I had the pleasure of meeting Eric DelaBarre at Writer’s Digest Conference East (WDCE), where he spoke on several panels about his experience in self-publishing his middle grade novel SALTWATER TAFFY. Today he joins us as the first author in our Self-Publishing Insights Q&A Series.
What I thought was especially interesting about Eric’s self-publishing experience is that he has put strong emphasis on creating and promoting the print version of his book. While we often think of self-publishing as eBook-centric, Eric proves that print can be an important way to reach your audience. “Taffyheads” (as he lovingly calls fans) “like to hold the book,” so it makes sense that DelaBarre would focus so much care and energy to the print version.
That care and craft definitely shows, too. From the charming illustrations to the deckle edge, you can tell that a lot of attention and energy was put into the production of the print book. It didn’t surprise me, then, when Eric mentioned at one of the WDCE talks that for SALTWATER TAFFY, print sales are on par with eBook sales. (And here we were all worrying that print was dead…)
Today it’s my pleasure to introduce Eric DelaBarre as the first self-published author featured in our Self-Publishing Insights Q&A series.
1) Why did you choose to self-publish SALTWATER TAFFY?
The decision to self-publish was easy. I had just finished a ghost writing job for Random House (Harmony Books) and saw the writing on the wall, as they say. I was excited about future opportunities with the Random because the editor was thrilled with the manuscript I had turned in. I thought, okay…here’s a great way to pick up some side work, which would enable me to make some money and create much-needed rapport with a NY publisher.
Then it happened. As I was working on Saltwater Taffy ( which was a movie idea I had years ago while on Law & Order) I watched them literally kill another book I had worked so hard on by changing the title. The book was the follow-up to the NY Times Best Seller, The One Minute Millionaire. For those not familiar with the title, it was a different kind of book in that it was two books in one. The left side pages was a non-fiction “how to” guide that would teach the reader how to make money. On the right side of the book was narrative story about five women who all suffered a financial crisis. By working together and supporting each other, they would use the information contained in the left side of the book to teach themselves to how to make money and become financially independent.
I was proud of the work I had done for The One Minute Millionaire for Women, which was the title of the book when I took the job. I mean, what a great opportunity to be involved with a follow-up to a best selling, right? Wrong. The ‘powers that be’ at Random House suddenly felt the title of The One Minute Millionaire for Women would seem like they were ‘dumbing down’ the information so women could understand it. Huh?
Someone once told me that if you want to create a successful title in the publishing business, you needed to fill a niche. We weren’t ‘dumbing down’ the story so women could understand it, we were filling a niche with a story ABOUT women FOR women who were looking to create wealth in their lives. When “Cash in a Flash; Real Money in Slow Times” came out, it tanked.
Our initial mission was to create a heart-based book for women about women and they go off and ruin it with a title like Cash in a Flash? Not only did they choose a bad title, in my humble opinion, they committed a cardinal sin in business…they abandoned the established brand of The One Minute Millionaire.
If this wasn’t enough of a sign for me, I read in the trades a week later that Random House was handing out 5000 pink slips because they were down-sizing. The real story, in my opinion, is they were beginning to see how they were losing control of the publishing world.
The power has now shifted away from corporate publishers and is back in the hands of the writers…IF they can find a way to hold onto their rights. Self-Publishing gives the writer control over their work.
2) Can you give us a snapshot of the self-publishing process? What did the process look like, from idea to actual book-on-the-shelf?
It looked like a roller coaster about to go off the rails. This was back when ‘self publishing’ still had–and to some extent, still has–a black eye in the world of publishing. Historically, a self-published title meant bad writing, terrible editing and cover art that should never see the light of day.
Hiring a Top-Notch Team
For our editing, we hired Lisa Rojany Buccieri, a freelance editor, the co-author of Writing Children’s Book for Dummies, editor and co-founder of New York Journal of Books, and the author of over 100 children’s book titles. She handled the editing of Saltwater Taffy.
Lisa immediately fell in love with Saltwater Taffy and was a great asset in the beginning of this long journey. For the cover art, we hired R.C. Nason, a veteran Hollywood animator and illustrator. Through a mutual friend, a copy of Saltwater Taffy was given to Jim Carrey and after seeing the artwork Rob did on Saltwater Taffy, he hired Rob to illustrate his new children’s book, How Roland Rolls. Jim plans to self-publish the title, saying “self-publishing is cool.”
Getting the Distributor On Board
Since I have a background in independent film-making I know the most important element for an independent project is to secure quality distribution. Using a list from my friend John Kremer, author of the best seller 1001 Ways to Market Your Book, we submitted Saltwater Taffy to the top indie distributors in the book industry. We were turned down across the board.
