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Navigating the Self-Publishing Road To Success

When you're driving down the highway you often see warning signs, and it's wise to pay attention to them. The same is true with the world of self-publishing - there are hazards out there that can hurt you.

But as you're motoring along in the real world you also see directional signs, and they're just as important to heed.

First, the warnings. Just like when you're driving, you have to look out for the other guy. I would ask that you please use caution before beginning any publishing endeavor - take care to look out for people who want to "help" you. There are many predators out there who prey on people who want to publish a book. Whether the idea is viable or not, even if they know the author won't sell a single copy, they're happy to fill you full of dreams and take your money. When I consult with potential authors, I actually try to find reasons why they shouldn't publish their book - it sounds crazy, I know, but I don't want you to spend a lot of money on an idea that is not going to pan out. It kills me to see people pour their heart and soul into a book, then publish it themselves with their hard-earned cash, only to have a thousand or so copies take up space in their garage for the next several years. It's a constant reminder that their book attempt failed - but not only do they see the boxes every day, so does their spouse, kids and friends. Believe me, I ache for these authors.

The other warning that I have is to watch your own course - whether or not your book idea is viable. So how do you weigh whether or not you have an idea worth pursuing? Well, unfortunately there is no sure method. But you can give yourself a bit of an advantage by looking at some people who have been successful in their ventures, and analyzing the things that made them so. Be cautious, though - it's easy to become mesmerized by these success stories. Don't assume that you can get the same results that these authors have - but by the same token, don't dismiss them, either. By examining the elements of just what made the mega-successful authors achieve their triumphs, you can: 1) use the reasoning behind their success to measure your own book, and 2) apply their strategies to your own.

What I'd like to do for the rest of this article is to look at some of the success stories and dissect them a bit; let's find out why they were successful, when so many other weren't.

The Beanie Baby Handbook

by Lee and Sue Fox

These folks are my heroes. After marrying in 1968, this couple demonstrated a true entrepreneur spirit. They explored many different fields, including antiques, art, rare coins, and writing collector guides. One book that they self-published, Silver Dollar Fortune-Telling, a guide to collecting U.S. Silver Dollars, was sold mainly through mail order and was the best-selling book on the topic for a decade - they sold over 120,000 books!

When they had a baby in 1991, the couple relaxed their business ventures to raise their daughter. By 1997 their little girl had amassed quite a collection of Beanie Baby® dolls, a fact which didn't escape the entrepreneurial eye of the Foxes. They self-published The Beanie Baby Handbook, taking advantage of the growing trend. To date, they've sold more than two million copies - stop and think about that... 2,000,000 copies of their self-published book - and have started an entire line of "unofficial" Beanie Baby® products. The book even broke into the top ten of the New York Times Bestseller List.

Folks, these people are true inspirations, and are masters at taking advantage of a rising opportunity. They had their failed projects along the way, but kept themselves on course.

My thoughts...
If you take a step back and look at Lee and Sue Fox, it's obvious that they have maintained an entrepreneurial mind. Through several attempts that didn't go very well, they kept trying, and hit a home run with their book on silver dollar collecting - to the point where they could retire for a while when their baby came.

Their minds didn't stop working, though. When their daughter became involved in the new craze of collecting Beanie Baby® dolls, they knew that they were looking at a cash cow that just needed milking. Since they couldn't produce any of the dolls themselves - the Ty company had those all wrapped up - they did the next best thing... They produced a book for merchants to sell on the shelf beside the dolls. There are now dozens of books on the subject, but the Foxes were first in line, as their two-million book mark testifies. It's a perfect example of the old adage: strike while the iron is hot. Had they waited a year for a traditional publisher to purchase their book and get it on their shelves, it might have never happened.

The One-Minute Manager

by Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson

In 1981, Kenneth Blanchard and Spencer Johnson came together to write a book on successful management. They distilled a management style down to three simple points: establishing goals, rewarding good performance, and correcting poor performance. They put it the form of a story - a young man on a quest to find an effective manager, finally reaches enlightenment.

Without a publisher, Blanchard and Johnson printed copies of their new book, The One-Minute Manager and started hitting the business and speaking circuit. After selling 20,000 copies, the book was picked up by William Morrow, and has now sold well over 12 million copies. Twelve million... that's a lot of zeros in that number. Since then, the co-authors have continued their successful careers.

