Lock, Stock, and Publisher
Four booksellers decide to self-publish books
For some bookstore owners, self-publishing is preferable to going the traditional route.Booksellers have the industry connections to publish their books just about anywhere, and some do, like fiction writers Emma Straub at BookCourt in New York City (Other People We Married), Ellen Meeropol at Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, Mass. (House Arrest), or Joan Drury at Drury Lane Books in Grand Marais, Minn. (Silent Words). But for some bookstore owners, self-publishing is preferable to going the traditional route, whether it's a single title like Chuck Robinson of Village Books in Bellingham, Wash., or an entire series like that from Dr. John Hutton of Blue Manatee Children's Bookstore and Decafé in Cincinnati.
Poet Laura Hansen of Bookin' It in Little Falls, Minn., likes the control over the entire book, from writing to production and design, that self-publishing offers, although she is considering going with a traditional press for a gift book that she recently completed. Chris Livingston of the Book Shelf in Winona, Minn., turned to self-publishing to fill a need for a coffee-table book about his community, and is now considering publishing other books rooted in the area.
While Robinson chose to print his book himself through his print-on-demand book machine to reduce costs and cut down on storage, it may take some time for Hutton, who printed 1,750 copies of each of three books, to keep his inventory down. And Livingston has already scheduled a second printing two months after publication, to bring the in-print total of Winona to 2,000 copies.
Chris Livingston, The Book Shelf, Winona, Minn.
Chris Livingston, owner of the Book Shelf in Winona, Minn., and president of the board of the Midwest Booksellers Association, says he never wanted to become a publisher or author: he's always been content to sell books written and published by others. Repeated requests for a book that didn't exist, however, inspired Livingston to launch a publishing imprint from his store last fall, Book Shelf Editions.
"For years, tourists, local college professors visiting their sister university in China, and others would come into the store and ask for a quality book of photographs of Winona that they could give as gifts," Livingston says. After he complained to a longtime customer about the lack of a coffee-table book showcasing the picturesque college town situated on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, the customer responded, "Why don't you publish this book?"
The customer and a retired publisher, who once headed St. Mary's Press, volunteered to assist Livingston in producing Winona: Minnesota on the Mississippi, a 96-page book with 261 full-color photographs taken by 63 photographers. The images were selected from 2,500 submissions received in response to the store's call for photographs. Livingston wrote a one-page foreword, the only text in the book, which he compares to "a bound postcard."
Winona, which was released in hardcover on April 29, retails for $35, and is available in the store and on the store's Web site (www.bookshelfwinona.com), which offers free shipping. The book sold out of its 1,000-copy first print run within six weeks. Livingston says that customers came to the store and purchased as many as 10 copies at a time; online orders came from all over the country.
"We haven't even gotten to tourist season yet," says Livingston, who is going back to press for an additional 1,000 copies. More than half of the book's initial printing was presold, which enabled him to finance the printing costs. Three local organizations—Winona State University, St. Mary's University, and Winona National Bank—prepaid for a total of 400 books with customized title pages. Another 140 copies were sold to store customers who received a three-page sample via e-mail.
Livingston is considering publishing more Book Shelf Editions titles, including a poetry anthology by local poets and other projects. He's reluctant to embark on another large-scale project like Winona, however. "It put a lot of stress on me, financially and organizationally," says Livingston. "And I don't have a [production] staff, only volunteers."
Laura Hansen, Bookin' It, Little Falls, Minn.
The Book Shelf isn't the only Minnesota bookstore that's become a de facto publishing company. Over the past five years, Laura Hansen, the owner of Bookin' It, in Little Falls, has published two poetry chapbooks under her store's eponymous imprint: Diving the Drop-off (2006) and Why I Keep Rabbits (2010). Both are sold at Bookin' It, as well as at several MBA member stores and at the Little Falls arts center. Diving the Drop-off is also available at a New Age store in neighboring St. Cloud. Hansen estimates that the novel has sold about 150 copies in three print runs, while Why I Keep Rabbits has sold at least half of its initial 100-copy printing.
For Hansen, the decision to self-publish rather than submit her work to a traditional publisher came down to two things: wanting control over her product and not wanting to do a lot of follow-up to get published—researching presses and sending query letters. While she hired a graphic designer for Diving the Drop-off, she designed Why I Keep Rabbits herself before sending it to a local printer. "I really knew what I wanted it to look like," she says. "It's entry-level self-publishing. But in my case, it's a good way to go. It's a good way to get my name out there."
