Saturday, January 12, 2008

Progress Report on Zarahemla Books

It's been over a year now since I launched my Zarahemla Books hobby-business, so I thought it was a good time to reflect on what's happened so far. Overall, I'm quite proud of what I've accomplished, but on the other hand it's been more stressful and difficult in some ways than I anticipated. It was supposed to just be for fun . . .

First of all, here's the rundown on the total number of Zarahemla titles sold through December 31, 2007, listed in order of sales rank:

Hooligan: A Mormon Boyhood: 730
Long After Dark: 203
On the Road to Heaven: 196
Brother Brigham: 143
Hunting Gideon: 90
Kindred Spirits: 58

Total copies sold to date: 1,420

I've also sold about 600 copies of titles published by other companies (including my own four books that I've published with other publishers), but I've decided to stop doing that now that Zarahemla has six titles of its own, with more to come. This means Zarahemla will miss out on some income, but right now my bigger concern is running out of time and energy rather than money, and it's nice not to have to worry about ordering and shipping titles from other publishers.

Things that have gone well:
  • I've gotten about as many favorable reviews for Zarahemla titles as I'd hoped, and I've gotten some good author blurbs, including big names like Richard Bushman and Orson Scott Card.

  • Lightning Source's digital printing and worldwide distribution system works very well, although I prefer the quality of a local digital printer called Alexander's, where they use thicker paper and the toner doesn't shine on the pages.

  • I haven't had any big problems collecting money from retailers, I haven't received many books returned for credit (although I still could in the future), and I don't think anyone has ever complained about a lost or damaged shipment (I do a good job with my packing, wrapping each individual book in bubble wrap because digitally printed covers rub raw easier).

  • I got Barnes & Noble to stock some titles in their Utah stores, as well as a handful of independent LDS and Utah stores.

  • BYU Bookstore has been even more supportive than I dared hope, carrying all my titles and selling hundreds of copies of Hooligan and dozens of my Mormon timechart.

  • A fairly large LDS-market distributor called Granite just agreed to distribute two Zarahemla titles (Hooligan and Hunting Gideon), and I'll be interested to see how many retailers they can get to carry these titles, including possibly Deseret and/or Seagull.

  • Over the past year, I have paid back $3,000 that Zarahemla borrowed from my home equity and other personal sources, and I should be able to pay back the remaining $1,000 within the next few months. I honestly didn't expect to recoup my outlay. In the future, I will split any proceeds with my grandfather's estate until I have repaid the $8,000 that the estate has granted me (half in 2006, half in 2007).

  • I just looked at the Zarahemla bank statements for 2007, and I see that $20,029.80 flowed into Zarahemla during the year. That's a lot! I'm strict about keeping Zarahemla income and expenses separate from personal, so that's all directly related to Zarahemla. Question is, where did all that money go? It looks like the March/April statement reflected the slowest sales, with only $27.25 coming in for that period.
Things that have unpleasantly surprised me:
  • Even in large newspapers, reviews often don't seem to generate many sales, sometimes none.

  • I've done two big direct mailings, but to my disappointment they haven't worked well enough to justify the high expense in the future, although I may try much smaller postcard mailings in the future (400 rather than 4,000). Also, I've mailed out hundreds of sample copies, and those haven't provided quite the bang for the buck I'd hoped for either.

  • With Zarahemla, I wanted to bypass brick-and-mortar bookstores and sell my titles mostly online, through my own site, Amazon, and other online retailers. It's a pain to sell to the physical bookstores, ship books to them, collect payments, and then wait for their returns of unsold copies, but apparently these stores are still an unavoidable part of this biz. Similarly, I wanted to drive my business through reviews, direct mail, and word of mouth, but none of those has worked as well as I hoped. Advertising and salespeople seem to be unavoidable too, if you want to get really big.

  • It turns out that I hate reviewing incoming manuscripts and don't have time for it, but luckily I have two guys who have been willing to do that for me, in return for getting to choose and edit some books for publication themselves.

  • Shipping takes more time than you’d think.

  • People in the Association for Mormon Letters have been overall less interested and supportive than I'd hoped they’d be, with very few buying copies and the worst reviews coming through the AML-List. That group definitely doesn't put its money where its mouth is. Also, the Sunstone/Dialogue crowd hasn't shown as much interest as I'd hoped they would.

