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Selling Direct, Part 1: A Tactic in Tune with the Times

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Selling Direct, Part 1: A Tactic in Tune with the Times

It looks to me as though the tide is turning. After decade upon decade when large publishers had the advantage, independents are the ones most in sync with two major current trends and those most likely to benefit from these trends going forward:

1. Consumers are increasingly apt to buy online.

2. More significantly, they’re increasingly interested in connections and community.

Which means there’s never been a better time to work a niche.

Large publishers may well continue to have more clout when it comes to getting shelf space in physical bookstores. But the shelf space on publishers’ own Web sites is limitless, of course, just like the shelf space on related sites and the shelf space on sites that sell books from publishers of all sizes.

And when it comes to connections and community, smaller publishers have a big head start. Whether or not they also sell via the book wholesalers and bookstores that the huge houses concentrate on, a great many independents have been selling to definable groups of consumers for a long, long time, all the while building and sustaining communities for and with those consumers around topics, missions, and activities of mutual interest.

Independent articles often show that independent publishers can profit by leapfrogging the ranks of book-business intermediaries. Sometimes they make the point incidentally while focusing on other topics (as elsewhere in this issue), and sometimes they make it head-on (see below). Thanks to everybody who responded to my call for information about experiences with selling direct. Selected responses follow, and more will appear in upcoming issues.—Judith Appelbaum

For Bilingual Books

We produce and develop bilingual books for children—the English and Spanish Foundation Series, which added three titles last year. We have to make sure the products are well done and that they answer a need in the marketplace. To feed the market we’ve needed to add new products every year. Now we are up to more than 40.

From the very beginning, we set up to sell direct. Most people liked that. They felt they were getting a better deal by buying direct. We offer them posters, stuffed animals, and audio CDs as well as books, and contact them via direct mail, Constant Contact emails, our Web site, and community trade shows. They supply 80 percent of our revenue.

Mark Wesley

rosa+wesley; me+mi publishing


31 Years and Counting

Parenting Press started out selling direct in 1979, and it was years before sales through wholesalers became significant. The firm continues to self-distribute its children’s and parenting publications, working through Ingram, Baker & Taylor, Midwest Library Service, and other wholesalers; and selling direct to catalogers, Amazon.com, many government agencies, and individuals.

All PDFs are sold direct from the company Web site. These include two-sheet info sheets, 32- to 40-page books, teacher guides, and a quarterly newsletter for parent education instructors, school counselors, and other early-childhood education professionals. 

For the 12 months ending September 2010, direct-to-consumer sales were 15 percent of the total units sold. This figure and all following figures exclude catalogers, Amazon, and any other resellers. These direct sales generated 20 percent of dollar value, and 22 percent of the gross value. 

We have a Facebook page for Parenting Press, and each active author is encouraged to have his or her own Facebook page, to which the Press will post (e.g., congratulations regarding a review). To publicize via Twitter, we primarily use SocialOomph.com, which allows us to write and schedule a week’s worth of tweets at one time. It also lets us create tweets about upcoming author appearances and schedule them for appropriate dates. 

One of our more effective recent direct-sales campaigns involved contacting Southern California schools with bilingual and migrant programs about The Way I Feel, a children’s picture book that has been approved by the California Department of Education for classroom use in both its English and Spanish editions.

To encourage direct sales, each issue of our monthly newsletter has a special offer, either a discount or free shipping, as does each issue of our quarterly newsletter for professionals. Invoices carry a promotional message, and we pack “bouncebacks” (package stuffers) into books sent to consumers. We also email prepublication offers on some books, which sometimes creates a huge stack of backorders for a new title. 

Homer Henderson

Parenting Press


Selling in Medical Markets

Our four titles for health professionals, HMOs, insurance companies, and drug companies usually sell in lots of 100, and have sold 2.4 million copies over the past 27 years.

We reach the people in our markets via meetings, presentations, and mailings, and we encourage them to buy direct by offering the best price. Direct sales generate 99 percent of revenues. 

Thomas F. Plaut 

Pedipress Asthma Publications


The Unions Make Us Strong

Our subject is traditionally identified as labor education. We publish books and newsletters and offer services designed to help union members, activists, and leaders be more knowledgeable and effective in their organizations and in dealing with employers.

Our most successful title, The Union Steward’s Complete Guide, is in its second edition and has sold more than 60,000 copies. We have worked with some unions to personalize the book for them, sometimes by just adjusting the cover to reflect a union’s name.

The three titles we published this past year were Union Strategies for Hard Times: Helping Your Members and Building Your Union in the Great Recession; I Just Got Elected, Now What? A New Union Officer’s Handbook; and Contract Costing for Union Negotiators (with an accompanying CD). Also, we published a 16-page pamphlet, “Welcome to the Union.”

