Monday, July 04, 2005

Targeting Ones Markets Part II...

Below is a perfect example of why a writer has to target their market with precision.

My Double Life
By Tayari Jones

Publicity is a weird thing for writers. I’ve just come back from the second book tour of my career. The first time, in 2002, I went out on the road to promote Leaving Atlanta, a coming of age story set against the backdrop of the Atlanta Child Murders. My publisher, Warner Books, decided to package me as a “southern” writer. For the last couple of months, I’ve been on the road with The Untelling, another novel set in Atlanta. But this go round, I’m doing it as a “black” writer.

I know that we are a nation that strives for color-blindness, so it seems sort of inherently offensive to label a writer as “black”. But this is what happened to me, and I have to tell you that, for the most part, it wasn’t so bad. Especially when you compare it to my book tour as a “southern” writer.

As a southern writer, I was sent to all manner of small cities below the Mason-Dixon line. I made an appearance in Bylthesville, Arkansas. I stopped through Jackson, Mississippi and rolled through Oxford. I hit Birmingham and Montgomery. You get the idea. I was even sent to a trade show. I wasn’t invited to BEA, but I went to SEBA—the South Eastern Booksellers Association. My experience at SEBA was one of the worst since I have been in the publishing business. Although there are a great many black people in the southern United States, there were only three of us in attendance—Kentucky writer Crystal Wilkinson, me, and a woman who works for DC Comics. My publisher, Warner Books, sponsored the dinner where they would be featuring one of their new writers: the author of a magnificent work of art called Redneck Nation. As I sat there and listened to this guy crack tasteless joke after tasteless joke, I made a promise to myself: If he says the word “nigger” one more time, in any context, I am leaving. He said it. I left. I was later informed that I lacked irony. That I could not take a joke.

So this time, I have been packaged as a “black” writer. I have been assigned an African-American publicist who knows her market. Right out of the box, I was featured in Essence magazine, prompting about a zillion hits to my website. (With Leaving Atlanta I was reviewed in People and nobody cared.) Shortly after the piece was published, I gave a reading in Birmingham at Jefferson State Community College where I met an African American woman named Donna. After my reading, Donna took me more or less door to door at the university and announcing to every black woman on campus: “This is the author who was in Essence!” Each woman whipped out her checkbook and purchased at least one copy of each book, no questions asked.

This is not to say that I have only promoted my books at “black” events. Sometimes I feel like I went on two book tours at once. It’s almost like I am living a double life. I hired an independent publicist Lauren Cerand, an Anglo-American, who has done a fantastic job of booking me in a more “general” market. Here’s an example:

When planning my trip to New York City, Lauren booked me at Bluestockings on the Lower East Side, where I read with Maud Newton. There were about fifteen people in attendance. All white, except my good friend Doug and my student Eve. The next day, thanks to my African American publicist, I read at Chocolat martini lounge in Harlem. There were about thirty people there. All black except for Lauren. I sold a lot more books in Harlem. Even the waitresses bought copies since I agreed to wait until they had accumulated tips enough to make the purchase. Both were great events, but my experience on the road has really shown me that there are (at least) two Americas.

This is not to say that my experiences with the black book niche have been idyllic. There have been challenges which are specific to dealing with this market. Since many African American authors are self-published, a culture has emerged which assumes that books by black authors are printed on vanity presses. I occasionally (neurotically) go into bookstores and ask for my own book. More than once I have been told, “We don’t carry self-published books.” In Chicago this weekend, I went to an adorable independent bookstore and saw many novels by African American authors displayed behind the registers. What great placement! Then, the clerk whispered, “We keep them back here to discourage theft.” On several occasions, I have been asked by interviewers, “How did you make the leap from self-publishing to traditional publishing?” When I was in Phoenix, Arizona on my book tour, the escort called around and found out that none of the chains were carrying The Untelling. I asked my publisher why and was told flatly that since there was not much of a black population in Phoenix, we couldn’t expect (let alone demand!) that Borders and B&N in Phoenix order my book.

So what’s a writer to do? Of course I want to be universal. When well-meaning white people ask me “Is your book for everyone?” I assure them that it is and I believe that I am telling the truth. But since black readers and white readers seldom come to the same event, a writer and her publicity team usually end up selecting one audience to go for. I was lucky this time. I had money enough to hire a fabulous free-lance publicist who exposed me to audiences that are outside the niche-scope envisioned by my publisher. And since my publisher decided to acknowledge the fact of my race for this book, I was able to use their resources to reach the audience that probably loves me best.

And if I were even luckier, there would be no choice to make.

Tayari Jones is the author of The Untelling (Warner Books, April 2005) and Leaving Atlanta, which won the 2003 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Debut Fiction. For more, please visit

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