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BUILDING THE BUSINESS

 

The House That Moonshine Made

 

by Norman Gibat

 

Our small company prints and
distributes a book titled The Lore of Still Building. To date we’ve sold almost a
quarter of a million copies, and it’s still profitable enough to keep in print.
Our advertising and marketing costs for this book are zero; we do not send out
a single flyer or make a single phone call. We do not take any books back
unless they are damaged; that’s the full extent of our return policy. Yet we
sell between 5,000 and 10,000 copies a year just as regular as clockwork. We’ve
been doing this for more than 30 years.

 

There’s no secret to this modest
success. It’s traceable to the fact that most of our sales are to
special-interest wholesalers and retailers throughout the United States and
Canada, in lots of 100 to 1,000. They call in or mail their orders to us.
Usually these involve half a dozen cartons at a time. (I should add that for
the past five years we’ve also been selling the book on Amazon.com, but our
sales there are not impressive, perhaps a few dozen copies a month.) But the
story of how we got to the retailers and wholesalers in our niche may help
other publishers with niche lists, and I hope that, at the least, it will amuse
you. For sure, it has amused and amazed me.

 

The book started when I was
working as an electronics engineer for the Air Force. A contingent from our
group based in Saudi Arabia, where no alcohol was allowed, decided to make
their own (some of them had fathers and uncles and brothers who had made
moonshine all their lives).

 

The engineers’ duties included
writing a report on each job after completion, and one man wrote a fake report
on building the stills that he sent to friends back home in America as a
Christmas gift. When my boss got a copy and showed it to everyone at our site
in Oklahoma City, I got the idea of extracting the data and writing a short but
factual how-to booklet. Since I was an engineer, my marketing experience was
nil, so I expected to sell it with classified ads in <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>Popular Mechanics

and similar magazines.

 

Publish and Prison?

 

My boss and another co-worker
liked the idea, did some of the work, and shared some of the expenses. We did
not decide to do this without serious reservations. Distillation of potable
(drinkable) alcohol in the United States was (and is) illegal. It requires a
federal license, and the law was originally enforced, oddly enough, by the
Treasury Department (this function was later handed over to the Bureau of
Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, now the ATF). My two friends and I
were federal employees. Although it may be different today, in 1966 breaking
federal laws was not considered a good career move.

 

We reasoned that while it might be
illegal to build a still, it was probably not illegal to know how to build one,
and that knowing how is only a single step from writing a book about what you
know. My friends reminded me that it might also be only a single step from the
clanging sound of a closing iron door.

 

I wrote what turned out to be a
64-page booklet called How
to Build a Still
. We printed it ourselves on a small Model 1000
Multilith offset printing press that I had in my garage at that time, and
saddle stitched the pages. Each month, we got a few dozen orders, generally
netting barely enough to pay for the ads. But we gradually built up sales to
the point where we could print and bind about 500 copies at a time, as we
needed them.

 

While that was happening, I read a
convincing article in the Atlantic Monthly which said that the least-rewarding work
was for the government, and the most rewarding was being in business for
oneself. I won’t claim this was my only motivation, but after some backing and
filling, I quit my engineering job in January of 1968 and set up a small
printing business in Oklahoma (without considering that the author of the
convincing article had neither worked in a business nor been in business for
himself).

 

Shortly after that, my two
collaborators gave up on the book, and I discovered that while home
distillation was very illegal and home-brewing beer was modestly illegal, home
wine-making was legal if done by the “head of the household,” whatever that
meant. As luck would have it, one of my first employees was a young lady who
had made some wine at home and knew much more about the subject of potable
alcohol than did I. So I handed over the home wine-supply ideas to her—as
well as the book sales—and she took it from there.

 

A year after I started my printing
business, the book got some publicity in the <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Whole Earth Catalog
, which printed a
picture from it. When a researcher for Dinah Shore’s TV show was looking at
this same Whole Earth
Catalog
, he decided that it would be fun to have an authority on
bootleg liquor on the show with Dan Rowan (of <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Laugh-in
), who was known as a heavy
drinker.

 

Of course, at that point I knew
very little about the subject. When I told my young colleague that I had agreed
to be a bootleg liquor expert on the <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Dinah Shore Show
, she refrained from
upchucking her lunch and managed to find a friend who had a bottle of genuine
homemade dandelion wine. I took it—and the young lady—with me to
Los Angeles.

 

Unfortunately, I was not allowed
to mention our booklet on the air. Nevertheless we continued to sell it, and
the same young lady and I then wrote another book, <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Making Wine Beer and Merry
. She typeset
it on an old Varityper machine and did most of the artwork. We printed and
bound this book ourselves.

 

Creating Ties in a Tiny
Niche

 

One thing led to another, as they
usually do. We began publishing and distributing a small trade magazine for the
home wine retail stores and wholesale outlets, and we also began working to
start what eventually became the Home Wine and Beer Trade Association. Today,
the HWBTA represents most of the leading retailers and wholesalers of this tiny
industry and has more than 400 members.

 

By 1973, I knew far more about
wine and beer production as well as the technical aspects of distillation, and
readers were contributing diagrams and mash recipes, but sales were down to a
trickle, so I decided to write the next generation of still-building books, <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>The Lore of Still Building
.
At first, we printed the covers and bound the book ourselves, but as sales
grew, we signed on with a printer for bound, boxed, and shipped copies.

 

After our first printing of <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>Lore
, we made
the discovery that served us well over the next three decades. Retailers and
small wholesalers specializing in home winemaking, gift stores, other specialty
stores, and even organic growers were markets for our book. We patiently
compiled information about 500 prospects, approached them via direct mail, and
soon had a list of faithful buyers.

 

Along about this same time we
discovered the perils of pricing. If we made the price right for retailers, it
was wrong for wholesalers—and vice versa. Wholesalers buy by the hundreds
or low thousands; retail stores buy by the dozens. Since we typeset and publish
the books ourselves and handle all the details, we can adjust the prices for
the market, and we can sell for very low prices if the market is large enough.
When we get orders directly, we sell at the same price as the retailers so we
do not undercut them.

 

We’ve reprinted the book nine
times to date— 25,000 is our typical press run—and we did a major
revision with the advent of gasohol in the 1990s.

 

By the way, did I mention that I
married the young lady, whose name was Kathleen Howard and who became an
accomplished writer? An intolerance to alcohol now prevents Kathleen from
drinking it, but she still draws and paints while her husband, who can drink
alcohol, does so.

 

Norman Gibat and Kathleen
Howard now own Noguska LLC, a software company that has been writing
accounting, inventory, and business-management programs since 1978.

 

 

 

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