Interviewed by Sarah Tse | Written by Donna Lander | 2018
Joseph Jenkins had an idea: an idea that worked, and would help millions around the world, while promoting ecologically sound practices applicable to any culture. What began as a seed of a thought became a graduate thesis at Slippery Rock University, Pennsylvania, only to morph into a non-academic work aimed to help common people of non-academic circles. In 1994, this graduate student wrote his thesis without any experience or knowledge of how to write a book or publish it. What was the fascinating topic? A topic that raised a stink! A composting toilet system using human manure. Based on his 10 plus years of research, and the use of the compost toilet he had designed, Joseph became convinced what he had learned needed to be shared with the world. His fascination grew as his research developed.
The simple invite from a friend changed the course of his life. This friend had invited him to attend a one-day seminar on how to publish a book and meet agents from multiple publishing companies. She was interested in writing her own story book, he accompanied her out of interest in the topic of publishing. That was the kick start he needed. While he was there, Joseph shared his idea for the composting toilet system to these publishing company reps who all expressed interest in his idea. However, when it came to an actual commitment, not one of the twenty plus queries to publishing companies responded to say they would publish his book.
Not to be deterred, he turned to self-publishing and designed his own book using page layout professional software, called QuarkXPress. He crafted his personal graphics with Adobe PhotoShop, and printed 600 copies hoping that he would sell at least one. Jenkins learned a lesson from this experience! Never assume people will not read your book…that rudimentary beginning led to over 65,000 copies being sold to date. The Humanure Handbook became a category best seller on Amazon, was translated into seventeen languages, and published on most of the continents. His principles have been adopted and used in health and sanitation projects around the world!
Self-publishing gave Jenkins freedom to expand and create his book the way he wanted, not constrained by restrictions a publishing firm would apply to create their version of his ideas. He would have lost control of design ideas, rhetoric, and how his book would be distributed. The topic of his book was not a best-seller in the publishing company’s perspective and he was not a celebrity, so how would his book turn a profit? Thankfully, in avoiding the normal publishing route, he established his success based on his own terms! But that success did have a cost in dollars and cents. He had to procure the financial means for the printing first!
As a skilled slate (stone) roofing contractor, Jenkins earned $5000 in profit in 1994 as a graduate student. Not wanting to pay taxes on that lump sum, he turned around and used the money to pay for the publishing costs. Although simple and with no frills half tone, gray scale images (not of quality resolution), the book was an odd shape/size, which made the printing costs more expensive. He printed stickers to place on the inside front cover to apologize to the readers who bought the book. Once the 600 copies were produced, he didn’t know how much to charge for the book, how much to pay the middle man, how much Amazon would take to list it on their site, etc. He didn’t even know how to get the book placed on Amazon. The learning curve increased quickly, but also produced results quickly.
How did he become a success? After publishing his first edition, he wisely gave and sold copies of his books to friends, family, others in his academic field. The word spread, quickly! In fact, Joseph realized that after his book had reached 10,000 sold copies, he began meeting people at conferences and meetings that had already read his book. These opportune discussions led to invitations to share his knowledge and expertise with health agencies, non-profit aid organizations, government assistance agencies, private industries in places around the world. There are very few people who are addressing the problem of the 2.4 billion people around the world who do not have access to toilets! But those who are in the field of sanitation and health take notice! For example, a man contacted Jenkins after seeing his book on-line, purchasing and reading it. This man worked with the government and was part of a sanitation project in Mongolia. He requested Jenkins to join his team as a consultant. Another man asked to put his book online for people to read for free. A little reticent at first, Jenkins agreed, placed his edition online, and his business took off!
Allowing people to read his book online for free moved people to buy it, or to forward it to others who in turn purchased the volume. His book led to the start of his consulting business, which opened opportunities for him in Haiti, Nicaragua, Mongolia, Tanzania, Uganda, India, and Mozambique. His experience launched new projects, such as filming video and documentary clips with film crews from S. Korea, the BBC, and public television networks. Little by little, by trial and error, and smart application of business principles, his self-publishing work began generating revenue and sparking new ideas for additional projects. By 1995, he created the 3rd revision and printed a larger volume, using standard sizes instead of odd sized pages. The Humanure Handbook became a category best seller on Amazon, was translated into 17 languages, and published in most continents. The principles of the book have been adopted in projects around the world and opened one of his consulting businesses, for which he travels extensively.
This was not the only best seller which opened doors for Jenkins. Slate roofing, for which Joseph uses a unique specialized skill, qualified him to be an expert in the field. This untapped field for literary resources was a niche! Few realized the potential. By 1995, he had already specialized in the slate roof industry for 15 years. He decided to look in local libraries, large city libraries, and university libraries for books on slate roofing techniques. None of them had books on slate roofing! The seed was planted in his mind to put his knowledge into written form and germinated into the printing of his next book.
