As I confessed last month, I was usually afforded one “do-over” by my understanding family when I goofed as a child. Keeping that thought in mind, I asked our members what they would do over in their publishing lives if they had the chance. Emails poured in.
Last month I presented some, and there were so many good ones that I decided to share more in this month’s column. I’m still left with many, many great contributions that will go unprinted, but I want to thank everyone who responded and to make sure you all know that, if I had the power, you would be granted your requested “do-over.”
A Lesson Learned but Not Regretted
I gifted 1,600 14″ _ 20″ acrylic poster display stands (with a small foot that takes up very little space) to independent bookstores all over the world. Not only did I gift that, I also took an extra step by gifting 6,500 press kits to universities, libraries, and bookstores worldwide. I spent over $100,000 on gifting, and for what? I can never recoup my costs unless the buyers buy. In hindsight, I should have romanced the distributors and large chains instead, because they know that kind of marketing works–big, beautiful stands to announce that something important, something new and different is about to be offered. (That’s another story–seven to be exact–visit www.sevenbooks.com and www.mayanprophecy.net for details.)
Looking back, it was inner guidance that told me to gift the silk-screened stands and glossy crackle-glaze posters to the independent bookstores. It was my love for the privately owned, small companies that inspired me to do it. If this could be made into a “do-over,” what would I do? The same thing.
Inspiration happens for a reason . . .
President & CEO
Search Engines and Public Appearances
Actually, we have very few regrets. However, we were slow to understand the impact of the Internet and how to use it effectively, particularly in reference to what keywords to put out to the search engines. And we may have overestimated the impact of public appearances. Appearances on local shows and even two national broadcast programs did not have nearly the impact that we hoped they would.
Other than that . . . smooth sailing, excellent growth!
R. Wayne Gilpin
Watch Those Dollars
When you’re a very small company with a matching promotional budget, you need to be incredibly careful about how you spend advertising dollars. I wish we could have every dollar back that we did not apply toward a tightly targeted audience. Because our books are parenting books, they are more easily targeted than some. That is an advantage we need to judiciously exploit.
Examples of publications that we have had a good return on: Pregnancy magazine and PMA Targeted Marketing Catalogs. Examples of publications we have not had results from: Publishers Weekly, ForeWord, Library Journal, and general PMA mailings such as Public Library and Books for Review flyers.
Oh, there are so many! But I think the biggest one would be our attempt to enter the children’s book market practically simultaneously with our start-up in the adult trade market. We contracted with an author for a series of books; we edited several of them, brought three to art/pages (including contracting with three artists, also on a royalty basis), and devised and carried out a set of focus tests (which showed one of our books a substantial “winner”) at the same time as we hired a firm to work with us to develop a complete marketing plan and financial picture five years out. By the time we saw the big picture and gave all rights back to the author and artists and scurried out of there, the company had sunk about $75,000 into that false start.
VanderWyk & Burnham
Setting a Target
Working in a small, collaborative nonprofit organization, we come to a lot of decisions with group input. I truly value a diverse number of opinions on titles and covers, and I get a lot of them; but I also wish I had set up the expectation that I, as publisher, had the final say a lot earlier. I’ve come to trust my instincts on this very important part of the process, and it’s paid off. I also think it’s a relief to staff to know that the buck stops with me, even if they don’t always agree with my final decision. If I had it to do over, I’d trust my instincts sooner, save time, and worry less about reaching consensus.
Executive Director of Enterprise Services and Director of Publishing
Weighing Your Printing Options
If I had a do-over, I would be a lot more conservative in my spending. I would not have maxed out a couple of credit cards for things I mistakenly thought I needed to do. They didn’t help, and I wish I had put the money into an offset print run instead of being stuck with POD a case at a time. I’m now saving my earnings toward that large print run, which should be soon.
All Opportunities Are Not Equal
When Square One started operation, we contracted for a wonderful book called Postcards from World War Two. It was a collection of real postcard images and messages sent by our boys in the U.S. armed forces. We put together a color proof of the book and sent it off to the chains. First thing out of the chute, we got a call from the Barnes & Noble special-events buyer, telling us that our book had been selected for its Christmas holiday front-of-store on-the-table program. They would buy 18,000 copies, and we would pay a $9,000 promotion fee.
