Guest Column: Can I Sizzle You a Cigar?
I refuse to participate in recessions. While I'll readily admit that it is tough to break even, let alone increase sales, in this economy, trust me when I say that there are still plenty of opportunities for creative bookselling.
First, a little backstory. I have always had a deep interest in selling and marketing. When I was a kid I sold everything. It didn't take me long to figure out that pairing items increased sales. Selling lemonade? Add chocolate chip cookies to the menu and knock the kid down the block out of business. Selling packets of flower seeds? Offer a free lawn cutting if a homeowner buys five packs instead of just two.
Decades later, I am the managing director of an independent publishing house working with (primarily) military history titles. We launched in 2004 and have more than 100 books in print. Many have garnered awards, earned slots with national book clubs, and have been niche bestsellers. Sales have risen steadily each year, and in an effort to keep the units moving, this year I developed a premium line of cigars. Wait, what?
April 9, 2003, found Marine Gunny Sergeant Nick Popaditch in the cupola of his M1A1 battle tank in Firdos Square, Iraq. An AP photographer snapped a stunning image of the handsome Marine with a puff of cigar smoke curling from his mouth and Saddam Hussein's ominous statue looming in the background—right before American tanks pulled it down. The image that made its way around the globe on the front pages of scores of newspapers forever branded Popaditch as "The Cigar Marine." Popaditch was fighting in Fallujah a year later when he was struck in the head with a rocket-propelled grenade that left him partially blinded and medically retired from the Corps after 16 years. Four years later we published the Silver Star winner's Once a Marine: An Iraq War Tank Commander's Inspirational Memoir of Combat, Courage and Recovery (Savas Beatie, 2008). This candid memoir details his service as a tank commander in Iraq, his horrific wounding and his long and difficult recovery, and its impact on his family and his life. The book was immediately well received, and has made the Marine Corps' Commandant's Recommended Reading List every year it has been available.
Like all conscientious publishers, we crossed our t's and dotted our i's in the traditional ways. We launched Nick's book into the general trade with a successful appearance at Book Expo, sold a printing to the History Book Club, penetrated military bases, and loaded the author with dozens of private signings and speaking engagements. Now more than four years later, Once a Marine is still in hardcover after many printings. Sales, however, had finally witnessed the other side of the strong plateau. Was it finally time for paperback?
I was on my deck one afternoon lamenting the fact that my flowers needed watering when it struck me: Books are no different than… packets of flower seeds… or lemonade. Pair them with something that makes sense. Resell the package.
Within an hour I was on the phone with entrepreneur Eric Stanion, a longtime friend and the owner of Art of Cigars, a local cigar-music lounge. Within a week we inked a partnership arrangement with Nick "The Cigar Marine" Popaditch to create a line of hand-rolled quality cigars that not only taste great, but support wounded Marines and their families (with Art of Cigars handling the entire cigar line.) We wanted to keep it simple, so we decided to introduce just two premium hand-rolled cigars under "The Cigar Marine" line: "The Gunny" (a double-wrapped Torpedo) and "The Tanker" (a mild spiced-rum Corona). Signed copies of Once A Marine would also be available, and serious cigar lovers could purchase a small camouflaged all-weather humidor (signed by Popaditch) to keep at home or send to their favorite Marine or soldier in the field, or a larger traditional humidor complete with a signed copy of the book and cigars inside. A portion of all proceeds goes directly to the Semper Fi Fund to support wounded Marines and their families.
It was a natural pairing: "The Cigar Marine" with his own cigars matched with signed copies of his book complete with "the" iconic image emblazoned on the cover. It also doesn't hurt that one of America's most prominently wounded and outspoken warriors came up with the idea to donate partial proceeds to support other wounded Marines. Now, how to sell this pairing?
We launched "The Cigar Marine" line with a standing room-only evening at Art of Cigars, complete with a WWII-era jeep, donated food and desserts, a local winery pouring outstanding zinfandels and ports, and an inspirational talk by Nick. Our in-house media specialist coordinated and promoted the event with mega-social media—Facebook, Pinterest, e-cards and more. Friends passed it on to their lists and it went viral in our region. Local media flooded in to take photos and conduct interviews. In addition to stellar sales of books, cigars and humidors, we now had our foundation to take the cigar line (and our book)… national.
To accomplish that, we included "action photos" from the event into our full color media kits, which include all the traditional items of interest—with the thrust not on the book, but on the cigars. Ruth's Cris isn't successful because it sells steaks; it is successful because it sells the sizzle that sells the meat. In our case, in this marketing thrust, the "sizzle" is the cigar line. And just as Ruth's Cris carries its appeal into your living room via TV, we are now poised to do the same thing in cigar magazines, on cigar blogs, in major cigar shops around military bases and elsewhere. It is fair to say that we could never have gotten copies of Once a Marine mentioned or offered for sale at these locations without pairing a cigar line with the book. (We are also sending cigars to every radio talk show and TV host who smokes them.)
Not every book we publish has such a natural tie-in so far removed from the original product, but many do. Our job as publishers is to sell books. So I suggest you pour a cup of coffee (and light a cigar—OK, I had to put that in, right?). Pull each of your active books off the shelf, read the jacket copy, think about the author's bio… and dream up a unique way to open up new markets. You can do it.
Just sell the "sizzle." x
Theodore P. Savas is an honors graduate of the University of Iowa College of Law and worked as a litigator in Silicon Valley for many years before turning to book publishing. He is the Managing Director and co-owner of Savas Beatie LLC, and the author or editor of more than a dozen books in six languages.