"A man must be big enough to admit his mistakes, smart enough to profit from them, and strong enough to correct them."
— John C. Maxwell
Disclaimer: This is a long post that I've been writing over the last few days. I think it's interesting, but I could be wrong. Right now it's become my favorite post that I've written so far for DonDoes30.com
Four years ago today, I unleashed my much anticipated personal memoir, "From the Bottom of the Bottle," to the world. The 326 page book chronicles my hilarious, drunken misadventures between 2001 and 2008 with a heavy focus on 2004, the year I turned 21 and accepted the original 365-day drinking challenge. Everything from my worst drinking experience with tequila — to the time I set my own house on fire — to when I knocked a tooth out stealing a road sign — to that one night I bought a pitbull from a crack dealer, have all been laid out in 32 short stories that leaves everyone who reads them in stitches. Even I crack up every time I go back and read through the pages, not only because of how funny the stories truly are, but because of how much I've changed and grown since then... and how much I really haven't; overall, I'm still an asshole.
Failure, of course, is a relative term. Although I sold quite a few copies in the beginning — mostly to friends and friend of friends — sales volume fizzled just as fast as it peaked. I topped out at #34,226 on Amazon's Top Sellers out of MILLIONS of books; not exactly an easy task in its own right, but certainly not going to propel the book to the top of the New York Times Best Sellers list. Over the last year or so, I have sat down to scrutinize every aspect of what went wrong. This is what I've come up with:
Building an Audience
Many successful bloggers have gone on to create even more successful books. I Can Has Cheezburger, Stuff White People Like, Tucker Max, and even the recently publish book from Hyperbole and a Half all had one thing in common: a HUGE following before their book dropped. No one is even going to look at you in this day and age unless you have a decent Twitter following, Facebook following and/or a significant blog following. I didn't have that. My audience consisted of friends and their friends sitting around the bar telling each other stories. Once I regaled everyone with tales of my antics, someone would inevitably choke out between fits of laughter, "Damn Don! You should write a book!" And so I did. My blog was only ancillary to my book when just the opposite should have been true.
Publishing used to ONLY be done by a traditional publisher. Self-publishers were laughed at, mocked, and their work thought of as "unprofessional." However, the stigma of self-publishing has been slowly disappearing and an entire new way of communication has been open to millions of people. Over 15 million books published last year were self-published versus around 300,000 ten years ago. In 2009 when "From the Bottom of the Bottle" was released, self-publishing was still being stigmatized to an extent, but it gave me the opportunity to keep more profits and have more control over the writing process than if I had sought out a traditional publisher (and I realize no traditional publisher would have taken on the project anyway).
This was the biggest struggle, because I had to give up a certain level of control. I have a decent understanding of where to place commas, semi-colons, dashes, hyphens and colons, but nothing beats an actual trained editor compiling everything. Funds were limited; I had to reach out to a friend of mine who worked in the publishing industry as a junior editor. She took the job for free and as such, I got what I paid for. We went back and forth with changes and ideas for weeks. She did a much better job than I would have alone, but there are still typographical errors that desperately need to updated and will be in the future.
The title was debated upon for weeks after going through the painstaking process of presenting my friends with various titles on which they could vote. This was the worst way of conducting market research ever. The title "From the Bottom of the Bottle" won by one vote, maybe two, and a month later not a single person who voted for the title could remember it in its entirety. Most common responses: "Yeah, um... The Bottom of the Barrel, right?" or "Stories From the Liquor Bottle? Is that it?" and "... Something about a bottle, I can't remember." Holy shit! This was the title that supposedly wowed them enough to warrant a vote and 90% of the words were being mixed around like a game of Boggle. The other top contenders were "Famous For My Sins", "In Don We Trust", "Blood, Sweat, and Beers" and a few more I can't recall. Realistically probably all better choices than "From the Bottom of the Bottle" when it comes to memorability and ease of typing; even I mistype the blog address sometimes.
I know my way around Photoshop better than Charlie Sheen knows his way around a crack pipe, but there were some mistakes when creating the cover. For starters, the cover is a bit too dark and the brown in the title can be a little hard to read. More importantly, there is nothing on there that really expresses the point of the book. Sure, a bunch of empty liquor bottles portrays a party... or they could frame a picture of a sad alcoholic at the end of his rope. Or just someone who needs to recycle and take out the garbage. Who the hell knows what the meaning is by looking at the image?! And that's the problem. The idiom of "don't judge a book by its cover" is thrown out the window when you're deciding on a book to read by its cover! To escalate the level of confusion further, there is a book entitled "The Dark Night of Recovery: Conversations from the Bottom of the Bottle" focusing on recovering from addiction rather than celebrating it like mine.
Marketing has come a long way in the past four years. Facebook was still relatively in its infancy along with most social networks. Word of mouth and boots on the ground were still king. To get my name outside of Jacksonville, I enlisted the help of a friend to assist in planning a few book tours around the country. We made calls to bars in different cities that I wanted to visit to ask if they would allow us to set up a table with some books to do a book signing and also promote the fuck out of the website. At least that was our ambition, but it was mostly an excuse to get drunk. The majority of bars were receptive, believing my name alone would bring a slew of new customers to them, but a few laughed and hung up in our faces.
The tours were successful even though we were only able to complete two of the three. From March 11th-13th, 2010 we stopped in Charlotte, NC, Baltimore, MD, and Washington, DC. Later that year I did a signing in Jacksonville, FL in May, and Savannah, GA and Charleston, NC in June. A third trip was planned for Atlanta, GA, Knoxville, TN, and Nashville, TN but was cancelled due to massive flooding in Tennessee at that time. An increase in sales and website traffic both proved that I should have continued pursuing these tours, but money was the biggest factor to scale back.
Only One Version Available
You can buy "From the Bottom of the Bottle" in paperback form. That's it. With Kindle, Nooks, and other electronic reading devices gaining in popularity there should have been some electronic version released, especially given the fact that the Kindle has been a top seller on Amazon since its inception. Other suggestions were an audiobook version or perhaps a limited edition hardcover. Audiobooks have their place, especially when building credibility, but I think I would do that project differently by telling the stories naturally instead of reading word-for-word. These are options I am entertaining for the future and each might have a release date by the end of the year.
No Additional Merchandise
At one point I did created a line of t-shirts and other apparel that was deemed so offensive by the merchandise company printing them they were banned within three days of their release. That's talent. The idea of selling these items was just another ploy to make money and rightfully failed miserably since it was another offset of the main goal to sell books. The products had nothing to do with the "From the Bottom of the Bottle" or Don P brand at all. The plan should have been to design shirts, hats, party accessories, etc. bearing the name of the book and/or website for promotional purposes.
Self-explanatory, but I'll go into more detail. For each book sold, the royalties — depending on where the copy is sold — are as follows: Amazon.com $4.25 per book sold, Barnes & Noble and Books-a-million $1.25, and international orders vary by country. As you can see, a shitload of books need to be sold to make back any initial investment to the project, an initial investment I couldn't have scrapped together anyway.
When's the Sequel Coming Out?
Those who enjoyed the first book ask all the time about a sequel. I put my best foot forward with "From the Bottom of the Bottle" and all the GREAT stories have already been told. At the moment I'm left with a few subdued tales — crazy shit that happened on the book tour, bachelor parties, vacations, birthday parties — that would be considered acceptable, but don't live up to the same quality and effort put forth previously; I don't accept mediocrity. All of my friends that I wrote about are now toned down, mature versions of their former selves. And that's fine, that's life. Any sequel wouldn't be on the same topic or subject matter as "From the Bottom of the Bottle". Whether or not that's a good thing or not remains to be seen.