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Adventures in Small Press Publishing: The Lizard of Oz by Richard Seltzer

The original version of this article,"The Lizard of Oz: The Adventure of a Self-Published Fable," appeared in The Self-Publishing Writer, Spring 1976, pp. 48-58. It was reprinted in Library Lit. 7- The Best of 1976 ed. by Bill Katz, Scarecrow Press, Metuchen, NJ, 1977, pp. 211-21.

Back in 1974, when a rejection notice arrived, my wife, Barbara said, "Why don't we do it ourselves?" That was all the encouragement I needed.

We had no experience in book publishing and no money. But in the back of my mind, I had always wanted to start a little book publishing company; so why not start with our own book?

College had instilled in me a respect for the editorial judgment of established publishers. I saw the role of the writer as an extension of the role of the student: you submit your work and patiently await approval or rejection.

But The Lizard of Oz was a unique story that evolved in ways that gave me confidence that the public, young and old, would enjoy it. Over the three years of collecting rejection slips and kind but confused letters from editors, I had also been getting helpful feedback from a wide variety of people, and rewriting and rewriting again.

The story of the story began when I visited the elementary school class of a friend, Judy Morgan, to read the kids some stories I had written. I wound up visiting a number of classes in the same building. And there's no better audience in the world than fourth and fifth graders. When I finished reading, they'd swarm around with questions. One time they asked what I was going to write next, and I popped off with a couple titles: "The Quest for the Holy Mackerel," "The Lizard of Oz"... They wanted to hear "The Lizard of Oz," so I started writing a story with that title with the kids themselves as characters. I went back a couple times to read them new chapters; then school ended, but the story kept growing, going its own way, until it became a "fable for all ages," a story intended for adults that kids like too.

That summer I went around with some musician-friends to coffee houses in the Boston area, reading the story aloud to audiences of strangers, getting immediate reaction to new chapters and revisions. By the end of the summer I was two-thirds through, quit a librarian job I had at the time, and went to my parents' place in Pennsylvania, where I wrote the last third in about two weeks.

As the manuscript followed its meandering path through the mails, I returned to Boston, did some free-lance Russian translating at a penny a word, and then went to grad school in comparative literature at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Each publisher typically took three to four months to return the manuscript. I'd address it to the trade book department, saying that this was a story intended primarily for adults, although children would like it too. And I'd get back a rejection note from the children's book department, saying that they were sorry, but this didn't really seem like a children's book. Frequently, I ended up trimming and revising before mailing the story off again. All in all, it was a valuable experience (frustrating as it seemed at the time) forcing me to rethink what I intended to say and reconsider whether the words I had chosen conveyed what I meant them to.

While at the U. of Mass., I chanced upon a note on a bulletin board. Christin Couture needed a book to illustrate for a course. I got in touch with her, and once she started drawing the characters it was hard for me to imagine them any other way. The Humbug, the Redcoats, the Witch, Mr. Bacon, Sir Real, Prince Frog, the Weatherman, the Mothers of Fact, Joan of Noah's Ark, and the Lizard himself all took on new life in her drawings. So copies of the illustrations accompanied the manuscript in its rounds from publisher to publisher, until my wife and I decided to go ahead and start our own company.

We weren't totally ignorant of printing and preparing copy for printers. I was working for Benwill Publishing Company, writing and editing for Circuits Manufacturing, a monthly technical trade magazine. And on my own, back when I first started writing The Lizard, I had hand lettered a couple of my children's stories ("Now and Then" and "Julie's Book: the Little Princess") and had had them printed and stapled together like pamphlets.

I had seen The Publish-It-Yourself Handbook in bookstores. Now I bought a copy, read it quickly and brainstormed with my old roommate from Yale, David Gleason. He had recently earned an MBA from Harvard Business School and was in the habit of taking a hard practical look at business projects. He also had experience in dealing with printers and had done some silk-screen printing himself.

