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Pretending to Be Random House

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It’s been an amazing year at Great Reads Books LLC since I and the nine men who put up money to publish The Jesus Thief released it as our first title.

After all, our company came into existence almost by accident.

Band of Angels

In 2001, I’d self-published my third novel–a mystery-thriller called The Crowning Circle–to get a reality check from actual readers. Was I on the right track? Should I have quit my job in 1993 to write novels, in fulfillment of a childhood dream? My husband believed in me from the first, but it had been eight years.

I anxiously watched the book’s pages on Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com pages and was thrilled to see strangers posting five-star reviews and asking when my next book would be out. One man e-mailed, asking why it wasn’t in bookstores yet.

We struck up a correspondence, and when I told him about my newest novel, The Jesus Thief, he asked to read it. It’s a biomedical thriller about a Jew raised as a Christian who tries to clone Jesus using DNA stolen from the Shroud of Turin. My new fan gave comments and encouraged me as I sent it off to my agent. Then 9/11 happened. I told him the bad news: only books about terrorism had a chance, according to my then-agent. It wasn’t my first disappointment. I had a number of rejection letters full of raves from New York.

I began to think out loud about a self-publishing arm for NovelDoc.com, an advanced workshop I’d founded in 1997. My friend sent an e-mail saying that advertising could be prohibitively expensive “unless you have an angel.”

I hyperventilated. Then, sure I was misreading him, I e-mailed back, “Would you fancy a halo of any sort?” “Yes,” he replied. Dazed, I told my husband, who said to put his name down too.

In shocked jubilation, I told my workshop author friends. At the end of the next day, our band of angels numbered six. I cried, I admit.

By our March 2003 pub date, nine men who’d never laid eyes on me or each other; who live in Canada, Scotland, and all over the USA; and who have nothing in common except a love of novels–reading them, writing them–had put up, as a start, tens of thousands of dollars to launch Great Reads Books and The Jesus Thief.

Aiming High

Why so much? After doing a little research, we decided to shoot for the stars and proceed as if we were Random House, Simon & Schuster, and the other publishers who were turning me and my author friends down.

Luckily, no one told us what a wildly risky plan that was.

Our initial questions were endless. We consulted Dan Poynter’s Self-Publishing Manual, Tom and Marilyn Ross’s Complete Guide to Self-Publishing, and John Kremer’s 1001 Ways to Market Your Books. I joined Pub-Forum online. I grilled any knowledgeable person who would talk. I asked God to send a lightning bolt if we were really out of our minds.

Ultimately, we formed a limited liability corporation, obtained Alibris publisher liability insurance and inventory insurance, and decided not to amass debt. We developed a decent author contract for this and future books, using the Authors Guild model contract and Tad Crawford’s Business & Legal Forms for Authors & Self-Publishers as a guide. We settled on hardcovers to encourage major reviews and an initial print run of 3,000 to signal seriousness. Only later did we learn that most books don’t sell 1,000 copies. Gulp! We would print 300 galleys for reviewers, book media, scientists, and independent booksellers via the BookSense Advance Access program. We would seek national distribution so the book would be in stores.

In the Beginning

Thehurdles ahead were becoming evident. Unlike us, Random House had whole departments and piles of money to launch a book. We had to stretch every dollar, which meant doing whatever we could ourselves. All my angels had day jobs, which left the brunt of the work to me, although they advised and pitched in when possible.

Typesetting. Surely I could learn. One of the angels donated an old version of Quark, and I settled in, armed with tips from a Pub-Forum colleague: Minion 11 with 13 leading, among other typefaces, might serve well in readability, attractiveness, and low page count. It took days to figure out what that meant and weeks to implement, but eventually The Jesus Thief was typeset.

We had an idea for the cover and tapped Kenneth Paolini (Chris Paolini’s dad; this was before Knopf bought Eragon and it hit the New York Times bestseller list) to execute it. Could he put the face from the Shroud of Turin on the dust jacket front, the Shroud chapel on the back, and Shroud linen in the background? When Kenneth found the Shroud photo’s resolution low, the photographer, Barry Schwortz, went back to his color negatives and created the best color photo in existence of the face on the Shroud.

We approached printers listed in both the Poynter and Ross books and settled on Thomson-Shore, not only for its good price and promised delivery schedule, but because of the positive word of mouth we’d heard.

We approached Biblio Distribution, the new small-press arm of National Book Network, with some trepidation. This would be our first objective test. Distributors take a percentage of sales, 60 percent in Biblio’s case. They don’t relish clogging their warehouses with books no one wants. We e-mailed Biblio and at their invitation FedExed the text and cover mockup overnight. Two days later a contract arrived by e-mail. Yes, they’d like to distribute us.

