Barbara Florio Graham







A version of the following article appeared in the November, 2002, issue of
Quill & Quire, the monthly periodical servicing the book publishing industry in Canada.

The Quill & Quire article was titled: The Self-Publishing Plunge


Over many years as a teacher and mentor, I've warned other writers about self-publishing. "Do you have a substantial amount of money to invest?" I'd ask. "How much do you know about marketing?" "How will you fill orders and handle distribution?"

So my own plunge into self-publishing was carefully considered. I already had two books which sell steadily, and since one is a guide to low-cost publicity, I'm certainly a savvy marketer. So with a careful plan, I dove into the deep end of the pool with my third book, "Mewsings/Musings," launched in 2001.

My timing was perfect, although I didn't realize it then. I financed this venture by cashing in a poorly-performing mutual fund. Then, right after the stock market tanked, a frightening scenario developed in the publishing world. As Stoddart/General collapsed, leaving unsold books languishing in warehouses and royalties in limbo, it was clear that authors and small publishers were going to take the worst hit. Even writers who had signed contracts with a now-defunct publisher found themselves in deep water.

But I knew none of this before I made my decision. My reasons were simple. I had a specific concept, which I wasn't sure would make it through all the levels of decision-making at a large publishing house.

I have long believed that unless a book is particularly timely, a long, slow rollout is much wiser than the usual big splash and grueling book tour which then trickles down to nothing after a month or two.

There were other reasons for doing this myself. When my first book was published, I discovered that I was the one doing the leg work and generating publicity (and sales), but my return was a measly 10%. After I purchased the remaining copies from the publisher and began to market it myself, sales continued steadily but each generated 70% profit.

I also knew much of my market would be in the U.S., and rather than price the book differently to reflect the exchange rate, I pocketed that myself, ensuring I wouldn't lose out if the Canadian dollar rose suddenly or postage increased.

"Mewsings/Musings"  is a "flip" book, with two authors back to back, and my co-author was is my cat. I worried that if a trade publisher was involved, I could end up with what looked like a "cartoon" book, with silly drawings instead of photos of the real cat.

I felt certain my concept would work. All the humor pieces in both sides of the book had either been previously published in major media, or won contests, or both. And the cat in question is Simon Teakettle, frequent contributor to such CBC radio programs as R.S.V.P. Night Camp, Cross Words, and Gabereau. He also wrote several articles for the "Last Meow" page of CATS Magazine, and has been mentioned in six books, including "The Bedside Book of Celebrity Gossip" (Crown, 1981). 

In the winter of 2001, I sat down to devise a plan to cover the three P's: production, printing and promotion. A close friend (and fellow cat-lover) is a superb editor and graphic designer. If she hadn't been willing or available, I would have hired another editor I trusted. I know better than to bypass that step, even though I've worked as an editor myself. It's vital to have another pair of eyes determine what should be cut (or included) as well as to proofread.

We both knew a printer in the Ottawa area whose work I admired. I knew he could give me exactly what I wanted, and used as a model one of the books he had recently produced.

No tenders? No competitive bids? I told you this was an unconventional approach to self-publishing! I felt that if I wanted a quality product, I wouldn't try to cut corners. My gamble paid off handsomely. Not only did Custom Printers produce a stunning book, delivered on time, but they didn't charge me for the over-run and figured out a way to insert the centrefold poster (Simon sprawled on a white fur rug) so that the adhesive was invisible and repositionable. 

I also made a fateful decision about distribution. I'd heard, even before the GDS debacle, about books that didn't make it to their destinations in time for a book signing or publicity blitz, and I had a feeling that this book should be in independent bookstores, gift stores, and humane societies, rather than the big chains.

So, instead of sending out several hundred review copies, which I know, from previous experience, often end up producing few reviews and a handful of sales, I contacted just over 100 friends, relatives and colleagues  about a quarter of them spread across all ten provinces and the rest in 25 states.

I had 8000 bookmarks and 500 greeting cards printed in the same run as 1000 covers. Both the covers and bookmarks were then laminated, as I figured that a quality bookmark would be kept rather than discarded.