Spencer Johnson's book Who Moved My Cheese? has become a business classic, as well as appearing on the New York Times Bestseller List for over a year. Ken Blanchard's consulting firm has grown exponentially, and in addition to many successful new books, he speaks to national audiences up to one hundred times a year, commanding fees as high as $50,000 for a single appearance.

Not bad for a couple of self-publishers who couldn't find a house to take their work.

My thoughts...
I believe that several things converged to make Blanchard and Johnson a success. First, and more than anything else, they presented a strong, but simple message. There's a lot of merit to the ideology that they teach, so people naturally embraced it. Secondly, it had a great title - with everyone in business striving to get ahead, they saw this book and thought, "The One Minute Manager - hey... I have a minute!!!". It was a perfect marriage of content and opportunity, and after they'd schlepped a couple of thousand of them out of the trunk of their car, is was very easy to get a publisher interested.

The Bridges of Madison County

by Robert James Waller

Forgive me for being so frank, but Robert James Waller had a lot of raw courage to do what he did. I'm not sure that I would recommend his strategy to anyone. Basically, when he couldn't get a publisher interested in his romantic novel, he self-published it, paid for a run of books, then stored them in his house. Mr. Waller was a teacher at a university, so he didn't have a book marketing background, which meant that he also didn't have the wisdom to know that his endeavor was a bad idea. He went from store to store, selling his books on consignment. More than that, though, he offered readers a money-back guarantee - something that's unheard of!

Word-of-mouth propelled this book through the roof, and before long he was being courted by major publishing houses. It was eventually made into a movie starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep, and while I prefer a Dirty Harry flick, my wife loved it.

My thoughts...
This is perhaps the most dangerous example of them all. You can't deny Waller's talent - it's what sold his book. You have to be careful about this particular case, though. The first novel that I wrote years and years and years ago still sits on the shelf - I read it again a few weeks ago, and realized how amateurish it was. At the time, though, I thought that it was the best novel that had ever been penned. If I had paid to publish it, found bookstores willing to carry it, and even offered a money-back guarantee, I would have still failed. As much as I hate to say it, that would have been the case.

Waller didn't have a market identified for his book - he just launched out on blind faith. When any of us write a book, it's natural for us to think that it will be a bestseller, and that everyone will flock to buy it. To use your book as an income-generating tool, you must be able to pass the what, when, and why questions:

What will make someone buy the book?
When will they be motivated to make the purchase?
and Why will they be willing to spend their money for it?

I wrote an entire article on just those three questions, which you can find on the website, and it's worth reading.

As much as I admire Waller, and as talented as I believe that he is, he's the guy that won the lottery; he was struck by lightning. While his experience worked for him, it is perhaps the highest-risk success story that you'll see.

The Christmas Box

by Richard Paul Evans

I first ran across this story when it was a TV movie - little did I realize the inspiring story behind it. A gentleman named Richard Paul Evans wrote this book for his daughters about a family who befriends a widow whose infant daughter died. It reportedly took him six weeks to write, and when he was through, he printed twenty copies for his family and friends. He had no aspirations about national success or a best-selling book - he just wanted to share his little story with people that he loved.

He'd written such a wonderful story, though, that his friend began sharing with their friends, and soon people in Salt Lake City where he lives were going to local bookstores to find it. When Evans heard about this, he decided that he might be onto something, and started sending it off to publishers. After many rejections, Mr. Evans decided to self-publish and sell the book directly to bookstores himself. He printed 3,000 copies, and began to distribute the books himself.

To say that his operation snowballed would be an understatement. He kept reprinting, and had already sold 700,000 by the time that the major publishing houses took note. When they did, a bidding war broke out between several major publishing houses. Simon and Schuster won the hardcover rights, and the 32-year-old author won an advance of over $4 million for his book. Before long, The Christmas Box made the top of the Publishers Weekly bestseller list. It continues to sell to this day, and a conservative count is that it has sold over eight million copies.

My thoughts...
I don't know whether Mr. Evans had an inkling about what was going to happen to him when he first wrote the book, but he has been successful beyond what most of us can only imagine. He has a gift for storytelling, and the sheer number of books sold bear out what a wonderful tale it is. The fact that several publishers rejected it shows that they don't always know what will sell. Publishers have been proven wrong time and time again, as is the case with Richard Paul Evans. He didn't let the rejections get him down - I mean, moving 700,000 copies by himself is an amazing feat. I think most any author would be euphoric over a track record like that. Evans kept going; he's now written many successful books, and is an inspiration to all of us.

