Saving the Planet, One Parrot at a Time
by Mira Tweti
If anyone had told me nine months ago that I would soon be trucking thousands of pounds of book paper from Oregon to Texas, or that I would know paper weights and coatings and the different types of book bindings, I would have assumed it was for research on a news story I was writing, not for a book I was self-publishing.
Now, after a crash course in publishing, indie-style, I have learned and done all that and more. Without any formal instruction at the start, I have produced, marketed, publicized, shipped, and sold out the first run of my parrot-welfare children’s book, Here, There and Everywhere, and formed a publishing company, Parrot Press, all in less than six months.
I am an investigative journalist (Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Village Voice, Tacoma News Tribune, L.A. Weekly, and other papers and magazines) who often focuses on animal welfare issues. I have written two award-winning exposés on the parrot trade and helped pass four pieces of legislation to help animals in the pet trade. This September, Viking will publish my book on the global parrot trade, Of Parrots and People: The Sometimes Funny, Always Fascinating and Often Catastrophic Collision of Two Intelligent Species.
Given my “platform,” as I learned to call it when I entered the world of books, it never occurred to me that I would be self-publishing. But editors at established houses kept telling me I couldn’t break the rules about age ranges and word counts for children’s books. One thing led to another, and last February, just two months after I finished writing Here, There and Everywhere, I made the decision to issue it myself. Then I created a 17-page marketing/PR plan with a timeline and an agenda.
In Pursuit of a Printer
I had planned to work with a small, local self-styled POD company that had been in business about five years. The owner loved the story. He and I were each going to put in funds, and he would handle getting the book made, from soup (ISBN) to nuts (shipping and accounting), with my creative input on how I wanted it to look. With almost 20 years of movie studio PR experience under my belt and current contacts with editors as a journalist, I would handle the publicity and marketing.
It didn’t work out, and though the owner and I have remained friends, the POD company proved unable to deliver the quality book I sought. I started calling myself “the reluctant publisher” when I ended up looking for a printer on my own. Had I known then that I was entering a frightening, high-risk new world, with pitfalls, delays, and closed doors waiting at every turn, I would never have done it. Ignorance is bliss.
Pretty soon I was using terms like case bound or Smythe sewn (after mispronouncing it like “Smith” and getting corrected a few times too many). I took bids for a high-quality, full-color, 8½ × 11, case-bound book on a low budget and needed a quick turnaround so copies could be delivered in time for Christmas, just 90 days away.
I felt confident my story was a good one. Here, There and Everywhere is about Sreeeeeeeet, a young wild lorikeet parrot who lives a wonderful life with his flock in the rainforest of New Guinea. He is trapped by poachers and then sold by a New York City pet store to a boy named Peter. The boy and the bird learn about living in captivity and the problems it brings. The story deals with the actual perils facing parrots in the pet trade as well as global issues like deforestation and rapidly diminishing species. There are a dozen educational pages with photos in the back of the book about real parrots in similar predicaments, both in the wild and in captivity
So that the experience of the book wouldn’t end on the page, I launched a Flash-animated interactive Web site in April 2007. It offers fun and educational things for kids of any age to do while they learn about parrots, and it provides ways for children around the world to help connect with the birds directly through sponsorship programs and “help save the planet one parrot at a time.”
Readers, Recruits, and Partners
By way of early market research, I sent the book to every parent I knew whose children did not know me (and therefore wouldn’t worry about disappointing “Auntie Mira”). I asked the parents to test it out as a bedtime story without fanfare. Even though they had only a text version at the time, the results were remarkable. I discovered that the story and illustrations appealed to kids ages three-and-a-half to eleven, and that boys and girls loved it equally. There was not a single negative review from the more than 60 who heard it (or their parents) from Seattle to New York and Boston to San Diego.
My belief in the book’s merits, length, and appeal was further confirmed by $5,000 worth of advance sales, in just six weeks and without publicity, on the simple site I built in iWeb. There were a good number of repeat buyers after books were shipped.
Amazingly, I found the first two recruits for my team—Lisa Brady, an extraordinary illustrator, and a great graphic designer, Ashlee Goodwin of Fleuron Press (FleuronPress.com)—on Craigslist through an ad I placed, offering no payment but the opportunity to do something meaningful with their talent. Like me, each of them worked on the book for months between paying jobs. Craigslist later provided me with marvelous web designer, Edward Good (frontlinegrafix.com), who strove to build a Flash site kids would never want to leave. The project is a true labor of love among like-minded people that continues today. If it wins any awards, I’ll have to especially thank Craigslist!
The printer on the team turned out in the end to be Taylor Specialty Publishing, a division of Taylor Publishing Group in Dallas, TX. After the ordeal of finding Taylor–I must have spoken with 75 printers–I will never leave it voluntarily. Finding a great printer is like finding a great husband. You don’t divorce for petty problems, and you sign up for the long haul. I think the stability of a long-term home provides the best possible outcome for the offspring.
