave my teeth feeling clean. Having passed Points B, C, and D, today I’m passing Point E, which marks the start of an editing business to help independent, self-publishing authors. The road that connects all those waymarkers, though, wanders like the coastline of Norway. Here’s the story.

It all started with toothpaste

Back when the modern world was falling for the lie that we all need trained dental hygienists to clean our teeth for us and teeth bleaching was first starting to become a “thing,” I just wanted to clean my own danged teeth with my own toothbrush, the way I was taught to do way back in second grade (yes, public schools used to teach youngsters such things). I had tried all the products that claimed to make my teeth “feel clean” (remember Pearl Drops tooth polish? Utterly useless), and decided to go further afield. Although I was not a heavy coffee-drinker, I decided to spend a little more and try Caffree, “the toothpaste that decaffeinates your smile.” Took it home, tried it, and — by gum! — it worked beautifully. My teeth looked and felt clean and smooth. One less thing to obsess over, more time to think about whether I should quit my job as a graphic designer and go back to graduate school to study the literary riches of the Western cultural tradition. (A decision which would leave me with even less money to spend on fripperies such as paying someone to brush my teeth for me.)

Let’s skip ahead ten years — my graduate studies were complete, the ink was dry on the diploma that awarded me the degree of Philosophiae Doctor, and my teeth (when my teaching duties weren’t causing me to grind them in my sleep) were starting to feel gritty again. Caffree, you see, had vanished from the market about the time that dental bleaching became all the rage. I seemed to recall, though, that one of the ingredients in Caffree had been something called “diatomaceous earth,” so I started testing out all the existing brands again. Not a one had anything called diatomaceous earth, but a number of them contained hydrated silica, which I thought might be a scientific euphemism for the same ingredient, so I switched brands and concentrated on teaching my students how to learn and trying not to appear politically incorrect to the Dean of Liberal Arts, who seemed to have it in for anyone who actually promoted the liberal arts.

A new way of life with diatomaceous earth

A few years later, having failed to stay off of the Dean’s radar, now out of a job (along with several million other Americans in 2009, the Great Recession), I was burnt out on teaching and looking for something to do while I recovered my health after years of overwork. My teeth were feeling scuzzier than ever, and I was fresh out of money for dental hygienists. So I decided once again to hunt down a decent toothpaste by Googling diatomaceous earth and hydrated silica. I discovered that the former is a natural substance with a number of useful properties and applications, while the latter is a synthetic version of the same, cooked up in laboratories.

Now, I had developed an interest in natural remedies, because for years I had been struggling with a chronic, stress-related health problem for which conventional medicine offered no satisfactory treatment. I wanted to rely less on industrialized medicine and more on my body’s own ability to heal. When I started to learn more about diatomaceous earth and its many benefits to health and hygiene, I decided it was something I wanted to keep in my bathroom medicine cabinet. In fact, I found that I was relying more and more on natural remedies rather than manufactured potions and preparations.

About this time, I also received my first Kindle e-reader as a Christmas present and started learning about the wonderful world of self-published e-books (many of which were not wonderful at all — many self-published authors seemed in desperate need of some writing instruction, or at least a good editor). Not long afterward, I attended the annual conference of the Catholic Writers Guild, where Ellen Gable Hrkach gave a memorable talk on how she learned to work within Amazon’s search algorithms to boost the sales of her self-published novels. She made it sound so easy — if only I had a way to test her system!

An adventure in self-publishing

One of the results of the Catholic Writers Guild conference was that I joined a newly formed writers’ group in my area. At meetings, we were supposed share samples of a work in progress.  I had an idea for a science fiction novel, but it was still in the early stages of conception, and I had long since abandoned the book on natural products for the home, so I really had nothing to show. The date of our next meeting was approaching when I got a brilliant idea: why not try self-publishing my chapter on diatomaceous earth (DE) as a Kindle booklet? After all, there were lots of DIY health books being published on Amazon for Kindle. I did some quick, down & dirty market research and determined that there was sufficient interest in natural remedies of various sorts, including diatomaceous earth. And from what I could tell, my draft chapter on DE was better than most of what was already available on the subject.

