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Ideas from Richard Paul Evans
by Carolyn Campbell
Richard Paul Evans originally wrote The
Christmas Box to show his two daughters he loved them, and to tell his
mother he understood her grief in losing a child. Yet through his persistent
determination and marketing genius, Evans parlayed his self-published novel into
a 4.25 million dollar advance contract from Simon and Schuster and established
himself as one of the most financially successful authors of the 90's. The
Christmas Box made history at the only self-published novel to hit #1 on
the New York Times bestseller list as a self-published book. It further set a
precedent as the only book to simultaneously hit #1 on the New York Times
hardcover and paperback bestseller lists. According to The Wall Street Journal,
in 1995, The Christmas Box had the highest one-week sales of any book
in their list's history. In the following interview, Evans offers the secrets
behind his unique-and lucrative--success in self-publishing.
What do you see as the most important first step
in considering self-publishing a book?
First, don't start by considering
self-publishing. Becoming self-published is not the easy way to become a
published book author, but it is sometimes the only way. In studying
self-publishing, you will see both history and the law of chance aren't on your
side. When I decided to self-publish The Christmas Box, no publisher
wanted it, yet I sensed that readers wanted it very much. I would definitely
begin by submitting the book to traditional publishers through an agent rather
than trying to send it to publishers directly.
Are there ways to sense when it is time to shift
from seeking traditional publishing to deciding to self-publish? How long did
You have to listen to your gut instinct. I quit
sending The Christmas Box off to publishers really fast. I sent to six
publishers. My mail all came back and said the same thing, and even all the
local publishers had no interest. You need to listen to what the rejections are
saying and ask yourself if they are all saying the same thing. If they suggest
changes that make sense to you, as far as making a better book, do it. But at
the same time, realize that if you have something that is a new paradigm the
experts often aren't experts. A paradigm pioneer is going to be rejected because
it doesn't look like a bestseller. Both The Christmas Box and The
Celestine Prophecy didn't look like what was succeeding at the time when
they were released. Now everyone wants to see a book that looks like one of
those two books.
Are there ways to anticipate whether a
particular book is marketable as a self-published book?
One way is what I call the tuna casserole
syndrome. Say you have a great tuna casserole recipe. You invite friends over
for dinner and they say it's great. If some of the people at your party go out
and start making tuna casserole, that isn't the time to self-market your recipe.
But if someone calls back a week after the dinner and says they are coming to
get the recipe to start making it for their friends and their friends start
calling you for the recipe-that is when you know you might have
Before you decide to self-publish, start sharing
your book with people around you-family, friends, and business associates. Be
sure you are convinced that you have something special, because it takes a lot
of work to take your book outside your own circle. And I would start with
agents, not publishers.
Once you have decided that self-publishing might
be your route, what financial and artistic considerations should you keep in
mind before you begin?
Make sure you have the funds to print, design
and market the book. Above all, your book must not look like a self-published
book. 99 per cent of the time, readers, distributors and booksellers can pick
out a self-published book. If your book does not look as good as a book
published by Doubleday, which is who you are competing with, don't
How significant is book design in contributing
to book sales in self-publishing?
There is a phrase called "nephew art"-this is
where someone says, "I had a nephew who was a hippie van painter-I'll let him
design my book cover." Sad to say, lots of time when you get a friend to do
illustration, you kill yourself in the market. Friend illustrations are too
often sappy and cheap and don't compete on a level with national
When I decided to self-publish The Christmas
Box, I decided on a very simple cover design with no illustrations. When
Doubleday called, they told me mine was one of the most attractive
self-published books they'd ever seen. I'd suggest hiring an advertising agency
or graphic design firm to do your book--it's worth the money to make your book
look like more than it is. If you put out $5,000 to print your book, it's worth
$1,000 to make it look right. It's easily worth 10-20% of the printing cost to
make the book look its best--because if you make it look wrong you waste all of
Once your book is designed and ready to market,
what is the next step?
You have to have adequate distribution. Call the
bookstores and ask which distributors they are working with. Distributors can
make more money with your self-published book than with a national book coming
down, so they are your sales force. Distributors are locally based, so call the
ones near you and ask a lot of questions.
How do distributing and marketing
If your book looks good, and you have the
promotion and design, you will get more distribution. Back to the tuna casserole
again. Say you walk into a store and want them to sell your tuna casserole.
They'll ask why they should sell yours when they have a deli there. You tell
them it's because you are doing a radio show and telling people to come to their
store. You are making them money. The only question in all marketing is "what's
in it for me?" You have to give them a reason to sell your book. A crucial
aspect that I learned is that there at two sales that take place-one to the
bookseller and one to the consumer. With The Christmas Box, consumers
forced the booksellers to take the book in. It hit number two on the New York
Times Best Seller list, but was only in 20% of the bookstores, so every
bookseller in America was looking for The Christmas Box. When I went to
the ABA show, booksellers told me, "you are the guy that ruined our
How important is self-promotion when
self-publishing a book?
It matters ultimately. Someone has to care about
your book, and if you are very lucky, you'll have a publisher and a publicist
who care a great deal. If you're not willing to work for it, the publisher will
usually back out and back down to your level...and you will limit what you have.
At the ABA show during my first year with The Christmas Box, I sat next
to young woman who also had a self-published book. While my book was doing very
well, hers wasn't selling at all. I thought her concept sounded good, so I was
curious about her lack of sales As we talked, she said she wouldn't go on radio
shows because she hated her voice, wouldn't do newspaper interviews because she
gets too nervous, and wouldn't do book signings because she hates to speak in
public. She was doing absolutely nothing and had an excuse for everything. I
soon decided she didn't want her book that much.
