< back to full list of articles
If At First You Don’t Succeed, and Also If You Do: A PMA Roundtable on Lessons Start-Ups Learn

or Article Tags

The many, many PMA members who responded to the “How did your first books do?” e-mail message didn’t just send interesting and instructive stories. They also, altogether, shed light on some publishing norms, with the result that even the newest publishers can now know more about what to expect.

For instance, responses show certain common mistakes of omission. Looking back on their first books, publishers often report suffering financially. The trouble, they say, is that “I didn’t …”

  • Realize how much marketing you have to do and how expensive it is
  • Manage to do enough marketing even though I knew what was necessary
  • Get a professional cover (and/or professional editing, copyediting, etc.)
  • Learn enough about production to deal effectively with printers
  • Spend enough time and effort preparing for each step in the publishing process.

Fortunately, though, some first-timers were able to become profitable quickly and those who weren’t generally found ways to improve their bottom lines going forward–thanks in large part to the mistakes they’d cursed themselves about, which turned out to be powerful learning devices. Only a handful of publishers said that they’d never made a profit, and this small group tended to focus on rewards like creativity, status, and feedback from appreciative readers, rather than on money.

Judging by all the reports, managing money better the second time around means spending differently rather than spending less. Many publishers noted that they’d learned to cut printing costs and to pay more for editing, for design (including cover design), and for marketing moves that will bear financial fruit.

The stories that follow make up the first installment of PMA members’ reports on traveling the road from start-up to profitable publishing company.

– Judith Appelbaum


Price Points & Critical Mass

Parenting Press published its first book in 1979. Our very first lesson had to do with the inevitable errors–on the way home from the printer with the first copies, our eight-year-old son found two mistakes. We took the book away from him so he wouldn’t find any more–at least not right away.

That book, Without Spanking or Spoiling: A Practical Guide to Toddler and Preschool Guidance, was self-published. Being completely new to book publishing, we agonized over the size of the initial print run, trying to get a unit cost low enough so that parents could afford the cover price and at the same time minimize the risk of the books not selling. We finally settled on 5,000 copies, which cost us about $6,700 (including overrun) for keyboarding, printing, binding, and shipping.

The cost of the initial printing–something like $1.30 per copy–included charges that would not be incurred today (retyping the manuscript into the typesetter) as well as non-recurring setup costs. The current production costs are about $1.22 per copy for a run of about 4,500.

Shortly after Without Spanking was published, my wife Elizabeth prepared an entry for her Girl Scout Troop’s reunion book. In it, she mentioned the book and

expressed the fear that she would have 3,500 copies for the rest of her life. This

has turned out to be correct, but fortunately it is not same 3,500 copies! Without Spanking, now in its second edition, has sold more than 160,000 copies.

It took us about nine months to break even on the book, counting pre-publication expenses, promotion, and shipping–but “break-even” then included the money people still owed us. So, actually, breaking even in cash took an additional year, including paying for a second printing (where we cleaned up those typographical errors).


This brings up the major lesson we learned during the first year: Don’t under-price your book. After about 80% of the first printing had been sold, we looked at finances and projected that we would make $50 on the entire first printing. We immediately raised the price on the remaining 1,000 copies. Our current rule-of-thumb is that the cover price should be between eight and ten times the cost of printing, binding, and shipping.

Another important lesson we learned is that it is very difficult to get repeat sales with a single title. We decided that we needed to keep bringing out new material, and that we couldn’t write it all ourselves. So Parenting Press branched out from being a self-publishing enterprise and became a small publishing house. It’s now been 23 years and we’ve published about 90 books by 40+ authors.

Fred Crary, Parenting Press

Web site: http://www.ParentingPress.com/

[subhead]Lead-Time Lessons

Allcourt Publishing’s initial title was Black Flight: Breaking Barriers to Blacks in Aviation. Despite the fact that we carefully read books on self-publishing,

some unnecessary expenditures did occur, including several hundred dollars for storage and freight costs that could have been avoided if we had anticipated the length of time it takes to line up a distributor.

