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Self-Publisher or Small Press?
Joi Nobisso and Gingerbread House
This is the text of an interview I conducted with Josephine (Joi ) Nobisso, the owner of Gingerbread House, while gathering material for a chapter about self-publishing in my Complete Idiot's Guide to Children's Book Publishing. She started the company several years ago, when three books she had written were declared out of print by their publisher. What she has done makes for a fascinating study of one woman's success in self-publishing.
Books Published by Gingerbread House
I know you started out by bringing back into print three titles that has originally been published by a traditional publisher.
Yes. Three from Simon & Schuster. We went with the third, Shh! The Whale Is Smiling, only because our distributor (IPG) insisted we have three titles before they agreed to take on all the behind-the-scenes work required to establish a new publisher member to their organization. This requirement ended up being fortuitous for us: that particular title has had strong book club and book fair appeal. It also has the added benefit of being our "youngest" title, so that, by default, it gets chosen by the students in the younger grades when we put out school order forms connected to my programing.
You've now published several titles as complete originals.
Four so far, two of which we did in Spanish. (We're taking a bath on the Spanish language editions, which are intended for the market of USA Spanish readers. Interestingly, though, the publisher in Spain who bought foreign rights to one of these titles has just sent us our publisher copies of their second edition, published in Spain and Latin America. There, this same book is flying off the shelves.)
We also have acquired the entire stock of one of my o.p. titles with another publisher. We haven't worked out the rights details yet. That brings us to a catalog of 8 English language titles, 2 Spanish, and 4 in pre-production.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe your staff consists of you and your daughter. How much time do the two of you (and anyone else involved) put into Gingerbread House?
Because Gingerbread House was housed in tight quarters (a converted master bedroom in our home) for its first 8 years of incorporation, we could fit only two workers: my daughter, Maria Nicotra, born in 1985, who acts both as Operations Manager and Art Director (I jokingly call her the "Art Dictator" for the wonderful work she elicits from our very talented and professional artists), and I. It is not unusual for us to put in 18 hour work days. I even occasionally "pull an all-nighter." We usually begin our day over breakfast at our local luncheonette, making lists of the myriad tasks to be tackled that day, the people to contact, the places to go.
Judging by the questions put to us by many would-be self-publishers, we see that they believe that the printing of a book is a publisher's penultimate task. Even though that aspect of publishing is, indeed, specialized and complex, and requires that we deliver print-ready digital files, and not proceed without a sober understanding of so many printing elements so that we can make informed decisions, in truth, printing is the printer's job, and the pre-press work surrounding it represents only about 2% of our work as publishers.
We are busy with the business of running a business, which means that we create a product that requires the work of artists and technicians; we promote, market, and ship it; we maintain financial and physical records, handle all communications, brew the coffee, and even order the paper clips. Many publishers have entire departments to handle each category of these tasks.
I still conduct dozens of school visits each year because schools are one of the native habitats of books. This means carting a lot of AV equipment around, and coordinating the dedicating of hundreds of books at a time.
And we work very hard physically. We try to keep our cartons at a 40-pound maximum (some carters will not allow their personnel to handle more than that.) We began by storing books in our two-car garage but soon had to graduate to a warehouse--luckily only one mile from our base of operations, which is our home on eastern Long Island. Even as the drivers of the tractor trailers are lowering the lift-gates, Maria and I are always on hand, in every kind of weather, working the pallet jacks, breaking down pallets and rebuilding carton stacks on the spot, so that we can keep our inventory organized before it all gets buried in the rush of the delivery.
Did you have to spend more time when you were getting started, or when a title is going into production?
In the beginning, we had to fill out a lot more forms. :>)
Other than that, the work never seems to be done. Now that we are moving into larger quarters, we are about to hire help. Since publishing is a very specialized field, however, we find that there are very few tasks that others can take on without a lot of initial guidance.
What do you do to promote your books?
As soon as we have advance copies of any new title in hand we embark on our our favorite of all aspects of publishing: promotion. This is akin to placing one's bet at the start of a race. Winning results get whoops of joy from our office. We rejoice over reviews and awards. Every single one of our four original titles has won some kind of important award, for a total of 21 stickers that we hand affix to the covers of books that leave our office. (Our distributor rightly feels that books can look shelf-worn when stickers aren't fresh.) We even discovered that one of our titles was eliminated from the Caldecott award in the round when there were 7 books left. Considering that 4 ultimately won, we (and the illustrator) were left standing with our mouths agape, grateful and gratified.
