IBPA Roundtable: The Flip Side of Failure
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Since Publishers Said No
— Submitted by Ruth Donald, Proud Horse Publishing, email@example.com.
Like many other fiction writers who dream of having their novels published, I started out by going the traditional route. When I wrote my first Hunter Rayne Highway Mystery back in the mid-’90s, there were only three options:
- Query agents or publishers until you find one who is enthusiastic enough about your work to see the process through.
- Spend a lot of money to self-publish, and surely end up with a garage full of unsold books if you go with a vanity press.
- Give up on becoming a published author.
I was lucky enough to have Mysterious Press ask to see my first manuscript within days of getting my first query, but that led nowhere. Over the years, a number of agents asked to see it too, and one major New York agent read my first two novels and was interested enough to ask me to send the third when it was ready. But close only counts in horseshoes.
By 2001, I was feeling discouraged enough to put my writing aside and get on with my life, so that third novel was planned but never completed. I vowed that I would never demean myself by paying to publish my own books, and I came very close to accepting the third option, which was to give up on my dream.
Ten years later, I had a lucky break. I bought a Kindle. This opened up a whole new world to me, and I began to explore it. I found out that technology had developed to the point that it was now possible for an author to become an independent publisher, not only of e-books, but also of print editions. Fortunately, I had the computer skills to format my books to professional standards.
I now have three novels in my Highway Mysteries series in print and have been hearing from fans all over North America as well as in Great Britain that they are enjoying my mysteries and looking forward to the next one, which should be ready for release later this year. My local bookstore has been calling me every few months for more stock, and online sales have increased each year, although I’m not yet making a living.
Why do I consider my independent publishing venture a bigger success than having been traditionally published?
Many of my fellow mystery writers who were successful at getting traditional publishing contracts years ago had their contracts canceled after only one, two, or three novels in their series. This left them high and dry, with no chance of selling the series to another publisher. If they ever wanted to try again, they would be forced to write under a pseudonym, and if they wanted to self-publish their earlier work, they had to fight with their former publishers to get the rights back.
Others, who weren’t dropped by their publishers, had little control over how their novels would finally appear; the publisher chose the cover, the length, and sometimes the title, and also set the deadlines. As a reader, do you ever wonder why the third book in a series is sometimes a disappointment? No doubt it’s because the writer who had labored over manuscripts one and two until they were nearly perfect was rushed into completing the third manuscript to make the publisher’s deadline. A reviewer of my third novel recently wrote, “Sometimes the third book of a series is a letdown. I was happy to find this was not the case for the Hunter Rayne mysteries.”
I’ve heard it said that five is the magic number for a fiction writer; it takes five good novels to build a profitable fan base. Traditional publishers can’t afford the luxury of waiting for the fifth novel for a return on their investment in a writer. But since I am my own publisher, under the name Proud Horse Publishing, I never have to worry about having my contract cancelled. I decide when my novel is ready to publish, and adjust if I miss my original self-imposed deadline. Consequently, I write under less stress and can build a good fan base at my own speed.
Author/publisher is not a career to choose in order to make a fast buck—although it’s been known to happen—but since I want to build a career that will pay off in the long run, in personal satisfaction as well as financially, I know I’m on the right track.
When Our Trade-Only Titles Tanked
— Submitted by Alan N. Canton, NewMedia Website Design, NewMediaWebsiteDesign.com
In 1992 we had a huge blockbuster of a book called ComputerMoney: Making It in High Tech Consulting. While it was sold as a trade book, a large portion of our sales came from ads in computer magazines and newsletters (all hardcopy back in those days). We made a lot of money on it. We thought publishing was a license to print money.
Then we followed that book with other trade-only books and got our butts kicked. With the cost of marketing vs. the low margins we got from Ingram and the middle channel, and with returns, it was a just too much work for the money.
So I sat down and started to think on a better way to sell books. I thought about the houses that published directories and reference material with high prices, books such as Literary Market Place and medical books and law books. And I realized (duh!) that you have to work just as hard to sell a $15 book as you do to sell a $100 book. So why not sell $100 books?
Who buys $100 books? Simple. People who are not spending their own money—corporations, governments, other organizations.
What do they want? They want information they can’t easily find elsewhere.
So we looked for books that had that kind of information via our listing in Writers Market. As a result, we got a book called Emergency Procedures for Apartment Communities and a book called The Guide to Moving a Corporate Data Center as well as other similar titles you never heard of.
We sent these to a Docutech house that copied them and put digital covers and spiral bindings on them and printed them 50 to a batch. Having priced them at $99, we sent direct mail postcards to facility managers, property management firms, and the like, and our 800-number started to ring with orders.
