My life's ambition, part three... a novel way to break into the market
There I was, the ‘80s rolling to an end, my novel The Prophet and the Dove complete after nearly three years of research, editing, and balancing proofreader suggestions with my stubborn focus. Time to hit the editor and agent slush piles!
As an unknown upstart living in Oklahoma, with no significant articles to my name, I figured this old tradition was my best (and only feasible) way to start. My first efforts brought surprise and delight. While one agent pondered representation, the editors at a leading Christian publisher accepted the book on its first pass. They sent it out to consultants, who recommended printing it. Internal readers and editors backed it. After five months it came down to the final decision – yea, or nay.
They chose the latter.
As analysts later told me, that “no” vote followed declining trends in Christian fiction sales across the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Unless an author had a Frank Peretti-styled fantasy/horror title, a Left Behind apocalyptic thriller, or a solid track record, few Christian novels advanced… especially among biblical fiction titles like mine.
I continued the slush pile route while writing and editing more books in The Jonah Cycle and looking toward writers' conferences. Two very respectful letters arrived from editors apologizing for not going forward, their firms having dropped their Christian fiction lines. An agent penned me a courteous refusal. A few recommended I first get some short stories in circulation, though in this pre-internet age, few pubs wanted Christian topics.
By then my byline had topped five national magazine articles, all nonfiction, in niche areas. I worked for an Oklahoma City-based business newspaper that jealously guarded where that byline appeared, and while in this case I doubt my editor would have objected, that job’s daily workload (and my family needs) left little time for such efforts.
That’s when a novel idea (forgive the pun) sprang from my interviews with book publishers and sellers: why not self-publish The Prophet and the Dove?
With print-on-demand still in the future, a start-up publisher had to produce several thousand copies of a title to get per-unit prices to levels consumers could afford. Most likely you then had to double that print run (or more) to reach those much-lower price points distributors and retailers demanded. And you had to do this through domestic printing services, for in those early days of NAFTA, you couldn’t easily find competing offers from printers in Canada or China.
Other demands generally mirror those of today. Print contractors required money upfront. You had to market the book yourself – pursuing credible reviews, advertising, press coverage, local appearances, etc. And you had to accept retailer returns of unsold products six months to a year after delivery, no questions asked, no matter the condition of the book.
My efforts called for a starting investment of $10,000 to $15,000 or more just in printing, prep, shipping, and storage costs. Factoring in everything else, including personal expenses, led to annual budget estimates reaching $50,000, which in constant dollars would approach $100,000 today.
Now from the standpoint of launching a small business, that wasn’t that bad then or now, until you factored in your return-on-investment risks. But few would-be authors (like myself) had such resources handy – especially when you approached a five-year plan. For it took several years by my calculations to reach that mythical break-even point.
That’s where my novel idea proposed its novel solution: sell ads to run in each book… or at least the first one. I would then give that book away.
My business plan called for two (or more) pages of ads between each chapter. These ads would target firms in the book’s intended distribution area, and hopefully generate enough revenue to pay for printing and initial operating costs. I would then give away those ad-filled editions to organizations and people in that market area. We would put books in church, school, and public libraries... in the hands of church leaders, members, and their clientele. We would present some to our advertisers for their clients and customers. We would give away copies in promotional efforts, public appearances, and other fun ways.
This would provide our advertisers a unique way to reach their market. It promised a platform with legs, one that would remain in use for years, seen by many different sets of eyes. And since these organizations and readers would know who provided these books, they would have strong incentives to not just thank the advertisers, but honor them with their business… assuming they liked the book.
As the author, I had no doubts about that. And I would help this work by making personal appearances, signing copies, etc., while advancing production of the next books, which would hopefully find an audience waiting to buy and read them.
Risky? Yes, indeed. But it mirrored a well-honed advertising method used successfully on restaurant menus, calendars, phone books, stadium scoreboards, fence signs, and other such platforms for decades.
I never had a chance to test this business model. I set up the infrastructure and identified a reputable printer of hardcover books. I received a green light from my newspaper to use its computers during off-hours for all my processing needs. Several advertising executives offered to sell ads for my book in their spare time, and two graphics artists volunteered to produce those ads and help me assemble the book. We were ready to go… and then came the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building bombing, which severely damaged our newspaper offices. In the next month, our publisher separated his editorial and printing operations, selling both. That severed my tech and production resources, while my volunteer advertising workers had to take other jobs.
My dream came to a sudden and swift end.
Not too long afterward, under the stress of my employer’s recovery and other issues, my family fell apart. Heartsick, my focus collapsed, my ambition crumbled. My creative efforts dwindled to personal, therapeutic novels about divorce (from which came The Road to Renewal) and a modern fable for my kids (God’s Furry Angels). That well then dried up. Chasing my novel dream just didn’t seem to matter as the century came to its end, though I remained quite attached to my completed works.
How did I work through this despair? Read my next blog, same bat-time, same bat-channel!