To be a successful writer, you have to write and sell well. But here is the problem: between the published work and the reader’s pocket lies an abyss of publicity efforts that determine the success or failure of a book.
So let’s say your work has just been published by a small but dedicated independent press or let’s even say you are self-published. The first thing you’ll realize is that publishing is the easy part. Publicity, on the other hand, is its own special kind of monster. Book tours cost money…a whole lot. Ads are not cheap. Only a handful of knighted authors have access to networks of high-profile critics and prestigious news outlets like the New York Times and The Guardian. You soon realize that getting readers aware of your book can be a discouraging and financially draining process. Without a sizable budget to publicize your work, it risks gathering up dust in some warehouse.
So what can you do to improve your chances? Consider Koleka Putuma‘s story as a lesson in innovation.
Koleka Putuma’s Collective Amnesia is a poetry collection. It was published in April by uHlanga, a small poetry press based in Cape Town. Poetry, as we are daily reminded, is near impossible to sell. uHlanga publishes experimental poetry, which seems infinitely more difficult to sell in the open literary market. Besides, as a small press, uHlanga is probably not rolling in heaps of cash. Tradition teaches us that the mix of experimental poetry collection and small press with a petit budget is not the recipe for a bestseller.
But the sales figures of Collective Amnesia tells a completely different story. Putuma’s novel is not just selling well but selling better than many so-called high-profile fiction releases from big presses in South Africa. Collective Amnesia is going into its fifth print run and has sold over 2000 copies since its release in April. These sales figures are unbelievably good compared to what fiction published in South Africa brings in on average, which, according to a 2016 report, ranges between 600 and 1000 copies — and that’s through out the work’s lifetime.
Clearly, we have to ask: what is Putuma and her publisher doing differently? Putuma has written a lengthy but engaging account of her journey since the publication of the book. This account was originally published on her blog and gives some key insights into the publicity strategy behind these sales figures.
We at Brittle Paper believe this writeup is required reading for publishers and writers. We’d go as far as saying that you should not publish a book or begin publicity efforts until you’ve read every word in this piece and studied Putuma’s approach.
With her permission, we’ve posted the entire piece below.
Earlier this year I tweeted:
“You owe your dreams your courage.”
I don’t think I fully understood what that meant when I posted it. I am still having bits of revelations as the journey of Collective Amnesia continues.
I was going to put up a simple blog post reflecting on my 20-day book tour but I realise that the journey of this book has been so challenging, beautiful and intense, so I wanted to go back a bit to when it all started.
This is the account of the journey from my perspective, my publisher who has been a huge part of this journey has his own accounts; some similar, possibly some crazier than mine. He spent 3 months navigating the Post Office and distributors and tons of admin trying to get this book out there. For those who do not know what my publisher has done these past 3 months, let me just say that it’s been LIIIIT!
If there is anything Nick and I have in common is that we are both one-man shows. I wish I could say that there is a full on admin or PR staff sitting in some cute corner office somewhere assisting us with all the work we do, but there isn’t.
Anyway, here is a very informal and long reflection on the #CollectiveAmnesia journy and national tour.
I will date this, so no one gets lost (me especially)
2 JANUARY 2017
Back from Deesemba vacation and realising “SHIIIT!” I have a manuscript to finish:
30 JANUARY 2017
Pre-Orders and folks responding with all of the warmth in the world.
31 JANUARY 2017
9/10 Drafts Later, my editor Genna Gardini and I hand in the final manuscript.
21 FEBRUARY 2017
Shoot the cover and photographic visual series with Andy Mkosi
6 MARCH 2017
Collective Amnesia Goes to print.
14 MARCH 2017
Beloveds gather at my house to help me welcome my babies before I send them off.
Off to Kenya to deliver 60 copies.
Reading from Collective Amnesia for the FIRST TIME.
Thanks to Zukiswa Wanner, for this gift. Around February, Zukiswa Wanner asked if it would be possible to get a few copies printed early to take with me to Kenya. Collective Amnesia was only scheduled for release in SA in April. But uHlanga made the early print done. Zukiswa made sure the Kenyans were the first to hold this baby with me.
Those who know me will know that I had been dreaming of going to Nairobi for a long time, and to have the first time going be for a Collaboration with Zukiswa and Victor Ehikhamenor, was such a gift.
Ok. Enough, cause I will never move past this date.
22 MARCH 2017
My 24th Birthday.
I am feeling overwhelmed that the best gift I could have given myself was a FREAKEN BOOK!!!!, Was to archive this life and its experiences into something tangible, something that I could share with the world.
This day was so important for me. For the longest time I had dreamt of being published, and I always thought I would publish my first anthology when I turned 30 or post 30. I had this whole plan: Do my masters in Creative Writing, and then publish. And here I was turning 24 and holding my first anthology.
