When Susan Klopfer showed up at my front door nearly four years ago to request some press coverage, I never dreamed that a "typical" newspaper assignment would launch me on a remarkable and exciting adventure. Susan, who had left her job with a large publishing house to become a self-publisher, came to my house to drop off copies of Vanatech Press's first two books and to ask me to do a newspaper story about them. At the end of the interview which I conducted a few days later in her lakeside home, Susan, who had often commented on how much she enjoyed my columns in The News-Sun, said, "Grace, you should publish a book!" I quickly told her that I was too busy.
For seven years I had been collecting and sharing funny kid stories through my newspaper column. I had thought that "someday" the best stories should be saved in book form so that people could savor them through the generations. But in my mind "someday" was safely 20 to 30 years away! But I couldn't get Susan's comments out of my mind. If she can do it, I can, I thought. And a few weeks later, I called her back to see if she would help me.
My decision to self-publish (with Susan holding my hand) was not based on market research or knowledge about book production, promotion and distribution. It was based on a sudden, burning desire to create a book, which was fueled, I suspect, by the change in outlook that occurs when you turn 40. My goal was to create the kind of book I would want to buy. And that meant it had to have color illustrations. Fortunately, my friend Debbie Rittenhouse, who is an award-winning artist, shared a similar vision and was willing to assist Susan and me.
As we worked to produce Volume 1 of The Funny Things Kids Say Will Brighten Any Day, I didn't comprehend the huge difference between being an author and being a self-publisher. I thought being a self-publisher meant just adding a few extra jobs to writing the book, such as proofreading, obtaining an ISBN number, designing the pages and cover, getting the book manufactured, and placing it in bookstores. I wondered how the world would receive our book. My feelings vacillated from thinking that I'd soon be a guest on Larry King Live to fearing that not one person would respond to my newspaper ad announcing the pre-publication special.
A few weeks after the first books were printed and bound, I began to realize that my work was just beginning. Ninety-nine percent of the work of self-publishing is selling. So far, I have sold more than 3,000 books. (Volume 1 came out in 1994, Volume 2 came out in 1995, and Volume 3 will come out for Mother's Day in 1998.) If you wanted to spend an hour or two, I could tell you where each one of those books has gone, because getting them out of my house and into other people's hands has been such a big part of my life. Even though I have a national bookstore distributor and a national library distributor, almost all of my sales have been in northeast Indiana, through my own efforts. I have sold books by the carton (nonreturnable) to several Scott's food stores, to Messenger (a Christian distributor in Auburn), and to a restaurant chain. Both Glad Tidings Books & Gifts in Kendallville and Little Professor in Fort Wayne have been a delight to work with. I have sold about 1,000 books through ads in The News-Sun, radio interviews, The Humor Project's catalog, my physicians' office special, phone calls to bookstores, and other endeavors.
My obsession with selling books has helped me acquire new skills and confidence-plus a deep respect for the intestinal fortitude selling requires. I have an elementary but growing knowledge of how books are manufactured and distributed. I have become comfortable doing radio interviews (my goal is to average one a week), and I know how to cheerfully think "next" when I receive a negative answer to a sales attempt. I have made wonderful Internet friends through my membership in the Publishers Marketing Association and its e-mail discussion group. I have learned a lot about the Internet and the opportunity it offers anyone with a story to tell and/or something to sell. Yes, I would like to get my books picked up by a larger publisher-not because I don't enjoy what I'm doing-but because I truly believe that with a medium-to-large publishing house behind them they could do very well nationwide. But thank God for self-publishing!
If you are considering self-publishing, the first thing you should do is read The Self-Publishing Manual by Dan Poynter. But no book can prepare you for the blood, sweat and tears! There is drudgery-carefully packing books, one by one, for shipping; back-breaking labor-hauling the boxes to the post office; disappointment-getting no response to a wonderful, lengthy radio interview; elation-selling 35 books from one short radio interview; pride-watching someone in a bookstore laugh out loud while reading your book and then tell a friend how great it is; surprise-getting a phone call from the other side of the country from a professor who wants to buy your books by the carton for her humor class; fear-when it starts sinking into you just how hard it is to sell books and how many you have to sell; anger-when someone to whom you sold a large quantity of books gives excuse after excuse for not paying and you finally have to take him to court; uncertainty-when you agonize over how best to spend your limited marketing dollars; sleeplessness-getting up at 3:30 a.m. to drive 90 minutes for a 5-minute television interview; loneliness-sitting alone at a booksigning praying that someone will show some interest in your book; learning, laughter and love-coming from some the great letters to the PMA listserv; and stress with a capital S!
A quote by the founder of the modern Olympic games says it all: "The most important thing in the Olympic games (substitute self-publishing) is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well." Debbie Rittenhouse, the illustrator of my books, and I are not making much money. So if you judge our books by the bottom line, we are not "winners." But, like parenting, our books are a labor of love. We enjoy what we do-and we honestly feel the world needs our books! We will continue as long as those feelings remain! Our books are not bestsellers outside of this area. But we are doing the best we can. We are taking part in the intriguing and challenging world of self-publishing. And we are brightening lives!
This article is from thePMA Newsletterfor January, 1998, and is reprinted with permission of Publishers Marketing Association.