(Photography by Brian Baiamonte: Jeffrey Marx)
When Baton Rouge-based author Jeffrey Marx began looking for a publisher for his latest book, a collection of LSU sports profiles entitled Walking with Tigers, he had plenty of options. With six books to his name, including two New York Times bestsellers, and a Pulitzer Prize for an investigative newspaper story, Marx had an established reputation as a writer and solid relationships with several national publishing houses.
But Marx decided not to pursue the traditional publishing route and opted instead to self-publish his book, something a growing number of both rookie and veteran writers are doing. What’s more, he looked to local businesses to help sponsor a statewide books-to-school program that will put thousands of copies of Walking with Tigers in the hands of schoolchildren while also creating opportunities for the author to promote his work.
“It’s a win-win for him and for us,” says Brandon Landry, co-founder of Walk-On’s Enterprises, which, along with Business First Bank, is sponsoring the program. “He gets to sell his books, we help him promote it and school kids get free books.”
It’s a new way of doing business that Marx finds both challenging and liberating. Though it’s too soon to declare the experiment a success, Marx says he’s learning a lot and having fun in the process.
“There’s a freedom and a flexibility and an ability to make things up as you go that I absolutely love about self-publishing,” says Marx, who relocated from his native New York to Baton Rouge several years ago when he married local interior designer Leslie Herpin Marx. “You’re able to do things big publishers wouldn’t even think about.”
There are a couple of reasons Marx decided to self publish Walking with Tigers. Getting rich off the book isn’t one of them. Marx declines to say how much he spent publishing the book or even how many copies he printed. But it’s safe to assume the undertaking didn’t come cheap.
A high-quality, self-publishing job with a large print run can easily cost as much as $30,000 or more. It can be advantageous in the long run because the author retains total control over his intellectual property and doesn’t sign away rights to a large publishing house. But recouping those initial costs can take a long time because in the world of self-publishing there’s no one to push sales. No PR firm to schedule radio interviews on NPR. No logistics team to arrange book tours. No distributor to get the product out to independent bookstores. It’s totally on the author to do it himself.
Still, the DIY model appealed to Marx, at least for this project, because Walking with Tigers is different than his other books. It’s about LSU athletes and the traits that enabled them to persevere and succeed, a subject about which Marx is passionate. Though it’s written for a general audience, Marx knew his market was primarily limited to sports fans, and, even more narrowly, to LSU devotees. Self-publishing, he determined would make it easier to go after that target demo and reach them in new and different ways.
The Rapid Lube on Essen Lane is a case in point—an example of a nontraditional vendor that a publishing company would never dream of dealing with. But Marx knew that owner Jerry Hix is nuts about LSU sports and has Tiger memorabilia all over his waiting room. So the author pitched Hix on carrying the book, and sales at the oil change shop have been brisk—more than five cases in just two months.
“I sold five books just this morning,” says Hix’s son, Jeremy Hix, who works at Rapid Lube. “People see it, they’re interested, they buy it and a lot of times they come back to buy four or five more as gifts. It’s been great.”
Two gift shops in Zachary are also carrying the book. Marx reached out to them after he spoke to the Zachary Chamber of Commerce earlier this fall. Someone in the audience knew someone who owned the stores and before long Marx found himself cold calling the gift shops and offering to send them some books.
“The shops have nothing to do with books but this is an LSU book and people love LSU,” Marx says. “Just before the holidays it seemed like it might be a good fit.”
Walking with Tigers is in traditional independent bookstores, too. It’s also in Barnes and Noble outlets, which means, more importantly, it’s on Barnes and Noble.com. Marx was able to get the sole Barnes and Noble distributor for all seven stores in Louisiana to carry it, which was the golden ticket to getting online.
“This model would never have worked 10 or 20 years ago,” he says. “But because of the world we’re in today and the Internet, John Doe in Idaho, who might be an LSU alum, might see something about it on Facebook and he doesn’t have to walk into a Barnes and Noble in Idaho to buy it. He can go online.”
Even with Barnes and Noble.com and Amazon.com, which is also carrying the book, Marx doesn’t expect to do the kind of volume with his seventh book that he did with some of his others. He’s not even trying. That may not be an option for every author, but since Marx has already proven himself professionally, he’s OK with having a different set of expectations for this project.
“It’s ridiculous to think this would be a New York Times bestseller like the last two,” he says. “To compare them would be pure folly. You’re talking about apples and oranges.”
Another reason self-publishing is attractive to Marx with this book is that it has given him flexibility with the structure of his books-to-schools program, which is designed to get kids interested in reading and provides them with the tools to do it. It’s something Marx believes in doing. To that end, he enlisted Walk-On’s to be a statewide sponsor and Business First Bank to be a regional sponsor. Each business put up $25,000, which covered the cost of printing thousands of books for statewide distribution.
So far, the program is proving to be a great way for Marx to get out and raise awareness about his work. He has done book signings at Walk-On’s restaurants around the state, which also carry copies of the books. He then visits schools in those municipalities, speaking to student assemblies and leaving books for their libraries.
For Walk-On’s, the decision to sponsor the books-to-school program was mainly a charitable endeavor. But it was an easy call to make. The book was a natural fit for the growing sports bar and restaurant chain. And Landry says Marx’s book signings have been good for business, too.
Similarly, Business First Bank immediately liked the idea of sponsoring the program and helping an educational endeavor, as well supporting a local author. It fits well with the bank’s mission and gives something back to the community, says Paul Laird, executive vice president at Business First Bank.
“It’s good for us to have the bank’s name associated with a Pulitzer Prize winner who has a great book,” she says. “So it’s a way for us to do something good and also to let people know the bank is interested in the community.”
Walking with Tigers came out in early September, so Marx is still relatively new to the self-publishing business. He says it’s still too soon to say whether it’s worth the time, trouble and expense and whether he’d do it again. But it’s something he says he’d consider.
“I enjoy exploring and learning so for me it’s a great process,” he says. “But it certainly wouldn’t be for a lot of people.”