Self Publishing as a Lemonade Stand

by James Scott Bell


I always used to stop at kids’ lemonade stands. Not anymore, because you can’t find them. You see, our local government here in Los Angeles, which is so business-friendly scores of enterprises are moving to Texas, decided to regulate the tots and their drinks some years ago. It’s happening all over. Not even Jerry Seinfeld could talk his way out of a lemonade shutdown.

Idiotic and sad, because the lemonade stand was often a kid’s first lesson in free enterprise and what it takes to run a successful business. That’s why I always stopped. I love encouraging ambition and the work ethic in kids.

Self-Publishing is a bit like running a lemonade stand, only without government interference. There’s a little something called the First Amendment, you see. With that in mind, what are some of the lessons we can glean from those little businesses we used to see in the summer by the side of the road?

  1. You’ve got to have a good recipe

The quality of the lemonade is the most important thing. Why? Because it leads to more business. I remember stopping at a stand and tasting dull, watery lemonade. And at another where there was way too much sugar in it. But when I got that glass of fresh lemonade that was just right, I went home and told my wife to go get some, too. A quality product gets talked about.

Writer, the most important thing you can do is write books people delight in and want to tell others about. Don’t serve up an inferior brew. You want word-of-mouth from your customers, not just a polite nod as they go looking for another stand.

  1. Get your mom to taste it

Before going out on the street, you need an expert to check your lemonade. Mom knows best. She can suggest changes and show you how to make a better batch.

Just like a good book editor, critique group, or beta readers. Indie writers need solid outside opinions of their work before they put a book up for sale. The ones who ignore this part of the process soon realize no more cars are stopping.

  1. Create curb appeal

The best lemonade stands had a nice look about them. They weren’t just a table and chairs. The owner-operators took time to create a colorful sign prominently featuring LEMONADE on it, with the price. It was big enough to read as you drove by, and wasn’t just a quick scrawl with a crayon on cardboard.

Self-publishing writers need eye-catching covers and compelling book descriptions. We all know that. Great covers and copy will get you to the next step in the selling process, a browse of the sample. So don’t shirk on the design element.

For covers, hire a pro. Expect to pay between $250 – $500. You can pay less, but caveat emptor. You can pay more, but I’m not sure you get more bang for your buck above half a grand.

You must also learn how to write compelling book descriptions. A solid formula can be found in this post.  Study book descriptions in your genre by browsing Amazon.

  1. Spread the word

I always liked seeing a little creativity in a lemonade stand’s “publicity.” Like when a kid would call out to the cars driving by, but not just by shouting, “Lemonade!” It was more like, “Cool off! It’s refreshing! Give it a try!”

When you start taking to social media, writer, don’t just shout, “Book! Buy my book!” Instead, create desire by telling people how it refreshes. Be fun about it. Don’t oversell.

I remember my own lemonade stand efforts. You know who did the most buying? The neighbors who already knew me.

In the same way, build up your social media presence by being a good neighbor. That should be your main focus, always. Then when you come out with a new book, you can announce it to those with whom you already have a trustworthy relationship.

  1. Thank your customers

It was always fun for me to pull up to the curb and see little faces light up. But much more do I remember one stand run by a couple of girls who jumped up and down and shouted, “Thank you! Thank you!” as I drove away. Their sincere gratitude was infectious.

Nurture your readers. As you begin gathering an email list, don’t pepper them with buy messages. Thank them every now and then. Put a “Thank you for reading” note at the back of your books, with a link to your sign-up page and a request for a review. Keep it simple. And sincere.

If you need some lessons in running a lemonade stand-style publishing business, I can offer you a couple of resources:

Self-Publishing Attack

How to Make a Living as a Writer

You will have challenges, of course. That’s another great lesson for kids, one they need to get early––things don’t always go swimmingly, even with your best efforts. That’s why you don’t give up. You look at the setback, learn from it, and try again.

Remember, if life gives you lemons, gather them up and throw them at people you don’t like either make lemonade or learn how to juggle.

How about you? Did you ever set up a lemonade stand when you were a kid?

If a child came up to you and said, “Gee, I’d like to be a self-published writer someday!” what would you tell them?

