peeps: Lisa Brochu and Tim Merriman

Lisa Brochu and Tim MerrimanWhat is heritage interpretation? Apparently, it’s “the communication profession of those who work in parks, aquariums, historic sites and other places you might take your family for an outing,” say Lisa Brochu and Tim Merriman, who’ve both devoted their lives to the field. “We help people understand and appreciate natural and cultural heritage resources in the hopes of inspiring them to care for each other and the world in which they live.”

The couple ran a non-profit association providing related support services and have authored a number of non-fiction books in the field; they now spend their time consulting and writing. In 2007, motivated by a Clinton Foundation program on HIV in Africa, they spent just four months (on top of full-time jobs) working on a novel, The Leopard Tree, an inspirational tale of three Kenyan orphans on a quest to meet the UN Secretary General in New York to deliver an important message.

It’s self-published. And it’s won some pretty cool awards. But it isn’t quite a financial success. Read on, however, and you’ll no doubt see why I’m hoping it will be, and soon.

How Lisa and Tim Got Started Self-Publishing

B005A1GFLM The Leopard Tree by Lisa Brochu and Tim MerrimanLisa and Tim wanted to use the proceeds from the sale of the book to “support specific causes like HIV and malaria programs our friends at the Museums of Malawi had been conducting in rural communities there.” That made self-publishing the most attractive option.

They printed out 3,000 copies in 2007 and submitted it to a few contests the following year. And just like that, they had a $1,000 cash award from Writer’s Digest for winning First Place in its International Self-Published Competition, Young Adult Novel category. The Colorado Independent Publisher’s Association EVVY Awards also gave the book third place in the Literary Fiction category. “We thought these awards might help launch the book, but couldn’t detect any significant bump in sales. Still, the awards confirmed that the book had potential.”

They tried to get it into bookstores, but book distributors and retailers passed. The novice publishers did make a few mistakes that didn’t help their cause any —  “One distributor thoughtfully pointed out that we had failed to include the sales price on the cover, a critical error that’s hard to fix when you still have thousands of books sitting in boxes in the barn.” And it wasn’t their only mistake. “Bluntly, we made lots of mistakes. We learned and vowed to do better next time.”

Since they had full-time jobs, they more or less simply resigned themselves to giving away their inventory where they could to help build their readership. “Our website and Amazon listing helped sell some print copies, but we still had hundreds of books collecting dust in the barn and longed to see the book accomplish the mission for which it was written.”

Then two things happened in 2011. The first, of course, was the Kindle market’s rapid growth, breathing new life to The Leopard Tree as an ebook. The second was meeting Dan Poynter, Mr. Self-Publishing, on a flight layover. “We politely introduced ourselves and ended up chatting for over an hour with the guru of self-publishing. Dan is an extraordinarily kind person and we immediately bought his latest book on how to use free days on Kindle Direct Publishing to promote sales.”

Over the following year, they report that over 40,000 copies of The Leopard Tree were downloaded on free days, and it sold 500 copies. “We learned free days can put you in the ‘top 100′ lists on Amazon and that sales usually increase for a while as a result. We bought ads to extend the post-free frenzy, but the cost ate 80% of sales. Still, readers loved the book and we watched reviews go from a handful to 154, hovering around a 4.7 average out of 5.0 stars.”

The book still has a way to go, though, before recouping the cost of the initial print run. But they’re working at it, and it’s quite clear that the new digital book marketplace is the single economic factor that at least puts their primary goal back in the realm of realistic possibility again. “Given that we donate what it does make to support education and conservation efforts in East Africa, we sometimes question the wisdom of giving up our day jobs a year ago. But doing so enabled us to work on a sequel, due in October 2013.”

Self-Publishing Tips

  • “If you believe you’ll make your fortune by writing or self-publishing, you may be disappointed. Our best advice: Don’t write to get rich. Write because you have something to say.”
  • “Your readers will tell you whether you’re any good or not. If you’re good and if you’re lucky, you still may not get rich, but you may find satisfaction.”
  • “Our non-fiction niche books bring us speaking engagements and consultancy opportunities, keeping us solvent and well fed. But it’s The Leopard Tree that feeds our souls. Hearing that readers of our novel are making positive changes in the world is exactly what we hoped to achieve. The tiny amount that sales allow us to donate is a drop in the bucket of enormous need, but our growing readership continues to sow the seeds for inspired actions that are taking root and spreading, and that’s what keeps us going.”

Learn more about Lisa and Tim and their work by visiting their website, The Leopard Tree, and their blog, Digital BookStalk.  You can also follow them on Facebook.

Article by Eldon Sarte