Cross Country: Booksellers Reveal Secrets to Self-Published Success
Booksellers agree that the self-published books that sell best are books that are both professionally packaged and aggressively marketed by the author.
Midwest & Rocky Mountain States
By Claire KirchIf there was ever a stigma about selling self-published books, independent booksellers in the Midwest and Rocky Mountain states have long since gotten over it. Self-published books sell well at most of the stores in the region contacted by PW. The Bookworm in Omaha, Neb., disclosed that two self-published books—Pleased but Not Satisfied by Berkshire Hathaway executive David Sokol, and Five Minute Talks on Life, Love, and Faith by Fr. James Schwertley, a retired Catholic priest—currently are their top-selling titles. More than 10,000 copies of Sokol's book have sold since 2008 (2,000 of them since December), and 550 copies of Schwertley's since September 2010. Orders for both books, which are sold exclusively by the Bookworm both in-store and online, come in from all over the world.
Booksellers agree that the self-published books that sell best are books that are both professionally packaged and aggressively marketed by the author. While several bookstores contacted disclosed that they only sell books by local authors on consignment for a 90-day period, that local connection, while important, wasn't necessarily an essential factor in sales.
"The author is in advertising, and Fall from Grace [sic] doesn't have that ‘self-published' look about it," Bev Bauer, the owner of Redbery Books, in Cable, Wis., says about Kerry Casey's coming-of-age novel about five high school hockey players, which has sold 400 copies in her small store. The author lives in St. Paul, Minn., and has visited Redbery only "occasionally."
The biggest success story in recent years of any self-published book placed in Midwestern and mountain state bookstores has to be Blind Your Ponies by Minnesotan Stanley West. West, who lived in Bozeman, Mont., at the time, self-published his debut novel in 1997, after failing to find a publisher. Recalling that he "didn't know any better," he sold the novel, about a high school basketball team, to "every bookstore [he] could find" in that state. "The rings kept getting wider and wider," West tells PW, and the book was picked up by independent bookstores across the Midwest, and then by the chain bookstores. By the time Algonquin Books acquired Blind Your Ponies last year, West had sold 40,000 copies.
Gail White, a clerk at the Blue Heron in Ennis, Mont., tells PW that Blind Your Ponies is talked up to any customer asking for a recommendation. The combination antique store/bookstore has sold over 1,000 copies since 1997. "It's one of the best reads," White declares. Country Bookshelf in Bozeman also reports that the store sold "hundreds and hundreds" of copies of Blind Your Ponies since 1997, and has already sold about 100 copies of Algonquin's reissue, published in January.
"It's one of those books people would read, and then return to the store to buy copies for others," Anna Hjortsberg, Country Bookshelf's manager, says.
Charles Kaine, the owner of Readers Cove, in Fort Collins, Colo., describes Karla Oceanak as a prime example of an author who understands the fine art of self-promotion. Kaine has sold 400 copies of Oceanak's debut children's book, Artsy-Fartsy, since 2009, and has sold 300 copies of the second book in the Aldo Zelnick series, Bogus, in the past year. He reports that he's got young customers "sitting on their hands" waiting for the third book, Cahoots, scheduled for release in May.
"They're an easy sell," Kaine says, explaining that he tells customers the series is "just like Wimpy Kid Diaries, though not as snarky," and that both books also refer to beloved local landmarks, as Oceanak lives in Fort Collins. IPG started distributing the titles through its regular program this past fall, and Artsy-Fartsy was recently named an IndieBound Children's Books Favorite.
Mary McDonald, events coordinator at the Learned Owl, in Hudson, Ohio, has been talking up Terry Sykes-Bradshaw's debut novel, The Awful Truth About Dead Men to other GLiBA booksellers and to sales reps. "It's a hoot, it's fun, it's a good mystery set during a Florida cruise," she declares of the book, which has sold 40 copies in the store since this past summer. While the Learned Owl has a self-published authors section, The Awful Truth About Dead Men is shelved with the other paperback fiction titles.
"When we're fired up about a [self-published] book, we'll mix it in with the regular books," she disclosed, "There's no reason Sykes-Bradshaw couldn't be published by a mainstream press."
By Marc Schultz
When someone asked Mandy Williams, coauthor of What I Learned About Life When My Husband Got Fired!, why the kinds of lessons laid out in her self-published personal finance memoir aren't being taught in schools, Williams replies, "How would I know? What do I look like, a teacher?"
That question cropped up shortly after the August 2009 release of the book Williams wrote with her sister, Tina Pennington, during a speaking engagement for businesswomen arranged by the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston. Within a matter of months, the sisters—who write under the names Red (Pennington) and Black (Williams)—found themselves teaching those very lessons, out of their own book, to a class of high school seniors at the KIPP Houston High School in Houston. Within a year, the title was approved by the Texas State Board of Education as a textbook for the state curriculum's newly required financial literacy component. By the end of next month, Williams and Pennington plan to release a self-published teaching guide for What I Learned, based on the 140-page course proposal they sent to the Texas board.