In retrospect, we should have set a publication date that was six months (not three) after galley proofs went out. While reviewers and distributors will accept galleys three months prior to publication, six months is a better lead time for chains and their acceptance helps attract a distributor. Also, we should have been more aware of ancillary costs when deciding how many books to order.  While the cost of each book diminishes significantly as the number ordered increases, the cost of freight, storage, and potentially unsold books increases.

From what I have heard about sales on self-published works, we beat the odds. Within four months of publication date, our sales allowed us to recoup our printing costs (but not freight, etc.) on an order of 3,000. Had we limited our initial run to 1,000, though, we would have made a profit sooner.

Finally, it would have been valuable to join PMA before the book was released rather than after. Besides the helpful articles, we would have been faster in taking advantage of PMA’s programs.

Roger Forsyth, Allcourt Publishing

Web site: www.blackflight.org

An Opportunity with Options

I started Keller Publishing as a ghostwriter of personal memoirs. Publishing consisted of making a few copies for friends and relatives.

Then Ron Groenke, a fellow Rotarian, gave a talk on how he had been making over 25% a year on his stock portfolio by selling “covered calls,” which are options you sell to someone else (unlike most people, Ron says you make money by selling options, not buying them). The buyer then has the right to purchase your stock at a price you set during a time period you set. A light went on. “Ron, my friend,” I said, “you’ve got a book!”

This would not be just for friends and relatives. This would be for the masses, the best-seller lists, fame and glory, and maybe even a review in The Wall Street Journal.

It took about eight months to put the book together. We decided to write it as a novel. Finally, with manuscript in hand, it was time to become the publisher. I remembered that I had bought 10 ISBNs from Bowker three years before and had used one for a memoir to make it look more impressive. So I selected the next one for this book, The Money Tree: Risk Free Options Trading. I produced camera-ready copy in Microsoft Word, printing it on my HP 2000C deskjet. Ron designed a two-color cover.

We checked the prices for different runs and decided on 2,500 copies at a cost of just under $1.25 per book (128 pages, paperback, 5_ x 8_). Typically, options books sell for over $20, some quite a bit over, but we decided on $19.95 because of our book’s size. We figured out that our breakeven point would be achieved if we could sell just 167 copies. To date, we have sold more than 500.

Of course, we made some marketing mistakes, but it’s more fun to talk about what we did right. Our first big coup was a feature story in the local paper. Almost overnight, we sold 100 copies. We lined up book-signings at the local Barnes & Noble and B. Dalton. Before the signings, we got on the local NBC and CBS affiliates as well as the local talk radio. This was surprisingly easy. And the bread-and-butter retailing channel has been local Rotary, Kiwanis, and investment clubs. When we can get before an audience, we typically sell to 30% of those attending.

Now we are gleefully making plans for the second printing.

Wade Keller, Keller Publishing

Web site:



[subhead] Deciding How Many to Print

About 25 years ago, I was a consultant to the Lakota at the Standing Rock Reservation (North Dakota) on technical matters (computers and communications). I made some friends and kept in contact with them through the years. When my retirement approached, I decided to put together a series of stories as told from the Lakota point of view.


String of Beads Publications was organized in 1999 to write, illustrate, and publish Young Adult books on the drama of Native American history. The name comes from a statement attributed to Crazy Horse: “I thought again of the string of beads in my vision. There were bright beads and dull beads and plump beads and shriveled beads. There were beads that glowed with life and dark beads that ate the light.” And ourinitial release, Crazy Horse Chronicles, is an illustrated trilogy on the life of Crazy Horse and Black Robe Woman based on actual events and real people with a fictional storyline.


For the first book (The War of the Mormon Cow), I had 3,800 copies printed–a major mistake. I printed 1,000 for the second book (Black Robe Woman, Lakota Warrior)–a much more realistic quantity for introducing new books, a new publisher, and a unique book format (8_ x 9, hardcover). The first book retails at $16.95 and cost about $3.60 a copy to print ($13,680 total for the print run). The second book retails at $18.95 and cost about $7.08 a book to print ($7,080 total), because of the smaller print run of a thousand. Sales to date have been about 750 books for The War of the Mormon Cow and 625 for Black Robe Woman, Lakota Warrior (with less than 18 months exposure).

