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The Making of a Christmas Bestseller

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In 1995, my friend Janie Jasin kept telling me aboutthis little story she’d written about a girl pine tree that hopes to be chosen as a Christmas tree. She’d been using it in some of her seminars (she is a successful motivational speaker), and Janie felt this story should be turned into a book. (Sure, sure, I’ve heard that one before.) It had a “grow-where-you-are planted” message. I showed no interest and gave her no encouragement, partly because I knew that publishing a book by a close pal could be dangerous to a friendship. (Can you show me an author who ever thinks a publisher has done enough for them or their book?)

 

Janie decided to tape record The Littlest Christmas Tree and to sell the tapes at her speaking engagements. She sent me one as my holiday gift. I popped it into my car tapeplayer on my way to work and quickly came under her spell. So did the people in my office when they heard it. That’s when I decided to plunge my small company into the crowded Christmas book arena.

I knew the book needed some editing. Would she be uptight about us playing with her words? (Fortunately, not.) I had never done an illustrated children’s book before. Where did we even start?? And what should this book look like? I picked up and bought many holiday books that year until I touched one (it was actually a small cookbook) and knew instantly that this was the size our book should be. I had also seen a book with a vellum dust jacket, fell in love with that idea, and wanted it to work for this book. (It did.) All the elements began to fall into place, and before we knew it, our company had a 300,000-copy bestseller–and more when you count the paperback edition licensed to Scholastic!

 

A Perfect Preview Year

There are advantages to NOT knowing all of the ramifications of what you’re doing when you publish a Christmas title. I knew Christmas books had potential (after all, I had watched the success of my friend Ned Waldman of Waldman House Press and his million-copy bestseller, ACup of Christmas Tea by Tom Hegg). I hadn’t spent much time thinking about the fact that the Christmas book market was getting crowded. (Just as well.) I knew that a book should be well focused and that a children’s book that is really for adults is not necessarily a good idea. (We finesse that with back cover copy that claims ours is a book “for children 3 to 83.”)

Fortunately, reason did not dissuade me, conservative as I usually am. And hindsight has been fun.

Before I signed a publishing contract with my good friend, I made sure we were both comfortable with the terms (no advance, but a good royalty), as well as with the edit and the artist we ultimately selected. About halfway through this process, I realized that pre-sales materials for our distributor, PGW, would not be ready on time although we could have the book itself out for the holidays. I decided we would do a small, 10,000-copy test run (printed in Hong Konga first for us) so the books could be sold in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. This would give us a little sales experience plus finished books as samples for the following year. I was counting on the fact that the author was a great promoter and would sell a lot of the copies herself through her audiences. (She did.) And then that first preview year, we got that perfect, local newspaper book review at the end of November and we had a local sellout!

 

The Bandwagon Rolls

There is NO better way than this to go into the next season. We had a success story, accounts that we couldn’t send enough books to, and copies for large accounts to see. That next year, we had a book club order, Scholastic book fairs, a Christmas table plan with Barnes & Noble (pricey, but worth it), and a whole lot of interest in the book. Our basic print order was for 50,000 copies. We actually had do another print-run domestically before we even shipped our initial order from overseas; this was because we had been forced to place that first print-run order so far in advance. The year after that, Books Are Fun (a corporate/institutional book fair and school display company) joined the bandwagon to the tune of 65,000 copies.

We marketed to special interest accounts; an example is a local, major flower store chain that sells more than blossoms at Christmas. The author made an appearance at their big holiday event. We worked with their gift market accounts and reps, offering display stands, autographed copies. We even placed elastic gold ribbons around each copy to make it look more gifty.

The book has never made it on Oprah, try as we do every year. Still we plug away as best our company can.

We know that when customers touch the book, it sells.

 

Holiday-Book Hassles

So all of this is the good news. What could possibly be wrong with this picture? Now the following litany is not to complain; it just reflects the realities of this kind of book in our business.

1. Trade returns are especially high because the sale of this seasonal book ENDS on December 25th. (Yuck.) It’s bad enough getting the books returned, but they return over the next seven months, every year.

2. After the first year or two (maybe three), NO ONE wants to review the book or to talk to your author, for the most part.

3. It takes extra planning with our distributor. Ours is an old book that is new each year even though the ISBN stays the same. And we need to place our holiday order to send overseas before the distributor has its fall sales conference.

4. Your cash flow gets quite a bit lopsided.

5. Publishers keep putting out new Christmas titles. (Come on, guys, you’re crowding us out here.)

6. Everyone sends you their Christmas story manuscript, and it is hard for them to understand why you don’t want to publish another Christmas title.

7. And did I mention the bookstore returns?

 

And the Tree Goes On

Our company spun off an audiotape and a version of the book packaged with a CD (after all, we are book publishers, not CD publishers), and we developed a church play kit too (and marketed it but with only minor success). Now that Christmas is not politically correct in the public school system, we could not market the book there.

Janie has had many inspirational experiences in the course of being published, and The Littlest Christmas Tree gave her speaking career a terrific boost. We’re now publishing a poem of hers (“You’ve Got What It Takes!”) as part of a new line of gift books we’ve developed called !NK or ! Notable Keepsakes. (Check those out at www.bookpeddlers.com, even though you can only really appreciate these books when you see and feel them.)

The author and I are still good friends (although there were moments, as I suspected there would be), and we keep selling this absolutely beautiful, wonderful Christmas book very well.

 

Vicki Lansky fell into the publishing business more than 30 years ago when she and her then-husband self-published “Feed Me I’m Yours” (a baby/toddler food cookbook) out of their home. It has sold more than 3 million copies, and she has written more than 30 other books on parenting and household hints–many for major New York houses. Lansky now publishes much of her work through Book Peddlers, the publishing company she runs in the suburbs of Minneapolis. For the last few years, she has been publishing more and more titles by other authors. You’ll find her company’s Web site at http://www.bookpeddlers.com.

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