Hand lettering, I thought, would suit the child-like tone and anti-machine content of the story. It would also enable me to put the words where I wanted them on the pages, ending the page where a thought ended and shaping the words to fit the shape of the illustrations. But, as Dave pointed out, production costs depend largely on the number of pages, and normal hand lettering would leave a lot of wasted space on the page. He suggested lettering it large and have the printer reduce it. So long as the reduction was the same on each page, the printer could do it with a single camera setting and there would be no extra charge. I settled on a reduction to two-thirds, which brought my lettering down to about the size of regular type (11 or 12 point).

I used a felt-tip pen and regular typing paper, stopping and cutting off strips when I made mistakes. Barbara lined up and pasted the pieces together on large sheets of paper. Inside of two week, working nights and weekends (we both had full-time jobs), we got the camera-ready copy together and delivered it to the printer, a "book manufacturer" that would both print and perfect bind the books -- Semline in Braintree, Massachusetts.

Dave designed the cover starting with Christin's line drawing of the Lizard. And he hand silkscreened the covers for the first printing. (Silk screening 1,200 covers with two colors of ink is not the simplest task in the world. I wouldn't advise anyone doing it to save money. We did it this way because The Lizard was our very first book, and we wanted the first copies to be unique, collector's items.).

All in all, we kept the production cost of 1,000 copies (128 pages) to about $1,000, which we borrowed from a bank as a personal loan. We had decided to start a company on August 15. On October 4, we picked up the finished books at Semline and dashed into the Boston Globe Book Festival, where we had rented an exhibit table for $50.

Two other decisions that we made at the very beginning have proven particularly helpful. First and most important was the price. On Dave's advice, we stared with a price that we felt would be reasonable to charge for a paperback intended to reach the general adult, college, and high school market -- $2.95. Our production decisions were based on the fact that we had to keep costs low enough so that even after bookstores took 40% or distributors took 50% (or even more depending on the quantity ordered), and even after postage and printing fliers and other promotional material and other operating expenses, we had to be able to come out ahead with a $2.95 retail price. With too high costs, we could end up losing money with every book we sold. We were excited enough not to figure in the value of our labor, but we simply couldn't go ahead with a project that had no chance of breaking even.

My initial calculations were based on average receipts of about $1.50 per book and operating expenses running about 50% of production/printing expenses. As it turned out, for the first printing we had many more direct sales than anticipated, giving us higher average receipts per book. But our operating expenses also exceeded our expectations, leaving us about where we had hoped to be. Then with the second printing, the production cost per book dropped from $1 to about 50 cents; but we began dealing more with book stores and distributors than individuals, so our receipts per book dropped, leaving us a little bit ahead.

In 1975, our first full calendar year of operation, we ended up spending $70 to $200 per month in addition to the cost of the second printing. Our receipts that year ranged $150 to $450 per month. In other words, there was no simple way to relate printing expense to operating expense. The bills flow in at a relatively steady rate, and the rate of sales and receipts has to keep pace. Success depends not just on the total number of books sold or the total amount of receipts, but rather on how fast these sales are made. If we were to sell 1,000 books in a month, we'd make money. And if it were to take us two years to sell them, we'd lose money. For 1975, our receipts totaled $3380, and our expenses (including the second printing cost, but not including a percentage of rent and utilities and phone as allowable under IRS regulations) amounted to $3,195. ("Receipts" here means cash received, and does not include accounts still owing).

The other important decision we made at the beginning was the company name: the Samizdat Express. B = Barbara, R = Richard. Samizdat means "self-published" in Russian. The name sounded so much like a train that we called it "Express" instead of "Press." This unusual name, with its usual explanation, as well as the unusual title of the book, made potential buyers and reviewers give the book a second glance. Opening the book, the handlettered format caught their eye, and they took a few moments to sample the text and get involved.

We could see this process in action at the Globe Book Festival the ve ry day we got the first copies from the printer. Walking by our table, people would do a double-take at the word "Lizard," come back, stare at the striking cover design, open the book and start reading. Or they'd ask questions: "B&R what?" "Why did you handletter it?" "Is that really 'Lizard'?"

