Money Flop #4: These Guys Dropped $20,000 On A Failed Text Book

text book money flop

A college text book about depression; it felt like a slam dunk.  But after losing serious time and money, it had these guys searching for their own therapy.

It’s surprising.  With the increasing cost of college text books, the popularity of depression as an academic topic, and little competition in the field, it seems like a college text book discussing depression would be a great product.  And that’s exactly what this small, Canadian publishing firm thought as well.  But after some astronomically missed sales-targets, it was evident that this slam-dunk text book was headed into the Money Flop graveyard (and with a hilarious ending).

The Loss: $20,000 & 900 man hours – From layout, copy-editing, marketing expenses, revisions, and printing, the cost to mass produce a college text book requires significant resources.

The Hard Lesson: Good planning, good execution, and well-targeted marketing don’t guarantee success. 

The Story:

Back in the 1990’s, a small textbook publication was looking for some new content to publish.  One of their previous authors, an academic professor in psychology, pitched them an idea about a depression textbook.  It was a growing topic, and there wasn’t a lot of competition.  So after discussing the possibilities, both parties thought it was a good idea, and worth pursuing.

The professor spent about 12 months cultivating and crafting his manuscript before handing it over to the Canadian publishing firm.  This publishing firm, at the time, had 2 full time employees, and utilized a few contractors.  Those employees, contractors, and owners committed about 900 man hours into the book.  This includes layout, revisions, editing, approvals, and everything else involved in publication process.

There were no hiccups or set backs during production.  And although small, this is a professional publication outfit, which has has launched many successful books prior to this one.  So there was no reason to believe that this book wouldn’t sell as planned.

And once the final draft got approved for their upcoming depression textbook, it was time to market the book.

The Marketing

Remember, this Money Flop occurred in the 1990’s.  So you couldn’t advertise on Facebook or Google.  And there were no email lists.  So mailers were the common method of advertising.  This book publisher would put together an 8.5″ x 11″ tri-fold.  They would list a few of their upcoming releases (like this depression textbook) and some of their current editions, and then mail the tri-folds to each house on their mailer list.

Additionally, they attended a large, academic conference in Canada, where they would put their book on display.  The hope is that the textbook would attract the attention of professor’s and librarians, to add to their collection and curriculum.  The conference was a true proving ground for the textbook’s future success, due to its well targeted market.

The Misfortune

You, as the reader, already know the conclusion of this story.  But its not due to any poor planning on the publisher, or the author.  It was a calculated risk that both parties took, thinking that there would be a greater reward at the end.  But it’s still a risk, which was exposed during the academic conference.  

Sadly, the publisher never received that hopeful bulk order of text books.  And although it’s difficult to understand why a book on depression, a growing topic, would but so hard to sell as a psychology course, the project manager for the book offered a few speculations:

  1. My best guess was that the focus of the book was wrong–too specialized for field-survey type classes, but not focused enough for higher-level classes. To further explain: a Psych 101 type class wouldn’t use a text on a just depression; instead they’d have a textbook designed for the whole course, with a chapter on various mental-health problems, including depression. And a graduate seminar on depression would probably use individual scholarly papers. So we were always targeting the classes in between those extremes–high-level undergrad classes, intro grad classes, etc.–which is difficult to pull off. And I think we screwed up there. We should either have made the book into a detailed intro to the subject suitable for undergrad classes, or maybe got the author to bring more people on to the project and had the book address the issue from different perspectives in more detail–i.e. a clinical psych perspective in one chapter, a psychiatric take in another, theoretical models in a third, etc..–that would have been clearly aimed at the graduate level.

  2. The timing was wrong. There are a lot more classes in psych now than there were then. Maybe the same sort of book would actually sell today, since the market is so much bigger.

So what do You Do With Left Over Text Books?

There’s only one obvious answer to this question: you sell them to a local spy shop, so they can cut out the middle of the book, and transform them into a secret compartment.  

money flop - text book

The Bible from the beloved film Shawshank Redemption


So that’s the story of how as small, Canadian publishing firm invested big in a textbook, and ended up making a high-end spy-store prop.