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Cautionary tales on taking the self-published route

A recent thread on an email list for writers discussed the various problems and decisions authors have regarding even things like size and binding. One poster noted that “Bookshops much prefer hardbacks or perfect bound paperbacks. Something where you can read the title on the spine while the book is filed on a shelf. Other kinds of bindings are a nuisance to display and to pack for delivery.”

Having worked at a Borders Books store in Houston for four years as a community relations coordinator, I can testify to some of the wounds self-published authors self-inflict. Odd sizes can be problematic. I remember our inventory manager complaining about a couple of mystery books we’d accumulated due to the authors having done a signing at our store. Larger than mass markets, they were more difficult to shelve and affected the displays, etc. While the copyright suggested they were small press, the books were in essence self-published. So many things need to be taken into consideration when the self-publishing route is contemplated..

One of my friends pretty much cut herself out of getting into Barnes and Noble locally because she’d made the decision to keep the book thin at 80 pages due to price breaks. The author had submitted her book for consideration for B & N’s local author of the month program. The CRM came back saying the book was too slight in content and would have been considered had the author developed the idea further even if only by including a CD (it was the type of informational book that would make the CD appropriate). Although the author has gone one to sell more than half of the books she self-published, I do think it would have been an easier going had she perhaps not rushed into print so fast and taken a little more time to think things through.

To counter all this, while the physical attributes of the book are extremely important if the content is such that a market can be developed no matter what the container looks like, a way into the chains can be found. It does take, however, extremely good content and an author with a hunger to make it and an ability to become a walking PR machine. Another friend of mine, Cathy Stucker (known as “the idea lady”), self-published a “book” on how to become a mystery shopper. I had known Cathy from a writing group and knew of her promotional abilities. My store was new so we needed any PR we could get. Cathy was selling her books herself through her website and through classes and talks. We negotiated a deal that lasted two years where my store–and only my store–was the retail outlet for the book. So any time she did publicity, and she did a lot, she insisted that the media not only say it was available at Borders but at “my” Borders. Often she arranged for the interview to take place at the store—even better for us. When the other stores received requests we did a tranfer to them. The early editions of Cathy’s book are not what I would ever recommend anyone doing if you want to make it in retail. She ran off 8 1/2 x 11 pages with a slightly thicker card stock for the cover and used a spiral binding. Her cost at the printer ran under $2.00 per piece. She retailed it for $19.95.

Before you get excited and ring up the profits, let me reiterate: Cathy had pulled together content regarding how to become a mystery shopper at a time when the information was not available ANYWHERE. Cathy was a nonstop PR machine and speaker. She knew how to get the media’s attention and keep it. When we reached the 200 market in sales, my inventory manager obtained a “BINC” number, which is an inventory control number central to Borders and makes the book part of the corporate inventory so it then shows up in every store across the nation should they want to order it. I did a report on the sales that went in the monthly newsletter and was distributed to nationwide. We sold her book to places all over the US, but finally we had to let the deal go. Since then Cathy’s used Amazon successfully and has had her book in chains and independents in many areas in the US. The later editions of her book have evolved and the current edition is terrific and a far cry from her first attempt. She went to the expense of having her new cover designed and it’s eye-catching: The Mystery Shopper’s Manual (5th Edition)

Cathy has continued her education in self-publishing and has evolved into a self-publishing maven. She knows her stuff. My staff and I marveled at her ability to generate publicity but even more we marveled at the fact that people actually paid the $19.95 price. But at that time–not so anymore by any stretch of the imagination–she had accumulated all the data there was into one place. No one else had it. And she stumped. She gave Leisure Learning classes; she talked at libraries; she did signings across the state; she presented classes at community colleges; she contacted all types of media; she freely gave copies of her books to the media (who then used them and recognized there was a story there); she set up a website; she pursued Amazon; she became a force in Houston’s self-publishing community. She is still working that book. Now she’s seeking larger distribution and media in the big time and one day you just might see her on one of the major morning shows or on some other “feature story” outlet.

She has done all this in the more in seven years. I first met her more than ten years ago when I was president of a writers group and she had decided to write a piece of fiction. Later we came together for the media partnership with her book. Today I still count her as a friend and continue to admire her nonstop dedication in the pursuit of her dreams.

So, take what lessons you will from these stories. But remember that it was more than luck that played into Cathy’s success. Taking the time to learn the ins and outs of the business on both the craft and the retail side and initiating and nurturing contacts provided long term benefits. Oh, and Cathy did not approach me as a friend to help her out: she came with a product that we knew would sell and a marketing strategy that would benefit not just her but my store—and me in the process.


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  • http://pauldavidson.blogs.com Pauly D

    The big problem, as you say, is when you self-publish a book you’d better plan on dumping alot of those profits (from cost to sale price) on getting yourself out there and doing your own PR. That, of course, is the great thing about actually having a mainstream publishing company publish your book – you have their PR people working for you.
    But even then — even then you find yourself ponying up cash for things that the publisher doesn’t want to spend money on (i.e. radio tours, postcards, etc.).

