How I Sold 10,000 Copies of My Self-Published Book

Jill and I were sitting around talking about friends and people we knew. I was trying to explain how the system of personality types we were studying was actually complex enough to explain all the differences we were observing in our friends.

At one point Jill said to me, “How are people like me—new to this system—supposed to learn all this? You’ve been talking about astrology, endocrine glands, mythology… I can’t even keep track of it!” She looked exasperated.

“Well, just ask me if you have a question. How about that?” I said.

“That’s no way to learn something this complicated. Isn’t there anything written down?”

We looked at each other.

“Why don’t you write it down, Joel, you know all this stuff. That way it would be available for anyone who comes along later, and it would be better than having to find someone to ask every time you had a question.”

I had to admit Jill was right. It had just never occurred to anyone to write it all down. It was a study that hundreds of people were involved in, and which grew and changed, like a living teaching, over many years. 

A Book is Born

Soon I was deep into the book that would become Body Types. What had started out as a little project to write down a few things about types had morphed into a full-scale manuscript that would take me over a year to put together.

Eventually I formed a publishing company—Globe Press Books—and published Body Types in both hardcover and softcover. I had an advantage at the beginning because I was a member of the group that had been developing this Body Type information, and I knew they would buy the book when it came out.

Here are the first two keys to selling your self-published book, and this is exactly what I did with Body Types:

First, identify a market for the book that you can easily advertise to. In my case, this was the group that we belonged to. I had membership lists with mailing addresses on them.

Second, make that market an offer they cannot refuse. I mailed to every address I could get, offering a special discount to people who ordered before the books were printed.

The great thing about this was that I collected enough money to pay for the initial print run of 2,500 books. I sold hundreds of copies in advance.

Since I had been in publishing, and had a graphic design studio at the time, I knew how to hire an editor, and how to create a book that looked as professional as any other book on the market. There was no indication that the book was self-published because of the strong prejudice against self-published books at the time.

Third, get professionals to edit and design your book so you can compete toe-to-toe with any other book on your shelf.

Find a Spot on the Shelf

Next we went after book reviews. This was crucial, since we couldn’t afford to advertise.

Fourth, we mounted a large book review campaign. We mailed to several hundred media outlets, gathering numerous reviews.

We then used the positive reviews to leverage ourselves in the larger network interested in spirituality and eastern teachings. We identified this as our natural market.

Fifth, we generated press releases using the reviews and used them to establish an identity in our niche.

But What’s it All About?

Keep in mind that the biggest stumbling block we had with this book—and it was our only book for a couple of years—was that it was about a subject that no one had ever heard of. This is a daunting challenge that we addressed by taking our message to educational centers.

Sixth, we obtained teaching assignments at large alternative centers like the New York Open Center and the Omega Institute. Catalog mailings listing course descriptions and the title of the book multiplied our outreach through large scale network effects.

This all helped with the specialty bookstores that we needed to make the book a success. In our niche, these are “new age” or “human potential” specialty retailers.

Seventh, we personally sold each specialty retailer we could identify, by mail and by phone, to convince them they had to have this book, the only one on its subject.

Back to Press

It took less than a year to sell the initial print run. We now had an account at Baker & Taylor, and a lot of people knew who we were. Because the book was unique, it established a place on the shelf of many bookstores. This is publishing gold. It means that, even though they may have only 1 or 2 copies on the shelf, when those copies sell, the bookstore reorders the book because they know there will be continuing demand.

We went back to press, concentrating on the $9.95 trade paperback (hey, this was the 1980s). Eventually sales, never that robust, slowed down. But they never stopped.

Eighth, we listened to our market. Readers only wanted the softcover so we abandoned the hardcovers, which had been a difficult sale anyway.

Eventually I started working on a new edition to incorporate the new research I had been doing, to add illustrations and a new forword by Stanley Krippner, Ph.D. We put a new cover on the book, and issued the second edition with another print run of 2,500 softcovers. Since I now had a publishing company I had national distribution, and the book spread even farther.

The Ripples Widen As They Spread

I was invited to be a presenter at the First International Enneagram Conference at Stanford, and continued to give workshops after we moved to California. A couple of years later we went back to press for another 2,500 books.

Ninth, we continued to leverage into bigger networks. Each one helped amplify our message, and bring new readers to the idea of body types.

Body Types stayed in print continuously for 16 years. I didn’t want to keep printing the book, and had handed over the distribution to another publisher, since I had closed our company. Eventually I let it go out of print.

Perhaps 10,000 books in 16 years doesn’t sound like many to you, but it was profitable from publication date. Now, thanks to print on demand and digital printing, Body Types is back on the market with a new cover, happily sitting on Amazon for people to rediscover.

Takeaway: Think about what you know that others might find interesting. Know your niche and how to market to people with similar interests. Create a quality product. Take one step at a time and build credibility, leveraging into larger and larger networks. Take the long view, seeding success tomorrow by your actions today.


This is a cross-posting from Joel Friedlander‘s The Book Designer site.

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