Then, I used idea I got from an adaptation job I did for 20th Century Fox and Samuel Goldwyn Films of the NY Times best selling book, Conversations With God. I sent a treasure box with our galley to the Vice President of Distribution of Perseus Distribution, which is the industry leader for independent book distribution.
While I had been turned down through ‘proper channels’ at Perseus as well as Publisher’s Group West (a division of Perseus) my phone rang a few days later. The Senior Vice President informed me that Perseus doesn’t deal with ‘one book publishers,’ but based on the galley and our extensive marketing plan, we had piqued their interest. I flew to New York a week later and signed a deal with Perseus for worldwide distribution of Saltwater Taffy.
Here’s were the story gets interesting. We had already printed 5000 copies of Saltwater Taffy and were eager to get into the stream of distribution so we could capitalize on the holiday book buying business for children. To give you an idea of the timeline, this was August, 2010, which was four short months from Christmas. During our initial meeting, they informed my wife and I that they wanted Saltwater Taffy, but they wanted it for a January release.
This is where I began to understand how and why a book takes so long to get to market unless it’s a celebrity title that can be ‘dropped’ in a matter of two months. Time is the biggest asset when you are building awareness around the title. Since I wasn’t a celebrity or part of some recent headline grabbing scandal, I would have to wait until January if I wanted Perseus to distribute Saltwater Taffy. Obviously, we agreed to January as our release date and began our extensive brand building process.
A Cover Redo Becomes a Great Opportunity
The finished book was sent to the major accounts of Perseus Distribution and we immediately got feedback from the head buyer at Barnes & Noble. It was hard to believe, but they didn’t like the cover for Saltwater Taffy. Obviously it wasn’t the artwork, because it is still very much the same artwork as the initial cover art we had. What they didn’t like was the fact our book of fiction came with a subtitle, which is traditionally reserved for non-fiction titles.
The book was titled Eric DelaBarre’s Saltwater Taffy; A Novel of Adventure & Self Discovery. They said I wasn’t a well-enough-known author to justify my name above the title, and that fiction titles should never carry a subtitle. What did we do? We went back to the drawing board and came up with the cover we now have, which we all love. I guess everything does happen for a reason.
What did we do with the 4000 copies in the Perseus warehouse in Jackson, Tennessee and the 1000 copies I had at our offices in Santa Monica? We began what is now referred to as the Saltwater Taffy BIG GIVE.
A month later, I flew to Nashville, rented an RV and drove to the Perseus warehouse in Jackson, Tennessee to pick up the books. The folks at the warehouse loved the idea of an RV Giveaway and helped us load the 4000 books into our 6-person RV. Now, if you know anything about RV’s, you know there are weight limits with these types of vehicles. We were about to eclipse the weight limit and after 4000 copies loaded, we were literally riding on rails.
Every turn I made in the RV was like being inside of an interactive video game. At one point, I thought we were going to tip over, so I needed to lighten the load immediately. I pulled over at a rest stop and with the help of my iPhone, I found two elementary schools 5 miles away. Each school got 250 free copies of Saltwater Taffy for their students.Continuing the adventure, I found a fire station in Jackson, Tennessee and gave them 100 copies for their ‘Toys For Tots’ charity. This left me with 3250 books inside the RV and very little time to give them away before my flight home in two days.
Have you ever given away 4000 copies of a book in three days? It’s not as easy as one might think. As a past president of the Boys & Girls Club Council of Santa Monica, I contacted area clubs and fired up the RV the next morning. hit 4 different clubs and gave them each 500 copies for their club members.
It was bitterly cold in Tennessee while all this was going on. The reason why I rented an RV instead of a U-Haul truck is that I wanted to save money on hotel rooms during the giveaway. Now, when I say it was cold, I mean it was 17 degrees cold at night, but I drove on and continued to give away copies of Saltwater Taffy like a Jahova’s Witness handing out pamphlets.
Making my way back into Nashville, I hit the Big Brothers & Big Sisters of Middle Tennessee and they were about to have their annual fundraiser dinner. They took 500 copies off my hands and the load was thankfully getting lighter. After another rough night of very little sleep, I called the United Way of Middle Tennessee the next day. As luck would have it, I was transferred to the CEO’s office.
And with his assistant out for lunch, the CEO answered the phone himself.
Thirty minutes later, I was unloading the last 750 copies of Saltwater Taffy at the United Way headquarters in Nashville. I dropped off the RV and with the help of Captain Kirk and Priceline, I found a room at the airport Hilton for $50. After two nights in the bitter Tennessee cold, the hotel bed at the Hilton never felt so good.