I was thrilled, but I could tell that there was a little hesitancy in the buyer’s voice when I said that this was a great opportunity for a small start-up. He asked if I was sure–and I, who should have asked more questions, said absolutely. We got the book out on time; it was distributed throughout the B&N chain, and B&N paid its bill minus the $9,000 fee.
Well, for the next two and a half years, we got back about 60 percent of the books we had sold B&N. In retrospect, it was not a good opportunity for a new company. My initial printing was much larger than I had originally planned for, and for the next two-plus years, my cash flow was anemic because of the constant chargebacks on returns.
My do-over would have been to ask the buyer more questions; ask other small publishers who had previously participated in this type of buy what their experience had been; and not jump at what I thought was an opportunity. Sometimes it does pay to just say no.
Hire the Best
The one do-over that I wish I had is about finding the right people to do the best job and not being skimpy on the pay. In the beginning phase of our company, we hired people who came with good credentials. However, although they had the degrees, they did not have the experience. This made a huge difference in the completed work. We had to rehire editors and graphic artists. Having a poorly edited book is a quick way to ruin a new reputation.
I’d have to go with accepting the fact that everything passes. Enjoy
the ups and don’t get wrapped up in the drama of issues that arise. Don’t make too much of obstacles, because they pass, they really do. And make a lot out of the good times because they pass too–too quickly.
I wish we’d have thrown more parties to celebrate our staff, our authors, and ourselves for the collective efforts that made public all the wonderful messages we’ve been blessed to deliver. Now we throw a party every few months (a luau or even a simple potluck sometimes) to laugh at our stresses and celebrate our successes. And because we do, we’re a happier and more bonded bunch, and we work together more level-headedly through the difficult times.
I hope this helps.
Remember That Finance Is Part of Publishing
The area we truly botched when establishing Corinthian Books seven years ago was properly setting up our accounting system. As we entered the publishing system cold, from the outside, it was probably inevitable.
We use QuickBooks Pro 2004, and it’s a delight for all the basic invoicing, accounts payable, accounts receivable, and inventory chores. On the other hand, we’ve tuned, retuned, and re-re-retuned it to accommodate the bizarre accounting needs of our curious calling. Compared to the standard business practices of other major industries, those of the publishing industry range from Byzantine to bizarre. Returns, of course, is the biggest of the nightmares, for it impacts everything from simple profit and loss to author royalties and the need for royalty escrow accounts based on conjectural rates of book returns.
The accountants who originally set up the chart of accounts were simply incompetent, and ignored much of what we told them. A succession of replacement accountants each started from ground zero and did little better. It wasn’t until we were blessed with a gift-from-God new bookkeeper two years ago (thank you, Christy <BG>) that we worked out the bugs, one by one. We have been developing a new beta version of our personalized Quickbooks accounting system for several months on a trial basis alongside the existing “real” one, and we’ll implement our version on January 1, 2006. It should work pretty well, as we’ve configured our chart of accounts to coincide exactly with the input lines from IRS Form 1040, Schedule C (Sole Proprietorship).
I’m a Buddhist. In my next incarnation, I’ve already put in my request to come back as an art-history detective. I think it will be a lot easier–and probably more profitable–than being a publisher!
Richard N. Côté
My one do-over would be doing some aggressive advance publicity with review copies to far more prospects. The only advance release we did went to Coastal Living, and wow, did it ever pay off! Not knowing that some key reviewers only want books prior to publishing was a rookie mistake. Fortunately we sold our first 10K in six months because we had a good product. The second 10K is half gone after three months, and the next 10K arrives in 10 days. Had I hired an advance publicist, we might be at 50K by now.
Chesapeake Seaglass Publishing
Timing as Everything
I suppose you could look at a do-over as reflecting a “mistake.” Some mistakes prove to be invaluable lessons in life; others take years from which to recover. My biggest mistake was not launching my publishing company when I had the idea, the funding, and the authors. I waited 10 precious years. In that decade, I could have established the company that has now taken me seven years, and I would be that much wiser and further along.
The moral of the story is that when we see opportunity, we need to embrace it and run with it. Timing is sometimes everything.
