Could You Handle an Overnight Best-seller? Epicenter Press’ Kent Sturgis talks about how his small press tackled the instant, overwhelming demand for the only Sarah Palin biography.
Biographies of political hopefuls typically see a significant bump in demand during presidential election years. But a sudden spike in orders wasn’t something Publisher Kent Sturgis expected for Epicenter Press’ 2008 biography of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Kaylene Johnson’s “Sarah: How a Hockey Mom turned Alaska’s Political Establishment Upside Down”—the one and only biography of the 44-year-old politician in print at the time. That all changed Friday, Aug. 29, when Sen. John McCain announced that Palin would be the Republican vice-presidential nominee. Almost immediately, Sturgis and his small publishing house, which consists of himself and three part-time employees, mobilized to meet the sudden, overwhelming demand for the title. Within a week, the company had 86,000 copies of the book in print.
Just a week after Sen. McCain’s selection, Epicenter Press announced a partnership with Chicago-based Tyndale House Publishers, who began shipping 250,000 copies of a trade paperback edition of “Sarah” yesterday. Earlier in the week, Zondervan announced that it would release a biography of Gov. Palin Oct. 10 entitled, “Sarah Palin: A New Kind of Leader,” by Joe Hilley.
Sturgis spoke with Book Business Extra about the challenges of having a regional title, with an initial run of 10,000 copies, become a national best-seller within a matter of days.
Book Business Extra: What were the first steps that you took once you realized there would be a significant increase in demand for “Sarah”? What was your initial reaction?
Kent Sturgis: It was a shock. The phone starting ringing immediately. Then the calls back and forth … began between ourselves and our distributor, Graphic Arts Center Publishing Co. They work with Ingram Publisher Services (IPS). Pretty quickly, we had a conference call with Graphic Arts, IPS and Lightning Source, [an Ingram content company]. We decided right away that we needed to release a trade paperback. It was pretty easy to put together. This was initially a regional book. With a little tweaking, it held up [for a national audience].
In a couple of days, we did 40,000—30,000 and then 10,000—digitally through Lightning Source. They were preparing them by Friday evening, and they were printing them all over the weekend. They shipped 34,000 on Tuesday. The orders continued to come in during the week. We [then] did … another … 6,000 and [then] 5,000. Yesterday, we just ordered our first offset supply. When those copies come in, we’ll have a total of 86,000 [in the first week].
Extra: Has Epicenter Press ever encountered anything like this before?
Sturgis: No. There was never anything like it—nothing remotely similar. We did have a best-seller 12 years ago. This was a publisher’s dream to have an overnight instant best-seller. …
… We had luck that we had the only biography of Gov. Sarah Palin in print when she was announced. It was partly luck and fortunate decisions that we were associated with Graphic Arts Center, having an established relationship with IPS and Lightning Source. All the Ingram companies pulled together for us. Those Ingram people are like a publishing S.W.A.T. team. They set up conference calls to get those books printed quickly. It went fairly smooth. …
Extra: What other hurdles did this sudden demand present to you and your staff?
Sturgis: There’s been several issues. … We’re a really small operation. … We only have two phone lines and a fax line. I think that … when McCain made his announcement, hundreds of reporters looked [on] Google, [and] the only thing they could find was this one book. A thousand reporters were calling us all at once to find the author. For a number of hours—for most of that Friday—we could hardly use the telephone. We had to use our cell phones. With a good recommendation, we got a publicist onboard—Andrea Burnett, who is in Berkeley, Calif. She used to do public relations for Chronicle Books. We funneled the media calls to the author through her, and we worked to exploit it to get our name out. The other (issue) was, we have a lot of other projects that we didn’t do a stick of work on in the past week.
Extra: What was the biggest thing that helped you fulfill your spike in orders?
Sturgis: Working with our distributor. They had influence with Lightning Source. They gave us an entire production line to print the books. And Lightning Source is pretty busy right now. They used that connection within the Ingram companies. The IPS sales staff went to work right away and aggressively. They had most of the accounts rounded up over the weekend. I’m pretty happy with the pricing. Everybody has been very cognizant from the very beginning … to do anything we can do to minimize returns. I just feel like I’ve been in very good hands. If we had been an independent without this adequate distribution network, boy, there’s no way in the world we could have responded. I would still be feeling my way through.
Extra: What were the advantages of partnering with Tyndale?
Sturgis: … Tyndale has the financial wherewithal to print 250,000 books and hit the market hard. We could not do that. Our arrangement with Tyndale also reduces our … risk.
Extra: What advice would you give to other publishers who may see unexpected demand for a title?
Sturgis: … I think we’ve been a little bit slow to respond to the new means of Internet marketing, such as blogs. … If you’re going to anticipate something overnight like this, it would behoove publishers to have a knowledge of these things in case they need to be used. They should also look at their publishing agreements. What if I sell 200,000 copies of a title? What are the various sub rights? Is this contract going to work? Ours is working quite well, but I think I will tweak it a bit in the future.