We sold only 500 to 1,000 copies of any one book per year. But do the math. While our marketing costs and unit costs were high, we still had plenty of margin on $99 tomes.
What happened next? Al Gore invented the Internet, and the kind of content we sold became free on the Web and YouTube. So we moved on to create software for publishers, the PUB123 program, and later the JAYA123.com system. Now we’re doing Websites for publishers.
All this came about because we failed in trade publishing.
Because Nobody Showed
— Submitted by David D. Horowitz, Rose Alley Press, rosealleypress.com
I founded Rose Alley Press in 1995 and published two titles the next year, including my own Strength & Sympathy. To help sell the book, I read at diverse venues. I even scheduled a reading at a bookstore in a city 200 miles from my home in Seattle.
The events coordinator assured me the store would publicize the event. I figured that meant I did not have to promote it. I was wrong. When I arrived that night, no one was sitting in the audience chairs. Two of the store’s employees came and sat in the back row to make me feel better as I read. Going home on the Greyhound, I traveled with a carton of unsold books and much defiance and wisdom.
Because no one attended my reading that night, I determined to intensely promote every event at which I read. Specifically, I determined I would:
- typically read with at least two other writers, seeking them out if necessary
- contact all relevant electronic media for possible interviews
- send announcements to or complete online forms for media calendars
- make up attractive printed and electronic flyers to distribute widely in connection with every reading
- announce my featured readings at open mics where I performed
- contact local literary arts educators—usually through email links—about my events
- offer event flyers to visitors at any Rose Alley Press book fair table
- maintain an up-to-date events calendar on my Website (which I created in 2003)
- provide links to others’ sites and events on my site
- stay open to new methods of promotion, provided they respected others’ privacy
Attendance varies at my events, but now I typically attract at least 10 to 15 people per reading, and audiences often exceed 20. That’s a lot better than looking out over rows of empty chairs.
How Losing the Contest Was Lucky
— Submitted by Betty Kreisel Shubert, Flashback Publishing, OutofStyleTheBook.com
It happened a long time ago, in 1942. As a 17-year-old costume design student at Beverly Hills High School, I had taken all the art, sewing, and design classes I could fit into my schedule. I had designed and worked on costumes for all the school productions for four years, and I was about to graduate. Now, a national contest for a scholarship to a major design school in New York was being offered.
America had not yet emerged from the Depression, and it was wartime: I knew my father could not afford to send me to New York to study, but I wanted that scholarship.
The instructions were “Design a wardrobe of clothes for a schoolgirl.” I had sold my first design to a manufacturer at age 13, and now I created a portfolio of clothes that I myself would have wanted to wear. Everyone, including my teacher, thought I would win.
Knowing how disappointed I would be, my wonderful, considerate teacher called me in to personally break the news. Crestfallen, I asked, “Why didn’t I win?” Sadly, she answered, “They thought your designs were too theatrical for a schoolgirl.”
I digested this surprising information for a minute or so before declaring, “Then that’s what I will be! A theatrical designer!” Thus began a career that has spanned several decades and included designs for stage, screen, TV specials, ready-to-wear, Las Vegas musicals, and Disneyland, plus uniform programs for major cruise lines, race tracks, hotels, restaurants, and casinos all around the world, culminating in the recent publication of my award-winning book, Out-of-Style: A Modern Perspective of How, Why and When Vintage Fashions Evolved.
Do you want to know what happened to the rejected portfolio of sketches that did not win a scholarship? Shortly after graduation, I was called to audition for a new show showcasing talented young performers. My too-theatrical portfolio got me the job.
Often Rebuffed, Never Daunted
— Submitted by Gloria T. August, English Garden Talk Press
Failure is always a good thing, if you understand what it really is. It takes a path that dead ends but enriches the journey as you find the reasons for it. Most of the time we simply accept failure because we don’t have the time or the initiative or the ability to take the threads of failure and reweave them into success, unless we’re stubborn and want to know why we failed.
With years of rejections from publishing companies, I was determined to see my work in print. I decided that I needed to actually construct a book and try to sell my homemade product.
I learned about glues and bindings and covers and did manage to construct a solid book that held together. I took a fabulous course on how to make a book at the University of Colorado. I confess that I had a lot of fun doing this, but I knew I was getting sidetracked.
Once I switched from my homemade books to books with “perfect” binding from Kinko’s, the next step was getting them placed in bookstores and libraries. Even though I had spent many years volunteering at our local library and had established a multi–foreign language program for children there, the librarian refused to keep my books on the shelves. I placed one book in another library in my home state and offered free copies to many rural libraries around the country, but no dice.
