This would be our first book festival. The first festival of any kind at which I would occupy a table. I didn’t know what to expect. When the festival began I felt a bit out of place. This was like one of the many book signings I had already attended, save that at this event there were a hundred other author and publisher tables, and we were all there for the same purpose. As more people began to arrive, though, I began to get more comfortable with the role of talking about my book and talking about the story behind the book. I smiled politely when someone passed the table, and if they happen to stop and pick up the book I generally did not impose myself on them. Most of the visitors to our table would ask about the book, often in the form of an inquiry about the name Mesabi, or about the publishing house, Lempi. One tall man told me that Lempi was his grandmother’s name, and I told him it was the name of the publisher’s grandmother, too. “It means ‘love’ in Finnish,” I told him. He widened his eyes in surprise. “I did not know that,” he said.
I saw a little girl who was perhaps eight or nine years old. She carried in the crook of her arm a pink notebook, and in her other hand a pen. On the top of the open page of the notebook was written two words: Chapter One. And below that the page was filled with words. I leaned across the table as she passed. “What is your book about?” I asked.
She smiled shyly and looked down at her notebook. Then she lifted her head proudly and told me the brief synopsis. “It’s about a little girl who has narcolepsy.”
“That sounds like a great idea,” I said. She smiled. “Keep writing,” I said.
Her mother smiled. “She loves to write,” she told me.
“I started writing when I was a little boy,” I said. “And I’ve never stopped.”
By the end of the event we had sold an entire box of books. And we had generated a significant amount of interest by handing out book marks and cards. Some people told me they wanted to buy the ebook. Others took bookmarks and cards so they could buy the books later online. And many people who barely gave the novel a passing glance still signed up for the newsletter, in part in the hope that they would get the chance to win a copy of the book. And others signed up for the newsletter and free book, and afterward they picked up the book and were interested enough that they still bought a copy.
I also had the chance to speak with several members of the Minnesota publishing community, and members of the general publishing world. I met the writers behind Calumet Editions, a publishing house that uses all the facets of Amazon to publish its books, from printing to distributing to ebooks to audio books. Ninety-five percent of their sales, he told me, come from ebooks. I met another woman who has been in the publishing business for 40 years who told me that she published her first book in the 80s. “It was easy back then,” she told me. This business is in the midst of a major change in the way it works. Right now Amazon is the market leader, and it is using its might and power to force the business to change. Models are shifting. Writers have more options than ever before in getting their words in print. We have chosen a more traditional route in terms of putting our book out there, and that means that we might not make as much per book as we’d otherwise like. But it does mean our book has a greater physical reach and is available through nearly all book selling outlets. Without the distribution method we used, we would not have been in any of the Barnes & Noble stores, at least not as easily. Publishing is a changing and ever shifting world, and we have only just gotten our feet wet.
What has not changed is the work involved in getting people to read your book. Hard work, research, perseverance. Events like the Book Fest give Mesabi Pioneers exposure. We have had a lot of inroads in terms of news coverage, have been featured in half a dozen newspaper articles and I’ve been on two morning shows, one in the Twin Cities itself. That has helped reinforce the book in people’s minds. The publicity has helped drive traffic to the book stores and hopefully online where they will remember and buy the book, either in paperback or ebook. And with Christmas just around the corner, a novel about the immigrants who came to northern Minnesota in the late 19th century to develop the greatest cache of iron ore America has ever known, and the harsh environment they faced, would make a great present.