  • I rented display tables at a couple of events during 2007, but I felt that both were a waste of time and money (LDS Booksellers Association and the Salt Lake Book Festival).

  • At times I've gotten more emotionally involved and stressed than I expected, with lots of ups and downs and not a little frustration, disappointment, irritation, and even embarrassment. My blood pressure and pulse rate have both crossed into the moderate-risk zone over the past year or two, and I'm sure that’s partly due to Zarahemla (as well as too much salty food). Also, I've been struggling a little more with depression this past year, and a major cause is confronting the reality that I'm not able to do something I care about like Zarahemla as my real career. Perhaps deep in my subconscious I was hoping that Zarahemla would take off and gain some real momentum and sweep me up in a new direction in my life, but instead it's just spread me thinner. However, I don't regret doing it.
Now here are a few words about the six individual Zarahemla titles:

Hooligan: A Mormon Boyhood—Obviously this is my closest thing to a hit so far, and I'm grateful to Doug Thayer for persuading me to do it. Without this moderate success, I probably would be mothballing Zarahemla at this point, and I wouldn't have been able to pay back my home equity. The key to this book's success is definitely the author's network, with several of his friends coming to my door to buy stacks of books to give as gifts and with fantastic support at his BYU workplace, including media support from KBYU radio and an upcoming review in the alumni magazine.

On the Road to Heaven—I thought this book would do better, but it's still young and may catch on more later. We got so many great blurbs on it, but not many reviews have appeared. I think maybe it's a little longish for some people to read, and it very much falls into that no man's land of too Mormon for the world and too worldly for the Mormons.

Hunting Gideon—This book was an experiment for me. It's the first title that I let someone else acquire and edit, although of course I edited it too. And I viewed it as my best bet for cracking into the commercial LDS market. So far it hasn't caught on, but maybe the distributor will be able to goose it.

Brother Brigham—This was the very first Zarahemla book, and my big regret is that it doesn't have a better cover. It's done okay as far as stimulating some response, but it has not sold anywhere near what I'd hoped. I wonder if it will gain any momentum in the future. I've thought about going ahead and doing a new cover, but I don’t know if that would help enough to warrant the trouble and expense.

Long After Dark—This book has done exactly as I expected, but not any better. It's a literary short story collection, so my hopes weren't as high as for Brother Brigham. It's gotten some very positive reviews and has been adopted in a college course, and I hope it enjoys a long life.

Kindred Spirits—Obviously my own novel hasn't done very well in sales, not even cracking 100 copies yet. I think it has suffered somewhat from people's awareness that it's essentially self-published. It's gotten a handful of good reviews and one nasty one. I will have to reread it one of these years and see if I still like it. I sometimes still query national agents to see if it could find a real home outside the Mormon market, which is where I originally intended it. I secretly hope that in the future I will gain more success and notoriety as an author, which will then focus some retroactive attention on my first published novel.

So what's ahead? I'm feeling a little conflicted because I'm really enjoying working on my own novel (now titled Master Mahan Avenged), but I can find hardly any time and discipline to do it (maybe two or three hours a week if I'm lucky), and I'm not even actively working on any Zarahemla editing right now. Once I start with that again—and I do have some books lined up for this year—I will have even less time for my own novel. I suppose I may eventually have to make a choice between being an author or a publisher, but for now I'll continue to push ahead with both, as well as working full time, teaching night classes, and parenting five children. I sure wish I could drop the teaching!

At this point, I have no idea if I'll still do Zarahemla in 2009. By then, maybe I will be ready to take a year off. I certainly don't intend to reinvest any more of my own money or ask for any more grants, so if sales don't support the business by then, it will be all too easy to mothball it. But another part of me hopes that Zarahemla keeps growing—maybe I could even earn enough income from it to stop the teaching, which earns me about $6,000 a year. Another thing I sometimes hope is that I can parlay my Zarahemla experience into getting a job in Mormon publishing or some other situation that's more meaningful to me than my current industry, which peddles snake oil to dupes on both the nutritional and financial level.


Alb said...

Where did the above comment come from? I was just writing to say congratulations on your first productive year with Zarahemla and thanks for the new couch set. I'm glad you're only a jack ass 1% of the time and a sweetheart 99% of the time.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for all the details, that was fascinating. I bought two books last year, and plan to get two more this year. I hope you keep it up. On The Road to Heaven was just nominated for a Whitney Awards for best book and best new book, and Hunting Gideon for best speculative fiction. Good luck with that.