Public and school libraries constitute my primary market and I am building a following among a community of Crazy Horse and Lakota aficionados. I’ve had good reviews from School Library Journal and other credible review services. Orders continue on both books at a steady pace and I have standing orders for the third, newly published book–Two Fires in the Night. I work with Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and Baker & Taylor and also offer books–with free shipping–on our Web site. My profit margin is small in the commercial market that requires a 55% discount but decent in the library market. It took me a full year, by the way, just to get my books into the distribution system.

Now, in my fourth year of operation, I show a small profit on print and direct costs but I’m not paying myself or my illustrator salary or royalties. It’s a labor of love for both of us.

The most important lesson I’ve learned is to go with my instincts. I thought the initial sales volume would be low (about 1,000-1,500), but was easily convinced by my printer to double that. And my advice to others is not only to keep your initial volume low but also to set the selling price for the worst-case buyer (55% discount, returnable, and the publisher pays shipping).

Recently I hired a professional PR agent and had several radio interviews, and the books have been optioned for an animated movie or TV series. The future looks bright, but it does take a while for everything to get going.


Richard Jepperson, String of Beads Publications

Web site:



What Did Work

The books we published first were Confessions of a Corporate Centurion and From Communism to Capitalism, both by Gordon S. Riess. Confessions is a collection of unusual exploits and escapades during the author’s 30 years living and working around the world. From Communism (which could just as well have been called Marketing without Money) describes problems and opportunities in helping organizations in former Communist countries make the difficult transition to the competitive free-market environment.

We broke even on the first book and have made a modest profit so far on the second. Having learned that some expenditures on publicity produced negligible or no results, we spent about half as much on promotion for From Communism.

Since both books are still in print and selling, we expect to earn profits on each one going forward.

The most important lessons we learned from our own experience were:


  • Direct mail did not result in any significant response or any book orders.
  • The author’s lecture tours were a very effective way of promoting book sales.
  • Entering the books in literary competitions generated excellent publicity (both books won awards).
  • The cover art was a much more important factor than we had anticipated.
  • An ad in Radio-TV Interview Report generated calls for about 25 author interviews on radio stations and three on television stations.
  • It was easy to obtain articles in the hometown newspapers and in magazines and newsletters published by organizations in which the author was a member–including alumni associations and professional societies.

Sandy Sanderson, Four Continents Press


[subhead] Staying Power after the Shivers

Our first title, The American Gothic Cookbook–featuring Grant Wood’s famous

painting of the man and woman with a pitchfork–launched Penfield Press in

1979. Our printer said our best price was to print 10,000 6 x 9 copies

with the painting in full color on the cover. So we did for $1 each.

We charged the printing run and shivered for the first three weeks. And within six months, we needed a second printing! Recipes were from Grant, his sister Nan Wood Graham (who modeled for the painting), relatives of Dr. Byron McKeeby (the man with the pitchfork), and people who knew the artist. The book is now a stocking stuffer, redesigned at 3_ x 5_ with the painting of American Gothic still gracing the front cover, and we have never let it go out of print although the imprint is now from our sister company, Penfield Books.

We have more than 100 titles in print now through Penfield Press and our sister company, Penfield Books, and a Web-site bookstore linking to the Amazon.com Advantage program.

Joan Liffring-Zug Bourret, Penfield Press

Web site:


Partnerships that Fuel Profits

When I published and edited my father’s memoirs, Alcatraz Island: Memoirs of a Rock Doc, there were many “hidden” expenses (such as purchasing a block of ISBNs) because I had to set up a business, not just publish a book. I estimate that the first edition cost about $6 per copy and I began to make money after the first 500 copies were sold. This took about eight months.

My second edition–which is just about ready for prime time–cost about half as much (no graphic designer fees, ISBNs, etc., and a larger print run because of the book’s success thus far).