Flying home the next day, I knew I still had to deal with the remaining 1000 copies at the office. For this, my wife called her friend Gary Sinese of CSI:NY fame because she knew Gary was heavily involved with helping our troops. She thought the troops would love to read a story of adventure that would remind them of being a kid again.
Gary called back and informed us that any books going to the troops through the USO would have to be vetted. The vetting process would take more time than we had, because we were expecting the new books in a few days. But after looking at the whatagreatbook.com website and seeing that the book was endorsed by 12 Teachers of the Year and an Accelerated Reader title, Gary called back the next morning and asked if we would like to give the books to his Snowball Express Foundation.
The Snowball Express Foundation puts on a gala during the holidays for the children of men and women who were killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The problem now facing us was that the Snowball Express Gala was to be held the next night in Dallas, Texas. There wouldn’t be time for us to get the books on a truck and to Dallas by the next day, but Gary called fifteen minutes later and told us he worked out a deal with American Airlines.
Four hours later, a man from the CSI:NY transportation department showed up at the office and together, we loaded 1000 books onto a stakebed truck. An hour after that, they were loaded onto the cargo docks at LAX. Two hours after that, they were in the belly of an American Airlines jet and on their way to Dallas. The next morning, the books were stuffed into 1000 goodie bags for children who lost a parent in the war. How amazing is that? The power of love is a…well, powerful thing.
3) Self publishing moments
What was your favorite self-publishing moment?
Getting emails from children across the country telling me how much they loved the book, but more than that, the emails saying, ‘you’ve changed my life.’ You see, I’m not just an author with a book…I am a man on a mission to help children leave behind the fear, doubt and worry of growing up.
Watching the bank account drain because truth be told, it takes money to make money in the book business.
Even though we have all this support from teachers, parents and students across the country, getting major media–national media–takes money. How did Gweneth Paltrow become People Magazine’s ‘Prettiest Woman in the World? Do you think it has anything to do with Iron Man 3 hitting theaters the very next week? Do you think there was a deal struck between Paramount Pictures and People Magazine? Those involved only know, but that’s how the business works…relationships and money.
Moment you thought you might quit?
(And tell us why you didn’t.)
Thoughts of quitting or giving up happen all the time because the indie road is very tough. How I get through moments like this is an order from my wife. Whenever I get an email or some amazing endorsement from a teacher, she makes me print them out and post them on the bulletin board in my office. These keep me going when times are tough. This is usually Monday morning, as I have to start the engine of the machine and not simply clock in somewhere. This is what I do… this is all I do… full time… all the time.
Moment that surprised you most?
The appetite our society has for knuckle-headed living. We live in a world where Snookie now calls herself a NY Times best selling author. To further answer this question, allow me to quote Aaron Sorkin, perhaps the most prolific writer I know of: “In this day and age of 24-hour cable crap, devoted to feeding the voyeuristic gluttony of the American public, hooked on a bad soap opera that’s passing itself off as important” it’s time for all hacks to get off the stage.
4) What’s the #1 piece of advice you’d give a writer who’s considering self-publishing?
Writing your book is 10% of the process. Marketing that book is the other 90%.
If you don’t have a marketing plan and think you can wing it along the way, you will fail. Your platform is more important than your book. If you don’t have an angle, some way in, a cause that you are passionate about, then do something else. Successful self-publishing isn’t easy.
My second piece of advice is to speak, speak, speak. If you aren’t speaking, you aren’t selling. A graph of my sales statistics looks like an EKG machine. For every school visit or talk I give, sales of Saltwater Taffy spike. Speaking = sales.
5) Give us a hint of your next creative project because we’re dying to know. What’s next?
The number one reason I wrote Saltwater Taffy is so I could make the movie. In Hollywood, everything needs to be pre-branded and this is the first step in a very long dream of making films that make a difference in the lives of others. What’s the alternative? Working for someone else ‘s dream? Working simply for a paycheck? That treadmill living is not for me. I’m selfish like that.
Eric DelaBarre is an award-winning author and filmmaker who began his career with Executive Producer Dick Wolf on NBC’s mega-hit, Law & Order. He is a longtime member of the Writer’s Guild of America and has written for NBC, USA Networks, Lions Gate Films, Samuel Goldwyn Films, and 20th Century Fox. Before writing SALTWATER TAFFY, Eric was a ghostwriter for Random House/Harmony Books.
Eric lives and works in Santa Monica, California with his wife, Julie and their two-year-old daughter, Emery. www.whatagreatbook.com