Ten years ago, I completed a humorous memoir about growing up in a small town in the 1950s. I made what I realize now was a very naive attempt to interest an agent or major publisher, and when that led nowhere, I considered self-publishing.
I visited several bookstores and perused their humor sections. All the books there were written by well-known comedians or columnists, and most of these books were not funny. Certainly, I reasoned, there must be many truly humorous books written by non-celebrities–but not one had found its way into the stores. This was valuable information.
If I couldn’t get my book into stores, could I sell it through other channels? More fundamentally, who would be my customers? People who like intelligent humor? Aging baby boomers nostalgic for the way it used to be? None of this thinking was of much help from a marketing point of view. Did I believe I could sell lots of books by talking to people at signings, book fairs, etc.? The answer was no. I put the manuscript away.
Dog Writes Book
Three years ago, my wife Katrina and I had a catered party for our dog’s first birthday (a good use of disposable income). I wrote a funny account of the party, as told by little Genevieve, the birthday girl, to send to the guests. Katrina also posted it on the Internet. We got a lot of e-mail asking for more Genevieve stories. After we posted several others, people started asking if the stories were from a book and, if so, where they could buy it.
Genevieve and I got serious. A year later, the manuscript was complete: Memoirs of a Papillon: The Canine Guide to Living with Humans without Going Mad, by Genevieve, as told to Dennis Fried, Ph.D. Our back cover barked: “Read This Book Before Your Dog Does! Want to know what your dog really thinks of you? In this hilarious expose, Genevieve–a two-year-old papillon–takes you into the inner sanctum of dogdom, revealing canine secrets never before shared with humans.”
Human Sells Book
Because I knew I could sell the book myself, and I had the money and time (via early retirement from the software industry) to devote to the project, I never considered anything but self-publishing for Genevieve’s Memoirs. I created Eiffel Press to publish the book, contracted with an established book packager (named, believe it or not, Tabby House) to produce the physical product, and then watched in fascination (horror?) as a tractor-trailer pulled up and disgorged 67 boxes of books into my garage.
That was in the fall of 2000. Since then, the book has become one of the most popular pet titles. It’s now in its fourth printing, for a total of 20,000 copies.
Here are some things I’ve learned along the way:
1. Don’t publish a book unless you know very specifically who is likely to pay money for it, and where you are likely to find such people.
2. If you self-publish, use a good book packager. It won’t cost you much more than acting as your own general contractor. And doing it yourself is quite likely to lead to defects in the book that will make it unacceptable to stores and perhaps unappealing to potential purchasers.
3. There are no hidden secrets in this business. It’s a money game like any other. Before you make any decisions about publishing your book (or having it published), read several books about the industry. My top recommendations are Smart Self-Publishing, by Linda and Jim Salisbury; The Compete Guide to Self-Publishing, by Tom and Marilyn Ross; and 1001 Ways to Market Your Books, by John Kremer. If you read such books carefully, there should be no need to pay anyone for consulting.
4. Good marketing can sell lots of bad books (and bad movies, bad cars, etc.). Good books with bad marketing won’t sell. Marketing is simply making the people who are likely buyers of your book aware of its existence. It persuades them that the book is a worthwhile purchase. Market your book as inexpensively as possible in relation to the sales income that is produced.
Our own marketing strategy has been based on setting up a Web site (www.gvieve.com), maintaining an aggressive signing schedule, getting reviews in dog-related publications, sending press releases to all appropriate venues, scheduling radio and TV interviews (we get them by contacting stations on our own and by advertising in Radio-TV Interview Report), and sending hundreds of review copies to bookstores, reviewers, columnists, etc.
5. Think very carefully about whether to contract with a distributor (as opposed to wholesalers such as Ingram and Baker & Taylor). Make a decision only after doing a lot of research. Many publishers feel that the benefits of having a distributor are far outweighed by the costs and loss of control. You don’t need a distributor to get your book into the national market. We have no distributor, and our book is in all the bookseller chains nationally, as well as Petsmart. (I’m not saying this was easy!)
6. Most of your promotional efforts will generate absolutely nothing (especially ones that cost you money!). I equate my marketing efforts with scattering seeds. Most will not sprout, but a few will, and that’s what all the work is for. No matter how good you think your sales letter (or print ad, or news release, etc.) is, if it’s not getting some results after a fair trial, change it.
7. I debated last year about exhibiting at the Miami International Book Fair, held in November. I doubted whether I could sell enough books to pay for the trip, to say nothing about the hard work and long hours involved. But I’ve learned that good things often happen on the road, so we went. The Miami Herald noticed us (more accurately, noticed little Genevieve, our author-dog) and did a feature story with photo. The story got picked up by the newswires, and Paul Harvey talked the book up on his radio show. We got calls from all over the world for radio interviews. Dick Clark talked about the book on his TV talk show, The Other Half. Jay Leno’s Tonight Show called and requested the book and video samples of TV we’ve done. (We didn’t make the final cut that first time, but Genevieve is a very persistent media hound.)
Of course, most of the time all that happens at book fairs is you get sunburned, or drenched, and sell some books. But the best way to be at the right place at the right time is to be in a lot of wrong ones.
8. Big publishers automatically get books into stores (and get many reviewed) because of who they are. You shouldn’t resent this. These publishers make billions of dollars each year, mostly through retail channels, and spend millions on placements, co-ops, ads, etc. Of course, they have the biggest clout with all the intermediaries between the printing press and the reader. Nevertheless, with a bit of creativity and a lot of hard work, you can get in the game. But to get the distribution channels to open up for you, you first have to PROVE that your book will sell.
How can you do this before your book is in the distribution channels? Several ways, depending on the nature of your book, and your own promotional strengths. For example:
- You can arrange signings at independent stores and many chain stores (though you usually must first get your book “approved” by their corporate office). We started building up our resume with successful signings at area stores, which we then leveraged.
- You can develop a sales history by selling direct via book fairs, lectures, mailings, Internet, etc.
- You can build a portfolio of publicity your book has generated, including radio, TV, print, etc. If you can show that your book creates that type of interest, the distribution channels will get a lot friendlier to you.
9. If you’re a writer who has published a book, don’t be in such a hurry to publish your next one until you’ve exhausted all reasonable efforts to maximize sales of the first. I’ve seen far too many cases of writers who are so caught up in their literary self-image that they neglect the rather important business of selling their books.
10. Don’t get too excited over apparently positive developments, and don’t get too crushed by negative ones. No one thing will make your book (possibly not even a national TV appearance), and no one thing will break it.
Denis Fried is the Publisher at Eiffel Press; see www.gvieve.com. He is reachable at EiffelPress@comcast.net and 941/918-0411.