Sometimes, smaller is better.
When 12 New York City publishing houses turned down Terrorism and Kids: Comforting Your Child a few months ago, I could have given up. But the truth is,
although I assumed a big house might be able to get better distribution faster on this title, I’m glad I went the smaller route.
Terrorism and Kids: Comforting Your Child grew out of my personal experiences witnessing terrorism and trauma and the effects on children in Israel, Africa, and Asia. At first, it was a bunch of magazine articles on that topic. Then it evolved into a book for my American friends who had moved to Israel with their children (and as such, it seemed to have a permanently limited market.)
The book deals with symptoms parents might overlook in their children after a terrorist incident, such as sudden preoccupation with bruises, which can be a sign of trauma. It discusses strategies for dealing with children’s fears. And it provides very specific answers for the detailed questions children are likely to ask in the aftermath of a terrorist incident, like “What about anthrax?” It’s based on years of research and pages of notes from interviews with psychiatrists and counselors–and on my own experience in talking through these issues with many, many parents and children.
When September 11th happened, the book suddenly assumed an importance that I never thought it could have in the U.S. I needed it for my own three children. Finishing the writing of it was the most cathartic experience I have ever had. Friends
who knew I was working on it were demanding it. And I was in hot demand as a speaker on the topic, as local organizations, grasping for anyone who could provide answers, heard about my expertise on the subject.
I thought a sale to NYC would be a cinch–and the best thing both for me and for the book.
One of America’s top literary agents agreed to take it on–enthusiastically. And then she was completely and totally unable to sell it. Although New York publishers told her they loved the book, they concluded, universally, that it was unmarketable, that interest in the topic was too short-lived to make Terrorism and Kids viable, and that no one would buy it. I couldn’t quite believe the verdict–and certainly couldn’t believe that the people I’d heard from were the only ones in need of such a book.
Deciding to publish through Peanut Butter and Jelly Press was a distant second choice. PBJ Press is the tiny family business that published my previous book, The Infertility Diet: Get Pregnant and Prevent Miscarriage. For that, it was perfect, given the niche market with its easy to target, small perennial sales. But for Terrorism and Kids I had wanted the broader distribution and bigger bang that I associate with a larger house.
Daring to Go No-Returns
Still, Peanut Butter and Jelly Press seemed to be my only option. Friends were telling me they were desperate for something like this, and I believed in this book. I thought it would help people. I so desperately wanted to be able to do something to help. It seemed a shame not to get the information and comfort out there–even if it could only be in a more limited fashion.
So Peanut Butter and Jelly Press began doing its thing. Two days after we told them of the decision to do it ourselves, Mayapriya Long of Bookwrights had produced a dazzling cover and the publishing pros on the pub-forum e-mail list had come through with a slew of generous advice. Within a week, we spoke to Ingram, Baker & Taylor, Amazon, and Quality Books. Because of PBJ’s prior relationships with the wholesalers, we were able to list the book quickly, but it wasn’t smooth sailing.
Part of the reason for that was our decision about returns. The Infertility Diet is available on a returnable basis. Occasionally, Ingram or B&T return a shipment (often on the same day they order new books) but the problem has never been overwhelming. However, with this book we were worried that a returnable policy might make it too easy for the chains to order in huge, unreasonable quantities. Overly ambitious orders would strain our cash flow for the printing. And then what would we do if the books started to pour back in? The chains could afford to make bad decisions — but if the books were returnable, their bad decisions could bankrupt us. We decided that, regardless of the effect on sales, the books had to be non-returnable.
Both Ingram and Baker & Taylor warned us that the effect on sales would be disastrous. Basically, we would be put on “backorder/special order” status; if bookstores ordered the book, the wholesalers would ship them, but they wouldn’t make any effort to keep extra in stock. Both asked us to reconsider, but it was a decision we felt forced to adhere to.
They warned us that the bookstores, also, would be displeased with this policy and that it would inevitably affect sales.
Clobbered by the Crisis
Then followed a flood of publishing disasters, most of them fallout from the terrorist situation. All 100 press packets that had been sent by priority mail were returned by the post office–because they carried the title, Terrorism and Kids on the outside of the envelope, and the word “terrorism” was declared a post office no-no. The second round of that mailing fared even worse–that batch followed the initial anthrax scare, and ended up stranded in a Hoboken warehouse being fumigated. The galleys that were sent out to get Senatorial endorsements ended up in a similar predicament after anthrax hit the U.S. Senate, so we spent several days driving through the Northeast visiting local Senatorial offices personally. The Cataloguing-in-Publication data requested online eight weeks before publication date still has not been received–because the Library of Congress closed for the duration of the crisis. The stories go on.
In the meantime, publicity attempts met with varied success. On the one hand, magazines were curiously reluctant to publish excerpts. Worried about their long lead times, they echoed what the New York book publishers had said–there might not be a market in two months and they weren’t willing to take the chance. On the other hand, I received more speaking engagements, more calls from newspapers seeking quotes, and more reader feedback than with any other book I have ever done.
The Indies Weigh In
And although the response from the chains has been less than overwhelming–we’re still unsure if they’ve even received the galleys, let alone ordered books–the response from the independent bookstores across America has been gratifying and wonderful. Before the book was even finished, we wrote to the BookSense list and offered 25 copies to their Advance Access program. We were inundated by requests from bookstores for copies.
We followed up by email with each store, asking them to consider recommending the book for BookSense 76, the independent bookstore equivalent of a smashing review. Terrorism and Kids received 6,000 orders in the first two weeks–most of these from independent bookstores, despite the no-return policy–as well as a January/February BookSense recommendation.
The library response has been gratifying too. Despite the fact that Library Journal declared the book already published, and on that basis denied it a review, libraries across the country ordered copies after a postcard mailing that targeted acquisition librarians in the 5,000 largest libraries nationwide. Now I’m inundated with requests to speak at libraries all over the U.S so I’m hoping to load the kidlets into an RV and crisscross America this spring. (Librarians interested in being added to my tour should contact PBJPress@aol.com.)
And my latest publicity idea–self-syndication of a Terrorism and Kids column–is also proving fruitful.
Would I have made more money if I had successfully sold to New York? No question. Would more bookstores have the book in stock by now? Possibly. But would the book even have gone to market so quickly? Not at all clear.
The truth is, a small plucky house can sometimes do more than a large New York house. We can move quicker, make decisions faster, react better. We don’t have the capital or the connections to thrust a book forward the way a big house can–but sometimes that means that we’re more careful, and ultimately more successful. In the case of Terrorism and Kids the ultimate fate of the book remains to be seen. If you’ll be at BEA this year, I’ll let you know how it’s going.
Fern Reiss is the author of Terrorism and Kids: Comforting Your Child. You can find the book at www.TerrorismAndKids.com and at bookstores and libraries everywhere–she hopes.