After 2 years and approximately 1000 hours of work to solidify his ideas, the first edition of The Slate Roof Bible was released in 1997. Complete with black and white photos, and in paperback format, the content discussed slate quarries in the US, Wales, and England. The 2nd edition, came 5 years later in 2003 after writing, and gathering photos from his travels to France, Italy, and Spain explaining international slate roofing techniques. The difference between the 2nd edition and the 1st were reflected brilliantly in the color photos. The 3rd edition, with a hardback cover, by far became the most labor intensive and took 15 years of accumulated work to complete. Not wanting to become stagnant, he pursued learning more about his trade by visiting other nations and their slate quarries, such as those in Norway and Sweden. Accumulating his data and expounding his understanding of slate roofing, he poured it all into the 3rd edition. While working on this edition, he pulled together those in the trade industry to share information and improve their skills, starting an International Trade Association for Slate Roofers! There are 135 companies from the US and around the world including those in Brazil, Argentina, Canada, China … and more, who are involved in the trade association.
The Slate Roof Bible continued to open other opportunities. Someone from Washington D.C. read his book and called Jenkins about a building which had a slate roof, and he needed Joseph’s expert opinion on the roof’s condition. The building turned out to be Ford’s Theatre, where President Lincoln was assassinated. Jenkins aptly showed this gentleman the roof had already been replaced with new slate and done very well. He didn’t see any problems or faults with the work. The original slate roof had lasted over 135 years, and Jenkins explained to the gentleman he expected the new roof to last the same amount of years. This “consultation,” made him realize he had another way to use his expertise in slate roofing, and another consulting business was born!
“Experience is the best teacher”, as the idiom states. Jenkins learned the way to success was to “know your stuff,” and to self-promote, self-promote, self-promote. His thought process meant he needed to be a shameless self-promoter to make it in competitive business. He accomplished this by entering award competitions of all kinds, and over many categories. His niche didn’t always fit into a specific category, so he submitted to several across multiple categories. Those hosting competitions gave him feedback received by customers who read or reviewed the book and gave it a rating. Winners of competitions are selected after receiving the feedback and ratings. He received the Gold Book award for the 3rd Edition of The Slate Roof Bible, among many other awards indicated in his bio.
In addition to competitions, he promotes on social media, advertises in trade catalogs and magazines, uses personal speaking engagements, radio interviews (including his most famous one with Howard Stern), mass emails, and his personal website established in 1994. He produced and published his own trade magazine, Traditional Roofing, which provided information and advertisements both. Jenkins sold advertising in his magazine which paid for its production and doubled as a benefit to advertise his own book. Currently the magazine is only available online. Due to extensive traveling, he was unable to keep up with the print production of the magazine.
Truly, self-publishing has brought success to Joseph Jenkins in the business arena. Producing multiple publications and establishing multiple consultation businesses with extensive reach have kept him very busy and focused. Jenkins admits there are many who have contributed to his success in self-publishing. It began with the friend who was interested in writing a book and invited him to accompany her to a day long seminar on publishing. Others include his father, now 88 years old, who still edits Joseph’s books, and his ex-wife who has read all his manuscripts and given advice. Joseph also selected a book distributer to distribute his books, Chelsea Green Publishing of Vermont, so he could turn over the responsibility of the distribution of his books and focus on writing and traveling. This environmentally friendly company offered to distribute Humanure, and they have handled the distribution of all his publications at 30% of the sales ever since.
When asked what the most memorable moment of his first self-published book was, he recalled the knock on his door in 1994, one week after the book had been released on the market. Jenkins had given his book to a friend, who then gave the book to her boyfriend, an AP reporter. As a result, the reporter came with a camera to interview him. He invited him in, showed him the compost pile, and explained the process of his system. The journalist wrote the article and placed the photos in newspapers across the state of Pennsylvania. It provided free advertisement, and state-wide exposure!
An arduous process, self-publishing could take many turns. To make the process smoother and with less challenges, Jenkins’ advises these several points: 1) do more research and study about self-publishing, 2) join organizations specializing in self-publishing, 3) attend conferences and workshops related to the topic, 4) hire a proof reader or professional editor, 5) use a professional artist to design the book cover. Jenkins had used personal artist friends to do the covers for his books after he came up with the design himself. Now, he lets the professional artist design without his input.
Joseph Jenkins’ most important and valuable advice to others who want to self-publish: “write because you want people to read what you have to say! Do not enter the business because you want to get rich. If you have a message that is important, or information which people need to know, then most likely you will succeed as a self-publisher. Your message could take a few years to become the masterpiece you dream of. Like building a house, you must gather the materials, lay a foundation, build the foundation piece by piece, do the finishing work, such as editing, art, etc. Do not rush but take care of the details and invest in your work: Belong to organizations that help self-publishers, such as the International Book Publishers Association. Attend the conferences and trainings or workshops they offer. If you avail yourself of these learning opportunities, you will grow and develop as an author and self-publisher.