How to build a bestseller: Make up the rules as you go along.
In 1988 I had bought my first Mac, having learned its usefulness in a previous job running a marketing communications department and producing a newsletter for a national franchise.
I was separated from my husband at the time, the sole support of two teenagers and nervously self-employed. I designed brochures and other marketing materials for small companies and trawled for new clients by writing absurdly low-paying freelance articles for local newspapers.
One story concerned a Boston-based elder law attorney, Harley Gordon, who presented seminars on asset protection to seniors worried about going into a nursing home. After my article appeared, I got a call from Harley. He liked the piece and wanted to meet with me.
On a fateful Sunday afternoon in early spring, Harley came to my basement office to discuss his ideas for a book. He was short and compact, neatly dressed, in his forties. He sat down directly across from me and was immediately focused on convincing me to help him. The book would mirror his lectures on legal strategies for preserving life savings from the ravages of long-term care. It would be written in plain English, no legalese (my job), so that elderly people could understand.
Not a subject that lit up my Christmas tree, I told him.
Still he persisted. Health insurance doesn’t cover the devastating cost of long-term care, he explained. Neither does Medicare. This is a subject of vital importance, not only to seniors but also to their offspring who would be witnessing the rapid depletion of their inheritance should a parent go into a nursing home. The Great Generation and the Boomers: That’s a huge demographic. This book would sell like hot cakes, he assured me, in not too original language.
“A book is more of a commitment than I am willing to make,” I told him. “I’m not the girl for the job.”
At that point, Harley reached into his briefcase and pulled out a slip of paper that he slid facedown across the table between us. “I just want to be sure I have your attention,” he said. I turned it over. It was a check for five thousand dollars. Two years from that day, when we received from our accountant a tax return for the first year’s earnings of the book, we realized we had grossed over $1.6 million.
We had also been sued. For me that suit, catastrophic as it turned out to be, was but a warm up for the main event.
That early period, however, before the legal troubles hit was thrilling. At some time in the past Harley had hosted a legal advice talk show on a Boston radio station. When we didn’t hear back from any of the publishers we’d sent manuscripts to, Harley proposed printing the book ourselves and selling copies via talk radio. He would pay the printing costs, a few thousand dollars. We would publish under a name he had considered for his seminars, Financial Planning Institute.
We hired a Mac-savvy designer to do page layouts (that took a couple of months) with which we ordered six thousand copies from a local printer. We chose a long, descriptive title: How to Protect Your Life Savings from Catastrophic Illness and Nursing Homes. The first edition was a pretty amateurish looking affair, with a rather goofy cover designed, I'm sorry to say, by me. I began pitching producers of local talk shows (there were many of them in Boston at the time) and booking interviews for Harley, who turned out to be a highly polished interviewee. Switchboards at radio stations lit up with calls from worried listeners. The shows’ hosts were amazed at the enthusiastic response of their audiences to Harley’s message.
We ran around delivering cases of books to some of the local bookstores, leaving them on consignment. In a matter of weeks, we had sold out our entire inventory and ordered ten thousand more copies, paid for out of the proceeds of the first sales.
Around that time we learned that the trade show for the American Booksellers Association was being held at the Javitz Convention Center in Manhattan. Every publisher in the country would be there. We decided to attend and hand out our book, hoping for a publishing deal.
This huge annual event was referred to in the trade by its sponsor’s acronym, “ABA,” as in, “Are you going to ABA this year?” It comprised booth after booth of all the collected knowledge and culture of the world, compressed into thousands of volumes — big, handsome coffee table books, little novelty books, books with beautiful glossy photos, books with pop-up images for children, more fascinating books, more beautiful books, more original books than I had ever imagined existed in the world.
We also encountered our first distributor, an outfit from California whose convivial staff invited us to a party back at their hotel. An early entrant into the independent distribution field, Publishers Group West, a.k.a. PGW, was founded in 1976 and didn’t initially set the publishing world aglow. In 1989, however, tiny Earthworks Press produced 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth which sold over a million copies. With an expanding stable of small publishers cranking out solidly successful titles, PGW rapidly established itself as the leading small press distributor in the United States.
At ABA we were bumpkins in the Big Apple, picking up too many handouts at too many booths and stuffing them into Baker & Taylor shopping bags decorated, for some reason unbeknownst to us, with the sweet faces of Scottish Fold cats. We walked, starry-eyed, up and down the isles of the convention center, handing out our frumpy book, chatting up publishers’ reps, trying to figure out who might be an agent, who a publisher, and hoping to learn as much as possible about this unfamiliar world in the brief time we had.
What we learned almost immediately astounded us: We were not entirely unfamiliar figures among that crowd. Huge and far-flung as the publishing industry was, news traveled fast. Word of the strong sales of our book had already arrived like reports of successful nectar-gathering telegraphed from one bee to rest of the hive. Within days of my return to Boston, four contracts arrived, overnighted by publishers wanting to sign our book. One was from Fred Hill, something of a legend in the industry for shepherding The Road Less Traveled to super bestsellerdom.
We were now faced with an exhilarating dilemma. Which publisher should we sign with? — if any at all. We knew what we didn’t know, which was just about everything about publishing. But we also knew we had sold a lot of books in a little bit of time and we, not a commercial publisher, got to keep most of the proceeds.