Managers of a few small bookstores met us there and ordered. And a sales representative, Sumner Dane, saw people gathering around our table and indicated that he wanted to handle our book. He regularly went the rounds of stores in New England, representing a wide variety books and book publishers, ranging from operations as small as ours to Bellerophon Books. He took orders, forwarded them to us, and we paid him a percentage of what the book store paid us. We gave him a relatively heft cut (20% of net, or about 35 cents per book) to keep him interested in our small operation. Inside of a couple weeks, he placed our book in a couple dozen stores, and got an order for a hundred from Paperback Booksmith, a bookstore chain that also acts as a distributor to other stores. (For bulk orders like that, we gave the chain/distributor 50%; and, in our arrangement, the sales rep got 10% of net).

In succeeding weeks we picked up a few extra stores by going personally and talking to store managers. But more often than not the book buyer wouldn't be in, or would look askance at an author peddling his own book, or at any book salesman with only one title to sell. We didn't have much time to spare what with our regular jobs; so we concentrated our attention on direct mail sales.

We had had fliers printed so we would have something to hand to people at the Globe Book Festival. And a trickling of mail orders came in from people who had picked up the flier. More importantly, we did a mailing to about 200 friends and relatives, offering a 50 cent discount is they ordered (prepaid) directly from us before December 1. We have never charged for shipping/handling/postage. We like to encourage people to order directly from us, since such orders save us the percentage that would go to bookstores and other middlemen, and also give me a chance to get direct feedback form readers. By the way, for single copy orders we give bookstores a 20% discount, to make it worth their while to act as middlemen on special requests form customers. They have to order five copies to get 40%. It being Christmas time, that mailing sold 60 books directly, then friends and relative and friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends who had read the book spread the word. We sold about 190 books directly by that snowball effect in the first couple months. In addition, we had sold about 60 books at the Globe Book Festival, 55 at a Christmas craft fair, and 25 at another (poorly attended) craft fair.

We also tried a direct mail campaign to a few local colleges to see what kind of response we'd get. First, we contacted the administration for permission. Then we delivered fliers with the 50 cent discount, December 1 deadline cards stapled on and college personnel put them in the students' boxes, saving us the cost of postage. It seemed like a good idea, but 1,000 such fliers brought us only six direct orders. (It's hard to measure the secondary effect of students buying the book in stores after seeing the flier or after hearing about it from somebody who bought it on the basis of a flier.)

Meanwhile, we could see by November 4, just one month after we had received the first copies, that we would run out of books in a month or two. So we ordered a second printing of 3,000 which was ready December 4.

After Christmas business came to a standstill. There we sat with 3,000 books in our living room.

Following the advice of the Publish-It-Yourself Handbook, we had set our "official publication date" a couple of months after the date we first received the books form the printer and we had sent out review copies to major review sources and also to local papers around Boston and in other areas where I had lived. We hoped and expected that when December 1 arrived, a few of these publications would review our book, and orders would start coming in from strangers around the country. But by January 1, as far as we knew, we had only been mentioned in a paper in Greenfield, Mass., where a friend had brought the book to the editor's attention. And that review only brought us an order for two books from a local book store.

We had used The Literary Marketplace (an R.R. Bowker publication) to build our reviewer mailing list, and had sent out about 100 review copies in the first mailing, together with 100 form letters to another set of reviewers asking them if they would like to see the book. After that we sent out about 100 more review copies, following up on miscellaneous leads. Two local newspaper in Tennessee (the state where I was born) asked for review copies, and then didn't send clippings and didn't answer follow-up letters. A Chicago reviewer asked for a review copy and in reply to a follow-up letter indicated that he had just lost his job due to the "economic crunch." The Washington Post was kind enough to acknowledge receipt of the book and to say that they would consider it the next time they ran a children's book section but to the best of our knowledge, they never ran a review of the Lizard.

With a disproportionate expenditure of time and money for phone calls and correspondence, my mother managed to place the book in half a dozen stores in her area of Pennsylvania. And we wrote a flurry of letters to distributors and book stores, but got zero response.

The advice in the Handbook didn't extend beyond production and the first promotion push. It seemed like we had reached a dead end.

