John Blumenthal was a successful writer on many fronts. He had two screenplays made into movies, had articles in prestigious magazines, and had written five books, all published by mainstream publishers. And then he couldn't get anyone to buy What's Wrong With Dorfman? Read how he took matters into his own hands.
1. Why did you decide to self-publish What's Wrong with Dorfman?
Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would stoop so low as to self-publish a book. To me, self-publishing was one small notch above the Vanity Press racket and its ugly stepsister, Subsidy Publishing. Cheap, badly drawn covers on the outside and, on the inside, the unedited, sporadically grammatical verbosity of a "writer" with profound delusions of grandeur. No way, not for me, never.
After all, I had a fairly decent track record in the writing biz. I'd worked for several local newspapers during high school, got a job at Esquire right out of college, was hired as an editor at Playboy at 23. I'd been published in Punch, National Lampoon, Playboy, TV Guide, Esquire, among others. In the mid-1980s, I sold 5 books to mainstream publishers, a romance spoof, two mysteries, a parody of Hollywood, and a history of Hollywood High.
In the late 1980s, unable to scratch out a decent living from those pittances publishers call 'book advances', I turned to penning screenplays, sold about ten of them to the major studios, and -- miraculously -- had two of them actually made into feature films. The first was a dismal flop called Short Time starring Dabney Coleman which Fox put out in 1989. But the second, Blue Streak, starring Martin Lawrence, was a huge hit, bringing in $80,000,000 for Columbia Pictures in domestic box office alone.
I thought I had it made in the shade. As usual, I was dead wrong.
In spite of Blue Streak's success, it was the highest grossing comedy in America for one whole week, I was informed by my West Coast agent that, at fifty, I was too old to get any more work as a screenwriter. The Studio Execs were all in their mid-20s, I was told, they wanted young writers who knew how to write for an audience of 14-year-olds. To prove him wrong, I wrote a high commercial, high concept, spec script. Begrudgingly, he sent it around to a few producers. Everybody yawned. My West Coast agent dropped me.
I still had an East Coast agent, so I decided to write a novel. After all, there was no age limit on novelists, and publishers generally did not hire script doctors to rewrite novels, as invariably happens with screenplays. Besides, I'd always wanted to write a "literary" comic novel, if such an animal exists. So in the summer of 1995, I wrote a comic novel about a burned-out screenwriter who wakes up one morning with a mysterious disease and thinks he is dying. I called it What's Wrong With Dorfman? and I sent it to my agent. Her verdict was encouraging and she agreed to submit it to her publishing cronies.
Thirty publishers later, all I had was a disconcerting pile of rejection letters. Many of them were complimentary, several even went on for several pages extolling the virtues of my novel, but one offered cash. Unfortunately, the checkers at my local Von's were not in the habit of exchanging groceries for laudatory rejection letters.
Here's a small sampling of some of the pithier letters:
My agent's interpretation was that the book didn't fit into an categories, it was too quirky, a mid-list book (whatever that means). Agents are usually not gluttons for punishment and postage costs money, so albeit reluctantly, she gave up. On my own, I sent it to 45 small publishers and received 45 more rejections. While the mainstream publishers all said that the novel wasn't commercial enough, the smaller publishers all seemed to agree that it was too commercial.
After one rejection claimed that the novel would sell easily if the protagonist were female, I was so incensed, I wrote a sarcastic article about the futility of writing a novel from a male perspective called "Sorry Wrong Gender." Publisher's Weekly bought it and ran it and, since everybody in publishing reads PW, I figured now I'll get some serious attention! But all I got were a few fruitless nibbles.
I was quickly running out of options.
As it happened, I had been reading about M.J. Rose's successful self-published book, Lip Service, which had sold well online and was subsequently bought by Pocket Books. After a few months of indecision, I held my nose and opted to take the plunge and self-publish. Not with a Vanity Press or a subsidy publisher -- I had learned from my research that no one with any stature reviews vanity press or subsidy books. So I started my own publishing company -- Farmer Street Press. Totally ignorant about things like copyrights, wholesalers, printers, fulfillment houses, ISBN numbers, and the technology behind putting an entire book on a CD, I hired a publishing consultant named Pete Master of Aeonix Publishing Group (email@example.com). For a reasonable fee, he agreed to do all the dirty work and was very patient in the face of my stunning ignorance.
