The first time I fully realized the value of what I do for a living, I was stricken with the stomach flu. Illness is the one excuse to stop when you work at marketing anything. At that time I marketed books for the University of Arkansas Press in Fayetteville in my native territory, the Ozarks.
This was 1997, three years after I had completed an MFA in creative writing at UA Fayetteville. While working in publishing was never boring and far less hazardous than anything I had tried before, the value of university press publishing had not yet registered. Much of it seemed a struggle. In my worst hours, I found myself disheartened, reminded of the thankless chore of teaching grammar and sentence structure and eventually short stories and poems to classrooms filled with flinty-eyed, grim undergraduates, my fellow Ozarkers. Selling what no one seems to want—teaching Chekhov to ruffians from Roaring River and cheerleaders from Chadwick—seemed a lot like publicizing poetry and literary criticism to the rushing masses at Book Expo America. Even if you were peddling excellent paperback reprints of President Jimmy Carter’s nonfiction (and we were at Arkansas), at BEA your reward was a glassy-eyed glance at best. Almost at all times you could count on the cold shoulder, the customer’s hurried determination to be elsewhere. No one seemed interested at Chicago’s McCormick Place or New York City’s Javits Center, or at the Los Angeles Staples Expo Center. No one.
Your no one is my everyone. I’ve been longing for the chance to use that phrase on the smug businessmen who will sometimes cast an eye to what we do at university presses and then declare, “No one knows what you do. No one knows who you are. No one knows about that book.” Even for books that we have sold 15,000 copies of in three years, I have heard the cry, “No one knows about this book!”
One of the extraordinary impositions of American commerce is a zany, optimistic arrogance and an unstoppable willingness to share it. Because I have run a business, I can tell any other professional how to run any other enterprise under the sun. Hmm. I have earned a wage as a law office gofer, a sportswriter, a construction inspector and surveyor, a teacher of grumpy Ozarkers, and a publisher. And I have yet to identify that profession to which the American businessman will defer and not offer his certain opinion of how you ought to run your operation. Sometimes it’s well-meaning, unmotivated, clear-eyed observation, freely shared, and then the feedback is well worth the listen. But sometimes it’s the kind of wisdom that gets grocery executives hired for top dollar to run your giant bookstore chain… into the ground.
No one knows about this book. You would think niche and scale would make all kinds of immediate sense to the business mind. But despite some flickers of refined reasoning from Seth Godin and Chris Anderson and David Meerman Scott, American business advice on the whole remains fixated on mass success, worldwide, blockbuster sensation. Everything regional publishing is not. When we hear feedback, it’s as if scale was taught and forgot at business school, like scansion at the English department!
For the restaurateur who puts a new item on the menu that turns only one thousand plates in a year there will surely be some urgent considerations. Some menu mix analyses set the bar for “workhorses” and “stars” of profitability at around 47 plates sold each night, depending on food costs. Just a glance at Running a Restaurant for Dummies, 2d Edition (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2011) yields several power-point-ready questions: How much does the dish cost? How does the menu describe the dish? How adventurous is the dish? “Is the item intimidating to your diners?” is the exact and metaphorically amusing Dummies phrase. How well does your staff know the dish?
A restaurant attempting to launch a new menu might budget only eight percent of forecasted annual net sales on all of marketing (and I mean everything from defining a target audience to public relations to mailing a coupon or flyer or running banner adverts on websites or boosting a Facebook post). The Small Business Administration advises companies with under five million in sales (and that’s a lot of us university presses) to spend five percent of annual net sales to maintain awareness and ten percent to grow the business. So really in raw dollars of marketing spend, we may not be so different from the restaurateur, who insists no one knows about us. No one knows about a book.
It is in that magic of defining a target audience that things get very different. The local restaurateur relies on a market (“butts in chairs,” say the Dummies) attracted from an audience frequently within defined metropolitan borders. Sometimes a regional book can astound by its performance and service to a market in just one metro area. See any number of books from The History Press, Arcadia Publishing, and even such books by University Press of Mississippi as The French Quarter of New Orleans, or The Garden District of New Orleans.