Has it been harder to make a success of the new titles, or easier?
It has proven exponentially easier to promote (and, perhaps, even, to market) our four (so far) original titles. Our three reprints were not eligible for certain review venues or for ANY awards, since they had old copyright dates. Almost all of the library, school and trade review publications (from which many book acquisitions are made, sight-unseen, on the strength of reviews) have very strict limitations about copyright years, and so do award committees. Subsequently, those three older titles had to run on their own steam, seeking their own niche markets, like scrapbooking for Grandma's Scrapbook, aquarium bookstores for Shh! The Whale Is Smiling, grief counseling for Grandpa Loved, etc. Without reviews to drive them into the library, school, and bookstore venues, it took us a while to reintroduce these three titles into those markets. We accomplished this by sending review copies to everyone to whom the books might be of service. This brought them to the attention of "sneezers"-- key people who could spread a viral epidemic about them. Now, of course, they are finally --and firmly-- re-entrenched, having become classics.
When we publish new titles, on the other hand. we submit left, right and center. This has resulted in, thus far, tons of wonderful and generous reviews, 21 important awards, mentions on C-Span Book TV (on which Esme' Raji Codell called us "a very promising small press," and later gave our In English, of Course her "Chapman Award," named for Johnny Appleseed, in honor, of course, of his sowing fruitful seeds, an allusion to what good books should do.) One of our books, The Weight of a Mass, is so popular that we regularly grant (gratis) permission to create skits, puppet shows, Power Point presentations, etc. One summer camp for kids used that book as its theme, creating larger than life backdrops from the interior art and hanging it from the fences of their baseball field.
Another example of the advantage new titles have over old: during the 2006 Bologna Children's Book Fair, our Show; Don't Tell! Secrets of Writing won the most important prize in the world (really!) that is given for "the best trade book with educational application," a distinction given by The Association of Educational Publishers and The Bologna Children's Book Fair. If this book had had an older copyright, it would not have come to the attention of the international jury that made the selection.
The point all this begs to make--most germane to our our subject of self-publishing--is that writers whose books are in the hands of traditional publishers do not have the freedom to take their books for long walks down every possible promotion and marketing avenue, or to even have their books follow circuitous alleyways that can lead to fields of light. Judging by the attention that Gingerbread House's three reprints have garnered, I am left wondering just which reviews, awards, and attention these titles would have received in their proper copyright years, had their two previous publishers given them the treatment we've lavished on them.
Obviously the new titles required considerably more pre-production work, starting with choosing and working with an illustrator.
Oh, yes. In those respects, original titles have us working like little donkeys (with blindfolds donned! Without those, we might become aware of the many long sideroads we will have to be taking, and we might get skittish and high-tail it away!)
After all this work to promote your books, how many copies of your books do you print? How are they selling? I want to be specific to give people a realistic sense of what's possible.
Generally, a trade house will print hardcovers first and then decide whether or not to print soft covers later. Our approach differs. We do not want to lose the possible audiences and venues for sales that the less expensive, soft cover version affords. Whenever a book's format allows for it (in that it does not have ancillary multi-sensory objects that must be embedded into hardcovers, as does our Show; Don't Tell! Secrets of Writing) we release the hardcover and soft cover versions simultaneously. For new, untried titles, this usually means 3,000 copies of each version, for a total first print run of 6,000. This gives us enormous flexibility in encouraging and involving publishing partners, book clubs, book fairs, etc. One of our titles has had to be reprinted six times so far, and with each print run, we have had to increase the number of units until we are now printing 10,000 reprint units of each of the hard and soft versions of some of our books, and are only seeing increased demand that is driving the numbers higher. Our returns, too, are very low for the industry--close to 0% for special orders shipped from our offices, and about 4% from our distributor.
