Like a Maccabee: The Birth of a Book, Part 5

Like a Maccabee: The Birth of a Book, Part 1
Like a Maccabee: The Birth of a Book, Part 2
Like a Maccabee: The Birth of a Book, Part 3
Like a Maccabee: The Birth of a Book, Part 4

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While I’d received eleven positive responses to my query for blurbs (endorsements), I only received three written endorsements. Of the remaining eight, one said her life has simply become to busy and another said she liked the story but “didn’t love it.” That was hard to hear, but the world is made up of many different people, and it’s unrealistic to expect 100% of readers to love the book.

What frustrated me as a publisher was that six of the eleven never bothered to respond to any of the inquiries I sent them, asking if they’d received the uncorrected proof okay, if they’d had a chance to read it, if they would still be writing a blurb. I made sure not to contact them more than once in a two-week period, but in my opinion, it’s basic professional courtesy to at least acknowledge receipt and indicate if they were going to follow through with their offer or not. It costs money to print uncorrected proofs and mail them – especially to Israel – and if they weren’t serious about their offer, I’d rather have spent that money elsewhere.

Authors beware: if you agree to read a manuscript for a potential blurb, please give the publisher or requesting author the courtesy of a reply, even if it’s to say you can’t write the blurb.

Now April 2006, with ARCs (arks) on their way to me, it was time to kick the pre-publication marketing into high gear. Who was going to receive ARCs? Some were obvious: Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, School Library Journal. But knowing that and having an actual mailing address and possible contact name, not to mention review submission guidelines, was another story.

A spreadsheet can be a publisher’s best friend.

I spent I-don’t-know-how-many hours doing Internet research on reviewers’ sites, examining submission requirements, copying and pasting names, mailing addresses, lead time, notes, and so on into an Excel spreadsheet. I had a section for print media, another for other media, a third for Jewish organizations (schools, JCCs, synagogues), a fourth for resellers, a fifth for awards submissions. Every waking moment that I wasn’t actively involved with my children or attending to other publishing obligations (like requesting printing quotes), I was filling out this spreadsheet.

It was too much for one person, especially when I was trying to get the rest of this book together, so I was pleased and relieved when serendipity struck. A friend needed a job to make up for a temporary and very serious income shortfall; I needed someone to do a lot of tedious copy-and-paste work. While I normally don’t advocate hiring friends unless there’s a really good reason (sometimes it can lead to the end of a friendship), I considered this a form of tzedakah – enabling her to become more self-reliant, or at least enabling her to buy food for her family without sacrificing her dignity. She did a wonderful job, and the resulting spreadsheet not only made the marketing process much easier, it will help the marketing of future books for a long time to come.

Finally the ARCs arrived and I did a happy dance around the dining room with a book in my hand. I took a photograph of a box of ARCs and e-mailed it to Barbara. It was very cool. But it wasn’t finished. I quickly produced labels from my growing spreadsheet and mailed ARCs off for pre-publication reviews. The clerks at the local post office got to know my children and me by name. They were nearly as excited as I about this book; they’d never been this close to the process of creating a new book.

I took advantage of some of the offers through PMA – the Independent Publishers Association, and started receiving e-mail requests from booksellers for ARCs so they could see if they wanted to carry it in their store when it was released. It was good exposure. It was a lot of money. In retrospect, I’m not sure I’d do it again, but that’s only because I’ve been amassing bookseller information through inquiries and the American Booksellers Association (ABA). I think that PMA provides a very valuable service, and booksellers respect mailings from PMA. I also think that for those of us operating on a tiny budget with not a lot of wiggle room, a very serious cost-benefit analysis is crucial.

I was receiving print quotations from printers and having to make some final decisions. One biggie: how much to charge for the retail price? This is a huge decision. Charge too little and people will wonder about the quality. Charge too much and people won’t buy it. The retail price must be in line with other books of similar form (hardcover w/dust jacket, stamped hardcover, paperback, etc.) and length and category.

I took my kids to the local children’s bookstore and spent two hours browsing hardcover, dust jacketed, middle-grade children’s chapter books between 100-150 pages long, looking at everything from cover design to interior design to whether the book was printed domestically or abroad, and finally the price.

A pattern emerged: the larger the publishing house, the lower the price. Books published by the “Big 6″ were at the low end of the range because they can afford to print huge print runs and get a very low unit (per book) price. This allows them to charge a lower price, give a generous discount to booksellers and wholesalers, and not sacrifice profit. Even if the book flops. But most small publishers can’t operate this way. We don’t have the capital to print tens of thousands of books and just absorb the cost if the book fails. We do our best to find the lowest unit cost but especially with a new author and a niche market, a smaller print run is often necessary, which drives up production prices and eats into profit and sometimes the depth of discounts we can offer to resellers and wholesalers.

I’ll probably be blogging on the whole matter of discounts another time, but suffice it to say, the large publishing houses have set an industry “standard” to which many booksellers and wholesalers have become accustomed. It involves deep discounts and the freedom to return unsold books even if they’re damaged in the store. It’s essentially sales by consignment and everyone wins except the publisher and author! And publishing is the only business I’m aware of where this is a standard business model. Booksellers can operate quite efficiently and profitably without needing such a large discount and without needing to return so many books – if any at all. I’m convinced that the driving force here is greed, and if independent bookstores want the support of independent publishers (who, after all, provide them with many of the books from which they make their living), they’re going to have to be willing to accept a new “standard.”

The big publishers are publishing fewer books by fewer authors (and far fewer unknown authors) – sources for this data to be cited in a future discount-related post – and the future of the book publishing industry may well fall to the independent publishers. I only hope that independent publishers don’t take on the greed as well. More on this later.

I finally chose a retail price that would put Like a Maccabee squarely in the middle of the price range and still allow me to make a small (very small) “profit” after paying production costs and royalties. I use quotation marks around profit because this little bit per book all goes toward recouping the money I initially invested in this book: paying illustrator and editor, printing uncorrected proofs and ARCs, mailing costs, marketing costs, catalog inclusions, not to mention the cost of stamps, paper, ink, depreciation of computer equipment and software, awards submissions, professional fees, merchant account fees, ISP/web hosting fees, and my time! It may take years of sales before I recoup all of the money I invested in this book, though I hope it will be sooner.

Price chosen, I entered the final listing in Books in Print and turned my attention to choosing a printer. If I thought choosing a price was hard, choosing a printer was a nightmare! Of all the time I spent getting this book ready for publication, it was this time – choosing the retail price and then the printer for the final hardcover/dustjacket book – that resulted in the most number of nights in a row of lost sleep.

That big decision, and the whirlwind of activity as Pub Date approached, in Part 6!

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