  • http://pauldavidson.blogs.com Pauly D

    The big problem, as you say, is when you self-publish a book you’d better plan on dumping alot of those profits (from cost to sale price) on getting yourself out there and doing your own PR. That, of course, is the great thing about actually having a mainstream publishing company publish your book – you have their PR people working for you.
    But even then — even then you find yourself ponying up cash for things that the publisher doesn’t want to spend money on (i.e. radio tours, postcards, etc.).

  • http://www.nancyhendrickson.com Nancy Hendrickson

    As an author with four books published traditionally, I’m attracted to self-publishing for a variety of reasons, prime among them:
    1. I can control the look of the book. Aesethics are important to me and I want that level of control.
    2. Would I rather make $10 a book instead of $1.00? You betcha.
    3. A traditional publisher isn’t going to promote you (unless you’re a big name) – – so as long as I have to be the one promoting, I may as well be the one reaping the financial benefits.
    Fortunately, I happen to love the business end of the writing business, and I find promoting myself fun and rewarding–so the thought of doing my own PR isn’t an issue.
    And to all those folks who think self-publishing or POD doesn’t pay, I just picked up this press release this morning from the wires:
    FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
    Media Contact Penny C. Sansevieri
    penny@amarketingexpert.com
    POD Author Gets $40k Royalties
    POD pays off, despite what critics say
    COLORADO – A first quarter sales for 2006 Outskirts Press, Inc. will issuing one of their authors a royalty check just shy of forty thousand dollars. It’s bigger than most authors see in their lifetime. But this isn’t the first big check this author has received, in fact the very first check was sixteen thousand. Not bad for a print-on-demand author and certainly not bad for a book that’s never seen the inside of a bookstore. How did this happen? Well for starters, the author switched publishers.
    The Outskirts, Inc. author (whose name is being withheld due to privacy concerns) was making a paltry amount at his first print-on-demand publisher, Author House, but then when he made the move to Outskirts Press, Inc. a leading print-on-demand company, he was able to increase his royalty from 15% to 55%.
    “Our author did all the right things,” says President and CEO of Outskirts Press Brent Sampson, “he published a good book and worked within the print-on-demand channels to make the sales. He has stayed away from bookstores, sold mostly through online channels, switched to a royalty system that allowed him to earn more per book.” Prior to this author’s switch to Outskirts Press, he was making $3.74 on a retail price of $24.95, now he’s making nearly $14 per book. “The system we use puts more money in the author’s pocket where it belongs.” Cites Sampson.
    Print-on-demand critics have for years said there’s no money in POD but it would seem that this author and Outskirts Press, Inc. are out to prove them wrong.

  • http://www.nancyhendrickson.com Nancy Hendrickson

    As an author with four books published traditionally, I’m attracted to self-publishing for a variety of reasons, prime among them:
    1. I can control the look of the book. Aesethics are important to me and I want that level of control.
    2. Would I rather make $10 a book instead of $1.00? You betcha.
    3. A traditional publisher isn’t going to promote you (unless you’re a big name) – – so as long as I have to be the one promoting, I may as well be the one reaping the financial benefits.
    Fortunately, I happen to love the business end of the writing business, and I find promoting myself fun and rewarding–so the thought of doing my own PR isn’t an issue.
    And to all those folks who think self-publishing or POD doesn’t pay, I just picked up this press release this morning from the wires:
    FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
    Media Contact Penny C. Sansevieri
    penny@amarketingexpert.com
    POD Author Gets $40k Royalties
    POD pays off, despite what critics say
    COLORADO – A first quarter sales for 2006 Outskirts Press, Inc. will issuing one of their authors a royalty check just shy of forty thousand dollars. It’s bigger than most authors see in their lifetime. But this isn’t the first big check this author has received, in fact the very first check was sixteen thousand. Not bad for a print-on-demand author and certainly not bad for a book that’s never seen the inside of a bookstore. How did this happen? Well for starters, the author switched publishers.
    The Outskirts, Inc. author (whose name is being withheld due to privacy concerns) was making a paltry amount at his first print-on-demand publisher, Author House, but then when he made the move to Outskirts Press, Inc. a leading print-on-demand company, he was able to increase his royalty from 15% to 55%.
    “Our author did all the right things,” says President and CEO of Outskirts Press Brent Sampson, “he published a good book and worked within the print-on-demand channels to make the sales. He has stayed away from bookstores, sold mostly through online channels, switched to a royalty system that allowed him to earn more per book.” Prior to this author’s switch to Outskirts Press, he was making $3.74 on a retail price of $24.95, now he’s making nearly $14 per book. “The system we use puts more money in the author’s pocket where it belongs.” Cites Sampson.
    Print-on-demand critics have for years said there’s no money in POD but it would seem that this author and Outskirts Press, Inc. are out to prove them wrong.