But most often the regional book serves a market from a broad swath of audience territory that a restaurant cannot (dare I advise should not?) dream to target effectively. Our book Blues Traveling: The Holy Sites of the Delta Blues has served its market in three editions, with over 15,000 shipped in twelve years. And while a restaurant in Helena or Clarksdale might market itself to the blues travelers once a year, I have trouble believing it will survive on one weekend’s take per annum. Something is different here.
Now I would never dream of taking Blues Traveling and targeting an audience of all the wage-earning lunchtime diners in a metro area. Food is a very different and more reliable consumer need than say content describing some aspect of the history of blues music in Jackson, Mississippi and elsewhere in the state. And while the best restaurants do market some signature dishes as a strategy, they largely market a whole menu and a dining experience, which is atmosphere and service. At UPM, we market every dish, signature or not, in a mostly singular fashion. And while I appreciate the utility and safety of our fifth floor in a ten-floor state office building, atmosphere is not UPM’s most appealing selling point. We do have fine customer service to our direct customers and vendors, but we don’t have full control of what the business types call the whole value chain. Our books reach consumers more often via someone else’s hands on shelves, in displays, in cardboard boxes with smirking smiley faces, all way beyond our control.
Despite these departures from standard business practices, UPM has in every year but one (during the recent recession) met or exceeded its budgeted sales goals. We set record sales in 2008 of $2.3 million, and have maintained $2.1 million in sales per year every year since 2009. Surely someone must know about us? Surely someone knows about our books?
When the advice begins with, “No one knows about you. No one knows about that book,” I think we have unfortunately arrived at a point when perspective on scale and niche is just too disparate to communicate kind, critical advice, freely given. Or, heaven forefend, we’re being prepped for say a little marketing of consultancy or food services. As Running a Restaurant for Dummies sagely submits, “Sometimes, the feedback represents a preference and doesn’t shine a light on an actual problem.”
No one knows about your book. On the couch, reeling with the flu, I was stopped long enough to read a whole book at one sitting, one that University of Arkansas Press was just about to publish. Nothing like the misery and isolation of the flu to set the advices of restaurateurs and indifference at Book Expo America and all that far aside. It is so rare for me to read a whole 408-page book in one spell; yet it is such a holistic and wondrous cognitive experience. The book was Roy Reed’s Faubus: The Life and Times of an American Prodigal. I knew who Faubus was—a monster to my father, who graduated from a small high school in the Missouri Ozarks the very year that Governor Orval Faubus shut down Little Rock Central High School rather than seeing it integrated. Faubus was one of the rare governors from the Ozarks elected to the highest executive office in either Missouri or Arkansas. And he had unleashed the very worst.
Reed took the whole life of the man to task in the biography. From his masterful political acumen, to his sappy prose poetry about hills and trees in our Ozarks, to his one sadness—the death of a pet dog in Faubus’s dotage—nothing was spared. And then came the conundrum in a final chapter exemplary of the biographer’s art. “The one big thing that Faubus got wrong was colossally, biblically wrong. But it was not simple,” writes Reed. And then at the close, the paragraph so electric I held the book trembling like a sparking wire: “He won four more elections because of the momentum that gave him.” And, “Even George Wallace finally apologized for the harm he had caused. Faubus never admitted that he had caused any.”
In that moment I recognized we, a team of but a dozen publishing professionals on a hill in McIlroy House had joined with an author to give the Ozarks, the whole state of Arkansas, even some of the nation an ineffable, unflinching expression of complexity and human frailty exposed in the hunger, the raw greed for power. No publisher in New York City would have entertained its production. The numbers were not there. The scale was different. But now I could return home to my father with this wonder of a book and say, Father, this is my work, and it answers your questions. Maybe dismiss it to fever and dehydration, but truthfully I saw for the first time in my working life the whole arc of value in what I was now doing. That I can sell you this, and it could be an answer.
The book succeeded, beyond any book in the five years I was at Arkansas, succeeded beyond what many regional books will. But by no means was it a worldwide, blockbuster sensation. Even in metro Little Rock, it was certainly not in a majority of households. And yet it is still read, sold, taught, and talked about. It still cautions. It still changes if not transforms minds. I’m sure some colder heart than mine (which was changed forever by that day’s read) would look over the sales reports and say, No one knows about this book. No one knows who you are. No one knows what you do.
Your no one is my everyone.