How a Self-Published Book Became a Best-seller
Carol Aebersold and her daughter, Chanda Bell, knew they had a winning idea when they transformed their family tradition into a book, “The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition.” But when they submitted the book—about how Santa disperses helper elves to watch boys and girls during the holidays and report back to him nightly at the North Pole—to publishers, no one wanted to take a chance on the concept.
So, in 2005, Aebersold and her daughters, Bell and Christa Pitts, formed Kennesaw, Ga.-based publishing company CCA and B, and published the book themselves. Fast-forward to today, and "The Elf on the Shelf" is No. 1 on BarnesandNoble.com's best-seller list and expected to bring in $7 million in 2009.
Pitts recently spoke with Book Business Extra about how the self-published title found its way on to so many bookshelves—from Twitter giveaways to a catchy commercial jingle, “The elf on the shelf is watching you, each and every Christmas.”
Book Business Extra: How did CCA and B turn a self-published book into a best-seller?
Christa Pitts: … I don't know if you can really explain how we did it, although I do think there are several components to our success. When we started the publishing company on our own, we began with the belief that we had something so unique, so special and so different, it needed to be shared. In addition, we felt we had a niche that was not being served by "traditional" publishing houses. Those two components—in combination with our can-do personalities, unyielding commitment to our customers and our devotion to building a brand—have all combined to equal "best-seller" status.
Extra: What type of marketing strategy did you employ with this book?
Pitts: Much of our success can be attributed to a word-of-mouth campaign. This campaign of sorts came directly from our customers. One person would buy “The Elf on the Shelf,” and they would tell two or three of their friends and family members about it. As Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in his book, “The Tipping Point,” we reached the "connectors"—those who link us up with the world and have a knack for making friends and acquaintances. Those connectors shared our story, and here we are.
Extra: How are you using social networking to sell books?
Pitts: For us, social networking is simply an opportunity for people to share their stories with us and their community. We love it, and it has been invaluable in helping us grow our company. It also allows information to be disseminated quickly. In the past, you [needed] to do a mailing to your customers to let them know about new ideas or to share feedback. But social-networking sites allow you to interact with your customers immediately. We utilize Twitter, MySpace, Facebook, Flickr and YouTube.
With our social media sites, we always try to keep an authentic dialogue going with our fans. There's no grand plan to "sell books" here—just simple conversation and connection. Of course, like any good marketer, we listen to the conversations on these pages closely and respond and engage whenever and wherever needed. We also use the channels to keep interested fans up to date on happenings at “The Elf on the Shelf,” like our national authors' book tour, special events and contests.
What's really interesting is how fast our Facebook page has grown in just one year. We currently have over 12,000 fans who have joined this page, and many use it to talk to others about our elf. For the most part, this page has grown organically and through "Web word-of-mouth," just like “The Elf on the Shelf” has grown dramatically through good, old-fashioned word-of-mouth. We're so very delighted with our fan and follower support, and hope to make our social media efforts even bigger in the months to come.
Extra: What challenges are you facing as a small, family-owned publishing company in a difficult economic climate?
Pitts: All companies face challenges. But for a small, family-owned publishing company, the biggest challenges include finding funding and gaining a customer base. In these economic times, it is tough to find the start-up capital to really build your business. Many of the traditional sources of funding have all but dried up. In addition, many bookstores and retail outlets are hesitant to try a book from an untested and unproven company. So, finding a way to get bookstore owners to believe in you can be daunting, to say the least.
Extra: How are you thriving despite those challenges?
Pitts: The biggest key to survival is focus. Don't try to be everything to everyone. Too many small publishers have a "throw anything out and see what sticks" mentality, which can be detrimental in building your base. It will eat your capital and damage your reputation. Know your target client, know your niche, and believe in what you are doing. The rest will take care of itself.