We joined PMA. I was so tired by now, I didn’t grasp that something unusual had begun.

Marketing Muscle and Money

This was where the courageous (or wildly risky) part came in. Random House advertises like mad for frontlist titles. A small publisher could go broke pretty quickly doing this. How much did we believe in The Jesus Thief?

I estimated the initial cost and polled the Band. They were unanimous. Do it. We arranged:

    • Periodic press releases (via PR Newswire) with titles like “New Publishing Company Bets on Provocative Title” and “Scientist Fears Jesus Thief Cloning Novel Is Too Real”
    • Two prepub ads and one postpub ad in PW Daily with titles like “The Jesus Thief Steals the Cloning Spotlight” and “The Jesus Thief–Rave Reviews for March 1 Launch”
    • Three 1/6-page Forecast color ads in Publishers Weekly, two prepub and one postpub
    • Two postpub 1/5-page vertical black-and-white ads in The New York Times Book Review
    • Two postpub ads in The New York Review of Books’ independent press section
    • Amazon co-op advertising (specifically, what they call Category A) in the month of publication and six months after that
    • B&N.com co-op advertising (in “New Releases” for two weeks)
    • BookBrowse.com co-op advertising for the book’s first two months
    • Two library mailings

Most media offer large discounts on ads to small publishers, sometimes especially large if new authors are involved. We bought Adobe In-Design and did our own ads, producing color or black-and-white PDFs after studying ads in PW and the TBR.

 

We also worked with three different publicists over the year, with varying results. Booth Media booked talk-radio interviews around the country for us for three months, tying The Jesus Thief to current headlines (in this case, cloning stories), which is about the only way to get on talk radio with a novel. And we ran an ad in Radio & TV Interview Report, which led to an interview with the popular Mancow in the Morning show on radio Q101 Chicago. Next time around we’ll drop the second Amazon co-op and the B&N.com co-op. We’ll try more ads at RTIR.

Miracles

A top scientist at Cornell sent an endorsement early on. Of the five major reviewers, only ALA Booklist responded, but with a starred review. We had to find out what a star meant. “Outstanding, head and shoulders above the rest.” We popped champagne and plastered the star all over our ads. A Religion News Wire Service reporter included The Jesus Thief in an article. An NPR program, To the Best of Our Knowledge, asked for an interview on our pub date.

Thirteen days later, we’d made Amazon’s Mystery-Thriller bestseller list. In two months we’d sold our first print run. Libraries were buying steadily because of Booklist, and we went back to press for an additional 5,000 hardcovers. We sold Portuguese translation rights (they’d seen the PW Daily ads) and registered for BEA, excited about our miracles.

That’s because we didn’t yet know what a miracle really looked like.

During the writing, The Jesus Thief had begun unfolding in my mind like a movie. I imagined Russell Crowe in one role and Emmy-winning, Oscar-nominated actress Alfre Woodard in another. In early May of last year, one of my brothers happened to be at a function in New York. There was Alfre Woodard. He told her about my book. She asked to see it. When I heard this, I expressed extreme excitement, I must say, as did the Band. We sent it to her overnight.

Eight days later my cell phone rang. It was Alfre. She loved the book and wanted the film rights. We met during BEA and had dinner at Spago Beverly Hills. Wolfgang Puck came to the table, and we exchanged books. He signed his. I signed mine. As if that weren’t enough, I’d come to L.A. via New York, having just signed with Albert Zuckerman, founder of Writers House. Recently, Al concluded the option of Hollywood film rights to Alfre and her husband. This week, Al reads my sequel.

As I write this, I’m on a book tour of Texas (don’t wait a year to do yours; we mistakenly thought they weren’t helpful: wrong!)–every Saturday at a Barnes & Noble in a different city. Chicago is next, then D.C. and New York. Here’s the book tour secret: contact local press in advance to ask for coverage; sit in sight of the front door, your book on display; smile; make eye contact; invite those who smile back to come and take a look at your book. Have an exciting one-line spiel ready as well as interesting anecdotes. If your book isn’t in the Barnes & Noble system, go to any store and ask how to apply to the Small Press Department.

At times it was scary, of course, watching our money and sales income fly out the window as we learned the ropes, but overall we recommend thinking big. If you have a commercial title and can risk the front money, consider pretending to be Random House. Sometimes it works.

As an engineer, J R Lankford was the first woman to oversee the establishment of international standards for electrical products. Working with delegates from many nations, she traveled the world before she began writing novels. For more information on The Jesus Thief, visit www.thejesusthief.com.

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