We have variously sold foreign rights of our books into Spain, all of Latin America, Germany, Austria, Hungary, South Korea several times, and now have serious interest from China. We ship English language units to Australia and New Zealand, while our distributor takes care of Great Britain. Although most publishers must set up booths at the international trade fairs, we usually only maintain some kind of presence there by purchasing small shelf space at a combined exhibit. One of our titles sells itself, and has foreign publishers calling to partner with us. With our next re-printing of one title, we have six partnering situations. This requires enormous coordination as we piggy-back orders of three foreign language editions onto English language printings, and arrange shipping of pallets around the world.
This all leaves me wondering about the lessons in your experiences for people considering self-publishing. Grandpa Loved and Grandma's Scrapbook are such classic backlist performers, and I suspect that very few people considering self-publishing, even of formerly OOP books, will have material like that available.
Well, thank you! You know, after 17 years, I STILL can't read Grandma's Scrapbook at assembly without getting all choked up--and I wrote the thing--and it's fictional! You'd think I'd be prepared for the ending. It universally touches on the phenomenon of love lost yet enduring.
What do you think is realistically possible if someone doesn't have a book like that? You have succeeded with your new titles, but surely that is partly because you had the experience and the contacts to draw on from your work on the reprints.
The bottom line truth of the matter is that I would not have even dreamed of launching a press without strong material like Grandpa Loved and Grandma's Scrapbook in hand. I was the only author I knew of who got regular, insistent, and persistent letters from people disappointed that these two books had gone o.p. I even sent those letters to Simon and Schuster, but they assured me that they thought those titles had run their course. I was sure they hadn't, but I was not acting on some kind of vain compulsion. I had fistsful of interest. I would have been a madwoman to have re-mortgaged my house for the sake of filling my garage with cartons of books that might never sell! Maria and I launched Gingerbread House partly as a homeschooling exercise in real-life, real-time business operation. It was a risk, yes, but a calculated one. She was only 14, but we both attended small business sessions, drew up a clear and comprehensive business plan, and had a couple of exit strategies that would have recouped our investment so that we weren't "putting up the ranch" on a fluke.
I have spoken to many, many a disappointed self-publisher whose book(s) cannot get reviewed, much less honored, even after tons of effort and money thrown at it. If the material--text, art, design--are not of a caliber that would be snatched up by traditional houses, no amount of effort will catapult it into the limelight. My work has been published by many of the Big Houses (I love that pun!)--Scholastic Orchard, Putnam (two pseudonymous novels for adults), Mondo, Rizzoli, Houghton Mifflin, etc., and I was a Senior Editor for Winslow Press, so I tend to remain clear-headed about what works and what doesn't. I do not delude myself about my work. When it stinks, I wrap it up and throw it out, like old fish. I would never run out and have it printed.
What's different about your approach to publishing? Perhaps there are some lessons there.
Since we never o.p. our books, and treat all as frontlist, we find that one book sells another. This expectation is especially borne out with our companion volumes. Our next three books will all be companion volumes. That means that we will have 4 sets of companion volumes on a list with only 12 books. In our catalog, books are grouped by relevance to each other, not by pub date. We are trying a few new models in publishing--things that I had wished my traditional publishers had done--and this, aside from the thrill of seeing our horses "win, place, and show" at promotion time, comprises the raison d'être for our existence. I had always been frustrated by my having to take a back seat to the driving of my books held by traditional publishers. I felt that they were doing too many so-so titles and prematurely relegating some books with untapped potential to the backlist (a place that can be akin to the back lot of a salvage yard.) Gingerbread House's approaches keep all our titles in readers' laps. We never miss an opportunity to share one of our books--no matter the copyright date--with any legitimate evaluator who can find a good use for it.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
There is! While many publishers are already committed to using recycled paper, we discovered that some book components, like sound modules, may be soldered with lead or other metals that are harmful to the environment, and are potentially harmful to users who manage to gain access to the components. Since we have a sound module implanted into Show; Don't Tell! Secrets of Writing, we researched alternatives and saw that the EU already had an existing, safe standard for book components. Called RoHS ("the restriction of the use of certain hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment"), this directive gives precise guidelines and offers alternatives. We had our printer source modules that complied with the RoHS,and we are confident that even if this book gets tossed (banish the thought!) it will not have a negative impact on the environment.
Thanks so much for the opportunity to "talk shop" with you again, Harold. Your understanding, especially of the "back of the room" details, makes it such a pleasure!
Copyright © 2007 by Harold Underdown: please follow the copyright policy you will find on the policy page.
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