Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Tilli's Story: Even Great Stories Sometimes Don't Attract Traditional Publishers

Today, on KC's Writers Blog, I have Lorna Collier, a Chicago-area based journalist and author. Lorna talks about her book, "Tilli's Story: My Thoughts are Free." Read about her experience with traditional publishers and how this book ultimately ended up being published through iUniverse, a Print on Demand Publisher and how they've sold over 5,000 copies and had the story optioned by Hollywood. This is truly one of the most beautifully designed POD books I've seen and the story is amazing. Click on comments and ask a question of Lorna today by 5 p.m. If I randomly draw your question, Lorna will answer it on Thursday and you'll win a copy of this great story!

Tell us about yourself.

I'm a freelancer in the Chicago region with a background as a newspaper reporter, TV producer, and magazine editor. I write about a lot of different topics -- pretty much anything that interests me, whether it's about the challenges atheist parents face raising moral children, how Internet urban legends get started, or why some women cry more than other people and how this affects them in the workplace. My specialties are education, health, technology, and business, with articles appearing in the Chicago Tribune, Crain's Chicago Business, Smart Computing, PC Novice, and a variety of other newspapers, magazines, trade publications, and websites. As a child and through my teens and early twenties, I wrote a lot of fiction and dreamed of being a novelist, but then took a newspaper job, fell in love with feature writing, and haven't been able to re-enter the fiction realm, though someday I'd like to.

Tell us about your book, "Tilli's Story: My Thoughts are Free."
"Tilli's Story" tells the true story of a young East German girl's experiences living under first Hitler and then Stalin, before escaping to freedom by herself at age 16 in the bottom of a potato wagon. The book shows what life is like when lived under totalitarian regimes and demonstrates the value of freedom. It also shows that not all Germans supported Hitler, but that some, like Tilli and her family, were powerless to resist. The book portrays what happened to East Germans after the war, when the Russian Army invaded with a vengeance, and Stalinism was instituted (a story not often seen in contemporary literature). The book is written in a narrative nonfiction, novelistic style (a la "Angela's Ashes").

"Tilli's Story" was first published through iUniverse in 2004, after 10 years of rejections from traditional publishers. One small press in downstate Illinois signed us to a two-year contract, but then never produced the book, probably due to financial problems. We chose iUniverse because of its Star program, which offers the potential for national distribution in Barnes & Noble stores to certain high-performing titles. Our book ultimately was chosen for the Star program, so it was re-issued as a Star title in 2005 with a new ISBN, new book jacket, and a publicity campaign funded by iUniverse (we were assigned an agent and publicist, and the book's terms were re-worked to make it comparable to a traditionally published book: bookstores can return it, they get the same discount as with a traditional book rather than POD, etc.).

To date, we've sold close to 5,000 copies of the book and done quite a bit of speaking, mostly in the Illinois/Wisconsin area, to all kinds of groups: schools (everything from elementary to college level), book clubs, library groups, senior citizens' groups, historical societies, and business groups such as Rotary Clubs. We've heard from people all across the U.S. who have read the book -- we even did a book club teleconference with a club in New Jersey. At least one school in Germany is using the book in English-language classes. We also signed a film option with a producer in Hollywood a couple of years ago, though so far, no film deal is in the works.

I know I've been contacted through the years by different people to ghostwrite a book for them, because everyone thinks they have a story that could be a book. Tell us how you knew this woman had a story worthy of a book.
When I met with Tilli for the first time, I learned I used to be her neighbor in the town where I grew up. This personal connection set the stage, but then when I heard more about her story, I thought it was an important one. I hadn't seen any books like it in stores -- nothing that showed what life was like when the Soviets took over Germany after WWII, and few books that told what it was like to be an ordinary German growing up with Hitler's propaganda. Also, another friend of mine, a writer at the local newspaper, had worked on the project for a year and thought Tilli's story would make a good book, so her recommendation weighed into my decision as well. I thought the book was a way for me to explore dramatic story-telling and the use of literary techniques in narrative, something I had been missing in my journalistic writing, so that was another reason for me to get involved with the project.
Since then, I have had other people contact me to write their stories, but have turned them all down. I've never felt that spark since; I think it was just a one-time lucky set of circumstances. I have no desire to write another book like this, or to become so intimately involved with someone else (Tilli and I have become great friends, almost like mother and daughter, but on a different level.)

