How did Cookie Bear Press, a one-title enterprise (so far, anyway) run by twin sisters living 800 miles apart, raising families and working other jobs, sell more than 40,000 copies of a $5.95, 6.5“´
6.5“ board book without the benefit of megabuck ad campaigns, famous names, or high-profile publicity?
In a way we got lucky; we wrote a book that people liked. But our strategy paid off too; we focused our efforts on getting I Love You All the Time noticed by our targeted readers.
If You Write It, They Still Might Not Read It
First we assumed we’d get the book into at least some stores (positive thinking!). Second, we knew from feedback that most parents who read the book loved it, and therefore we knew that our challenge was to make sure parents–and grandparents–actually picked it up and read it.
We started at the design phase. Accepting the adage that people do judge a book by its cover, we gave our wonderful illustrator, Bonnie Bright, full control. With its big red heart and beaming bright-yellow background, I Love You All the Time pops off the shelf whether it’s face out or stacked vertically.
Next, we did some comparison shopping. Which other books were similar to ours? How were they similar? How were they different? How much did they cost? What sizes were they? What did their pictures look like? Who printed them? We designed and priced our book according to what we learned and set the price a little lower than the average to get an edge.
Also, we made three key decisions about the illustrations that we hoped would distinguish our book from other board books. Wanting wide appeal, we decided on race-neutral bears rather than people as lead characters. Because not every family has a mom and a dad in the picture, we decided not to show a mom and dad together in our pictures either; I Love You All the Time features a woman bear, a man bear, and a little boy bear pictured in different combinations but never all together, leaving readers to assign their own idea of each adult bear’s age and role. Our last decision remains a reader favorite. Our illustrator included a heart in each scene, creating a treasure hunt of sorts as kids search to find the heart on every page.
We showed the book to as many people as possible–people who knew us and people who didn’t. And we took their comments to heart, changing illustrations and text in some instances.
Our goal was to get our book into as many homes as possible, not necessarily to make X amount per sale. Maybe not the best business model, but it kept us focused and ultimately gave us clout as our sales numbers climbed.
Unfortunately, we had no clue about the best way to tell stores and consumers about I Love You All the Time. (We didn’t learn about PMA until a year or so into our selling phase. Now we tell anyone who asks for advice about self-publishing to consider PMA and attend PMA University.) What we did was hit the Internet, searching for distributors, wholesalers, and back doors into the industry. Seasonal sales turned out to be a wide-open back door for us. We promoted I Love You All the Time for Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, and Father’s Day, building sales records one holiday at a time.
Stepping outside the bookstore box, we contacted hospital gift stores, high-end children’s clothing retailers, and specialty stores that cater to children and the people who buy things for them (parents, grandparents, godparents, aunts, uncles, etc.). Again, our theory was that when more people saw the book, more people might buy the book, regardless of where they saw it.
We also emailed our friends and family, asking them to visit local bookstores and inquire about I Love You All the Time, thereby bringing it to the attention of a manager or buyer.
The Old Razzle-Dazzle
We promoted and drew attention to I Love You All the Time through awards programs too, believing that every person who evaluated the book represented a potential sale. No need to shoot for the moon right away. Many local, regional, and special-interest award programs exist and cost less to enter than the well-publicized national programs. Winning recognition at the starter level yields exposure for your book while building clout for higher awards. (Note: Some awards will accept galleys; others required finished product. Research carefully. We started with Google.)
Our other advice about awards is: Consider all categories. While Best Book might be the coveted title, Best Marketing Plan also puts your book in front of key players. When we submitted I Love You All the Time to the 2004 Benjamin Franklin Awards, we applied in the category that we felt gave us the best chance of winning–Best Marketing Plan Under $10,000. It worked, sort of. We didn’t win, but because we were one of three finalists, our title was listed in all literature about the presentation, which lots of people read. Bingo. Plus, we can always say our book was a Benjamin Franklin finalist. Bingo, bingo.
Last year we created Operation All the Time, a promotion benefiting military families. Participating stores displayed I Love You All the Time at their registers, with information about how customers could buy copies that would be donated to kids whose parents were deployed. Customers felt great, and our book sat in premium, front-of-store, face-out POP display space for a month. Some stores stocked the book after the promotional period; others didn’t. That’s okay. Sales increased, and we’re still building on the program.
And we continue to put our names and our book in front of as many new and different people as possible. We participate in local and regional book festivals; volunteer to judge literary contests; read at local libraries; speak in our kids’ classrooms about reading and publishing. We learned that you don’t have to be selling your book to sell your book. When you’re personally out there, your book is out there, too.
We didn’t do everything right. We made mistakes, most of which we like to think taught us something. We learned to ask our resident 11-year-old to proofread instead of relying on just our own eyes. No kidding. She finds things we gloss right over simply because we’re too familiar with the text or are rushing to okay it.
We learned there’s a lot to learn about offshore printing and its pitfalls. We learned to ask an expert. Using PMA’s vendor resources, we found Michael Vezo of Westcom Associates. No more unprotected offshore printing for Cookie Bear Press! And we learned from our big mistake that it’s not smart to hire a publicist until you know how to hire the right publicist, what the publicist expects from you, and what your expectations should be.
Luck vs. Pluck
It’s common sense that intangibles and directed effort both affect an enterprise–not always in equal parts, however, and often in ways that only hindsight reveals. We were lucky to find our illustrator through a friend of a friend. We were lucky to have a family member in the printing business who guided us through early production with more technical expertise and resources than most self-publishers get out of the gate. Most important, we were lucky to have supporters able and willing to stake our venture in the beginning.
Obviously, not everyone has similar resources. We recognize that. That’s where pluck comes in. Figuring out how to maximize your particular resources–time, talent, money, friends, family, connections, experience, former bosses, current colleagues–will carry you to the next phase.
“I did all that,” you might be saying. “I work just as hard as Cookie Bear. Why aren’t my books selling?” We can’t tell you how many times we’ve read these stories and asked ourselves the same thing. Consistently, we reach the same conclusion: Book X sold because it was the right book for its market and because the author and the publisher (whether or not they were the same person) put in the effort to deliver a desirable product to a receptive market. Add a little smoke, a few mirrors to that, and presto.
Our last piece of advice? Take advice cautiously. When it comes down to it, what counts isn’t what worked for someone else but what works for you, which will be a function of your book, yourself, and your audience.
Together with her twin sister, Jennifer Elin Cole, Jessica Hirschman founded and manages Cookie Bear Press. They report that they are currently printing 25,000 more copies of I Love You All the Time; developing a gift set featuring that title; and creating two new books with illustrator Bonnie Bright.
Tried and True Tips
- It pays to pay attention to the people you meet, what they do, and where they do it.
- Notice your surroundings. See a book like yours on a table somewhere? Find out how to get your book on that same table.
- Create mutually beneficial situations with area publishers and/or writers such as sharing a table at a regional book fair. Same exposure, half the cost.
- Realize that there is a difference between having a good book and having a book people are willing to buy.
- Always have a few copies of your book with you.
- Donate new (or even slightly hurt) copies to appropriate gathering places: children’s books to pediatrician’s offices and restaurants, business books to Internet cafes, travel books to automobile service centers and hotel lobbies (get permission first). And be sure people who encounter your book at these places know how to buy it before they leave.
- Turn your vehicle into a billboard. The back window is a great place to display your company name, title, and/or Web site.
- Need something for a holiday gift exchange at work, church, or temple? Sign a copy of your book and wrap it up. Ask friends to do the same thing.