Award-winning Alaska author shares self-publishing journey that led her Alaska history series to gold in international contest

My Aunt Phil’s Trunk Alaska history series recently won two 2016 Literary Classics International gold medals: one for best nonfiction series and one for best historical nonfiction.

Yay, I’m an overnight success!

Well, not really.

It took 17 years of hard work to get that recognition.

I’ve learned a lot on my journey as an author, and I want to share with you some of the best lessons and marketing strategies I’ve found to get my stories from Alaska out to more readers all over the globe.

How My Writing Adventure Began

My story begins after I inherited my Alaska historian aunt’s entire body of work in 1999. As a third-generation Alaskan, I understood its value and knew I needed to share Phyllis Downing Carlson’s stories with the world.

I also knew I needed the proper tools to do the job right. My Assistant General Manager job with Bristol Bay Telephone in King Salmon, Alaska, had honed my skills as a business writer. Not as a storyteller.

So I returned to college and earned a degree in journalism in 2003 at age 52. I spent the next three years organizing my aunt’s work into time periods, adding stories from my own research and searching through museum, library and university archives to find historical photographs to complement the short stories in what would become a five-book series.

After much research into the book publishing industry, I decided to self-publish. If I was going to do all the work, I wanted to reap all the benefits.

It just made sense to me that earning 70% royalties on sales at and other retailers was better than 8-15% royalties from a traditional publishing company.

How to Find a Book Printer

I first found a print broker, which is someone who sends your book information to printers and gets bids. One of my criteria was that my printer had to be in the USA. I did not want to be responsible for another American losing a job.

I chose a company in Minnesota to print 2,000 copies of that first book. The print broker then handled the order, shipping and delivery for me.

book promotion bundleSince that printing, I’ve learned about a few other options for quality printing for smaller quantities of books using small print runs or Print-on-Demand (POD). The cost per book is higher, so the profit margin is less, but you don’t have to deal with storage space or have capital tied up in inventory.

  1. Bang Printing –
  2. Publishers Graphics – [email protected]
  3. Amazon’s Createspace –

There are many options out there for printing books, and different types of book projects require different printing options, so please do your own research and find the best printer for your specific project.

Marketing the Book to Local Stores and Libraries

Once I received copies of Volume One in May, 2006, the real work began – marketing the books.

Many authors are surprised to learn that about 1 percent of the effort for a successful book goes into its writing. The other 99 percent goes into selling their masterpiece.

I began the marketing process before my book was printed. As soon as I received the final proof, I took it to every bookstore, gift shop and library in Anchorage.

Almost every store preordered a supply of three to 12 books. I also compiled a list of bookstores and gift shops across Alaska and called each one to pitch my book.

Distributors played an important role in my marketing plan too. Even though they take up to 65 percent of the retail price as their fee, they get my books into stores like Barnes & Noble, Safeway, Walgreens and Walmart. Having books in as many places as possible is key to selling more books.

If you want more sales, getting more distribution can make a big difference.

Marketing Books Online

First, I built a working author website from an online template, and then I created a PayPal account. That made payments a snap for my customers.

Next, I created a Facebook fan page and began sharing a tidbit from Alaska’s past with a historical photograph daily. To save time, I now upload a month’s worth of these posts by using Facebook’s scheduling calendar.

I respond to every comment anyone makes on each post, which has allowed me to build relationships with fans and make future sales. The page has grown to 13,000-plus fans.

I also joined Amazon Advantage. This program allows self-published authors to get their books listed on the Internet giant’s website. If Amazon accepts a book, it stocks a small quantity and then fulfills orders.

Selling Books Directly to Readers at Events

I searched the Anchorage community calendar to see what events were scheduled from May through December that first year. I booked a table at many public functions, and small towns nearby, to sell my book in person.

Selling directly to customers is the most effective and profitable sales path for me. I now rent a tent during summer weekends at the Anchorage Downtown Market, where approximately 20,000 people pass through each weekend. I also have a booth at the 12-day Alaska State Fair.

Public speaking is rewarding, too. I accept most offers to share Alaska’s history with various groups, including book clubs, service organizations and tourist gatherings. Potential for book sales at these events is amazing.

Here’s a 2007 NBC KTUU Channel 2 interview about Aunt Phil’s book marketing success story.

Branding Your Book and Yourself

Three years ago I created an Aunt Phil persona. Whenever I’m in public doing a presentation about Aunt Phil’s Trunk, I dress in 1890s costume, big hat and all.

That decision led to me getting noticed by a reporter with the Anchorage CBS affiliate, KTVA Channel 11, who asked for an interview. When I arrived at the station in full costume, anchors of the morning news show stopped to chat.

That encounter led to my weekly TV segment titled “Alaska Story Time with Aunt Phil.”

Book Award Contests

My confidence rose as sales soared, so I entered book award contests. In 2013 Aunt Phil’s Trunk Volume Four earned finalist status in the prestigious Eric Hoffer contest. In July 2016, all the books received Literary Classics International awards.

These types of awards tell potential customers that a book is something special. They can help tip the balance for customers who aren’t sure if they want to make a purchase.

So there you have the ingredients that went into my “overnight” success story. To date, Aunt Phil’s Trunk Volume One has sold close to 20,000 copies. The other four books have sold in the thousands, as well.

I hope you can use my experience and tips to help you on your journey into printing, marketing and reaping the rewards of being a self-published author.

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Laurel Downing Bill

Alaska historian and speaker Laurel Downing Bill authored the entertaining and award-winning five-book Aunt Phil’s Trunk Alaska history series. She also wrote and published Sourdough Cookery, which features 100 sourdough recipes and a starter that began with her great-grandfather in 1896 Hope, Alaska. Laurel has written hundreds of articles for various Alaska newspapers and magazines, as well, and has won honors for several of those stories. For more information, go to or email [email protected]