Two Paths to Success at Book Distribution for Self-Publishers

by | Aug 26, 2010


When I had a publishing company we spent several years building our mailing list, the kind you use for direct mail. It was a slow process because we got most of our names through classified ads by offering a free newsletter.

It seemed to me that a list of people interested in our books and related products would be one of the best ways to generate income for our company. We used the newsletter mailings and added a “Bookshop” which eventually grew to over 100 products.

Our list got to about 10,000 names, a pretty good size for the niche we were publishing in. One day I was talking to a friend who supplemented his income as a writer by buying and selling used and rare books. His method was to accumulate a couple of hundred books in his field and then put out a catalog to interested book buyers.

I asked him how big his list was, since I knew he was doing pretty well with his mailings. (By the way, this is exactly like conversations between bloggers today about the size of their subscription lists.)

“Oh, about 300,” he said.

“300? Seems like it ought to be bigger by now,” I said, smiling a little inside.

“Bigger? No, I’m trying to make it smaller, as small as possible. Why mail catalogs to people who aren’t going to buy books?” He was as puzzled at my approach as I was at his. He thought mailing to 10,000, 95% of whom wouldn’t buy anything, was a colossal waste.

It turned out that he would remove people from his catalog mailing if they didn’t order anything after receiving 2 or 3 catalogs. He considered them “dead wood” and kept pruning his list to make it more efficient. Essentially, it was just a list of buyers, not just people who were browsing. If you didn’t buy, you stopped getting the catalog

I was still deep in the advertising mindset, where, as David Ogilvy once said:

“We know only 10 percent of our advertising is working. We just don’t know which 10 percent it is.”

And coming from the direct mail business, mailings were evaluated on the basis of a 1- to 5-percent response rate, which would have horrified my bookselling friend.

Many Ways to Self-Publish

I was reminded of this completely opposite approach over the last few weeks. Each month our local publishing group brings in speakers who have something interesting to say to our group of active and involved indie authors and publishers.

In July we had Christy Pinheiro speak at our publishing group, and in August we had John T. Reed.

Both are active and successful self-publishers. Reed has been at it since the 1970S, and Pinheiro less than 10 years. Both make excellent profits from their publishing companies, and are supported largely by their self-published books. (And each has written a book on self-publishing, by the way.)

But their approaches to how they distribute their books are opposites.

Reed sells his own books on his own website and wouldn’t consider using a wholesaler, a distributor, or even a retailer. He sells no books to Amazon, BN.com, Ingram, Baker and Taylor, or anyone else. You want a Reed book? You go to his website and buy it from him.

He arrived at this method after twenty years of being distributed to the book trade, and selling his books through retailers nationwide.

Pinheiro publishes through CreateSpace, the Amazon subsidiary that produces digital books for print on demand distribution. Her books are on Amazon and every other e-retailer she can reach. You want a Pinheiro book? You can get them online whenever you want.

She arrived at her method precisely because the other publishers in her niche refused to distribute online. Seeing the opportunity, she went where the others wouldn’t go.

Each of these self-publishers is making a six-figure income from self-publishing, but they have opposite approaches to how they sell their books. It’s a fundamental difference in their approach to distribution.

The takeaway from this is that there’s no right or wrong way to publish a book. There are many ways to make self-publishing profitable, and it really is worth experimenting to find the way that works best for your style of publishing and for your specific books and the people for whom you publish.

Here are two more takeaways we can glean from Pinheiro and Reed:

  1. They are both avid marketers, promoting their books actively to the people most likely to be interested buyers. In Reed’s case, real estate investors. In Pinheiro’s case, people preparing for specific tax exams.
  2. They have both published multiple books in their niche. This is the most powerful way to increase the opportunities for profits in self-publishing. It’s the second most important factor in self-publishers success, in my opinion, second only to the quality of the books that you produce.

Takeaway: When you become your own publisher, you get to call the shots. It may take a while to figure out the best way to distribute your books, the perfect price for your audience, and the best way to market to your niche. Publishers who take actions, try different things, who are not afraid of the risk of new approaches, are the ones most likely to succeed, no matter which path they end up on.