What avenues of self-promotion did you find to
be most effective and accessible?
Radio is the easiest and most accessible. In the
beginning at least, it's too difficult to get on TV. But there is always a
little 1,000-watt radio station where you can call and asked to be interviewed.
Now, when I go on tour, I do 20 cities and there is someone to meet me at every
airport. But in the beginning, I did it in my own car, got a hotel room close to
the airport, got a rental car and started driving. You can buy radio station
guides, or find them at the library or on the Internet. I'd look for talk
stations and ask to be on their show. I'd get up in the morning and do
interviews. When I wasn't touring, I did a lot of radio interviews by phone at
When I first started, I was trying to get a
local independent chain to sell my book. They were not real interested until I
told them I had already ordered a billboard campaign. They were a lot more
interested when they understood that I had put as much money behind promoting my
book as I put into printing it...in the beginning, I put $7,000 into the Utah
market. I sold my book for $4.95 and put a dollar into promotion for each book I
Initially, I hired a local publicist at between
$1,000-$1,500 per month. It's worth it if you have the money. It's also
important to realize just how big the United States is. You can drop $100,000 in
marketing and not make a dent. With the small window of opportunity that you
have to be successful and get noticed, the best strategy is to be a big fish in
a small pond. Focus your money on a local market. If The Christmas Box
had been brought out nationally, it never would have sold among 80,000 other
titles. In the first year, I concentrated on the Walden Books just in Utah. The
other regions saw our sales record and realized The Christmas Box was
not on their list, and they ordered it for the next year.
What advice would you give self-published
authors about book tours?
Book tours can be tremendously valuable sales
tools. If you are going out to sell your book as a self-published author, tell
why you wrote the book, the effect it had on you and others, and give people
reasons to buy the book. I'm the first author I've ever seen hand out fliers at
book signings. To help keep people from shying away from approaching an author
sitting at a table, hand them a flier, tell them about the book...give little
quotes or testimonials. But don't plan to go to bask in great glory. Remember
that this is not an ego trip...if you think it is, you will get eaten up
emotionally. Always go on tour to work. A lot of authors drop out of touring.
But remember, you have to pay the price if your book and the message you are
sharing really matters to you. I remember one signing where one person came in
two hours. Then five minutes later, someone would come along who had just lost a
child and we'd have a spiritual reunion there. There are payoffs, but you have
to suffer first. If your book matters to you, you keep going.
What do you see as your most innovative
A really defining moment happened at the
Mountain Plains book show. I wanted to meet the booksellers, who were all out
meeting the well-known authors who were brought in by the publishers. The
booksellers would get their books autographed and then get back in line behind
another established author. I could see that I was really missing the audience
here. It suddenly hit me that if I didn't care about this book, who would? I
noticed there was one empty seat at the end of the table where the big-name
authors were sitting. I went and sat down in that chair with my books. One of
the organizers saw me. I could tell by the look on her face that she intended to
ask me to leave. When she came up to me, I looked up and asked, "Am I late?" A
bit flustered, she asked, "May I get you some water?" I saw her the next year,
after The Christmas Box became a bestseller with a 4.25 million dollar
advance from Simon and Schuster. She said I'd come quite a ways and I thanked
her for not throwing me out. She asked, "What did it hurt?"
What was your greatest challenge in
self-promoting your book?
Let me say that my failures were the best thing
that could happen to me. If I'd gotten a publisher right off, I wouldn't have
the success I have now. Because I had to promote it myself, I learned how to
become market-driven. I needed to be real honest about the dynamics. When I saw
what happened locally, I knew that if I could duplicate that nationally, I could
have the number one bestseller in history.
Along the way, I discovered it's very difficult
to get national media attention for fiction. Talk show hosts feel that fiction
isn't intriguing or relevant enough for them to sit down and talk about it. 80
per cent of the books featured on talk shows are non-fiction, where they can
talk about relationships or dyads or near death experiences. They feel that
asking a fiction author to "tell me what your book is about," doesn't make a
good interview. Luckily, I had a story behind my book (his mother's losing a
child to death) that made it interesting to the press. When you become
market-driven, you find out who likes your book and who your market is. I
crossed paths with the author of a book called Twelve Golden Threads, about the
lessons learned tying quilts. She was having meetings and book signings with
quilting clubs. I thought her focus was a good move. Once you find the basic
example of who is buying your book, that is the key to success on a larger
When do you recommend beginning self-promotion
Start a year in advance to plan the best time to
release your book. Author Dave Baldacci (Absolute Power, The Winner, Total
Control) released his book this year in mid-December. The year before, he
released a book on January 1. Why January 1? Because all the major guns are
dropping their books in November and December. Michael Crichton came out with
his book February 1. Lots of books come out during Christmas, when all the sales
Why did you write The Christmas Box?
Why should anyone write a book?
I wrote The Christmas Box because it
mattered to me. In the beginning, publishing wasn't a consideration. The book
was written with all of my heart for my two daughters. If the only result was
that they understood that their father loved them, that would have been enough.
If my mother was the only one who read it and she knew that I understood her
pain over losing a child, that would have been enough. The Christmas Box worked
because it mattered to me. Write something because it matters.
© Copyright 2001, Carolyn Campbell
Carolyn Campbell is the author of the books, Reunited: True Stories Of Long Lost Siblings Who Find Each Other Again
and Love Lost and Found: True Stories Of Long Lost Loves Reunited at Last (Penguin-Putnam)
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