Plenty of big numbers pop up when you ask independent publishers about their most successful titles. Sales figures in the millions and the hundreds of thousands appeared in our 2011 four-part series on bestselling books, for example (to read about them, search via Independent magazine at ibpa-online.org). And you’ll see books with six- and seven-figure sales mentioned below. It’s sales figures that you usually get when you ask traditional publishers how a book “did.” For them, a book’s success is measured primarily or exclusively in terms of copies sold. By contrast, independent publishers usually respond to questions about how a book did by explaining what it did. Its effects matter; often, they matter most. That attitude gives smaller publishers a notable advantage today. While the giant established houses struggle to adapt to current marketing conditions by changing their frames of reference from networks of industry insiders to networks of consumers, successful independent publishers keep right on focusing on networks of consumers—the markets they targeted and continue to serve with a view toward fostering better lives in a better world. Thanks to everybody who sent me stories about what their most successful books accomplished.
Read on for some of those stories, and stay tuned for more next month.
— Judith Appelbaum
Sounding the Alarm on Sugar
When I first connected with Dr. Nancy Appleton in the early 1980s, she had written me a letter saying that her first publisher, Warner Books, had just put a book of hers out of print. The book was How to Lick the Sugar Habit, and she was looking for a new publisher to put it back in print. As a publisher of health books, I knew that sugar was commonly added to most of our foods, but her book showed just how detrimental it could be to our health, and how addictive it was. I called her up and told her I absolutely wanted to publish her title. After a few updates and revisions we brought the book out as a trade paperback, and when we had an opportunity to get it into drugstores, we also created a mass-market paperback version. By the end of 1999, we had sold over one million copies. Beyond calling this epidemic of sugar abuse to the public’s attention, Dr. Appleton highlighted a startling fact. She had noticed that US government figures for annual sugar consumption seemed extremely low in comparison to figures from her analysis of our Standard American Diet (SAD). So she called the media department of Coca-Cola and asked for its figures on how many Cokes the typical American drank annually. The company was happy to provide them, and why not? Everyone seemed to love Coke. When Dr. Appleton extracted the sugar content of a single Coke and multiplied it by the number of Cokes people drank in one year, it was obvious that the US government’s numbers were way off. After she went public with her findings, it took the government two years to rectify its figures and include a realistic number for soft drinks. In the more than 30 years since her first book came out, Nancy and the book have greatly changed our view of sugar. In her two new books, Suicide by Sugar and Kill Colas, she has provided the latest scientific findings about how dangerous overconsumption of sugar can be in connection with obesity and with diseases that include diabetes and cancer. We feel lucky that Dr. Appleton entrusted us with her work and allowed us to help call attention to this insidious problem.
- Rudy Shur, Square One
From Prisoners for People at Risk
A number of the nearly 60 books we’ve published to date have won awards and been reviewed very positively. One novel is even being considered for a movie version. But the book we consider most successful is a collection of writings by inmates at Graterford prison in Pennsylvania called Letters to My Younger Self: An Anthology of Writings by Incarcerated Men at S.C.I. Graterford. Jayne Thompson, the co-editor and a faculty member at Widener University, offered writing courses to these men, many of them serving life sentences, and they flourished. The pieces in this collection tell of their lives and their crimes to warn others not to follow their patterns. The title reveals this goal. While telling their hypothetical younger selves to avoid what they have become, they are really addressing young offenders and young people with the potential of becoming offenders. All proceeds from sales have been used to purchase books for distribution at sessions for such audiences. Working on the book, the inmates developed into strong writers who met our criteria as a literary publisher. My Younger Self now enjoys wide appeal, and it has been selected as the reading for all incoming students at Widener in the fall.
