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Sunday, March 20, 2011

I'm Reading with Ayesha Harruna Attah at Harlem's Nectar Wine Bar as Part of Nat'l Ghana Parade Council's Distinguished Tongue Series

Happy First Day of Spring!

I hope you can make it out to Harlem's Nectar Wine Bar on Wednesday March 30th at 6pm. I'm going to be reading along with Ayesha Harruna Attah, the author of Harmattan Rain which was shortlisted for the 2010 Commonwealth Writers' Prize as part of the National Ghana Parade Council's "Distinguished Tongue" event series.

It's been an incredible International Women's History Month starting with Delta Sigma Theta's Ladies of Literature panel at Lehman College, then the amazing Business of Books panel hosted by Delta Rho Omega at Brooklyn's Akwaaba Mansion (I've always wanted to go there). I'm really excited to be rounding out the month with another sister scribe. I did my first official Powder Necklace reading with Ayesha, so it always feels great to share billing with her. Join us!

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Business of Books: To Self-Publish or Pursue Publication by a House

"Wow" was my first word according to my mother, and all I can say is "wow" concerning the amazing Women's History Month program the women of Delta Rho Omega put together yesterday to support and promote the work of three-time author Jacquie Bamberg Moore and myself. Last night, I joined Jacquie in the gorgeously-appointed parlor of Stuyvesant Heights' Akwaaba Mansion to discuss the Business of Books, but first we each introduced ourselves to the packed house of women, sharing a bit about the inspiration behind our stories.

Tears sprang to my eyes as Jacquie spoke about her book The House on Monroe Street, a heartrending and ultimately uplifting story about a woman pursuing her healing after experiencing molestation. I finished the book yesterday morning around 3:40a and as I told Jacquie, if it wasn't for the hour, I would've called her. Jacquie's introduction was thoroughly compelling and as a three-time author, she seemed completely at ease as she held every eye and ear in the room.

I studied her closely. Three books! As I fight through fatigue and discipline issues (related to American Idol, Basketball Wives and E! News) to work on my second book, I was totally in awe of my co-panelist. Add to that the fact that she is self-published!

Now, the panel being a "Business of Books" panel, we discussed at length the pros and cons of being self-published versus being published by a major house. I have to say that everything I've learned about promoting myself as an author, I've learned from self-published friends. There is a misconception that once a publisher releases your book, they send you on a cross-country media tour of book signings that they pay for and that adoring fans are just waiting to greet you at said signings, but this couldn't be further from the truth. Once I got published, I basically entered into a small business that requires me to:

1. Pay for marketing materials
Thank God for free tools like Blogger, Facebook, and Twitter, but I also pay to print full-color double-sided postcards that give people a quick scan of some of the book's best reviews, and inform them where they can get the book and how they can get in touch with me.

2. Create a book budget.
At most book festivals booksellers service the event which means, since my book is sold at Barnes & Noble, I don't have to lug my books in my suitcase (which my sister has nicknamed "Pockets" as it has become my number one travel buddy). But when I do book signings for groups or in homes, I have to buy the books wholesale so I can in turn sell them at the event.

3. Create a travel budget
I pay for most of my trips outside the state so I thank God for the affordable Bolt and Fung Wah Buses and for friends who have graciously hosted me in their homes. When it comes to flights, I am that person that will jump up and say "I" when the airline announces they've oversold the flight and are looking for people who will give up their seats for a free voucher. That's how I ended up flying from New York to DC last year and when the airline misplaced my luggage, I negotiated a credit toward my next flight.

4. Promote myself strategically & aggressively
I keep the aforementioned postcards on hand so that when I'm on the subway commuting to work and spot someone reading a book/Kindle/iPad etc, I can slip them my card. Just the other day, I received an email from someone I gave a card to. She had purchased Powder Necklace and wanted to make it the focus of her college paper. I've also gone door-to-door in my parents' neighborhood, and even sold old skool rapper Fab Five Freddy a copy of the book. After I made my "You gotta support" pitch to him, he was like "Damn, girl. Alright!"

I write this all to explain, though I am blessed to be published by Simon and Schuster, I have modeled my approach and work ethic after a self-published author. I don't see any other way to succeed in this industry.