I am very definitely selling my first book. It’s still getting visibility, and I’m still mailing review copies. Some exciting things have happened as a result of participating in PMA’s foreign book fairs: (1) Rights were sold to a small publisher in the U.K. and Ireland; (2) Reading copies were sent to three large publishers overseas; (3) One of these (Nabu in Italy) is interested in a one-year exclusive contract for translation rights (German, French, Italian, and Spanish!). I am so thrilled!!!!


Having a Web site helped launch the Alcatraz book and learning that folks don’t really like to buy from my Web site propelled me to Amazon, barnesandnoble.com, and others. It seems that helping people buy from a credible source has not only sold copies but also saved me about $500 year in credit card fees and shopping card add-ons.

And one more lesson: Stay positive and feel continuous passion for your creation.


Dianne Beacher Perfit, Pelican Island Publishing

Web site:



Product & Printer Issues

Eclipse Press evolved naturally from our core business, The Blood-Horse magazine, a national weekly devoted to thoroughbred racing and breeding. We defined our mission: to focus on the sport of thoroughbred horse racing and the welfare and enjoyment of the horse. We also set a lofty goal: to become the country’s largest equine book publisher.

We had two initial projects–a book featuring the art of equine portraitist Richard Stone Reeves and the first volume of a projected series of horse health-care titles. We made mistakes with the art book that taught us how important it is to define the product well and get quotes from many printers. Nevertheless, Crown Jewels of Thoroughbred Racing went on to become a good money-maker.

Our second book, Understanding EPM (Equine Protozoal Myeloencephalitis, a neurological disease) became an excellent model for our nascent business. We hit the mark on author fees, printing costs, format, and intended audience and launched a 20-book series that is an excellent revenue source.

We now publish 10 to 15 titles a year and have about 80 on our backlist. We are still learning after five years as a book publisher, but think we’re doing a lot of things right–especially getting competitive bids from printers, planning well in advance, and having great marketing support.
Jacqueline Duke, Eclipse Press

Web site: http://www.eclipsepress.com/

Nothing Wrong with Small

Circlet Press has been publishing for 11 years now, but it all started very humbly with Telepaths Don’t Need Safewords. It was a chapbook, just 40 pages, done on a Xerox machine. The first run was 100 copies, saddle-stapled by hand by Cecilia Tan, the author and the founder of the company. They sold out in one weekend at a science fiction convention, and we went back to press for 500 copies, perfect bound from a professional printer. Those sold out within a year and we went back for 1,500. Two years later, we did a run of 2,000, and those have just run out recently.

The first 100 cost under 10 cents each, because we got the photocopying free. Now it’s about 45 cents to do each book because they are so small.

After doing that chapbook, we did a few more small ones, but quickly moved into trade paperbacks. Our typical book today is 200-250 pages, 5

_ x 8_, four-color cover, perfect bound, and our unit cost is around $2.

The most important lessons we learned are: Don’t bite off more than you can chew and let things grow gradually.

Ava Perry, Circlet Press

Web site: www.circlet.com


[subhead] Lotto Books with Legs

I never had thought of myself as a publisher–much less a writer! My 20s and early 30s were spent traveling around the world searching for adventure. It took 12 years of nonstop travel in 136 countries to quench my wanderlust.

When I returned to the USA, I became a stockbroker. Then just before the big gold rush in the late 1970s, I became a commodities futures trader. I used charting and technical analysis to help make my investment decisions.

In 1982, out of curiosity, I charted the New York lottery numbers. To my astonishment, I found that randomly drawn numbers formed the same patterns with the same degree of predictability as my stocks and commodities had. Eager to share my discovery, I started writing a weekly column for a New York paper.  People started winning with my systems.

Word spread. I was approached by a marketing company to write a book. From 1985 to 1987, the book was advertised in full-page newspaper and magazine ads. My half-hour infomercial aired for one year (1986-1987). My first book sold over two million copies by mail order in the USA, Canada, and Australia.

