Steve Carlson is publisher of Upper Access, a small traditional book publishing company located in Hinesburg, Vermont, a position he has held since 1986. He publishes, on average, just two or three new titles per year, so that he can be personally involved in every aspect of publishing and promotion. He also publishes business software, “Publishers’ Assistant,” used by more than a thousand other publishers. He is an active member of several publishing organization, including Independent Book Publishers Association (former board member) and Independent Publishers of New England (current board member, former president). He has several Web sites; the main one is www.upperaccess.com . He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Real Answer Real Authors: Why did you decide to publish?
Steve: Back in 1986, my wife and I were getting weary of our nice middle-class jobs and decided to start a small publishing company. We would start with books we had written, then expand to publish other books–a standard publishing model, like the big guys, except smaller. It was a foolish decision, because it turned out much harder than we ever thought it would be. But with a lot of work, we developed it into a business that could support our family, while producing books we were proud of. My wife has branched out to other professional pursuits, but I have stuck with it, serving as publisher, ever since.
RARA: What titles have you published to date?
Steve: I have published over 50 titles to date, of which 17 are currently still in print. The current best-sellers are:
1. Final Rights: Reclaiming the American way of death, by Joshua Slocum and Lisa Carlson. This is the definitive resource for consumers to take charge of funeral arrangements without being taken hostage by the funeral industry. It is the third version of the book, expanded and updated over the years from a version originally written by my wife back in 1987.
2. Editing Made Easy: Simple rules for effective writing, by Bruce Kaplan. The author is an Australian who had written a similar book that was popular throughout the English-speaking world except for the U.S. Because U.S. grammar and usage are so different, it was useless in the U.S., so I collaborated with Bruce to create an American edition. It took off immediately, selling well. It’s a quick read, aimed a people who want to write well without getting bogged down with complex rules of grammar and style. As I had guessed, that is a pretty large demographic.
3. About the House with Henri de Marne: How to maintain, repair, upgrade, and enjoy your house. This has been out for several years but continues as a strong seller, partly because of the author’s following as a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist. I have also taken on the role of publishing his blog site with the same name, and have sold advertisements to help support that effort. As a result, a great deal of new material has been developed, which I am working to translate into e-book formats.
RARA: How are you currently marketing your book and what has given you the best results?
Steve: I market every way I reasonably can. I am fortunate that most of my authors have platforms that keep them in the public eye. For example, the co-authors of Final Rights are frequently featured in national media, including, within the last year, 60 Minutes and Dear Abby. I promote rather heavily to libraries, particularly when I am successful in getting favorable reviews in Library Journal or other key publications. (The last two books got great reviews in LJ, which I quoted in repeated mailings with IBPA, and small ads in publications that are read by librarians. With this kind of follow-through, each of the books has sold several thousand copies apiece to libraries.) I also concentrate on special sales, selling substantial numbers of books at discounts to various organizations.
RARA: Are there any books or websites that you have found the most useful?
Steve: It goes without saying that it is important that Amazon listings be as good as possible, as that is the most common place people go to learn more about a book, regardless of whether they buy it there. My own site, www.upperaccess.com , is also crucial, as people are directed to it in most of the book publicity, and it is the source of many sales. There are separate sites for some of the specific books, with varying degrees of effectiveness. The most important is Henri de Marne’s blog site, which I publish, at www.henridemarne.com . Aside from that, it’s good to be listed on as many sites as possible, particularly if they link to yours, as that helps build your own traffic. (The only caveat is that the sites should be legitimate with content related to your book–artificial link-building schemes will hurt rather than help.)
RARA: What has been your greatest challenge in self publishing?
Steve: I mostly publish other people’s writing, but have a lot in common with self-publishers. One of my earliest books was one I wrote–“Your Low-Tax Dream House,” which sold very well and was bought up by a major publisher, which brought it out under a different title. The major publisher sold fewer books than the Upper Access version, which led me to understand that if I put in the time and effort, I can do as good a job at publishing as a big company can. That said, there are disadvantages to smallness, which I have to scramble to overcome. Here are a few:
–When you publish two or three books a year, you are not as well known as the big publishers, and have a harder time making your books stand out among the thousands of books every major reviewer receives every week. Getting good reviews is an important part of my marketing, particularly for library sales. I’ve had to do a lot of networking through organizations and events–something I am not good at because I am introverted–and that has helped.
–Although bookstores sales are declining, they are still an important part of the mix for my assortment of titles. I used to deal directly with Ingram and B&T and do a lot of direct marketing to bookstores, but that has become harder and harder for a publishing company as small as mine. I now go through an exclusive trade distributor, Midpoint, for trade sales. Midpoint does a great job–it’s one of the best–but the steep discounts have a major effect on what I can publish and how. I need to take an average discount in the 65 percent range, get paid 4 months after sales (minus returns from last month), absorb huge percentages of returns, many with coffee stains, etc., etc. etc. Yet I have to hold down prices to become competitive as a bookstore book. That prevents me from making much use of the miracles of digital printing–I need the economies of larger offset print runs. I know many small publishers have given up on trying for serious sales to the trade, and for many of them, it is absolutely the right decision. In my case, it is still worthwhile, but it is a struggle.
RARA: What is the best advice or tip you can give a new and aspiring author?
Steve: If you are considering self-publishing, you must take the time to become educated in the field of publishing. Many new publishers fail miserably because they don’t learn the business. Like people who start restaurants because they know how to cook, they become publishers because they are good at writing. Publishing is a business–a fun one I think–but don’t expect to learn all the aspects of it overnight.
Understand that there is a huge difference between self-publishing and vanity publishing. The big vanity publishers call themselves “self-publishing companies,” but that is deceptive. The average book sold by one of the big “self-publishing” companies sells 65 copies, and most of those are to friends and relatives of the author. If you are going to self publish, you need to set up your own little publishing company, one with the mission of publishing your works. And you will end up spending much more time wearing your “publisher” hat than your “author” hat. If you can’t do that, you can contract out much or (hypothetically) most of the aspects such as design, editing, typesetting, distribution, fulfillment, and publicity. But this will be expensive, and you will need to understand publishing in order to hire and supervise the right people. (There are lots of charlatans out there, who are far more interested in taking your money than in helping you produce and sell books.)
Therefore, you must buy and read every book you can find on publishing, or at least the ones that have good reviews from your peers. (If you are not willing to acquire and read a bunch of books, you should ask yourself why you would even want to be a writer, let alone a publisher.) Join the excellent organizations for publishers. I am partial to IBPA, the largest; I’ve been an active member for over 25 years, and served on the board for four. My publishing company would not have survived without the constant continuing education I received through IBPA. I am also active with its New England affiliate, IPNE. Many small publishers seeking specific expertise in areas such as special sales also benefit from more specialized organizations such as AAPPS (formerly SPAN). These groups have low dues, affordable educational opportunities, marketing and networking opportunities, and numerous other benefits that help you every step of the way in producing and marketing books.
Every publisher is different, and every book is different. For some books, almost all sales are the result of a blog and social networking by the author. For others, bookstore sales are crucial. Others will sell mainly to libraries, or to special-sales markets. There are many other variations and combinations, but each market will require a big commitment of time, and perhaps other resources as well. By becoming knowledgeable about the business of publishing, you will be able to figure out how to best direct your own time and resources, to reach your audience as efficiently and effectively as possible.
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