Grandma Knows Best
Grandma Janet Mary Sinke has some story to tell. A grandmother of eight (with a ninth on the way) who is battling Parkinson’s Disease—a neurological condition affecting the motor system—she started her own independent publishing company, My Grandma and Me Publishers, in 2003. Despite having no publishing experience to draw upon, Sinke’s books have been recognized for their innovative marketing efforts. Two of her recent works—“Grandma’s Treasure Chest” and “Grandpa’s Fishin’ Friend”—were finalists for the PMA’s (The Independent Book Publishers Association) 2006 Ben Franklin Award for children’s picture book, with the latter title taking home the honor. In addition, she has sold more than 33,000 books in just over two years. Not bad for a self-described “rookie” living on a dirt road in St. Johns, Mich.
Your first title, “I Wanna Go to Grandma’s House,” garnered attention when it was awarded the Ben Franklin Award by the PMA for “Book of the Year for Excellence and Innovation in Marketing” (budgets under $10,000) in 2005. The book was also a finalist for “Best First Book” (Children’s/Young Adult). What’s the story behind publishing that first title?
Janet Mary Sinke: … I’m not sure why I got up that particular night. It was January 15, 2003. I remember it well. Call it the night of my epiphany. It was not unusual to wake—Parkinson’s had caused fragmented sleep many nights before. Normally I would lie in bed and wait to drift off again, but this night was different, and like all gifts that come from the spirit, it began with a simple idea. I would write about my new grandbaby. As I thought about the possibilities, I could feel the presence of two very special women, my grandmothers. I could see their faces, hear their patient voices and see their smiles … and for a brief time that night, I was with them, back at “Grandma’s House,” a place that I loved to go. And so, with those vivid memories so clear in my mind, I picked up the pen, and the words all came in rhyme. I did not think about publication until my daughters (both of whom are teachers) looked over the manuscript and commented how good they thought the story was. They insisted that I try to get it published, and so I sent it out to 54 different publishing companies. I was rejected 54 times.
I’m not sure why, but I really was not discouraged. Plan B went into effect. With the love and support of my family, we first tested the market. I went into schools and read the story with no illustrations. I had educators, grandmas, kids and people everywhere read this story and give me feedback. The response was overwhelming.
I’m not sure if it was turning 50 or knowing that I had a deteriorating neurological disease that caused me to push forward. Whatever it was, I wasn’t scared. We established our own publishing company, My Grandma and Me Publishers.
The Ben Franklin Award recognized your marketing efforts behind the title. Can you detail this campaign?
Sinke: From the start, when the seed of this book was planted, the wheels were turning in our brains as to how we could market it. It became a family affair. I have five children, all of whom are married … they were my agents. They promoted the book from its earliest stages. My sons all married teachers, so they—along with my daughters—were in the perfect places. The schools were a great starting point.
I think one of the biggest marketing advantages with this first book and the ones that have followed is that we have a dual market. The books are children’s books, but have been written and designed for grandparents as well, grandmothers in particular. The baby-boomer grandmas are here in force. We are a “cool” group. We get pedicures, wear cute capris, have fun and make a statement, and so the books are designed to appeal to these grandmas and to anyone who has ever been a grandchild. …
I think a large part of our success has occurred because of one basic rule we have tried to follow: Never forget where you came from. As a member of the St. Johns [Mich.] community all my life, I contacted the local newspapers, schools and community groups. I never say no to [appearances in front of] even the smallest of groups. The rippling effect of this approach has been pretty amazing. Pretty soon other communities were calling. … The effects of these presentations are spreading across the state. I have received e-mails from grandmas from all over the country. …
Marketing, I think, involves surrounding yourself with people who believe in your message, and who like and enjoy people in general. … It is critical to be passionate about your work and then to convey in a professional yet heart-felt way the message you are trying to get across. …
One can’t be afraid. I remember walking through the mall one day with my manuscript in hand. I would go to different bookstores and ask to see the [person] in charge of the children’s section. I have to admit I was pretty nervous at times, but then I’d get my head in the right frame of mind and ask myself, “What’s the worst thing they can say to me? They can say no, and so what if the do?” Little by little, we gained some momentum and had lined up before our first printing approximately 30 different stores who would carry the book. In order to recoup some of the initial money invested, we had a private sale for close friends and relatives.
Some free publicity also came my way before the first printing. I was featured in the “Living” section of the Lansing State Journal and was also featured in Faith Magazine.
It’s amazing how one contact leads to another and results in something bigger and better. My daughter, Sarah, my publicist, sent a heart-filled letter to “Michigan Magazine,” a television show that airs on PBS. They ended up doing a 15-minute segment on me and my illustrator, which aired in December . … It seems that this segment is now airing on other stations in other parts of the country. …
Another important marketing tool is [launching] a Web site. I was blessed that I have a sister-in-law who designs Web sites. She did a great job and never charged me a dime for the initial setup. In this day and age of electronic marvels, a Web site is a must.
I also joined the PMA. This organization has provided valuable knowledge for young rookies like myself. It is a great organization that cares about the little guy.
Was it difficult to get people to sell your first book?
Sinke: I would have to say no, not that difficult. We had done a lot of marketing prior to the release of this first book so people were excited and looking forward to it. We had a big kick-off party. … Our initial order was for 5,000 books. We sold out in nine weeks.
What changes to your marketing efforts have been made with the release of subsequent titles?
Sinke: I can’t really think of anything except I would push forward with more intensity in trying to get into the library systems. I am still working on that part of marketing. As far as subsequent titles go, we have learned which wholesale trade shows work and which do not.
And since we are still a very young company, we are still experimenting with a number of [wholesale] buying shows around the country. We are trying to learn which ones work and which ones we would not attend again. We have joined the Great Lakes Book Association that keeps us in the loop with regard to other independent book stores. When a new book comes out, a big mailing goes out, newspapers are contacted and the marketing push is on once again. We always have a kick-off party and make it a true celebration of combined efforts. It seems to be working. In a little over two years, we have sold about 33,000 books. Other publishing companies have stated that this is very good. I am not an expert on numbers, so I take their word for it. Of course, we dream big and hope to reach many more.
Can you talk about the impact dealing with Parkinson’s has had on your few years as a publisher?
Sinke: My Parkinson’s, I can tell you … has been my greatest blessing. I know that sounds strange, but it is the truth. I started writing at a very young age. ... I continued to write all through my adult life, but always tucked away my stories and reflections. But not this time.
I believe it is the Parkinson’s that has led me to view life from a whole new mountain. I feel somewhat of a passionate urgency to share these stories. …
My family gets a little concerned about me as they say I need to slow down and rest. But I figure I have all eternity to rest. Right now, there are things to do and places to go and books to share. BB