In January 1996 I attended a parenting class to learn how to deal better with the challenges my two young sons were presenting (especially my oldest, who was working on his Ph.D. in sibling rivalry). My chance meeting with Arizona-based school psychologist Dr. Sal Severe -- the real Ph.D., who was teaching the class -- has transformed my life in many ways.
I was so impressed with the practical and humorous guidance of Dr. Severe that I walked away from a business that was doing $1.5 million a year, "jumped on the grenade," and became a publisher.
My goal was to republish Dr. Severe's self-published book, How to Behave So Your Children Will, Too!, and to create an industry around the book and the author. (At that point, about 2,500 copies of How to Behave had been sold at Dr. Severe's workshops.) I established Greentree Publishing in Tempe, Arizona, soon after going to one of Dr. Severe's parenting classes. Between April 1997 and December 1999, the book (mostly distributed directly through Greentree Publishing) sold more than 340,000 copies.
Building Success One Brick at a Time
The success of this book is an example of what a single-title publisher can accomplish. I had previously worked for a school and corporate book fair company. Thus I had some knowledge to apply to testing the book, via a greatly revised version of the original powder blue, 100-page self-published edition. Together with Denise Pias, my only full-time employee, I created a Web site (www.howtobehave.com) and the quarterly Parenting Today newsletter. Both served as promotional vehicles for the book. The newsletter now has more than 16,000 subscribers. Our most productive effort came from setting up an impressive media schedule for the author; more than 1,500 media segments in the last 40 months have aired on over 2,500 stations.
We used begging, groveling, and pleading, combined with a sophisticated broadcast fax system, to alert thousands of media and bookseller contacts to new author appearances or other updates on the book. We sent out at least 2,000 faxes per month every month for 18 months.
We made more than our fair share of mistakes that are typical of first-time publishers. While we wisely got positive blurbs from New York Times best-selling authors John Bradshaw and Jack Canfield to put on the book, we didn't get any pre-pub reviews in publications like Publishers Weekly (PW), Library Journal, Kirkus, etc. I didn't learn that I should do that until after the book was already out. Although we did not get reviewed in PW, we did get three different write-ups in it that were very beneficial and probably did more good than an actual review would have.
I had the pleasure of meeting the Chicken Soup team of Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen and spent time talking with each of them. They know how to inspire someone to set really outrageous goals. I was very encouraged by them and set a goal of selling 250,000 copies in our first 16 months. We actually did not hit our goal until 28 months had passed, partly because we had a hard time convincing the big chains that we were real and were here to stay.
Pursuing Special Sales Was Essential
Early on, we decided to go after special markets (non-bookstore sales). Initially we worked with a dozen brokers that sold books to the special markets and foreign rights, but this method met with little success. They had many products to present, and buyers generally would give them 20 to 30 seconds per title. These brokers really did not know how to present our product as well as I did because I lived the book. Eventually I decided to do this work myself. I had a hard time getting the attention of the various buyers at first, but with time we were able to identify the right companies and show them that the book was a good fit for their market. We ended up generating sales of more than 350,000 copies to special markets.
One of our biggest supporters in the special markets was BookSpan/Book-of-the-Month Club (BOMC). BOMC bought rights to the book and still features the title in both its regular club and the Children's Book-of-the-Month Club. Our title has been one of the most successful parenting books in their 75-year history!
Selling How to Behave to BOMC was an extreme long shot. The company almost always buys from galleys. We were an exception, having a book that was already selling very consistently and being heavily publicized. I presented the book on January 31, 1997, and we got a contract on June 19. We presented sales data once a month to their editor, demonstrating the consistent sales of the book. I would follow up every other month with a very brief phone call. Moral: Never stop reminding them that they need to make a decision.
Making a Deal with a Major Publisher & Beyond
Our success attracted the attention of 60 foreign publishers, 18 literary agents, and 16 domestic publishers, resulting in the sale of How to Behave So Your Children Will, Too! (along with a second title) to Viking/Penguin for a significant seven-figure advance. (The second title, How to Behave So Your Preschooler Will, Too!, is in the final round of editing. It's due to come out in 2002.) The revised hardcover version of the first book from Viking/Penguin, introduced on July 17, 2000, sold more than 100,000 copies in its first 10 months. Having the support of Viking has been a dream come true for us. For instance, our stock level for one of the major chains went from 1,000 books to 4,200.
We are by no means stopping our promotion, and we continue to generate significant media for this author. An abridged audio of the book and a video of his workshop are now done. The video has sold 3,000 copies in its first 12 months. This is fairly significant when you consider that its price of $49.95 can automatically shrink the market.
In October 2000 I finally witnessed our ultimate goal – the author was booked on Oprah. The appearance helped put the book on The New York Times Best Seller List. More recently, a relationship I began nurturing in October 1998 produced two appearances for the author on The Today Show. The first segment, an interview with Matt Lauer, aired on March 29, 2001. On April 17, 2001, Dr. Severe was interviewed again for the show, this time by Katie Couric. These two appearances did not create a significant surge in sales, but getting on The Today Show removed yet one more item from our outrageous list of goals.
As of this writing, the book has made more than 48 trips to the press, generating over 500,000 copies in print in more than 20 languages. We anticipate that it will pass the million-copy mark before the end of 2002, as the release of the paperback version is scheduled for July 2002.
All of this has been accomplished with a book that we were told would never make it in hardcover! And accomplished by someone (myself) who knew little about publishing, and who did not actually read the book until we were on vacation over the 1998 Christmas season (Yes, that was 18 months after I published it!).