Authors write their own paycheques

Annabel Langbein self-published her latest cookbook, and has sold more than 110,00 copies. Photo / Supplied
Annabel Langbein self-published her latest cookbook, and has sold more than 110,00 copies. Photo / Supplied

It is a truism in the publishing industry that very few Kiwis get rich by writing a book.

While many receive a pittance for their creative efforts, there are some authors who have become millionaires - some many times over - by cutting out the middlemen and middlewomen in the publishing industry and marketing themselves to a global audience.

The most recent self-publishing success story is cooking star Annabel Langbein, who has broken all previous New Zealand records by selling more than 110,000 copies of her latest cookbook, The Free Range Cook. The book now sells in more than 70 countries and negotiations are underway to sell the accompanying TV series in several major markets.

Langbein is credited by many as a smart cookie who has carefully and patiently planned her career over many years. She admits to having turned down offers just because she didn't think the timing was quite right.

She says she initially wanted to manage her own books simply because she enjoyed the creative challenge.

But along the way, she has sought advice from some of New Zealand's top businesspeople, including staff at Auckland University's business incubator, The Icehouse.

Langbein is unsure how many books she has sold in total in her career so far, but guesses it would probably be in the millions. And she genuinely believes she is only just getting started.

Another recent example of someone who has chosen to self-publish is nutritionist Libby Weaver, who has written a diet book, Accidentally Overweight, that is also on the current bestseller lists.

Weaver's husband, Chris, happens to be the chief executive of the Auckland Racing Club and has been using his own experience in sales and marketing to help his wife manage the business.

The couple used the online service Elance to hire an editor and designer for the book, who were based in the United States. Locally, they sought advice from publishing maven Wendy Pye, and also organised innovative outlets such as gyms and delicatessans to sell the book, as well as traditional channels. Following its success in New Zealand, they are now considering how to market the book overseas.

Several other Kiwi authors who have gone down that path can already count their sales in seven-figure sums.

Former advertising art director Jane Seabrook has become internationally reknown for the Fuzzy Logic series of books, which are based on her own whimsical illustrations of wildlife, matched with pithy quotes.

Seabrook, who lives in Auckland, had previously worked with photographer Anne Geddes and by packaging her books herself, she has managed to clock up more than one million international sales so far.

She is about to branch out into paper products such as cards and calendars, and this time plans to manage all the sales herself via her website.

Seabrook credits local artist and inventor Burton Silver for introducing her to packaging. Silver, who probably remains best known to older readers for his long-running Bogor cartoon in the NZ Listener, struck gold in the mid-90s with a satirical book about art criticism called Why Cats Paint.

The book, which he put together with painter and photographer Heather Busch, sold more than 700,000 copies worldwide, and the pair have followed up with other books in a similar vein. Silver has also self-published several other books of his own.

While he concedes he made plenty of money from Why Cats Paint, he claims to have lost much of it by inventing a new sport called GolfCross. But he also notes that tourist shops do a reasonable trade in his book about the new game.

Silver also claims to have encouraged Smarter than Jack author Jenny Campbell to manage her own career. Campbell put together the collection of anecdotes about clever animals, then persuaded the SPCA to help her distribute it, for a cut of the profits. The book was a huge success and she is now repeating that formula overseas.

"It was like I had created a living thing with Smarter than Jack; it seemed to have a life all of its own," she has written on her website. "What an awesome responsibility and opportunity, albeit a bit of a scary one."

While many authors admit their initial success was mostly due to good luck, rather than good management, some are getting ever-more-savvy about the commercial realities of publishing.

A recent international example of masterful marketing is American entrepreneur Tim Ferriss, who had significant success with his first book, The 4-Hour Workweek.

In 2007 Ferriss was nominated as one of Fast Company's most innovative businesspeople of the year, and the following year Wired magazine named him the Greatest Self-Promoter of All Time.

Ferriss founded his first company at the age of 23 and has become something of a poster boy for Generation Y. He has proved to be a skilful manipulator of social media, and even mainstream media, and has admitted to tailoring his latest book around the most popular search terms on Google.

The result was The Four-Hour Body, subtitled "An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat-Loss, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman".

The book, which came out just before Christmas, débuted at number one on the New York Times Bestseller List, beating the Guinness Book of Records, and has been one of Amazon's top five bestselling books for the past three months.

Veteran writer and broadcaster Gordon McLauchlan believes the global debate about the future of books has so far focussed too much on whether bricks and mortar stores will survive.

"People say bookshops are on the way out, but I actually think publishers are in a much more vulnerable position," he muses.

One of the reasons why far too many books are published is because publishers feel obliged to maintain a critical mass to justify their infrastructure, he says.

Ironically, he concedes, new technology could in fact exacerbate that trend.

- NZ Herald

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