The secret to successful self publishing

by Janet Hayward Burnham
(Bethel, VT, USA)

My book, A Week Ago Cat...and Other Poems

My book, A Week Ago Cat...and Other Poems

Janet on self publishing:

Believe it or not, I do know the secret. I've had my own little publishing company for almost five years, and if I've learned nothing else, I've learned the secret to success. It's simple. It's sales. Okay, that sounds like a cop-out, doesn't it? But let me assure you, it isn't. There are two more words that go before sales: advertising and distribution. Blah blah, blah, you say. You've heard it a hundred times. Well, if you want to be successful, you'll hear it this time and pay attention. There are some things you just have to listen to. You can have the most beautiful book in the world, and if only your relatives and circle of friends know about it (that is, if it's a secret), it's not going to go very far. You have to take off your author's hat, put on that other hat, and learn the sales end of the book business. And if you're not willing to learn this other half of the book business, then don't have 1000 books printed. Because most of those copies will still be sitting in your attic, their pages yellowed with age when you reach your 100th birthday.

I was interested to read the piece by Richard Evans, who wrote The Christmas Box. It's an upbeat piece. The reader comes away with the thought, "If he can do it, so can I." However, the secret to his success is often overlooked. His product. It wasn't just a book. It was a Christmas book written with so much heart and spirit that it can be listed with the best of that genre - a genre that has Dickens' A Christmas Carol as number one. Evan's tale is a lovely keepsake story, something that readers want to hear over and over again in season. If he had written about Daphne Duck's Dismal Christmas, no matter how clever, it wouldn't have had the same appeal. The value (shall we say "spiritual value") of your product must be considered.

(Read Evans' self publishing secrets.)

There are three other phenoms I want to mention. One is J.K. Rowlings and her Harry Potter books. She did find an agent and a publisher, but not right away. She was turned down, and I'll bet money, marbles, and chalk that the book smart folks who turned her down are still kicking themselves. However, before the world heard of Harry Potter's exploits, if all the publishers and agents of kids' books in the world had been asked if they thought a 400 plus page book for kids would can just be absolutely positive they would have answered in unison with a very loud NO. Rowlings created something that speaks to the spirit of childhood. Again, she created something of lasting value. And further, she was incredibly lucky to find an agent, and finally a publisher, who saw that spark of genius in her off-beat work.

Another bunch of books that go on and on, generation after generation in the hearts of children, are the Dr. Seuss' books. His first book, And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street was turned down an immense number of times, by more publishers than are in the market today. It was not the sort of book they published at all, but Ten Speed Press thought it was delightful and gave it a try. Seuss' books, too, were off the beaten path of the time; they are now the stuff of legendary writing success, and of course we all dream of being so lucky....or is it so enchanted?

The third phenom is Madeleine L'engle, the gal who wrote A Wrinkle in Time. She tried and tried to sell her manuscript with no success at all. She had given up, until a friend of her mother's said, "Try so and so, and tell them I sent you." She did and became an overnight success. Other publishers came up to her at one of her welcome to the publishing world parties to ask why she hadn't tried them. She had. Their readers had rejected her manuscript. Here too, she was off the beaten path... writing in that enchanted realm of creativity.

We hear about these phenomenally lucky writers and hope we can join their ranks. And maybe you will. I certainly wish every one of you "the sky's the limit" success. But what I know is, most books don't fall into these highly select enchanted categories. Most books have to be advertised, distributed, and pushed by their creators. You have to get out there and meet the public, shake the hands, sign the copies, appear on the radio, give school whatever is necessary to make the book buying public aware of your book.

That's the secret to successful self publishing.

So, read Evans's piece again, and pay particular attention to all the work he did pushing his book. That's what you'll have to do. That's the secret. And you won't - unless you've the luck of the Irish and then some - make a million either. You'll sell enough books to stay in business. And if you're like me, you'll have a good time chatting with your readers - you'll be gathering a market for your next book - and be inspired to keep on writing.
Janet's secrets

Note: I speak of "we" here because it's my habit to use we when speaking of our little book business. "We" is my husband and me.

Just to throw in a few more "secrets" I've learned in five years...

Self publishing secret: If your book is meant for kids, you have to price it accordingly. We have a Civil War book that is a cross-over book. It's put together for kids being introduced to the American Civil War, but it also appeals to grownups. We priced it at $14.95, and we've sold almost the entire 1000 print run.

We have two fantasy novels for children that cost the same to manufacture as the Civil War book: Paper the same, cover the same, print run the same. We priced these at $14.95 too. We've still got a whole stack. We didn't do enough market research before we decided on the price. Most comparable kids' books are in the $8 dollar range...or even less. Strange as it may seem, parents will happily pay $14.95 for a book for themselves, but for their kids, $8 is enough. I suppose they see themselves taking good care of their book...and see their kids feeding theirs to the dog. But to the book publisher, it's a strange dichotomy. My cost is the same on each, but I can't get the same price for each.

Self publishing secret: Shop around for a printer. Prices can vary a lot. I was determined to keep our business in state, and for a while I was able to do that. However, when it came to getting our first hardcover printed, I couldn't stick to that determination. I shopped around, and the prices were more than double versus having it printed in China by a very reputable Hong Kong company. There are a lot of different print services today. Short runs that used to be cost prohibitive are no longer so. Be sure to check your weight and feel and color of paper. You may want to have your cover coated. I find it's worth the extra cost to keep the covers from getting scratched, especially when you're pulling them out of your car, or someone's flipping through them at the bookstore. There's a lot to know about weights of paper too. Find a printer who will take the time to show you your choices. One size DOES NOT fit all.

Self publishing secret: One of the BIG things we do at My Little Jessie Press is kid-test all our manuscripts. We even took our Civil War manuscript to school. The text of this book is an exact copy of a memoir written over one hundred years ago, in other words, an historic document. We weren't going to change any of the wording, but we wanted to be sure we had added enough sidebars to explain any archaic terms or conditions that might not be familiar to seventh graders. The kids are great reviewers. We work with several teachers and always stress that we want totally honest opinions. If something isn't clear we want to know. We tell the kids that it doesn't help us at all if they aren't completely honest. When the book is printed, all the kids in our "testing" class get a free copy.

Self publishing secret: Librarians aren't terribly fond of softcover picture books. The youngest crowd of readers is hard on books. If you're doing a picture book, I would strongly suggest you think in hardcover terms. We've two fairly sturdy softcover picture books, and while we have sold some to libraries, I can't tell you how many times we've been told they buy only hardcover.

There's more to tell of course. But those are the points that come immediately to mind.

Happy Publishing!

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Mar 02, 2008
Thanks a lot for sharing the secret(s)
by: Steve B.

There is some amazing information here; thanks for pulling it all together.

You've said it all when you talk about taking off your author's hat and putting on your sales hat. I think self publishers who go in knowing full well they're going to have to wear that hat fare much better than those who put on the fairy godmother hat - the one that tells them their brilliant writing will be recognized and catch on like wildfire!

I'm guessing that authors who sign with you get a bit of a lecture on the real world.

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