Self-publishing an Instructional Book: Part II (marketing and sales until the handoff to Mountaineers Books)

Disclaimer: I expect that this will only be of interest to folks that are self-publishing a book. If this is you, be sure to start with Part I, about the writing, organization and self-publication of The Packraft Handbook.

This post picks up where Part I left off … marketing and sales over the past ten months. I thought this would be a two part series, but now that the book is in the hands of Mountaineers Books, I intend to create a Part III after learning what it is like to have a publisher in control.

Marketing

I’m certain that everyone has different experiences based on their content and audience, so I’ll just highlight what worked well for me.

Media: My marketing was done on Facebook, Instagram, blog posts, a few podcasts, and a radio interview. For the social media platforms, I shared safety tips matched with Sarah K. Glaser’s awesome illustrations. I contacted a handful of packraft bloggers and podcasts asking if they were interested in talking about the book.

Earning trust: I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had been earning trust during ten years of sharing trip reports, stories, getting certified as a swiftwater safety instructor, etc. My book wouldn’t have been nearly as successful if I hadn’t already established myself as a trustworthy source.

I also earned trust by sharing excerpts from the book: text and illustrations. Folks that didn’t know me were able to see those excerpts and get a sense for the quality of the book. Seeing other people vouch for me (via social media comments, etc.) certainly helped.

Promoting safety instead of a product: I am really uncomfortable with self-promotion and asking for money, so I was nervous about doing my own marketing. Lizzy Scully from Four Corners Guides set me up with some general strategies, which were very helpful. I ended up settling on an approach that felt the most genuine: focussing on safety outreach rather than asking people to purchase the book. I organized a “culture of safety” messaging campaign between packrafting companies and individuals worldwide. I did mention the book now and then in my posts, but the emphasis was on safety messaging, regardless of source or branding. A lot of people shared a lot of great messaging, this felt like a total win.

Gear giveaways: I solicited a handful of gear donations to be given away for book promotion. But when I shifted to emphasize safety instead of the book, I decided that anyone who participated in the safety campaign (posted something, anything, about safety), was eligible for the prizes. I’m certain that these giveaways got more people involved in the safety campaign, which was the bigger goal. I’m also certain that the campaign helped associate the book, and me, with safety.

Being transparent about the process: I was transparent about the process of writing and self-publishing, which made it fun for people to get involved and follow along. I often solicited crowd-sourced advice. I shared funny comments that people made with their book orders (see below), created a tip jar when I realized that I had mis-guessed the book arrival time and I wanted to upgrade everyone to priority shipping, and polled people whether I should hand the book off to Mountaineers Books. People liked being involved, being part of the process.

Sales

I ordered 6,000 books from the print broker. I chose this number is large part because Roman Dial had told me he had 6,000 copies of his packrafting book. I sold 5,000 books by the end of the summer, and am at about 5,975 this week—just as the Mountaineers Books version become available. I taught university algebra for a few years and frequently heard, “When am I ever going to need this?” Well, I used math like crazy, and can’t believe how well my calculations worked out. Granted, a lot of it was luck.

Of my 6,000 books, about 2,275 were sold from my website and 3,700 were sold to retailers. Surprisingly, my income from these two sources was pretty much equal—retailers purchase the book at 40% off, so even though more books were sold, the profit was equivalent to what I sold from my site. To my understanding, 40% is a standard discount for retailers (maybe just for self-published books? I’m not sure), and they pay for shipping.

A note about shipping and damage: I had about a third of my books shipped to Alaska as freight (pallets). It was really challenging to anticipate how many of my sales would come from my site vs. retailers. It helped to have some retail orders before the book was printed, which gave me a sense for demand. But this was mostly a lucky guess.

Of these ~2000 books, maybe 10 were damaged in shipping. When I ran out of books on pallets I ordered boxes via USPS Media Mail from the fulfillment center. Many books arrived damaged: typically 4 out of 16 (the top and bottom layer of the box). Twenty-five percent is a huge proportion! I ended up selling these books at a discounted rate. But this is a major tip for folks: Anticipate damage in mailed boxes. Also, printers typically print (a few hundred?) more books than you ordered, so, replacing damaged books was kind of accounted for.

Sales from my website: I set up a Woo Commerce shop for my existing wordpress.com blog, which was fairly simple, in part because my needs were simple. I created Stripe (credit card) and PayPal payment systems and used stamps.com to print shipping labels. The stamps.com site automatically synced with the online shop, so managing book orders was efficient: after printing postage, the online shop showed the orders as complete. I didn’t even have to deliver books to the post office … USPS picks them up! But, it kind of blows my mind that I paid over $13,000 in postage.

The initial pulse of mailing was insane … a thousand books to get out the door. I had a ton of help from friends—work parties with pizza and snacks. But again, people liked to be involved, liked to help. I’m certain that including people on the self-publishing journey motivated them to help.

Sales to retailers: I contacted potential retailers around the world, mostly packraft sellers and a few small book shops. I initiated about 80% of these sales. The rest were from shops that contacted me. I used PayPal to create invoices, and then ordered boxes to be shipped from the fulfillment center in Canada, which was easy in an online portal. I used a google doc spreadsheet to keep track of orders and payments.

Shipping outside of the US was really expensive. In many countries, the 40% retailer discount was nearly completely canceled out by the shipping charges. I’m very curious to see if Mountaineers Books has cheaper ways to get the books to international readers.

Mountaineers Books

At the end of the summer, after having sold 5,000 books, I checked in with Mountaineers Books. I had submitted a proposal to them initially, and they concluded that there wasn’t enough of a market, which was based in part on the market analysis that I had provided with the proposal. Now I knew more about the actual market!

Mountaineers was interested. They explained that it was unusual for them to pick up a self-published book—they don’t want to miss out on the initial pulse of sales. I think they made an exception for The Packraft Handbook for three reasons:

  • The book wasn’t available on Amazon.
  • Nearly all of my retail sales were to small shops that sell packrafts, not to book stores or large outdoors goods stores.
  • The book is awesome.

In other words, I had a good product that hadn’t reached the market that was most accessible to Mountaineers. I hadn’t won a National Outdoor Book Award yet, so that wasn’t a factor in their decision (but I bet they were excited/affirmed by the award!).

After a few weeks of communication, I signed a contract with Mountaineers Books. The details that I want to share here are:

  • I maintained copyright owner of all the content. This was really important to me, and I didn’t know how the copyright stuff worked. This means that I’m able to share excerpts and illustrations at my discretion. I still own the content, I just give up the publishing, marketing, sales, etc.
  • I’m not allowed to sell the book to retailers. This is the biggest change, and honestly, not a big deal to me. The whole point is that Mountaineers can do a better job at reaching retailers. I can keep selling books from my website and in swiftwater courses.
  • The only term that I negotiated was a one-time lower price initial bulk order for my personal supply. I wanted to have my own stock available for sales from my website and in my courses. I didn’t want to pay significantly more for the books than what I would if self-publishing.

Looking ahead

Part III in this series will be a review of what it is like having a publisher take over marketing and sales. I loved seeing that Mountaineers is getting the book into many more shops and online stores. I’m really curious to see how Amazon comes into play. Mountaineers made a kindle version too, which was heavily requested, but not something I wanted to take on on my own.

There is no doubt that I will make less money from the book now that it is with Mountaineers. But I’m freed up to work on other projects rather than getting bogged down with book management. At this point, it feels like I couldn’t have planned things any better, even if I’d known what I was doing!

Stay tuned for Part III!

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