Two or three days before the writers’ group was scheduled to meet, I decided to roll with the idea. A little tweaking made the document ready to upload to Kindle Direct Publishing, and it took me only a few minutes to throw together a presentable book cover to display on Amazon. I wrote some sales copy for the Amazon page and — hey, presto! — I was the author of a Kindle ebook, Naturally Healthy Living with Diatomaceous Earth. A couple of days later, in November 2012, I took my Kindle to the writers’ group to show everyone my achievement. It might not be a chapter in a novel, but it was something I wrote, out there in the wild.

The ease of getting an ebook onto Amazon was seductive. I could see why so many entrepreneurs (many of them less accomplished writers than myself, but with bigger dreams) were tempted to throw their unedited ideas and suggestions into the Kindle cash-making vortex. I noticed that many ebook titles had corresponding print versions and found myself wondering if working with Amazon’s print-on-demand publishing arm (CreateSpace) would be as easy to use as KDP. Was the text even long enough to be printed as a perfect-bound paperback? It turned out that my little DE booklet would result in just enough pages to make a paperback edition feasible. So I brushed off my design and layout skills, created a new (slightly improved) cover using the tool provided by CreateSpace, and ordered a printed proof — which I took with me to the next meeting of the writers’ group. Verily I was a (self-)published author! I ordered a few copies to give out to friends and family as Christmas presents (thinking that might be the only way I would get any print sales), and promptly forgot about my little experiment in self-publishing for several weeks, while I waded hip-deep into the first draft of my science fiction opus.

My little book takes off

Then one day I got an email from Amazon notifying me that they were going to deposit some money in my bank account. Royalties from my DE book. I logged in to my KDP dashboard and found that my little book, with its mile-long title and its odd, somewhat misleading cover, was selling! Getting decent reviews, too. Sales grew steadily, until I was selling about a hundred copies or so per month. Several months after I published the paperback edition, a man named Bob Sandidge tracked me down through social media to tell me he wanted to buy several hundred copies of the paperback edition to bundle it with a new product his company, Safe Now cleaning products, planned to offer.

My CreateSpace price was too low for me to give him the customary discount for retailers, but he said his business had its own publishing arm, High Tide Press, which could print up copies cheaply enough for him to match the royalty I was making through Amazon. So I created a new version of the cover (CreateSpace owned the rights to the earlier one) and High Tide paid me royalties on a 1,000 copy offprint, which more than doubled my combined sales to that point.

Helping indie authors

That was all a few years ago. My little DE book still sells, although not as robustly as it once did. (There’s a lot more competition — it seems everybody and his cousin now wants to publish ebooks about DE). I’m not complaining, though — the book has done better than I ever would have dreamt, and I’ve learned a lot along the way.

In fact, I intend to use some of what I’ve learned in the past few years to give the book a thorough overhaul in time for the fourth anniversary of its publication next month (the shiny new cover you see above is part of the renovation project), but I’m going to have to do it a bit at a time, because I’m now engaged in a new business providing editing and author services for independent authors.

The science fiction novel that I toiled over for years, after taking a rest, is back on the simmer, and I’ve got a mystery novel in the works, as well. And one of these days I plan to write a book on how to replace all the over-counter-pharmaceuticals in your medicine cabinet with cheaper, healthier, more effective natural remedies — a new, improved version of that book about natural products that got me started down the road to writing and self-publishing back in 2012.

Writing, publishing, editing — I had never thought about any of these back when I was just a graduate student who couldn’t afford professional dental hygiene. My life has changed a lot since then, for the better in many ways, and it all started with a quest for the perfect toothpaste. I’m still working on that, so the road goes on. I can’t wait to see where it takes me next!

The evolving face of my diatomaceous earth book

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