Bestselling writer and illustrator Susan Branch tested the self-publishing waters three years ago, when she published the first volume of her autobiography, A Fine Romance (2013) by working with Vineyard Stories, a local hybrid press near her home on Martha’s Vineyard. Emboldened by the experience and wanting more control of the publishing process, she decided to go it alone and launched Spring Street Publishing the following year. Since then she’s reissued a 10th anniversary of her lifestyle book Autumn (2014) and a second autobiography, The Fairy Tale Girl (2015). And published the third and final volume of the trilogy about her life, Martha’s Vineyard, Isle of Dreams, earlier this month.
So far Branch, who began her career by publishing a series lifestyle books -- each installment lettered and painted by hand -- with Little, Brown, has no regrets about switching to self-publishing. Nor has she had difficulty reaching her audience without the backing of a large press. “Word-of-mouth is the secret,” Branch said. She acknowledged that Little, Brown gave her a platform for many years. But it’s really “the Girlfriends”—her readers—who have served as her ambassadors, she says. Roughly 350,000 to 500,000 Girlfriends read her blog and 53,000 subscribe to her quarterly newsletter.
“The Girlfriends are so involved, and they care,” Branch said. “I can say, ‘I’ll be in a park in England’ and people will fly in from here, Italy, and the Netherlands.” The Girlfriends not only show up at her events in the U.S. and abroad, but they help pave the way for her to set up bookstore appearances. Earlier this year, when Branch announced that she would embark on a nine-week, 25-city book tour, she asked the Girlfriends for suggestions. For her stop in Kansas, they recommended Rainy Day Books in Fairway and kept calling the store to make sure Branch was added to the reading series.
The most difficult part of self-publishing for Branch has been inventory control. For starters, when dealing with her U.S. printer, she had to learn what amounts to a different language: print terminology. Deciding how many copies to print has also been difficult, and can tie up a significant amount of money. “It’s a giant gamble,” she said of printing 25,000 copies of Martha’s Vineyard, Isle of Dreams after having just printed 25,000 copies of The Fairy Tale Girl last fall. “You find out how much things cost and you wonder how [traditional] publishers do it,” Branch added.
For her upcoming 8,000-mile tour, Branch hopes that she has printed the right number of copies of new book. She had to cut short her last tour -- in 2013, for A Fine Romance -- because she ran out of books. A Fine Romance now has 60,000 copies in print after four trips to press. The tour is also an opportunity to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the publication of her first title, the cookbook Heart of the Home, which Spring Street will reissue in an updated edition this fall in time for the holidays. Branch is planning to print 20,000 copies now so that she can promote the book and bring sample copies on her tour. In addition to bookstore stops, she will go to BEA in Chicago and do a signing for booksellers and librarians at the Baker & Taylor booth.
Going it alone doesn’t mean that Branch doesn’t get assistance along the way. She has hired cookbook publicity powerhouse Lisa Ekus to get the word out on Heart of the Home, which has new recipes, new art, and a ribbon bookmark. Ekus worked on the original promotion for the book three decades ago.
Branch’s work could also get an unexpected boost on the small screen or large. Earlier this spring Cope Entertainment contacted her and recently optioned her trilogy for development into a film or television series. If the project goes forward, Branch will spend a year in Hollywood working on the script. Branch hired an entertainment lawyer to negotiate the contract. “I knew I would like him,” she said, “when the first question he asked me was, ‘Who do you want to play you?’ ” Her pick was Zooey Deschanel; they both have bangs.