- Walter Cummins, Serving House Books
Begetting More Books for Fans
The book that launched Gemiknight Press, my indie publishing company, is a YA collection of three twisted fairytales titled TaleSpins. For that accomplishment alone, I consider the book to be a success, but that’s just one of several reasons. Here’s the way-way-backstory. After leaving my position as a copywriter at Disney in 2002, I wrote 8: The Previously Untold Story of the Previously Unknown 8th Dwarf. This 2,200-word story featured Creepy, who was banished to the cottage basement for being odd, and it was meant to be my first follow-up to two sequel stories I’d written for Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (the picture book from 1993 that inspired the movie). I wrote 8 in the same rhyming-verse style as Burton’s book, and I targeted the same “all ages” demographic. It’s not a children’s story per se, but not inappropriate for children either. Despite Burton’s approval, Disney never published those Nightmare sequels, so I self-published 8 as a 99-cent e-book. The reviews were great, and I began learning the fast-changing publishing business from an indie perspective. Soon, I wrote another twisted fairytale, The Plight and Plot of Princess Penny, which I published the same way, and I got the same positive response within a small corner or two of the vast book blogger universe. Although it was fun, this venture wasn’t much of a business model. So while I was working on a third story, I ran a Kickstarter campaign. The goal was to raise enough funds not only to publish a print version of the three-story collection, but also to produce some quality marketing material, lease booth space at a few key shows, and essentially launch my publishing company. It worked, and I did just that, debuting TaleSpins to the public at Litfest Pasadena in May of 2013. That was the day I sold (and signed!) my first copies of TaleSpins. The event was very successful by my admittedly conservative standards. I made contacts and began to establish myself, albeit in a small, local way, as a legitimate author and publisher. Professional presentation has always been essential to me, and the release of TaleSpins provided a great platform to test the brand standard I had developed. Because that standard continues to resonate with readers, I give TaleSpins another checkmark in the success column. A big part of the success checklist, of course, was getting exposure for the book beyond that 10-foot-square booth on that one summer day. I was fortunate enough to get positive book reviews online from Kickstarter backers (who received a copy of the book as their thanks/reward) and from many of the book bloggers who had already loved the 8 and Penny e-books. As everyone knows, just because a word-of-mouth spread is slow, doesn’t mean it’s failing, or even that it’s ineffective. Unlike the “do or die” opening weekend of a movie in theaters, a book for sale online is forever brand new to the reader who just discovered it. Reviews no doubt help discovery, and with TaleSpins, I was fortunate enough to get a positive one from Publishers Weekly. I had submitted the book to the then-relatively new PW Select program (now called booklife). The link to that review has been a great addition to all my marketing communications. My next move was developing a classroom curriculum for TaleSpins, with discussion questions and writing exercises addressing the tween and teen themes—specifically antibullying—in the stories. As a former teacher of both preschool and college (honest), I’ve always been interested in what fiction can offer students. By highlighting alternative points of view, TaleSpins promotes mutual respect in what I’m told by teachers is an entertaining, noncondescending and nonpreachy way. The real breakthrough in this arena came when a prestigious middle school in my town selected TaleSpins as required summer reading for sixth, seventh, and eighth grades. I got to do a reading at assembly in the spring prior and then came in again in the fall for a talk on writing and publishing. This event was great fun and great preparation for others I have done since for other book titles. The final aspect of what I consider the success of TaleSpins is its ongoing development. In 2014 Gemiknight published a graphic novel version of Creepy’s story titled 8: The Untold Story. Having friends who are former Disney artists, I can take on a project like this with the utmost confidence, knowing the art will be amazing. 8: The Untold Story was published as a full-story comic (vs. in episodic issues), and we added plenty of fun, illustrative extras, including tabloid magazine covers and conspiracy website excerpts from the fairytale world. All this work led to an attractive, substantive, perfect-bound book that has inherent, perceived value to readers, and the comic is a perfect companion piece to the original TaleSpins book at the point of sale. Not surprisingly, development has begun on comic book versions of the other two stories from TaleSpins. These books will be saddle-stitched issues first, then collected into two graphic novels when complete. In addition, Creepy the 8th dwarf will be getting yet another appearance in public; scripting is under way on his animated short film. And I’m also adapting Princess Penny into a musical stage play for middle and junior high school production. In my humble, indie-publisher opinion, only a “successful” book could generate such a breadth of additional content for fans. Before the official formation of Gemiknight Press, my publishing venture and website were called “TaleSpins Books.” A jaw-dropping, rookie mistake, I know, but I’m happy to report that the transition to the current entity was smooth enough. No harm, no foul. As we continue to grow our brand with more and more genre-diverse titles, it will always be TaleSpins at the heart of what we can accomplish. To paraphrase Walt Disney’s famous quotation about Mickey Mouse: We at Gemiknight must never lose sight of the fact that it was all started by a creepy dwarf.