Tell us about the collaborative process, how did you two decide you would take credit, rather than ghostwrite?
Tilli always insisted that I take a byline; she never wanted to pretend she wrote the book. The first edition of the book had my byline first. However, when iUniverse reissued the book under its Star imprint, they asked to flip the bylines, because they said it would make selling the memoir easier. They then set up a publicity tour with Tilli as the sole interviewee, but Tilli balked at that, and insisted I be included. So, she has been good about crediting me.
Regarding the collaborative process: I interviewed her at length based on her notes about her life in Germany, which spanned 13 years. I asked for as many sensory details as possible so I could describe it through her eyes. After each session, I would imagine myself in her place and write a draft of that particular time period or incident, then show it to her. She would correct anything I had misinterpreted or misunderstood; the process often brought up more memories for her, which she would tell me about, and then I would add these to the draft.

How did you get the story from her?
In addition to the interviews, we visited antique shops in the area to look at farm implements, dishes, and other things that she grew up with. We looked at a lot of old pictures, both ones she owned and pictures from books. These things helped me flesh the story out further, and helped me know what additional questions to ask her. She was quite open about her life and possessed a wonderful memory, perhaps because so many incidents were traumatic and thus burned into her recall.

Authors usually want to know how to charge someone for doing a project such as this. How did it work for you?
Yikes - I had no idea what to charge. I began working with Tilli near the start of my freelance career, in the early 1990s. I had already written a book for a local church for its 100-year anniversary, and used that fee to establish a rate for Tilli, but really, the book soon became a labor of love. If I were approached about such a project today, I don't know what I would charge, but no doubt it would be much more than I charged Tilli.
Once the book was published, we agreed to go 50-50 on profits.

What was the reason to rush to publish, why not just keep looking for traditional publishers?
Traditional publishers and agents told us that the WWII market was flooded and that non-celebrity memoirs weren't salable. We disagreed, based on responses we were getting from test readers as well as our own market analysis. Another reason that we chose to self-publish was Tilli's health. She had polycystic kidney disease, which killed Erma Bombeck, and began kidney dialysis in January of 2004. She grew quite weak and ill with her thrice-weekly dialysis sessions, and didn't know how much longer she had to live, so we chose to go ahead and get the book out there rather than wait. If she hadn't had this condition, we probably would have persisted longer in trying to attract a traditional publisher.

Nearly 5,000 copies sold and a book tour that's lasted 3 years - and you've had to turn down speaking engagements. How did you handle publicity to generate that kind of a response?
The biggest reason for the initial success of the book was a lucky break: when the book was in its final proofing stages before going into production at iUniverse, I asked my friend, the Rockford Register Star newspaper columnnist who had worked with Tilli initially, and who had brought us together, to give the manuscript a look-see to catch typos. Instead, my friend turned the ms. over to the managing editor of the newspaper. He read the book in a day, fell in love with it, and asked to excerpt it. The newspaper wound up taking 30,000 words, starting on the Fourth of July (perfect for the book's message about the importance of our liberties in America), and continuing thrice-weekly until the end of the summer. For this excerpting, the newspaper offered us no pay, but tons of free publicity, including TV interviews with a sister station, newsbox pictures, and promotion through the week. We were nervous to accept the deal -- we worried that maybe people would read the excerpts and be satisfied with those, rather than buying a book. It also went against my grain as a professional writer to write for free! But this turned out to be wisest gamble we ever made. The resultant publicity touched off a local tidal wave of interest in our region, resulting not only in large sales but speaking invitations (which led to more sales and more speaking invitations).
I'll never forget our first book-signing, which was held at Tilli's beauty shop. We got there about an hour early to find a line already forming! The line continued to grow, wrapping well outside the shop and onto the sidewalk. The beauty shop started getting calls asking if they were giving free haircuts. We had no cashbox and had to borrow change from the hairstylists for customers who wanted the book. The first customer bought 20 hardover copies. We wound up selling more than 150 books in two hours. I was stunned. Even more than the sales, I was struck by the reaction of people who came -- several women were in tears (either because they had been victims of abuse, or they had lived through that time in history). So many just wanted to give Tilli a hug and tell her how much their story had touched them.

Was that the single most successful publicity?