Then a form letter arrived in the mail from Library Journal. At first it seemed like an ad. Then I realized that a review clipping was attached; The Lizard was to be reviewed in the January 15 issue. A few days later a similar letter arrived form the Booklist, a publication of the American Library Association. Their review would appear February 1. Both reviews were very favorable, and both treated The Lizard as a book intended for adults.

I immediately wrote follow-up letters to all the reviewers who had received copies, asking if they had scheduled or already published reviews. A few answered. Publishers' Weekly indicated that they "review only those books which have a widespread national circulation." (Catch-22: you need widespread circulation to get reviewed, and you need to get reviewed to get wide-spread circulation.) The Boston Globe indicated that, as a rule, they don't review paperbacks. (A strange criterion of literary merit.) A few others said simply that they didn't plan to review it or that they had no way of knowing which of their reviewers might have picked it up or whether anything would be written. A Harrisburg, Pennsylvania paper sent a clipping of a brief mention that had already appeared. The Philadelphia Daily News also ran a brief mention.

The book editor from The Philadelphia Bulletin replied with a question: "Tell me something about your business -- who you are, what you are, and where you got that name." I replied with a lengthy letter, and on January 26 the lead review in the Sunday Bulletin was a very favorable commentary on The Lizard and our company. Wanamaker's department store in Philadelphia telephoned the next day to order 25. A couple more stores and a few individuals ordered by mail. And letters to stores listed in the Philadelphia Yellow Pages brought a few more orders from that area. The Bulletin review also led, with the prompting of friends and relatives, to reviews in half a dozen local papers in Pennsylvania and New Jersey and a few more store orders.

About this time, the Library Journal and Booklist reviews began to take effect, and we started getting library and book jobber orders from all over the US and Canada. (We charge libraries full price, and give jobbers a 20% discount to make it worth their while to act as middlemen.) A year after the appearance of those reviews, we still get a trickle of orders directly attributable to them. All in all, those review have directly sold us about 300 books to libraries and jobbers, (including over 100 to the various offices of Baker & Taylor).

Large east coast distributors, such as A&A, rebuffed us, saying it wasn't worth their while dealing with a company that has only one title. But a handful of stores reordered and reordered again. (Booksmith reordered twice, 100 copies each time.) And our sales rep kept getting a few new stores a month. Meanwhile reviews appeared in The Valley Advocate (western Mass.), the Lancaster (Penn.) Independent Press, and Aspect (a bimonthly literary magazine published in the Boston area.)

Then we began to make contacts with other small publishers, joining the Committee of Small Magazine Editors and Publishers (COSMEP) and following up on the helpful leads in their monthly newsletter. But more importantly, we exhibited at Book Affair, a small press book fair that was held at Boston University in April 1975 and the New York Book Fair in NYC.

Follow-up from contacts made at those events brought half a dozen more store orders and orders form two small press distributors for 100 copies each: Atlantis in New Orleans and Bob Koen in New Jersey. The distributor contacts proved to be deadends -- there were no further orders. But more important than sales was the opportunity to meet and talk to other small publishers at these book fairs. We realized that we weren't alone, that others were running up against the same obstacles with distributors, reviewers, book stores, and were trying to work out solutions, and in any case were enjoying publishing what they wanted to publish the way they wanted to publish it. There was a sense of excitement, that all these little individual efforts were part of a "movement," that in the universe of publishing the center was shifting, and we were watching it and making it happen.

At the NY Book Fair, I tired of telling about my book and started asking the visitors about their lines of business. One visitor was a reported from The New Republic who subsequently mentioned me in a brief account of the fair. Another was an agent who said he wanted to handle foreign rights to The Lizard. (Nothing came of that.) Quite a few were editors at large publishing houses.

In the fall of 1975, on the basis of the previous publicity I had received, my mother managed to get me scheduled for two local TV appearances in Lancaster, Penn., and Hank Grissom of the Illusion in Lancaster (a store that had repeatedly reordered) got me scheduled for a radio interview show and an autographing session at his store. I was scared stiff, never having appeared on television or radio; but it all worked out beautifully. We got a prominent story in the Lancaster New Era. We sold about 50 copies in four hours of autographing at the Illusion, and the store took three dozen more copies for follow-up sales. We also got orders and reorders from half a dozen other stores in the area.