Although Hansen has been writing steadily, she is undecided whether she will continue in her dual role as bookseller and publisher. She's contemplating submitting her third collection of poems to a traditional publisher, and she's negotiating with a traditional house for a gift book for all ages featuring a dog, Jackson's Guide to a Happy Life. If the proposals aren't picked up, she says, she'll simply publish the book under the store's imprint. —Claire Kirch
John, Hutton, Blue Manatee Children's Bookstore and Decafé, Cincinnati
Pediatrician John Hutton, owner of Blue Manatee Children's Bookstore and Decafé in Cincinnati, Ohio, launched Blue Manatee Press, a children's book imprint, out of his bookstore this spring. The first three books, board books for ages up to 3, written by Hutton and illustrated by Andrea Kang, came out in May—Blanket, Pets, and Yard—as part of Hutton's Baby Unplugged series. He anticipates a total of nine volumes in the series. The next two books will be Sand and Box. Their release dates have not been scheduled yet.
Hutton explains that Baby Unplugged was inspired by his medical training and experiences. "Younger children are exposed to activities that are not good for them," he says, criticizing electronic media and devices for being touted as educational, when they are really harmful to a baby's development. "Baby Einstein actually takes children out of the world," he insists.
The series "celebrates the old-fashioned icons of childhood," Hutton tells PW. "Things you don't have to plug in or turn on, like real pets, playing in a yard, cuddling up in a blanket to comfort oneself." His ultimate goal, Hutton says, is to make it clear to parents and others that the "old-fashioned retro things" in childhood provide essential educational experiences for children that modern technology cannot match.
The initial print run for each book was 1,750. To date, more than 60 copies of each have sold. They're available at Blue Manatee, as well as the Cincinnati Nature Center and the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati. Blue Manatee is also selling the books online through its Blue Manatee Boxes program (www.bluemanateeboxes.com) of baby gifts for children that are hand-selected and boxed by store staff. Hutton is hoping to make Blue Manatee publications available at other bookstores, and is considering taking a booth at the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association fall trade show to promote both the imprint and the box program.
As an author and publisher, Hutton wants to fill the same niche his bookstore fills: providing books for younger readers, such as board books and phonics readers. He also hopes to publish a YA novel he's already written under the Blue Manatee imprint. Of the bookstore's four full-time and 12 part-time employees, only Hutton and events coordinator Kelli Gleiner also work on the publishing program. —Claire Kirch
Chuck Robinson, Village Books, Bellingham, Wash.
"I don't consider myself a writer," says Chuck Robinson, author of It Takes a Village Books: 30 Years of Building Community, One Book at a Time, which he self-published in June 2010 on Village Books' print-on-demand Espresso Book Machine. "This was more about telling a story that was important to us," he adds, referring to his wife, Dee, who founded the bookstore with him three decades ago. "One of the reasons I was inspired to write it is that when I spoke at civic groups, people were very interested in the inner workings of the book business. I thought about putting our history in context with the history of the book business." He says that the writing was made easier because he had access to copies of the store's monthly newsletters and quarterly magazines, which enabled him to trace changes in the store and issues connected with bookselling, as well as key books.
A past president of the American Booksellers Association and founding v-p of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, Robinson was also encouraged to piece together a bookstore memoir from 1980 through 2010 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Village Books, which has grown from 1,500 sq. ft. to three stories and 10,000 sq. ft. today. In addition, the Robinsons own a separate Paper Dreams card and gift store. Even though customers frequently ask him how the store began, Robinson says, "I was pretty surprised last year when It Takes a Village Books was our #8 bestseller. Stieg Larsson beat me out."
Sales to date of Robinson's bookstore memoir are just under 400 copies, but the book broke even within the first three weeks of publication. It is one of nine books that Robinson has published on the book machine under Village Books' Chuckanut Editions imprint since October 2009. "I don't know if I would have printed it offset," says Robinson. "If I'd done it under the old publishing model, I'd have printed 500 or 1,000 copies and stored the books in the garage. Say we had published that book and nobody cared; printing it POD we weren't out all that much." In fact, Robinson tries to persuade other self-publishers to start small. If they do need a large initial first printing, then start on offset and move to print-on-demand. The margins are better, he notes.
Another piece of advice that Robinson offers to self-publishers—and that he followed—is to hire an editor. In his case he turned to novelist Sara Stamey, who teaches creative writing at Western Washington University. He credits her with helping him restructure the book and redo it in a more chronological fashion.
Of course Robinson has one advantage over nonbookseller authors—his book continues to be displayed in the store as a Staff Pick. Under it a staffer posted: "We are contractually obligated to display this book."—Judith Rosen