Notes from a Self-Publishing "Success Story"

by | Nov 9, 2011

by Heather M. David

I met Heather, today’s guest author, at the Mechanic’s Institute Library self-publishing event I attended a few weeks ago. She was doing a presentation as a “successful” self-publisher, and I found her story fascinating. I asked her to explain how she came to be there, and how she came to make the book she did. Here’s her story:

I am a self-publishing “success story”. . . or so I have been told, by a few people, at least.  Which invariably leads me to ask the question: “What is the definition of success?”

In the world of self-publishing, is “success” the experience of seeing your creative vision realized? Is it about producing a product that is of professional quality? Is it about selling enough books to realize a profit?

To be honest, my personal definition of success varies. It can vary week to week, sometimes day to day. Even though I went into my book project with the realization that, despite my best efforts, I may not see a return on my investment, I have spent the majority of my working life in sales. And so, compliments and kudos aside, if the sales aren’t coming in steadily, I struggle to view myself as successful.

I am a novice when it comes to self-publishing and I can only speak of my one experience, to date—of all the assorted triumphs and pitfalls, of the numerous blessings and disappointments. For with self-publishing in an ever-changing world, there are countless variables and the end result is that it is incredibly difficult to make any solid predictions.

Mid-Century by the Bay Front

Piece of Advice Numero Uno:

The best way to maintain a positive attitude and avoid disappointment is to have no expectations, or at the very least, pad your expectations. Trust me. If you are expecting something to happen, that pretty much guarantees that it won’t.

One of my first public appearances, following my book’s release, was a slide show/book signing at an upscale store in San Francisco—a store whose clientele, by any reasonable expectation, was the ideal market for my book. A great deal of effort went into marketing and promoting the event, in addition to a considerable sum of money. 

On the morning of the big day, I received a call that the appetizers (“refreshments served”) were MIA so my husband and I spent the entire day frantically preparing bite-sized nibbles, when I should have been prepping for my slide show.

Fast forward to the event. A great turnout it was. A professional bartender had been hired and top shelf cocktails were flowing freely. Somehow, despite a considerable amount of anxiety, I managed to pull off the slide show.  Compliments were aplenty… “Oh, your book is just FA-BU-LOUS.” Unfortunately, book sales were not.  At the end of the evening, I was exhausted and CRUSHED.

Now, compare this experience to a considerably smaller “event” where I was asked to appear at a Kiwanis Club meeting at a local Denny’s. No marketing. No slide show. No drinks. I sold a dozen books in 45 minutes and I even got a free Grand Slam.  Which leads me to. . .

MCB Doggie Diner

Piece of Advice #2

Do not give up. You know the old saying, “When one door closes, another will open.” Well, it’s 100% true. As a child, how much candy would you have come home with if you spent your entire Halloween Trick-or-Treating at ONE house? If you knock on the door and there’s no answer, or if the offering is third-rate candy, what in the world are you waiting for? Head to the next house!

Earlier this year, I was beyond flattered when a museum curator reached out to me about the possibility of carrying my book in several museum gift shops. I was promptly referred to the museum stores buyer who, after some effort, I was able to connect with. 

A preview copy of my book was requested and even though the curator already had a copy, and I had provided links to several online previews, I carefully packed a book and made a run to the post office. Several weeks later, I reconnected with the buyer who said that although he was impressed with my book, he was not “inspired” by my pricing.

I explained the reasoning behind the pricing. When you self-publish, and have a relatively small initial print run, your printing cost can be quite high. In addition, I chose to have the book printed in Iceland and the shipping to California alone cost me $2,000. I offered that my book was first edition, not for sale on Amazon, and of local interest. Apparently, Mr. Buyer remained uninspired. I never heard from him again.

In this case, I was not crushed. I was MAD.

So I reached out to another museum and guess what? I received an order for 40 books, my largest order yet. And I didn’t even need to send a preview copy. And they paid their invoice in 30 days!  In the end, I was the one who was “inspired.”

MCB San Francisco Zoo

Piece of Advice #3:

Be your own #1 fan.

A book is a very personal thing. To create a book requires that you put yourself “out there” in the world and one cannot do this without some vulnerability. Chances are that you have invested a lot of time and money into realizing your vision. If some people do not “get” your vision, that is OK. Do you like every book in a bookstore?

Please know that not everyone is going to appreciate what you have accomplished. That fact, however, does not make your book any less an achievement. The good news is that the world is filled with potential book buyers. There are over 312 million people in the United States alone. Just keep knocking and you are bound to receive some good candy.

