Why We Publish
by Linda Carlson
Love or money? Which did you have in mind when you got into publishing? That’s what I recently asked IBPA members and others in the industry: Do you publish the titles you’re passionate about, or the titles you’re confident will sell well? And if you manage to do both, tell us how.
You can make it with “small” books, declares Martin Shepard of The Permanent Press in Sag Harbor, NY, which specializes in literary fiction and has 14 titles scheduled for 2011.
“When the Culture Co-op publishes a book, it’s because we feel it serves a social and human need,” writes Sandy Holman, director of this Davis, CA, organization. “When we first published Grandpa, Is Everything Black Bad? many people balked. They said the title alone would doom the book.”
If the publisher had listened to these naysayers, the book might never have been published. Instead, Holman reports, it got positive reviews in School Library Journal and Booklist, and: “It has taken us all over the country to be a part of forums, presentations, and keynotes, and to Book Expo, where we were honored along with Al Gore and Quincy Jones.”
First issued in late 1998, this children’s story is now in its fourth printing (with 30,000 in print), has received three national awards, and was featured on national television and in newspapers across the United States. And, oh, yes, it’s been purchased by more than 400 public libraries. The Culture Co-op is now working with Northern California Barnes & Noble stores on displays and joint mailings to the region’s elementary schools.
Another publisher with a strong commitment to mission is Pariyatti, a southwestern Washington nonprofit that includes a bookstore and offers services as well as products. “In choosing what we publish, the first criterion is that everything must be in keeping with the traditions of Theravada Buddhism. Then we ask whether the book is a positive addition to existing literature, well written, and accurate,” says editor Carl Schroeder.
Because few of Pariyatti’s titles sell more than 1,500 copies annually, and many sell just 100 or so, donations that help pay for publication are important. “We continue to look for creative ways to fund, print, and distribute texts that adhere to and explicate the teachings of the Theravadan tradition,” Schroeder says, noting: “Given the uncertainty in publishing, we are increasingly likely to consider publishing a new title as an e-book and/or making it available through a print-on-demand vendor.”
“I see what others will pay to learn about,” says Gordon Burgett of Communication Unlimited, based in Novato, CA. “Then I create a core how-to book about that, sell the book commercially, create a workshop around the theme, offer the workshop, sell the book at the workshop, and then create additional related products for eager buyers.” Of the 30 books the company has published, only four were “pure guesswork,” he says. They were written on topics for which he wanted satisfactory information, which were also topics he suspected might interest others.
“One was a novel almost nobody bought (my brother liked it!). Another, Treasure and Scavenger Hunts: How to Plan, Create, and Give Them, first published in 1994, is now in its third edition and has earned $35,000; the third is Your Living Family Tree, which is in the black and continuing to sell occasionally. The fourth, How to Plan a Great Second Life, happened when I needed to make such a plan, and it is well into six figures as a book, audio CD, and keynote or workshop topic, mostly to associations,” Burgett reports.
With Passion; With and Without Profits
“Why be a publisher if you can’t publish what you want?” asked Aaron Shepard of Shepard Publications, located in Washington state’s San Juan Islands (accessible only by boat or air). “I can honestly say that every single book my wife, Anne Watson, and I have published has been a book we care about and consider worthwhile.”
Because Shepard and Watson support themselves with their publishing, “Both personal passion and potential profit become factors when deciding what to work on next.”
The Shepards publish nonfiction (his about selling self-published books, hers about making soap). Their bestseller, Watson’s Smart Soapmaking, has sold about 11,000 copies since publication in January 2007 at a list price of $12.50 and was ranked 90th among all craft books on Amazon.com the day I checked. Smart Soapmaking is also in libraries across the United States and in New Zealand. It’s offered POD through Amazon.com, direct from Shepard Publications, and by special order from Ingram with a 20 percent short discount (which means, says Shepard, that bookstores seldom order through the wholesaler).
But they publish fiction too. Smart Soapmaking supported the print edition of Watson’s novel Pacific Avenue, which has sold about 14 copies in its print edition. “The Kindle edition has sold hundreds of copies, but at very little profit,” Shepard adds, because it was initially offered free and is now at 99 cents. “We’re selling a few hundred copies a month, but it doesn’t add up to much.”