27 thoughts on “Self Publishing as a Lemonade Stand

  1. Regulation of lemonade stands? I thought I’d heard it all.

    Where I grew up it was so rural that any lemonade sales-kid would surely starve waiting for business to come by. Thank goodness we don’t have that problem with selling books.

    That’s actually a good thing for me to remember–being an Indie author may be hard work but not as hard as selling lemonade where there’s no one for miles. 😎

  2. Here’s something about lemonade stands: they’re always selling lemonade. A really enterprising kid might try iced tea, instead. (Or gin and tonics.)

    Similarly, indie writers have the agility to tap into narrow but deep markets that the Big 5 can’t risk. That’s one of our competitive advantages. You can write crime novellas starring a nun (love them, by the way), and I can write capers, an out-of-fashion genre, and we’ll find our audiences.

  3. Love, the analogy, Jim.

    When I was a young kid, my dad had a doctor’s office next to our house in a small town. A steady stream of potential customers flowed in and out of his door, and right past our front porch.

    My sister and I sat on the porch weaving hot pad holders. We turned out a good product, and sold them at a fair price. But we blew it on #4 above – Spread the word. We apparently weren’t professional enough. Too aggressive. Too loud. It was like the social media presence of “buy my book, and buy it right now!” We were suddenly pulled off the porch and back into the house. Children were to be seen and not heard. Never did get permission to try anything else.

    I hadn’t thought about that experience for a long time. It was my first venture into entrepreneurship. I still have the bug.

    And if a child asked me about being a self-published writer, I’d tell them to start reading everything they could get their hands on, especially any books by JSB. And start following The Kill Zone.

    Thanks for the memories.

  4. This is a great post. One of the many reasons why this analogy works so well, is that with a lemonade stand (or pot holders) you’re selling something you made. You’re not selling someone else’s newspapers, greeting cards, or laundry soap. All of which I tried to sell as a kid. It’s different. Thanks for the continuing inspiration and examples to back it up.

    • Great point, Lance. You reminded me of those times I tried selling greeting cards and magazine subscriptions door to door as a kid. I hated that, and it showed in the results. I do remember investing in a lemonade stand kit. It came with a table cloth with a nice design, cups, a display to put on the table. The lemonade itself I made, with my mom’s help of course. I remember doing pretty well with it.

  5. Go west, young man. When I was younger–holey socks, a LOT younger–I thought about it. I mean, I lived about as west as I could get without getting into east Los Angeles.

    Then, I began to travel a lot. A lot. My position entailed tons of writing, speaking, analyzing federal legislation and policy, advising the federal government, and flyinf to Washington, D.C. on the red eye and back home in18 hours.

    Then I spotted the really nice, free standing Orange County law school. Went to Fullerton for a no-cost evening lecture and sample legal writing exercise. Got a nice phone call from the law school dean. They’d love to have me as a student, particularly based on the writing sample and my resume.

    Lemonade stand took on a whole new look to me. It was all open there, in LA. Once I got through school, passed the California State Bar, I would set up my own law practice there in the Southland. It was all down hill. My goal: either trusts, wills, and estates, or intellectual property or entertainment law.

    As to the latter, I met and had lunch with an entertainment lawyer who got his start while he was enrolled in a similar free standing law school in down town. It was a straight shot down Wilshire to Westwood to UCLA- or USC-lands, the perfect places to set up new kinds of lemonade stands. So my new friend would take the straight shot and hang out in west side hamburger joints, sidewalk refreshment places, and bars. These places attracted the future actors, writers, singers, and other future members of various entertainment guilds, academies, and, (dare I say it?) 12 Step programs. There, he would engage in conversations with all kinds of people needing legal advice. And while he didn’t give legal advice, he said, he helped people. Evictions, contracts, publisher’s letters, royalty payments, and all varieties of lemonade were presented to him. He’d help solve them. He’d weep with actors and singers and others who didn’t get the audition or the gig. When these students and drop outs began to hit the big time, guess who their attorney was. By the time we had lunch, he had a nice practice in a nice building. People whose names I actually knew from the screens and, in those days, the record album jackets, would come to see him or call him, or ask him to come down to the local constabulary headquarters just after closing so they wouldn’t have to spend the night in jail, Los Angeles pokeys being as bad as pokeys anywhere else.

