One perspective I have from 35 years in the workforce is the correlation between challenge and reward.
The more difficult the job you take on, the better your life gets. The benefit may be a promotion, an opportunity, money, acclaim, a trip, whatever. There are many variables that get in the way, but generally, your quality of life improves.
Let’s take Naren Aryal, a Northern Virginia businessman who publishes books on everything from the Boston Red Sox to political parodies of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, sating the hunger of sports fans and political junkies alike.
It wasn’t a cakewalk for the 46-year-old entrepreneur. A book distributor he worked with filed for bankruptcy in 2007 and stiffed his company, Mascot Books, for $400,000. That was 40 percent of his annual revenue and enough to sink him.
“By that time, I was so far into [the business] that failure wasn’t an option,” said Aryal, Mascot’s chief executive. “A sense of urgency grew.”
He took out a home-equity loan, put more money into the company, cut his salary — “that comes with the territory,” he said — reduced his tiny staff by a third and doubled down on book sales, pushing into new venues like Costco, Borders, Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million.
“We just picked ourselves up and kept going.”
He had done that before. The attorney, who attended the University of Denver’s law school, was in-house counsel to three venture-funded companies in Northern Virginia. But they crashed and burned.
“I thought I was going to be rich,” he said.
If he isn’t now, he’s on the way: The independent Mascot Books publishing house will gross $4 million this year, earning him a salary and dividend that pays for a home in a leafy corner of Fairfax County.
The company gets its name from its original role publishing children’s books around the mascots of college and professional sports teams. It has published about 250 for teams including the Dallas Cowboys, New York Yankees and Chicago Cubs as well as for universities, among them Maryland, Alabama, Ohio State, Georgetown and George Washington.
The Red Sox’s “Hello, Wally!” books, for instance, have sold as many as 50,000 copies over the past nine years, including five different versions.
“The appetite for anything Red Sox-related is enormous,” Aryal said.
The mascot genre grosses around $500,000 a year in sales, he said. The other $3 million-plus comes from fees and incentives the company collects from helping authors produce and promote their works, whether it’s a fictional or nonfiction tale, a coffee-table book on architecture, a cookbook or a corporate history.
Titles include “The Death of Dulgath,” by fantasy writer Michael J. Sullivan; a pair of political parodies, “Go, Trump! Beat Crooked Hillary!” and “Go, Hillary! Beat the Donald!”; and children’s sports biographies on Washington Nationals star Bryce Harper and Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins.
Aryal owns more than half of the company, and a financial investor owns the rest. The company has 15 employees.
In the old days, there was one way to get a book published: Find a literary agent who would pitch your book to one of the big publishing houses in New York City, such as Simon & Schuster, Random House or Knopf.
Then the Internet came along and allowed anyone with a keyboard to call themselves an “author.”
I don’t know much about the book world, but I sense a certain sneer from the traditionalists when it comes to self-publishing. The sentiment is that you self-publish because your project is not good enough to be picked up by the big houses.
Mascot Books threads the needle between the two. For a flat fee, Aryal’s company will edit your book, find a ghostwriter if you need one, handle graphics and photos, design the cover and get the book printed. He adds an incentive fee for each book sold through brick-and-mortar stores and online retailers — such as Amazon and eBooks like Kindle and Apple’s iBooks.
Let’s say you want to print 5,000 copies of your 250-page hardcover book. Mascot might charge you $5.50 per book. That’s around $28,000. That includes editing, layout, artwork and printing the physical and eBook versions. It also includes some marketing help, like organizing launch parties, introducing you to local bookstores and hooking you up with associations with similar interests.
The author gets to suggest a retail price. In this case, let’s pick $20. A retailer such as Amazon may keep as much as half, which would be around $10 of the $20. That leaves $10. Mascot takes 15 percent of that, or $1.50. The author keeps the balance, in this case around $8.50.
The beauty of his business model for Mascot is that Aryal’s company gets a fee whether the book sells or not. But the distribution fee he collects through retail sales gives him a strong incentive to publish and sell books.
The system also offers an advantage to the author. Let’s say the author holds a book signing at his office. Since there’s no Amazon, no Barnes & Noble and no contribution from Mascot, the author keeps all the money from the sale.
Mascot has published around 2,000 books since 2003.
Aryal said he accepts about 20 percent of the solicitations he receives from would-be clients. The odds are much longer in traditional circles, where you first have to be represented by a literary agent, who then pitches your book through that company’s connections to the big publishing houses.
When a literary agent sells your book, you the author get paid. Usually, it’s an upfront fee, also known as an advance. That takes the author’s risk of not making any money out of the equation. If sales exceed the advance, the author starts getting a royalty on each book.
I was curious as to how Aryal got into the business in the first place. It seemed an odd route for a lawyer who worked at technology start-ups in Northern Virginia.
His wife at the time wrote a children’s book called, “Hello Hokie Bird!” on the ride home from a Virginia Tech football game with their daughter, who was 3 at the time.
Aryal decided to get it published, but the traditional houses turned him down.
“That’s when I said, ‘I have to do this on my own.’ ”
He found an illustrator at Virginia Tech, bought the licensing rights to the Hokie mascot and borrowed money against his home. A truck plopped a pallet holding 5,000 books on his driveway on Aug. 29, 2003.
“We took them all around Blacksburg [home of Virginia Tech]. I cold-called on stores: ‘Here’s my book. How many would you like?’ It coincided with football season and was just before Christmas.”
After paying the royalty to Virginia Tech, and covering printing and artists, “We cleared $25,000.”
He smelled a business opportunity.
“If I could do the same thing for 50 books, I could make a lot of money.”
Looks like he has.