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Confessions of a Garage Publisher

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Brown Skin Publishing. Brown
Eyed Girl Books. You gotta admit, both names sound sexy and enticing, and I had
a cool logo for the second: a pair of sexy brown eyes peering over the top of
an open book. But what was I thinking? I knew that I was an
about-to-be-discovered-by-Oprah, soon-to-be-insanely-successful nonfiction
author, and the greatest self-help publisher of all time. So for sure I had to
stay away from labels that didn’t match my genre.

 

Although I am still fantasizing
about publishing some erotica one day, this brief story is about the makings of
Career Tips Books. It started one cool spring Saturday morning with me raising
my hand and clearing my throat in a continuing education class on How to Write
a Book in 52 Weeks. I asked the question I knew everyone wanted to ask, and it
started with the classic line “I have a friend . . . ” I had the audience of
200 waiting. “She writes children’s books and what you might call erotica.” The
room sniggered and turned to see the instructor’s response. “So should
I—um, I mean, should she use a pseudonym for the children’s books or for
the erotica?” The instructor turned two shades of red and stumbled through a
response, but with the smiles from the audience, I knew I was off to a good
start. Clearly, I understood the first important rule: grab the audience’s
attention.

 

Two months later, my career
coaching business led to a contract with a tip-a-day Web site. I was writing
monthly tips that stemmed from my four years of classroom presentations to
teenagers. Nine months and 23,000 subscribers later, I was dropped, and they
gave the rights to my work back to me. Kicked in the stomach but elated that
23,000 people liked me—they really did (yes, you should be visualizing
Sally Field)—I hit on the idea of binding these little jewels into a
tip-per-page book.

 

Our local school-district career
advisor loved the idea and offered to print the book through the district. I
asked my newlywed husband to deliver the floppy in the computer to the
curriculum coordinator for the district. I’m sure my adorable husband meant
well, but later in the day, he chided me about leaving the floppy on the desk.

 

“I did not. I left it in . . . ”
We both paused, reliving what had happened. The floppy disk he had delivered
contained the new erotica stories we had jointly penned, which featured
mountain trysts with an assortment of marital aids we had received as wedding
gifts. Amazingly, no speeding tickets were given during the quick retrieval and
replacement of the disk.

 

My first book—<span
class=95StoneSerifIt>Career Tips for Teens
—was
poorly printed but popular and eagerly picked up by counselors across the
region. I was on to something. I found a local printer and a cool graphic
cover; and, at a cost of $2.75 per book, printed 1,000 copies on my own. Retail
price: $6.93 plus tax of 57 cents, for a total of $7.50. I thought I was pretty
clever to come up with a price that would make it easy to make change at what I
was sure would be the long trek across the state to hustle books. But when the
binding started to peel off after the books had been sitting in my 102-degree
El Paso garage for a few months, I wondered about clearing out the winter-coat
closet to protect our new publishing business inventory.

 

When Sales Topped 12

 

Then a speaking engagement came up
across the state at a two-day convention of high school career counselors in
Corpus Christi. We bought a booth, made a huge poster of the cover for the
backdrop display, and packed the car with books. As soon as we unloaded our
inventory, eager conventioneers grabbed the small books, thinking they were
freebies. So we quickly pasted price tags all over the table. By the end of the
second day of booth watching, we had tired feet, sleepy eyes, and 12 sales, and
we were discouraged. I dreaded the 14-hour drive home; returning with all the
boxes meant I couldn’t recline the seat back and sleep my disappointment away.
But as we were packing up, two conference attendees—cash in
hand—came to buy whatever they could for their students. We sold 550
books that last day, and we found a catalog distributor. I slept like a baby on
the way home.

 

For the next run, I found a
printer who offered a better price ($2.15 per unit) and a new cover. After four
months with orders pending and my trade distributor waiting, I got half the
4,000 books I had ordered. That filled most of my immediate needs, and it was
about all the garage (minus the car) could handle.

 

Now a couple of orders from school
districts have just about emptied the garage, and I am back to searching for
printers with good glue. Recently, I found a great resource called
Printellectual (www.printellectual.com)
that lets me send a quote to several printers, including the offshore guys, all
at one time, and then compare prices. The price for my next run will be down
another 70 cents.

 

In the meantime, having wasted
lots of money on publicists, marketing, and advertising, I am still on the
endless search for an affordable distributor. I’ve got a yellowing sales order
from Barnes & Noble, but no distributor ready to take me on without
exorbitant fees.

 

And when that distributor comes
pounding (it’s my fantasy, work with me here) at the door, I will graciously
welcome him (yes, I’m sexist, and he looks like the cover of a Harlequin
romance novel). I’ll offer him a cup of tea, a massage, and my firstborn,
assuming I have one. Then I’ll explain to him why I can’t work through
distributors with the retail price of my book at $6.95; printing costs at
$2.15, the storage, shipping, and handling costs are $1.78 per book, plus $1
for the publicist. He, of course, wants 50 percent or more off the retail
price.

 

I kneel coquettishly, looking and
feeling faint. “So I end up paying you more than what it costs to print and
ship,” I murmur. “I need to double the price of the book to make my costs back,
and then I price it out of the market of students I am trying to reach.” I
breathe again, letting out a slight whine, “And for a small tip-a-page book,
it’s not worth it.”

 

I see him slumping in the chair,
and I tell him, with a smart-alec grin on my face, that I believe we can work
out a mutually profitable arrangement. If not, my market is Internet savvy, and
my readers will find my Web site.

 

Now I’m hoping that this article
will magically appear in all distributors’ mailboxes, and they will think about
the opportunities they are missing with us: the unsung heroes of garage
publishing.

 

Phyllis Caves Rawley is the
owner of Brown Skin Publishing, publisher of the <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Career Tips
Books series you can order
at www.careertipsbooks.com. She lives with her husband, her Louisiana-evacuee
mother, and one angry cat in El Paso, Texas.

 

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