A Self-Publisher's Write Approach : Author Dan Poynter Doesn't Go by the Book, Cashes In

Times Staff Writer

The literary journey is as familiar as a family classic. Writer perspires and creates, publisher buys and prints, book shops display and sell and an author is born. But, says author-publisher Dan Poynter, what is tried is not necessarily true . . . as in reliable, constant, certain, exact, flawless.

Consider the odds against our sweaty scribe: "There are 300,000 book manuscripts a year that don't get into print," Poynter points out. "The chances of an author without a track record selling to a large commercial press probably rank somewhere between slim and none."

Accept this fact of publishing life: "New York markets books the way Hollywood sells films: They test a new product for audience reaction and if the results are positive, they invest heavily in promotion. If the initial reaction is negative, they withhold the promotion money and let the product die an early death."

About those book stores: "A lousy place to market books. They complain about (receiving only) a 40% discount, order one book at a time, pay in 60 to 90 days if you are lucky and then return the book after several months. Damaged."

What's the Solution?

So what's a poor writer to do?

Publish yourself, Poynter says. Write, publish, promote, market and do everything yourself. Forget about being a fragile, creative flower and see yourself as a packager of information. Follow your interests to where you know the market and mailing lists are. Know that there will always be better sales for a book on successful breast-feeding (one self-publishing author, a woman doctor, found her audience among the 2.5 million American women who each year become nursing mothers) than any doorstop tome on Napoleonic politics.

"And why settle for a 10% royalty when you can have it all?" Poynter asks. It's also a question presented in a masterpiece of self-puffery that he suggests as essential for any self-publisher--a self-published, 21-page "Interview With Dan Poynter" on the advantages of self-publishing. It continues: "If you invest your own money, you should get about 40%. So the question to ask yourself is: Can the publisher with all his connections and distribution system, sell four times as many books as you can?" That was the question Poynter did indeed ask himself in 1972. He was a man with a manuscript on parachutes. He had the connections from seven years in the selling, instruction and administration of sport parachuting. He knew his marketing could be through the sport's two organizations, its national championship, its magazines and mailing lists.

"I knew that by going to the (sky-diving) meetings and advertising in the magazines, I would be reaching everyone," he explained. Now it's Dan Poynter, away from his press releases, talking in the flesh. "But the New York publishing houses don't know that because they just don't know the specialty market areas."

So Poynter published himself.

His 600-page, 2,000-illustration "The Parachute Manual" has become an industry standard. There are 76,000 in print. He sells more than 1,000 copies a year. At $45 a copy.

In 1973 he banked on another expertise and self-published a book on hang gliding: "It skyrocketed. It is in its 10th revised edition with over 130,000 in print. As a matter of fact, that's what bought this house."

The house is an aerie. It's a former ranch building on a high hilltop with a view that looks down on the Channel Islands and about 50 miles of coastline. The home, headquarters for Poynter's Para (as in parachute) Publishing, is on two acres with a prickly pear fence, citrus trees, deer and Cricket the cat.

'Remote and Peaceful'

"For a writer it's remote and peaceful enough without being isolated," Poynter said. It was one of those wind-washed mornings that makes Waterford crystal look scummy. "And on days like this, you feel like a million dollars."

More accurately, Poynter can feel like $2 million. That, he says, is his sales figure from 14 years of self-publishing. He has moved about 250,000 books, Para grosses more than $200,000 annually and last year shipped 50,000 books.

Poynter has produced 21 books, his "Frisbee Players Handbook" (25,000 sold and translated into Japanese) has disc manufacturer Wham-O as its largest dealer; he is considered the sire of self-publishing by New York publishers and remains the largest in an expanding field of home-made publishing.

All of which implies that Poynter is the adversary of conventional publishing. Not so.

"New York publishers are pretty good at selling entertainment fiction," he said. "They do a good job selling a Yeager or an Iacocca, that kind of nonfiction, a celebrity book.

"But they don't know anything about reaching out to these small, specialized areas such as sky diving or weapons." Or bullet knives, raising llamas, becoming a paparazzi , earthquake preparedness, the joys of paper hanging, secretarial survival . . . all books issued by self-publishers in recent months. "Obviously, there are only a certain number of people interested in these topics. But those people are vitally interested."

There are other disadvantages of cumbersome, big-time publishing, Poynter explained, that work to the advantage of nimble, one-man publishers.

