Book Business Wisdom Discovered “Outside the Box”

Cover of Savannah Morning News section featuring cover art and article on ELEMENTAL.

Cover of Savannah Morning News section featuring cover art and article on ELEMENTAL.

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One very useful interpretation of the phrase “think outside the box” is this: remain open to good business advice from unexpected sources. Appropriately enough, I did not gain that bit of insight while reading the latest text on business strategies offered by Mellody Hobson or Warren Buffet (though I would certainly give any private communiqué from them my undivided attention. That particular light bulb of realization came on while I was reading The Angel’s Game, a novel by Carlos Ruiz Zafón in which one of the characters states the following regarding a publishing proposal: “All business opportunities stem from someone else’s inability to resolve a simple and inevitable problem.”

Reading those words, I could not say “WOW!” loud enough, not only because they chimed so beautifully with truth but because they armed me with a new perspective on a problem I’d been wrestling with in regard to one of my book titles: ELEMENTAL The Power of Illuminated Love . I am tremendously grateful for the opportunity to have published award-winning works of my historical writings, fiction, and journalism, but ELEMENTAL occupies a very place among these works because it started out in 1991 as a literary underdog and then finally emerged in 2008 as a people’s choice champion, made available after almost two decades when supporters of the arts in Savannah, Georgia, raised funds to publish the now celebrated gift book.

The problem stemmed from the fact that the book was published via unconventional means that fell into the category of neither traditional publishing nor self publishing. Consequently, it was left after publication without a system in place for its ongoing distribution. As you can imagine, after years of working with the book’s co-creator, artist Luther E. Vann, to develop the title and finally see it published amidst celebrations and honors, the clogged wheel of insufficient marketing was a huge bummer.

But did it have to be?

The marketing and distribution of a book–or a DVD, CD, or fashion line–is exactly what Zafón’s character described above: “a simple and inevitable problem.” That’s why traditional publishers have time-tested distribution channels well in place long before the first page of a book is even printed. Because I had published my most influential works (like Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance ) through traditional publishers, and had not self published ELEMENTAL, I was unprepared for the challenges and consequences ahead. Following a period of a month or two after ELEMENTAL’s publication, I realized something was very wrong sales-wise and the problem was not going to correct itself. That was when I had to step out of both my “box” of conventional thinking where publishing is concerned, and out of my comfort zone where authorship is concerned.

Like most authors and editors, I prefer the creative literary side of the publishing business to the creative business side of it. But once I admitted to myself the uselessness of that attitude for those of us who have yet to sell two or three million copies of our works, I realized that my problem also represented an extraordinary opportunity. It was an opportunity to draw on and update my old skills as a bookseller, which I had not utilized in any major way for years since leaving the field to become a full-time caregiver and author. It was a chance to home-school myself on modern strategies for marketing books both online and off. Learning to set up social network profiles, design product pages, and track the impact of my own efforts proved as emotionally gratifying as it did professionally rewarding. And, possibly more than anything else, it provided an opportunity to personally ensure the cultural and financial results I desired, and that I felt readers worldwide deserved–for a project that meant much more to me, and to many others, than just one more listing in a catalog.

Whereas I had started out trembling before a problem with soul-numbing frustration and despair, a short step outside the box is helping me to meet it head-on with invigorating enthusiasm, a more informed awareness, and, perhaps the greatest prize of all: renewed creative energy. Although it is a lesson worth learning at the most prestigious business conferences around, it was one I unexpectedly discovered but gladly lifted from the entertaining pages of a novel.

by Aberjhani
author of The American Poet Who Went Home Again
and Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance (FOF)

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