How did the collaborative process work with regards to what to leave in/what to take out?
We were in harmony with this. The first draft was quite a bit longer than the final draft, and I started getting feedback from agents and publishers that a book such as ours should be in the 90,000 - 100,000 word range. I kept re-reading and tightening. Tilli was agreeable to what I proposed. She also was open to my decisions about style, such as whether to write the book in past tense or present (I did the ms. both ways before settling on present tense for most of it). She left the creative decisions up to me, so long as the book remained accurate and true.

And now, Lorna is awaiting your questions on the writing process, POD publishing or other questions!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great interview!
What do you think is the single most important consideration for someone to do before deciding if you should seek a traditional publisher or go through a print on demand publisher.

5:15 PM CDT  
Anonymous Najua Ismail said...

Hi Lorna,

You mentioned that you conducted market analysis and got test readers before you decided to self-publish. Can you please explain a little bit more about the kind of market analysis you did and who your test readers were made up of and how many were there? You sought out impartial test readers right as opposed to family members and close friends? Trying to learn more about the process of market research in book publishing.


7:10 PM CDT  
Blogger tmears said...

Great story.

Based on your experience with this book, how would you decide whether to publish subsequent books with a traditional publisher or using POD or other self-publishing vehicle?

Teresa Mears, Miami

8:29 PM CDT  
Blogger Lorna Collier said...

Hi Najua,

Regarding market analysis: the iUniverse Star application had a series of questions that served as a guideline for me. I did this four years ago, so I don't remember all the questions. Basically, I needed to list demographics I thought would be interested in the book, then find out how many of such people existed, then try to come up with ways to reach these people. So, for example, we felt people of German heritage would be interested in the book. I used Census data to find out how many people of German heritage there are in the US (the number is huge!). I then tried to figure out how to reach such people -- what magazines they might read, what stores they might shop at, what organizations they might belong to, etc. I tried marketing the book through specialty German magazines and websites (by placing ads, posting on websites, sending press releases to the editors, etc). We also considered other groups as being our target readers (senior citizens, middle-aged women, military veterans) and did similar research, followed by target marketing (we spoke to a lot of senior citizens' groups, for example). I must admit to being somewhat conflicted by this process, because I felt the book appeals to so many different kinds of people, and I didn't like reducing our potential audience to market segments like this. But it is the way the business world works. You can't just say, 'it's a great story and everybody who reads it will love it,' and then try to target everybody as your market. So, try to pick the largest groups you can who have a natural interest in your topic; find out how many of such people exist either through Census databases or other research (Google is your friend); then try to think of the things such people have in common that allow for book positioning. As an example of this last point: we knew a lot of older women in our area liked to shop at an apple orchard/gift shop near us, so we set up a book-signing at the orchard's gift shop and also arranged for our book to be sold at the shop.

As for your other question about test readers: yes, impartial test readers are important, but it can be hard to find people willing to give you their time. We eventually did find a couple of professors to read the book, but initially we relied on friends of friends of friends -- people who had no tie to us, so we hoped they would be objective.

Best of luck!


11:48 AM CDT  
Blogger Lorna Collier said...

Hi Teresa,

You asked whether I'd consider POD or self-publishing again for a future book. I believe there are still advantages traditional publishing provides over POD, such as the ability to get reviews in major newspapers and magazines, so I would try traditional publishing first. Also, the next book I do will probably be very different from "Tilli's Story" (either a novel or nonfiction, but not a memoir, and not something about the WWII era), so I don't know how much I could piggyback on the popularity of "Tilli's Story" to help POD sales for something new. I wish I had had another book ready when "Tilli's Story" came out, because people often asked at book appearances if I had written another book, and perhaps I could have sold other books alongside "Tilli's Story," but such was not the case.

I do know other POD authors whose subsequent books are similar to their first books, and so they can sell these books as a line. Those people might be more likely to be successful with subsequent POD sales, though I bet the POD authors I know would jump with joy if a traditional publisher were to pick them up. The distribution and national publicity the traditional publishers can provide are definite advantages for most authors.



11:55 AM CDT  
Anonymous Najua said...

Hi Lorna,

Thanks so much for providing such a comprehensive answer to my question. I've been away so just saw that you actually responded to it. Very nice of you. I hope Tilli's Story continues to do well.


6:10 PM CDT  

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