"Let's Make Cancer History"

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Author Finds Cancer Gifts from the Heart

450 Simple Ways to Make Your Family's Christmas More Meaningful
"Don't write a Christmas book -- there are too many of them. The timeline is impossible and the market is glutted." That was the advice of an experienced writer who had self-published successfully as well as a well-known distributor who deals only with independently published titles. I wasn't easily dissuaded. "Order a small print run--no more than a 1000 copies. You will probably have a garage full for years," was their advice. Nevertheless, Gifts from the Heart sold 2,500 copies in six weeks, another 2,000 in the next six weeks, and has gone on to sell 12, 500 copies in just twenty-eight months. We had no budget for advertising, no marketing team, no PR agent or office staff. And I have a full-time job that keeps me very busy! What enabled me to achieve the kind of sales normally reserved for bestsellers in Canada? I like to believe it is the book itself, but many good books can be found on the remainder table. Extensive news coverage and marketing to a niche market has made all of the difference to our success.

Right from the beginning, it was critical to have a clear plan. I was risking all of our family's "own allowance" and counting on an eleven-year-old car to hang in there--I couldn't afford to fail. I knew from the start that the chances of making money were slim. The average book in Canada sells 1500 copies-including those printed by large Canadian publishers. I had to plan on recouping my print costs and raising $10,000 for cancer research. I knew it wouldn't happen on the first print run, but I definitely felt it was "do-able." I believed that the book would appeal to readers, and I was prepared to work long hours. But I knew too that many self-published books do not succeed.

I decided from the beginning that I would focus on marketing to various groups who need to fundraise themselves. Months before the first print run of Gifts from the Heart was delivered, I began to develop a comprehensive marketing plan. To make our book attractive to fundraisers, I structured the price so that organizations keep 40% of sales, I offset the GST (a federal sales tax in Canada) for them, and the Canadian Cancer Society receives 25% of each book sold. That doesn't leave a lot leftover for advertising. But once the design costs were paid off I knew we could make it economically viable. Pricing your book is very important. I looked at dozens of books at my favorite independent bookstore and decided $16.95 Canadian would be a reasonable price. Because it is a fundraiser, I predicted ahead that the people buying it were probably going to buy more than one copy. And they do--most buy 5-10 copies.

I spent months surfing the Net, compiling a list of possible groups to approach. As a teacher, I knew that schools and other groups who fundraise with popcorn, chocolates, and wrapping paper are tired of paying top dollar for overpriced items. I thought I could develop an effective partnership with these groups by offering a very meaningful alternative to traditional fundraising products. Once I'd compiled lists of possible contacts, I learned how to compile a database in Works. While you can buy commercial lists, I couldn't afford them. Now that I am more experienced, I would consider purchasing good lists as well as forming a co-op with some other authors whose books have a common theme. A flyer with several self-publishers contributing to mailing costs would make it much more affordable. I have focused on marketing to various groups who need to fundraise themselves such as schools, daycare centers, Big Brothers and Big Sisters, women's groups like Beta Sigma Phi and Altrusa.

The first season, I had only had $1500 for mailing and photocopying and NO advertising budget for professional marketing support. Nevertheless, I had named our publishing company "We Believe Publications." My Canadian hero, Terry Fox, who battled cancer, said, "I believe in miracles. I have to." Like Terry, I believe a cure for cancer will come through research. And I truly believed that that Gifts from the Heart has something special to offer readers.

In order to mail out to fundraising groups, when ordering my first print run, I requested 1500 extra covers printed on a lighter weight stock than the book's cover. I designed a "blurb" for the other side that gave the reader a good idea of what the book was about, the ISBN, etc. These could travel with a couple of pages of regular paper in an envelope for 48 cents in Canada. Test-driving your promotional materials for weight/postage will be important. If your info is too heavy--those costs will go up. Failing to plan ahead will cost money! Once I had a few press clippings and some "fan mail" I made up a more detailed information kit. Be prepared to spend quite a bit on postage. My postage bill for PR mailing was about $2000.