At that point someone suggested that we speak with John Taylor (Ike) Williams, with the firm of Palmer & Dodge, who was reputed to be the preeminent literary attorney in New England. We arrived at Palmer & Dodge’s posh offices, much more impressive than Harley’s, contracts in hand.
Ike greeted us with a firm, dry handshake. He was a tall, lean patrician, a Yankee-style Master of the Universe right out of Central Casting, whose slightly clenched-jaw speech suggested fancy prep schools and Ivy League polish. He wore a blue Oxford cloth button-down shirt, no doubt Brooks Brothers, a tiny bit frayed at the collar (blue blood frugality), and a Harris tweed jacket with suede elbow patches.
We explained our situation, chatted briefly and left copies of the contracts for Ike to review. We would talk again in a week or so about how best to proceed with the book.
It didn’t take that long; in fact, the decision was made by the time we got back to our own offices. We had found a distributor (PGW) who could get books into bookstores and we had devised a proven system to move them rapidly off the shelves. What did we need a publisher for? We printed more books.
For the next year and a half we repeated the publicity formula all across the country. Working from fat green volumes of Bacon’s Media Directory (containing contact information for every media outlet in the entire US) we booked scores of interviews on radio talk shows. I set up an in-house advertising agency so that we could qualify for the fifteen percent agency discount. We purchased sixty-second spots on the interviewer’s show that ran for days or weeks following Harley’s appearance. I hired a small staff consisting of an office manager (my daughter, Liza), a secretary, and a media buyer who placed and tracked our advertising and kept us supplied with her special homemade pizza bread. We all worked out of a hastily improvised office in my basement. I brought in an outside publicist, Bob Newman, a brash young man with an instinctive nose for the business, who, week after week, booked some of Harley's best interviews. Newman Communications is today one of the top book promotion houses.
What made this book unique was the element of desperation among prospective buyers. Families facing a catastrophic illness had almost nowhere to turn for help in making crucial decisions. Timing was an essential factor in protecting assets. If you waited too long before acting, you could be wiped out. Millions of hard working, tax paying elderly people faced the possibility of living out their Golden Years below the poverty line. The ad copy I wrote stressed the urgency of acting quickly.
I set up an 800 number going to an answering service that captured orders and flipped them to a fulfillment company that shipped books. I insisted that the radio spots be informal “live reads” by the host who had conducted the interview, not a pre-recorded pitch by a staff announcer, so the message came across to the audience as a personal endorsement. The host (who was invariably male in those days, probably still is) was willing to put a little moxie on the ball, like prefacing the written copy with: “Hey folks, remember that guy on the show last week talking about saving Mom and Dad’s house?” The pitch was enhanced by self-interest; a good response would keep the ad dollars flowing into the talk jock’s column.
We were able to track ad responses geographically by matching shipping addresses to the DMAs (designated market areas) of radio stations currently airing the ad. For instance, if WBLA’s DMAs included all New England, we knew that an order coming from, say, Boston had been generated by WBLA. When we began an ad run, the response was always immediate but then would begin to tail off. By studying the origination zones of our orders, we knew exactly when a particular radio station was no longer cost effective and could quickly move on to another.
We spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on that ad campaign. Today it could be done, and probably done better, for mere pennies on the Internet.
We were doing well by doing good. The rich could afford good health care, the poor had Medicaid, but middle class families had no safety net and were at risk of losing everything in the event of a protracted health crisis. In letters and phone calls from all over the country grateful book buyers reported that How to Protect Your Life Savings had saved their families from financial ruin when a husband or parent was stricken with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s or a stroke.
Day after day we continued to reach from coast to coast. Harley did phoners with California talk jocks in his pajamas in the wee hours. At that time, the king of late night talk radio was Larry King. King had the largest audience and widest geographical reach of any radio host in the country. I had been trying to book his show for months but got no response to the mailed press kit and couldn’t get to the show’s producer by phone to make my pitch.
Someone told me Larry King was going to be at a Boston hotel for a signing to promote his latest book. The room was packed when I arrived. The guest of honor was standing behind linen covered banquet tables stacked with volumes ready to be autographed. I purchased a copy, got in line and waited with scores of excited fans. When I reached the star I surprised him by handing him a copy of How to Protect. “This is a very important topic for your audience,” I blurted. “Harley Gordon has been on many talk shows and the phone lines burn up when he speaks. Who should I talk to about booking him on your show?”
King looked down at the book I had given him, opened it and scanned it for a few moments. He turned to the frontispiece and scribbled something. “That’s my producer's name and direct line. Send him this book,” he said handing back the book I’d given him. Then he took the copy of his own book from my hand, opened it, asked my name, wrote something and returned it to me. I thanked him. He gave me a big smile and I moved on.
When I opened my copy of How to Protect I saw he had written a name and phone number and the words “Chris — Book this guy.” Inside his own book he had written: “Jane — I think I love you. Larry King”
Larry King was reputed to have a fondness for the ladies. I had had a brief stint as a Bunny in the Boston Playboy Club right out of college. It apparently hadn’t hurt that I had piled on the glam for this encounter. Harley was on the show a few months later. Our answering service laid in extra overnight staff to handle the expected calls.
The lines lit up within minutes of the start of the interview and continued past dawn and into the next day. Thousands of orders poured in. A staff member on King’s show later told me that the interview had generated the strongest response she’d ever seen. Bookstore shelves emptied literally overnight. How to Protect was one of PGW’s bestselling books that year. A big commercial publisher never would have done the job on our book that we had done ourselves.