Saturday, September 24, 2011

Bottoming Out

We had the best of intentions.

As all of you are aware by now, Lynn’s day job consumes a large portion of her life. She has built the Poway High Student Services Office into a model counseling, support, and enrichment facility for the teenagers who attend PHS. Times being what they are, however, the program is chronically underfunded and always on the cusp of being washed away with the latest round of budget cuts. Fundraising is an unfortunate and, quite frankly, unwelcome part of the job.

Earlier this year we learned that one source of funding for Student Services was going away and the office was going to receive $10,000 less support. It was Evans who came up with the “bright idea” to try and replace this money with sales from a book. We were actively searching for representation for our novels anyway; so, why not give one to PHS? This meant a change in direction since we couldn’t wait the years required to get in with a publishing house. This wasn’t a huge deal because, besides believing that the publishing business is floundering, being independent appealed to our “can do spirit.” So we chose what we thought was our most appropriate work, poured our time, energy, and money into making it the best eBook possible, and launched it with parental pride.

Our first worry was that we had been kidding ourselves–that we really couldn’t write something worth reading. We were nervous that, even though we’d been honing our skill for years, had attended writers’ conferences, had paid a professional editor, and had sent the novel out to advanced readers, it really was crap not worth the money someone would spend on a box of Girl Scout Cookies. We felt better when the first reviews came back positive. Teens and adults told us they either liked or loved the book. Breathing a sigh of relief, we thought, “We’re on our way!”

Although we do have one marketing degree between us and have both spent some of our formative years selling in department stores, self-promotion is not our strong suit. Knowing this, we designed a simple marketing formula–The 3 Rs: Reading, Reviewing, and Recommending. We relied on our extensive network of friends, family, associates, and the PHS students to read Bobbie Titan in the Mark of Kain, have some of their opinions posted where “strangers” could see them, and encourage them to let others know about the book. Our goal was to sell about 3,000 books over the course of a year, with the volume ramping up, peaking, and then sliding off. By then we hoped to have Bobbie-2 out so that those who liked the first book would get onboard for round two.

While a few people jumped on all three Rs, overall we stalled almost immediately. We released the book at the beginning of summer break in order not to interfere with the crazy last days of the school year. However, we learned that it is hard to grab people’s attention, particularly the students, when their heads are full of vacation. Of course, when everyone got back to school and their jobs, we had a hard time getting to them because they were now so busy. We also encountered the expected problem of those folks who aren’t yet willing to read electronically but we’d hoped they would do it just this once for a good cause. Paper books are prohibitively expensive to produce and distribute on demand, so we stayed digital and willingly provided free eBooks to the reluctant or others who might not have an easy way to pay for it online. For our strategy to work, we needed a strong local commitment to the first R – reading. “If we can just get them to read it,” we told ourselves, “the rest will fall into line.” To encourage this, Lynn nagged her Peer Counselors and we invested in local marketing efforts. The most recent of these blew up in our faces.

We ordered a thousand postcards with the eBook cover on the front and a description on the back. As our loyal followers know, the cover features the side of a bathing suit covered rear end and an old fashioned pistol (Evan’s stepmom called it “wimpy.”) The school administrators told Lynn the postcards weren’t appropriate to distribute on campus and some of the students said they felt awkward about passing them out. While we could come up with many arguments in favor of using the cover to advertise, we concluded there was no reason to cause problems for the people for whom we were trying to raise money. We’ve even thought of some clever ideas like putting up blank cards on campus with something like “Go to to see what they won’t let us show you here.” The only problem with that is dealing with the disappointment when people discover that the cover is pretty tame.

Now we don’t know what to do. Worse (better?) we’re not sure if we should do anything. Maybe it’s time to just let the book-as-fundraiser idea go and see if it has the wings to fly on its own. We certainly wouldn’t mind if we could quit nagging people about the 3 Rs. Still, we know if a small swell of local support doesn’t form soon, the chances that Bobbie Titan in the Mark of Kain will be discovered by a wider world this year are pretty remote and our goal won’t be met. Then we’ll need to think of some other way to raise the money for Student Services. Still, no matter what happens, we are committed to writing novels. We love creating books; it’s the promotion we’re not that wild about.

And, since we’re on that subject, can we interest anyone in a postcard?

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