I felt spoilt by the universe. I felt grateful to Uhlanga Press and Nick Mulgrew for taking a chance on my young voice and taking a chance on a “performance poet”
27 MARCH 2017
Shot the Collective Amnesia Visual Series with photographer/videographer Jarryd Kleinhans.
click on links below to view:
30 MARCH-3 APRIL 2017
I cannot remember the exact date or day I decided that I was going to go on a book-tour or the day that I decided that such a thing was even possible.
But I suspect it was around this time. I decided that I would take the book around the country. I don’t remember my publisher flinching either. He was just like “ok, a tour…yes lets!” What a dream. I tell you. To be in partnership with folks who are willing to jump with you and affirm your aspirations. We all need partnership like that. They are imperative.
4 APRIL 2017
I meet up with a friend, stressed and not knowing if I will manage to self-fund the tour. In the conversation, the friend asks me, “Beybs, why are supposedly celebrated and loved and yet here you are struggling and stressed…Ask for help from all these so-called fans and believers of your work.
So I sat at the Alexander Bar around 9 pm (while my friends were watching a show in the theatre) and sent over 50 emails asking for funding and sponsorship for the tour.
Over the course of two weeks, individuals and organizations and spaces responded with such generosity and kindness.
This night was such a huge lesson in not being ashamed or afraid to ask for help, for what you need, for support etc.
With every email, I sent I had to tell myself I was worthy of my own self-belief and the belief and endorsement from backers.
Thank you to all the #CollectiveAmnesiaTour sponsors mentioned at the end of this post.
Collective Amnesia is officially released and Launched in South Africa
11 APRIL 2017 – UCT
Hosted by The African Gender Institute
In conversation with Toni Stuart, Faye Kabali-Kagwa, Siphokazi Jonas, Chaired by Greer Valley
12 APRIL 2017-DISTRICT SIX HOMECOMING CENTRE
In conversation with Carol Mashigo
21 APRIL 2017 –G.U.S GALLERY, STELLENBOSCH
Hosted by Inzync Poetry Sessions
In conversation Uhuru Phalafala
21 APRIL 2017
I announce the postponement of the Durban and Grahamstown launches.
Because glitches are a thing.
Because doing something for the first time sometimes means that you will realize that things of this magnitude require time and rigorous planning. I also had to take the time to rest before diving into the next thing.
Became the reoccurring lesson.
24 APRIL 2017
I make an open call for other cities to join the collective Amnesia route.
I can’t remember what possessed this open call.
25 APRIL 2017
My publisher announces Collective Amnesia’s 2nd Print. I didn’t expect that it would come so early. Or even come at all.
THE COLLECTIVE AMNESIA NATIONAL TOUR OFFICIALLY STARTS
5 MAY 2017
Collective Amnesia is officially a prescribed text at the University of Stellenbosch and will be taught by the incredible Dr Uhuru Phalafala
I lost my shit this day. I was overcome by so much gratitude for the work done by Black lectures in institutions of higher learning, for the work and fight of my generation. For their persistence in changing the conversation in institutions of higher learning. I know and understand that Collective Amnesia exists or can exist in universities like Stellenbosch and UCT because of movements lime #RhodesMustFall & #Feesmustfall
11 MAY 2017
8 dates & venues are announced
16 MAY 2017
1 more launch in Cape Town before embarking on the tour.
Hosted by Grounding Sessions
20 MAY 2017
I find out that Collective Amnesia is part of the 2nd year English and Gender Studies lecture series at UCT.
Thanks to Khwezi Mkhize & Gabeba Baderoon
21 MAY 2017
An 8 launch-tour turns into a 13 launch -tour. I am both nervous and excited about the expansion.
Because I still don’t know what the hell I am doing. haha.
Literally, I am improvising as I go.
27 May 2017
The National Tour “Starts”
27 MAY 2017 –PLAT40RM
Hosted by Word n Sound
28 MAY 2017- VAAL
Hosted by African Flavour Books & Genesis Poetry Spoken Word Movement
29 MAY 2017-JHB, BRIDGE BOOKS
An intimate reading and conversation hosted by Cheeky Natives
30 MAY 2017-JHB, MARKET THEATRE
Hosted by The Star and Word N Sound
in conversation with Lebo Mashile & Milisuthando Bongela.
(one of the the most profound evenings and conversations of my life.)
31 MAY 2017- PRETORIA
Hosted by Speak out Loud, Hear My Voice, National Library of South Africa, Poetoria & The Swedish Embassy.
This 15-year-old boy stood by my side and wrote me a poem while I signed. This was the highlight of my evening.
