Saturday, December 08, 2007

Masterclass - Self Publishing (Olympic Mind Games) by Robert Ronsson

Robert Ronsson started writing his latest (and first) release in response to a competition for Saga magazine in December 2005 - I was planning on entering it too, but apparantly I wasn't old enough - the brief was to write for children (proving that it doesn't matter how old you are, you can still relate).

He didn't win, but that was only a minor stumbling block. He submitted the completed work to a self-publishing company called Pen Press. They have this to say:
Self-financed publication is no longer regarded as the final option to get into print but as a viable and sometimes preferable alternative, and we have authors on our lists who have actually turned away from potential deals with mainstream publishers in favour of publishing themselves using the bona fide and quality services we can provide.
And though Ronsson had to stump up his own cash for the project, this is no vanity publishing business. Pen Press, Ronsson says, has a quality hurdle. It doens't just print every author that darkens its door. And, they don't just leave it up to the author to manage the deliverables. Pen Press provides a basic editing service to ensure the manuscript is free of general errors (they won't go into any prose stripping or discussions on plotting/pacing/narrative). They print and assist in distribution and provide marketing support, though, again, it is up to the author to pay marketing costs.

Ronsson says that if you are looking into self publishing and, like him, you are more interested in generating official sales, rather than a quick buck, then check that the self-publishing house does provide distribution. If your book can get onto the Gardners lists then you can practically get your book sourced and sold to anywhere in the UK - the next step is to convince the shops to buy it. And that requires marketing. Ronsson says that with Pen Press, as long as you are active and doing something Pen Press will reciprocate, and assist where they can.

So, first off, their plan for world domination required an Elevator Speech.

Elevator Speech

The Elevator Speech is a blurb of the book. Something succinct, fluid and easily given to brief alterations so as not to sound stilted but delivered simply off the tongue. You have it on a card and you leave it by the phone, just in the off chance that the media phone up asking questions. You can immediately run off the elevator speech without stumbling.

His book, Olympic Mind Games, has the following elevator speech:

It’s 2012. The world is in terrible danger and Jack Donovan, 13, is the only person who knows.

He has to hide out in London’s Olympic Village if he’s going to emerge from the shadow of his super-achieving twin sister and defeat the forces committed to the world’s destruction.
Marketing / Charity

The next step was to secure ways of getting the book out there, and since the book places itself at the Olympic village, uses the subject of sport and is generally very active, Ronsson and Pen Press looked to a sports charity. The idea was to give £1 from every book sale to the charity and in return the charity would assist in promotion. Ronsson says that the key is finding something topical, mainstream and positive to link your work with. How can it benefit people?


That was before the charity questioned the use of the Olympic within the title. So it was that the Olympic commitee were questioned on the matter and a furore was unleashed in which at first they wanted to put the kybosh on the whole thing, arguing that Olympic is registered to them!

As it stands, a simple search on Amazon proves that 4,305 books have been published with Olympic in the title, 103 DVDs, 34 Video Games and 179 Music items. It appears that the Olympic team had been a little lax in enforcing their brand.

Anyhoo, the BBC ran a news item on the story, here. Ronsson had a choice. Here was a chance to really put his work out there on the edge. He'd created controversy. How could he use it? But hey could sue him. His decision wasn't an easy one, but based upon the following decision, he and Pen Press went ahead with the title:
  • We have right on our side
  • Print with the title we wanted
  • Be prepared to pulp the first print run
  • Try to get public opinion on our side
Courting the Media

By coincidence alone, Ronsson had previously met a BBC journalist on a train to a football match. They had got chatting and now as the publication of his book was starting to teeter into an abyss, he called in a favour - and they might be able to get him on the air to talk about it. This became his first mistake. When the media did call Ronsson was in the wrong place at the wrong time. They wanted him to come to them... that day. But he'd already made other plans and had to turn them down. Unfortunately that meant his story was already old news. They might be able to fit him in the next day, but then, newer stories would probably crop up and he'd no longer be relevant.