“With nonfiction books supporting us, that’s not a big concern,” Shepard continues. “We’re mostly in it for the challenge and the fun—seeing if we can actually be successful in self-publishing literary fiction.”
Shepard says that with the economies provided by POD, he feels limited only by time. That sentiment is echoed by another author passionate about self-publishing, Trish Weenolsen of Seattle’s Rubythroat Press. “My sales are still in the hundreds rather than the thousands, but I’m getting there,” Weenolsen says about her historical fiction. “I could do more with 25 hours per day!”
Her novels emphasize the ordinary lives and struggles of early American women. “This was a reaction to novels featuring European royalty, usually soap operas with queens who get their heads chopped off, and also to American history texts about white men, their wars and governments, magnanimously devoting a paragraph to women’s suffrage. Surely, I thought, the expertise required to operate spinning wheels is as interesting as that required for flintlocks!”
Weenolsen, a semiretired psychologist whose nonfiction has been published by St. Martin’s, Griffin, and Macmillan, admits that she has spent more than she’s made on Rubythroat, in part because she is advertising in the New York Times Book Review and other national publications. “But I love what I do, my income is growing, and with enough books out there, the money may eventually justify the passion.”
Like many IBPA members, she’s had some surprises about market appeal. “I’d assumed an audience of women, but men are enthusiastic readers, too, especially of ‘all that Indian stuff,’” she reports.
Along with advertising, Weenolsen uses programs offered by Book Publishers Northwest, the Washington affiliate of IBPA, to promote her books, including recent joint signings at western Washington indie stores.
Another micropublisher who puts passion above profit is Loretta Halter, a schoolteacher in Northern California who writes books for children about environmental problems such as the increasing amount of garbage in oceans. Her Nature’s Hopes and Heroes donates 10 percent of book proceeds to environmental organizations. She’s counting on retirement, still seven years off, to give her time to work full-time on what she regards as a mission.
Jerry Craft, who also started publishing part-time, was determined to create positive images for African-American tweens and teens, and now, after more than a decade, is seeing acceptance by a larger market.
Mainstream publishers weren’t interested in his Mama’s Boyz: As American as Sweet Potato Pie, based on his syndicated Mama’s Boyz comic strip, so Craft self-published in 1997. Despite a foreword by cartoonist Lynn Johnston (For Better or Worse) and trade journal publicity, Craft says his buyers were almost entirely African American.
But by the 10th anniversary of his first publication, graphic novels were popular, and a second book, Mama’s Boyz: Home Schoolin’, took off, especially with libraries and book groups seeking material for reluctant readers. This created a diverse audience, and his third title, released in early 2010, was reviewed in School Library Journal. In less than a year, he sold 5,000 copies, and the popularity of this new book revived so much interest in the two earlier titles that they are now being reprinted. Craft confides, though, that the publishing is still not profitable, and he is illustrating for other publishers while creating and promoting his strips and books.
Douglas Mountain Publishing grew out of Bill Birnbaum’s semiretirement. He sells about 600 copies a year of Strategic Thinking: A Four Piece Puzzle, targeted to business managers and college business administration students. First issued in 2004, the book is based on his quarter-century as a business strategy consultant. It also helps him market his consulting services. Coming in the spring is a memoir, A Lifetime of Small Adventures: Stories of Adventure, Misadventure and Lessons Learned Along the Way, which he classifies as more of a “labor of love.”
Mary Kay Mueller of INsight Inc., in Omaha, NE, generates most of her book sales through her passion for speaking. Taking Care of Me: The Habits of Happiness evolved out of a support group she started in 1994, a project that led almost immediately to a speaking career.
The book, which she didn’t bother submitting to publishers because she assumed it would be a “small project,” has sold more than 50,000 copies since 1996, mostly at her presentations. Today she is direct-selling 90 percent of the copies of her new title, 8 to Great: The Powerful Process for Positive Change. It’s doing well, she believes, “because it came from my heart and not my need for cash.”
A passion to serve the visually impaired is what drives the success of ReadHowYouWant, a Sydney, Australia, firm that has issued more than 5,000 titles in various accessible formats in the past three years.