So What Does It All Mean?

Looking back at the four examples, there are many things that we can all learn. Different aspects of each case will appeal to different people. Looking back on them, here's what they say to me:
  1. In the case of Robert James Waller, it shows me that determination can overcome adversity. Still, I think that he is the exception and not the rule. Fiction is much harder to sell than non-fiction, and if you want to see the sheer number of titles that the was competing with in the world of romantic fiction, just visit your local bookstore. There is no question that he had a superior quality product, but there are many authors who have wonderful books that just don't make it. The odds were against him, but he made it happen. When I read Mr. Waller's story, I see a giant caution sign for those of us speeding down the road, looking for success.
  2. With Mr. Blanchard and Mr. Johnson, they at least had the edge of selling to the business market - that alone increases your chances, because that's a very lucrative market. People in that industry are always looking for instruction on how to get a leg up, to get ahead of their competition. Plus, they had a good title... and I'm convinced that the wackier the title, the better your sales will be. Take their "The One-Minute Manager", for example. Looking at it realistically, how could one minute make you a better manager? It had the hook, though, and people flocked to it. Look at some of the other mega-sellers, like "Who Moved My Cheese?" or "What Color Is Your Parachute?"; or take the latest book from a gentleman that I greatly admire, Mark Victor Hansen: "The One-Minute Millionaire". Who could be a millionaire in one minute? These titles that have a certain absurdity to them attract people, and I think that's a very valuable lesson if you're entering the business arena. I think that their chances of success going in were much better than Mr. Waller's, because they backed up their book sales with a very powerful tool: public speaking. Not only were they pushing their book at any store that would carry it, but they were also selling them at the back of the room when they were out on the road speaking. I believe that increased their chances for success exponentially.
  3. Did I mention that Lee and Sue Fox are my heroes? Well let me say it again. They were brilliant - they saw the Beanie Baby® market exploding, and rode the crest of the wave. You could write the world's best book on the subject today, and it would be an iffy proposition at best. Back then, though, there weren't any books, and the public was fighting over anything Beanie Baby®. I remember being in Las Vegas just about the time that they were releasing their book. We were at the Luxor Hotel and Casino, and in one of the stores people were literally fighting over these little animal dolls. Some people were carrying them out in huge garbage bas they'd bought so many. I just shook my head and thought, "I wonder what the big deal is?" Lee and Sue Fox looked at the phenomena and thgought, "there's a publishing potential!". I'd like to say that the occasion was the only such publishing opportunity that I missed... but it's not. My wife and I were traveling and saw a group of ladies dressed in purple, all wearing red hats. I said, "I just have to know what this is all about," so I went and asked them. They told me all about "red hat ladies", and I went back and explained it to my wife. One of the things that I said was, "You know, someone should write a book aimed at those ladies." And then I went back to whatever project that I was working on. Now if you go into most any bookstore, you'll probably see an endcap filled with "Red Hat" books. Sigh. I just want to scream, "I could have been one of the first!" Oh well, I should have been paying attention to the signs along the way.
  4. Finally, we have Richard Paul Evans and The Christmas Box. I really have to admire him, because his story is a great example of a successful approach to publishing a book. He didn't print a thousand, hoping that he'd be able to sell them all - he tested the waters, and when he found that he was onto something, he did a larger printing, then a little bit larger, and it kept growing until it reached the 700,000 mark. His profits from these sales were probably admirable - even if he only made a dollar per book, you can see the profit potential. Not everyone's business model follows Evans' cautious tale, but his story illustrates the perfect way to make sure that you don't lose your shirt when you're trying to make your fortune!
While this is the end to the article, it shouldn't be the end to your journey. As you are motoring down the self-publishing road to success, look for the roadsigns - the people who have been there before you can provide a wealth of inspiration and information. Learn from them, both the ups and downs, the wild chances and the sure things. Those who've travelled the road before us have left a roadmap that the rest of us can follow.

© 2005 Mitchel Whitington

About the Author

Mitchel Whitington is an author and speaker - visit Mitchel's website at

NOTE: You are welcome to use this article in your own ezine or on your website, as long as it remains completely intact, complete and unaltered (including the end credits). You must also send a copy of your reprint to the following email.

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