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Brian D. Rude, 1981
In the fall of 1978 I spent $4500 to have my book published by a subsidy publisher. I knew then that the “vanity press” is held in low esteem in some circles, but that hardly seemed of any concern to me. I had high hopes of recouping my investment, and maybe making a little money. If worse came to worse, I thought, I could afford to lose the entire $4500. But that worst case, I confidently assumed, would not happen. The book would surely sell to at least some extent, I thought. Unfortunately the “worst case” may not be the worst case at all. I may lose more than my original $4500 investment..
This is a pessimistic note to start on, but I am by no means ready to recommend that would-be authors forget subsidy publishing entirely. In fact I am writing this because I believe subsidy publishing is very much worth considering. The chances of an unknown author getting published by a standard publisher are so slim as to be negligible. Therefore subsidy publishing provides a real service for those who have no other way of ever getting into print. It is a very expensive service, to be sure, and one that you may decide you can do without. But before making that decision let me relate my experience in detail.
When taking composition courses in high school and college I was as subdued by the blank page before me as anyone else. I never had the least desire to be a writer for the sake of being a writer. It never occurred to me that writing was an art, a noble calling, a creative endeavor, or any other such romantic nonsense. Rather I wrote out of frustration. Most of this frustration came from being a teacher.
I was never cut out to be a teacher, but circumstances somehow contrived to lead me into that field. After my first two years in the classroom I had had enough. After a term in the army and another year in college I again tried teaching. After only one year I gave it up again. My next job was as a janitor on the night shift at a hospital. That particular job made sense for me at the time, but having been accustomed to having the status of a teacher, it did little for my ego to be sweeping floors. I had some definite ideas about teaching by that time, ideas greatly at variance with accepted ideas about teaching and learning. I felt I knew a lot more than the so-called “experts” in the field. So I began to write. Much of my first writing was done in the hospital cafeteria between 2:00 and 2:45 A.M. on my “lunch” break.
About a year later I again tried teaching, this time as a math teacher in a prison school. My writing at this time was pretty chaotic, mostly a grab bag of a few pages on one subject here, and a few pages on another subject there, and a few notes jotted down everywhere. But now a new element began to enter the picture. I began to be successful in my teaching. I was well aware of a great many small successes in my previous teaching experience, but these had never added up to anything substantial. Now, finally, in the prison school I began to get it all together. My little successes began to coalesce into bigger successes. I began to feel a degree of confidence in my abilities as a teacher that I had not had before. I even began to gain some reputation among my colleagues for my abilities as a teacher.
However in spite of this emerging pattern of success, the frustrations did not decrease. If anything they increased. The fact remained that I was not cut out to be a teacher. I was cut out to be some sort of analyst. My successes came not naturally or easily, but only with tremendous effort. I tackled my problems first by worrying over them interminably. Eventually I would figure out some line of attack, based on a considerable amount of analytic reasoning, and try to work it through. I didn’t follow my gut reactions. I followed my reason, And my reason led me more and more away from what are a considered basic and accepted ideas about teaching and learning. I found that I had little success discussing my ideas with other teachers. We would see everything from widely differing perspectives. I would always want to analyze to a deeper level than my colleagues were interested in. Thus I felt isolated, and more and more felt the need to find a way to communicate my ideas to others.
Thus I began to put more and more effort into my writing. Eventually I got together an article of about ten typewritten pages entitled “Is Relevance Relevant?” That was during a period when “relevance” was an important concern in the social sciences. I simply argued that a lot of ideas about what is and what is not “relevant” to students were false. I asserted that what really counts in the classroom is the students’ success or failure on the mundane tasks of the moment, and that therefore teachers should be concerned with promoting that success. I sent the article to the journal of our state teachers’ organization, but of course it was rejected. I showed it to some of my fellow teachers and they didn’t seem much impressed by it one way or the other.
In spite of such lack of response, I began to fancy myself a writer by this time, and I began to think about how a writer gets an audience. My conclusion, incredibly naive I’m afraid, was that merit will speak for itself. Good writing, good ideas well conveyed, will attract a following. Therefore I directed my efforts to figuring things out precisely and explaining them carefully. My topics were centered around teaching, but also ranged into topics of psychology and sociology. I began to be able to approach my writing more methodically, to plan a beginning, a middle, and an end, to have the right balance of explanation, examples, generalization, details, and so on. Before long I began to envision a book or two growing out of what I had managed to get on paper.
After two years at the prison school my wife graduated from college and wanted to work. I wanted to go back to school and study science, And so I did. But before I started college again I had a long free summer. During that summer I did little but write, and by the end of the summer I had two books done. I made several xerox copies and laboriously bound them by hand. I sent them to several publishers, and of course they were both rejected.
I couldn’t understand this at all. I thought I had some important ideas in my books, and I thought I had expressed them reasonably well. What more could there be?
Then one day there was an ad in the newspaper, “Authors wanted, all subjects”. That was my first introduction to subsidy publishing. I wrote to them and sent my book. I got a quick reply. They thought my book was wonderful. They sent me a two page letter extolling its virtues. On the first page were several paragraphs of appraisal of my book. From this appraisal it was quite obvious that someone had taken the time to find out what I had written. On the second page of the letter were several paragraphs about publication, how they would arrange for printing, promotion, autograph parties, review copies, advertising, and so on. Another paragraph mentioned subsidiary rights - foreign sales, book clubs, perhaps some motion picture possibilities. Also included with the letter was a contract. All I had to do was send them the signed contract and the modest sum of $6100, and they would do the rest.
Obviously this letter was a bit optimistic, and equally obviously I didn’t have an extra $6100 lying around the house. Something not quite so obvious I soon discovered also. The first page of the letter was typewritten. The second page was printed by machine. All you had to do was hold up each page to the light and from the back the impressions made by the typewriter could be plainly seen on the first page but not on the second. In other words the whole letter was a “snow job" nothing more. Someone had cracked the covers of my book all right, but only for the purpose of getting my name on the contract and my check for $6100.
A month later I got a follow-up letter from this publisher, and again a month after that. I took no action, but just thought it over again and again. And every time I thought it over the answer came out the same. The publisher wanted my money, but there was absolutely nothing to indicate the book would sell. When they start talking about movie rights to a book that is an academic treatise, you know something is not right.
So after about four months I wrote and asked for my manuscript back. I got back another letter, with a new offer. For the modest sum of $300 they would go over my manuscript and “professionalize” it. They would make improvements in spelling, punctuation, grammar, sentence structure, and so on, and thus enhance its prospects to be accepted by a regular publisher. I thought this didn’t even need the dignity of a reply. A month or so later they returned my manuscript and that was the end of my dealings with that publisher. By looking in the yellow pages of big city phone books I located two more subsidy publishers. One of these I cannot say much about - simp1y because I never sent them my manuscript and thus never got their full sales pitch. The reason for this is that I had decided to go with the other publisher. This other was the one whose sales pitch was a bit more restrained. The head of this company came right out and said, in effect, “Your book may sell, and it may not sell. Don’t bet the grocery money on it.”
It was in early 1975 that I reached this point, three and a half years before I was finally able to sign a contract and get the book on its way. In the meantime, in January of 1974, I took another step to promote my writing.
I had a number of articles that I thought needed an audience, so I decided to put out a monthly journal. I invented an organization, the “National Society of Social and Behavioral Engineering,” or NSSBE for short. This was a bit of a joke, of course. There was no “society” other than myself. But if the name was a joke, the journal itself was not. Right from the start I went on the assumption that I was writing for an intelligent and knowledgeable audience. For my original mailing list I simply chose several people who I thought might be interested in what I had to say. They were college professors for the most part, and a few friends and relatives. I designed a cover for the journal, xeroxed a few articles, and mailed them off. I sent seven copies of the first issue as I remember.
My purpose in putting out the NSSBE Journal was purely to put some structure into my efforts, to give me deadlines to meet, and the knowledge that at least a few people would read what I had written. In 1974 I put out an issue each month. Since then I have been averaging about four issues a year. At first I xeroxed the journal. Then I borrowed a mimeograph to run them off, and finally I bought my own mimeograph machine. Many of my articles are simply revisions of chapters of my books that I had finished several years before.
When I plunked the first batch of these journals in the mailbox I had no idea if they would be read or not. At the end of the year I sent out a post card with each Journal asking each reader to check one of two boxes, “Take me off your mailing list” or “Keep me on your nailing list,” and return the post card to me. I was gratified that I got a few positive responses. I didn’t get any negative responses, but I assumed that an unreturned card indicated that my Journal was unopened and therefore should be treated as a negative response. Right now I have only four people on my mailing list who I think are really interested in what I have to say. I also have a few people on my mailing list who are either friends or relatives who have an interest in what I am doing, but are not really concerned with the ideas that I present. But even so they add to my sense of having an audience. If I write an awkward paragraph, I figure it will be noticed. And if I write something particularly well, I figure that will be noticed too.
In the spring of 1977 I wrote an article titled “A Baker’s Dozen of Educational Fallacies.” I thought this would be a good article to try to get published in some educational journal. I knew the odds were against getting anything accepted, but it didn’t appear that I would be able to afford subsidy publishing for some time, so I thought I would give it a try. Also I had an idea I wanted to try. That idea was to mimeograph my article and send it out at one time to every educational journal and magazine I could find. This is not an action that I would recommend. The standard practice is to submit manuscripts to only one publication at a time. Multiple submissions are a violation of the “rules” of the game. I was vaguely aware of this at the time, but I also knew that it didn’t suit me. I had collected enough rejection slips to know that the chances of acceptance by any one publication are remote at best. I couldn’t accept the idea of waiting two months for one rejection, another two months for another rejection, and so on, and on, and on. So I mimeographed 50 copies of my “Baker’s Dozen.” Then I went to the library and looked up names and addresses of educational journals. I think I sent out 36 copies. I fully expected 36 rejections to trickle in over the next few months.
I collected a number of rejections all right. I had one false hope when a journal indicated they would print my article if I was willing to pay for it. This was subsidy publishing again. I was not totally against it, but I couldn’t afford it at the time, and there was no chance of making a profit on it. So I waited some more. A short time later my article was accepted by the Elementary School Journal.
This acceptance was welcome news, but it presented a potential problem. What if the article were to be accepted by another journal? Then I would be in the position of having prornised, in effect, one article to two different journals. That could be very embarrassing. And it could perhaps cause me to lose the chance of getting it published in either journal. So I immediately sent out letters to all the journals that still had my article and stated that I wished to withdraw it from further consideration as it had been accepted in another journal. And then, being the worrying kind, I waited and worried.
I did receive several notes from editors to the effect that what I had done is simply not done. One simply does not submit one article to more than one publication at the same time. This struck me, and still strikes me, as a totally unsatisfactory arrangement. One certainly does not interview for only one job at a time, waiting for one rejection before applying for another job. And one certainly does not apply to only one college at a time. So why should one submit a manuscript to only one publication at a time? The editors’ rationale, of course, is that when they go to the trouble of considering your manuscript they should know that it is available for publication. But the same argument could be made by employers and colleges. And for that matter I don’t believe much consideration is given to manuscripts. I would be very surprised to learn that my article was given more than fifteen minutes of cursory examination by most editors before they reject it. For such effort am I to wait two months?
But that is the way it is, and I have no desire to start a crusade against the practice. I have submitted an article or two since that time, but as a general rule I just consider the whole matter as closed. I don’t want to send out multiple submissions again and risk the ill will it generates. And I have no desire to grow old while collecting rejections at the rate of five or six a year. I decided that if I wanted to be published I would take the one sure route. I would pay for it.
Finally in the fall of 1978 I was able to sign a contract for publication of my book, which was only one section, extensively revised, of the book I had finished in 1972. My book is on the subject of classroom discipline. It is somewhat of a combination of theoretical treatise, a how-to book, and collection of personal anecdotes and illustrations. Classroom discipline is a matter of very much concern to teachers, so I thought the book would have a good chance of success. The major terms of my contract, In brief, are as follows:
I guarantee that the book is my own work, not plagiarized, and not slanderous or libelous.
I will pay a subsidy of $4500 in three installments.
I will proofread the galley proofs and get them back to the publisher promptly.
The publisher will obtain a copyright in my name.
The book will consist of 128 pages. If necessary I will delete portions of the text to fit this space.
The publisher will have the book on the market in five months.
The publisher will print 3000 copies and bind 1000 of them. Additional copies will be bound as needed.
The publisher will send out 75 review copies, and will send out promotional announcements to newspapers, magazines, and radio and television stations.
I will get a 40% royalty on each book sold at the regular price of $6.00. I will get a lesser royalty on books sold at discount prices.
The publisher will provide me with an accounting of sales each August and February, covering the six month periods ending the previous April 30th and October 31st.
The publisher will spend 10% of the subsidy on advertising.
I have the right to buy as many copies at a 40% discount as I wish, arid may resell them. However I do not get a royalty on such copies.
Neither I nor the publisher make any claims as to the number of books that will sell.
If, at the end of two years, the book does not appear to be selling, the publisher may terminate the contract. At that time I may buy as many bound copies as I wish at 25% of the list price, and unbound copies at 10% of the list price.
Between September 1978, when I signed the contract, and April 1979, when I received my 75 free copies, there was little to do but wait. However there were a few items to be attended to. First there was a questionnaire about myself to be filled out. This was to be used by the promotion department in devising ways to sell my book. Many of the questions were of a personal nature - where was I born, what are my hobbies, how many children, and so on. Other questions concerned my local situation - names of book stores, local newspapers, and so on. This was a bit of a chore for me as I dislike filling out forms. But I considered it important, so I tried to do it well.
Next there was the matter of the jacket blurb. In November I was sent a proposed text for the blurb for my approval. I felt it was much too wordy, that prospective readers would be put off by it. I thought I could just make a few changes to clean it up, but before I was done I had totally rewritten it.
A third task to be done was to read the proof sheets. This was tedious, but not too big a job. I found quite a number places where the editor had changed my wording a bit. Usually I went along with these changes though in most cases I was not convinced that any improvement had been made. I believe there were a few places where I felt a change had distorted my meaning, so I rewrote a sentence or two.
Finally, early in April 1979, I received the first copy of my book, with a letter from the publisher asking me to autograph it and return it to him for his private collection of first-off-the-press books. I figured this was just a little customer relations gesture on his part, but it was a gesture that I appreciated. The “publication date” was set for May 22, 1979. I didn’t know why this particular date was chosen, but it was fine with me. Not long thereafter I received my 75 free copies. I had to pay some $11 postage on these copies, which I thought made them something less than free, but I considered that of little consequence.
I had now reached the point that I had been aiming for quite a number of years. I had my book in my hands. Now I could go around and show it off to anyone whose ear I could bend for a few minutes. I was feeling pretty good for a while.
I gave away about a dozen books to friends and relatives. That left quite a few still in my possession. What should I do with them? I could sell them if I wished, and if I could find buyers. At this point I was not interested in personally selling. I knew nothing about selling and figured that was the publisher’s job. So finally I decided to send them out as review copies. The publisher, under terms of our contract, was to send out 75 review copies to bookbuyers, bookstores, and so on. They sent me an accounting of where these copies were sent. I decided to send out my remaining free copies as complimentary review copies, and I decided they would do the most good, that is generate the most sales, if I sent them to libraries at teachers colleges. So I chose about fifty nearby colleges from a college guide. I addressed each copy to:
Chairman, Department of Education
Name of College
Town, State zippp
Inside each book I inserted a note saying “Complimentary copy provided by the author.”
And then I sat back and waited for things to happen.
Toward the end of summer, 1979, I began to realize more and more that there was really no reason to believe my book was selling. Of course there was no evidence that it was not selling, nor would there be for some time. According to my contract the first accounting of sales would be due in February of the next year, and that accounting would cover the period from April 30 to October 31. If I waited till then to find out anything I might be very disappointed and would have wasted a full year. And the more I thought about it the more I figured that sales were very few at best. The world was not beating a path to my door. If my book had been reviewed in magazines or journals I would have reason to think it might be selling. But I had no reason to think it was ever reviewed. I would have been notified of any such review by the publisher. If it even gained mention in a listing of new books by some publication I would be informed. But the only thing I was aware of was one minuscule 1isting In the “New Educational Materials” section of The Education Digest.
Common sense told me there was no reason to think the book was selling. Nor would it sell until it was advertised. But I didn’t know if it was being advertised or not. According to the contract the publisher was obligated to spend 10% of the subsidy, which would be $450, on advertising. I had begun to figure out that this doesn’t represent much advertising. I guessed that even one advertisement in a magazine of any size at all could easily take that much or more.
Something else that entered my thinking at this point was a letter I had received from the promotion department of my publisher a month or so after I had signed the contract. It mentioned a number of promotional and advertising ideas that an author, at his own expense, might want to try in addition to the advertising and promotional efforts called for in the contract. My first reaction was that there should be no need for anything beyond what is called for in the contract. My next thought was that $450 might not at all be adequate to present my book to the public. But if that is the case, then why was I not informed of that before I signed the contract? But at that moment, however, I was excited about the book actually getting into print, so I gave little thought to such matters and forgot about the letter.
In August of 1979 about four months after I received my copies of my book, I decided it was time to do some advertising. I wrote to the publisher suggesting that we place advertisements in a few educational journals. Somehow my letter got misplaced and I didn’t hear from them for several weeks. Finally I phoned them. The director of advertising retrieved my letter, did some research, and wrote back a long letter detailing the costs charged by a number of suitable journals and magazines. He also wrote up a text for a half page ad. I revised the ad somewhat and we placed it in the December 1979 issue of School And Community, which is the Journal of the Missouri State Teachers Association. We also placed it in the Elementary School Journal, as they had published my Baker’s Dozen two years earlier.
I felt School And Community was the ideal medium to advertise my book. Since most of my teaching experience was in Missouri I figured at least a few people would recognize my name. More importantly the magazine has articles of general interest to teachers and, I think, is well read. The Elementary School Journal, on the other hand, is more of a research oriented journal with less appeal to the practicing classroom teacher. School And Community has a circulation of about 40,000. The Elementary School Journal has a circulation of only about 13,500. I hoped to pick up some sales from the ad in The Elementary School Journal, but I felt the real test of this type of promotion would be the ad in School And Community
The half page ad in School And Community cost me $275.50. The half page ad in The Elementary School Journal cost me $217.50. Thus my total outlay added up to $493. However nothing had been spent out of the $450 which was the 10% of my subsidy allotted to promotion. We used $300 of that. so my out-of-pocket cost was only $193.
The ad had to be in before the end of October to make the December issue of School And Community. During those two months before the ad came out I did a lot of figuring. I receive a royalty of $2.40 on each book sold. If the ad would sell a hundred copies then my royalties of $240 would not quite cover the cost of the ad. And of course it would do nothing to help me recoup my initial investment of $4500. But perhaps it would be a step toward getting the book known. With a circulation of 40,000 only one reader out of 400 would have to order the book for me to sell a hundred copies. If I got a response in this neighborhood I could think of investing several thousand dollars for a similar ad in today’s Education, the journal of the National Education Association, with a circulation of 1.6 million. If I got even one in a thousand of this number I would sell 1,600. Again in I wouldn’t he making any money, but I would certainly be laying the groundwork for professional recognition and sales of future books that I plan to write.
But maybe I wouldn’t sell a hundred books from the School And Community ad. Maybe I would only sell twenty-five books, or even less. But then again maybe I would sell two hundred.
Finally, early in January, I called up the publisher to see how the ad was doing. We had sold four books. Not a hundred. Not fifty. Not twenty-five. Not even ten. Just four books. I didn’t get the one in 400 that I had hoped for. I didn’t even get one in a thousand. I got one in ten thousand. At that rate it cost me about $60 to put out each book. The ad in The Elementary School Journal had netted just one sale. That again was a response of a out one in ten thousand, but had cost me over $200 per book sold.
This was extremely discouraging. Obviously I could not afford to spend $60 for each book I sell. I had little desire to repeat the experience by running a second ad. However after a month or so of thinking about it there seemed little choice. I obviously could sell no books without advertising. Perhaps, I thought, there would be a cumulative effect in a series of ads. Perhaps out of the 40,000 readers of School And Community there were several hundred who saw my ad, thought about it, but just didn’t quite get around to ordering the book. Maybe a second ad, with a similar format but slightly different appeal would nudge those people into action. I hated to gamble another two hundred dollars or so, but I also hated to quit trying.
So we put in a second ad, this one in the April 1980 issue. For this ad I figured I might as well write it up myself. I’m sure the advertising director of the company would have written it up for me again, but I thought I could do a better job of it myself. I decided that a third of a page might do as much good as a half a page, and cost a bit less. This required that I have a slightly shorter text, but otherwise the ad was quite similar to the first one. So again I went through a couple of months of waiting - months of alternate pessimism and optimism. The end result was that I sold five books. This was an improvement to be sure. A smaller ad had produced a bigger result. But still it cost me about $40 for each book sold. That, of course, is not a profit making proposition.
A few months later I decided to try just one more time. I wrote up another ad, again a third of a page, using the same basic format but with a new text again. I still envisioned hundreds of potential buyers needing just a little nudge that would come with this last ad. This ad appeared in the October 1980 issue of School And Community. About the first week in November I called up the publisher to learn the results. We had sold only two books.
As it turned out not all the results were in at that time. Recently I learned that the total for that ad was eight books instead of two. This was most welcome news for me, but it didn’t change anything. I spent a little over $200 for that ad, which comes out to over $25 for each book sold. That ended my attempt to sell through print advertisements.
Up to this point I had rejected direct mail advertising. I figured it would cost too much for the response I would get. I reasoned that a $200 ad in School And Community would give me 40,000 exposures. That figures out to one half cent per exposure. Direct mail advertising, in contrast, would cost many times as much. Postage alone would cost 8.4 cents per exposure using third class bulk mail. Printing would add several more cents. And then there is the added effort and expense of getting a mailing list and addressing the ads. To pay for all this the response would have to be hundreds of times the response I got from the print ads.
As it turned out I got about 100 times better response with direct mail advertising. Instead of one sale from 10,000 exposures I got about one sale from 100 exposures.
I had discussed direct mall advertising with the publisher about a year earlier, but had not seriously considered it. Their idea was to print up the jacket blurb along with a coupon and business reply envelope. As I remember, the cost of the first thousand ads would be about $360. This would be $200 for postage and handling, $90 to purchase a mailing list from a list company, and $70 to print up the jacket blurb in a circular. If I wanted a more extensive circular I could have an 8 1/2 by 11 page printed up for about $200 for the first thousand. Thus I would be spending close to $500 for the first thousand ads, or fifty cents per exposure. To pay for such an effort I would have to get a return of about 20%. That is, I would have to sell twenty books for each hundred ads that I sent out. This seemed highly unreasonable to me. If I got only one sale in 10,000 exposures with the print ads, how could I expect 20% by direct mail?
After my third magazine ad failed so miserably I decided to try some direct mail advertising, but to do it on my own. Surely, I thought, I could do better than 36 cents or 50 cents per exposure. I typed up a two page ad on 8 1/2 by 14 paper and made the rounds of local printers. Most wanted about $200 to set up the type and run off a thousand copies. This would be 20 cents per copy. That floored me! I remembered getting xerox copies for a nickel apiece just a few years ago. Surely on a run of 1000 copies xerox would not be cheaper than printing. Eventually, after going to every printer in the area, I got my ads printed for about 71/2 cents per copy. However I had to work up the ad myself to a “camera ready” state. This took a considerable amount of time, but no great skill. For the large print headlines I used pressure sensitive letters. With this method you buy a sheet of letters, line each letter up carefully, rub over it with a pen or pencil which makes the letter come off the sheet and onto the paper, then line up the next letter, rub it, and so on. It’s slow, but provides a good result. Then on the text of the ad I used my typewriter with a carbon ribbon. Carbon ribbon makes a cleaner copy than conventional ribbon, but not all typewriters are set up to take carbon ribbon. My typewriter, which I bought used in 1961, is not. Therefore I had to lay the spool of ribbon on the table beside my typewriter, thread the end through my typewriter ribbon mechanism, attach it to the other spool in my typewriter, and then uncoil the spool on the table about a foot at a time as needed. It was a clumsy system, but for only two pages I was able to make it work. Then I took my completed two page ad to the printer and he ran off a thousand copies that same day.
Postage cost me another 15 cents per exposure, or $150 per thousand. I could have mailed third class bulk rate, but that would have cost about $70 before I put the first ad in the mail, and would also require that the ads be arranged by zip code and that I have a minimum mailing of 200 pieces. The advantage would be that each ad would cost only 8.4 cents in postage instead of 15 cents. I computed that postage for the first thousand ads would be about the same for first class or third class mail. I thought maybe I would know after sending only a few hundred ads whether it was worth my while to continue or not. If it were not worth my while to continue then I would have been ahead to use first class mail. If it were worth my while to continue, then I would have wasted a few dollars, but that would hardly matter if I could look forward to selling books. I could then switch to third class mail and start making a profit.
If I could sell five books for each hundred ads I sent out I would be in business. Five books would bring me a “profit” of $11.60. One hundred ads, assuming I sent out large quantities so printing costs would come down, and assuming I used third class bulk mail, would cost me about $12. Therefore I would almost break even. This figuring is based on the idea that my cost for the books would be $3.60. If I cou1d get my books from the publisher at a lower cost then I might be able to break even at 3%, or even 2 1/2 %.
My first mailing consisted of 238 ads From a road atlas I made a 1ist of towns in Missouri with populations between 2000 and 5000. Larger cities would have several schools each, and smaller towns might have no school at all. But with these medium sized towns I figured I could simply address the ads to the school and they would get there. I also decided to address them a bit more specifically, so I used the following format:
Chairman. Department of English
Junior High School
Anytown, MO, zippp
The purpose of addressing them to junior high schools is that children of junior high school age tend to cause a lot of discipline problems, and thus junior high teachers are a prime target for my sales pitch. Of course not every town would have a separate junior high school, but putting this on the address would direct the ad to junior high teachers. The purpose of putting department of English, or math, or science, etc., is that I wanted the ads to end up in somebody’s mail slot. Not every school will have department chairman of course, but I thought that in at least some cases the use of this phrase in the address would direct the ad to a teacher who would pass it around among his colleagues.
From my 238 ads I got three orders. That amounts to a return of a little over 1%. That’s not nearly enough to break even, but it’s about a hundred times the response I got from the School And Community ads. It only cost me about $10 for each book I sold, instead of the $40, $60, or even $200 per book from my previous experience. Had I gotten no orders, or even one or two orders, I think I would have stopped right there. Had I gotten 10 orders or even more I would have gone to the printer and ordered about 10,000 more ads. Three orders was just enough to give me some hope. And of course I knew that just a few hundred ads is far too small a sample to really know what the response will be. So I decided to try some more.
I addressed another 200 ads to schools in Texas, again using the same address format. For another 200 ads I culled names from the student directory of the University of Missouri. I picked out names of seniors in the College of Education. I thought this would be a most promising target group. These would be people only about six months away from entering the classroom as a teacher for the first time. They would also, I thought, be aware of current educational ideas and thus be responsive to an approach that offered something more than the usual fare. Then I sent another 100 ads to public libraries. For this I chose ten states, and using a road atlas chose ten cities in each state with populations between 10,000 and 50,000.
I got two orders from Texas, and one order from a library. This was an exact 1% return from each group. But I got no orders at all from the 200 ads I sent to university students. With these results I had little room left for optimism about direct mail advertising. I couldn’t see any way to get much more than 1% response. Postage has recently gone up, so now it would cost about $14 to put out a hundred ads. The sale of one book from a hundred ads does not begin to cover that cost.
I had thought that the response from direct mail ads would come in anywhere between one week and several months from the time I mailed them. I expected that many people who are interested will put the ad away for a time and then finally get around to mailing it weeks later. In these three mailings, however, that has not turned out to be the case. Rather the orders arrived between two and three weeks from when I mailed them.
Before trying direct mail I figured that it was my last chance. If direct mail would not sell my book, then nothing would. I would be done, finished, out of business for good. But of course it’s not that simple. I thought of at least one more thing to try.
Perhaps my books would sell from the shelves of bookstores. But how could I get the books put there? As I understand it bookstores do not normally stock books by subsidy publishers. I don’t think there’s anything sinister about this. It’s just that there are a lot more new titles published each year than any bookstore could possibly stock. But perhaps a little personal effort could change this. Perhaps if I show up in person at a bookstore with copies of my book in hand and engage in a little salesmanship I could get my books put on the shelves. I am no salesman, unfortunately, and something like this is very hard for me to do. but there was nothing to do but try. If I could get my book placed in a few bookstores, and if it would sell, then I would be in a good. position to try to get it placed in other bookstores. If I got it placed in a few bookstores and it didn’t sell, then of course I would be back where I started, but at least I would know where I stood. Then, probably I would be finally, conclusively, and totally out of business.
I reasoned that if need be I could simply guarantee the sale of the books by buying then back myself if they didn’t sell by a certain period of time. I reasoned that I really would lose nothing that way. According to my contract I could buy as many books as I want at 60% of the list price. The publisher will also sell to bookstores at 60% of the list price, more or less depending on the quantity ordered, And my contract calls for a 40% royalty on all copies sold at list price. So if I got a bookstore to order five copies, and then after a few months I paid the bookstore full price for those five copies, I would actually be getting five copies at 60% of the list price since at some future time my 40% royalty from the publisher would come in.
Keep this last paragraph in mind. There’s a very important lesson to be learned from those figures.
So with these ideas in mind I walked into a bookstore in a neighboring city (I live in a small town with no bookstores,) asked to see the manager, and presented my case. She would be glad to take several copies on consignment, she told me. So I left three copies. I then went to the bookstore on the college campus in that same city. “What’s your discount?” the manager asked me. “Well, I guess 40%.” I said, being totally unprepared for the question. He told me to leave two copies and send an invoice, which I did.
Now I had my book in two bookstores. If they would sell within a few weeks I would be in business. If they wouldn’t sell in a few weeks then I would be out of business.
But then I got to thinking more and more about those figures in the paragraph above.
If I buy copies from the publisher, then the publisher gets $3.60 per book, or 60% of the list price. But if a bookstore buys from the publisher, then the publisher gets $3.60 per book, but out of that $3.60 he owes me a royalty of $2.40, or 40% of the list price. That means that whenever the publisher sells to a bookstore he is in effect selling the book for $1.20, or 20% of the list price. Then I got to thinking back to some of the publisher’s initial literature. I remembered that he had made the point that if you give 40% to the bookstore and 40% to the author-or, that means the publisher has to make do on 20% of the list price. Then why should I pay 60% of the list price as called for in my contract.
There is a clause in my contract that says that if, after two years the book does not appear to be selling, the publisher may terminate the contract and dispose of the books. The author has the right to buy up the renaming bound copies at 25% of the list price and unbound copies at 10% of the list price. Assuming the author will try to buy up at least some of the remaining books at the end of two years, what, then, is the publisher’s motivation to sell books? If be waits two years and sells the books to the author he will make about as much or more than if he sold them to bookstores.
This is not to say that the publisher doesn’t care whether the book sells or not. Obviously he wants some successes, for this is important in attracting new customers. And if the book sells well by direct nail or print advertising, thus avoiding bookstores, the publisher stands to make a good profit. But I think it is plain that the publisher has nowhere near the motivation to sell the book that the author has.
All this led me to suspect that the publisher would be in a position to sell me books at something better than the 40% discount mentioned in the contract. So I called up the publisher, explained that I was attempting to get my book in bookstores, but that my 40% discount didn’t leave me much room to deal. Perhaps if I could get a better discount it would be worth my while to make a trip to a number of bookstores in several states and try to get my book moving. Within minutes they offered me an 80% discount for 200 copies. This was a one time only arrangement, but if I can find a way to sell my books I have no doubt that they’ll be able to work out something better in the future than the 40% discount called for in the contract.
With my book in two bookstores, and with my 200 copies at home, I decided to try another approach to advertising. I Put a two-column five-inch ad in the newspaper. This size ad doesn’t allow too much room for telling about my book, but it only cost $46 and provided 20,000 exposures. The important thing, I thought, was that it mentioned that the book was available at local bookstores. And for an extra measure I included & coupon so people could order the book from me by mail. If I could get a few bookstore sales and a few mail order sales perhaps the combination would pay for the ad. Another important thing about this ad was that it was the first time I had directed my appeal to the general public. Previously I had directed my appeal only to teachers. Perhaps I could get orders from parents, or from people who were just interested in what might be going on in the classroom.
Unfortunately the results were very disappointing. I got one mail order response, but two weeks after the ad appeared in the paper, not a single book was sold by the bookstores.
After establishing that direct mail advertising would produce only a 1% response, I just about gave up on It. But then I thought a little more about it. I had several hundred ads left that would certainly do me no good sitting in my closet. To send them out would cost me only some effort and $18 per hundred in postage. And then I had another thing to think about. Out of the Missouri and Texas mailings, two out of five orders were from schools, not from individual teachers. This Suggested that perhaps school administrators might be more willing to buy my book than teachers, it would certainly be worth $18 to sand out a hundred ads to test this idea. So I sent out a hundred ads addressed to:
Junior High School
Anytown, Ohio zippp
A hundred ads, of course is much too small a sample to really test the idea. Suppose I did get an order or two. What would it mean? But suppose I got no orders. That would tell me to forget about it. On the other hand suppose I got three or four orders. That would just about pay for the postage and would definitely mean I should send out yet more ads.
It has been about a month and a half since I sent this Ohio mailing, and so far I have received four orders from it. This doesn’t sound like much, but remember it is from only a hundred ads. Four orders is a 4% response, and that is four times the response I got from the previous mailings. This is the only encouraging note I have yet to offer so far in this entire account. A response of 4% is a success. It will not pay me back my expenses for this one mailing, of course, but if I go ahead and get a third class mailing permit and have my ads printed up in larger quantities then I will be in business. A hundred ads will cost me about $14 to send out. A sale of four books will bring in about $18 above the cost of the books. This will never allow me to recover my initial investment of $4500 of course, but it would allow me to think about publishing my second book and perhaps making a few dollars.
But there are still plenty of problems in this scenario. Putting out even a hundred ads by the method I have been using is a lot of work. First I copy the names of towns out of a road atlas, avoiding town that are too small to have a school, or cities so large as to have too many schools. Then I look up their zip codes in a zip code directory. Then I address the ads from this list. If I use bulk mail then I will have to put the ads in order by zip code. All this is a lot of work for my few dollars return. And then there is the -problem of getting enough addresses by this method. I went through about ha1f the town listings of Ohio for a hundred ads. If I got an average of 100 addresses from each state, then the entire country would yield only 5000 addresses, and that would sell only 200 books at 4% return, What would I do with the other 2000 or so books that are printed? One possible solution would be to buy names from a list company. This would cut down greatly on the work, and list companies have literally millions of names in thousands of categories, and all in order by zip code. Unfortunately this would cost me somewhere between $4.00 and $7.50 per hundred names. That means I would have to get a five or six per cent return instead of three or four per cent.
But until I test the 4% return further all this is conjecture. After I received the third order from Ohio I decided I’d better send off another hundred ads addressed in the same format. Unfortunately these ads will reach their target just about the time school is getting out for the summer. How will this affect the response? Will everybody be so busy that they just throw my ad away? Will everybody be so involved in their summer plans that they couldn’t care less about a book on teaching? In other words, what should I do if I get a zero response? Should I decide that the 4% response from the Ohio mailing was just a fluke, a bit of good luck that won’t happen again? Or should I conclude that the timing was simply wrong. I have high hopes that I will again get a good response and won’t have to worry about how to interpret the results. If I can sell another three or four books I will be confident enough to have more ads printed up and keep trying. But as of right now it is still too early to tell what will happen.
That is where I stand now. Review copies and initial promotional announcements have failed to produce sales. Magazine advertising failed to produce sales. Direct nail advertising failed at first, but may possibly produce results yet. Bookstore sales have failed. Thus at this point success is possible, at least a limited kind of success, but it is by no means guaranteed, or even probable.
In this last section I will relate some of the more important lessons I learned from my experience with subsidy publishing. This advice, of course, is no recipe for success. I only hope I can help others to avoid some of my costly mistakes.
I would first advise a would-be author to try to do without a subsidy publisher and just go to a printer. A printer, of course, will do nothing more than take your manuscript and return a few thousand copies of your book. It is up to you to get a copyright. It is up to you to send out promotional announcements, to send out review copies, to see about getting it listed where it ought to be listed, and so on. More importantly, it is up to you to advertise it and sell it, The reason for choosing a printer over a publisher is money. A publisher rightly expects to be paid for doing all these things I have mentioned, and figures it into the subsidy he requires.
In my own case I am paying about $3.00 per book, That includes $1.50 per book subsidy ($4500 divided by 3000 books) plus about another $1.50 per book when I buy them from the publisher (depending on what kind of deal we work out.) I think I could have easily beaten this by hiring a printer. A 128 page book for $3.00 figures out to 2.3 cents per page. My ads, which cost me 7 cents each, contain the equivalent of about four pages of print. That comes out to only 1 3/4 cents per page. I think that figure would come down considerably on a longer run and with a larger number of pages. Of course that does not include any folding, cutting, or binding, and it does not include the book cover. All this would have to be figured in before you would know the final cost.
If you do decide to go with a subsidy publisher rather than a printer, my second bit of advice would be - don’t be afraid to deal! The first thing to deal on is the amount of the subsidy. Just because a publisher quotes you a price that doesn’t mean it’s his final word. My publisher quoted me a price of $4500 and I took it. But about a week after I sent off the signed contract and the first payment I got a letter suggesting that if the terms were not satisfactory perhaps we could work out something else. Apparently this letter was written by the publisher before he received my contract and check in the mail. It sounded to me like a clear invitation to negotiate. If I had it all to do over again I would look over the contract, wait a week or so, and then write back saying that I’d gone over my finances again and again and just couldn’t see how I could come up with $4500 . . . . but perhaps if we could work out some arrangement for a few hundred less . . . .Then I would try to offer some concession such as a smaller number of copies to be printed or initially bound, to use as a bargaining point. Whether this would be successful or not I cannot say, but I certainly would try it.
Another thing I would bargain over is the price of copies of my book that I buy myself. I think I ought to get at least as good a deal as a bookstore. Instead of a 40% discount and no royalty, I ought to get a 40% discount with full royalty, or I ought to get an 80% discount with no royalty. By either of these arrangements I would be in a position to try to sell my books myself if the publisher can’t sell them. I don’t think this point would be too hard to win. I suspect most sales of subsidy books are made to the author after the publisher gives up on them. These sales are made at a very large discount. Why not have this discount available to the author right from the start?
My next bit of advice is the most important of all - know how you are going to sell your books before you pay your money. Or, failing that, know the selling methods you will try. I ignorantly assumed that selling was the publisher’s job. It is the publisher’s job, of course, but the author has so much greater stake involved that he would be foolish to leave it all to the publisher. I even more ignorantly assumed that the success or failure of my book would depend on the quality of my writing and the ideas I present. I still think this is so, but only in the long term. In the short term the only thing that counts is the quality of advertising. Unless I can get my sales pitch out to a large enough audience at an affordable price, no one will ever have the chance to judge the quality of my writing.
The whole idea of subsidy publishing is that the author has a chance to make a profit on his book, or at least a chance to break even. In my own case the figures work out like this. The sale of 3000 books at a royalty of $2.40 each would bring me a gross return of $7,200. Subtract my investment of $4500 and I am left with a net profit of $2700. The fault with these figures, of course, is that there is little provision for advertising, To be sure, there is 10% of the subsidy earmarked for advertising. But this is totally inadequate to even begin to present a new book to the public. In my case it paid for a couple of ads in educational Journals. Had it been used for direct mail advertising it would have paid for just a few thousand ads. Either of these two alternatives can do little more than point the way for future advertising.
I would think that as a conservative estimate one should be prepared to spend at least half again the amount of the subsidy on advertising. I have not spent that much yet, and I don’t know that I will. The important thing is to be prepared for it. If an author can barely scrape up enough for the original subsidy, and simply cannot spend another dime on advertising, then he is banking very heavily on luck and the odds are strongly against him. But if he is prepared to pay for a number of different methods of promotion and advertising then he has at least some chance of finding a way to sell his book.
Of course if an author spends half again the amount of the subsidy on advertising he cannot make a profit, even if the book sells out. There are several ways out of this problem. One way is to have a guaranteed audience, if that is in any way possible. An example of this might be when an organization wants its history written and agrees in advance to buy all the copies that are printed. But in such a situation it would surely make more sense to go to a printer than a subsidy publisher. Another solution is to simply decide that the book is a contribution to humanity, not a business, and give it away. Send it free to libraries, or to whomever you wrote the book for. This may not sound too attractive an idea, but it surely makes more sense than paying $10 or more in advertising costs for each book you sell. Another solution is to take the attitude that a loss on the first book is an acceptable step toward breaking even on the second book and making a profit on the third. This is the solution that I hope will work out for me. If I can make direct mail advertising at least pay for itself then I can go ahead and get rid of my books without losing more than my original investment. Then my list of customers will be the perfect mailing list when I try to sell the next book I write.
Beware of using logic to decide that a market exists for your book. Just because your book should sell it does not necessarily follow that it will sell. It seemed very logical to me that there would be a demand for my book. In every teaching situation I ever had my colleagues would get together at the lunch table and complain about how useless their college teacher training was. It seemed reasonable, inevitable even, that when I came out with a readable down-to-earth book on the practical aspects of maintaining classroom discipline I couldn’t miss. But that has not proven to be the case. I have no doubt that teachers are complaining as much as they ever did, but that has not translated into sales of my book.
So how can you judge the market potential of your book? Unfortunately I haven’t the slightest idea. More importantly, how can you know which method of advertising that will be most productive? Again I haven’t the slightest idea. You can take the word of nonsubsidy publishers that your book won’t sell and forget about ever seeing your work in print. Or you can accept the optimism of subsidy publishers that your work has merit and ought to meet with some success. Of course your work has merit, but that is not the point. The point is - will you or will you not find a way to sell that merit?
I do not regret my encounter with subsidy publishing. I wish I could say it has been a success, but it has not, at least not yet. I have no doubt that authors will continue to pay to be published. I just hope my experience can be of some benefit to them.