In my home office, I have a cork board. The board is a mish-mash of book reviews, articles, event name tags, and special photographs. It is also where I hang outstanding invoices. When I get discouraged, I look over at the board.  It is a reminder of how far I have come. And if the board has not changed much in several weeks, it is a not-so-subtle reminder that I still have a way to go.

So back to the burning question—Am I a self-publishing success?

Here are some numbers. I sold 400 books in the first year following my book’s release, with a full-time day job, and no significant investment in advertising.  At the end of my second year, I hope (note: hope, not expect) to be halfway through my book inventory of 1,500 books. At the rate that I am going, I will need to sell roughly 1,000 books to break even on my initial investment ($36,000).

Today, I am a self-publishing success. Why?  Because I think so. Because a significant number of my book sales come from repeat customers. Because I have witnessed people cry (in a good way) when they turn the pages of my book.  Because yesterday I sold a book to someone in New York and I will be making a trip to the post office today. That’s today. Tomorrow, it may be a different story.

Heather M. David, self-publisherHeather M. David is a cultural historian, freelance writer, and advocate for the preservation of mid-century architecture. She has written numerous articles on American popular culture and historic preservation. Mid-Century by the Bay is her first book, and is available at the Mid-Century By the Bay website.

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Thomas (Tom) Waldron

    I have heather’s book, “Operation Rescue”,which I received in San Francisco during the US- POWs homecoming parade.Most of those who signed this book have since passed on. I was one of the helo pilots
    on the raid at Son tay (Apple 3). She has done a great job of leading
    folks to write it down-someone may want to know about what happened.
    At the young age of 72 I began a two-year venture writing and self-publishing a book on my 69-70 USAF Jolly Green Rescue missions.
    (I Flew With Heroes)…Thanks for the encouragement…Tom W. USAF RET

  2. Alice Stelzer

    Thank you for sharing your story. I am writing a history book and am gratified to see someone have success with a history book. You have encouraged me.

  3. Dianne Greenlay

    Thanks for your kindness, Heather! I don’t mind at all. What a wonderful time in history to be writing in, with the power of social media connecting us all. :-)

    • Heather David

      Yes indeed, social media is a powerful tool but I’m discovering that it is just another tool in the ol’ tool box. It would be great if I could sell a case of books with a few Facebook entries but for me, at least, public appearances are the way to sell the most books… not to mention, I loooove seeing people respond, in real time, to my book! Whether good, bad, or indifferent, the feedback is very helpful.

  4. Larry Jacobson

    Great story and so similar to mine. We both spent about the same amount of money producing our books, printed the same number (although I printed in Ohio), and both recognize the difficulty in even getting to the break-even point on the investment.
    Yet we both consider ourselves to be great successes! And we are! Joel was instrumental in making my book, (The Boy Behind the Gate) such a beautiful work of art, and the rave reviews I’m getting are what make me feel so good about it. I also recommend getting your book onto the iPad as your photos and layout are gorgeous. My iPad and Kindle sales are now out-pacing my case-bound books.
    Congratulations to you on your success!
    Larry Jacobson

    • Heather David

      Hi Larry,
      Thanks very much for your words of encouragement… and a hearty congratulations on your success!
      I should probably offer that my book was designed by the multi-talented Benjamin Shaykin
      My dream had been to be published by Chronicle Books. While, in the end, I opted to go the self-publishing route, I was incredibly fortunate to be able to work with a former designer with Chronicle Books!
      I promise to look into an eBook option this weekend!
      Best regards,

  5. Dianne Greenlay

    Thanks for sharing your experiences, Heather! Thanks, too, Joel, for hosting such a great site. I self-pubbed my book a year ago and have made my costs back, but only just. I entered it into Book Award contests and it won Hon. Mentions and First places for a total of 14 Awards. I did book blog tours, live signings, radio interviews, was featured in magazine and newspapers, Fb’d, tweeted, (and sometimes tooted …). And so I slug on. The great thing about indie publishing is that there are no hard and fast time lines within which an author’s book must make it or break it. Carry on, my fellow Indies, carry on! Good luck Heather!

  6. adan lerma

    beautiful story and reminder about the “candy” ;-)

    am curious, with the new ereader color capabilities, and viewability on larger computer screens, is the author considering an ebook?

    thanks so much,


    • Heather David

      Hi Adan,
      Yes, an ebook is definitely in consideration. Just haven’t taken any steps into understanding the process.
      Many thanks!

