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A Tale of Two Books

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The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson employs scientists, researchers, educators, and specialists in everything from ichthyology and herpetology (fishes and reptiles) to botany and mineralogy. When I came to work in 1994 as the museum’s new–and first–publications manager, I felt a bit overwhelmed by the task of selecting that all-important first book topic.

To narrow the possibilities, I decided to take an approach that had served me well during the five years I ran a small press in Colorado. I tested.

I made mock-up covers for 15 possible book topics and mounted them on foam-core. Then I had museum volunteers set up a table and ask our visitors what books they’d be most likely to buy, how much they’d be willing to pay, and what they wanted the books to look like.

Results indicated that our first publication should be an inexpensive, four-color book on hummingbirds. The topic of hummingbirds was also an excellent fit for our museum because we operate a world-renowned hummingbird aviary. We thought we had a winning topic. And we did. The Secret Lives of Hummingbirds continues to sell as well today as it did when it was first published in 1995. The book is now in its fifth printing, having sold more than 60,000 copies. The vast majority of these sales have come from non-bookstore retail outlets, such as nature shops, gift shops, national and state park visitors centers, and nonprofit organizations. Surprisingly, our museum gift shop has accounted for only a fraction of total sales.

When You Twist the Truth

We decided to publish another one of our early books on arthropods (spiders,
insects, scorpions, and the like), because these animals are an important part of the museum’s interpretivcgrogramming. Although our tests showed that this was not a topic that especially captivated our target audience, we produced the book anyway, fooling ourselves into thinking that our testing methodology was flawed or our testing results were somehow biased.

They weren’t. Sales were abysmal. Books from our initial print run still sit in our warehouse, taking up precious room and collecting dust (and spiders).

Two to Grow On

I’ve learned a lot of painful but valuable lessons during my 14 years as a publisher. The happy hummingbird story and not-so-happy arthropod story
above bring two important lessons to mind.

Lesson One: Know Your Customers. Take the time to find out about their
reading and buying habits, their likes and dislikes, their dreams and concerns.

Lesson Two: Don’t Ignore Lesson One. We ignored Lesson One by publishing a book that our target audience told us they didn’t especially want. Other publishers ignore Lesson One by producing books based solely on a “gut feeling.” Acting on a gut feeling is great, as long as the viability of the topic is established through market research prior to publishing.

I’ve found that when I know who my customers are and what they want, then
back it up with a sound business plan and a quality product, I seldom disappoint myself, my organization, or my customers.

Steve Phillips runs the one-person publications program at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Prior to that, he owned and operated a one-person publishing company in Denver. He and his wife live in a little adobe house in the desert, surrounded by both hummingbirds and arthropods, and he can be reached at sphillips@desertmuseum.org.


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