Communion Of Dreams

Machado-Joseph Disease: Who am I?

For about 30 years, I’ve been a conservator of rare books & documents.

That came to an end yesterday when I met with my last institutional client and explained that I need to retire officially as a practicing conservator. Since they follow my blog posts and social media presence, this did not come as a surprise.

As I was driving home from the meeting, I was working through a fairly predictable mix of emotions. Guilt, because I know that this means that important works in their collection won’t get the treatment they need anytime soon. Relief, because now I won’t worry about accidentally damaging some important/valuable book or document. Loss, because my career was now over. Pride, because I know that I have done good work over the years, and made a real difference. And disorientation, because for some 30 years a big part of my identity was being a Book Conservator in private practice — something almost as rare as many of the items I have worked on over the last four decades.

I think anyone who reaches retirement age probably has some mixed emotions about actually retiring. But for most people, they’re ready to retire — to live life on their own terms, to travel, to just get out of the office, to get away from annoying co-workers.

The problem is, I wasn’t ready to retire. And I had already arranged my life so that I lived it largely on my own terms. I’ve traveled. I didn’t have an office I had to go to. I don’t have co-workers who annoy me. I had honestly expected that I would continue to do conservation work until old age claimed me, since the work is typically not strenuous.

MJD had other ideas, as I’ve noted.

So, officially, I am no longer a Book Conservator.

Yes, I am still many other things. An artist. A writer. A cool, handsome guy who is just 64 and certain that he’s still a babe magnet.

OK, maybe not that last one.

But the point remains that there are still many facets of my identity that remain, even though I have of necessity set aside the title “Book Conservator”.

I suppose “Retired Book Conservator” still sounds pretty cool.

Jim Downey

A “best seller”? More or Less.

This past weekend a broadcast of the BBC show/podcast “More or Less” caught my ear, as it was discussing the economics of conventional trade publishing. I would encourage listening to the entire thing (about 9 minutes), but the basics are:

  • Of about 50,000 new titles published in a year, just 0.4% will sell more than 100,000 copies
  • To ‘break even’, a title needs to sell about 5,000 copies
  • Some 86% of all titles sell fewer than 5,000 copies
  • Something like 15% sell fewer than a dozen copies


I knew the numbers weren’t good, and that I had been relatively successful with self-publishing my own books (after years of trying to land a conventional publishing deal), but I had no idea that they were that dismal.

For perspective, all three of my books broke that 5,000 threshold the first year that they were available. And two went on to break it again the second year. Total downloads (ballpark numbers) for each of my books so far:

I’ve been mildly disappointed in the performance of St Cybi’s Well, but that is largely in comparison to Communion of Dreams, which was published a decade earlier (and which has continued to see strong sales/downloads each year). This kind of puts that into perspective.

One thing I want to mention: free downloads. Yeah, that skews the numbers a bit, but not as much as you might think for the two novels. For those, free downloads account for about 15% of SCW and about 20% of CoD totals. HFY saw a much larger percentage of free downloads, but that was because we saw the book more as a public service to other care-givers than a moneypot.

Oh, and “best seller”? Other info I’ve seen indicates that about 50,000 copies is typically considered a best seller in the trade publication industry. Now, that’s for one-year sales, not cumulative sales over a decade. But still, it makes me feel pretty good about how CoD has done.

Jim Downey

Machado-Joseph Disease: As one chapter closes, another is begun.

Recently I drove out to Las Vegas, for the first post-Covid national meeting of the Liberal Gun Club (I can be seen at several points in the video, wearing a red & white flannel shirt). It’s a drive I’ve made previously in two days (about 12 hours each day), but I decided that it would be wise for me to split it up into three days each way, to better reduce my stress and better accommodate the unpredictable episodes of MJD symptoms (since I didn’t want to take any of the painkillers or MMJ stuff that help me manage those episodes while I was driving).

It was a good decision. When I had an flair-up of symptoms, I knew that I could take a break without feeling a lot of time-pressure.

And it gave me more time to think.

To think about this past year, and where I’ve found myself. To think about the LGC event (particularly after it was over, and I could reflect upon what happened there). To think about the near-term future.

As I noted yesterday (and in this series of MJD-related blog posts generally), it’s been a challenging year. And there’s nothing like going naked (in the sense of not taking any meds) for a prolonged period of time to show you, honestly and clearly, what your real condition actually is.

Mine isn’t bad. But it is perhaps a lot worse than I had realized, in my day-to-day life. That’s because being able to take things that help manage it means that I can largely ignore the symptoms. Without those meds, though, the truth tends to be a little sharper edged (as is the pain). While teaching a black powder workshop I had hand spasms that were so bad I couldn’t hold onto the gun I was using at the time, let alone manage to load it. So much for the idea that being focused on a given task (which I was) would be enough to set aside that symptom. I verbally walked my students through the process, and we got on the other side of it fine. But it was a sobering moment.

A moment that drove home the idea that it was time for me to make some changes. Specifically, that it is time for me to pretty much completely retire from conservation work. As I noted in this blog post last May:

As a conservator, I can’t afford to celebrate my mistakes. There will of necessity come a time when I need to stop doing conservation work, out of respect for the items entrusted to my care. That time is rapidly approaching; indeed, it may already be here.

I think I crossed that line sometime this summer. So the time has come for me to (mostly) stop doing conservation work altogether, at least in terms of being hands-on.

That’s a big change for me. I’ve largely defined myself as being a book conservator for 30 years.

* * *

Western Utah is stunning. But also bleak. And more than a little alien to my Midwestern eye.

I think those vistas, and the mental space I was in on my drive home, helped me realize something else.

That I’m ready to start writing a sequel to Communion of Dreams.

I hesitate even mentioning this, since I had so many people after me about the long delays in writing St Cybi’s Well. But I decided to share it to help offset the seemingly ‘bad’ news that I need to retire as a conservator.

So here’s the deal: don’t ask how it is going, or when I expect it to be done. I’m at the very beginning of the whole process, and it is likely to take years. I may occasionally mention things about it. Or not. But asking me about it is not going to get any additional information beyond what I volunteer, and will just annoy me. You can wish me well with the writing, but leave it at that, OK?


Jim Downey

Machado-Joseph Disease: a bitter harvest.

Just harvested this year’s super-hot habanero crop, in advance of the first hard freeze of the season. Here it is:

Yup, that’s it. 29 peppers, and half of them not entirely ripe.


Compare that to the 1,000+ of most years, and the 1,500+ of some years.

Now, partly this is due to a decision on my part to only plant about half the usual number of pepper plants. But still, 29? Really?

It’s been that kind of year.

We’ve had a prolonged, serious drought here. And I was busy with working on the house and managing other things, so I didn’t water or care for the garden nearly as much as I typically do. Sometime late summer I just kinda gave up on it.

Late summer. Hmm. What else was going on then?

Oh, yeah. That. I got my results back.

I didn’t think that I had that much of a response to the results of the MJD testing. But I’d be a fool to deny that this year has been a challenging one, and the confirmation of my expectations did have an impact on me. An impact that is still playing out, and that means more changes to come.

More on that soon. And don’t worry, not all of it is bad. It’s mostly just change.

Jim Downey