Copyright © 1999 by Mary Eisenhart. All rights reserved.

Hearts Online--A Publishing Adventure

By Mary Eisenhart

Nancy Capulet put her heart online, met the man of her dreams, and wrote a guidebook for others on similar quests.

Last spring, Nancy Capulet had a book ready for publication, on a subject with broad appeal--a guide to online dating. Having met the man who's now her husband via the world of Internet matchmaking services, she could address the subject with a certain credibility, and the book was well-grounded in her own experience and that of many others.

Like John Walker's Hacker's Diet, which she points to as one of her book's cultural forebears, Capulet's book takes a distinctly engineering-driven, problem-solving approach to the quest for a romantic partner. Challenging the pleasant but ill-founded notion "if it's meant to be, it will happen," Putting Your Heart Online begins:

What would you think if someone said, "If I'm meant to get a raise, I'll get it," "If I'm meant to win a marathon, I will," or "If I'm meant to be president of the United States, I'll be elected"? Most people have to work to achieve their goals. Why should dating be any different?

The book goes on to discuss the online matchmaking landscape, along with assorted tips for negotiating its occasional pitfalls. It addresses such delicate issues as the balancing of candor and self-marketing, men's and women's Mars/Venus approaches to personal ads, how to give and receive rejection gracefully, etc. With abundant real-life examples, Putting Your Heart Online offers encouragement in the form of bracing, highly practical advice on finding that person who's truly in sync with you.

The Independent Publisher

With the draft of the book finished by April, Capulet was conversing with several prospective publishers, considerably taken aback by their apparent pride at being able to have books on the retailers' shelves by Valentine's Day 1999.

"I just thought, 'I can get it out by June!'" Capulet recalls.

Opting to self-publish the book, Capulet drew on her own previous experience. Better known in technical circles as Nancy Blachman of Variable Symbols Inc., she's the author of several books on Mathematica software. "When I wrote technical books, it was easy to find a publisher," she says. " I had several publishers begging me for my first book, and they were always expressing interest in my subsequent ones." One of them, Mathematica Quick Reference, was her first foray into self-publication, and sold well enough that it was picked up by a commercial publisher. How different could the mainstream market be? she figured.

Now living in Princeton, N.J., with her husband and working on technical projects, Capulet looks back on a hectic year spent publishing and promoting her book in venues ranging from talk radio and book-signings to online-dating workshops on campuses and in church halls: "I got the book out and I learned a lot about the publishing world."

The decision to produce the book on her own was driven by a number of factors, not least her previous (though, as it turned out, quite different) experience with Mathematica Quick Reference. Whereas her technical books had spawned bidding wars in their well-defined and well-funded market, a mass-market book was a much harder sell.

"My agent shopped my proposal around to 30 publishers, and all we got was rejections," Capulet recalls. "Since I had self-published one time before, then found a publisher because they saw that there was demand, I felt pretty confident that if I got this book out, people would like it, and then a publisher would pick it up."

Another critical issue was the notorious volatility of the Internet, which practically guaranteed that at least some of the information in any Internet-related book would be obsolete before the book saw print.

"My book had timely information, and I didn't want to wait," Capulet explains. "In fact," she adds, "it has a chapter on one matchmaking service, Good Company, which went out of business by the time the book was published. It was a lively business when I wrote it up. They had venture capital; they looked like a big one, so I actually made a point of putting them in the book, but they vanished within a couple of months."

Dealing with the practical issues of getting the book printed was relatively easy. Using Dan Poynter's Self Publishing Manual, which she describes as "my bible," Capulet sent solicitations for quotes to most of the printers listed in the book, then asked the candidates with the three most attractive bids for references.

In the end, she chose Michigan-based Patterson Printing, which had submitted the second-lowest bid. "The least expensive one told me they had misquoted when I started asking questions," she says, pointing to a common pitfall for the unwary.

She then hired a graphic designer to design the book's cover and graphics, as well as to offer advice on page layout. The artist delivered film of the cover art. Capulet herself typeset the pages using the LaTeX typesetting system, printed them out on a 600 dpi laser printer, and sent them to Patterson for transfer to film.

"If I were to do it again, I might look for a printer that could take PostScript," she says now. "The reason I didn't do that this time was that I was fearful that something would go wrong, like the wrong font would get used. By providing camera-ready copy, I knew what the pages would look like."

The Gentle Art Of Self-Promotion

The challenge of getting the books printed was minor compared to the never-ending task of sales and promotion.

"Publishing houses really have their marketing channels greased," Capulet says. "If you self-publish, you're really going to have to peddle your books a lot. I started writing to bookstores and the press, and to wholesalers and distributors trying to get them to carry it.

"I do feel that I need to go out on the road if I'm going to sell the book. When I do marketing, I can see more sales directly. When I hold back on the marketing, I can see the sales drop off. I have wholesalers, and I can see how much they're ordering. They look at your trend. If you sell more books, they'll order more books. If your trend starts going negative, they'll taper back on their order."

Creative thinking is often called for, as Capulet discovered when, following a talk she'd given at the local Borders, the other local bookstores refused to schedule her on the grounds that she'd already spoken at the competition's place. Unable to market the book directly in those venues, she launched a discussion group at the local independent, Encore Books, on the subject of Public Relations For Writers.

"This is a group for discussing how to get the word out, for aspiring writers, or established writers who don't feel that they're getting the attention they deserve," Capulet explains. "I'd been marketing my book quite a bit, but I thought I could share information with other people."

Networking and information-sharing also turned out to be a useful marketing strategy. Encore's event coordinator proved a great source of press contacts, several of which resulted in articles about the book. Also, one Borders event coordinator provided contact info for counterparts at other Borders stores.

Today, Capulet maintains a website, which not only provides information about Putting Your Heart Online but allows matchmaking services to post information about themselves, compensating somewhat for the inherent obsolescence of printed information.

After a year of writing, publishing, and promoting a book, all the while planning her New Year's Day wedding, Capulet now says, "I used to think that publishers ripped people off, but now I have more respect for what they do. It may seem that they don't have to do much work for your book, but if you do it yourself, you have to do an awful lot."

But, she adds, "A lot of people complain that their editor edited their work badly. I got complete control--I got to write it the way I wanted to write it. I got to put the cover on it that I wanted to put on. Everything was mine. If I have any complaints, I have to complain to me."

Nancy Capulet will host a discussion of making winning book proposals and press kits at the February 22 meeting of Public Relations For Writers, 7:30 pm at Encore Books., Princeton Shopping Center, Princeton, N.J. Call (609)252-0608 for information.