Then I got lucky with distribution. I called Sam Speigel of Partners Book Distributors, who had helped me sell 2,500 books I inherited from the not-so-reliable company that published my first book about a decade ago. Time was short—and so were funds. Sam arranged to get books to his warehouse in Michigan quickly. He sent me regular accounting updates and was available to speak to me by phone whenever I had questions.
Within a month of signing with Partners, Here, There and Everywhere was online with Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Borders. Two months later, solely because of Partners’ efforts, Barnes & Noble bought the first copies for their stores.
It’s Got to Be Green
I also got lucky with paper. It’s not something you normally think of as a risky component, but it was for me. During my search for a printer, one I was interested in backed off when he heard the subject of my book. When I asked why, he said he doubted I’d want to work with him. He had just found out from his Shanghai supplier that the relatively inexpensive stock he liked best came from virgin Indonesian rainforest trees.
The printer I first chose to work with had great ideas beyond the book, like making posters and gift cards from the illustrations, and she and I agreed at the start that the book needed to be environmentally sound. But when we were down to the wire and I asked about the paper stock, I got the runaround. She said she didn’t know where it came from and told me: “You can’t afford more than five sheets of green paper on your budget!”
When I said I would find a green-paper company to work with us, she added that she didn’t want fibrous paper on her presses because they would jam. It turned out her paper stock was from China, the leader in nonsustainable pulp sources for book paper. I told her if the book couldn’t be green, it wasn’t getting published at all. There was no way I was going to promote helping parrots and their habitats on the very trees they depend on for their survival! I would have done more damage than good by printing the book.
So six weeks before Christmas, with 25 parrot-rescue facilities around the country depending on the book for holiday fundraising, I walked away from a printing partner who loved the book and was willing, for a small percentage of the sales, to get it done in hardcover and in time for the holidays. It had been an arrangement made in heaven, and I feared I would never see it again.
Carolyn Moran, I thought. What about Carolyn Moran? Co-owner of Living Tree Paper (LivingTreePaper.com), an Oregon company that sells green paper, Moran had talked with me several years earlier at a green conference. Her partner in Living Tree is actor and longtime environmentalist Woody Harrelson, although I didn’t know that at the time. I called Carolyn, and she was willing to work with me to save trees and get one more environmentally sound book into the marketplace
A week later, 1,000 pounds of paper made of 10 percent flax, 40 percent postconsumer waste, and 50 percent Forest Stewardship Council–certified, sustainably harvested trees was on its way to Texas to be printed. [See “Practical Ways to Tread More Lightly on the Earth: Highlights from the Book Industry Study Group/Green Press Initiative Research Report,” April.]
The books look amazing, and going green, although it still cost a lot more, was well worth the investment. The number of people who have emailed me to say they liked the book and congratulate me on doing it green is significant. From young moms to aged grandmothers, and dads and uncles in between, people you’d never think would even notice the FSC and recycled symbols on the back cover or read the acknowledgements have done so, and it meant a lot to them. It has also significantly helped marketing efforts. Across the United States, there are now green sections of bookstores and nontraditional outlets, like zoo gift stores, that work with my book.
Going one step further, I found a terrific new green business called Eco-Libris (ecolibris.net) that will plant a tree for $1 to make up for a tree used for a book. They send stickers to put on your books to show that trees were planted. I chose to let kids have the opportunity to make their book entirely green by buying stickers from Parrot Press via our Web site, where the relationship to trees is explained.
Consumers are looking to go green in all aspects of their lives now, and we as publishers owe it to them—and, more important, to the planet—to provide ways for them to do so when they choose to buy our books. Yes, I said “we.” I’m not so reluctant to be an indie publisher any more. In fact, I love being able to navigate my book’s destiny so much, I’m not sure I’d ever publish another way again.
Mira Tweti, an award-winning investigative journalist, has written extensively about parrots, the pet-bird trade, and animal welfare issues and legislation. Her book about the global parrot crisis, Of Parrots and People, will be published in September by Viking. Here, There and Everywhere is her first foray into writing for children. To learn more, visit ParrotStory.com or email MiraTweti@ParrotPress.net.
The Cost Covers Contributions
My policy of giving $2 of every book sale to avian and animal welfare organizations and conservation groups seems to have helped sales.
Before I set the $19.95 price for Here, There and Everywhere, I did research on price points by querying PR departments at major houses (one of the perks of being a journalist is that you can get publicists to help with almost any query). I was told that price-point thresholds are a constant topic of conversation among people in large publishing companies, and that they’ve found that customers don’t seem to mind paying up to $2 more for a book if it helps a worthy cause, especially an environmental one, related to the book.
My experience confirms this. I consider the $2 per copy that I donate a necessary expense, like getting the book printed, and the higher price I charge to offset my extra expenses doesn’t seem to have dented sales one iota.