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PRESIDENT’S REPORT – Waiting Hopefully, Nervously for a New Title to Get Legs (or Not)

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This is a publishing adventure story about content, strategy, patience, some missed opportunities, risk-taking, good luck, and fresh evidence that timing is everything. It is about a new title released with much ado this spring at Epicenter Press.

It is a story of reaching an unsung but major milestone in the life of every book.

Six years ago an unsolicited proposal came to Epicenter for a book about the cataclysmic eruption of Mount St. Helens that took place in May 1980, killing 57 people and destroying hundreds of square miles of forests, lakes, and streams and much wildlife in southwest Washington. The sample chapters described a crew of tree-thinners scalded by waves of hot ash 13 miles from the volcano, and the men’s desperate struggle to save themselves. It was an incredible account, vividly written, and I was hooked.

The author, Frank Parchman, was an award-winning ex-journalist and former PR director at Emanuel Hospital in Portland, OR, which had treated many people injured and burned in the eruption. He envisioned a book written from the perspective of patients and staff at the hospital. I persuaded him to broaden the concept, to tell the story through the lives of a wider cross-section of ordinary people–including the loggers–all of whose fates were dramatically altered.

Fast forward to 2004, 24 years after the big eruption. On September 21, after five years of research, two contract extensions, a rewrite, and seven months of collaboration between Parchman and his editor, Don Graydon, the finished manuscript of what would come to be called Echoes of Fury arrived on my desk.

The mountain had been quiet for 18 years.

In Sync with the Mountain’s Moves

Three days later, the volcano came alive with a swarm of earthquakes, ash plumes, and rapid growth of a cone-shaped dome inside the crater. The magma was moving again! Mount St. Helens suddenly became our marketing partner. I study the mountain every day on my desktop volcano-cam, courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey. (Check it out at www.fs.fed.us/gpnf/volcanocams/msh.)

So, amid this excitement last fall, we announced a spring release timed for the 25th anniversary of the eruption in May.

The finished manuscript ran to nearly 120,000 words. We would produce a case-bound first edition, with a detailed four-color map on the end-sheets and 40 pages of B&W photos inside a 400-page volume, listed at $24.95. I was tempted to price it at $27.95, but followed advice from our distributor, Graphic Arts Center Publishing Co., to stay under $25 for better sales. Sure enough, booksellers liked the price, but after it was locked in, the page count grew from 400 to 432 because of unusually extensive author source notes, and I’ll never know whether the friendlier price will generate enough extra sales to justify itself.

Finding the right title was a challenge. Our working title was “Souls of Fire: Life After the Eruption of Mount St. Helens.” No one liked “souls” because it suggested spiritual matters or religion, and the book was classified as history/memoir. We agonized over a cover design too, trying to decide what was best for regional sales but also wanting a “New York cover” to help sell reprint rights. We wound up with something close to the latter but no reprint sale. Ultimately, the title became Echoes of Fury: The 1980 Eruption of Mount St. Helens and the Lives It Changed Forever.

Late with Some Launch Moves

Editing and review of the final manuscript took longer than anticipated, and we fell behind schedule in the fall. We were late putting out bound galleys while tinkering with the cover, the subtitle, even the release date. I believe these factors cost us early advance reviews from PW and Kirkus. We submitted galleys by the advance submission deadlines, but just barely. Probably I should have delayed the official release until May, but didn’t, because I wanted to get regional publicity and sales moving in advance of the anniversary.

Our strategy was to concentrate on the Pacific Northwest to create a regional bestseller. But we did not ignore the national market. We sent hundreds of review copies nationwide and contracted with publicist Joanne McCall, of Aloha, OR, to target 20 national radio and TV shows for possible author appearances in May.

Our agent, Elizabeth Wales of the Wales Literary Agency, tried for a trade paperback sale. Three New York imprints expressed interest, but two were in the same corporate family, so one dropped out. A second imprint dropped out when an enthusiastic editor was overruled by his boss. That left a single publisher offering a $25,000 royalty advance, which we turned down. Our floor was twice that amount. We’ll either try again later in the year, if we get some national publicity, or we will publish the trade paperback.

In January, our film agents, Mary Alice Kier and Anna Cottle at Cine-Lit Representations, optioned Echoes of Fury to Jaffe/Braunstein Productions for a TV-movie, offering a nice advance against a six-figure purchase price. The author is happy as a clam, having been offered a substantial consulting deal.

Then, one week after fulfillment began, with no advance warning, a major eruption–the second most powerful since May 18, 1980–sent a plume of ash 37,000 feet into the air. No one was hurt and no property damage was reported–just the kind of eruption we had hoped for. We were euphoric.

The Washington-based Costco got behind Echoes of Fury with an initial order of 660 spread among its 33 stores in Washington and Oregon. Barnes & Noble, which had ordered 300 copies initially, increased the order to 800, and we signed up for a regional end-cap.

Early Indicators

We have marketed heavily to regional bookstores, mailing postcards to most indies west of the Rocky Mountains and north of San Francisco, and posters to Washington and Oregon booksellers, buying full-page ads in several bookseller association newsletters. Including trade giveaways, we have put out about 500 promotion copies.

In mid-March, we saw our first media coverage–a glowing review in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Coverage in The Seattle Times and The Portland Oregonian followed soon after. We began to see results from the promotional mailings and intern Ian Shuler’s telemarketing to regional bookstores and follow-up calls to reviewers and book editors. A large regional library mailing was followed by two U.S. public library co-op mailings with PMA. In late March, we heard that Echoes was flying out of several B&N stores in Portland. Information about the all-important sell-through at this point was frustratingly sketchy and anecdotal. Books had not been out long enough to get hard numbers.

As the author prepared to embark on an ambitious regional tour, and early reviews began appearing–every one positive–the experience became one part waiting for a jury verdict, one part sitting in a delivery room, one part squinting at the numbers on a Lotto ticket. Would our strategy succeed?

Would Echoes get national reviews? Would our publicist book a network appearance for Frank Parchman in May? Would Costco reorder in significant quantities? Would B&N broaden its lay-down? Would libraries order? How effective would be the posters, postcards, and co-op mailings? Would we reprint, and if so when? Would we sell the trade paperback rights? Would the movie option turn into a sale?

We printed 8,000 copies. At this writing, a month after fulfillment began, we had shipped 3,200. Our promotion plan was well in motion. The author tour had started. Most of the reviews would appear in the next 30 days. We had arrived at an exhilarating and sometimes bittersweet and frustrating time for new books, each one of them a carefully arranged marriage of art and commerce, each nurtured and fussed over and hoped for, each seeking an elusive, indefinable, but crucial “chemistry” in the marketplace to propel them toward their potential.

It is a time when there is little else we as publishers can do that will make a significant difference, when we recognize with cold objectivity what else we might have done and what we might have done differently, and our optimism jells into reality.

As always, I welcome your comments and ideas for PMA–on this subject and any others. Please contact me at gksturgis@earthlink.net.

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