Auricle Ink Publishers
Remember Your Mission Statement
We did a few things right early on. We selected and published books that would become good backlist and that were under the radar of the big guys but could produce a nice stream of income for us. We also (very fortunately for us) secured a distribution arrangement with a British publisher that gave us a high profile in the markets we were pursuing and a nice critical mass of titles that we could market more effectively than if we had to depend solely on finding and developing our own list.
But we also then got distracted, and failed to focus on our original mission as much as we should have. We should have taken our early success and gone on to find and carefully develop titles in markets slightly larger than the ones we were in. Instead we let ourselves focus on the markets that our distribution arrangement allowed, even though that was not in our plan. We got scared, too, with costs and risks (both of success and failure).
We should have kept to our plan and worked harder at making sure we were doing what worked best for us. We would have gotten where we are now years ago.
Use a Qualified Outside Source
If I had the do-over, I would have an outside expert in my field review my books and advise me on how to make them stand out as “unique.”
D. Preston Smith
Go with Your Feelings
Your topic is an interesting one, and it sends me back to many events when I learned the hard way by observing outcomes. I’ll share a recent event with you.
This concerns a book that we contracted for a number of months ago. In my meeting with the author we discussed a number of matters, including the potential audience for her book and how it would be marketed. I suggested a subtitle that would make the book more searchable, and this led to a discussion of whether the book was mostly nonfiction with some fictional elements or a novel with some real characters. She seemed unclear herself, and I suggested that as fiction it simply wouldn’t fly, but as nonfiction it might have a real audience. We agreed that we would market the book as nonfiction and include a photo gallery of the real characters.
I was left with some misgivings about her seeming lack of clarity on such a fundamental issue, but we signed the contract and began development. The issue of fiction vs. nonfiction kept coming up, and I began to think it might be best to terminate the contract, but each time I came to this point she would back down and we would go forward.
After I had the project paged, the author came forward with some concern that she didn’t have permission to use some of the names of the real characters who were living, and they might not like what she had said about them. This sent me to an attorney, who raised red flags with me. I, in turn, raised red flags with the author, and she said that she would change the names of those characters and everything would be OK. Now I was feeling worse and worse about the project but went ahead to page proofs. At this point the author informed me that the book was really historical fiction and we should change the subject labeling on the cover and make appropriate changes on the interior to reflect that change. That was enough for me to finally cancel the contract.
What did I learn from this? I could have saved myself several months of work if I had really listened to my first misgivings and canceled the contract at the outset, or not gone forward with the project at all. My resolution to myself is that I will offer a contract only when I feel really sure about the project and the author I’m dealing with.
I hope this tale of woe will be of some use to you in your column. I’ve made enough changes in the details about the author and the project so you can use the story in any way you see fit.
Pilgrims Process, Inc.
The Reason We Love Publishing
When I looked back 11 years to the first book I published myself–over those years of intense self-education, struggling and striving to support the business and publish another book, experimenting, failing, experimenting, succeeding–I was surprised that I couldn’t think of any do-overs. It must be because of my business philosophy.
To me, hitting a dead end was just part of getting through the maze. The mistakes were invaluable lessons. The struggles made me stronger.
I had a wonderful cartoon posted near my desk. In it, a man stood at a chalkboard. The board was divided into two columns. The first column, “Successes,” had a few tick marks in it. The second column, “Lessons Learned,” had dozens and dozens of marks. Well, yes. This is how we gradually become professionals: real authors and real publishers and real marketers.
If I could do something over, what would it be? Would I print in China from the beginning? Devote more time to savvy marketing? Narrow my markets to those that work best instead of scattering my fire? Maybe. But somehow, I like the way my business has unfolded. After all, I named it Trickle Creek Books, not White Water Rapids.
Trickle Creek Books
“Teaching Kids to Care for the Earth”
Finally, a touch of humor that will resonate with many publishers out there who have similar thoughts. This one brought a grin to my face:
Making Books Move
We would never print a 336-page casebound book of poetry for our first book!
A wise man once remarked that selling poetry in America is like dropping a leaf into the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo. A prophetic observation. Hey . . . why don’t you award a poetry book to each person who sends in a do-over? Wow, do I have a deal for you!
Epic Publishing Company