Each of my contacts received a complimentary copy of the book and about 30 bookmarks. Several people took the book to stores and obtained orders for me; others showed the book to friends; most distributed bookmarks.

I hired a media-savvy friend to help with the launch. She made follow-up calls to ensure that key local media received the launch invitation, which promised a one-time-only photo opportunity with the real cat.

The event was delightful, and we sold more than 50 books, even though many who attended  were close friends who received complimentary copies. But not one media person showed up! I did receive calls from local media later on, however, as word of mouth began to spread, and did a great interview on the most popular noon TV news show.

Later that fall Simon was featured on a segment of Animal Planet, where host Valerie Pringle interviewed me about how Simon Teakettle stole my career! This program was so popular that CTV, Canada's largest TV network, repeated it twice a year for several years afterwards.

I was surprised that only a few humane societies were interested in using the book as a fund-raiser, but those who did take it found it sold well.  

Being extremely selective about review copies only worked to a certain extent. I gave copies in person to editors of several U.S. cat magazines and websites when I launched the book at the Cat Writers' Association annual conference in Houston. One of those editors left, one website closed, and only one of those review copies paid off, with Steve Dale mentioning the book both on his syndicated radio program and his column for Tribune Media. When I visited Chicago in October, 2007, Steve had me on his program to talk about feral cats.

My attempts to place copies at independent bookstores and specialized gift shops worked reasonably well. Leishman Books in Ottawa mounted a window display and held a book-signing that was so successful they invited me back a few months later, and agreed to also stock Five Fast Steps to Better Writing. I've had bulk orders from PEI to Calgary, Boston to Texas.

I spent several summer days traveling to Ottawa Valley towns with high tourist traffic, where small book and gift stores were happy to take copies on consignment. Friends took copies to stores in their towns as well.

Word-of-mouth sales have been excellent. Many of my contacts ordered additional copies to give as Christmas gifts, and bookmarks produced orders from places I'd never heard of. The greeting cards proved to be a wise marketing tool as well. I used these for my Christmas cards, with "Season's Greetings" or "Merry Christmas" stickers in the space, and also as thank-you notes and birthday cards to media contacts. 

Simon's Valentines to the media were photocopies of his centrefold adorned with heart stickers. CBC's Vicki Gabereau replied that she found hers "provocative."

I took books everywhere I traveled, to Boston and Connecticut where I visited relatives and attended my high school reunion, and back to Houston to participate again in the book signing at the largest international cat show. I entered Musings/Mewsings in the Cat Writers' Association annual contest, where it won a Certificate of Excellence.

By the end of the first year more than half the books were sold, and I had recouped about a third of my initial costs, which were just over $7500, including another 3000 bookmarks, because I ran out of those!

I broke even on the first printing by the 2nd anniversary, and then my profit margin increased with the second printing, as all the set-up costs had already been paid for.

Publicity continued to build year after year. The book was on  Animal Planet Radio, Pet Poynters on the U.S. Cable Radio Network, and on many cat websites. A full chapter in Great Cat Stories: Incredible Tales about Exceptional Cats (Altitude Publishing, 2004) was devoted to Simon, and he and I were invited to contribute to The Magic of Animals,  a book on the human-animal bond, published in 2006.

Joan Stewart (The Publicity Hound) wrote about "the cat who owns the company" in and article in U.S. Business Week, and Simon was quoted in an article on earthquakes in Cat Fancy and in Kim Thornton's popular pet column on MSNBC, which has turned up in 10 major cities, including Miami, Denver, Dallas, Cleveland, Seattle, Atlanta, San Francisco, and New York.

The Cat Who Owns the Company was also the title of a feature in 55 Plus in October, 2009, and Simon Teakettle (with a description of how the name came about, and an explanation of the nickname Terzo) is in The Cat-Lovers Book of Days, by Peg Silloway.

Meanwhile, Simon Teakettle III (Terzo) formed a Virtual MEWSical Society which now included 33 cats and a parrot, and has its own fan club on Facebook!  His blog has a wide following as well.

That mutual fund? It tanked. My financial advisor agreed that Musings/Mewsings turned out to be a much better investment.

 Copyright 2010 Barbara Florio Graham. All rights reserved.


Barbara Florio Graham


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