- Michael Mullin, Gemiknight Press
Dealing with Feelings
There's no question that the full-color, large-format children's picture book The Way I Feel, created by Janan Cain, is the most successful title ever published in Parenting Press's 36-year history. Released in 2000, it's been issued in hardcover in English and Spanish by the Press, in an abridged boardbook edition by the Press, and in a licensed novelty boardbook edition (with "googly" eyes on the cover), in English and French school book-club editions by Scholastic, as well as through foreign rights sales, in such languages as Greek, Japanese, Korean, and Chinese, both Simple and Complex. In total, by year end 2015, there will be an estimated 1.7 million copies in print, with the hardcover continuing as Parenting Press's bestselling title every week of the year. The boardbook issued in 2005 and Cain's 2011 companion title, The Way I Act, are also consistent bestsellers for the Press. Almost 1,100 libraries worldwide have copies of those books. Besides achieving consistently high sales, Cain's titles have also been successful in introducing the Press to the special-needs market. Although some of its earlier children's titles, such as I'm Mad, illustrated in black and white and written with branching-path plots, have been popular in schools, The Way I Feel drew almost immediate attention from the parents of children with autism and from health and mental-health professionals, especially those working with abused or grieving children. In part because of sales to libraries and through school and other specialty catalogs and websites, sell-through of Cain's titles is extremely high. The books are now distributed by IPG, which reports that the 2015 return rate for The Way I Feel hardcover is 0.5 percent (yes, that's 0.005). The Way I Feel and The Way I Act have been success stories for the Press in still another way. They are the two of its titles recognized for design. Their most significant design honors are first-place awards in the Publishers Association of the West design program.
- Carolyn Threadgill, Parenting Press
Starting with an Audience of One
It would be nice if I could measure success of my only book in terms of sales, profits, influencing people and events, or improving others’ lives or conditions, but I cannot. Charli’s Fantastic Day at the Park is the only book I have published thus far. A book written with my granddaughter in mind, it has a different sort of success story. Allow me to paint a picture for you. My granddaughter is two years old with a very vivid imagination. That might have to do with the fact that her mother is a trained teacher who surrounds her with educational and stimulating toys, as well as books. She’s had a library of books from the time she was born. Reading is encouraged in the household. Charli realizes that she and the main character in my book have the same name. Therefore, she thinks it is her book. When people ask her if she has her own book, she quietly and politely responds, Yes. With so many books on the market, it will be interesting to see how she feels about her book as she grows older. Might she grow out of just seeing the book as “hers” and realize that her Nona (Italian for grandma) loved her enough to memorialize her in such a way? If so, I will boast that my initial book has succeeded in terms of “influencing people,” or at least one person. (Did I mention that I have a very strange sense of humor?) I believe that putting a book or books in our children’s hands helps them navigate their roads to success. This is what I attempted to do when writing Charli’s Fantastic Day at the Park and what I will continue to do with subsequent books in the series. Eventually, I hope, sales will increase and profits will soar. Meanwhile, the look on my granddaughter’s face when I presented her with the book was priceless.
- Stacy M. Johnson, CreateSpace
Tackling Risky Fiction
I'd love to be able to say that my debut novel, Everything I Know About Zombies, I Learned in Kindergarten, was some kind of runaway sales success. It's not. It has certainly been a critical success, with five-star reviews from the Self Publishing Book Review, Underground Book Review, and San Francisco Book Review, and unstarred but positive reviews from Heroines of Fantasy, Midwest Book Review, and others. It's a finalist for Book of the Year in ForeWord Reviews' IndieFab awards. But I can say that I succeeded in reaching one of my main goals, and, strangely enough, the review that told me I had was the most critical one I received. Carol Taylor, writing for the African-American Literary Book Club, said that she had enjoyed my book but dinged me for having characters that she could "root for, but not cry for." To me, what was important was what she didn't ding me for. She didn't find my handling of black characters offensive. Everything I Know About Zombies, I Learned in Kindergarten is a horror novel for adults set in Mott Haven, an impoverished neighborhood in New York's South Bronx, about a black girl who, when the apocalypse strikes, does her best to hide her little sister and her little sister's kindergarten classmates. True to Mott Haven's demographics, the children are black, Puerto Rican, and Dominican; all are poor, and half the Hispanic children can't communicate effectively in English. To make the dialog believable, I had to write it in a mixture of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) and Spanglish. The perils of this are obvious. It would be incredibly easy to perceive me, a white author, as racist and as making fun of these children, meaning I had to be very careful to keep the dialog authentic and never have it lapse into anything that could be perceived as overdone or being a parody. Having a black reviewer writing for a website devoted to literature by and about black people accept my portrayal of poor black children without comment was a major victory. The reception by black readers generally has been positive as well: not a single comment, anywhere, indicating that they found my handling of AAVE offensive in any way. I've been invited to guest blog at Blackgirlnerds.com, and even interviewed on the BGN podcast on TWIB.fm (This Week in Blackness, a site dedicated to programming about blacks in media). Everything I Know . . . was also the June 2015 selection for the 500-member Blerd Book Club, which specializes in books of interest to “black nerds.”
