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Birth of a Saleswoman

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During my dozen or so years
as an editor of Whetstone,
a journal of fiction and poetry, I learned firsthand that small-press
publishing is not an enterprise for the faint of heart. Although my co-editors
and I had garnered an armful of awards for our little lit-mag, our marketing
budget was embarrassingly slim, and we’d find ourselves peddling each new issue
on little more than a shoeshine and a smile.

 

That’s why it does my heart good
whenever I have the chance to report a small-press success story like that of
Sharon Shea Bossard, president of Shea Publications and author of <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>Finding My Irish
.
When she hired me last spring to edit the manuscript, she said the job was a
rush. The books had to be ready for an upcoming Irish festival in Milwaukee.
She had also reserved space at other Irish fests later that summer and fall.
Family and friends had encouraged Bossard to write the book, but she wondered
how interested anyone outside that circle would be in the story of one family.
She’d planned a first printing of 500, figuring she could easily store a few
hundred unsold books in her basement.

 

Modest expectations, to be sure,
but inside of six months—between mid-July and Christmas—she had managed to sell
two-thirds of a press run of 1,000 (her husband had urged the larger order).
And at the beginning of March, she ordered a second printing of 2,000. Hers is
a classic tale of determination and willpower overcoming prejudgment and
self-doubt.

 

I think of Sharon Bossard, a petite
redhead with fire in her hazel eyes, as The Little Engine That Could.

 

Enthusiasm Breeds Orders

 

Digging into the past had been a
rebirth of sorts for Bossard, whose upbringing in a secretive and dysfunctional
family led her to believe that anything connected to the Irish had to be
unbearably tragic. Her search for family in Ireland began with a 50-year-old
letter that had been written by a cousin in County Kerry. The first half of the
book details the author’s search for that cousin and other family members,
including long-lost aunts, uncles, and cousins in this country. The second
half, based on stories they told her and those she already knew or suspected,
is the imagined journey of her four immigrant great-grandparents, and what
happened to them and their descendants.

 

“I had a determination to seek
those I never knew,” Bossard says. ”This book was my opportunity to pay tribute
by telling their stories and struggles. Because of it, I am now a member of an
extended family in Ireland as well as in America, and I no longer have to
wonder who they were or what their lives were like. Every mystery has been
revealed.”

 

Her first promotional efforts were
trial and error, and entirely home-grown. The Internet was her primary source
for information. She did all the usual things: ordered business cards, designed
a brochure, wrote press releases, set up a Web site (<span
class=95StoneSerifIt>www.findingmyirish.com
).
She also created a workbook supplement that would be sold alongside <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>Finding My Irish
for anyone interested in researching their family history.

 

No distributors wanted to handle
the book. No newspapers responded to her releases. Web-site traffic idled at
zero. But sales at the Irish fests were encouraging, and when Bossard walked
copies of her book into Irish gift stores in the Chicago area, her passion for
her story became evident—and contagious. “I would talk to anyone in charge who
cared to listen about a story that was sure to sell,” she recalls. “Everyone
who is Irish wonders about their roots. That’s what convinced them to carry the
book, on consignment.”

 

Relying on the Ripple
Effect

 

What Bossard didn’t know about
marketing could have filled another book, but she was learning fast and taking
advantage of every opportunity and every piece of advice that came her way. She
continued to walk the book into stores, as well as libraries and genealogy
centers. A few of the shop owners she met at the Irish fests invited her to do
book signings. She began using potatoes and blocks of peat as visuals to make
her presentations more dramatic.

 

Borders turned down her offer to
do a signing, but Barnes & Noble invited her to do one in mid-October.
Unfortunately, she was scheduled to be out of the country then. Between
festivals, she was hopping planes to Ireland to call on book and gift shops and
tourist centers in Counties Kerry and Clare—the home of her ancestors—and set
up interviews on radio stations. She met with the editor of <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>Inside Clare

magazine, who agreed to review her book for the December issue. At a bookstore
in Clare, the owner rang up the editor of the local paper and put Bossard on
the line. He told her he’d be happy to talk with her and read her book, a
review of which appeared the following month.

 

One thing kept leading to another.
Hanging out with two well-known authors at the Milwaukee Fest got Bossard’s
picture into the Irish
American News
, and the paper later ran a favorable review of her
book. An invitation to speak to the University of Notre Dame Women’s Group
followed her appearance at a chamber of commerce meeting.

 

Last fall, she received an email
from one of Ireland’s largest book distributors asking for her terms—they were
interested in ordering for their spring catalog. ”I jumped too soon,” she says,
“gave a price too high, and they wrote back with a ‘Thank you, but no thank
you.’ I responded immediately and told them to send me their terms and I would
work with their numbers.”

 

The distributor wanted 60 percent
of the book’s cover price ($19.95), a take-it-or-leave-it proposition that
Bossard agreed to because she’d rather have the books in the hands of readers
than sitting in her basement. The contract required her to open a business
account at an Irish bank. In talking with the account manager at the Bank of
Ireland, Bossard mentioned she was looking to get the book published in
Ireland, and it just so happened that the banker knew a publisher. She said she
would gladly pass Finding
My Irish
on to him.

 

Meanwhile, Web-site traffic was
picking up; people who bought books at the Irish fests were ordering additional
copies to give as Christmas gifts. Shops were also reordering. Both
Cabodolphin.com and ReadIreland.com online bookstores agreed to carry <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>Finding My Irish
.
Borders faxed three orders at the request of their customers. A newspaper in
Bossard’s hometown decided to run a feature story and sent a reporter and a
photographer to her home.

 

The Customer at the Costco
Cash Register

 

Having taught special education in
a suburban Chicago high school for 30 years, Sharon Bossard found herself
drawing on skills and techniques she had acquired as a prevocational program
coordinator as she pounded on the doors of area businesses to find jobs for her
developmentally disabled students. Then, as now, she was fueled by bottomless
enthusiasm and relentless optimism.

 

Early on, she told herself that if
she pushed to get the book out there, something had to come back. Every small
response would be significant because she never knew when it might lead to
something greater.

 

“It’s about always selling the
book, even on days when you’d rather not,” she says. “You have to convince
people they’re missing an opportunity.” She takes the book wherever she goes,
the cover with its green, white, and orange Irish flag colors in full view. She
carries it on the back of her suitcase, places it on airline reservations desks
and checkout counters while she’s looking through her purse. She’s sold quite a
few books this way—a customer waiting in line behind her at Costco ordered 10
of them on the spot—and the fact that she’s able to autograph them right then
and there is an added incentive.

 

An author Bossard had met at the
Milwaukee Irish Fest wrote recently to let her know that she had given her name
to an agent who is looking for an Irish story. Bossard realizes she may never
hear from the agent, but the fact that the writer thought enough of her to pass
her name along gave her a boost of confidence and more reason to keep pushing.

 

She markets continually and
constantly reevaluates her efforts. “Whatever has not worked, I go over and see
what I could have done differently to make it work,” she says. “I have so much
follow-up, it sometimes becomes overwhelming, but I’ve learned to keep at it
because you just never know when something will fall into your lap.”

 

Marsha Portnoy, a freelance
editor and journalist in Woodstock, Illinois, serves clients by writing
articles and marketing materials and providing coaching and editorial services.
She can be reached at 815/206-0409 or title=”mailto:MPort331@aol.com”>MPort331@aol.com.

 

 

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