On the big scene, 100 new books are added each day to a glutted market. From first draft to bookstore shelf could be a journey of 18 months and that's no help to fad or trend books. Blockbuster books and $1 million advances are rare. And of 35,000 titles published annually, about 95% are first and only printings of 5,000 or less.

"Five thousand books at $10 have a potential of $50,000," Poynter figured. "An author can expect royalties of 10% at best. Deduct 500 books for promotion, review and giveaways and you have 4,500 books.

"Ten percent of that, if all books sell, works out to $4,500 to the author. Now, how many books do you have to write a year to make book writing worth your while? You work the numbers out and it doesn't pay you to sit down at a typewriter."

Unless you follow Poynter's pointers on doing-it-yourself.

'Writing Is an Art'

Although the son of a literary family (great-uncle was poet Stephen Vincent Benet, great-aunt was author Kathleen Norris, mother Josephine Cole was a San Francisco journalist), Poynter, 47, does not consider himself among the literati. "I came from marketing and mail order, not the library or academic worlds," he said. "Writing is an art while publishing is a business. I'm a packager of information. I sell valuable information to a small, well-targeted group."

As a student he wasn't sure what he was going to be. He groped for a career through six years at six colleges. Summers were spent digging trenches and reading meters for Pacific Gas and Electric. He dropped out of law school after two years.

"On thing that turned me off about law school was that there was a lot of competition out there," he said. "That just did not fit with my desire to be an expert at something. Then, when we were studying for finals in law school, somebody said: 'Let's go out and sky-dive.'

"We did and it was the most exciting thing ever. I equate it with falling in love as one of those all-encompassing things that get you and you can't turn it off."

Poynter promptly got into the business as manager of a parachute loft at Oakland Airport. He submerged himself as jumper, instructor, rigger, pilot, para rescue deputy, inventor, expert witness, magazine editor and columnist and executive of the U.S. Parachute Assn. and the Parachute Industry Assn. In 1967 he moved to Massachusetts and spent seven years as design specialist and marketing manager for a mail-order parachute firm.

"I was able to get into a business where avocation and vocation were the same," he continued. "I became the expert in that (parachuting) field . . . the expert that I'd always wanted to become."

He started writing: "It was a monthly column for a parachuting magazine. I didn't get paid for it, but I was honing writing skills, developing a readership and building material that eventually could form a book . . . 10 or 12 articles a year on equipment and you're building up quite a bank of material."

Poynter decided to invest his bank into a book. Then he heard the horror stories: "One fellow who went with (a noted publisher) had to sign a contract saying they had right of refusal on his next two books. I heard about changed texts, no author's decision on makeup, duplication of titles or a change of title, photographs printed upside down. . . ."

That's when Poynter pulled the rip cord of self-publishing.

"I only publish books I write myself," he continued. "I don't have time to publish other books, I don't want to work with authors and I certainly don't want to pay them royalties. It's much more cost efficient."

He uses friends as peer reviewers at $20 a chapter. Copy editors are hired by the hour. So are layout specialists. Printing is contracted out. Poynter does all the labeling, licking, wrapping, mailing list maintenance and, on occasions, the photography.

"About 90% of my books are marketed within the activity area," he said. "For example, my parachuting books are sold through parachute lofts, sky-diving catalogue houses and through the U.S. Parachute Assn.

'Several Hundred at a Time'

"These people buy several hundred at a time, feel a 40% discount is very good, pay in 30 days and have never heard of returns."

Despite some excursions into assorted fields (books on word processors and computer selection), he has pulled back into parachuting and publishing.

He has written books on writing a book, self-publishing a book and how to exhibit a book at book fairs. Of course, he self-published all three.

Poynter holds four seminars a year on the promotion, marketing and packaging techniques of self-publishing. Now he is promoting and making money from many of the authors he promoted into the business in the first place. Although many publishing houses publicize their own authors, Poynter does it for authors he does not publish.

He calls his project "Author/Expert Interviews." It's a package ("Drop This Folder in Your Files For Use Throughout the Year") mailed to radio talk show hosts and disc jockeys. It contains the names, telephone numbers, book outlines, even sample questions for self-published authors.

Ergo, radio hosts get an instant talk show, the author-expert receives exposure . . . and Poynter collects a $135 fee from each author.

"I mailed out 826 (packages) 10 days ago and I've got 60 reply cards already," Poynter said. "It (a book) validates your expertise. You become an 'author-expert' and a bigger expert than someone who is an expert but who hasn't written a book."

Couldn't this also a simple case of milking a sacred cow dry?

"It is a win-win situation," Poynter agreed.

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