I met Bill Bennett, author of The Christmas Gift, at CostCo in December. He was doing a book signing and we struck up a conversation. I was very surprised to hear the book was self-published. And even more surprised to hear that he had sold almost 6,000 copies. How did he do it? Well, I interviewed him to find out.
LJ: Why did you decide to self-publish?
BB: Like many people, I had always wanted to write. One evening, in a hotel while on a business trip, I had one of those 'if not now, when?' moments. I decided that if I was going to write, I wanted to do it now, and do it with my full energy. So, that evening, I called my wife, found her to be completely supportive, and then called my boss and resigned. Within a couple months, I was sitting in my study at home with nothing to do but write.
I began that effort with intent to submit a business book concept I had worked on, but my daughter encouraged me to publish a little Christmas story I had written for the family a year earlier. Given that it was September, I thought if I self-published, I could have it out in a few weeks (was I ever wrong) and get my first toe into this water. I shelved the business book project and began my efforts to self-publish.
LJ: Did you have previous experience or existing connections that fueled your success?
BB: I had no experiences with writing and publishing to lean on. However, there were three things that gave me confidence: First, I had been given the opportunity to speak a great deal in my career, and I seemed to be able to tell a good story. Thin as it was, that was one asset. Second, I had found in my life that if I put my full efforts into something, being willing to do all the work required, I could learn and do something new (just as anyone can who does the same thing). Finally, I just had that feeling in my soul that this was the right thing to do.
LJ: Would you do it again? Is there anything you would do differently next time?
BB: Absolutely! In fact, I would recommend every aspiring author, and even many existing ones undertake self-publishing at least once. There are several benefits:
First, traditionally there is a real love/hate relationship between an author and their publisher, primarily centered on what is perceived to be how much money the publisher keeps and the author is paid in royalties. Self-publishing will give an author a real understanding of just how much work a publisher goes through to produce a book, and how much additional cost is incurred for everything other than the writing, from editing to production standards (such as higher quality paper, hard covers and artwork), to distribution to marketing.
Second, there is a tremendous sense of satisfaction of seeing your project through from beginning to end. While there are many steps, anyone can learn them.
Finally, if you believe in your book, you can invest the time to distribute and market it where a traditional publisher may not. There are so many success stories of authors who believed in their project when nobody else would. Some among those are Chicken Soup for the Soul, The Christmas Box, and The Shack.
As far as what I would do differently: I would not waste the time editing the book myself or having family and friends do so. The money for professional editing is negligible and the value of having a set of professional eyes on your work is incalculable. A hired editor does not feel any temptation to be nice to you, as Aunt Mabel or cousin Joey may. You want every conceivable pushback given you during the editing process.
Another thing I would do is invest in a cover designer. I made the cover myself first time around, and I thought it was nearly perfect. Later, I signed on with Jenkins Group, a firm to print my book and the per unit publishing cost included someone to do cover design. It improved so much, the new look earned it a place on the cover of Publishers Weekly. When I look at my original cover now, I want to seek out all remaining copies and burn them.
LJ: What did your marketing plan include and how big was the budget?
BB: I was very deliberate in creating a marketing plan. The learning of how to market was primarily free, as I downloaded gratis guides on marketing from various writing websites. I soon learned most say about the same thing. Eventually, I formulated thirteen areas of work a self-published author needs to focus on, of which marketing represented five of those. Detailed discussion of each of these could make up another blog entry, but for now, the marketing ones are:
2) Publicity - any coverage about the book as news, including radio programs, newspaper articles, etc.
3) Promotion - selling support activities like signings, speaking, social media, and book shows, etc.
I focused on each of these areas, with some degree of success in most, with the exception of awards, which I am still waiting to hear on. I spent around $20,000 for marketing. I know people may immediately respond "That’s fine if you have the money..." I would say if you don't have the money, borrow it. It was responsible for me selling $75,000 worth of books rather than $5,000. Knowing what I know now, I could have gotten the same result for about $10,000.
LJ: What was the best marketing decision/investment you made?
BB: I think marketing is like an ecosystem with each part adding to and drawing from the other parts, so it is hard to say there is a single investment that is the best. There were a few standouts that became catalysts for others. Among these were getting endorsements from Robert Busko, an Amazon Top 500 Reviewer (that’s an official Amazon classification) and from Stephen Covey, hiring a professional PR agency, and doing KSL radio advertising with Grant and Amanda.
LJ: Novels are generally tougher to market than nonfiction. How did you get around that?
BB: I think a holiday book has a bit of easier time of it because it has the natural attention afforded the holiday. I did a Christmas book and we already know at Christmas, people are looking for Christmas books. Beyond that though, I would say it really comes down to incredibly hard work. I just stayed on every opportunity I could find, writing hundreds of people, sending out sample copies and more. Most of those efforts fail. A few succeed, and those few make it all worth it.
LJ: Was a seasonal book harder or easier to market? In what ways?
BB: As I said above, for the most part it is easier. It’s like the 'free return trajectory' a space ship gets when it circles the moon before returning to Earth, sling-shotting it with great momentum. The obvious downside is that nobody is interested in a Christmas book in March.
