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Quill Driver Succeeds with the Eyedropper Approach

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Quill Driver Succeeds with the
Eyedropper Approach


by Linda Carlson


What does it take to snag the
top spot at Amazon.com? Get a book on the <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>New York Times
bestseller list? And have
two—not one, but two—books become Book-of-the-Month Club selections?


You can ask Quill Driver Books
publisher Stephen Blake Mettee these questions about his diet and writing
guides, and you can take a look at his crew. With 100 books in print, he
employs five people full-time: two in marketing, one in graphic design, and two
in bookkeeping. Yes, he uses editors, to shape content, copy edit, and
proofread—all freelancers, none in-house, none permanent.


Ask Mettee about his keys to
success and he’ll list several, but his emphasis is obviously on marketing.


“Marketing a book is like trying
to fill a bucket with water when the only tool you have is an eyedropper—no
glass and certainly no hose available,” says the Fresno, CA–area publisher.
Mettee—who started his career in the wholesale wine business, then owned a
couple of restaurants, and launched Quill Driver in 1993 with the proceeds from
the sale of a printing business—identifies “concept” as another key. But his
definition of “concept” sounds a lot like “marketing focus.”


Concept, he explains, involves ensuring
that “everyone from the sales reps to the retail buyers to the consumers is
able to immediately grasp what a book is about and what it will do for the
reader.” A publisher needs to “identify the people who would benefit from
reading the book and then try to ascertain if there are enough potential buyers
in this pool.” And the last part is deciding “if you can reach these people to
tell them about it.”


Which brings us to another of
Mettee’s keys to success: “People have to be able to get your book.” Online
retailers are an effective equalizer today for the independent publisher, he
believes, because any book with an ISBN can be obtained through companies like
Amazon.com. “But,” Mettee emphasizes, “the more places a book can be found, the


Market both within and outside the
book trade, he advises: to companies, nonprofit organizations, catalogers, Web
sites, carwashes, wine shops, warehouse clubs, wherever potential readers might
be. “Anywhere there are people, there can be sales.”


In Praise of Platforms


That leads to another of Mettee’s
convictions. “Sometimes it seems as if ‘platform, platform, platform’ is to
publishing as ‘location, location, location’ is to real estate. There are very
few book ideas so brilliant that the gatekeepers in the industry—the chain
buyers, reviewers, interviewers—immediately recognize their potential.”


When authors can offer a publisher
both a marketable concept and a platform, it’s easier to get past those
gatekeepers. “People like Dr. Ruth who are household names open these gates
just by being famous,” Mettee points out. “And Peter Gott, the author of the
Amazon top-seller and New
York Times
bestseller <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Dr. Gott’s No Flour, No Sugar Diet: The Simplest Way
to Lose Weight
, has a column that runs in 350 newspapers every
day of the week. Those are definitely platforms.”


What about authors who are
relatively unknown?


If your author doesn’t have a
platform, get him or her to build one, Mettee recommends. “Luckily we live in
the beginning days of the blogosphere, where one voice can have an impact; the
author can build an online platform. We are publishing a book this spring
titled The New
Influencers: A Marketer’s Guide to the New Social Media
,” Mettee
continues. “It’s by Paul Gillin and addresses just this kind of thing. The
great thing about blogging and podcasting is that you can do it from anywhere
at any time.”


Competing on Quality


The focus on marketing doesn’t
mean Quill Driver lacks a commitment to good writing. “Some slop sells,” Mettee
says. “We’ve all seen it. But reviewers, retailers, and consumers demand
quality writing in the end. Today this includes a high ratio of ideas to words,
a clear style that is easy to read, and information people need or want. This
also includes sidebars, subheads, bulleted lists, indexes, and other elements
that ratchet up the appeal.”


Trained as a journalist himself,
Mettee is surprised by the poorly written manuscripts he receives. “I expect
the manuscript to come in ready for copy editing. I am often disappointed. As a
writer who sweats over every word, I marvel at how many well-published authors
submit less than stellar work.”