The problem was that librarians wanted a review first. I refused to conform to that notion, suggesting they read the book and then decide. No go. However, I was not about to be deterred.
For many years I had held really depressing jobs and used my time in lunchrooms to write and to read my latest books to my companions. They came to expect another book when I finished reading one out loud. They were enjoying my writing. These were not sophisticated, college-educated people who needed a critique from someone else to know if they ought to like a book or not. They were simply human beings hungry for a bit of fun in an otherwise dreary world.
Then one of my sons told me I could publish at Lulu.com at no cost, creating my own artwork and doing whatever I wanted to do to embellish my books. Over the years Lulu became increasingly sophisticated, and every time it changed I doubted that I could keep up with the new publishing guidelines, but I knew I must, and I did.
At about the same time, my son introduced me to IBPA, and I immediately joined. At IBPA everyone seemed to feel like the captain of their ship, from a nobody (proudly so) like me to an established publisher. I actually hoped I would become so big that I would need to pay the bigger membership fee. That still lies ahead, but before this year is over, I will have published 20 books, released two films, and run a Website on China–U.S. relations.
Now I am doing second editions of many of my old books as well as creating e-books. I have kept a careful diary of the e-commerce process, because it proved to be a bit more difficult that I had anticipated, but soldier on, I always say, and I figured it out.
I don’t know where I am going, but, so far, my failures have led to a wonderful journey. They have far more value to me than those silly advanced degrees I collected. Even if I never sell many of my books, I have learned enough to create a publishing empire.
Putting the Piggy Bank in Perspective
— Submitted by Bill Penzer, williampenzer.com
How does one measure “failure”?
In 2005, my 31-year-old daughter was diagnosed with breast cancer. I pledged that if she came through that I would devote the rest of my career as a psychologist and the rest of my life as a person to helping people in the dreadful place I came to call Cancerville. She is fine and doing very well almost nine years later.
I began writing five years to the day after her mastectomy. First came How to Cope Better When Someone You Love Has Cancer, quickly followed by How to Cope Better When You Have Cancer, and I’m Not Only a Cancer Patient, I’m a Survivor: A Workbook for Adults.
Financially, the books have been a dismal failure by any and every measure. From a piggy-bank point of view, I totally failed. I will never ever get back the money I spent to bring these books to market—not even close.
But there is another bank we all have that I call our pride bank. A few thousand people have bought my books. Hopefully, those books helped them cope with Cancerville just a little better. One reader said, “This book saved my life!” That fills my pride bank every day. For me, personal contribution trumps profit every time and makes what others might see as failure into success.
Better Timing for the Next Times
— Submitted by Lisa Noudehou, Barranca Press, Barrancapress.com
Here is a small failure in understanding the optimal publication sequence that turned into a learning experience.
Barranca Press is a new niche publisher, focused on literature inspired by international travel. One of the first books we published was Sierra Challenge: The Construction of the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad, which we released in English in July 2013. This year, we will be publishing the Spanish translation of the book as El Reto de la Sierra Tarahumara: La Construcción del Ferrocarril Chihuahua al Pacífico.
In retrospect, I wish that we had completed the translation before publishing the English version. There are a few lapses of grammatical and layout clarity that would have been caught. The translation process actually acts as another form of editing, enabling publishers to produce an even higher quality final product.
In the future, we will complete the translation of a text before publishing it in the original language.
After an Agent Bombed Out
— Submitted by Elke Schuster, Arash Books, elkeschuster.com
Several years ago I started to write and was picked up by an agent soon after I finished my first book. I was overjoyed when she promised to find a publishing house in Germany in no time (I wrote this first novel in German since I’m bilingual and live in Austria). What followed were two rather miserable years, one rejection after the other.
Of course I lost confidence in my agent, but, more important, I lost confidence in my work. When I terminated my contract with her, I quit writing.
After about half a year of biting my nails and itching to write again, I couldn’t hold out any longer. But this time I decided to do everything on my own. I started on the Arash series, four novels revolving around new paranormal creatures. The books were in English this time, and I self-published them in the USA.
I got to know some amazing people who helped me a lot with technical issues and cover design, and when the first reviews came in I knew that I had done the right thing. Otherwise, I would never have reached such a large, open-minded audience. I love all the feedback I keep getting. I won’t go so far as to say that I’m grateful to my former agent, but the failure of that experience definitely gave me the push in the right direction.
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