Even before their success with Texas schools, the sisters' unusual self-pub story had gotten them a write-up in PW Daily: on the strength of their book, and a good bit of chutzpah, the Texas pair got Neiman Marcus in Houston to launch their self-pubbed, handbound title with its very own display window, featuring mannequins dressed like Williams and Pennington. It doesn't hurt that the sisters have a media-ready Odd Couple dynamic: Pennington is the finance-illiterate suburban housewife, while Williams is a self-described "rich bitch who races cars."
The first-time authors' aggressive time line put them out of the running for commercial publication—though they ended up consulting with Bright Sky Press in Texas—and their determination to print in the U.S. (with R.R. Donnelley) meant they had to commit to a 25,000 print run if they wanted any hope of recouping their investment.
Though Williams never even considered education as a part of her marketing plan, the book's content makes it a natural fit for a financial literacy classroom, covering everything from credit cards and insurance to time management, stress, and values. But it's the story and the style that made it an unexpected hit with KIPP high schoolers: "It's [written] the way kids communicate," says Williams. "One kid told us it was like a reality show in a book."
The sisters' foray into education was a surprise for both of them. When they were first called into the office of KIPP's executive director, who received a copy from one of KIPP's founding teachers (who received the copy from his wife), Williams expected, at best, that KIPP wanted a "dog-and-pony show: round up all the kids, put them in the auditorium." After about 40 minutes of discussion, however, the director asked them to plan and teach a semester-long financial literacy program for his seniors. "Without skipping a beat," Williams says, "I tell him, ‘Sure, no problem.' I look at my sister and she looks like a deer in headlights."
After meeting for five weeks with a "task force" of eight high school students who volunteered to help them hammer out a curriculum, Williams and Pennington still hadn't considered using What I Learned itself in the classroom: "The last day, we said to them, ‘Okay, we're not teachers, what do we use for handouts in class? How do we get the message across?' And it was these kids that suggested we use the book as a textbook."
The program turned out to be a winner: "After we completed it, both the Texas Education Agency [which is overseen by the 15-member State Board of Education] as well as the lieutenant governor's office wanted to hear more about the program." That meeting led the pair to put together and submit a 140-page document on the program, called The Book Club Approach to Personal Finance & Life 101, which earned What I Learned approval from the State Board of Education for use in public schools throughout Texas. Like What I Learned, The Book Club Approach will be printed in the U.S. by R.R. Donnelley, with an initial print run of 1,500 ("as we expect it to be updated as we get feedback from users") and a retail price of $20 (What I Learned sells for $25).
Though Williams and Pennington still have a lot of copies on their hands—Williams estimates that between 2,000 and 2,500 copies have been sold—the future looks promising. With almost 1,700 high schools in Texas and dozens of KIPP middle and high schools across the country, plus interest from independent schools, churches, the Girl Scouts of America, and Williams and Pennington's core demographic of boomer women and senior citizens, Williams is confident they'll move all 25,000 copies. She even hints at a sequel, already outlined, which would pick up where What I Learned leaves off: Williams's husband serving her with divorce papers.
"But really," says Williams, "we don't know what happens next." That uncertainty makes up a big part of both the risk and reward of self-publishing: "From everything I've read, I would venture to guess [a traditional publisher] would've had a marketing strategy in place before this book ever hit the presses. And I'm not sure that a traditional publisher would have understood, shortly after launching the book, us taking a five-month sabbatical to go teach school!"
By Judith Rosen
In a variation of the phrase coined by Tip O'Neill on politics, all self-published books are local, or at least the ones that work best in New England. "I think self-publishing makes sense for über-local authors," says Susan Fox, co-owner of Red Fox Books in Glens Falls, N.Y., who has sold Lawrence Gooley's Terror in the Adirondacks (Bloated Toe Press), about serial killer Robert F. Garrow, and trail guides on snow shoeing and hiking in the Adirondacks, part of Roger Fulton and Michael Carpenter's series of Outdoor Books for Ordinary People, extremely well.
"We're doing really well with regional nonfiction," says Jon Platt, owner of Nonesuch Books and Cards in Biddeford and South Portland, Maine. "There definitely is a market for the super, super local," he says. "We sold John Moon's City by the Sea, a $40 pictorial on Portland, like hotcakes over Christmas, and in the dead of winter we're still selling 15 a week." Nonesuch has also experienced strong sales, over 165 copies, for Maine pediatrician Conner Moore's memoir, Black Bag to Blackberry, published by Bryson Taylor Publishing in Saco, Maine. It was founded by Deb Landry to self-publish her antibullying children's books.
As Platt sees it, "The real future for us is nonfiction regional books, whether they're travel books or kids books. The whole regional aspect of our book sales has become critical for our survival, especially when we're up against e-books."
The right local title also works at Devaney Doak & Garrett Booksellers in Farmington, Maine. As an example, owner Kenny Brechner cites John Hodgkins's Our Game Was Baseball, a history of the Temple, Maine, Townies that shows how baseball served as the glue for small towns in Maine. "You look at the book, and it doesn't look self-published. It's an interesting piece of local history, well done, and well priced at $15.95. I sold it hand over fist at the holidays. Everybody has family that played on the teams."