LJ: How did you get a book signing in Costco?
BB: I sent the book to Costco's book reviewer right after I wrote it and got a form letter rejection. Later, after I hired my PR firm, Jenkins Group helped me formulate a professional looking marketing sheet. I think the polish of the marketing sheet, plus the credibility I had by noting I had hired a well-known publicity firm caused them to look differently at the book upon the second submission. Another critical factor was getting distribution. That same marketing sheet and publicity contract helped me get into Baker & Taylor, and that improved my odds at Costco. By the way, Costco was a complete delight to work with. The store managers could not do enough to help on book signing days. I think it was worth their time, averaging about 100 books sold per signing.
LJ: What factor[s] would you say contributed most to your impressive sales?
BB: I think there is a pyramid of factors that contribute to any book succeeding. I think I did well enough on these that I was able to hit a certain threshold. My feeling is that they are:
1) Good story. Nothing you can do will overcome a bad story. This is not about your writing—this is about the fundamental story elements being individually strong and holding together as a complete tale. These are all the things you can learn from a writing course, such as plot, character development, etc.
2) Good writing. Once you have the story, you have to be able to tell it in a compelling way. Your use of language, sentence structure, etc., has to work.
3) Distribution. You have to have a way to get it out there. If you write it, they won't come just because you wrote it because they won’t be able to get it. And, having your own website is not distribution. You have to find a way to bring people to your website, which is the next point.
4) Marketing. Now you bring the people to your points of distribution.
5) Business Model. You have to watch your costs like a hawk. That being said, you also have to know your goals. I plan on writing as a full time career, so the mission of my first book was to get cred as a writer. If I did not make anything, or even lost money I was OK. It was volume of books that was my primary goal so that I could make my next move as a writer.
Incidentally, it worked. Through a series of events, the success of this book led to a contract with Deseret Book for my next book which is a Christmas story for 2011 that will be out this fall under the Shadow Mountain imprint.
LJ: Your name is R. William Bennett—very similar to William J. Bennett of Book of Virtues fame. Do you think that helped?
BB: It made for a lot of funny stories to tell. I think the biggest place it had an impact was that it brought people to my website. However, Google analytics said that as quickly as they came to the site, many left when I can only assume, they found I was not that Bill Bennett.
LJ: How did you get an endorsement from a heavy hitter like Stephen R. Covey?
BB: I knew Stephen professionally and I asked. He was very gracious to give me the endorsement, but I also have to thank his personal assistant who made it happen. Those assistants are key to having any kind of exchange with a famous person.
LJ: What advice would you give to authors looking to self-publish?
BB: I would say DO IT with these caveats:
1) Know your goals. If you want to do 20 copies, or 2,000 or 2,000,000, they are all worthy goals, but each will dictate different decisions when it comes to doing all the rest of the work.
2) Expect and do hard work. There is nothing, absolutely nothing in life that is worthwhile that does not come without hard work. I think there are thousands of self-published books that are as good or better than mine that never sold more than 25 copies. The biggest difference was I was willing to do the work required to get it out. Anyone can do the work, if they are committed.
3) Just because you want to self-publish, it does not mean you have a good book. Be willing to submit yourself to the blistering feedback of a great editor and you can eventually create a story that is worth reading.
4) If you have a vision for your book, write it down and never, ever let go. There will be discouraging days, and months, and even years. I collect great quotes about writing, I read stories about writers; I watch movies about creators of all kinds, from Norman Rockwell to Charles Dickens to Preston Tucker. All these stories fuel me. The common elements are vision, overwhelming opposition, and the reward that came from persistent work.
BIO: R. William (Bill) Bennett grew up on the New Jersey shore and in New England. He spent more than thirty years in business, including many years as an executive of various technology companies, and most recently, as the division president of FranklinCovey.
In 2009, Bill decided to devote himself fulltime to his passion of writing. An experienced leader, speaker and teacher, Bill has always used stories of great human character to cut through the details and reach the hearts of those with whom he works. Bill and his wife Loree have been blessed with four wonderful children, ranging in age from twenty-nine to twelve as well as two grandchildren. Bill and his family reside at the base of the Wasatch Range of the Rocky Mountains in Alpine, Utah.
THE CHRISTMAS GIFT: In September of 1968, sixth grader Scott Stewart went out to the playground after lunch and stood up for a victim of school bully Ben Jackson. That moment permanently changed Scott's and Ben's lives.
Scott became Ben's new daily target. Eventually, having endured months of torment and humiliation, Scott verbally lashes out at Ben, managing to cut to the core of Ben's ego. Though it earned him near-hero status in the school, Scott is troubled by his conscience and to the complete bewilderment of all around him, decides he owes Ben an apology. What results is a unique friendship between these two most unlikely friends. Built on apology, forgiveness and understanding, this relationship carries each boy through a crisis that will affect them, and generations after them forever.
As Robert Busko, Amazon Top 500 Reviewer said, "It will be impossible for you to read The Christmas Gift without being forever changed."