In Feb, 2013, I published The Great Lakes Book Project. It is an anthology of 25 true stories that I crowd sourced from relevant authors in the Upper Midwest. By the end of the year, it had sold over 2000 hard copies. For a regional title that was essentially self-published and that was distributed as an actual, paperbound book, this is an impressive number. The way I did it is simple and easily replicable by anyone who is open to working hard and not afraid of hearing no a few times. I’m going to go over the steps in chronological order so you can implement them into your own life, not only if you wish to publish a book, but also if you want to move any consumer business you’ve founded forward.
1. I decided who my average customer was going to be.
I didn’t have the time to call up every single business in the Upper Midwest to try to sell them my book. Instead, I needed to figure out who was most likely to read my book, and what stores they frequent. I knew I would make sales from my website, but an important aspect of establishing a brand is by having a physical presence in stores around your consumer so, if they do see your product online, they’ll know it’s something credible and not some sort of scam. I decided that my average customer was going to be someone who read, who was passionate about the Great Lakes as a natural wonder, had regional sentiment, and enjoyed the notion of owning a book as opposed to having an ereader, although they might still own one. I didn’t think age really mattered so much, it was more important that they frequented shops with strong regional pride. Deciding to contact bookstores was easy, but, beyond that, I targeted breweries, coffee shops, tourist locations, and any retail location with “lake” or “water” in it. This type of condensed leads turned an overwhelming task of getting my book in as many stores as possible, into a list of about 450 locations I would need to contact in the next few weeks, all because I figured out where my average customer would go.
2. I established my online presence.
After decided who I was going to approach to carry my book, I needed to figure out how to become a credible source that they would trust. Every year, there are tens of thousands, probably hundreds of thousands worldwide, who self-publish books– how would I differentiate myself from them? These stores, especially bookstores, get dozens of calls a week from people just like me, I needed to be different. I started contacting blogs, newspapers, and magazines to review my book. I began working on my Facebook and Twitter presence. For me, social media didn’t only drive sales; it put me in front of the people who would be making decisions to get my book in their store. The Great Lakes Book Project now has a direct social presence of about 10k people and our posts have routinely been seen by over 200k people thanks to our avid following. I did this by posting interesting images about the Great Lakes overlaid with facts, conversing with people who ran bookstores, and sharing beautiful pictures of the region sent to me by readers. I initially budgeted $100 for Facebook advertising to increase likes, however, upon realizing that these people weren’t nearly as active as those I engaged with personally, stopped the campaign and created the rest organically. Once people saw that my book already had a following and had been reviewed, they were more apt to invest.
3. I called everyone. And they I called them again.
I had my list; I had built a credible base, now it was time to capitalize on both. A lot of people hate sales, but if you’re not constantly in sales mode, you’re going to have a hard time being a successful entrepreneur. Sales is only scary because we think that if one person says no, not only will everyone else also say no, but also that we’re a complete failure and should stop following our dreams and go die under a rock. I went through every bookstore, tourist shop, coffee shop, and any other place I thought might have considerable foot traffic in the upper Midwest and called him or her. Often times, I couldn’t get to the person who was in charge or had the authority to make the decision until my third or fourth call. Lots of people who work in marketing (but haven’t really marketed anything of their own yet) say that this type of cold calling are dead, that sales is about “relationships”. That’s a roundabout way of saying “sales is about what’s easy”. Do you know how you start a relationship? With a phone call. Even if they do get upset with you at first, if your product is something that has value to both you and them, they’ll understand why you’re doing what you’re doing and eventually even believe in you. Having success with any sort of product is, first and foremost, about sales– and sales is about talking to as many interested people as you can.
4. I found alternative methods of selling books.
By this point, I had gotten in over 100 bookstores and enlisted the help of a distributor to take care of the day-to-day maintenance of getting books on shelves, but I still wanted more. I had set up a book tour through Michigan and that yielded some average rewards, but those were hard to book, especially being that my name and title had no natural draw. I decided that I needed to establish myself as someone who was worth buying a book from and to find a way besides retail to sell large amounts of books at a time. The first was easy– because of the success with the book, I was invited to speak on several NPR affiliate radio shows, and because of the success on those, I had the credibility to reach out to colleges to speak in regards to speaking at leadership summits and entrepreneurship conferences in regards to how I paid for/marketed/sold my book. Besides getting paid to make these appearances, I also made sure that I had a table set up outside of the auditorium where I was speaking that I could sell my books to the members of the audience at. From this alone, I’d sell about 50 books per engagement, which doesn’t sound like much, but at $15 a pop, a cool $750 in your pocket in addition to the speaking money isn’t bad. This remedied the issue I had when making appearances at bookstores. Because, after speaking, I had now established credibility, making the sale afterwards was easy. The second part of my goal, to find alternative ways besides retail to sell large amounts of books at a time, was a bit trickier. I decided to pursue businesses and teachers; businesses to give away the book as a gift, and teachers, to add the book to their curriculum. I again ran into the problem with credibility when it came to teachers (read: pedantic jerks) so I had to send out dozens of copies of my book for free to them which more or less turned any profit from curriculum adaptation into a moot point given the low conversion rate, but convincing businesses to give away copies of my book as a gift to their employees was much easier. Again, this involved hundreds of emails and calls, probably only converting at around a 2% rate, but for every 2 yeses I got, it made the 98 “no”s worth it.
5. I built out the website.
I had previously mentioned creating a social presence before, and that was important, but without a specialized website that is proven to convert all that time and effort is partially wasted. Now that my book was distributed on the ground level and I had learned enough through conversations with customers what people cared about, I felt confident enough to create a killer landing page for my book that I knew would convert. You can check it out at TheGreatLakesBookProject.com and I’m not going to get into the details of why it works on this blog post (another time, another time), but I am going to say that it’s about reassuring your potential customer that your product is a one they can trust to fulfill what they’ve come to remedy. It took me about 2 days to fix it up and, on certain specialized ad campaigns, converts upwards of 40 percent! Before, where I would only sell 3-10 books a month, re-tooling the website to include affirmation wherever I could stick it in, turned that into an average day for me. If you’ve got a good product, figuring out how to let your customer know that isn’t tough (or at least it shouldn’t be) and I think, if I had to do it all over again (with the knowledge I have now) I might have done this first. However, I didn’t have that knowledge before and that’s kind of what this all comes down to, the idea of doing things before you’re ready, I mean. Sure, my next book won’t go through all the growing pains I had with The Great Lakes Book Project, but that’s only because I had to pay my dues making hundreds of hours of mistakes! I started off this project with no idea how to code, no concept of web design, and no idea what would work to get people to give me money for a book I published by myself as a 24 year-old from Northern Michigan and, after 10 months of semi-failures, I had moved over 2000 copies with no sign of slowing down. This is the kind of thing you can do, too. Not because you’re especially skilled but because, if you really want it, no one can stop you.
If you want to contact me about how I can help your product move fast, contact me on twitter at @WBKnoblock or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m always looking to network with people and would love to chat.