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The Power of Self-Publishing

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by Alexa Schlosser, Managing Editor, IBPA Independent magazine —

Alexa Schlosser

David Emerald Womeldorff and Donna Zajonc are the power couple behind the bestselling self-published book The Power of TED* (*The Empowerment Dynamic), which hit 100,000 copies in print late last year. But success didn’t happen overnight.

In September 2005, guests at David Emerald Womeldorff and Donna Zajonc’s wedding received the first copies of The Power of TED* (*The Empowerment Dynamic), a book the couple self-published the day before. Twelve years and two editions later, they’ve printed more than 100,000 copies and have been their distributor’s bestselling book for the past two years. How did David and Donna, first-time self-publishers, find such success? If you ask them, they’ll tell you how there was no master plan; they were just “following the breadcrumbs.”

David and Donna are leadership experts and co-founders of the leadership development business Bainbridge Leadership Center. Their philosophy is that leadership starts personally, so it makes sense that they decided to take their idea for a book on self-leadership and go the self-publishing route. But before they could think about publishing, they had to actually write the book.

The Power of TED*, by David Emerald

The first breadcrumb they followed led them to publishing consultant Ceci Miller. “We originally thought it was going to be a nonfiction book,” says David, who has a master’s degree in applied behavioral science. “But Ceci pushed for a fable format.”

After it was written, David worked with an agent who tried to sell it, but “there were no takers,” he says. So, eager to get things moving, they published it themselves, printed 1,500 copies, and got married. But the desire to work with a publisher remained. David had established a connection through another writing project with Steve Piersanti, publisher at Barrett-Koehler, who agreed to meet with them. Another important breadcrumb.

“He took two hours to tell us why they would not pick it up,” David says. “For one thing, we had already published it. Steve said, ‘What do you think having us publish the book could do for you? You already have it in a package you like.’” They realized he was right. What David and Donna really needed was distribution. With Steve’s advice, they applied for distribution and got picked up by New Leaf Distributing Company.

For the first couple of years, selling The Power of TED* was a side project—“not quite a hobby, but certainly not front and center,” David says. “But then we worked with a local coach and strategist who helped us think through our business in general, with TED being an important component. That’s when the lightbulb went off that this was more than a book.”

David and Donna started doing workshops based on the philosophies of the book. Seeing the value of the lessons for their own leadership development work, a few consulting companies picked it up. As more and more people started reading The Power of TED* and providing feedback, a couple of things became clear: 1) As a tool, the book was extremely helpful; and 2) it could be better.

Some found the fable style of the book “a little too cutesy,” but there were also format issues and a few typos. Ceci Miller set them up with another editor/consultant, Roy M. Carlisle, and in 2009, David and Donna put out a cleaned-up second edition.

“We didn’t respond to every criticism, but we listened to feedback,” David says. “The story didn’t change. We added 30 pages, did a lot of format changing, and made a totally different cover. We listened to Roy, who deeply knows what he’s doing. We sometimes pushed back, but we knew we needed help.”

By the second edition, David and Donna were ready to follow another breadcrumb. Because the nature of The Power of TED*

lends itself to workshops, coaches, and consulting, they developed a TED practitioner program that certified people to use the book’s intellectual property. Essentially, they created a distribution system. At the same time, their distributor developed a program that sold the book directly to Amazon, Baker & Taylor, Ingram, and Barnes & Noble. “Between practitioners and New Leaf, things really started to grow,” David says.

Another piece of advice that Roy Carlisle offered was to continue to add value to your product—and do so consistently. They started by creating a website, then adding a workbook and CD to the book, then a monthly essay titled TED* Thoughts. That evolved into a weekly e-newsletter called TED* Works! that applies the principles of David and Donna’s experience. TED* Works! currently has over 7,000 subscribers and a healthy open rate of 30 percent. “Our subscribers become our readers,” David says. “That has really increased sales.”

As The Power of TED* approached its 10-year anniversary, David and Donna realized it was the perfect time for the third edition.

David Emerald Womeldorff and Donna Zajonc

“There’s something that happens with the 10th anniversary,” David says. “It gets seen as a classic. We got an endorsement. We added questions, a new preface, and included an introduction by Lisa Lahey, from the Harvard School of Education, who originally learned about TED* from a student—that kind of serendipity is also part of our process. It’s like a new book.”

Despite no traditional marketing, sales for The Power of TED* had grown year over year since the first run, but it wasn’t until the third edition came out in March 2016 that the growth became exponential. In 18 months, book sales doubled. Next, they’re looking into foreign rights and translations to hopefully launch into the international market.

But the journey has not been without its detours and setbacks. A doctor, who was a huge fan of TED*, brought his enthusiasm to bear in co-authoring a book published in 2012, entitled TED* for Diabetes.

“Right after the original edition of TED* was published, I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes,” David says. “Dr. Scott Conard was so enthusiastic about applying the principles and frameworks from the book to diabetes, and I got caught up in his enthusiasm. Plus, we totally missed it with the title, which should have been Empowered Living with Diabetes. Not only did the book not do well, but the project ended up being about a two-year detour from our real passion: personal and organization relationship. We refocused and have been blessed with the results.”

David and Donna will be the first to tell you that there’s no real recipe for success. Their approach was to simply keep following the breadcrumbs.

Alexa Schlosser is the managing editor of IBPA Independent. Do you have an interesting self-publishing story? Contact her at alexa@ibpa-online.org.


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