Having made a name for myself, I decided to publish my own books. In 1988, I published my first title, Lotto How to Wheel a Fortune.

I went wild spending money on advertising–a lot of it in the wrong places. That first year was an expensive education, but eventually I learned the importance of such things as CPM, demographics, and ad placement. I also leaned how to negotiate for discounts on ads–and the art of getting free publicity on radio, television, newspapers, and magazines.

In spite of my initial ignorance and extravagant ad campaigns, I managed to make a profit on the first printing. Two years later, I published an expanded second edition. The 1997 third edition is still in print and selling briskly.

My books have now been translated into Spanish, French, German, Norwegian, Latvian, Korean, Mao Chinese (sold in China), and traditional Chinese (sold in Taiwan). Lottery Master Guide–which I wrote and published in 1997–has consistently been the number one best-selling lottery book on Amazon.com.

Never has there been a better time for self-publishers. The Internet has revolutionized the world of marketing; I now spend a fraction of the amount I used to spend on advertising, which leaves more profit for me. Also, books can be printed in quantities at prices unheard of a few years ago.

Gail Howard, Smart Luck Publishers

Web site:


[subhead] Beware the Long and Clever Title

The first book that I published was a quote book titled How Many Books Do You Sell in Ohio: A Quote Book for Writers, and I screwed up on both the title and the front cover. I have since learned not to trust my own judgment when it comes to covers, and I now use only designers who specialize in books. Also, I have those designers prepare at least three covers, and I show those covers to bookstore managers to see what they think. A book’s cover, I have learned, is your book’s most important advertisement.

I also made a mistake choosing a title that I loved and thought was catchy. The title came from something John Ehrlichman said when I interviewed him for one of my earlier books, which was about the 1970 killings at Kent State. I asked Ehrlichman, former President Richard M. Nixon’s Chief Domestic Adviser, why his memoirs barely mentioned Ohio Senator William B. Saxbe, who was appointed Nixon’s Attorney General in the wake of the infamous Saturday Night Massacre. Ehrlichman told me: “I wrote quite a bit about this, and then edited it out on the basis that probably nobody ever heard of Saxbe or cared about him.” When I countered: “Well, in Ohio, we do,” Ehrlichman responded: “Yeah, I know, but how many books do you sell in Ohio?” It was a slip of the tongue that meant he wrote history with his eyes glued to the cash register!

The title may have been a good anecdote to use on talk shows, but it meant nothing to many readers.

There is another reason why I would not use a long or clever title again. Nowadays, bookstore computers typically recognize only 25 characters in a title, so you need to keep your titles short and to the point.

I lost about $6,000 publishing the quote book, about a third of that on getting the manuscript professionally typeset (this was before I had a computer). But fortunately, I ended up making a modest profit, and 13 years after I had published it, I sold the rights to McGraw-Hill, which brought out a revised and updated version under the more suitable title The Quotable Writer.

William A. Gordon, North Ridge Books

Web site: www.nrbooks.com


[subhead] Not All Niches Are Created Equal

In 1996, I published a book for churches, Managing the Pastoral Search Process. It had a single color cover and cost about $3.50 per copy, mainly because I had only 850 copies printed. I was only able to move about 150 in the first year, and I don’t know that I ever made it into the black from the first book. However I learned a lot and simply made the decision to move forward with my second book, Fixing Your Feet: Prevention and Treatments for Athletes, published in 1997 and now in its second edition.

I spent more on the second one because of cover design and art. However the expense has been recouped over time as I have sold more than 7,500 copies and the book’s success helped established me as a speaker on writing topics.

Now I realize the importance of writing a book geared to a specific audience and knowing how to reach them. All my writing is done for niche markets.

John Vonhof, Footwork Publications

Web site: http://www.footworkpub.com


Connect With Us

1020 Manhattan Beach Blvd., Suite 204 Manhattan Beach, CA 90266
P: 310-546-1818 F: 310-546-3939 E: info@IBPA-online.org
© Independent Book Publishers Association