- Kevin Wayne Williams, Mott Haven Books
Feedback That’s Fulfilling
Publishers want to make sales, but what happens to the goals of inspiring people and bettering our communities? Often, they are lost and buried due to the ups of downs and stringent demands of running a successful business. Building Voices currently doesn’t have the box-office sales that we were hoping for, but we do have 13 positive Amazon reviews, several invitations to attend school events, and tons of happy customers to prove that our community supports our efforts. The positive feedback from followers on Facebook and Twitter and also from parents and children who attended various book-signing events has been remarkable. Our first book, Broccoli Chronicles, sold more copies than the other books we’ve published and was selected as a finalist in ForeWord Reviews' 2014 IndieFab Book of the Year Awards. Something about Myrtle’s quirky smile and her love of broccoli draws people in. You’re probably wondering why we are gaining so much love and support. Well, it’s the message that we are sending to parents, teachers, librarians, and educational officials that the voices of children matter. Our goal is to educate one mind and build one voice at a time. We believe our books will entertain, inspire, and build the future voices of this world.
- Taneeka Bourgeois-daSilva, Building Voices
The Part Passion Can Play
I like to think that my many books on publishing and book promotion were successful in helping authors make better decisions. These books were never all that profitable, but they did open many doors for me professionally, as a speaker at numerous writing/publishing conferences, as a contributor to countless publications for authors, and so forth. The exposure sold books and brought me editing and consulting clients and members for SPAWN, the organization I ran for many years. Having earned my living as a writer and an author for more than 40 years, I had never experienced success in terms of major profits—until now. In June of 2012, I gave myself a birthday gift—the time and space to write fiction. I knew that I would write light mysteries (which I later learned were called cozies) and I was certain that my stories would involve cats (no talking cats—just ordinary cats with some extraordinary habits). Thus, the Klepto Cat Mystery series was created. To date, 10 Klepto Cat Mysteries have been published for Kindle, and six of them are in print. During the last 33 months, we’ve sold more than 40,000 Kindle and print copies, and we’ve done the free Kindle promotion at Amazon three times, generating more than 15,000 total downloads. Yes, there is more than one way to measure success. I enjoyed success in the form of publicity that helped build my business, and now I’m experiencing success through sales. The best thing about my successes is that I’ve been able to follow my passion in both cases. I’m rewarded for doing what I love whether it is helping other authors or writing and promoting my own fiction.
- Patricia Fry, Matilija Press
Helping Kids Around the World Learn to Read
Success = Impact. Budding Reader is on a mission to make learning to read easier and more fun for children, especially struggling readers. As a micropress, we’ve published five e-books to date, and all five have won Gold in the Mom's Choice Awards. As a socially responsible company working with a number of literacy nonprofits, we donate an e-book to a child in need every time we sell one. We evaluate success not only against traditional business goals like profit and sales, but also in terms of the difference we’re making in the lives of emergent readers. We continually ask ourselves: Are our learn-to-read books best meeting the needs of the marketplace? What other literacy nonprofits can we support to help more children learn to read? On all measures, we believe our most successful title to date is Budding Reader Book Set 1: Cat and Rat—our very first foray into publishing. Three metrics set this title apart:
- It consistently ranks #1 in sales for us (not surprisingly, since it has been on the market the longest and is the first in a series).
- It has the most reviews of any Budding Reader title and the highest Amazon rating (4.8 out of 5 stars).
- Its cover has received the most thumbs-ups on Net Galley and looks great even on the smallest of screens.
These three metrics speak well for the title, but what really sets it apart is this: Cat and Rat was one of the first two children’s e-books distributed on mobile phones in the developing world via the revolutionary BiNu platform. (BiNu brings a smartphone experience to basic cell phones which are ubiquitous in the developing world.) As a result, Cat and Rat has helped ease children into reading English in more than a dozen countries. Now that Budding Reader has secured a contract with INscribe Digital to distribute our e-books more widely—one of the smartest business decisions we’ve made to date—we’ll be able to easily reach and ultimately serve even more emergent readers. As we continue to hear from customers or read reviews that say our books are truly making a difference in the lives of new readers (even struggling ones), we will know we are being successful.
- Melinda Thompson, Budding Reader