The Power Behind The Schlock Mercenary Throne: An Interview With Sandra Tayler
Her name doesn’t appear on the cover of Schlock Mercenary books. She’s in the acknowledgements. But Sandra Tayler is critical to the success of Schlock Mercenary (written and drawn by her very talented husband Howard Tayler.) In addition to wife, mother, proofreader and sounding board for Howard, Sandra fills the often less glamorous role of Business Manager. It’s not uncommon to hear Howard respond to a question with “That’s a Sandra thing. I have no idea.”
Sandra is also an author, writing a blog called “One Cobble At A Time,” as well as children’s storybooks. I conducted an email interview with her last month where she explained some of the challenges that accompany running a small business.
[Rodney M Bliss] Some couple don’t work well together. I’m not sure that I could be partners in business with my wife. How do you guys make it work? Has it been harder or easier than you thought it would be?
[Sandra Tayler] In some ways this is like asking a fish to describe water. What we do is the only way I know how to be married. At this point the business partnership and the marriage partnership are so intertwined that I’m not really able to identify which parts are which.
I think the first thing that has helped us is to recognize the different roles we play. For example the Art Director (me) has to keep the Artist (Howard) on deadline for projects. The Artist (Howard) will then want to go gripe to his wife (me) about the stress he is feeling. By identifying all the roles we’re able to analyze how they interact and conflict with each other.
The second part is that we’re both very able to self introspect and identify where we are emotionally. That way I can tell Howard that I need him to be Loving Husband instead of Focused Marketing Guy.
The third part is that when we goof up and accidentally be the wrong role, hurt each other, or cause each other stress, we always make sure to re-discuss the incident later. We’ll talk through how our communication went wrong so we don’t make the same mistake again. We’ll never run out of mistakes to make, but the process brings us back together afterward.
[RMB] Did you always want to be a writer? At what point did you think, “I want to write these children’s books and publish blog entries”?
[ST] I began being a writer at the age of six. I still have that story handwritten in pencil. I wrote through high school then went on a decade long hiatus when I was finishing college, having babies, raising toddlers, moving house, and managing some health issues. Right around thirty I needed to rediscover who I was when I was not being Mom. That was when I began my blog on LiveJournal, though I didn’t even learn the word blog until years later. It took me years before I recognized that blogging was a significant writing form with its own value. Before that it was just me tossing my thoughts out into the world and being pleased that others cared to read. I’ve since come to appreciate blogging as a form and I’m pleased to be part of it.
The picture books I wrote in answer to the specific need of one of my children. Most of my short stories are the result of random ideas that I put together and shaped. Often the short stories were written with a specific market in mind. The middle-grade novel that I’m working on takes some themes that are dear to my heart and wraps a story around them which I hope will speak to others. All of my writing is my attempt to wrap ideas in words so that other people can unwrap them and see what they find inside. What they find is not always what I thought I put in there
[RMB] How do you manage to separate work and home? Do you consciously set limits on how much time you will devote to work tasks in a day and sometimes leave stuff undone because it’s time to be with your family?
[ST] These are very good questions and every time I think I’ve got them figured out, the kids change. Then I have to overhaul my system again. Early on I had a “Work when the baby naps” system that worked great until I had two kids. For a while I hired an older child to come play with my young ones while I worked. When the kids all started going to school I would work while they were out of the house and focus on family when they came home. These days I generally try to work while the kids are in school, but one is partially homeschooled, so sometimes he needs attention mid-day. Also we’ve been managing quite a lot of medical appointments and meetings with school staff, most of which fall into the middle of my work day. This means that I’m often working into the afternoon and evening or on Saturdays. All of the things in life are a trade off. I have to look at each day and prioritize. Sometimes the work waits on family, other times family waits on work because work pays for family needs.
[RMB] The Schlock Mercenary order fulfillment process has changed a lot over the years. You no longer have the massive shipping parties that you once had. Was it that you became more efficient at the process, or did you find that too many cooks spoil the soup, and there was a point beyond which more people slowed the process down?
