I Did It and I’m Glad: Publishing Decisions That Turned Out Well, Part 1
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Common Cause at Conventions
During a convention for small publishers that I attended in Europe last year, someone said, “We sell more books at local festivals and city fairs than we ever do at autograph sessions in branches of major book chains.”
Four months later, I was at the 2013 annual convention of the Society of American Military Engineers in San Diego because I also own an engineering firm. While walking around the 500 exhibits, I noted that every company was offering giveaways and that some of the freebies, particularly the ones from major companies, had values of $3 to $4.
Hmm, I thought. What if we could convince one of these firms to give away autographed copies of our books, with an author present?
I attend four or five engineering conventions each year. In general, these draw 3,500 to 6,000 people. Events for other industries draw similar crowds. And at each event, companies generally use giveaways to attract people to their booths.
As the idea of books as freebies in these venues developed in my mind, I realized that we needed (a) to have books that fit a given market, (b) to secure an order large enough to justify our giveaway price range, (c) to feature authors who live near the events where they’d appear or to have the exhibiting companies cover authors’ travel costs, and (e) to provide benefits for the companies.
For a test run, we focused on the companies that had attended the 2013 San Diego conference, since we had contact names and e-mail addresses from the event brochure. We decided to use one of my titles at the 2014 SAME Convention in Orlando, Florida, thus insuring author availability. And, after studying pricing, we saw that a minimum order of 100 books priced at $5.24 each would cover our shipping costs and give us a $2.10 profit per book.
It took only two weeks to get a ‘yes’ from an exhibitor after we pitched the idea, highlighting the fact that the “unique attraction of having a noted author at the booth to personally sign copies of his latest book” will draw potential customers. And the exhibitor agreed to cover airfare and hotel costs for me as that author.
I signed books for three hours on the first day and two hours on the second day. As a result, 360 books were distributed and I was able to show the client the benefit of taking 40 remaining autographed copies to distribute to special staff in the office and to some of the company’s best clients. Ultimately, the company ordered 90 more books, so we sold 450 books for $2,358 and made a profit of 40 percent, or $943.20.
Needless to say, selling at non-book conventions has become a major part of our annual marketing.
The Sedge Group Publishing
This year, for the first time, we decided to take authors to BEA and have them participate in autographing sessions. I want to focus on one of them, Elizabeth Hein, because her story is about big risks for us.
The cost for her participation was significant, and we weren’t sure what the results would be. But we had attended BEA before; based on that experience plus a little bit of online research, and a healthy dose of instinct, we believed this was the right moment and the right author for this convention.
Elizabeth’s novel How to Climb the Eiffel Tower will be released this month, and the May date for BEA seemed ideal in terms of starting to generate buzz and connect with reviewers, booksellers, librarians, and bloggers. The novel and its title are compelling. We knew there would be a lot of women at the show who would relate to the book. And we realized that having her participate as an author at BEA would give her a level of credibility with trade reviewers and other industry voices.
I was really nervous. Our new author from our small publishing house would be going up against some giants. I knew we had to give it our all. We spent the days leading up to Elizabeth’s signing generating buzz. We passed out bookmarks with the signing information, Tweeted with the right hashtags, and told everyone we could find about the autographing session. We even worked the long lines at other signings, especially the ones that drew women’s fiction fans.
We knew we were on the right track on the day of the signing when we handed a bookmark to a blogger and she said, “I’ve been hearing about this book! I have to go.”
By the time Elizabeth stepped out from behind the curtain to set up 10 minutes before her signing, we already had a line of 20 women waiting to get books signed. Although we had brought more books than we thought we could give out in an hour, we were out of copies within 30 minutes. Women continued to wait in line even after Elizabeth switched to signing bookmarks with an Eiffel Tower charm attached. (After the show, we sent each of those women an e-galley.)
One thing we learned from the experience is that next time we need to take more books. And we need to encourage people to sign up for updates from the author. We captured contact information for the last 50 people at the session—the ones who gave us e-mail addresses so we could send them e-galleys—but we’re kicking ourselves that we didn’t think to get addresses for the first waves of readers.
We also learned that building buzz before a BEA signing is absolutely crucial. There’s no such thing as talking to too many people or giving away too many bookmarks.
And we learned the power of a simple giveaway tied to a book. Our Eiffel Tower charm, attached to a bookmark featuring the book’s cover and highlighting ways for readers to post reviews, was wildly successful and generated a huge amount of attention.
Our decision to have Elizabeth Hein appear at BEA has proved to be one of the best choices we could have made for her. Her participation gave her legitimacy, got her noticed by trade reviewers, and generated real buzz. As I write this in August, we can tell that BEA 2014 will be a key part of her book’s success.
Light Messages Publishing
About ten years ago James Sallis, a friend who is also a much-published author, handed me a slender manuscript of a book that he’d written, thinking that I’d like it. I read it, loved it, and told him that if by any chance his regular New York City publisher declined I’d be thrilled to publish it. He told me that he’d sent it to his agent, that the agent had submitted it to his regular publisher, and that they were waiting to hear.
