Self-Published Author May Discover Story of Her Life Can Be Tough Sell


Self-publishing a life story can be emotionally rewarding. But many autobiographers have far loftier goals: bestsellerdom, “Oprah” appearances and millions of dollars in profit. Unfortunately, their aspirations usually end up in the fiction department.

Jean Desmond, 81, acknowledged that the odds of becoming a celebrated author are against her. Still, she’s flogging her self-published memoirs, “Look Back and Laugh--Confessions of a Teen in the Thirties” with unbridled gusto. She hopes she can sell crate-loads of copies, land an agent and, maybe, have her book picked up by a major publisher.

Because savvy marketing tactics will be essential to her success, she consulted Anthony Mora, a Los Angeles-based publicist and author of “The Alchemy of Success: Marketing Your Company/Career Through the Power of the Media for Achieving Unlimited Success” (Dunhill, 1997). Other publicity experts offered advice too.


Desmond didn’t mince words: “I want to be famous. I want to be known throughout the world.”

The Rancho Palos Verdes retiree explained that selling her memoirs has become an all-consuming passion. She had written the manuscript 25 years ago; it gathered dust for more than two decades while Desmond engaged in a series of occupations, some satisfying, some not (including temp work and chauffeuring disabled adults). Eventually, she decided to make the memoirs her vocation.

Desmond tried to intrigue agents and publishers with “Look Back and Laugh” but had no luck. So, through the online service Xlibris (, she self-published her manuscript for about $1,300. She also ordered 600 copies of her book at about $9 each; she’s selling them for $16 apiece.

“At my age, I didn’t have time to waste waiting months for commercial publishers to make up their minds,” she said.

Then came a no-holds-barred grass-roots publicity campaign. She studied marketing books, sent queries to newspapers, contacted “Oprah” producers (but got no response) and gave readings at bookstores and a public library. She also produced a seminar for people who want to write and publish their own life stories.

Though Desmond has been able to sell several hundred copies of her book, appear on a community cable-access show and get featured in local newspapers, she has challenges ahead if she hopes to command national exposure, said Mora and other publicity pros.

Self-published memoirs are extremely tough sells, said Dan Poynter, author of more than 30 titles, including “The Self-Publishing Manual: How to Write, Print and Sell Your Own Book” (Para Publishing, 2000). Most are written by noncelebrities as chronological reminiscences; they lack strong themes and targeted readerships. Many also are poorly written.

“In most cases, they’re not going to sell a lot of copies,” said Shel Horowitz, a Hadley, Mass.-based author of three books on low-cost marketing. “It would require a very unusual life or a very beautiful style of writing.”

Desmond’s book will compete for attention and shelf space with more than 10,000 new titles each year. To make hers stand out, she’ll have to define her target audiences: Who would be most interested in her tale? Two possible groups are seniors and aspiring writers.

She also will need to come up with story angles, interesting themes, compelling anecdotes and inspirational lessons that may appeal to readers, radio and TV talk show hosts and to editors of magazines and newspapers. To do so, she may wish to hire a public relations consultant (who typically charges $100 to $500 per hour). The consultant also might be able to recommend suitable media outlets for Desmond’s story.

Each newspaper, magazine, radio and television talk show will require a different approach, Mora said. Desmond must carefully study the ones she wants to contact.

Self-published authors tend to underestimate their promotional expenses, Poynter said. They also tend to be too optimistic about their potential sales and profit.

Poynter recommends that self-published authors send as many as 500 free copies of their books to newspapers, magazines, reviewers, agents, book clubs and opinion molders--well-connected individuals who can start a buzz. Because Desmond is paying $9 for copies of her book, this could get extremely costly.

Authors hoping for media attention also must print brochures and press kits, create videotapes of their television appearances and set up Web sites. These undertakings are pricey too. And advertising, which some publicity experts consider a last resort, can be prohibitively expensive and unprofitable.

In “The Self-Publishing Manual,” Poynter noted that a half-page ad in a specialty magazine can cost about $2,000. Desmond would have to sell nearly 300 copies of her book just to break even on such an ad. More realistically, ads like that typically garner about five sales.

Direct-mail advertising, which averages a response rate of less than 2%, isn’t likely to be profitable for Desmond, either.

“Conventional direct-mail industry wisdom says you can’t profitably sell a book through direct-mail advertising unless it is priced over $35,” Poynter wrote.

A personal Web site may be a good investment for Desmond, because it can serve as a perpetual ad for her book. At the site, Desmond can maintain an online media kit that includes a profile (highlighting the juiciest tidbits of her memoir), author biography and page of introduction, suggested Jerrilyn Thomas of the Women’s News Bureau in Jonesboro, Ga.

She also can make her book (and sample chapters) available for downloading. By affiliating with such sites as, or, she’ll be able to process book orders online.

Desmond should try hard to book herself on radio talk shows, experts said.

If she establishes herself as a lively, eloquent guest, she may be invited on the air multiple times, said Maryann Palumbo, a New York-based marketing expert who was a senior vice president of marketing at Penguin Putman for 25 years. Radio listeners, impressed with Desmond’s story, may purchase her books too.

“It’s not unheard of to move 50 to 100 books [from a radio appearance],” Horowitz said.

She also should attempt to get on local “theme-driven” television talk shows. Mora recommended that she get media training to boost her TV skills and create a tape of her televised appearances that can be sent to producers of national shows. Publicity experts agree: Landing on “Oprah” is the bookseller’s Holy Grail. A single appearance on the show can generate sales of more than 50,000 copies.

Though Desmond wants her memoir to be sold in bookstores, publicity experts say that this will be an expensive, difficult proposition.

Most bookstores work through either distributors (which “push” books for publishers and fulfill orders) or wholesalers (which warehouse books for publishers), Poynter explained. To carry a book, distributors may demand from a publisher about 66% of a book’s cover price; wholesalers may take up to 60%. And the two rarely will do business with single-book publishers.

To build her reputation outside Los Angeles, Desmond may want to schedule out-of-town author engagements and book signings. She can offer to do readings at clubs, senior centers and organizations, and teach adult education courses, suggested Agnes Huff, an Inglewood-based marketing consultant. She also can write on-spec articles, opinion pieces and essays for newspapers and magazines, and sell her memoirs at book fairs.

Once she’s accumulated clippings, book reviews and video clips, she can re-approach agents and publishing houses to see if they might pick up her book.

“They’re encouraged to look for self-published and small-press books that are little gems,” Palumbo said.

If she’s able to sell a great number of units, she should let agents and publishers know her sales figures.

“Clearly she’s tenacious and she’s doing a good job,” Palumbo said.


Susan Vaughn can be reached via e-mail at


Time for a Change

Name: Jean Desmond

Occupation: Retiree

Desired occupation: Successful author

QUOTE: “The only way I know to achieve (fame and success as a writer) is to find a good agent. (But) I don’t know where else to look to find an agent who will work as hard as I do.”

Meet the Coach

Anthony Mora is head of Anthony Mora Communications in Los Angeles and the author of “The alchemy of success: Marketing Your Company/Career Through the Power of Media for Achieving Unlimited Success” (Dunhill, 1997)