[ST] The massive shipping parties were driven by some very specific conditions during the early years of Schlock Mercenary. Because I had little children in the house, it was not safe or sensible to let shipping take over the whole house for an extended time. This meant we needed an out-of-house location. The one we had available was a local comic shop, Dragon’s Keep, who kindly donated the space. However I was always aware that our stacks of books and people putting things into packages did have an impact on their store operations. I wanted to be in and out as fast as possible. This meant that I printed postage in advance and tried to gather as many volunteers as possible so that we could get everything packaged and out the door in a single day. The events always had a fun energy, but I was always very stressed making sure they were organized and then run.
The first thing that changed was the rules on printing postage. They started putting dates on all the packages. Instead of being able to print weeks in advance, I could only print 3-4 days ahead and I had to make sure that the dates on the packages matched the day we handed things off to the post office. Dragon’s Keep reorganized their store in a way that wasn’t as easy for us to ship (but which was better for their business.) And my kids all got older so that I could leave a shipping project out in the family room without worry that damage would occur to children or packages. The result was it made more sense for us to stop trying to get shipping done in a single day. Instead we would do smaller batches over the course of a week with smaller groups of helpers. As a side benefit I found this method less stressful for me because there was time to catch and correct mistakes
When we acquired a warehouse space, I moved all of the shipping processes over there. Now I can be mid-shipping and not have my house in chaos. It is nice.
[RMB] Obviously Schlock Mercenary updates online every day, but the books and other money making parts of the operation are more episodic. How far in advance are you able to budget? And how does that impact what you can offer as a company in terms of when products are available?
[ST] The family budget and the business budget are two separate things. The business pays the family a salary and so the family budget is fairly stable month to month. The business available funds fluctuate wildly from month to month and year to year. The thing that keeps us afloat is the enthusiasm of the fans. They usually swoop in and buy enough of something that it pays for itself very quickly. then we can sell the remainder slowly over time. The thing we have to be sure to do is make the next thing before the money from the current thing runs out. I have a fairly solid grip on what income we can expect and how quickly money goes out. I’ve gotten good at knowing when we need to host a sale or when I need to push Howard to get the next book done.
The issue of what products to make available is a combination of how profitable per unit an item will be, whether we think it will sell, how much additional work to make it, and how much space we have to store it. We’ve thought of some very cool things that just are not feasible. Many ideas are stalled because we’re short on time.Our most reliable items are the books, which makes sense because the stories are the heart of Schlock Mercenary.
[RMB] What do you like best about your job?
[ST] Which job?
I know that sounds like a snarky response, but I mean it sincerely. I have so many jobs: parent, marketing director, graphic designer, store manager, inventory clerk, shipping supervisor, writer, editor, publisher, book keeper, customer support tech, etc. All of these things are different and there are different things I like and dislike about each of them. I like that I get to do lots of creative things.
[RMB] Are there parts of your job that you didn’t expect?
[ST] I did not expect to become three fourths of the things that I have become. Of the jobs I listed above I don’t really have formal training for any of them. (My degree was in humanities.) All I’ve got is personal research, teaching help from expert friends, and lots of on the job experience. So anyone who wants a creative career should know that they’ll have to be lots of things, not just one.
[RMB] Is Tayler Corp as big as it will ever be? Do you intend to grow in terms of staff or products? Do you intend to publish other people’s books for example?
[ST] We’re making this up as we go, the business grows in service of the projects that we want to do, not the other way around. This is as it should be. I think all the joy would be sucked out if we were using projects to support the business. Because of this, it is possible that the business will shrink in the future, if that is what our family and projects need. Right now we’re growing, but cautiously, because I never want us to be trapped by so much overhead that we have to scramble to cover business bills. Right now we have my college daughter on staff as my assistant. In the future she may need that time for her own work and I’d be likely to hire another assistant. Possibly by then one of my other kids will be ready for a job.
We have no current plans to publish books written by people other than Howard and myself. We only became a publishing company because that was the best way to deliver our creations to others. I won’t say that we’ll never publish works by others, because life takes all sorts of turns, but right now we’re focusing where we’re at.
This is the second of a five part series on Schlock Mercenary.
Monday – Interview with cartoonist Howard Tayler
Tuesday – Interview with Business Manager Sandra Tayler
Wednesday – A Day in the Life photo essay of the cartoonist process
Thursday – Howard Tayler answers pre-submitted Fan Questions
Friday – New Maxims Revealed
Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday at 7:00 AM Mountain Time. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren.
(c) 2015 Rodney M Bliss, all rights reserved