When I ran into his agent about six months later, I reiterated that I’d love to publish Sallis’s book and she told me that I just might get the chance because, at 38,000 words, it was too slight for what New York considered a “novel.”
Ultimately the regular publisher turned the book down and we got to publish. The New York Times review said it all: “At 158 pages, Drive is the most compact novel I’ve read in some time, so I’ll make this brief: James Sallis has written a perfect piece of noir fiction.” With multiple rave reviews, Drive ended up being selected as one of Entertainment Weekly’s top 10 books for 2005, and the icing on the cake came when we got word that Universal Pictures had bought it for Hugh Jackman (ultimately the film starred Ryan Gosling).
All this reinforced my firm belief that you have to trust your own judgment and publish what you believe in. I never expected to make a lot of money on this book, and we didn’t make nearly as much as we would have if we had owned the performance rights, but we certainly did do well with it. And it was a book I believed in and would have been proud to have published under any circumstances.
Moving to a Major Publisher
After selling 26,000 copies of my first historical novel, Rashi’s Daughters, in two years, I decided to stop being a self/independent publisher and sign with an established publishing house.
While I was preparing to publish the second volume in the Rashi’s Daughters trilogy, my foreign rights agent had suggested seeing what the Big Six would offer me. To my astonishment, a bidding war ensued among Penguin, Crown, and HarperCollins, with bids that reached six figures.
I went with Plume Books, a division of Penguin, which has published the rest of the trilogy and my next series, Rav Hisda’s Daughter: Apprentice and Enchantress (pub date September 2014). Having to meet all the publisher’s deadlines and go on book tours took so much time that I retired from my day job, something I had not intended to do quite so soon.
Because of all I had learned by being my own publisher first; I wasn’t a naïve first-time author who thought she had to take whatever she was offered. I had my agent make several improvements to my contract because I knew about remainders, reserves for returns, bookseller discounts, and out-of-print definitions, among other things.
Before I decided to sign with Penguin, I had asked my book shepherd for advice and heard about many pros (the advance, professional marketing and editing, status) and many cons (lack of control, the possibility that my book would be orphaned, responsibility for promotion). And I had talked to my family. My son reminded me of the game of Careers, where players set their own victory conditions by choosing to pursue Fame, Happiness, Money, or a combination of these. That’s what convinced me to sign with a publisher. It was important for me to decide what really mattered. I actually earned more money when I was both author and publisher, and did a lot more work, but I realized that my goal was more Fame and Happiness than Money, and I’d probably have more readers with a major publisher handling my books.
My Professor’s Poetry
A small-press publisher must be resilient and persistent to succeed. And publishing material that you genuinely value helps fuel persistence despite sparsely attended events, sales slumps, printer delays, and media indifference, as well as one’s own errors.
I decided early that I would primarily publish books featuring Pacific Northwest rhymed metrical poetry. I was not likely to crack the bestseller lists, but I would nevertheless help my own poetry career and the careers of many other poets while enriching the culture and enjoying myself. A winning combination.
My decision to publish a poetry collection by William Dunlop, my favorite and best instructor, was essential to my program. I had been William’s student in his introductory poetry composition class at the University of Washington in 1977. In 1995 I had begun Rose Alley Press, and in spring 1996 I published two books—one by me and one by Victoria Ford, a Seattle-area poet.
Sales and support were credible, so I decided to publish a third book. I wrote William a two-page letter asking him to consider having me publish a book of his under-appreciated, and often rhyming and metrical, poetry. Years before, I had asked him if I could look at some of his work for possible publication, and he had demurred. Rose Alley Press, however, was a more serious, skillfully managed enterprise than my two earlier operations. He tentatively agreed to my plan. We were off and running.
On October 5, 1996, William’s wife Revelle handed me a stack of his old typewritten poems with the admonition “Don’t lose them.” From then until June 1997, when William’s book appeared, properly publishing his book was the guiding passion of my life. I often bussed across town to visit William at his home to hash over every conceivable editing issue, and point by point we resolved them.
My belief in the excellence of William’s poetry and its value to contemporary literary culture as well as my desire to help William obtain deserved recognition spurred my efforts. Nothing came easily on this project. I learned much, though—especially not to rush. Take an extra month or two to make sure all details are properly executed rather than rush a project because you think the world must see it now. You’ll spend less, sell more, and feel more satisfied by taking extra pains to produce a beautiful, error-free book.
On June 17, 1997, William’s Caruso for the Children, & Other Poems appeared. The book immediately sold well, and I began fulfilling numerous orders from bookstores, wholesalers, and individuals. Rose Alley Press received some press coverage from Seattle media. I felt gratified, vindicated, humbled, and joyful about William getting credit for his excellent poetry.
Now, let me admit: this is not the stuff of marketing legend. The book has sold 742 copies to date. This is exceptionally good for local poetry, but not otherwise. William passed in October 2005, and this greatly diminished sales. Several years after his death, his wife and some of his friends produced a volume of his collected poems. I happily granted them permission to use the poems in Caruso.