  7. Joel Friedlander

    Thanks to Heather for sharing so much of her journey. One of the reasons I wanted to publish her story was because she did NOT follow the path of most self-publishers.

    It’s important to realize that creating a book like this is an intensely personal project, and the author/publisher has every right to do it the way that suits them best.

    In Heather’s case, she now has the book she always dreamed of, and it’s a book that’s evergreen in its interest and potential market, so there will be lots of time for her to decide exactly how she wants to go about marketing it.

    With the determination she’s already shown in getting to this point, I don’t think there’s any question that she is going to have even more “success.”

  8. Heather David

    Hi Janet,
    Thanks so much for your input! I really appreciate it. In response to your comments…

    1.) I think that you have to spend some money on marketing but it’s really hard to predict what will work/not work. On that note, it has been my personal experience that there is little correlation between a free preview copy and a book order. The majority of my book orders have come by reaching out to a book store buyer, via email, and including a link to an online preview of my book posted on flickr[email protected]/sets/72157623752365543/
    This approach works great for books with a lot of pictures and my annual subscription to flickr is only $24.95

    2.) In retrospect, there are a lot of things I could/would have done differently but early on, I opted to self-publish. This was to be my “dream book” and I wanted full creative control. My friend Rob Keil had tremendous success with his self-published book “Little Boxes” and he was kind enough to be my mentor.

    It may seem a foolish business decision (and I often ponder this myself!) to have a book printed in Iceland but I found the prices with ODDI reasonable, the quality (for a coffee table book) to be what I was looking for, and the customer service, excellent. Equally important to me was the company’s environmental policy

    3.) At some point, I may opt to go the Amazon route (there are people reselling my book on Amazon for $99.95!?) but for the time being, my allegiance is to the independent book stores who are supporting me in this adventure (William Stout, Green Apple, Books Inc., Green Arcade, etc.). It seems that Amazon is the first place most people go (admittedly, at times, including myself) when looking for a book and I don’t want the smaller stores to have to compete with Amazon. Of course, people can also buy directly from me and if the sale is a local sale, I hand-deliver and refund the shipping cost… so these stores have some competition. :)

    My husband is pushing me in the ebook direction and I am certainly open to it. I guess that I’m a bit old-fashioned and need to get with the times. I struggle with the idea of a “soft” coffee table book. For me, a coffee table book is something you… well, pick up off the coffee table… and curl up on the couch with. :)

    Again, my sincere thanks for taking the time to write! I sure wish that I would have known about this blog when I started out…


  9. Drazan

    honest=great story, thank you very much.


    • Heather David

      Thanks Drazan! I hope that sharing my experiences can help others… in some small way.

  10. Dwight Okita

    Very interesting post about the ups and downs of self pub promotion. I can relate. Thanks for sharing, Heather.

    • Heather David

      Hi Dwight,
      For me, the constant self-promotion is, by far, the worst part of the self-publishing experience. I have to push myself to do it. I guess that there was some, small, naive part of me that hoped that I would just put my book “out there” and the sales would come. Oh boy, that is just not the case…

      • J S

        Your first two events reminded me of a story from “the milionaire next door” .. they tried plying wealthy people with fancy fare (their own perception) but the wealthy people that showed up from their survey group asked, “how about some sandwiches?”. Might be worth your read to target groups.

        I also really suggest you get set up on Amazon for physical books. In the past I sold a niche text book and shipped globally (memorable were some were to tech’s on US navy ships, Brazil, and Austria).

        If you want some help with Amazon .. track me on my blog link attached (I’m in the process of moving hosting co’s so the site will be up/down for a bit).

  11. Michael Brown

    Nice writing Heather – I can see why you’ll probably be sold out in 1.5 yrs and not in 2!

    I suspect from listening that you did the book exactly as you wished to do it. If you had the means to do so, why not? You only go around once. For those forced to think the financials thru a bit closely, maybe Iceland would’ve transformed to Oakland.

    I’m actually contracted to do a book with a publishing house who in the event they back out (a possibility in our case) will likely lead me to self-publishing, so thanks for reminding us there are other next doors just waiting to be opened!


    • Darby

      Michael, that’s what happened to me. I had sold my novel The Book of Elizabeth to a publisher who sat on it for over three years. Finally I took the rights back and published it on my own. There are definitely other doors!

