Leo Shelton, Student of Life

"Leo Shelton is an author, poet, writer, educator, scholar, and a self-proclaimed life long learner and student of life. He credits his mom (Carolyn - 'Tug') as the most influential connection and influence on his creative foundation. "Growing up in Nashville, Tennessee, he began to journal, write short stories and poetry at the very early age of 10 years old. It was there, surrounding his emotional development, through the exposure to such substantive and creative arts of Fisk University, his mother and god-mother's alma mater, and Tennessee State University, his father's alma mater, that his first interests in the arts took anchor, through such influences as the Jubilee Singers and local playwrights and visual arts."


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The IPPY Effect VI

A Marketing Conversation with 2008 IPPY Winner Leo Shelton
Unfortunately, in our society, if you’re black, you’re marginalized. If you’re gay, you’re marginalized. If you’re a poet, you’re marginalized. If you’re an independent publishing house, you’re marginalized. If you self-publish by starting your own press, you’re marginalized.

So, what’s a black, gay, poet with his own independent publishing house to do?

Win an IPPY, of course.

And that’s exactly what happened last year to Leo Shelton, the poet/publisher who won the 2008 Gold IPPY Award for Poetry, for Rhythms, his first book.

His Maryland-based publishing house, Tugson Press, has also published Soul-Full, his second poetry book, and will release D’liberate Ramblings and Deep Breaths, two more books of his poetry, at the end of May.

Shelton, now in his 40s, grew up in Nashville, in a family of “avid readers who were very culturally aware,” and began writing during the summer before his 12th birthday when his grandfather gave him a journal. During high school, he placed second in a prestigious, local community poetry contest, and read his poetry in public for the first time.

After two years of college, he joined the Navy, where he worked in personnel for a number of years, and kept on writing. When he left the Navy, he joined the corporate world, working as a project manager, and in budget and finance. He still kept writing. He went to law school for two years, then gave in to the bug to start his own publishing company, and formed Tugson Press in 2007.

He plans to publish not only his own poetry, but the poetry and writings of other authors in non-fiction and fiction.

What happened after you won the Gold 2008 IPPY for Poetry?

I was very pleasantly surprised at the response I got from people who’d sought out my work because it was identified as an IPPY Award winner, whether it was online or in the store. I thought, ‘Wow, a lot of people know about the IPPY Award.’

And they use it as a guideline for choosing books?

They must. A lot of people contacted me and said, ‘Congratulations on the IPPY, I have to buy your book.’ I got a couple of letters, but it was mostly e-mail. A couple of people called me and asked, ‘What do you think it was about your work that led you to win the IPPY?’ Those were mostly writers.

The funniest thing was that three or four people who’d bought the book before it won contacted me after it won and asked if they could get an IPPY sticker to put on the book. So, I said sure. I sent it to them. I thought it was hilarious. I wondered if it happens to other IPPY winners. I was taken aback. It’s flattering, but funny.

How has winning the IPPY changed your career?

It gave me more credibility as a new writer. Without the IPPY people wouldn’t have taken a second look. They would’ve said, ‘I don’t know who this guy is.’ It didn’t lead to much press, but it did a lot for sales and marketing and promotion, and book signings. Some sales were from people familiar with the IPPY, other sales were from other winners and contestants, and independent book stores.

Putting the decals on the books generated sales. I also shipped the decals to the stores that already had the books and they put them on. That increased sales, too. I send out online newsletters and postcards for each of my books. When I won the IPPY, I sent out an online newsletter and sent out a press release that I’d won, and that release went not only to the press but also to my huge contact list that I use for the newsletters, and that generated more sales.

During the last year or so, I heard from two publishers who were having trouble buying ads in industry publications. One, an established independent children’s book publisher whose group ad that included other children’s book publishers, was turned down by Publishers Weekly. And the other was you – as the publisher, Tugson Press, you wanted to submit an ad to Poets & Writers Magazine for Rhythms, your book that had just won the Gold IPPY for Poetry. Tell us what happened.

I had identified several media to advertise in, so I sent an e-mail to Poets & Writers Magazine to inquire about buying an ad. They responded that they had space but refused to sell me an ad, and they said that I should wait until I had a greater body of work out there. I responded that I wasn’t clear about why they’d responded like that. If the space is available does that mean you selectively decide who can buy an ad? I got a quick response that just reiterated what she had said the first time.

This was after I’d won the IPPY, and I was pissed off. It was ridiculous. The ad would’ve cost between 300 and 400 dollars. I have a subscription, so I see all the issues, and a few months later they put ads in for advertising space…can you imagine? Their sales were slow!

I just submitted another ad to them for D’liberate Ramblings and Deep Breaths, my two books that are coming out at the end of May. A week later they accepted it.

Perhaps the bad economy has them thinking twice about turning down advertising from independent publishers. It’s difficult enough for independent presses of any size to compete with the major houses for the attention of readers through the media, marketing, and promotion. Advertising is supposed to be a level playing field. Anyone can buy an ad to get the word out about their book, whether they’re a publisher, an author, or both. But, some publications are turning down business from independent houses. I smell some lawsuits coming. What’s your goal as a writer and a publisher?

My drive is to communicate and for it to be received well. It’s not about fame or accolades. I have something to say, and it’s nice when people want to hear it.

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Nina L. Diamond is a journalist, essayist, and the author of Voices of Truth: Conversations with Scientists, Thinkers & Healers. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including Omni, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and The Miami Herald.