With conversion software that was inspired by the reading difficulties of co-founder Christopher Stephen’s sister, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, ReadHowYouWant uses print-on-demand to sell more economically in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. This technology allows it to offer thousands of titles in five different large-print sizes plus such formats as DAISY and Braille, says associate publicist Bradi Grebien-Samkow. (DAISY-formatted files, played on special devices or on personal computers with appropriate software, allow users to scroll through auditory content and to skip over items like footnotes.)
ReadHowYouWant works with more than 100 publishers, and the titles most likely to be converted are those with a track record of sales by the original publisher, those released simultaneously with new titles, and those requested by customers, who are more likely to be individuals than libraries, Grebien-Samkow explains. “Our selection process is probably much less biased than most publishers’,” she says, “as we strive to provide titles in a variety of genres—mind, body, spirit, mysteries, children and YA fiction and nonfiction, health, business, cookbooks, history, general fiction, short stories, poetry, and erotica.”
The company does market to libraries, usually focusing on its variety of genres and on the genres previously overlooked in large print, such as cookbooks and health titles. It also issues new releases that are expected to have such limited appeal that they are not converted by other large-print publishers.
“For sure, I go with books that I’m passionate about. Some I publish myself; others are published the traditional way,” says Ken Wachsberger of Ann Arbor, MI. His work is published by Michigan State University Press, the University of Massachusetts Press, Facts on File, and smaller firms, as well as by his own publishing company, Azenphony Press, which issues books and booklets and retails copies of Wachsberger’s books published by others.
Publishers leaning away from passion and toward profit include Andrew Kelly, managing director of Fitzroy, Australia, children’s and YA publisher Black Dog Books.
“The balance has shifted in the last year toward what we believe we can sell. Before we commit to a title, we need to believe that it can sell in a particular channel, say clubs or mass market retailers like Kmart, or big-box retailers,” he says, noting that Black Dog now makes publishing decisions after examining projected sales, discounts, and marketing expenses by channel. “In the past we could pull off riskier books, but there doesn’t seem to be the support for those now,” he says. “We can get the reviews, but sales remain too modest.”
One cause: reduced spending by schools and educational booksellers, Kelly continues. “We used to get more oomph from schools on difficult books, but now there are fewer independent educational booksellers, and the larger ones sell fewer books for reading for pleasure.”
Just-in-time inventory management has also created a challenge, he points out. “Australia’s independent booksellers have held their market share, but their buying patterns have changed. The distributors can now supply faster so the booksellers can hold less stock. This makes it harder to give a risky title adequate space. In this economic climate, booksellers are inclined to order less and be happy when they sell it, and then not reorder.”
Identifying recent successes, Kelly notes: “We take more risks in YA fiction because there is such a strong community of authors and reviewers; the genre is suited to the online environment and to eventual conversion into e-books; and it is such a growth area in publishing. Both our May 2010 releases have performed more strongly than expected.”
Another book is selling so well that Black Dog considers it a new classic. My Dad Thinks He’s Funny was published in August, in time for Australian Father’s Day, and sold out its initial print run of 10,000 by the end of September.
Success in Niches
Paul Gerald’s culinary adventures led to publishing via his Bacon and Eggs Press in Portland, OR. Breakfast in Bridgetown: The Definitive Guide to Portland’s Favorite Meal was published in 2008 and grew out of his travel writing. “It slowly dawned on me that people might actually pay for such a book,” Gerald says. He sold 5,000 copies of the first edition, issued a second last October, and has been amazed at its popularity. “I never thought it would be in the front window of Powell’s, or that total strangers would recognize my name from it.”
Although he considered several other guides, some with broader geographic appeal, for a second project, Gerald stuck with the breakfast guide because he’s so new to publishing. “I want to build my business on products that I know will work, and that I know how to market—local books on a local subject. I can literally shake hands with every store owner who might carry it.”
To reduce up-front expenses and make it easier to update the breakfast guide, he switched to POD for his new edition. For quality reasons, he hopes cash flow will allow offset printing for his third project, a guide to Portland trees. “Trees are big here—literally and figuratively—and there’s no good guide to the Heritage Trees city program. There are 300 protected trees with plaques, so the research is done,” he explains.
Gerald is using the face-to-face approach to research the market for the trees guide. “I ask bookstore owners and buyers if they’d carry the book, and I judge people’s reactions when I talk about it.”
