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Pocket of Joy: Generating $1K in 1 Month for Bookstores Just by Writing a Story

What a magical Christmas surprise! Last week, I started to feel pretty depressed after hearing anecdotally and seeing in the media that many people who identify as book lovers have suddenly and catastrophically lost their ability to actually read novels. (Yes, I realize that this is a whimsical thing to be depressed about when there is so much suffering in the world right now, but I'm sad about everything else, and yet I still can't help feeling sad about literacy too. Skip this first paragraph if you can't stand the sound of a tiny violin today--My attitude has already been readjusted.) The story goes that this decline in literacy started at the end of the 20th century with the expansion of internet culture, which wasn't just another distraction but changed people's brains on a neurological level. Then the pandemic's mental fog and toxic stress accelerated the loss of literacy. The story implied that I was a functionally extinct sort of dinosaur for having taken comfort all through the pandemic in slowly rereading classic literature and my favorite worn-out paperbacks from decades of personal library curation. I read more terrible reports in the media that felt uncomfortably true, that everybody wants to be an author or to own a bookstore, but nobody actually reads books anymore or cares about the craft of writing. Literary culture has been sneakily replaced with a bubble of non-readers LARPing as bibliophiles who secretly can't manage a whole paragraph, whose minds and free time are packed to the brim with 20th century sitcom reruns, whose repetitive stress injuries are from scrolling Instagram, not typing. The story suggests that I have been foolish, delusional, and selfish to spend years of my life researching and writing a work that nobody asked for--investing so much of my attention, money, and time along the way that could have been spent on my family instead, or on a charitable cause or something.

But then, in the email inbox where I have been long accustomed to receiving auto-rejection messages from literary agencies, I received a report of my hardcover book sales between about Halloween and Thanksgiving, and let me tell you, it re-lit all my candles of hope, joy, and worthiness as a writer!

Not because I made a bunch of money and increased my net worth, though I have been assured that I will soon recover the $75 I spent on uploading files to IngramSpark, which is encouraging. In fact, it's all I needed to see to have the courage to upload another book!

I lit up like a Christmas tree inside because, according to my back-of-the-envelope calculation, my hardcover book sales have generated about $1,000 in revenues for bookstores--just by me sitting at home behind a computer, tapping and clicking and paying $75 in fees. I haven't even gotten up off my kiester to promote this thing, and it has started finding readers without much help from me! 

The cover of the book itself illustrates what happened--My name is at the bottom, clear as mud, fading into the earth, and the figure on the cover appears to stride forward, determined, demanding an audience with the book browser, her slender ankle sweeping through the letters of my name to get where she's going and have her say, no matter who I am or how much courage I can muster to promote my own work.

I released my novel without generating any buzz first, with none of the usual months-long marketing process that is supposed to precede a book release. I didn't pay for any advertisements. I didn't enter any contests. I didn't hustle, beg, bribe, or trade favors for anyone to pull tricks to inflate my sales numbers. I didn't pay for a Kirkus review or bother to figure out what a Bookbub is. I avoided all depressing internet forums about how to most effectively lick the crumbs off the floor beneath the decadent late-stage Roman emperor's feast of Amazon algorithms. I ignored trends and best practices when designing the cover for my book. I did all this because I published my book at the moment I let go of the idea that I'd ever have a writing "career" that could be profitable in an economic sense. I published my book to be done with it, to feel some closure on that part of my life. To give myself the satisfaction of a clear ending. To do what the voices inside of me demanded, to shut them up, and no more.

I did make efforts, with intention, to make sure that my book would be likely to benefit a shop that sold it or a reader who bought it. I can handle the idea of my book not selling, but I can't stand the thought of people feeling ripped off by it, so I did try to make sure it had something of value to offer.

I chose IngramSpark's Indy Press instead of using any other popular print-on-demand service because Ingram is the only company that will distribute a self-published novel in the same way it would a traditionally published novel. This doesn't necessarily benefit the author in terms of offering the highest royalty on each sale, but it makes it easier and more profitable for local book shops to order inventory.

With that goal in mind, I set up pricing for my hardcover edition with a generous trade discount, and I made my books returnable. This maximizes profit and minimizes financial risk for booksellers to invest in my inventory, making it more likely that they will. Bookstores that order and sell copies of my book make a much larger cut of each sale than I do, which I believe is fair. They handle the logistics, the overhead costs of running a shop, the point of sale system, the sales taxes, and all the other business-end stuff I'd rather not deal with. And, to my astonishment, they sometimes take it upon themselves to do a little promotion!

Several local bookstore owners reached out to me after I announced the surprise release of my self-published debut novel on my little personal Facebook account and my little blog here. I was just giving my personal friends and the few regular readers of my blog a heads-up in case they wanted a copy at a temporary discount, before the holidays. I planned to begin properly promoting my work maybe in the spring, when author events in local book shops might be more safe to schedule. (Michigan is taking a long, sad ride on the pandemic struggle bus right now, and I can't imagine hosting a public indoor event.)

