When my wife, Lindsey Hall, and I wrote the first book about bulimia more than 22 years ago, we didn’t expect eating disorders to become our lifework. We simply wanted to spread the word about a little-known psychological illness, from which Lindsey had cured herself after many years of bingeing and purging. We told her story and offered self-help methods of recovery. Now, in its fifth edition, Bulimia: A Guide to Recovery has sold more than 150,000 copies, and our company, Gürze Books, publishes and distributes books to individuals and professionals concerned with bulimia, anorexia nervosa, compulsive eating, and related topics.
We’ve gone from hanging flyers on college bathroom stalls promoting that first book to having two dozen titles in print and a 32-page catalog that is the most widely used resource in the field. Along the way, I’ve learned a few things and PMA has asked me to share some thoughts with other independent publishers.
Follow Your Heart
As a couple of ex-hippies, we’ve always seen our primary mission as helping people, and, thankfully, we have received thousands of letters and calls that indicate our mission has been accomplished. We believed in what we were doing, and so although we had to refinance our house a few times and even charged payroll on our Visa card once, we stuck with it.
However, it dawned on us early on that we also needed to make money. Fortunately, it seemed as though every time we barely had enough to squeak by, we’d get a big order or new idea. For example, after my first ABA (now BEA) convention, in 1986, I felt overwhelmed but persisted. I looked at every person’s nametag and approached anyone I thought might be interested in a book about bulimia–although few people had ever heard of it. Then I followed up. Quality Books ordered 400 copies, which seemed like a lot at the time, and Barnes & Noble wanted 2,000 copies (but insisted we have a distributor). That led to our being picked up by Publishers Group West, which had initially rejected us but has been our distributor ever since. I learned that good things happen when I trust my instincts, work hard, and keep our altruistic goals intact.
Keep Good Company
When I was starting out, I surrounded myself with knowledgeable people. Jan Nathan, Bob Alberti, and Dan Poynter willingly shared their insights, as did many other early PMA board members. Once Publishing University was founded, this kind of opportunity became possible for everyone, and I’ve always recommended that publishers attend it.
I got one particularly good idea from talking to Gary Moselle, Publisher of Craftsman Books and my predecessor as President of PMA. He’d had a lot of marketing success with bounce-back postcards. So I started mailing a double-postcard to therapists on our mailing list, offering them free copies of the Gürze Eating Disorders Resource Catalogue to hand out to clients. As a result, a few thousand professionals give away 200,000 catalogs a year to an otherwise elusive audience. What’s more, they tell their patients which books to order!
I’ve also nurtured relationships within the eating disorders field, and that has been the backbone of our company’s success. We’ve attended hundreds of professional conferences, selling books, finding authors, sometimes speaking, and mainly touching base with our loyal customers. And along the way, we have developed priceless friendships that have lasted in some cases for two decades.
Do What You Love, The $$$ Will Follow
Mail order catalogs are costly ventures, but ours makes a healthy profit before we sell a single book.
We founded the Gürze Eating Disorders Resource Catalogue when we still published only one book and wanted to have more products to sell through direct mail. The first issue was a single page and offered 20 titles. In fact, practically all of the books written on eating disorders at the time were in it (now there are about 800). Today, the catalog offers about 200 books and videos from many publishers. It’s 32 pages and four color, and the catalog has an annual print-run of 250,000 copies.
In the earlier years, printing and distributing always meant a large outlay of cash that we didn’t have without getting more loans. One day while showering, I got the inspiration to sell advertising to a few treatment facilities, though I had a fear that ads might alienate our readers. Fortunately, the overall response was favorable; readers appreciated knowing where to get help. Advertising now amounts to 25% of our gross income. There are 36 facilities that pay $8,000 (half-page) and $4,500 (quarter-page) to be in the catalog. Some of them also have banner ads at our Web site (www.bulimia.com) and display ads in our family newsletter, Eating Disorders Today.
The catalog also includes listings of national organizations, some useful Web sites, and basic information about eating disorders. We don’t make any money directly from those items, but they greatly increase the catalog’s value as a resource, which is why those treatment facilities pay so much for their ads.
Keep Earning Customers’ Trust
I’m not always sure why some books outsell others. When we released Making Weight, the first book about men’s eating disorders and body image, it received a lot of publicity–articles in People and The New York Times, a segment on Inside Edition, numerous radio interviews, and several keynote addresses at professional conferences. Unfortunately, the book has not sold well, although we know it will backlist for a long time. In contrast, we published the trade paperback edition of another company’s out-of-print, hardcover book, Eating in the Light of the Moon; it’sa collection of stories and metaphors related to food, hunger, and body image. While the original edition’s print-run had sold out, we didn’t plan to give ours much promotion–especially since the author rarely leaves Hawaii. To our pleasant surprise, it has become one of our best-selling titles. We expected the opposite results in these two cases; however, both books are important to their core audiences and deserve to be on the shelves.
We usually release three to four new books per year, and we’re pretty choosy. If we get a good submission that fills an empty genre, we must also believe that it will actually be helpful to people concerned with eating disorders. We make sales projections and develop marketing plans for each release, but our underlying mission is to serve our niche with high-quality books. As a result, our customers trust us.
Everything we do as a publishing company is a building block for what comes next.
We used to track every order, which let us see that people held on to the catalogs for years. We printed 25,000 copies of our first catalog, and as the years followed, the print-runs grew. Likewise, the orders grew every year because more and more copies were in circulation. At this stage, we have distributed about 3 million copies, and many of those are not in landfills.
In the same manner, our backlist has grown, and as more books are sold, more books will sell. In fact, our gross sales have increased every year since we started–except during those two years of my responsibilities as PMA President! We’ve gone from working out of our garage with one employee to having industrial office space, a warehouse, and five in-house employees. In addition to using PGW for trade distribution, we outsource most of our fulfillment, design work, and some editorial services, including writers and editorial boards for three periodicals.
People often ask us about the meaning of “Gürze.” That was the name of a woman who came to Lindsey in a dream during the beginning of her recovery. Lindsey made a six-foot soft-sculpture doll of her, the first of a half million handmade dolls we manufactured, and she launched Gürze Designs. Gürze Books was the logical name for our publishing company. Also, apparently, “Gürze” is a greeting in a remote region of Bavaria that can be translated as “I greet the god in you.”
Lindsey and I are glad that Gürze Books has become a thriving small business, and we feel blessed to have helped so many people. The two of us struggled financially for many years, but we always believed in the importance of our work. Our patience has been rewarded.
Leigh Cohn is the Publisher of Gürze Books of Carlsbad, California. He served as PMA President for two years in the early ’90s. Visit Gürze Books at www.bulimia.com.