Publication is not the end of the journey
5 Nov 2009
Imran Ahmad, author of the highly-praised memoir Unimagined: a Muslim boy meets the West relates how through his own efforts he brought his book to wider international attention. His website is www.unimagined.org
If you’ve had a long struggle to find an agent and a publisher (like most new authors), then once your book is published, there’s a temptation to think that’s the end of the journey. In actual fact, you are still at the beginning.
Unless you are a major celebrity, politician or criminal, it’s unlikely that your publisher is going to do much in the way of marketing. There is huge potential in this area, but the initiative lies with you! And when it comes to finding leads and contacts, the Internet is your friend.
In the case of my book, Unimagined : a Muslim boy meets the West (which I wrote to ‘re-humanise’ the troubled relationship between the Islamic and Western worlds), there was no limit to what I did, the leads I followed, the slightly ajar doors I kicked open, and the people I hassled. The results came, slowly but surely. A few examples are related below. (Because of the complexity of the various parallel streams, it’s not possible to put them in strictly chronological order.)
Sue Townsend (a much loved UK writer) was sent an advance proof of Unimagined in July 2006, nine months before publication. Nothing was heard from her. In December 2006, she selected it as her choice in the Guardian’s ‘Books of the Year’. This was three months before publication.
I had sent an earlier self-published copy to Scott Pack – at that time the Head Buyer of Waterstone’s. When my ‘proper’ book was published, Scott wrote about Unimagined in his blog, which was read by Clive Keeble, a bookstore owner in Somerset, England. Clive read Unimagined three times, and told grumpyoldbookman (another literary blog): ‘Occasionally, booksellers come across a title which they believe is a defining moment in their trade.’
In April 2007, just after publication, I sent an inscribed and signed copy of the book to each of the 646 Members of Parliament in the House of Commons. It took 50 solid hours of work, over three weekends, to prepare and package them all, as I made my way through the alphabetical list of MPs on the Parliament website. After I delivered them (and the policeman at the gate was not that happy to see a Middle-Eastern-looking man driving up in a car with 646 letter-bomb-size packages), I received literally hundreds of letters from MPs, thanking me for the book – but nothing from that Ann Widdecombe, which was no surprise. She always seemed to be a grumpy old woman whenever I saw her on the television, and there was no way that a very Conservative Christian like her would bother to even look at my book. Huh! – it was a complete waste of time and money to send her a copy.
I am now regularly invited to Government receptions, conferences, and briefings.
I sent a copy to Catherine Lockerbie, Director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, along with an accompanying e-mail requesting an event at Edinburgh 2007, which she granted. ‘I don’t normally consider unsolicited approaches, but I just loved Unimagined so much!’
My event at Edinburgh went really well (seize every opportunity and always do your best!) and a television producer decided there and then that he would buy the screen rights.
Sarah LeFanu, Director of the Bath Literature Festival, attended my event at Edinburgh 2007 and immediately invited me to Bath 2008. Of course, I said ‘yes’.
I researched literary festivals on the internet, e-mailed various Festival Directors making my case and, on the strength of this, was invited to Kingston, Ilkley and Morley in 2007.
Phillip Pullman read Unimagined twice. Once for the YoungMinds Book Award 2007, and then again when I wrote to him, asking for a quote. He wrote a wonderful, long endorsement. ‘Deserves all the praise it’s had …’
I was in the Writers Yurt at Edinburgh 2007, on my final evening there. It was pouring with rain and there was no-one in the tent except myself and a beautiful woman. I dared to engage her in conversation, and she turned out to be Wendy Were – Director of the Sydney Writers’ Festival. I immediately and enthusiastically gave her a sales pitch on what ‘a great book’ I had written. She smiled politely, looking slightly uncomfortable. (Literary Festival Directors get this all the time, and there is nothing you can say in a pitch, no word you can use, which they haven’t heard a hundred times before from over-enthused writers who sincerely believe they’ve written ‘a great book’.) I airmailed a copy to her down in Australia, and tried to engage with her by e-mail, but she was disinterested in a book which was not being actively marketed in Australia.
To rectify this, I started sending copies of Unimagined down to Australia, to ‘The Literary Editor’ of whatever publications I could think of.
Bruce Elder (a very famous Australian writer and reviewer) saw a copy of the UK hardback of Unimagined lying around in the office of the Literary Editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, read it, wrote a glowing review and then, at the end of the year, chose it in the Sydney Morning Herald’s ‘Pick of the Literary Crop 2007’. (He eventually wrote an extraordinary and stunning Foreword for the Australian edition.)
Antonella Gambotto-Burke (a journalist and women’s rights campaigner in Australia) got hold of a copy of the UK hardback somehow and wrote a wonderful review. ‘The tender humour and intelligence of this memoir belies its political importance … Just beautiful.’
Six months after Edinburgh 2007, Wendy Were wrote me an e-mail: ‘I finally found the time to read Unimagined this weekend …’ and she invited me to Sydney 2008!
dovegreyreader, the famous literary review blog, heard about Unimagined on Scott Pack’s blog, and chose it as her ‘Best Non-Fiction read of 2007’.
In December 2007, Anne Widdecombe MP selected Unimagined as her choice in the Independent’s ‘Best Books of 2007’, writing that it was: ‘My favourite book of 2007 … the end result is unforgettable.’
