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My Race with SeaBiscuit:
The True Tale of a Tie-In

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When one of my authors called in mid-June of this year and insisted that I come down and see some letters belonging to a neighbor of hers, I had no clue that I was about to produce a book in a little more than a month so that a movie would fuel its sales.

The letters–more than 300 of them–were to the race horse Seabiscuit or his owner, Charles Howard, and they were marvelous. Written during 1939 and 1940, they included Valentine’s Day and birthday cards from children, a letter of congratulations from Mr. Warner of Warner Bros., and a letter dated March 21, 1940, from an officer aboard the ill-fated U.S.S. Indianapolis. The neighbor was Barbara Howard, Charles’s granddaughter by marriage. She had the letters because Charles’s wife, Marcella, had given them to her.

On June 16, Barbara and I agreed that Seven Locks would publish Letters to Seabiscuit and start production that very day with the goal of having copies for sale by July 25, when Seabiscuit, the movie, was going to premiere. We selected letters to use, factoring in content, readability, and length, and decided to reproduce them instead of setting them in type. In their aged (but readable) condition, they evoked that time gone by, the era when Seabiscuit was part of our national image.

There was only one choice for an endorsement that would lend instant credibility to the book: Laura Hillenbrand, whose Seabiscuit: An American Legend was the basis for the movie. Fortunately Barbara and her son, Michael, had helped Laura with the research for her book, and despite her preparations for the movie release aÀÇrer well-chronicled battle with chronic fatigue syndrome, Laura was kind enough to provide an eloquent comment: “Letters to Seabiscuit,” she wrote, “offers a unique look inside the horse’s fame, demonstrating how a little brown horse touched the lives of millions of Americans in the cruelest decade of the century.”

The next step was getting an introduction to the book, and who could be better than Mike Howard, colonel, U.S. Marines, and great-grandson of Charles? We had allowed just one week for writing the introduction, but there was a problem: at the time, Colonel Howard was otherwise occupied building bridges and blowing up munitions dumps in Iraq. Thanks to the miracle of e-mail, we got it done anyway.

Then there was the challenge of the foreword. I contacted the Santa Anita Race Track and found that three trainers who had worked back in the Seabiscuit era were still alive. The choice was easy–Farrell “Wild Horse” Jones, who is mentioned several times in the Hillenbrand book and who was nine years old when he galloped Seabiscuit.

Finding Funds to Bet on a Winner

But the biggest challenge still lay ahead. How were we going to finance this project? It is one thing to publish a book, print 3,000 copies, and do some modest marketing. It is quite another to print in five figures and market nationally on a timetable that ties in to a current event. And we had just completed our BookExpo America exhibit and produced and shipped our new spring list, so our financial resources were depleted.

 

Since I knew I couldn’t expect book wholesalers to pay for those spring books net 30, I thought about applying to my bank for a second mortgage on my house, or perhaps negotiating extended terms with the printer; but instead, I tried something different.

I have a friend who is a financial manager, and I had always told him to find me one of his clients with a million dollars who would like to partner and expand Seven Locks Press. I called him to propose a Seabiscuit partnership with one of his clients. He said simply, I’ll do it myself. I guess the name Seabiscuit was magic to him. We agreed that he would share the profits. We also agreed on a minimum of $1.50 a copy funding. With printing costs for our 136-page book at 60 cents, we could budget 90 cents a copy for third-party marketing expenses.

We were now on our way.

Making the Print-run Decision

To define the market and its potential size, we made the conservative assumption that only buyers of the Laura Hillenbrand book would be interested in our title. I estimated that sales of her book were about 2 million copies, and that our market would be between 2 and 5 percent of those sales, or 40,000 to 100,000 copies. I hoped for more, but I wanted to be practical. Here is what the numbers looked like.

 

Copies

40,000 100,000

Net sales based on a $12.95 list price

and an effective average discount of 52% $248,640 $621,600

Cost of $2.50 each includes production,

marketing, and author royalties $100,000 $250,000

Contribution to profit $148,640 $371,600

 

Miraculously, the book was shipped from the printer on July 24–at least a month late in terms of conventional timing for a tie-in, but the best we could do, and nothing to be ashamed of considering when we had started. From a first print run of 20,000 copies, 12,000 were drop-shipped to wholesalers, both book and mass market, so the title was on retail shelves seven to ten days after the movie premiere.

The Marketing Mix

Because of the timing issues that affect tie-ins, we focused on immediate, near-term, and holiday sales, and not on long-term marketing.

To generate immediate sales, we needed name identification within the publishing industry. We used Ingram, Baker & Taylor, ABA, and ForeWordMagazine and their electronic programs. We also used Ingram and Baker & Taylor telemarketing programs. They were only modestly successful in terms of orders, but they did get the word out. At the PNBA Show in Portland on September 19 and 20, lots of people told us they had read about the book, and they could have done so only through these programs.

Publicity and simply getting the books on shelves were our tactics for generating near-term sales. Our best success was with mass-market distributors, who have placed the book in airports, Wal-mart, and other non-book retail stores. Books-A-Million agreed to a substantial purchase and front-of-the-store tabletop displays. And, of course, we sold to gift shops at racetracks across the country. Publicity has included lots of book signings and interviews with Barbara Howard on radio and on A&E and ESPN, plus a story in Publishers Weekly.

The holiday season will prove whether our strategy worked. Letters to Seabiscuit will be available via Christmas catalogs from regional book associations and wholesalers as well as through PMA mailings. We are attending four of the regional book shows, and if PNBA is any indication, these will be very helpful. The key as I write this is to extend our exposure into the chains and independents as we move into late 2003 and early 2004.

I suppose in summary you might say that we saw this horse running down the street, and we tried to jump on and see how far he would carry us. With Academy Award nominations in the offing, that should be well into next spring.

Jim Riordan has been publisher of Seven Locks Press since 1996. For more information on the press and the Seabiscuit tie-in, visit www.sevenlockspublishing.com.

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