2. Can you tell us how you were able to get a traditional publisher interested in your book?
I sent review copies everywhere! To e-zines, newspaper and magazine book editors, book clubs, you name it. Kirkus ignored it, but Publisher's Weekly loved Dorfman call it, "frequently hilarious and unexpectedly touching." Word started to spread and suddenly there were 15 customer reviews on Amazon and I was getting monthly checks from Ingram and the other wholesalers. The book was favorably reviewed by a number of ezines like MostlyFiction, The Book Report, Women On Writing, Book Review Cafe, Suite 101, Inscriptions and BookBitch. Suddenly, I realized I only had about 100 books left and orders were still flowing in from the wholesalers. I ordered a second printing of 2500 more books.
Meanwhile, I never told anyone the book was self-published as I was sure this would ruin my chances of getting more widely reviewed, particularly in the mainstream press. As it happened, the mainstream press probably figured it out for themselves because no paper of any magnitude reviewed Dorfman, not even my own local paper, the Los Angeles Times.
Then, suddenly, things began to happen. January Magazine, a prestigious online literary journal, chose What's Wrong with Dorfman? as "One of the 50 Best Books of 2000." There I was, alongside Michael Chabon and Barbara Kingsolver! I was being taken seriously, even if no one had ever heard of Farmer Street Press. this lead to several pieces about the book in Ewired, written by, of all people, M.J. Rose whom I had, by this time, befriended.
Stimulated by all the positive feedback, my East Coast agent sent the book around again to a handful of publishers and again, to my profound chagrin, it was unanimously rejected. "Not commercial enough," was the consensus, even though I had sold 2200 copies in a matter of months, with no Big Publishing Machine behind me, just little old me and the helpful folks at Mail Boxes, etc.
Discouraged but not ready to give up, I sent 100 more books around. A German publication, Style, compared me to Kurt Vonnegut and John Irving, most flattering, if somewhat off-the-wall. Book Magazine put it on its "Recommended Reading" list with novels by Paul Auster and Paul Bowles, excellent company indeed.
But the biggest breakthrough came after Dorfman made it on the March/April 2001 BookSense76 List. At the time I didn't know what this list was all about, but I soon found out. Indie booksellers around the nation nominate their favorite books and some of these end up on the list. Suddenly, booksellers from all over the U.S. were hand-selling Dorfman to their customers. My reserves were again depleting.
Then I got really lucky. To my complete surprise a huge fan of the book (someone with some serious clout in the book publishing world, who had emailed me some weeks before about how much he enjoyed Dorfman) gave a lengthy interview to an industry magazine in which he opined that a mainstream publisher would be wise to pick up the rights to my novel.
That morning, I had 16 emails awaiting me, all from agents and publishers interested in Dorfman. This is what we writers all dream about, right? I signed with a new agent and sold the novel to St. Martin's Press, which re-published it in August 2003 with a new cover. About a year later, I sold them a second novel, a comic love story called, "Millard Fillmore, Mon Amour," which came out in September 2004. It had only taken me seven years.
But on my own, I'd sold over 4000 copies of What's Wrong with Dorfman?
I've begun to collect links to blogs that relate to self-publishing. To the left, you will see four thus far and I will add more as they are discovered.
Principled Profit: The Good Business Blog is the work of writer and marketing consultant Shel Horowitz. He is the author of Principled Profit: Marketing that Puts People First. You should also check out his Accurate Writing & More website for marketing advice and services.
The ThoughtBlog is the work of book cover designer Cathi Stephenson. While she posts regularly about designing covers, she also offers advice on other aspects of self-publishing as well as other interests.
Rick Frishman is the president of Planned Television Arts, a respected media relations placement company. His most recent book is Networking Magic. He is also co-author of Guerrilla Marketing for Writers and Guerrilla Publicity, both with marketing guru Jay Conrad Levinson (et al).
1. What type of media should a first time publisher be looking for? What seems to be the most effective for book sales?
Radio is the best media for a first time publisher. There are thousands of radio shows that do interviews every day with authors. The great thing is you can do them by phone right from your home. We do a "Morning Drive Radio Tour" (TM) where we book 20 to morning drive radio shows all in one morning. We reach between three and five million listeners in one day. Your readers can set up at least one to two radio shows a day. Also, radio people are fun. They will mention your book and give out your website.