1 JUNE 2017 -KIMBERLY
Hosted by The Sol Plaatje University
In conversation with Gertrude Fester
2 JUNE 2017-PIETRMARITZBURG
Hosted by Tree of Poetry Spoken word movement
In conversation with Pumelela Nqelenga
3 JUNE 2017-DURBAN
Hosted by Izimbongi Zesimanje
4-5 JUNE 2017
Rest and travel days
I couldn’t tell which was worse, launching every single night, or having a break inbetween for rest and travel.
6 JUNE 2017-PORT ELIZABETH
Hosted by NMMU
This felt like one epic homecoming.
We had to switch venues mid-launch because the first venue was too small. I have never felt so loved. The spirit of my Grandfather who was a preacher, who loved words, who believed in the power of the word, was alive on this day.
7 JUNE 2017
8 JUNE 2017 –NELSPRUIT
Hosted by Words in my Mouth Poetry Slam
9 JUNE 2017
10 JUNE 2017-POLOKWANE
Hosted by Slam Eporium
I had never performed or launched at a car wash before, so this was a glorious first. It asked of me to think about spoken word performance spaces differently.
11-13 JUNE 2017
Travel and Rest days
12 JUNE 2017
This comes in from my publisher
Guys apparently the average novel/book in SA sells between 600-1000 copies in its lifetime. I read an article about it a week before this came in. So when this arrived I was like “say whaaaaaat?”
I am still processing what it means to sell 2000 copies of a poetry book in South Africa.
14 JUNE 2017-GRAHAMSTOWN
Hosted by The National English Literary Museum
At this launch, I also find out that Collective Amnesia is being taught and used as material at Rhodes University.
The youngest audience member, Lonwabo, got up, took the mic and asked me:
“Why are you not afraid to get up there and speak?”
Thixo! I have never been so dumbfounded in my life.
Day 20-Last Day of Tour
15 JUNE 2017-KING WILLIAMS TOWN
Hosted by The Steve Biko Centre
The last 3 days of the tour were incredibly difficult. I didn’t know I had that kind of stamina until I was doing it.
I was on the road with my mom for 20 days. I was tired, inspired and taking it one day at a time really.
There is so much to reflect on. Things I would have done differently. Lessons learnt etc.
It’s been an exact year since being approached by uHlanga to publish my first anthology. Last year June had someone said that this would be the kind of post I’d be putting up on my blog, I would not have believed them. I am grateful spoken word communities around the country who have made Spoken Word trendy and alive in South Africa.
I did not pull this off alone. Thank you to all the hosts, venues, backers, reviewers, media people, photographers who captured this journey and more importantlythank you to my mom.
African Gender Institute | District 6 Homecoming Centre | G.U.S Gallery & Valeri Geselev | Word N Sound | The Palt40rm | Genesis Poetry | African Flavor Books | Cheeky Natives |Speak Out Loud |Hear My Voice | National Library of South Africa | Sol Plaatje University & Carina Truyts | Tree of Poetry & Bessie Head Library | Izimbongi Zesimanje/Nowadays Poets | NMMU & Zolisa Marawu | Words in my Mouth Poery Slam | Slam Eporium | National English Literary Museum | Steve Biko Centre | Inzync Poetry Sessions | Grounding Sessions
Media that made this work visible:
Between 10 & 5 | HuffingtonPost SA | Mail & Guardian | Africa in Dialogue | Marie Claire | AfriPop Magazine | Johannesburg Review of Books | City Press | Kaya FM | Power Fm
THANK YOU BACKERS:
The Distell Foundation | Kingsmead Book Fair | The African Gender Institute | District Six Homecoming Centre | Embassy of Sweden | Sol Plaatje University | The Steve Biko Centre | Azafi Omoluabi-Ogosi | Yewande Omotoso | Dr Alexandra Ross | Elelwani Netshifhire | Gaamangwe Mogami | Tamara Guhrs |Mandla Mbothwe | Lesego Rampolokeng | Mike Van Graan | Dr Lunette Warren |Andrew Van Der Vlies | Victor Ehikhamenor | Callum Tilbury |Lucy Graham | Jon Keevy |Toni Stuart | Fran Michel | Javier Perez | Nomfy Meyer
Last but most definitely not least.
So grateful to my Mother who did this thing with me. Who put her work and her life on pause to take me around the country to share this work.
I am a blessed daughter because of her.
I am a blessed poet and artist because of all the people mentioned in this post. And all the people who filled venues.
I feel incredibly grateful to all the 2000 humans who hold a copy of Collective Amnesia.
Let’s Make it 10 000 copies, just because we can.
Thousand times, Thank YOU!!!!!!!