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In the Beginning: A Hopeful Self-Publisher Reports on the Start-Up Stage

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I once believed that fulfillment was a good day with the family or a long ride on my unicycle. Since I wrote One Wheel–Many Spokes: USA by Unicycle, it has come to mean linking myself with readers. As an author/publisher who opted for speed and independence, I’ve ended up expending a lot of effort creating links to readers.

The process began two years ago with the doubtfully practical, yet undeniably powerful vision of unicycling through our 50 United States. On earlier bicycle trips across the USA and on a honeymoon trip through Europe, I had created journals. This time, on a unicycle at the age of 40, I felt a deep desire to wrap language into this odyssey and to share it with others. E-mail updates to more than 500 people kept me disciplined in my writing and provided the core from which I wrote One Wheel–Many Spokes.

As I moved from writing to publishing, I envisioned everything from unicycling through malls with a backpack of books to having copies stocked in Ingram’s warehouses. Now I’ve got the whole spectrum covered. When the publication date arrives in April 2004, I will have three major ways for readers to access One Wheel–Many Spokes.

Here’s what I’ve put together after listening to pros like Dan Poynter and John Kremer, researching the Web, taking advantage of PMA programs, and spending lots of time on the telephone.

My Best Routes to Readers

Direct sales–low quantity but high profit–are one of my major goals as an independent publisher. From Kiwanis clubs to unicycling clubs (I found more than 100 on the Web), wherever I speak I’ll sell books for the full cover price. My only costs will be printing, getting the books shipped to my home, and processing credit cards–about 20 percent of the $14.95 price on the cover. With this incentive I’ll be pedaling in front of as many crowds as I can find, sharing the experience of following my dream onto the road, of half a year of adventure together with family, and of the unending hospitality we experienced from strangers who treated us like best friends.

Bike shops, gift stores, coffee shops, catalogs, and Web sites can all be special sales channels for me. I’ve already received requests for books from stores that have been supportive of my unicycle ride. These will be the nucleus for building an expanding web of business around the One Wheel story.

Because it’s a family priority to avoid being tied down, I am choosing not to fill orders from non—book trade buyers from our home. Instead, I am hiring Quick-Pick, which charges $2.55 per order plus $.15 per additional book in the same order, with discounts for case and pallet orders and a monthly storage/administrative fee of just $6 per pallet. Best of all, they are right across the street from my printer, Central Plains, and there will be no shipping fee from the printer to the fulfillment warehouse. I estimate the costs of printing and non—book trade fulfillment to be about 30 percent of the cover price. For respecting our family priorities and gaining freedom from boxing and labeling orders, 30 percent seems well worthwhile.

Traveling Through Trade Networks

As far as I can tell, the biggest benefit a major publisher offers is its distribution network, and the biggest hurdle to publishing independently is getting your book into bookstores and in front of the reader. Thanks to PMA, and acceptance into its Trade Distribution Program, Independent Publishers Group (IPG) is distributing One Wheel–Many Spokes nationally. As soon as IPG accepted One Wheel, they immediately started advising me on how to best meet book-trade expectations with advice on my cover layout and back cover copy, sales targets, and publication date. I was ecstatic to have an organization care this much about my book, and I worked thankfully together with them to polish it for publication.

Ahead of me lie my first experiences with the book trade: the quest for reviews, the imperative of early sales strength, the long delays before payment, the swamp of estimating returns, and the possibility of my story spreading to an audience beyond my wildest imagining. It’s a good feeling to be in the hands of a respected distributor with experience in the trade.

In my research on distributors I found that most of them, like IPG, require exclusive sales rights in the book trade, and that they typically charge 65 to 75 percent of the cover price for their services. If a distributor sells a book for half the cover price, I end up with 35 percent of that price. Subtracting the cost of printing and shipping to IPG, I expect a return of 17 to 20 percent on books sold to the book trade.

An Open-ended Love Affair

My conclusion at this early stage: Publishing independently is a lot of work, but there is endless information, and there are endless options for those with the patience to sift through the possibilities. Rather than spending time mastering query letters and submission requirements of publishing houses, I’ve devoted it to learning the book trade, assembling a team of professionals (editor, typesetter, cover designer, printer, fulfillment warehouse, distributor, and publicist), and getting involved in every step of the transformation from ride to manuscript to published book.

As my publicist, Alice Acheson, reminds me, “There are never any guarantees,” but for other people venturing into this exciting kind of love affair with their books, I hope my experience provides a measure of encouragement for the journey. In the words of Helen Keller, which I put on the title page of my book:

Security is mostly a superstition.

It does not exist in nature . . .

Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.

Lars Clausen’s varied education includes the U.S. Air Force Academy and the University of California/Berkeley; he has master’s degrees in both mechanical engineering and theology. His resume includes designing windmills in Denmark and preaching to Inupiat Eskimos in Alaska.

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