By then it had become difficult to trace the source of sales. We had had orders from about 150 book stores, distributors and jobbers from all over the US and Canada. For the most part, they contacted us directly. We found that mailing promotional material for a single book to a bookstore simply does not pay, unless you have some special reason to expect them to be interested. Some stores ordered just one or two copies; others ordered half a dozen or a dozen. A few reordered at odd intervals. (Follow-up letters didn't seem to bring reorders. They happened on their own or they didn't happen at all.)

Although we received orders from a number of individuals on the West Coast, we weren't able to make inroads with the bookstores or distributors there. Small Press Traffic in San Francisco took a few on consignment, but Bookpeople, the small press distributor simply ignored our correspondence.

Returning to the Globe Book Festival in the fall of 1975, I was one of the scheduled speakers and had an opportunity to talk to an audience of about a hundred for an hour. WBUR-radio interviewed me there and one of the broadcasters took an interest in The Lizard. At his prompting I wrote a radio script of the Lizard. Later, on two other occasions, I was approached by groups of people wanting to do the Lizard as a radio play (like The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy). I rewrote the script several times, and once a public radio station in Provincetown actually put together a cast and recorded the whole thing, but the volunteer group dissolved before completion of the post-production work. It has never been aired.

The Globe Book Festival appearance led to two brief mentions in Publishers' Weekly (in a story on small publishers in New England and in a write-up on the Festival itself). Then orders started to come in as a result of a review in the newsletter of the International Oz Club (The Baum Bugle).

Meanwhile, a drama teacher at an elementary school in Sharon, Mass., developed a play script based on the Lizard of Oz and staged a delightful set of performances. I later rewrote her working script, which included lots of improvisation, into a play that other schools could use.

A junior high school class in Pennsylvania and another one in Pennsylvania used the Lizard as an English text. And a college professor at Millersville State in Pennsylvania used it as a text for freshman English.

In 1976, when the second printing ran out, we ordered a third printing of 5,000. We also put together a short collection of children's stories written by me, including my favorites: "Now and Them," "Julie's Book: the Little Princess," "The Little Oops Named Ker Plop," and "Mary Jane's Book: the Book of Animals." We followed the same model has we had with the Lizard and hoped to build on that success.

But we soon discovered that for all the hard work we had put into getting the Lizard known and distributed, we were starting from zero again with Now and Then. A two-book publisher merited no more attention from book stores than a one-book publisher. And reviews were totally random. An enthusiastic reviewer from Booklist broke the publication's rules and sent us a copy of what she had written; but the magazine never published it. And without reviews in either Library Journal or Booklist, we were virtually shut out from the library market.

Gradually, it became clear that while -- thanks to inexpensive offset printing -- anyone could become a book publisher, it was still virtually impossible for a tiny publisher to distribute its works. We were sinking lots of time into this, and could see that we would never make a profit. We had gained much by the experience, but the second time around there was none of the original excitement and newness. We had made a lot of friends and learned a lot about the workings of the book publishing world. Now it was time to move on.

So while continuing to work as an editor of high tech magazines, I shifted my personal time to our children (Bobby, born 1975 and Heather, born 1977) and to trying to complete a novel which I had been mulling over for years, and which was eventually published by a traditional publisher (Tarcher/Houghton Mifflin) as The Name of Hero.

Little did I suspect that 17 years later I would again become a publisher, this time on the Internet, and that The Lizard, Now and Then, and The Name of Hero would find new life on diskette rather than paper.


Quotes from reviews of The Lizard of Oz:

"an intriguing and very entertaining little novel" -- Library Journal

"a snappy hip fable" -- Booklist

"a commentary on our times done delightfully" -- Philadelphia Bulletin

"Carroll and Tolkien have a new companion" -- Aspect

"a work so saturated that the mind is both stoned with pleasure and alive with wonder

-- Lancaster Independent Press

"a gallery of figments of contemporary culture that could take its place on the library shelf of memory along with classic figures of children's fiction" -- Valley Advocate   privacy statement