2. What does a media representative do?
We "publicity people" - public relations counselors - whatever you want to call us - we do it for you. Our office talks to between 800 and 1000 producers and editors every day. We know them and know what they like. We can be your arms and legs. We also have several specialty publicity vehicles - Morning Drive Radio Tour, Newspaper Feature Release, Radio News Release, Power Radio Promotion, National print, TV and radio campaign, PTA Faith, PTA Espanola, and so on.
3. Obviously the sky is the limit, but how much do you think a small publisher should budget for a media campaign?
A small publisher should keep the budget as reasonable as they can; $10-20,000 for six months. We do work on a pay-as-you-go basis - not on a retainer - so we can do a project for as little as $4000-5000. We will work with a publisher first to make sure we have determined what the goals are and what a reasonable budget is.
4. Please describe Planned Television Arts and what they do.
Planned Television Arts (PTA) is an independent division of Ruder Finn, the 12th largest PR agency in the nation, and the largest private public relations firm in New York City. We provide quality media representation for best-selling authors of every genre, small businesses, and leading non-profit organizations as well as Fortune 500 corporations and CEOs, Hollywood celebrities, members of the news media, and much more.
If you would like to discuss working with us, please contact me at (212) 593-5845 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rick Frishman offers valuable advice. Clearly his advertising budget is based on a small publisher and not a micro (1-2 titles) publisher. However, if you can meet their minimum of $4000, it is difficult to imagine how your book could not be tremendously successful. Yes, these are the big boys and girls and they really are that good!
If you are considering using a print-on-demand company for your books, I highly recommend that you take a look at Mark Levine's new book, The Fine Print: What Print-On-Demand and Ebook Publishing Contracts Really Say."
Levine is a Georgetown Law School graduate who has put tremendous effort into compiling the source on how to choose POD and Ebook publishers. You will be amazed at the vast difference in contracts. One company will easily let you out of your contract should you find a print publisher, and another expects to get some of your royalties from that print sale. It's important, for your bottom line, to know which does which.
I've been talking with a distributor over the last couple of days. While they are a smaller company now, I like their business model, the books they carry, and the quality of the whole process.
For the uninitiated, distributors represent your book to bookstores and to wholesalers (like Ingram, Baker & Taylor, and so on). Yes, you can do that yourself. However, for folks like me who are not making a living as publishers (yet), time is precious. I would rather spend my time marketing my book than sending books to Ingram.
The good news is that a distributor can get you into places, like bookstores, easier than you could yourself. The not-so-good news is that it will cost you.
I will still sell from my websites and in the back-of-the-room, or BOTR, at conferences. I will need to deal with those books, but I'd rather have someone doing much of the rest of the distribution.
I don't want to mention the company as of yet because many things can happen at this point. I can tell you that they have agreed to take a look at the manuscript. However, once things are settled, one way or the other, I will let you all know. Regardless, it's a good company.
For an article that discusses the difference between a distributor and a wholesaler, you can read this one written by Jacqueline C. Simonds on Shel Horowitz's website.
Richard Hoy is co-owner of Booklocker.com , a print-on-demand subsidy publisher. What sets Booklocker apart from most of the rest is the very small fees associated with it and the fact that they regularly reject manuscripts. Booklocker earns its from book sales and not from selling services to writers.
1. What are the advantages of using a subsidy publisher to do print-on-demand books? What are the disadvantages?
One big advantage of POD publishing is that it can be (depending on who you use) a cost-effective way to initially get a book into the market to see if the book has potential. For one flat fee you get a turn-key printing, distribution, and fulfillment operation for your book. Plus there is no inventory, so money isn't wasted on thousands of copies of the book if it doesn't sell.
A disadvantage of POD publishing is that you, as an author, are very much on your own. Self-publishing is just like running a small business and most authors don't understand what this entails or aren't fully prepared to do this.
2. What type of books are best suited for POD companies? What type of books are poorly suited?
The books best suited for POD are niche, non-fiction books with high list prices. It is fairly easy to find buyers for such books, especially online.
The books that are not well-suited for POD are fiction books. If you look at the buying pattern of most fiction, people do it based on who the author is and not on the plot of the book. This is not to say that a fiction POD book can't be successful, but the author has to spend a lot of time building up a name for themselves before people have the confidence to buy. What is more likely to happen is the author will use POD to sell some books, build a following, and then leverage that success into a contract with a traditional publisher who is better suited to commercialize the book. That has happened with at least six fiction books here at Booklocker.com in the past eighteen months.
Some of our non-fiction authors have also landed traditional contracts after proving their market through POD.