Although Tom Holbrook, owner of RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth, N.H., agrees that local self-published nonfiction sells best, his store-recommends list includes Lisa Genova's novel Still Alice, originally self-published and then picked up by Simon & Schuster. Recently, RiverRun has done well with local author Darcy Scott's first novel, Hunter Huntress. "Technically," says Holbrook, "it wasn't self-published; it was published in England." After failing to find a U.S. publisher, Scott imported the U.K. edition and sold it herself. She has since signed with Publishing Works, Exeter, N.H., for her sophomore effort.
Sometimes self-published fiction works for bookstore/publishers. That's the case at Box Car and Caboose Bookshop in St. Johnsbury, Vt., which has an Espresso Book Machine. "This is a kind of nuanced thing," says co-owner Scott Beck of the store's Railroad Street Press publishing division. Railroad both prints and acts as publisher for self-published authors. It even has begun making some books available nationally by downloading them to Lightning Source. One of the store's, and Railroad's, bestsellers is Robin Berenbaum's novel, Gresham's Law, set in Vermont, which has sold close to 300 copies to date.
It helps when self-published novelists already have a national platform, like Archer Mayor, whose Joe Gunther mysteries, set in Vermont, are published by St. Martin's. Several years ago when backlist sales for his early books began to falter, Mayor took back the rights and now publishes the first 12 under the AMPress imprint. Pat Fowler, co-owner of Village Square Books in Bellows Falls, Vt., likes to stock the early mysteries so people new to the series can read them all. "I give him a whole shelf in the mystery section," she says.
A few independent authors are able to capitalize on platforms they've developed in other media. Elayne Keratsis, producer of USA Network's Burn Notice, who coauthored Bobby Martini's memoir, Citizen Somerville (PowderHouse Press, Nov.), about the Boston Irish mafia before Whitey Bulger, fell back on her film and television connections after Berkley signed, then canceled, the book. To date, says Keratsis, they've sold 4,000 copies, and the book has been on the Boston Globe bestsellers list twice.
So what makes a self-published book work? For Jeff Mayersohn, owner of Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass., which printed Citizen Somerville, it all comes down to two things: "There's a compelling story and a very strong local component."
The West Coast
By Wendy Werris
When it comes to self-published books, regional titles and niche categories rate high among West Coast indie booksellers, who also cite the willingness of these authors to promote and market these books as key to their success.
At Diesel Books in Oakland and Brentwood, California, co-owner John Evans says, "The most important standards for any book are marketability and editorial excellence. Neither is necessarily applied in the self-publishing arena. In a sense, then, the bookseller becomes those wings of the publisher as we decide whether or not to stock self-published titles."
The most successful of these books at Diesel have been about Malibu, where the chain had a store that closed just last month. My Fifty Years in Malibu by Dorothy Stotsenberg sold more than 800 copies, and Marian Hall's Malibu: California's Most Famous Seaside Community had sales of 150. "These are micro-regional titles that lend themselves particularly well to self-publishing," says Evans.
San Francisco's Green Apple Books is also bullish on self-published books, and the store carries about 150 active titles. Buyer Kevin Ryan notes, "I kind of dread it when an author walks into the store with their self-published title, but half the time I'm pleasantly surprised. We've had some great books come to us this way." The store's biggest success has been with Kate Pocrass's Mundane Journeys: A Field Guide to San Francisco that's sold 230 copies to date. Pocrass's follow-up book, A Field Guide to Color, has also done well for Green Apple.
"Most niche books are too narrow for the bottom line of traditional publishers," Ryan says. "Self-publishing provides an opportunity for these authors, because they don't have to sell 5,000 copies to make it work." Consignment terms at Green Apple are 50/50.
"We never charge authors to hold events at Green Apple," Ryan adds. "That goes against what we believe in as booksellers. Author signings are turnkey events here; they take very little effort. It's the author's job to get people into the store, and more often than not this works well. Frankly, I'd rather have local authors. People tend to show up for their friends."
At Warwick's in La Jolla, Calif., local author liaison James Jensen looks for self-published books that appeal both to locals and tourists. Trail of Light by Sarita Eastman is one such title. This biography of Dr. Anita Figueredo, who was the first female surgeon in San Diego and close friends with Mother Teresa for decades, has sold almost 250 copies; the author is Figueredo's daughter and lives in La Jolla. "She's a wonderful self-promoter, which makes all the difference in the world," Jensen says. Warwick's has also done well with La Jolla 92037 by Olivier Dalle and Paul Burlingame. Jensen describes it as an atypical travel book that combines photography with unusual facts and statistics about the resort town; it has sold over 200 copies.
In recent months Warwick's, which maintains only 10 self-published books in active inventory, has implemented a marketing program for self-published authors in which they agree to spend the day in the store to meet and greet customers. Jensen brings in 10 copies of the book on consignment—generally a 60/40 split in favor of the author—for these events. "The way this program is set up takes away our liability," notes Jensen. "The authors do most of the work, and we're not sitting on excess inventory."