That said, there are many advantages to being published by a major house. During the editing process, I had the benefit of a rigorous editing, copyediting and fact-checking team that improved story flow and combed the book for grammatical errors and inconsistencies. Once the book came out, I didn't have to create new relationships with individual booksellers to get my books in bookstores across the country as I had the benefit of a team whose job it is to sell the books to individual bookstores. I also have the benefit of a wonderful publicist at Simon and Schuster (Hi, Yona!!) who pitches me to publications and for panels, and fields requests for other opportunities.

Now that the ebook business is growing at breakneck speed, Simon and Schuster has converted my book into all the necessary formats, which enables people to get the book in whatever format they choose. They've also created a web presence for me on their Author Portal (please "Like" it). In essence, Simon and Schuster and I are business partners. They have invested in me, and as a business, they are looking to get a return, which is where money comes in.

Simon and Schuster gave me an advance so I didn't have to front many costs, but they make their money off me in other ways. Meanwhile, self-published authors shell out at the front end, but they make a much larger cut of their book sales. In the end, anyone who is interested in becoming an author needs to weigh these pros and cons for herself/himself. Just know that either way, it is a hustle that requires HARD WORK.

Before I close this post, I want to say a big thank you to Sabrina Gates. I met her at the amazing Michelle O Brunch I blogged about at the end of last year, and she is the one who suggested my name to the committee programming Alpha Kappa Alpha's/Delta Rho Omega's annual Women's History Month Event. Thank you, sister! I also want to thank Sabrina's soror Yolanda Holmes who liaised with me to set up the event, and the amazing women of Delta Rho Omega who opened up their sister circle to me and supported me with words of encouragement and purchased the book. I really cannot thank you enough.

Pics from yesterday's event to come!

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The "Toni / Terry" Challenge

I spent the afternoon sharing the panel stage with Victoria Christopher Murray, Donna Hill, and Virginia DeBerry and Donna Grant, and fellow newbie author T. Holland (she just wrote Aw, Shucks) as part of the 2nd Annual "Ladies of Literature" panel hosted by Delta Sigma Theta, Lehman College, and The Bronx Council on the Arts.

Delta Sigma Theta solicited questions to stimulate the discussion and our moderator Dr. Veronie Lawrence Wright opened the Q&A with a question about the immense popularity of the "street lit"/"urban fiction" genre. Each of the panelists had a different and valid perspective, but the consensus was this: shelving books according to the color of authors' skin versus genre is misleading. i.e. Just because Toni Morrison and Terry McMillan are both black doesn't mean their books belong in the same section of the bookstore.

The question of whether there should be an African-American section in the bookstore is one I've been mulling over a lot as author Bernice McFadden wrote a provocative op-ed on the topic, and it has come up a few times in recent discussions and appearances. At the end of last year, on her syndicated show on Blogtalk Radio, Ella Curry threw the question out to me and my fellow authors/panelists including Tina McElroy Ansa. I think I said we needed an Afr-Am section as well as placement in the general genre sections because I remember what it meant to me to discover the likes of April Sinclair, Joan Morgan, Edwidge Danticat, Zadie Smith, and others -- and I believe I found them in the Afr-Am section. However, Victoria Christopher Murray, Donna Hill, Donna Grant, and Virginia DeBerry have been writing professionally for the past 20 years and noted their books were exposed to a much bigger audience before the advent of Afr-Am book sections.

It's a tricky topic, especially when you have books like Katherine Stockett's The Help (which I thoroughly enjoyed) and Chris Cleave's Little Bee which have black protagonists and appeal to black audiences, that are written by white authors. I don't remember seeing those books in the black book section, but then I haven't looked for them there, and in fact, I usually buy my books via Amazon which raises an entirely different issue...

As we spoke, it got me thinking about something Monster's Ball producer Lee Daniels once said. At a symposium at Sony (where I used to work), Daniels was in the house promoting The Woodsman, I think, and he noted that he had considered casting a black actor to play Kevin Bacon's part but his mother implored him not to cast a black man as a child molester. Daniels obviously acquiesced, but he bemoaned his lack of artistic freedom as a black producer/director to do just that. Today's panel spurred me on to take that freedom -- as my fellow panelists have done in their careers.

Donna Grant mentioned, in particular, facing the "Toni/Terry" challenge in which black authors whose voices didn't mimic Toni Morrison's or Terry McMillan's struggled to find support from publishers. But teens of books later, they have each carved out their niches writing books that have expanded the scope of contemporary fiction. I left a little lighter after selling a few books, feeling incredibly inspired and encouraged to carve out mine.

[photo courtesy of]