Self-Publishing vs Selling Your Book via Mail-Order

“Goals provide the energy source that powers our lives. One of the best ways we can get the most from the energy we have is to focus it. That is what goals can do for us; concentrate our energy.” – Denis Waitley

Dear Mr. Dreads:

I’m going to do more than answer the questions you asked on “Speak Out.” I’m going to give you a quick-and-dirty (but nevertheless immensely valuable) analysis of your business and make some suggestions about how to make it more productive and profitable.

This should help other ETR readers with their start-up businesses, because the mistakes you are making are very common. They are also easy to fix. Let’s take a look at what you and your wife are trying to sell: four self-published books and a newsletter, along with some pamphlets. That will illustrate one problem.

Your books are:

1. “Don’t Worry, Be Nappy! How to Grow Dreadlocks in America and Still Get Everything You Want”

2. “Yes, You Can Make $1,000s Selling Everything You Know”

3. “Positive African-American Plays for Children, Book 1”

4. “Positive African-American Plays for Children, Book 2”

And your newsletter is titled “Inspire! Motivating Excellence in Children.”

What’s wrong with this picture?

  • Is it that the African-American market is not viable? No.
  • Is it that the titles aren’t good? No.
  • Is it that you can’t do both books and newsletters? No.
  • Is it that the topics are too diverse? Yes!

Although one can discern that there is a uniform feeling behind all these publications (a sense of positivity, optimism, and determination), the subjects themselves range from parenting to self-help to salesmanship. To be successful at anything, you must master the subject. To master any subject, you must narrow the field. In this case, the range between selling and parenting and self-help is much too broad. Take a stroll through any Barnes & Noble and you’ll see that. Each of these subjects is in a section of its own.

In fact, these are not only different subjects, they are different businesses. Newsletters are typically sold by direct mail (or e-mail) to individual investors or businesses. Books — at least the kind of books you are producing — are sold through retail stores. And collections of plays for children might be sold through educational distributors.

These are different businesses not only because the topics are different (although that is a factor) but also because:

  • The products are different.
  • The market is different for each one.
  • The ways to sell them are different.

Mr. Dreads, it would take you 1,000 hours of work to become competent in each of three different selling methods and about that many hours again to achieve competence in understanding three different markets. That’s 6,000 hours — or about three years working full time. And that’s just to get your feet wet. I could give you about 42 other reasons why you don’t want to diversify like this (going into different markets with different products), but the three I’ve given above should be sufficient.

So my first recommendations to you are:

  • Pick a single product (newsletters, how-to books, or educational books).
  • Pick a single market (individual self-help seekers, parents of students, or educational institutions).
  • Pick a single selling method (trade distribution, direct marketing, or educational distribution).

Which product, which market, and which selling method should you choose? I don’t know. You have to make those decisions quickly — and you’ll have to do some research to figure it out.

Now, to the question about self-publishing (sometimes erroneously called “vanity” publishing) vs. direct marketing. There is, as you have noticed, a world of difference.

Self-publishing means that you write, edit, and print the book yourself and then try to sell it through conventional bookselling venues. The idea is that instead of spending years sending your manuscript around, hoping some smart agent will see the genius in it, you spend the money to get it edited and printed right away. You then go directly to a publisher or distributor and ask them to merely sell it for you.

On the face of it, this sounds like a very good idea. In practice, it’s highly problematic. I don’t have the time to explain why in any detail, but take it from someone who has been on both sides of the self-publishing bargaining table — convincing a publisher or distributor that your printed book is worth his time and trouble is a very arduous task, at best.

Direct marketing is a different story. The direct-marketing business is huge, it’s dynamic, and it’s still relatively easy for a single person with a limited budget to get into. The advent of the Internet has made the market much bigger . . . and has made the cost of entry even smaller.

I’m a big fan of direct-mail marketing and not so hot on self-publishing. The first is the selling method that provided most of the wealth I achieved during the first half of my career. I have done some self-publishing too, but I don’t think I ever made a nickel on it.

So that’s something for you to think about.

If you decide to focus on direct marketing (which is obviously what I think you should do), learn how to do it by signing up for ETR’s Mailbox Millionaire program. Narrow your products down to those that typically sell well by mail: self-help books and newsletters. Then, choose a single market to target. Your road to success will be much straighter and smoother.