3. What do you think is the future of e-books?
One of the most undersold benefits of e-books is their ability to be delivered instantly. I think you'll see that quality leveraged more in the future. For example, with one of the technical, high-end books we sell, Drilling Down: Turning Customer Data into Profits with a Spreadsheet, we offer a combination print/download package. For a special price, the customer buys the print book and the e-book. While they wait for the print version to arrive in the mail, they can start reading the material using the e-book version.
I think you'll see those sorts of benefits being exploited more in the future rather than the lofty and challenging technology of multimedia books and portable electronic readers.
4. What makes Booklocker unique in an increasingly crowded field of POD companies?
The dirty little industry secret is that the biggest POD firms use the same backend service to do the actual printing and distribution of the books. So the quality of the books and the distribution channels are identical. The only real differences are the prices we charge, the quality of our customer service, and our business models.
My wife, Angela, and I have tried to build a business that walks the line between subsidy publisher and traditional publisher. We are selective about the kinds of books we accept because we are looking for books with sales potential. And we've created an environment for authors that favors book sales to the public. It's obvious to anyone coming to our homepage that we are, first and foremost, an online bookstore.
Most of the other POD companies have a business model built around selling a base POD publishing package, and then upselling authors on additional POD services as well as copies of their own books. Whether you sell a copy of your book to anyone in the public or not doesn't really matter to them because their profit comes from upselling the author.
We feel the Booklocker.com approach is a better way to do business. It is a sustainable model for us and the author because our interests are aligned. And because we keep the POD setup costs low, it is a low-risk way for an author to test the market for his or her book. If successful, we both win. If it isn't successful, neither of us loses our shirts - the author is out a few hundred dollars and we've covered our labor/setup costs to find out if the book has potential.
In a follow-up to this week's interview with book publisher/distributor J.C. Simonds, she discusses what Beagle Bay Books is doing with fiction in the future.
Can you describe some of the differences you've encountered between publishing fiction and nonfiction?
Beagle Bay Books is publishing its last fiction title this year. The reason: it's unbelievably hard to get the public interested in an unknown author. We are a brand-name society -- especially concerning fiction. It it's not Grisham or King or Rice or Steele, or if Oprah or Katie or Kelly didn't recommend it, they figure it can't be all that good. Fewer people every year are reading for pleasure. Most are using their computers, watching DVDs, or the 1001 things that take up our days. So they don't want to waste their valuable pleasure-reading time on books that might not satisfy. Even if your book is a great one.
I know three people who took their self-published [fiction] books into the world and made those titles successful. Craig Danner published Himalayan Dhaba, a book loosely based on his experiences up in the highlands of Nepal practicing medicine. He printed the book in hardback and made sure all of his regional booksellers got a free copy. He went to trade shows and handed out those books for free (this is the only time I've seen anyone give away hardbacks). The regional booksellers made his book a #1 Booksense pick in the Pacific Northwest, which caught the attention of four big publishers. When the auction was over, Craig got a 6-figure advance. The Penguin promptly ruined the book.
J.R. Lankford wrote The Jesus Thief, a thriller about cloning the Savior. She got seven investors to give her a total of $100,000 to market the book. And she spared no expense getting ads in the New York Times Book Review and many other high profile places. She's sold thousands, still on her own. Not too long ago, she sold the option for movie rights to the actress Alfre Woodard.
Christopher Paolini wrote Eragon when he was fifteen. His parents, micro publishers, helped him promote it. Chris traveled to half the schools in Texas telling students how he wrote the book, then read parts aloud. He sold books out of the back of the room. Pretty soon, librarians were pestering jobbers to get it for them, since the students were asking for it. Scholastic was the main jobber for the state. They expressed an interest in publishing it early on, but were outbid by Knopf. Of course, you know what a big success that's been!
The thing these three examples have in common is that the author/publisher invested a lot of time and money in their project. They were creative and aggressive in their marketing plans. And they got a little lucky. I know people who have been unstinting in their investments of time, creativity and money...and still haven't succeeded in making a splash. But at least they didn't just send the book out into the wilds, hoping it would be "discovered," as so many small publishers do.
Non-fiction has an instant advantage. You are writing for a specific purpose, a definable market to whom you can advertise. If you're smart, you'll do your research about that market before you finish the book, carefully targeting the people you want to reach. From there, marketing can be done through the trade (booksellers, et al) and/or directly to the market. Finding an unfilled niche and serving it is recipe for success.