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Self-Published Author May Discover Story of Her Life Can Be Tough Sell

January 21, 2001|SUSAN VAUGHN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Self-publishing a life story can be emotionally rewarding. But many autobiographers have far loftier goals: bestsellerdom, "Oprah" appearances and millions of dollars in profit. Unfortunately, their aspirations usually end up in the fiction department.

Jean Desmond, 81, acknowledged that the odds of becoming a celebrated author are against her. Still, she's flogging her self-published memoirs, "Look Back and Laugh--Confessions of a Teen in the Thirties" with unbridled gusto. She hopes she can sell crate-loads of copies, land an agent and, maybe, have her book picked up by a major publisher.

Because savvy marketing tactics will be essential to her success, she consulted Anthony Mora, a Los Angeles-based publicist and author of "The Alchemy of Success: Marketing Your Company/Career Through the Power of the Media for Achieving Unlimited Success" (Dunhill, 1997). Other publicity experts offered advice too.

Desmond didn't mince words: "I want to be famous. I want to be known throughout the world."

The Rancho Palos Verdes retiree explained that selling her memoirs has become an all-consuming passion. She had written the manuscript 25 years ago; it gathered dust for more than two decades while Desmond engaged in a series of occupations, some satisfying, some not (including temp work and chauffeuring disabled adults). Eventually, she decided to make the memoirs her vocation.

Desmond tried to intrigue agents and publishers with "Look Back and Laugh" but had no luck. So, through the online service Xlibris (http://www.xlibris.com), she self-published her manuscript for about $1,300. She also ordered 600 copies of her book at about $9 each; she's selling them for $16 apiece.

"At my age, I didn't have time to waste waiting months for commercial publishers to make up their minds," she said.

Then came a no-holds-barred grass-roots publicity campaign. She studied marketing books, sent queries to newspapers, contacted "Oprah" producers (but got no response) and gave readings at bookstores and a public library. She also produced a seminar for people who want to write and publish their own life stories.

Though Desmond has been able to sell several hundred copies of her book, appear on a community cable-access show and get featured in local newspapers, she has challenges ahead if she hopes to command national exposure, said Mora and other publicity pros.

Self-published memoirs are extremely tough sells, said Dan Poynter, author of more than 30 titles, including "The Self-Publishing Manual: How to Write, Print and Sell Your Own Book" (Para Publishing, 2000). Most are written by noncelebrities as chronological reminiscences; they lack strong themes and targeted readerships. Many also are poorly written.

"In most cases, they're not going to sell a lot of copies," said Shel Horowitz, a Hadley, Mass.-based author of three books on low-cost marketing. "It would require a very unusual life or a very beautiful style of writing."

Desmond's book will compete for attention and shelf space with more than 10,000 new titles each year. To make hers stand out, she'll have to define her target audiences: Who would be most interested in her tale? Two possible groups are seniors and aspiring writers.

She also will need to come up with story angles, interesting themes, compelling anecdotes and inspirational lessons that may appeal to readers, radio and TV talk show hosts and to editors of magazines and newspapers. To do so, she may wish to hire a public relations consultant (who typically charges $100 to $500 per hour). The consultant also might be able to recommend suitable media outlets for Desmond's story.

Each newspaper, magazine, radio and television talk show will require a different approach, Mora said. Desmond must carefully study the ones she wants to contact.

Self-published authors tend to underestimate their promotional expenses, Poynter said. They also tend to be too optimistic about their potential sales and profit.

Poynter recommends that self-published authors send as many as 500 free copies of their books to newspapers, magazines, reviewers, agents, book clubs and opinion molders--well-connected individuals who can start a buzz. Because Desmond is paying $9 for copies of her book, this could get extremely costly.

Authors hoping for media attention also must print brochures and press kits, create videotapes of their television appearances and set up Web sites. These undertakings are pricey too. And advertising, which some publicity experts consider a last resort, can be prohibitively expensive and unprofitable.

In "The Self-Publishing Manual," Poynter noted that a half-page ad in a specialty magazine can cost about $2,000. Desmond would have to sell nearly 300 copies of her book just to break even on such an ad. More realistically, ads like that typically garner about five sales.

Direct-mail advertising, which averages a response rate of less than 2%, isn't likely to be profitable for Desmond, either.

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