We’ve been in business for 29 years and have a substantial list of previous buyers. Some 1,000 local unions and 6 national unions subscribe in quantity to our bimonthly newsletter, Steward Update (published in English and Spanish editions), and we promote to them. We offer UCS Labor News and Labor Graphics services by subscription and an online (and on CD) union steward training course.

Each year, we publish and distribute 50,000 catalogs for our titles and related titles from other publishers—about 150 titles in total, a dozen of which we publish. Some of the great titles in our catalog are publications from labor and worker education centers across the country, as well as specific unions, that we searched out and arranged to offer broader distribution. 

To encourage direct sales, we send our catalog to all former buyers and current newsletter subscribers by USPS mail; we have a weekly e-newsletter that frequently includes featured titles; and we have catalog “affiliate” arrangements with several unions and labor-oriented organizations. Also, our Web site has a bookstore component. And we promote to labor education centers and national unions. 

We take pride in the fact that our employees (we’re just three fulltime people) are covered by a union contract. All our books and newsletters are printed in unionized plants, and we deliver our wares only by unionized carriers (USPS or UPS). We ask buyers to consider our union status—that is, that our employees are treated well and enjoy excellent benefits, including fully paid health insurance—when they decide where to buy their books.

At least 85 to 90 percent of our revenue comes from direct sales, with the remainder coming through traditional venues via Baker & Taylor and Ingram.

David Prosten

Union Communication Services, Inc.


Our Recipes for Selling Direct

Life of Reiley publishes cookbooks for the gift market, and generally for readers from 25 to 45. Our authors give a lot of cooking classes and talks; we feature promotions in our monthly newsletter, and we often mention them on Facebook.

To encourage direct sales, which account for just under 10 percent of revenue, we use coded special promotions and offer special prices at live engagements.

Amy Reiley

Life of Reiley


Communicating Up Close and Personal

As a former broadcaster (host of a syndicated radio show with ABC Radio Networks, Inc., for four years), I realized that most authors were ill prepared to represent themselves and their products. I also learned that communicating well is a talent. That’s why TomKat Productions (TKP) focuses on communication in books on writing and publishing, books of poetry and humor, and a card game for couples called Intimate4play.

I formed TKP after leaving ABC Radio and decided to target writers and aspiring authors as well as couples who want to improve romantic communication.

We reach writers and aspiring authors mainly through speaking engagements, but guest blogging on sites with the same or a similar focus and a few radio and television interviews have gained us considerable exposure.

For the romance department, we have two distributors for our game product, and we participate in trade shows (booths with special offers) and write for romance-industry publications.

Approximately 50 percent of our sales are direct to our consumers. We love the up-close-and-personal contact we have established, and I think our customers see us as people who understand what they are dealing with. We really want to help everyone gain control of their communication skills, in love, career, family, or social situations.

Kat Smith

TomKat Productions


Serving Christian Markets

Our books, which are for Evangelical Christians, Christians, and conservatives, focus on family values, husband-and-wife relationships, child training, and evangelism. We published three titles during the past 12 months; we also offer CDs, DVDs, and MP3s; and we generate 80 percent of our revenues from direct sales.

To communicate with our audience, we publish a free bimonthly magazine that mails to approximately 50,000 households, offer weekly email specials, issue an online magazine, blog, and use social networking. We also take ads in the trade papers that reach the Christian bookstore marketplace and go to a few trade shows per year (ICRS and Christian Trade Association).

Mel Cohen

No Greater Joy Ministries (Pearl Books LLC)


A Regional Reach

Direct sales have always been the icing on the sales cake for our titles. We have had long and satisfying relationships with distributors and resellers, but the full-price direct sales often carry the cash flow.

We publish books of history, beauty, travel, and humor about the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, our home locale.

Our size (seven titles in print) dictates not more than one new title per year. (One time, due to scheduling changes, we issued two new titles in 12 months. Never again.)

Our target audiences are Upper Peninsula residents, then Midwestern residents who are familiar with the region, and then “exiles,” people who have lived, worked, or gone to college in the region or have family ties.

Direct sales percentages vary from title to title but average about 30 percent.

We contact target audiences by direct mail with cover-image postcards, send flyers to previous customers and press releases to appropriate media, and use pages on social media sites and advertisements in targeted media such as alumni magazines and local co-op newsletters.

We have used some mailing lists from local groups and associations with Upper Peninsula interests, but have never purchased mailing lists.

The book signings we do as partners with regional bookstores often lead to direct sales to customers.

Our Web site is sponsored by a region-wide site that features a variety of area experiences, lodgings, and products, and keyword searches often bring customers to our site for direct sales.

All our direct sale books are autographed and can be personalized by the author to an individual or for a specific occasion. This direct sales service seems to be a factor in the buying decision for some customers.

Lynn McGlothlin

North Country Publishing




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