    I remembered the lesson and the example. Until today, I didn’t realize that the name of the example is lemonade stand.

    Because, you see, I wrote a sci-fi short story sometime back that no one wanted. I mean, it didn’t have the slick, slow-jazz feel that contemporary science fiction does. My science fiction is 1950s War of the Worlds Heinlein or Bradbury or Asimov. Rockets blast off, ray guns shoot abusive biew-biew-biew, not whoosh.

    So I put up my stand, put a lemonade for sale sign on it, and began to see how else I could make it palatable to other kinds of editors.

    Well, I found ‘im. Instead of a free standing all-out war with the Gibeons, I put the story into my novel as a way of introducing a character. It worked. The editor loved it. He gave me a lot more than 10 cents for it.

    A decade ago, the story would likely have been unusable by anybody. But lemonade stand marketing makes it a whole new way of selling stories. Because there are a whole lot of different kind of lemonade buyers than there used to be.

    Perhaps some of them are in Los Angeles.

      • I just re-read this, and I should have pointed out that I eventually chose not to go to law school. I decided I’d rather write.

        I did spend some time as a post-grad special student at the University of Oklahoma learning to write under some of the great professors of writing of the time–Foster-Harris, Dwight Swain, and Jack Bickham, the latter the writer of the Apple Dumpling Gang et al.

        Have I regretted not studying the law? Yes, in the sense that I think I would have made a good lawyer, and no, in the sense that I decided learning to write fiction is still a way to fulfill dreams.

        And yes, I agree that many of them can be fulfilled in Los Angeles. I live within an hour’s plane ride of LAX.

        So one day, if you happen to be there, and you see a jetliner landing with a cloud around it, I might be on that flight, following a vision.

  6. Sorry to go all political on you, BUT the regulation of lemonade stands brought a Ronald Reagan quote to mind:
    “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

  7. This is a great article, Jim, thank you! I’ll be teaching about Self-Publishing here in Northern Denmark soon and I will refer to this article and the parallel you made with lemonade stands. Wonderful idea! Thanks again. Easy to understand and remember!

  8. The first thing I thought of when I read this article was that my mom taught me about the business side of running a lemonade stand. My girlfriend Nancy and I decided to do this one day and we sold out. Made a fortune in our eyes. So we counted up the money and I started dividing it in half.

    My mom interrupted with something like, “First you have to pay for the ingredients you used to make the lemonade.” We had used my mother’s kitchen and sugar and lemons. I hadn’t thought of it as costing anything. After we paid her back for the ingredients, we didn’t have a fortune any more. At the time, I don’t think either Nancy or I thought it was fair. But it made me realize what profits really were.

  9. Our state is pretty nutso but I had to tell you that I found some kids selling in a neighborhood and we went out of our way to buy from them. They might be ignorant of the law or there parents said go for it, who knows, but they were so cute and excited. Like your analogy.

  10. Thanks for the links, Jim. I’m always looking for new marketing ideas. Also, not sure if you know how, but I’m getting TKZ digests all of a sudden rather than post by post. Do you know how I can fix this?

  11. I was riding my bike back when there was no snow and came upon a lemonade stand by the side of the road. No regs on that here in Missoula, Montana. I thought about telling the little kids how bad sugar drinks are for teeth and metabolism and hypertension (well, they were jumping up and down and screaming). Anyway, they probably teach aggressive marketing in grade school now. I didn’t give them my lecture, but did ask if the lemons had been washed first. Nodding heads and sincere faces did convince me that water had been involved somewhere in the process. Just as Mother began to sidle over I decided not to ask if the water was bottled spring water. I did ask for small cup. I’d have to drink it all right there in front of them. Hmmm. Spitting it out was not an option. I chugged it down. Yuck. Held it in. Gave the kids a fiver–only bill I had. Oy! And peddled away from sight to rinse my mouth and spit that out. Whaddaya gonna do?

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  14. Good way of looking at this. I always find it so strange that people act like hard selling is what sells books. Really, it tends to be the cover and price. (Or at least, that’s what I found in my experience.)

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