How Hard Can it Be?

(Or… “What should museum shops be selling?”)

Written by Roy Starkey, Mineralogist and Author

A year ago today, on October 2nd 2018, I wrote about the ‘journey’ of writing and publishing a bookMinerals of the English Midlands. The final paragraph of the post read “Eventually, the final PDF file is prepared ready for transmission to the printer, and the author can relax …. Well, for a while at least, until several hundred, or perhaps thousands of, books arrive, and the next phase begins, but that is another story.”

Well, here goes….

After the inevitable anxious wait, the books finally arrive. In truth, the final part of the process – printing and binding the books – is actually quite quick (three to four weeks), and when you see what is involved, that’s just amazing from a technology and process point of view.

In the case of my project, a print run of 1200 copies (300 hard back and 900 softback) amounted to 255 cartons which were delivered on 4 pallets – a total weight of 2640 kg (plus the pallets)!

Unloading four pallets of books at a self-store unit (dry sunny weather helps!) © Roy Starkey.

It was clear that we could not find sufficient space at home and so a self-store unit was rented at a nearby industrial park. “Do you have one available on the ground floor?” “Err, no unfortunately not.” So, upstairs it had to be. We were fortunate that the storage company were able to arrange a forklift truck to raise each pallet up onto the mezzanine floor for us, but we still had to split the load and manually transport the books the full length of the warehouse to my unit.

The ‘long walk from freedom’. © Roy Starkey.

A sweaty couple of hours later, we had the bulk of the stock neatly stacked in the store and were ready to take the remainder home by car.

Densely packed books in the store. © Roy Starkey.


How many books is it OK to put in a family car, at 10 kg per carton? © Roy Starkey.

Lessons learned from my earlier publishing project Crystal Mountains: Minerals of the Cairngorms had been put to good use and I had done my best via advance publicity, to generate orders in advance of the publication date so I had an immediate pile of books that needed packing and dispatching.

Bubble wrap, parcel tape and book mailers were rapidly consumed, and I also decided to buy a plastic strapping machine so that I could put reinforcing around outer shipping cartons when I was sending one or more boxes of books, especially to overseas re-sellers.

The strapping machine. © Roy Starkey.

For single dispatches I generally use a ‘drop off’ service via Parcel2Go, selecting the best value carrier for the particular destination – it is amazing how much prices (and the services offered) vary.

For larger, heavier shipments of 20 kg plus, I opt for a collection service. However, this does have the disadvantage of having to wait in all day for the driver to come and pick them up.

The dispatch department! © Roy Starkey.

My standard packaging method is to wrap the book in bubble wrap, taped in place, fit a corrugated cardboard sheet at each end to provide corner protection and seal the whole package in an oversized book mailer, securely taped with parcel tape. For such a large and heavy book, high quality packaging is key to the product arriving at the customer in pristine condition.

In parallel with early sales, I contacted a carefully selected range of journals to ask if they would be prepared to publish a review of the book. This was fairly successful and resulted in me sending out about a dozen review copies. Again, this is something to think carefully about because the cost of postage and the loss of the sales revenue for the ‘free’ book add up to a substantial sum.

Over the past year, reviews have appeared in:

Next I turned my attention to trying to get some ‘speaking slots’ with various geological and mineralogical societies across the Midlands, which has resulted in a total of twelve talks booked so far.

Clearly a Minerals of the English Midlands Tour t.shirt is needed.

I had also been invited to give a talk at the Droitwich Salt Fest which took place on 7th September, and at the upcoming Geologists’ Association Annual Conference at the University of Manchester on 19th October, so the publicity effort goes on.

Direct sales to fellow enthusiasts are clearly the easiest to accomplish, and I had a presence at several mineral shows during the year, but for real geographical ‘reach’ it is vital to cultivate some re-sellers, ideally in places likely to be frequented by potential purchasers – geological museum bookshops for example? One might think so, but sometimes it seems that the odds are stacked against you.

There are a number of different factors at play here, but foremost seems to be the commercial imperative that ‘products have to pay their way’ (what happened to the educational mission of museums?). A close second is the perception that the internet and online retailing have ‘killed book sales’ as I was told by one institution, and finally that the book is ‘too specialist’ for our visitors.

This is a great pity, because if the available shelf space is given over solely to mass market ‘giftware’ there is little or nothing of interest to the enthusiast (especially overseas visitors) and more so for the potential newcomer to the subject. This appears to be equally true of publications in any other field of natural history – palaeontology, ornithology, lepidoptera etc, etc. Could not room be found for a small specialist “collectors’ corner”?

In days gone by, I remember as a teenager, enjoying browsing the various technical publications of the British Museum (Natural History) – now the Natural History Museum London and although I could not afford them at the time, my lifelong interest in geology and mineralogy was fuelled by their potential availability.

Nowadays it seems that the standard fodder of plastic dinosaurs, dyed agates and various branded nick-knacks is ubiquitous across the museum gift shop world. This is both a great pity, and sells short an opportunity to educate and inspire the visiting public.

The take-up from museum shops has been disappointingly low and I would like therefore to pay tribute to the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences (University of Cambridge), the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, Buxton Museum, The Potteries Museum (Stoke-on-Trent), and the BGS Geology Shop (both at Keyworth and the London Information Office) for having faith in the project and generously agreeing to stock the book. Your support is greatly appreciated.

Looking to the future, the ‘book mountain’ continues to diminish slowly and I have just retrieved the remaining stock from the store. We now have boxes stacked behind sofas and along the side of the spare bed, and in the garage, but this is of manageable proportions.

So, if you are thinking of venturing into the world of self-publishing, I hope that this has given you a few pointers, and the confidence to go ahead and do it. Yes, it is a lot of work, yes there is a fair bit of humping and bumping (books are heavy), but the satisfaction of seeing your work in print, and especially when someone compliments you on the publication, makes it all worthwhile.

What are you waiting for?

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