That’s why Quill Driver uses a
group of experienced free-lance editors.


“You have to be willing to do
whatever it takes to fix these problems. Independent publishers need to compete
on quality, so your books have to stand up with the big guys’ best.”


One of Quill Drivers’ books, <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>The Portable Writer’s
, first published in 1994, now has 18,000 copies in
print. Related titles—the annual <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>American Directory of Writer’s Guidelines: More Than
1,700 Magazine Editors and Book Publishers Explain What They Are Looking for
from . . .
and Damn! Why Didn’t I Write That?—were BOMC picks in 2005
and 2004, respectively, and are still going strong. And the directory has been
a Writer’s Digest Book Club selection every year since 2000.


The house’s reputation as a
publisher of quality guides for writers “makes it easier for us to get reviews,
shelf placements, book club deals, and the like,” Mettee points out. Through a
trademarked series, The
Best Half of Life
, he is now building a reputation as a publisher
of quality books for the over-50 crowd.


“In 2006 we took top honors in the
15th Annual National Mature Media Awards for <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Dr. Ruth’s Sex After 50
and won a bronze
with The Frugal
by Rich Gray,” he reports, noting that “awards help people
take you seriously.”


What else has Mettee learned in
his 14 years as a publisher?


need professional design.
may be relatively easy to get since plenty of good graphic artists are
available and, truly, all you have to do is use a book you like as a guide.”


financially better to print smaller quantities
style=’font-size:11.0pt’> and return to press as inventory is depleted than to
warehouse a 15-year supply. “I ran 7,000 copies of <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Black Bart
in 1994 and sold 3,000 the
first two years. I earned out my expenses the first year, but I’m working off
the remaining 4,000 at about 250 a year.”


sure of both a current and a future demand
for the books you want to publish. “Since books require at least a
year or two to come to fruition, this takes a crystal ball, but putting a book
out there that no one wants doesn’t work. Believe me, I’ve tried it,” notes
Mettee wryly. “Our best book may be <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Answers to Satisfy the Soul: Clear, Straight Answers
to 20 of Life’s Most Perplexing Questions
—and I’ve given away
more copies than we’ve sold. Why? God only knows. We also published the
definitive guide to underground buildings. Great text and great photos, but
horrific sales. I guess my crystal ball was having an off day when I decided to
publish these titles.”


never know what marketing efforts will pay off.
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>“Sometimes a book signing in a church basement sparks
a short article in the town’s weekly newspaper, which is read by a <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>Time reporter
who then writes about the book, which drives sales on Amazon, which makes the
B&N buyer take another look at it,” Mettee says. Another example: “One
author of ours did a 3 a.m.
interview on a small North Dakota radio station that was heard by a minister of
Canada’s parliament. The MP flew the author up to speak at a conference and
bought 100 books to give away. We sold still more books by publicizing this in
the United States.”


rights sales.
Besides making those
Book-of-the-Month Club deals, Quill Driver sold all rights for Gott’s diet
guide and a companion cookbook to Warner Wellness, now part of Hachette Book
Group USA. And it has sold foreign and large-print rights to publishers here
and abroad, and hardcover rights in two titles to Barnes & Noble.


your authors part of the marketing team.
When Gott’s diet book spent three days as Amazon’s top seller and then
got bestseller status with The New York Times, the impact on sales was like a tidal
wave, Mettee reports with a chuckle. Even better, “On the days that the good
doctor ran our Web address in his column, we could literally watch the dollars
from the ordering frenzy mount up on our PayPal account. What fun!”


Of the 98,000 copies of <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>Dr. Gott’s No Flour, No
Sugar Diet
sold in the first four months, nearly 15,000 were sold
via the Quill Driver Web site, at full price plus $4 for shipping and handling.
The frosting on the cake? Ten percent of the orders included at least one
additional title.


Linda Carlson
(lindacarlson.com) writes for PMA Independent from Seattle, where she helps authors
develop their own platforms for book promotion.




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