Ronsson thought fast, and by a fluke of guess work, contacted BBC journalist John Humphreys who hosts the Radio 4 Today programme:
Did you know that the word 'Olympic' has been copyrighted? If you wanted to call your next book My Olympic Struggle for Political Honesty you wouldn't be allowed to until the year 2013 when the London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (LOCOG) loses its protection.
had planned carefully, ensuring that his e-mail said exactly what it should, and it was enough. Humphrys came back to him:
fascinating ... worth following up... I'll alert my editor
They went to interview, with Humphrys first warning Ronsson that the worst that could happen was that the Olympics sue him - what the hell?!

15 Minutes of Fame
  • BBC Radio Hereford & Worcester (3 Minutes)
  • BBC Radio 4 Today (5 Minutes)
  • BBC TV Midlands Today (5 Minutes)
  • BBC Radio Hereford & Worcester (2 Minutes)
The story was picked up by Guardian, Telegraph, Bookseller, Writers’ News, and by the end of it, even the New York Times had run a brief story:

WORD GAMES London 2012, the organizers of London’s coming Olympic Games, had a problem with Robert Ronsson’s science-fiction novel for children, “Donovan Twins: Olympic Mind Games.” They sent the author e-mail warning him not to use Olympic in his title, saying it was a breach of trademark rights (

Undaunted, the publisher Pen Press printed 300 copies of the book, which has to do with aliens, not sports. The organizers relented somewhat. Given the small press run, a spokesman told BBC News, it would be “disproportionate to take a heavy-handed approach.” But he said London 2012 still found the title “disappointing” and that it hoped to reach an “amicable solution.”

Mr. Ronsson said he found the group’s actions to be “extraordinarily strange.”

The world is a small place after all. And all this free promotion has meant three print runs. At the height of it all his book had reached the top 500 on Amazon's book sales.

The Grind

With the limelight switched off, Ronsson still had work to do. Self-marketing requires a lot of on-the-road action. You've got to court your local outless, he says, and I've discovered that's at least a 50 mile radius - bookshops / newspapers / radio stations. In fact, he says, local press love to hear about a local author. Independent bookseller too, giving them the opportunity to host events. You can't be a shrinking violet.

The three main booksellers he tried were WH Smith, Waterstones and Borders, and of the three, for a self published author, the only one worth attempting is Waterstones. This is, he says, because Waterstones allows managers to pick some of the books they stock. The other two don't and whilst Waterstones even provides a budget for its managers to read a little wider (so as to deliver the best options to its customers), the other two are blinkered to the possibility.

In this money-dominated business (aren't they all - sigh) there is little place for the small author trying to break out. Just the other day there was an article about the lack of dangerous publishers - if you look at the best seller lists it would seem we've entered a time warp and gone back at least 20 years (same old authors in the fiction lists). And that pile of books you meet as you enter Waterstones... the publishers have paid a grand amount to get those stacked there. They don't just appear in the 3 for 2 by serendipity you know.

Know your demograph

has it slighlty easier than most. He's pitching to the biggest market, where the bucks are made. But it's still not an easy ride. He's had to put himself around quite a bit:
  • Literacy Hours in Primary School
  • Guide Scout Meeting
  • 6th Form Creative Writing Workshop
  • ‘Chatterbooks’
  • School Christmas Fair
He's working his audience, getting himself in there with them. The key is not to stop.

Why all the work?

Specifically in Ronsson's case, he's attempting to generate as many physical sales as possible. They are recorded by Gardners, which means that he can take that data to a mainstream publisher and negotiate for them to take him on. It's all business.

He can argue now, after a big sale in Bewdley, that he was the best selling author in North Worcestershire. Also, after a Reverend from Cornwall read the book, he purchased 8 copies for his family, making Ronsson the best selling author in the far-west. It all adds up.

What's next

He has a plan, and it's geared towards cashing in on the foundations he's already built. But it would be unfair of me to speak of those here.

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