(Don’t make judgements and assumptions!) (‘Judge not, lest ye be judged,’ as her boss would say.) How could I have so misjudged that warm, wonderful, lovely human being?
I was invited to address the Cambridge Union, at a debate. I said ‘yes’, even though I was nervous about it, and I finally bought a dinner suit.
At Sydney 2008, I met a beautiful woman at a reception for the writers, and started talking to her. She turned out to be Janet DeNeefe – Director of the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali. I gave her a copy of Unimagined, and she invited me to Ubud 2008 as soon as she’d read it.
Juliet Rogers, CEO of Murdoch Books in Sydney, called me to her office after I sent her an e-mail during SWF 2008: ‘My team read Unimagined this weekend and we all loved it. I learned more about Islam and the West from reading Unimagined, than I did from everything else I’ve read, put together.’ She immediately bought the Australia/New Zealand rights.
A reader in Garforth liked Unimagined so much, he persuaded the Garforth Arts Festival to start a literary stream in 2008, and invited me to do an event there.
Catherine Lockerbie also invited me to Edinburgh 2008. ‘It isn’t usual to invite someone back for the same book, but you were a very special guest.’
I sent a copy to a number of secondary schools (to ‘Head of English’), and Manchester Grammar School placed Unimagined on their Top Ten Recommended Reading List.
I gave a copy to Professor Ruth Evans of Stirling University, at an alumni event, and she liked Unimagined so much, she placed it on the core reading list for English Literature. (And I’m not even dead yet!)
At Ubud 2008, I met Jeni Caffin – the Director of the Byron Bay Writers Festival. She invited me to Byron Bay 2009. During the planning of BBWF 2009, I said ‘yes’ to every single event they asked me to do (including the Writers’ Cabaret and the Schools’ Day) and Unimagined was the Number One Bestseller (August 2009).
On the way to Byron Bay 2009, I passed through Sydney. In advance of this, I e-mailed the British Consul-General and he agreed to host a speaking event which I delivered at a major bookshop in Sydney. He gave me a wonderful introduction and was very kind about Unimagined.
At Ubud 2008, I met Tee O’Neil, an Australian playwright. I gave her a copy and she recommended Unimagined to Mizan, a major Indonesian publisher. They bought the Indonesian language rights immediately. Unimagined has just been released in Indonesia (October 2009), has already taken off, and I have just done a speaking tour in that country (complete with interpreter). I had an op-ed piece appear in the Jakarta Globe (which I arranged myself, by offering to do it), and I told my Indonesian audiences that Abu Ghraib does not represent the American people. This all generated some very lively and engaging discussions.
As a prelude to getting a US publisher, which was proving elusive, I gave my UK publisher the right to export UK copies to America. The UK hardback of Unimagined became available in the US in October 2008 (mostly through Amazon.com), but without any active marketing or promotion behind it. Nonetheless, working through literary blogs, I was able to get a few people to read it. I received e-mails from three different US readers suggesting that I should speak at their churches if I was ever in the US.
President Obama’s inauguration speech in January, in which he mentioned a new era of ‘mutual respect’ between America and the Muslim world, inspired me to do something to contribute (especially as I’d just been laid off and was lying on the sofa anyway). I immediately went up to my study, pulled open a map of the United States, plotted a circular route around the entire country, and set about contacting potential hosts in each city – using the Internet to identify suitable organisations. Because of the US e-mails I’d had, churches were a good starting point. Using e-mail and a webpage – on which potential hosts could see my route, schedule and who had agreed to host me – the whole thing came together remarkably easily. It did take a lot of e-mailing, careful organisation, attention to detail (time/place/date) and patient follow-up.
I thus organised a US speaking tour (on ‘re-humanisation’ of the relationship between America and the Muslim world), and in mid-March I embarked upon it – driving 13,934 miles in a hybrid car, with 41 events in 39 cities. I didn’t make many hotel arrangements in advance – I just checked into a motel whenever I needed to. I didn’t carry books with me – I asked the hosts to obtain them from the US distributor, and they generally sold out wherever I spoke. I contacted the BBC about this tour and did a press release, and I got good media coverage (newspapers, internet and radio).
This extraordinary experience and the extremely positive responses from American audiences taught me something I didn’t know about myself. It seems to have established me as a natural communicator and humorous, insightful speaker; I had never thought of this before – I thought I was ‘just a writer’. (But the manager at Hertz had such a distressed look on her face when I answered her question about the return mileage – so I gave her a signed book to ease the pain.)
Without a doubt, speaking, engaging with people, and making them laugh or think, helps to sell books.
I built my own website and put all of this information on it, with hyperlinks to the sources, photographs, video clips of my appearances, and ‘adventures’ from my literary festival trips – which apparently are very funny and generate a lot of interest. This all helps to get people interested in reading the book.
I have had numerous media spots (television, radio, newspapers, magazines, podcasts, internet) and always say ‘yes’ to every opportunity. BBC Radio London now regularly calls me to do a news review on Sunday mornings, and I always agree (even though I love my sleep!) Every single event helps. So when Andrew Lownie, a leading literary agent, asked me to write a piece about what a writer can do to market his/her own book, of course I agreed.
Despite all the acclaim and wonderful experiences, I still consider myself to be at an early stage of this journey. I am actively seeking a US publisher and, when I find one, I will do a 75 city US speaking tour. I have already plotted the route!
I still think there’s more that I could do – I have only scratched the surface. If only I was a chef or a footballer, it would be so much easier!