Although I knew that would further diminish sales of the book I’d published, I nevertheless felt joyful, satisfied, engaged—revved-up to persist because I believed in the work I was publishing and felt good about my behavior as a literary neighbor. I love to sell books, and, my day job aside, I have to sell many books to make back enough money to keep Rose Alley Press going.
The Press is now almost twenty years old. Sales numbers are still not my primary motivation. Sharing and promoting excellent rhymed metrical poetry is. I will soon begin publishing Rose Alley’s sixteenth and seventeenth volumes. Publishing William Dunlop’s book helped me boost sales, gain media coverage, and generally appear as a more credible publisher. I am still proud of this 1997 title by my teacher of 1977 as I pack copies for a book fair I’m working this weekend.
David D. Horowitz
Rose Alley Press
Structuring for Success
I thought writing a book was equivalent to climbing Mount Everest without oxygen. As an engineer by training, I had easy excuses for not even trying to become a published author. But after my son’s multiple surgeries from complications from Crohn’s disease, my passion to help others navigate the healthcare maze trumped common sense.
I started writing the story that became Questioning Protocol. I hired an editor who met with me every Monday to review my week’s progress. She said that if we could get through seven pages of my work in an hour, that would mean my writing was excellent. She edited two pages in an hour during the first week. I did not give up. I learned every week, and at the end of the year, we were flying through ten pages of text during a session. When we were finished, she high-fived me and said, “The book is very good. Go get a publisher.”
If you are not Snooki, a “real” housewife or Hilary Clinton, it is apparently next to impossible to get an offer from a traditional publisher. One of the first questions publishers and agents asked was, “How many Twitter followers do you have?” I had 100,000 words of well-written prose and zero followers. After a six month search, my editor suggested I look into other publishing solutions.
Google searches overwhelmed me with options. I still can’t remember all the terms used to describe self-publishing. But I quickly figured out that I needed to understand my ultimate goal for the book so I could find the right solution.
I wanted my book to reach lots of people, not just my friends and family. I was thinking big. But thinking big means expensive and riskier. The engineer in me built a spreadsheet. Who owns the ISBN? What about book returns and rights? Who prints the book and distributes it? Where do I keep the books? I identified more than 30 criteria items to evaluate.
As I started to call publishing services, I discovered a host of sales people eager to convince me to publish with them. Some called every day. Others tried to entice me with special discounts just about to expire. Each time I asked my questions and recorded their answers in my spreadsheet.
Ultimately, I decided to become my own publisher, and Well Path Press was born. If I knew little about writing, I certainly knew less about publishing. But I embarked on getting the Library of Congress number, ISBNs and even a bar code with sales price. My team expanded from just me and my editor to include a lawyer, a website host, a designer, a publicist, and an accountant, along with a consultant who could help me through the bumps. He double-checked my layout and cover page and even sent me an Excel spreadsheet to use in getting quotes from printers.
It took about another year for me to get all the players aligned. I picked a printer and a distributor and then I started marketing the book. My strategy depended on having a good book, and it worked. I entered contests and am proud to say have already won five. I love everything about my book, from the cover to the responsiveness of my distributor (I picked BookMasters), and every day I can see my sales increasing.
My big message for any new self-publisher is: Think about why you wrote the book. That is the key question, and the answer will determine the best way for you to publish. There are many options for many price points. The real challenge is to pick the one that’s best for your own book.
Randi Redmond Oster
Well Path Press
Try, Try Again
As a new indie publisher, I needed a way to cover start-up expenses for ISBNs, printing, corporation fees, memberships, and more. After I stumbled across Kickstarter.com, I took about two weeks to create my video, upload my files and showcase the highlights of my publishing company and my first children’s novel. On April 28, 2014, I introduced Building Voices to the world along with my first book, Little Kids, Big Voices: Broccoli Chronicles.
The day the project was launched, I sent letters and e-mails soliciting donations from friends and family members. Also, I sent a press release and posted frequently on Facebook and Twitter. I was extremely excited and I felt that I had covered all bases.
Unfortunately, what I raised was a whopping $450 instead of the $10,000 that was my goal. Sad, right?
At the end of the 30-day funding period, I realized my mistake. I had waited until the last minute to promote my project instead of beginning way in advance, giving potential donors enough time to research my organization and its merits.
Most people might have been deterred from using crowdfunding ever again. But not me. On June 16, I re-launched my Kickstarter project. I gave it a new title and uploaded some new illustrations for a little makeover. You’re probably wondering why I didn’t wait a few months longer and develop a solid marketing campaign. Yes, I probably should have, but I didn’t want to lose the support of the 11 backers who had donated the $450. So again, I sent letters and e-mails to friends and family and posted frequently on Facebook and Twitter.
I am glad to say that after another 30 days of intense marketing, my project was finally funded. What did I learn from this? I learned that when I fall, I need to dust myself off and get back up again.
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