Thursday, September 23, 2010

How to sell $15,000 worth of books in three hours

Last Thursday the psychiatry department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, medical school held its sixtieth anniversary banquet. This is the sort of “development” (read: fund-raising) event that large institutions host several times a year. Ho-hum. Knock yourselves out. The university development people did not expect the psychiatry department to attract more than about 200 people. Instead, they had to start turning people away after reaching the fire marshall’s limit of 480 guests, as additional people tried to get in without having made reservations.

What happened?
What happened was that the department chair had the foresight a few years ago to commission a book about the department’s history. One thing led to another, and Pat McNees was selected to write the book. What was originally going to be a fairly modest project grew and grew as Pat delved into not only the department’s sixty-year history but also the hundred-year history of psychiatry in Maryland. She conducted multiple interviews each with some of the more connected informants and dozens of additional interviews and email exchanges with many more people who have at one time or another been connected with the department.

Unfortunately, the scope creep also pushed the completion date for the book. Pat had approached me in February about editing and designing it, and I had suggested mid-April as the deadline for the last of the manuscript pages, with an allowance for photos to straggle in for a month or so after. That schedule would have comfortably allowed for time to lay out the book, have it proofread, have it printed on a normal schedule and shipped in time for the banquet.

In the event, the book was put to bed on July 28.
It was 584 pages (seven by ten inches), with 175 photos.* The cover price for the softcover book was set at $49.95 and for the hardcover at $59.95. By that time, I could find no U.S. plant that would guarantee delivery in time for the September 16 banquet and was also willing to set up for binding just one hundred hardcovers out of a print run of 1,700. We ended up with a printer in Korea. Great quality. Great price. No problem with the hardcovers. The only catch? To get 350 books to Baltimore in time for the banquet, they had to be sent overnight by air, at a cost of $3,400. (The total was still cheaper than printing in the United States.)

All of Pat’s interviews and requests for photos over the last couple of years generated a lot of buzz about the forthcoming book, and that’s what boosted the attendance at the banquet to what appears to be a school record. Tickets were $250 for a couple, with one copy of the book included, or $150 for an individual, with one copy of the book included. If you do the math, that’s $100 for the banquet itself and $50 (the cover price) for the book. Of the 350 shipped in advance, a few were used as complimentary copies for various people, most were sold as part of the banquet ticket price, and the rest were sold to people who could not get into the banquet or who wanted an additional copy for someone else. The total comes to something over $15,000 worth of books during the event. And so far the responses have been enthusiastically positive.

Did this cover the full cost of writing, producing, printing, and shipping the book? No. It was a bigger project than that. But it covered a good chunk. And when the rest of the books arrive by slow boat, a good many of them will have been sold already. The initial plan was to have books in inventory for a few years to use as recruiting enticements for faculty and students. So it was not expected that the book would turn a cash profit. Now it seems that it might.
* Production note: this large and heavy a softcover book should not be perfectbound, as there are potential issues with pages pulling out. Instead, the book was Smyth-sewn (as a good hardcover book is), and the cover was drawn on. Some book manufacturers are smart enough to recognize the problem and suggest this solution. Others are not. So designers should be aware of the technique.

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