It was incredibly sweet to hear from local shop owners who somehow saw one of those announcements or heard about it through the grapevine, and it was a dream to witness them proceeding to order copies of my book and display them prominently! (I still haven't ventured out to see my books on retail shelves in person, but one shop owner and one relative snapped pics for me.)

I heard many compliments about the cover design, which, my God, I whipped out in a rush using IngramSpark's free book-building tool and a couple of public domain images. It did turn out pretty nice, though, didn't it? For my own pleasure, because I didn't expect to sell more than a dozen or so of these things, and I hate the thought of even thinking about how to game algorithms for sales (blerg), I used Victorian-era fairy tale illustrations by Arthur Rackham. The front cover illustration was created for the story "Catskin," a Cinderella-related variant closely related to others such as "Donkeyskin"; "Princess Mouseskin"; and "Allerleirauh" ("All-Kinds-of-Fur"), from which I derived the name Leirah, and which contains the magical device this blog is named after, the magic nutshell. The Rackham illustrations were born of a golden era in book design, when beautifully crafted and illustrated books were treasured by those with the means to collect them and give them as gifts. I thought I would reproduce a hint of that experience for anyone who might purchase a copy.

That's another reason I chose to go with IngramSpark over any other POD service--their hardcover books are the highest quality among their competitors, and that matters more to me than the highest profit margin. I can't take pleasure in selling something that doesn't feel worth its price tag.

There are companies that produce spectacular, old-fashioned, fancy editions of books to rival those produced for medieval royalty or Victorian-era wealthy Christmas shoppers, such as Grimm Book Bindery (oh, swoon!), and if one of my books ever becomes profitable enough to bankroll it, I fantasize about investing in expensive editorial services to sharpen my prose to a level beyond what I have been able to achieve with the human and financial resources available to me so far (it would cost thousands for a full professional edit of a book the length of mine, so I have only paid for bits and pieces of pro editing and traded critiques and proofreads with fellow authors; I am sure there are a few typos in there, and more than a few unnecessary adjectives that could be tidied up) and then ordering a small run of a fine collector's edition that looks and feels and smells like a precious antique in newborn condition.

It is good to feel good enough to dream again.

Anyway, I gave my humble Indy Press edition a vintage vibe to please myself and any potential strangers out there who are into the same kind of book beauty that I am--no neon yellow color blocking, no gigantic sans serif font, nothing suggesting that my book is popular or trendy. Instead, my hardcover edition's visual aesthetics reach for the largely forgotten, gamy flavor of pre-Disney folklore, as foreign to modern English speakers as the authentic Shakespearean accent, which sounds less like the classy English we have learned to expect on the stage and more like Talk-Like-a-Pirate Day.

Who needs algorithmic cheat codes, anyway? It would be ironic in the worst way, totally off-brand, for me to focus my energy on figuring out how to "win" at selling a Robin Hood-esque tale through a Hunger Games-esque exploitative billionaire's soulless marketplace. This is not to say my book is not available on Amazon; it is! And I love the "Look Inside" feature that Amazon provides for my ebook (the first two chapters and part of the third shown as a free sample). But my readers have to go and find it there if they want to; I will not be bothered with trying to win at algorithmic games to trick people into buying it through a rigged popularity contest. Because I did not release the first edition of my book exclusively through Amazon, it will not be favored on any of the big digital "bestseller" lists, and that is fine with me. Cult classic status is my highest ambition for it.

Because you know what makes me happier than a digital ranking that might, if I'm lucky, translate into a little more pocket change?

Supporting my local bookstores at a meaningful level just by creating art! My God, I have always longed to be a person with enough money to support the local arts--the performance halls, the galleries, the bookstores that I used to enjoy and appreciate so much in the Before Times! Art is the closest thing I have to a religion, I think.

To know that I've "accidentally" directed a thousand dollars to paper-and-ink booksellers, just by smashing a publish button from behind this keyboard, is amazing to me.

And of course it does not make me an extinct dinosaur to love books, and of course I was silly to overreact so much to those gloomy anecdotes and internet stories about eroding literacy. There are absolutely other people who still read books! (Or, at least, who buy them with the intention to get back into reading after the pandemic fog clears, which it will.)

I feel like the 10-years-ago me again!
There are more than 70 people who purchased my hardcover books before Thanksgiving! I don't have that many ride-or-die friends, and some of my friends went for the ebooks anyway! Strangers must have bought some of those books. Some of those beautiful strangers surely saw the lovely displays at the optimistically named Everybody Reads Books and made the decision to take my book home with them. How astonishing!

As long as this terrible pandemic situation finally runs its course soon, like every other pandemic in human history has, I think I might have the confidence to plan some author events this spring and support my local book shops even more--by giving them a generous cut of sales of my books and also, I expect, by me blowing everything I earn at the events in the stores hosting them. 

It is good to have something to look forward to.

It is good to know that I'm not alone in my love for a quirky, pretty hardcover novel.

It is good to feel that my creative efforts have been worthwhile. 

May you never stop believing in your own imagination! May your holidays be stacked with good stories! And may you always find someone to re-light the little candles in your heart every time they burn out.

Jean Michelle Miernik is the author of Leirah and the Wild Man: A Tale of Obsession and Survival at the Edges of the Byzantine World.


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