Even if you’re with a traditional publisher, you still have to do your own marketing. In 2018 I published a five-book series with Rodale Kids, one hardcover and four paperbacks. They believed in my idea and, even though my publishing experience was limited, they took a chance on me. The hardcover started with an 8,000 book print and the four paperbacks were 5,000 each. You can imagine my excitement.
The year that my books launched, Rodale sold their company to Hearst and the book publishing division was spun off to Penguin Random House (PRH). Yikes! I went from a first time published author with a small imprint to an author with one of the world’s largest publishers, which conferred on me instant legitimacy. But, I had to learn how to navigate this world, and fast.
Rodale Kids was small, and afforded me a lot of hand holding and returned phone calls. Being a business/finance person first and foremost, I was savvy enough to realize that would probably not be the case with PRH. And, I was right.
You must do your own marketing.
You can rely on your publisher for sales and distribution but you really have to do your own marketing. Some people don’t know the difference between sales and marketing. Sales are all the activities that lead to selling your product: calling on stores, providing information, doing trade shows, delivering books, and invoicing for them. Marketing is making people aware that your book exists. It is more end-consumer oriented. If a store, a school, or a customer has a plethora of books to choose from, how will they know to buy yours?
Rodale was able to sell my books to some great stores, both online and brick and mortar. They told me that the buyer at Costco loved my characters and she “never loves anyone’s characters.” She bought for a few stores as a test. There were other large bookstores, independent bookstores, and toy stores that bought my books as well. It was a good start!
Know that books will be returned
But, I soon learned that the stores can return books; no-questions-asked. It is something akin to consignment selling. As a business owner, I would never agree to that but that’s just the way the industry is. So, out of the original four or five thousand copies of my books that were sold, probably half of them were returned.
Work with schools
It became clear that we had to do some marketing. But, what? Where? How? My partner, Dennis, called Jason, the head of marketing at Rodale, who was packing his office to leave as they spoke. It had been explained to us that he was responsible for putting “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” on the map. We were told to work through schools. Great! I’m really tenacious once I get my marching orders. Jason gave us a name of a man in Cincinnati who worked for a small bookstore chain, and could help us set up some events at local elementary schools.
We thought it would be more professional to have a publicist call. Dennis called in a favor from a friend in public relations, Siovonne. Dennis is good like that.
Start with independent booksellers
Siovonne called this guy in Cincinnati over and over again. As you can imagine, he was super busy because, well, it’s hard for independent booksellers to make it these days and everyone has to wear many hats. But, if I thought I was tenacious, man oh man, Siovonne could give a master class on tenacity. Later, our bookstore contact confided, tongue in cheek, that he finally returned Siovonne’s calls because he realized that she was relentless. I LOVED that. The reason why you start with bookstores is because they already have relationships set up with schools, which saves you a step. Plus, the schools will trust you because it’s coming from a bookstore they already work with, and not just some random person coming into their classrooms.
Here’s how it works:
1. The bookstore helps you book events with schools
2. A purchase form goes home to the parents
3. The parents order a book for their child
4. Money goes to the bookstore and they purchase the books from the publisher
5. After your event, you sign the books for each child
We were initially set up with four schools in Cincinnati and nearby Lexington, Kentucky, two very underrated cities in my not-so-humble California opinion. These cities were fun, hip, and affordable, with great food and shopping.
I did the events. We sold 1,000 books in two days! I got a temporary case of carpal tunnel syndrome from signing all of them. That was a good problem.
Come up with a program schools will want
For this marketing method to work, you have to come up with a program for the students so that schools will be inspired to schedule you. For me, that was pretty easy because my books were about gardening with kids and schools love that. In fact, most schools want a gardening program for their students, but don’t have the knowhow or wherewithal to implement one. Parents love it, too, because my program integrated healthy eating with gardening.
But, there are a lot of other things that schools love, everything from art, to history, to comedy, to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), so be creative, and come up with something related to your books. Most events should last 45 minutes to an hour (depending on age) and I usually combined classes.
It’s better to drive if you can
If you’re really serious about all of this, it’s better to drive around. We went back and forth across the country twice, focusing on areas where we could stay with friends and family. You don’t necessarily have to drive across the country like we did but it’s better if you’re selling books in various areas to drive because sometimes you have to backtrack if you arrange a last-minute appointment. At times, we were booking events literally from the car so it helped that we could turn around, or make a side trip for a good one. Also, we had a lot of gear to haul since we gave away goodie bags to all the kids, with stickers and seed starters. Part of the event was a scavenger hunt for seeds, and show and tell with different vegetables and plants. I had plants in various stages of development and I did experiments with fruit.
Think of other venues
It became clear that this method worked and we realized that it didn’t have to be limited to schools. We started booking events at children’s museums, community centers, botanical gardens, arboretums, libraries and, of course, bookstores. Eventually, we reached out to schools ourselves, and chose nearby bookstores to supply the books. They were always happy to get the business. And, I had a lot of testimonials from schools to help. Also, we asked friends and family to make introductions to their kids’ schools, which they were happy to do.
Make it work for you
It took over a year, but my books sold out. That was 28,000 books sold. I now have my next five books with Penguin Random House, and am hoping for more books and more school programs! The year spent on the road was one of the best years of my life and I know I am privileged that I was able to do it. If you have a day job, perhaps you can’t but, hopefully, you can take a few days here and there to do school events. You can also focus on schools and venues closer to home. Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone. Bookstores love these events because they move books. Schools love them if you have a good program.
Final note: Some of the venues paid me and I know more well-known authors charge for their school visits. I did it gratis for all the schools because I was a first-time author and I also felt that it was a mitzvah, a good deed, for the students. And I, of course, still benefited by selling books.
Cynthia Wylie is the founder of Bloomers Island and a published children’s book author at Penguin Random House. She writes about big kid’s stuff like economics and business, too. CynthiaWylie.com.
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