Holcomb Hathaway, a Scottsdale, AZ, textbook publisher, has also been successful with niche publishing. Its focus is upper-level college courses with demand for texts low enough that major publishers aren’t interested. In these markets, it’s possible to promote with direct marketing instead of the four-color brochures and sales reps used by the “big boys,” explains Gay Pauley, publisher. “Our goal is to publish books for existing and new courses in three specific areas: education/literacy, physical education/kinesiology/sports management, and journalism/broadcast.”
Holcomb Hathaway determines which texts need to be published and then seeks an author for each, always a university faculty member teaching a course like the one for which the textbook will be written. “We’re able to sign good authors because, as a small company, we develop our projects editorially to an extent the bigger companies don’t, and we pay a lot of attention to our authors,” says Pauley.
When he established Rodnik Publishing in Seattle, Robert Powers believed he could compete with industry giants by creating better foreign-language phrasebooks than those currently on the market. But five large phrasebook publishers gave him lots of competition in such languages as French, Spanish, and Russian.
“Serendipitously, I published a Dari phrasebook for aid workers in Afghanistan and struck a mother lode,” he says. “There’s almost no competition in Afghan languages, so now we’re doing a Dari/Pashto phrasebook for military personnel and have plans for three more types of phrasebooks/dictionaries and brochures in conjunction with a publisher of medical materials.”
Because Rodnik is market-driven, Powers is also creating language-learning materials for a government contract.
Flexibility in meeting market opportunities is one reason that Carol Casey at Dear Baby Books, Alpharetta, GA, says she loves being in business for herself. “Our sales reps at National Book Network wanted our picture book for military families published sooner because of the timeliness of the topic, and although it was a bit of a scramble, it was smart advice, and we made it happen,” she explains about Dear Baby, I’m Watching Over You, intended for children whose family members are deployed or away on training.
It came out in October 2010, the tenth anniversary of the Afghan war, and Case immediately began visits to U.S. military bases. Given the cash flow challenges small publishers face, Casey worked hard on special and prepublication sales and presold 1,500 of her initial 5,000 press run.
Linda Carlson (LindaCarlson.com/history book.html) has written both for love and for money. Neither one is easy, she believes. Her articles appear in the Independent each month.
The Author in the Equation
Like many other publishers, Black Dog recognizes the value of a promotion-minded author.
“That’s a hard message to get across to many authors, who are too often committed to the artist-writing-by-a-candle-in-the-garret model,” said Kelly. “We’re now much less likely to take a risk on a shrinking violet, and are looking for authors hungry for readers. We ask more difficult questions of our authors before we publish them.”
One challenge: Although authors say they’re willing to create an online presence and make the all-important school visits, “life gets in the way,” and promotion does not always occur.
Mary Shafer made the same discovery, and it impacted her bottom line so severely that she’s back to being a self-publisher. “I formed Word Forge Books to publish a single title I wrote, and when I did that, I was profitable,” she says. “However, as soon as I took on other authors—regardless of how careful I was to vet them, their work, and their attitudes about marketing—I soon learned that they are nowhere near as committed to promoting their books as I am. Within a year, I was in the red, and it has only gotten worse.”
Although Shafer says she’d like to continue publishing books that she believes deserve an audience, she thinks Word Forge (located in Ferndale, PA) is too small: “Every book we put out must pull its weight. Things are too difficult now to risk our financial viability on authors following through with marketing commitments.”
The goal at Monkey Puzzle Press in Boulder, CO, is “the progression and preservation of American literature as an art form, not merely entertainment,” says Nate Jordan, founder and editor in chief. But he adds that the company looks carefully at authors as well as at their submissions. “We consider their platform—do they have a blog, do they have a Web site, do they have a ready-made audience based on their experience, occupation, and/or expertise? Are they willing to give readings and interviews? Are they good at them?”
Monkey Puzzle’s appraisal of authors’ promotional strategies aims to be both realistic and nonjudgmental. As an example, Jordan cites the genre-bending Taxis and Shit, which he describes as the absurd adventures of a cab driver. “I saw the author perform some of his poetry one night—a combination of puppet shows, live music, and debauchery. I was more than impressed. He continues to promote his book via one of the most interesting promotion strategies: when he’s working as a cabbie himself. In fact, he has sold more books from his taxi than any Web site, retailer, or distributor has sold.”