Introducing SAJAforum's new "Authored" series. The idea here is to have writers tell us the back story of their book--how it came to be--as well as the nasty, unwriterly business of getting out there and selling their wares. We think this will accomplish two things: get the word out about new or upcoming releases, and educate other authors (and aspiring ones) about the biz.
Authors, editors, publicists: talk to us.
Our inaugural book is "The American Muslim Teenager's Handbook," by the mother-daughter-son combo of Dilara, Yasmine and Imran Hafiz, who are Pakistani-American. The book is being released on February 10, by Simon & Schuster, but as you'll see in Dilara's account, the work only got picked up by S&S after the family initially self-published it. She also provides some great insights into the marketing of the book, setting up a website, getting blurbs and how going after the NYT can in fact pay off, handsomely.
The Story Behind "The American Muslim Teenager's Handbook" - by Dilara Hafiz, Yasmine Hafiz and Imran Hafiz
“You’re writing a non-fiction book about Islam in America…with your two teenagers? Are you crazy?” This was the standard response I received from various friends and relatives - but I’m grateful that it was the occasional comment of “Oh, that sounds interesting - I think you guys could do a great job!” that we listened to.
Life in post 9/11 America has been challenging for America Muslims: the ‘random’ searches at the airport, the impression that hijab = oppression, that Muslims are "the other." We heard so many misconceptions about Islam in the media, yet no coherent Muslim voices ever got airtime. Where are the Moderate Muslims? Well, we’re fairly moderate - maybe we should speak up. So in 2002 we sent out a survey to 44 Islamic full-time and Sunday Schools across the country. The 150 responses which we received displayed such a variety of opinions and stories that we felt motivated to continue with our project - of not only writing an educational and entertaining handbook for the average American Muslim teenager, but also an enlightening guide to the basics of Islam for non-Muslims who are curious about Islam or want to pursue an interfaith dialogue.
After three years of writing, re-writing, editing and surreptitious editing (remember, we’re 3 authors here) - our manuscript was finally ready. Full of quizzes, lists of Do’s & Don’ts, results of the teen questionnaire - we knew we wanted the book to appeal to teens, so it needed to have pictures, humor and variety. But the response from Muslim publishers? Too progressive - you have pictures of girls without headscarves - haraam! The response from mainstream publishers? Your audience is too narrow, your treatment of religion is too humorous, your information content is interesting…but we’re going to pass on this manuscript. The project was badly stalled, until my Dad decided to go on Hajj in 2006.
He kept a meticulous diary of his experience - it was so fascinating that I asked him to mail it to me as I wanted to put into book form to pass along to family members. I checked the internet & found a local publisher who converted the Word document which I had typed into the appropriate Pagemaker format, which the printers required before they would proceed. To make a long story short, my Dad happily ended up with 110 copies of ‘The Pilgrim’s Diary,' while we found a publisher to help us… self-publish. Yes, it’s a dirty word, but it must be said - and I thank God that we put aside our pride and decided to self-publish, because less than one year after "The American Muslim Teenager’s Handbook" hit the shelves, Simon & Schuster came knocking on our door!
Collecting blurbs/reviews required nothing more than sending off copies of the manuscript to authors we admired - mainly those who shared our progressive approach to Islam. In addition, we wrote to well-known academics, both Muslim and non-Muslim - many of them also responded positively. All these early reviewers commented that they had never seen a book like ours - one which depicted normal American Muslim teens as football players, computer hacks, activists, swimmers, Boy Scouts - in short, these kids looked friendly, accessible and American. (Hint - find an unexplored niche or have an unexpected angle.)
The nitty-gritty of marketing the finished product was easier than expected. After mastering the hurdle of setting up a website and the accompanying links to a webstore which supported Paypal & credit cards that is. The learning curve was steep initially, I merrily processed the first few book orders to our website, only to muse out loud to my husband, "Hmm, I wonder where the money is going?" AHH - I had neglected to 'capture' the completed credit card/Paypal sales by linking it to my own Paypal account!
One caveat: all my hours spent scrolling through website templates and evaluating the slick packaging associated with the costs of setting up a website COULD have been avoided if I had been willing to pay a web designer. But spending another $1,000, at a minimum, unless you have friends or relatives in the web design business, was an unnecessary expense - I’m hardly a tech-savvy person and I managed to do it - so you can, too! Plus, you’ll probably drive your friend/relative crazy w/ the revisions which you will inevitably make to your site - so just keep it under your control from Day One - I still get a thrill when I google the title of our book & our website obediently pops up!
Marketing, Part II - the press...
Once I could tear myself away from watching our site's 'Visitor Counter' or the book's Amazon sales rank, it proved surprisingly easy to monitor various Islamic websites which posted articles about Islam in America. I'd immediately write to the relevant journalist with a standard e-mail pitch letter, and I'd usually receive a request for a copy of the book, which I'd immediately mail off. Never feel that you’re too unimportant to approach big names in media or academia - you never know which letter will strike a chord or be the timely nugget of news which fills a blank column for a grateful reporter. I estimate that I mailed out over 150 complimentary copies to the media and scored interviews with the BBC, NPR, the Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times, the UK Guardian, BBC Asia - the list goes on. If you don’t hear from the recipient in a few weeks, follow up to jog their memory. Sometimes they’ve accidentally let your book drop off their desk, but also be gracious about accepting the ‘No - I’m not interested’ reply.
Assuming you are working with a publisher, they should handle the marketing to libraries - a HUGE market which shouldn’t be ignored. In my case, I bit the bullet and paid about $250 for my publisher to place glossy marketing flyers about our book in the quarterly religion marketing mailouts. Since our book title began with the letter ‘A’ our flyer usually ended up on top of the pile! No, I’m not advocating you immediately change your title, but this was one lucky coincidence which we benefited from after we had already selected a title.
The Post Office...
Important aside to self-publishers: The post office will become your best friend. Weigh sample manila envelopes (the padded kind) with your book inside before ordering them in bulk - ounces can make the difference between cheerfully filling orders from London to dreading overseas customers. Check out Amazon’s international postal charges for a guide to your own webstore (we wimped out of those calculations by offering free shipping within the US & Canada). Calculating postage costs became second nature to me - the discovery that the US Postal Service offers a flat-rate box for $9.65 which can hold 32 copies of ‘The American Muslim Teenager’s Handbook’ had me dancing in the street!
The Big Story...
Persistence pays off. After I noticed a New York Times reporter did a story about a local woman (who had shared the Martin Luther King 2008 Award with my two children), I wrote directly to him with our story. 5 months later found him sitting in our living room interviewing us. The story ran on July 26, 2008... Simon & Schuster’s President of the Children’s Publishing Division called us on July 28, 2008. The new and expanded 2nd edition of "The American Muslim Teenager’s Handbook" will be available on Feb. 10, 2009 - a 25,000 print run as compared to our modest first print run of 5,000. But we sold over 3,000 copies in the first year alone and broke even shortly thereafter, so all in all, the entire experience from concept to finished book to book signings to selling the copyright to a mainstream publisher has been the fulfillment of a dream, for all of us.
--by Dilara Hafiz
Earlier on SAJAforum: