There are different kinds of self-publishers, maybe as many different kinds as there are people publishing their own books. But there’s one type of self-publisher that I would call folk-art publishers.
What I mean is that folk artists are primitives in the sense that they are self-taught—they draw from the materials around them to devise solutions. They use trial-and-error to refine their methods, and each individual finds an idiosyncratic way to solve their problem.
In self-publishing, Dan Poynter is a good example of a folk-art self-publisher who, at his own admission, didn’t even realize he was a publisher until he’d been doing it for several years.
He also shares some other qualities of the folk-art self-publisher:
- Extreme pragmatism
- Selling information products
- Insistence on self-reliance
- Rational frugality
Poynter, of course, adapted when he came in contact with publishing, and helped launch thousands of self-publishers by outlining the way he had adapted his home-grown techniques to the realities of the publishing world.
John T. Reed
This past weekend we had as a speaker at our monthly Bay Area Independent Publishers Association (BAIPA) meeting John T. Reed, a folk-art self-publisher of great accomplishment.
Reed has spent his career in real estate-related fields and publishes mostly real-estate related books. He first published with Harcort-Brace Jovanovich, but seems to have had an unfortunate experience with their editorial staff, which we learned about in some detail.
We also learned about Reed’s own idiosyncratic solutions to information-book publishing. Over the years he’s published 33 books on real estate investing, sports coaching, economics and recently a book on self-publishing.
Reed started his presentation by taking the microphone and barking “Do I need this?” and although he probably didn’t need it, used the mic anyway.
Reed is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy and Harvard Business School. He is a former Army Officer and a prolific writer with a website overflowing with content, articles, ratings and reviews, books for sale, and single pages that might contain a 125-page article. All by John T. Reed.
All John T. Reed books are published by John T. Reed Publishing and are available only from John T. Reed. Reed made a point of emphasizing his belief that self-publishing is really secondary to self-distribution. Reed asserted that he would not sell his books to any wholesalers whatsoever. He only deals with end users and his books are available only on his website.
Reed In History
For many years Reed was distributed to the trade by Publishers Group West until he was “fired,” in his words. Reed says that taking his book out of the bookstores has resulted in a 257% increase in his profits.
Reed feels that the moment you wholesale your book you turn it into a commodity. If you keep it retail-only, you have a branded product. Branded products can command a premium price, while commodities are bought at the lowest price.
In Reed’s case, he can sell his 8-1/2″ x 11″ books for $34.95. He prints offset, and pays $3.00 for printing and shipping per book, leaving him almost $32 profit on each sale.
Here’s Reed’s explanation of the publishing process, and why he said that most of the questions he had listened to people ask during the earlier parts of the meeting were “barking up the wrong tree.”
- You write the book. Reed apparantly writes his book in Adobe InDesign, in effect writing and laying out his book at the same time.
- You make a PDF.
- You send the PDF with other details about your book to several short-run book printers requesting quotes.
- You pick a printer and send him the PDF
- Three weeks later a truck pulls up with pallets full of your books. End of story.
The No-Frills Approach
Here’s Reed’s marketing plan for his books, according to his presentation:
- You have to write a good book, and Reed emphasized this. You have to give people real value.
- While the book is at the printer he sets up a page for the book on his website. On the page he posts the following information:
- The table of contents
- The complete index
- The complete frontmatter
- Reader comments
- Press Release
- Articles. Reed posts numerous articles to the web site about the subject of the book.
- When the books come, you start filling orders. He says you will have orders within a few hours of posting your website.
More on John T. Reed’s Approach
One thing I found interesting is that Reed has abandoned the use of ISBNs for his book. This makes sense for him because no one else is involved in his book transactions besides he and his customers. Reed dismissed R.R. Bowker along with Amazon, Ingram, Publishers Group West and pretty much everyone else in the publishing industry.
Screw amazon, screw the bookstores, screw the distributors, do it yourself.—John T. Reed
By the same token he doesn’t print the price on his books, leaving him free to adjust prices any time he wants. He held up several of his book and showed us that they were blank on the back. He explained since they were only sold on the internet, where you only see a thumbnail of the front cover, putting anythng on the back was simply a waste of time.
Marketing, Sales, Fulfillment
How exactly does Reed market, sell and fulfill his books? The website is crucial to his marketing efforts. He’s been online for many years, and has over 700 pages of content indexed in search engines.
People find his books by searching online. He ranks high on Google’s search results for many search terms common to real estate investing, a very competitive niche. Reed feels that it’s his articles that are the key to getting search traffic, and he has written over 5,000 articles on real estate over the years.
All his books are how-to books. The material he posts, like the index and contents, help to establish the keywords used in the book on his website. Like the rest of his publishing system, Reed seems to have come to this organic SEO largely by accident.
He sells using Yahoo’s shopping cart and his wife does all the fulfillment.
It’s also notable that Reed has been publishing a very successful real estate investing newsletter for over twenty years, a list that would be very valuable to any self-publisher. Along with the quality of his books and the accumulated authority of his website, he is able to draw traffic and convert people looking for information into buyers. Although he claims to not know how many books he’s sold, he estimated it to be between 250,000-300,000 over the years.
John T. Reed: American Self-Publisher
I would have to say I was left pretty ambivalent about Reed. I studied his website for several hours before the presentation, and virtually everything he said was word for word from what he has written there.
On one hand I really admire his story of self-made success. Reed has many admirable qualities, he’s intelligent, incredibly prolific, dedicated, often quite funny.
It was touching when he answered a question about how much money he had made from publishing by describing, instead, how rewarding it had been to be at home while his sons were growing up.
I learned some pretty interesting things from Reed, and agreed with him on lots of points. His enthusiasm and “kick in the pants” approach were invigorating and inspirational.
On the other hand, Reed wasted no time working in a couple of comments about the people in Marin being into spirituality and similar interests, while people from his side of the bay are pragmatic and no-nonsense.
He made a point to mention to what he undoubtedly thought would be a “liberal” audience that his wife loved to watch Fox while doing fulfillment.
Reed claims that all publishing is vanity publishing—except the way he does it. He says selling through Amazon is vanity distribution, since he feels you pay too much for fulfillment, and that could only be because your vanity wants to see your book for sale on Amazon.
But a lot of his information didn’t seem very up to date, and he has called self-publishers who want to get distribution for their books “psychiatrically sick” although I doubt he thought that during the 20 years he was with PGW.
Although Reed seems to feel that his way is the only way, it’s obviously the perfect way for John T. Reed. Without his mailing list, authority on the web, prodigious output, and decades-long eminence in his field, would Reed’s method work for you? Would people just start buying books within hours of their being posted online? Color me skeptical.
I’m glad there’s so much diversity in self-publishing. While John T. Reed has been turning out all those books, I’ve met hundreds of self-publishers over the years with every kind of book you can imagine. Everyone has an idea of how they want to do it, and I celebrate every one of them.
I don’t think everyone has to do it the same way. In fact, I think the ability to do it any darn way you want to—just like John T. Reed has done—is one of the great attractions of self-publishing, and one of the reasons there’s so much vitality in the self-publishing world today.
What do you think? Is John T. Reed right?