      • Heather David

        CONGRATULATIONS Darby! A friend of mine just had his book dropped by a publisher after working on it 2 years straight. The problem with the publishing industry now, like so many other creative industries, is that so many publishers are looking for minimal investment/high potential return opportunities. Needless to say, a coffee table book is a real difficult sell. The creative world is suffering because many companies cannot (or will not) take chances.

    • Heather David

      Hi Michael,
      Thanks for the compliment. Believe it or not, I was VERY insecure about my writing when I started working on my book. Sometimes, it would take me a day just to write a paragraph. I had to work through my “you are not a professional writer” fear to find my voice.

      Actually, I did not produce the book exactly as I would have liked to. I got as close to my “dream book” as I could afford. If I had had more money, for example, I would have used more professional photographs. As it turned out, some 60 of the photographs in the book are my own, for good or for bad, because I did not have the $$$ for licensing professional photographs.

      But I hear what you are saying. To produce a book costs money and sadly, there are a lot of talented people out there who may never see their books realized because they don’t have the money to do so. Meanwhile, Snooki from Jersey Shore gets a book deal and she cannot complete a sentence.

      BTW, we looked into several possible printers for my book. My preference, for numerous reasons, would have been to have the book printed in the U.S. Even with the cost of shipping, however, it was cheaper to get the quality I wanted from a printer in Iceland. How sad is that?

      Best wishes to you with your publishing deal. If, for some awful reason, they do back out… pick up a copy of Dan Poynter’s Self-Publishing Manual and you’ll be on your way!


      P.S. I am not sold out yet… just about halfway through my inventory. :)

  12. Darby

    Heather, great story and motivation to keep us all going. I feel successful in just producing the book. It’s been a long road. But then, it’s been very modest as far as sales so far, so it’s been discouraging too. I agree, always keep going. Thanks!

    • Heather David

      Hi Darby,
      You ARE successful in just producing a book. It is hard to produce a book. I cannot tell you how I felt when I first held a copy of my book in my hands. It’s all a blur to me now but I’m pretty sure that I was crying. Then, I promptly went through the book with a fine toothed comb looking for errors!!!
      All creative industries are in the midst of a transition period – reinvent or die – and those of us who are creative types are unfortunately, caught up in this world of great uncertainty.
      New industries are emerging – like those catering to self-publishing. The market for ebooks is exploding (who woulda thunk?!). To produce a book 10 years ago would have been a success but do so today is a small miracle.
      Early on in my book adventure, I was lucky enough to connect with the author of several of my all-time favorite books. This is what he told me:
      “You don’t do a book to make money. You do a book because you are passionate and determined to share your passion with others.”
      So I guess that I started my project with realistic expectations.
      Keep going! Every day brings new possibilities!

  13. Janet Angelo

    Good perspective, but your story confirms two things I gently pound the podium about in various discussions on LinkedIn about book marketing for self- and indie publishers:

    1. Do not spend a lot of money on marketing initiatives. You usually will not see a return on that investment. Think of all the free ways you can market your book.

    2. If you are based in the US, might it have been better to save yourself that massive $2,000 shipping cost (from Iceland?!?) by publishing with an independent publisher here in the US…?

    And I must urge you to get your book onto Amazon and find a way to get it published as an ebook. All those gorgeous full color illustrations would look fantastic on an iPad.

    Janet :-)
    IndieGo ePublishing

  14. Karen A Einsel

    Good morning Heather!
    I agree with Russell, great story and congratulations on your success. I’m going to share your link with my blog post later today.

    • Heather David

      Thanks Karen! I really appreciate the support. It’s hard to think of yourself as successful when the big publishers define success in the number of thousands of books that you have sold but I do feel a level of satisfaction with each box that is emptied.

  15. Russell Brooks

    Very great story. Thanks for sharing, Ms Heather. This has helped me to view things differently. The Halloween analogy is a great one.

    • Heather David

      Hi Russell, Thanks for reading my story. My first foray into self-publishing has been an adventure, to say the least. Looking back, I think that it will have been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life… perhaps not financially, but in so many other ways…

      • Russell Brooks

        Well it’s taught me that persistence pays off. When one door closes another will open. I imagine eventually you’ll build relationships with your fans and they’ll be a platform for your next book. Keep up the great work.

        • Heather David

          Honestly, I don’t know if I’ll ever do another book… that’s why this one had to be as close to my “dream book” as possible. I never wanted to be a public figure. I just got tired of waiting for someone else to do Mid-Century by the Bay. We’ll see what the future holds. Never say “never”… :)



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