Column No. 58

So You Want to Write a Book – Part II

Bob Ring, Al Ring, Tallia Pfrimmer Cahoon

Last July we wrote a column on our experiences researching, writing, and publishing our book, Ruby, Arizona – Mining, Mayhem, and Murder, the story of the old mining camp near the border with Mexico. You may remember our struggles (challenges?) with many years of research, multiple manuscript rewrites and painful discussions with reluctant publishers that resulted in our self-publishing our book with our own money. Today, as Paul Harvey would say, we’d like to tell you the rest of the story, our experiences with six months of marketing, sales, and distribution. And since we know that you secretly harbor a desire to publish your own book, you’d better take notes.

We left off in July describing our elation at picking up our newly printed books (1000 copies) and reveling in the impressive stacks of manuscripts all over Bob’s house. The first question was where to store the books. Where would you put 1000 books? Well, luckily Bob has a big garage and we crammed the books into some shelves there. That was after all three of us signed every book! This was more difficult than you might think; your hand tends to forget what your name is after a few hundred signatures.

The next issue was to start selling those books. But for how much? After careful research we priced the book at the square root of the sum of the number of figures, times the number of end notes, divided by the number of pages. If there is any other logical method, we didn’t discover it; just check your local bookstores.

We had a marketing plan. Over the last ten years Tallia has hosted Pima Community College’s Tours of the old Ruby mining camp and we had the mailing list. We added the names of all the people who we had talked to over the years in preparing the book, our family and friends, groups we had spoken to, and people who owed us … We sent book announcements to all of these people and sat back awaiting the flood of orders. Well, it wasn’t quite that easy, but you know, to date our network of individuals has purchased over 450 books! We think that’s fantastic and really appreciate every sale, many to you readers.

So how did we distribute the books? If possible we hand-delivered books to our customers. For books that had to be mailed, we used media mail at reduced rates based on weight (number of books). In the beginning, Bob was making several trips a week to the local Post Office with big boxes full of books in individual bubble envelope or cardboard mailers. The Post Office people loved to see Bob coming, knowing they had to weigh and stamp each mailer. Finally, we each carry a box of books in the trunk of our cars; you never know when a new customer will pop up and want a book. Does this sound like big business?

The other side of the marketing coin was bookstores. We started with The Book Shop in Green Valley and expanded to such nearby outlets as the Tortuga Bookstore and the Historical Society in Tubac, and the Amado Territory Bed and Breakfast. These outlets have been our best commercial customers, most having made several orders to date.

It was Bill Sims at the Tortuga Book store who discovered a problem with the book; some of the pages in some of the books had been bound out of order. Thanks to Bill’s quick alert, we were able to fix that problem by rapidly replacing all the “bad” books, and later rebinding them good as new.

A second problem soon arose as our expanding group of commercial outlets tried to keep electronic records of sales. Somehow our printer published the book with an incorrect ISBN, the unique number that identifies each title published. Our solution here was to have the printer issue stick-on labels with the correct ISBN number to overlay the incorrect one. We were able to rationalize this embarrassing problem by relating how similar the labeled back of our books looked to the unique overlay labels many stores put on products. Oh well, who said this was going to be easy?

We expanded our commercial outlets north to Tucson and Phoenix, east to Benson, and southeast to Tombstone and Bisbee. Even though we had been warned by many authors, we were soon disappointed and frustrated to find that the big bookstores (e.g., Borders, Barnes and Noble) wouldn’t deal with us unless we operated through a third party, an “approved” book distributor who of course took a cut of the sales price. And this was after a lengthy book acceptance review. Also, the bigger stores wanted to deal on a consignment basis, i.e., they would pay us only after they sold a book. For our small, self-publishing, self-financed operation these options were financially ridiculous. So much for the big book stores supporting the little guys. (We’ll save a little venom for a separate column on this subject someday.)

As a result we concentrated on an increasing group of small specialty bookstores, and added libraries, tourist attractions, historical societies, and state and national parks in southern Arizona. Sales to this group of about 37 commercial outlets also total about 450 books to date.

We have tried to keep marketing the book by responding to invitations for book signings and to speak to historical societies, retirement groups, rockhounds and geology clubs, hiking clubs, Westerners groups, the Western National Park Association, Friends of the Arivaca Library, and the Green Valley Forum. The book has been noted and/or reviewed in the Arizona History Journal (pending), Tucson Daily Star, Green Valley News & Sun, Tubac Villager, and the Mining History Journal. And of course Tallia’s continuing Ruby ghost town tours and this column give us a steady forum to bring the book to the attention of new customers.

So you’ve figured out by now that we’ve sold about 900 books so far. We were told by one of our reluctant publisher contacts that selling 1000 copies of a book like this would make the book a “best seller.” We will pass that landmark early in 2006.

In fact the question of the moment is whether or not to print some more books. We see steady, continuing sales prospects, but do we want to continue in the book “business” as opposed to beginning another book writing adventure. In a future column we’ll share our plans for a new project.

We’ve done what we set out to do. After a tremendous effort over several years, we self-published the Ruby book as a “labor of love” and yet have just about made our money back to pay expenses. It was never about the money. What a truly satisfying feeling!

Bob, Al, and Tallia signing books at The Book Shop in Green Valley (photo provided by Bob Ring, 2005)

Next Time: Let’s take a hike to the top of Montana Peak

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