Because I wrote the book to raise funds for research after our small school lost four parents and our secretary to cancer, it is a real "people story." Local papers began to write about it, and the news began to spread. In order to reach out to different communities without spending much money on postage, I offered an article to newspapers without charge. More experienced writers may take issue with this, but I had no track record of work which had appeared in print. Because of the economic downturn after September 11th last fall, I wrote one called "More Christmas with Less Money." I provide a press release that could be modified for fundraising groups in addition to offering a free article for their local newspaper. Getting the news out made a difference to their sales, which in turn, boosted my sales. If you share an article, make it clear that they must print your byline at the bottom indicating you've written a book, a couple of sentences about it, and where it is available.

When planning your first print run, don't forget to add quite a few hundred to send out as review copies. And budget for postage and photocopying too. The first year, with every dollar carefully budgeted, it was very hard to give them away. There is no alternative! You can't buy the kind of advertising that a good review or newspaper article will provide. I sent books to parenting magazines, major newspapers, online magazines, etc. We had several very positive reviews, which were added to our press/information kit (with permission from the source, of course). Getting the news out about our book, while time consuming, has made all the difference to our success.

When you approach the press, you will need to think of an aspect of your book that will appeal to their readers. Read the newspaper a lot to see what sort of an article might work, and spend time polishing a carefully written, high-quality press release. You will need a website where the media can download all of that info too, including a picture and biography of you. Website design is expensive-fortunately Ian, a good friend designed and maintains ours. Before you approach the media, prepare a list of suggested questions to forward if they call to say they want to do an interview. Practice ahead--anticipate questions. You can do it!

CBC, Canada's national radio station called and did a lengthy feature about it. I sent a copy to several large newspapers and magazines, and while most of them didn't respond, we had some marvelous luck. Canadian Living, our largest Canadian women's magazine, decided to do an article. Their front cover said "Stories of Love and Hope." What a beautiful match for our project! One customer ordered 100 copies sight unseen because she had read the article in Canadian Living. Within a week of Canadian Living's December issue hitting the newsstand, Janice Kennedy from the Ottawa Citizen, wrote an amazing article entitled "Yes Santa Claus, there is a Virginia. A miracle disguised as a book." We had over 300 long distance orders after her "gift from the heart," appeared. This fall we are amazed to see we have shipped 4000 copies in five weeks and it is only mid-October.

While bookstores are my favorite places, and I spend all of my "allowance" there, I have deliberately chosen not to spend my scare advertising dollars targeting bookstores. They are very slow to pay and the return policy would make it impossible for me to manage my inventory. As a family-funded project (as most self-published books are), we can't afford to print thousands "on spec" only to have them returned. The advantage of our marketing program is that we seldom sell books in small quantities. Our minimum order for fundraisers is ten copies. We find that this year, orders are generally for 50 copies, and many are for 100 or more. Our local credit union was a big supporter and sold 450 copies in order to fundraise for hospice care.

It is hard to keep up the momentum, but careful planning at every stage and good marketing is what will make or break your sales. By this December Gifts from the Heart will have raised over $60,000 for cancer research and helped our supporters raise an additional $90,000 for their own projects. We are thrilled that our book has the opportunity to "help people twice" by helping fundraising groups meet their own objectives while we support the Canadian Cancer Society. If this kind of success is possible in Canada, with a much smaller population that our American neighbors, think of what you might do in the United States!

Best of luck with your own sales! And although it is not yet December, a Merry Christmas to you, each and every one.

(c)2002, by Virginia Brucker

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Virginia Brucker is the author of Gifts from the Heart: 450 Simple Ways to Make Your Family's Christmas More Meaningful. You may reach Virginia by e-mail, vlbrucker@telus.net or by mail, We Believe Publications, PO Box 47, Nanoose Bay, BC, Canada, V9P 9J9

For more information, visit her website at www3.telus.net/webelieve/