Marsha Ward said...

Having two of your books as finalists in three categories at the Whitney Awards will undoubtedly spread some pixie dust on Zarahemla Books. Hang in there, and don't give up!

Anonymous said...

Interesting post, Chris. I hope the publicity from the Whitneys will do good things for Zarahemla. Do you know if they're awards ceremony is getting a lot of publicity?
On the Road to Heaven, Hooligan and Hunting Gideon are all on my shopping list in the next couple of months. I'm excited to read them.
Then, of course, we have the little project currently being cooked up. I should hopefully have that to you at the beginning of February, by the way, if all goes well.

Anonymous said...

Despite the inherent headaches, it sounds like a labor of requited love. Kudos to you, CB. I envy your discipline to write, publish and make it a going concern-- as a hobby-business, no less. The closest I've come to getting "out there" is my anemic blog, reviewing books and getting quoted in an itty-bitty beach town bookstore. You are my high councilman of Quan, man.

Clean Cut said...

I loved reading "Mormonism for Dummies" and have recommended it to so many people. So naturally I was thrilled when I realized that you are one of the authors! I linked to your blog from Rough Stone Rolling. I would love to read a post about your experience with writing Mormonism for Dummies and how you got that opportunity. I'll have to search through your past posts since you might have already done so. Sorry I can't say anything about your other books, but I loved the way Mormonism for Dummies was written. A job well done!

Th. said...



If the Oscars get canceled, the Whitneys will be the biggest show in town. So let's all hope for that.

Kerry Blair said...

Chris, I discovered two of your books through my work on the Whitney committee. I can honestly say that Hunting Gideon and Road to Heaven were two of my absolute favorites! I've ordered others from your list -- now that I've seen it -- and look forward to owning your entire line.

Hang in there. Zarahemla is probably bad for your blood pressure, but it's great for the market! I, for one, am a fan!

Christopher Bigelow said...

Thanks for all the encouragement! I do think the Whitney Awards are very cool and seem to be generating lots of interest and excitement, and I would be thrilled if any Zarahemla titles actually won.

Clean Cut, I think I have written before about Mormonism For Dummies, but in a nutshell my agent hooked me up with my coauthor. My agent had been unable to close any deals on my missionary memoir proposal but was bound and determined to get me a book contract of SOME kind, and it was a great experience that I'm still enjoying, as I hear frequent good comment on the book still and even get contacted by the media from time to time.

Anonymous said...

I linked to this off of the Motley Vision blog. So interesting to read about the last year with Zarahemla. I for one certainly hope you keep going. It was also great to see the sales numbers so I know what to expect when my own book comes out, and congrats on your excellent showing with the Whitneys. Whenever I have little "what would I do if I won the lottery" fantasies, one of the things would be to give a big lump of money to LDS publishers of literary fiction like you and Parables so you could get the traction you deserve. (And then I would go on a vacation around the world and get a maid.) Unfortunately, I never play the lottery now that I've moved from Minnesota, so THAT's out. But I do sincerely hope that Zarahemla keeps truckin. You're doing a good thing.

jana said...

hey chris:

I just (finally) read _Kindred Spirits_. I suspect it hasn't done well because of the content (it's pretty sexual) and I wonder if women buyers (the bulk of the market, right?), don't have some resistance to a female protag in a book written by a man.

The ending puts it with the 'faith-promoting' crowd though there's way too much sex and not enough starry-eyed romance to succeed in the Mo romance market. I think this book would 'work' as a 'literary' novel if the ending were a bit different (not necessarily polyamory, but maybe something a bit less over-the-top than a temple sealing).

Christopher Bigelow said...

Jana, you've pegged it pretty well on the situation with Kindred Spirits. However, that was the only way I could see to write it, so I guess my audience was ultimately just myself. And I certainly don't think the temple sealing at the end is "over the top" but the most realistic ending for that protagonist. After all, people can certainly go into a temple sealing with ulterior motives.

Christopher Bigelow said...

Angela, after reading the blurbs for your new book, I'm worried that I'll really regret not publishing it... I will order it this week and look forward to getting it. I wish the timing had worked out better.