It’s been seven years since my first radio interview and book signing for my first book, Fear of a “Black” America: Multiculturalism and the African American Experience (2004). In all, I spent sixteen months actively promoting the book, through PR releases, contacts at universities and through my work at the Academy for Educational Development, and a huge volume of email exchanges and phone conversations. Between this nearly full-time work, my full-time job, and being a full-time parent and husband, I was exhausted by the end of ’05.
It’s unbelievably hard work to promote a book. Especially a self-published one. Not to mention, one that I’d proclaimed as an in-depth response to the conservative movement’s “Culture Wars” on all things “multicultural.” One that was a combination of personal vignettes with interviews and historical research to tell the story of African Americans and other groups of color coming to grips with their notions of multiculturalism in education and in their everyday lives. Granted, it was immediately available via Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble/B&N.com and the now out-of-business Borders.com. But if I’d done nothing, I would’ve sold maybe one hundred copies in ten years.
My work to promote Fear of a “Black” America began about a year and half before it hit virtual and actual shelves in September ’04. I created a website for the manuscript (http://www.fearofablackamerica.com) in February ’03, learning HTML in detail in three weeks’ time. Within a year, the number of unique visitors to the fledgling site varied between 500 and 1,000 a month. After three years of coming close — but still failing — to publish Fear through traditional publishers like Beacon Press, Random House and Verso, I politely moved on from my agent and decided to self-publish.
A couple of months into the process, I hadn’t much success beyond a couple of professors using copies of Fear in their African American studies courses (a completely random occurrence — they were in different parts of the country). My friend Marc took it upon himself to have me meet him and a friend of his for a long talk about how to organize a marketing campaign for the book at the end of November ’04. While they were certainly well-meaning, their advice provided no real insight into the process other than what I already knew. I just needed to be persistent.
That persistence paid off in early February ’05. In a span of three days, I did an evening drive interview with Howard University Radio (WHUR-FM) and a book signing at Karibu Books. Both, at least, gave me some momentum beyond Black History Month, as I continued doing book signings in the DC area and through my job up in New York that spring.
My promotions reached their height in April ’05, when I did an hour-long interview with Pacifica Radio DC (WPFW-FM) about Fear. There, I realized how much more interested caller were in my personal background and how that shaped my views of multiculturalism. I also learned that some of the callers — whom I didn’t know — had actually read my book. It made all of the groundwork I’d done to get to this point worth the effort. By then, I’d cracked the top 100,000 in the Barnes & Noble list (84,000), or roughly ten to fifteen sales per week, and the top 200,000 (161,000) on Amazon.com (another 10-15 sales per week).
During that summer and fall, I continued to promote Fear, with another interview on Pacifica Radio DC in August, and a book signing at Howard University Bookstore in October ’05. But I was running on empty. As fast as email was, it didn’t have the immediacy of what we now call social media. And in ’05, Facebook was in its infancy, Twitter didn’t exist, and Blogger was a relative novelty. Even with a website that received 4,000 hits and over 1,200 visitors a month, I couldn’t generate the cascade effect that I could right now.
My final act of promotion for Fear of a “Black” America came in August ’06, though John Kelly’s Washington Post Metro Column, “Getting Work Done – On the Way to Work,” in which I talked about editing my book on Metro Rail for two years. By then, I’d pivoted to work on Boy @ The Window, knee-deep in reopening memories that hadn’t been well-considered when I was a teenager.
Between September ’04 and December ’05, I promoted Fear of a “Black” America using $3,500 of my resources, and made over $1,000 on the book, selling about 600 copies in sixteen months. Overall, I’ve sold over a 1,000 copies between ’04 and ’08. Those numbers are on par with most works published in academia.
But I was hardly satisfied. I knew by ’09 that with a social media apparatus, I could’ve sold ten times as many books. I knew that my memoir manuscript deserved more than the fate of self-publishing, that I’d want to find a path to a traditional publisher. Still, despite my moments of despair, I believe that my persistence in finding an agent and a publisher is the right way to go. It’ll make it easier to work hard in promoting Boy @ The Window. In that case, I’ll be doing it in the virtual light of day.