I knew little to nothing about publishing when I started Free Spirit Publishing in 1983. This was a good thing. It meant that I looked at every detail as though it was the most important, and every dollar spent as though it was my last (because, oftentimes, it was). With two titles of interest primarily to teachers and counselors specializing in gifted education, Free Spirit was not just a niche publisher; it was a niche-within-a-niche publisher. And it was one without enough of a list or a track record to attract commission sales reps. But being a former teacher, I knew that educators and counselors would buy my books — if only I could reach them.
Beginning with a simple flyer, some rented and borrowed lists, the kindness and support of some dependable contacts and friends, and my bedrooms-and-basement-turned-fulfillment house, Free Spirit Publishing was up, running, and in the direct mail business. Nineteen years later, direct mail continues to play a pivotal role. Times (and technologies) change, of course, but those who predicted the demise of direct mail in the Internet age were wrong. E-mail is just another form of direct mail, and both are important parts of every company’s ability to reach (and keep) new customers. I still love the thrill, challenge, and payoff that come with it. The ability of direct mail — print or virtual — to quickly adapt to and even anticipate customer and market needs is unequaled. But there’s more.
As an entrepreneur, I treasure my company’s independence. Therefore, I value favorable profit margins that contribute to making that independence possible. Direct mail means direct sales and that means a larger profit margin, while trade discounts typically run up to 50 percent. Don’t get me wrong. I like seeing Free Spirit books featured by bookstores across the country and online, and I greatly appreciate doing business with national chains and distributors as well with those resilient indie bookstores. However, I love it when people buy directly from Free Spirit. There’s nothing like having that phone ring — loudly and often, please — or retrieving orders through the mail or from our Web site or fax machine. It reminds us daily of what we do (sell books) and why we do it (people who buy them are helped by them). This is more than a case of simple satisfaction. It’s a major motivator in a time when the relationship between publisher and end user can seem all too abstract.
Nothing is sweeter than having the right product at the right time to present to the right market. No matter what you hear, direct mail isn’t a fine science. It’s a challenge — and sometimes a moving target. Creating an effective mail order flyer or catalog is like creating a good book. For example, just as a book cover must convey the content and “feel” of the story or subject, a mail order catalog must reflect and communicate what the company is and does. The catalog’s text must not only accurately describe a particular product, it must be engaging to read as well. When a company’s books are informative and entertaining, they sell. When a company’s catalogs can make the same claim, they sell –more. Creating an effective mail piece is just as challenging with a one-page flyer as it is with a multipage, color catalog..
With all the excitement of the Net, it’s tempting to forget that direct mail is also interactive. The benefits of direct mail feedback can go beyond reducing duplicate or incorrect addresses, and your business will be the better for it. Direct mail customers let us know when something is working — or if something needs fixing. Presales of featured titles in our catalog can be a strong indicator of how well a particular title will ultimately do. We check the numbers. If presales are lower then expected, it’s time to reassess the initial approach (stronger cover, more specialized targeting?) or dig deeper to better find a particular audience. Strong direct mail response might also offset an initially lukewarm trade response and offer a publisher (or an author) the word-of-mouth exposure necessary for a buyer’s second look. Chain book buyers might not get it, but your core audience usually does.
I began this company with the commitment that Free Spirit=B9s products would always positively impact and enhance the lives of young people, and the adults who care for them. Free Spirit Publishing has high standards because I wouldn’t have it any other way and because our customers have come to expect the best from us. Content, clarity, and a focus on positive solutions are hallmarks of our books, and our approach to direct mail is no different.
As a publisher and cataloger, I make it my business to be environmentally responsible. For over a decade, our catalogs have been printed on recycled paper with soy-based inks. We make sure each of our mailings is checked for duplicates through NCOA (National Change of Address). We also encourage customers who receive unwanted catalogs (ours, too) to contact us or the Direct Marketing Association — their address is prominently listed in our catalog under the heading “Help Us Mail Smarter” because that saves trees as well as money. In addition, although we do occasionally make the Free Spirit customer list available to other companies, we will not include the mailing information of customers who prefer not to be included. These details are important to me, personally, but they’re also important to Free Spirit’s customers.
Direct mail means direct contact with customers who invite us into their homes by requesting our catalog. Free Spirit customers truly feel a connection with us. For a responsive company where customer satisfaction is a priority, this is “relationship marketing” at its best. However, even the best direct mail will fall short over the long run if it isn’t backed by superior customer service. That is why we do everything we can to make the connection between customer and company a fruitful one.
Our direct mail efforts are designed to provide — not overwhelm — our customers with useful information that reflects Free Spirit not only as a publisher, but also as a service provider. For example, we emailed our customers author-provided tips and resources following national events directly affecting children and their families, such as the Columbine shootings and the recent terrorist attacks.
Our customer sales representatives are friendly, knowledgeable, and ready to help. If we don’t have what a customer needs, we will direct that person to someone who does — even when it means directing the sale elsewhere.
Our authors actually answer their mail, and our editors welcome hearing customer suggestions on improving a particular title or investigating an emerging trend. In addition, members of the Free Spirit staff (sales, editorial, our authors, and me, included) are often present at regional and national parent and education conferences around the country, and we let our customers know (through mail and email) when Free Spirit is coming to their town.
Most important, we invite our customers to let us know what they think — and they do. We routinely survey our customers about everything from their ordering experience and receipt of merchandise to our catalog covers and Web site features. We also enlist their help with books-in-progress via student, teen, teacher, or parent responses to issue-driven surveys. This is not only one of the most important things any business can do; it’s one of the most satisfying.
When I started Free Spirit, direct mail was a great way to tell potential customers about my company’s books. It still is. Free Spirit’s one-page flyer is now an award-winning, monthly, 48-page, color catalog. We have a Web site, (www.freespirit..com), a monthly eNewsletter, and special mailings to specific target groups in support of certain titles or as a reminder that Free Spirit will be present at an upcoming conference. In other words, what began as a simple mailing has grown into a relationship, with all the pleasures, responsibilities, and benefits that a long-term correspondence brings. As any letter writer knows, it requires effort to keep in touch. As any successful direct mail practitioner can tell you, it’s well worth it.
Judy Galbraith is president and founder of Free Spirit Publishing, the home of award-winning books for young readers and the parents, teachers, and adults who care for them, including Self-Help for Kids and Self-Help for Teens. If you have children, teach children, work with children, have friends or relatives with children, have noticed that your neighbors have children, or have hoped that certain people took more care in raising their children, call 1-800-735-7323 or visit http://www.freespirit.com for a free catalog full of Free Spirit’s practical, positive, and solution-based materials. Go ahead, make our phone ring!