Image licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License, original work copyright by j kohen, https://www.flickr.com/photos/jkohen/

tbd advanced publishing starter kit

8 Comments

  1. Francesca Trop

    I just self-published a book that falls in no specific category. I am a former lawyer, now full-time painter, so I created a 52 pages Coffee-table book, hardcover, on the origins of the symbols of the judicial system. I built it like an art catalogue, with 25 of my paintings. It is full of fun facts that most lawyers and judges had never heard of and it is the ideal gift to anyone working in the field. I have been selling it thorough private lawyer-events and word of mouth. Buyers love it. How could I have it print on a POD basis ? Are the printing presses good enough for high quality pictures when you do POD? My printer can print min 35 books at a time but then each one gets so expansive… the price becomes interesting when I order min 150.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Hi Francesca,

      You can print full color books via print on demand with a number of vendors. I would suggest you open an account at Ingram Spark, upload your files (assuming they have been prepared and named properly and conform to one of their standard trim sizes) and order a proof copy. Select their best quality color option, and when you get the book you’ll see exactly the quality you can expect. There are also a number of short-run digital book printers who produce beautiful books, but that’s a whole different type of production.

      Reply
  2. thomas

    Thanks, i just publish a book on create space and now i want to start selling lots of books, i was thinking about traveling to the states and just giving free tennis clinics, to help get the word out, what do you think? Great work too.

    If you are ever in kobe, i will give you a free tennis lesson!

    Reply
  3. Christy Pinheiro

    Great article, Joel. I would have loved to see your speaker– I wished I lived closer to the Bay Area. I couldn’t imagine going back to a day where I carried inventory– it was the most loathed part of my business. I hated shipping boxes, printing postage, and then standing in line at the post office for them to accept my Media Mail boxes. I only did it for a year, and my profits were the lowest that year. Finding POD was a godsend. The last physical product that I create is an audiobook– I finally found an online company that will host the file (almost 1 GIG of info) and sell it for me for a monthly fee. FREEDOM! No more inventory in 2011. I love this blog and all your information… hey… when are YOUR books coming out on Createspace and Kindle?

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks, Christy. I totally agree with you, I would be pretty happy to never see any cartons of books again lol.

      Yeah, about those books . . .

      Reply
    • Calee

      I’m with Christy– I absolutely hate inventory. Actually, I hate the post office and all of the steps required to get a book there, but any chance I have to not ship products, I grab.
      Unfortunantly (even though I think its a good thing for us) as a small children’s book publisher, we’re also going to be offering frame-able prints of the book artwork for nursery walls, etc. I don’t think there’s any way for me to avoid shipping those, unless, of course, business takes off and I can hire someone to do it!

      Reply
  4. Joel Friedlander

    Hey, Michael, nice story thanks for that. I’m not so sure I’m going to publish a book on self-publishing. There are quite a few already!

    I took mechanical drawing in HS, which I thought was bizarre, but ended up, like you, having reason to be glad I did when I spent many years behind a drawing board as a graphic artist. Still hate the teacher, though.

    Reply
  5. Michael N. Marcus

    It’s interesting that people who publish books in various fields also publish books about publishing. Christy and John have done it, and so have I. So have Morris Rosenthal and Aaron Shepard. I assume you’ll do it, too.

    Maybe there’s a genetic predilection to proselytize, or to publish, or to proselytize about publishing. Many writers write about writing. Maybe too many do it.

    Along with telecommunications, books about publishing have become one of the specialities of my tiny publishing company. It was a complete accident. Actually publishing books about telecom was an accident, too.

    I formed Silver Sands Books in 2008 with the intention to publish ONE book–a humorous memoir. I turned out to like publishing and since I was in the phone business, I soon published three books about phone equipment. Once I had self-pubbed four books, it seemed to make sense to publish a book about self-pubbing.

    This phenomenon demonstrates how knowledge and experience even accumulated accidentally can lead to useful and money-making books.

    In a broader sense, it demonstrates that _all_ knowledge–even knowledge accumulated under duress or for strange reasons–has value.

    When I was in the eighth grade I was forced to take a “print shop” course. It seemed utterly inappropriate for our college-oriented class to learn about em-quads, ligatures and the California Job Case.

    In college in Pennsylvania, seven years later, I voluntarily took a course in “advertising art production” so I could sit near a girl I liked. I learned about roughs, thumbnails and comps.

    Much to my surprise, in both courses I unintentionally absorbed a lot that turned out to be very useful years later when I worked in advertising, website design and especially in book publishing.

    My third book about publishing, “Get the Most out of a Self-Publishing Company: Make a better deal. Make a better book,” https://www.amazon.com/dp/0981661777 should be out next week, and three others are in the pipeline.

    I owe a lot to Bruce Brown who taught print shop in Sheridan Junior High School in New Haven. BTW, I _hated_ the course.

    Reply

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