“I’m the ‘say yes guy, the inspiration guy,” said Kwame Alexander, Newbery Medalist for The Crossover (HMH), on the third and final day of WI 11 in Denver, at a breakfast keynote he called “The Idea Business: A Life Spent Writing and Selling Books.” He described how he went from signing 100 books over the course of a weekend to signing 600 books in two-and-a-half hours at Books & Books in Coral Gables, Fla., to encourage booksellers to become “say yes” people, too.
Alexander said he got creative when he published his first book, a collection of poetry, back in 1995. He had to. Two months after his initial printing of 1,000 copies, he still had 900 left. After reading in Publishers Weekly that Stephen King had just finished a 20-city book tour, Alexander decided to go on a tour, too, to 30 cities. He called bookstores, which didn’t want to talk with a self-published poet. So he had his friends call. He ended up visiting 55 stores.
When Alexander got to the end of the tour in Los Angeles, he gave money to his friends to buy books at his final bookstore stop in Westwood. The bookstore was overwhelmed by the sales. “Really, a poet? We want you to come back for your next book,” they told him.
But Alexander still had 100 books left, which he needed to sell to return home to Virginia. He spoke at a church after services. “What I didn’t tell you,” Alexander added, “is that the poems are love poems, and some are questionable.” The church ladies bought every copy.
Although Alexander regards that tour as his entree into bookselling, his father was a book distributor and Alexander grew up reading trade publications like PW. It was only at age 12, when his father insisted that Alexander come to work with him, that he began to loathe the business. That first job entailed taking the subway to the Bookazine warehouse, pulling books for an hour and a half, and then taking them to sell in a parking lot in Brooklyn.
Two years later, Alexander’s father took him to a London book fair. No, not that fair – the International Book Fair of Radical Black & Third World Books. His father bought them first-class plane tickets, but they had to carry the 10 boxes of books they brought with them to the book fair. While his dad was busy inside the fair, Alexander knew that he had to sell the books. He did not want to lug 10 boxes back to Heathrow Airport. Alexander gave a book to a beautiful girl, who came back the next day with her boyfriend. He bought $100 worth of books, and Alexander ended up selling eight boxes of books. His father deducted the free book from his commission.
When Alexander started his own publishing company, he tried to use the lessons that he had learned working for his father and selling his own poetry. Alexander printed 5,000 copies of the first book and booked the author at Louie’s Bookstore Cafe in Baltimore. He called African-American sororities and fraternities in the city and sent letters to local community groups. A few days before the event, he realized that the author didn’t have the kind of engaging personality needed for a reading. So Alexander rewrote the first chapter of the book and turned it into a play. He hired two actors to perform it. Every book sold.
“Sometimes we have to say yes to creativity,” Alexander said, adding, “there’s more than one way to sell a book.” When Tupac Shakur died in 1996, Alexander got friends to contribute to a collection of essays that he put together about the hip-hop artist, Tough Love. He printed 500 copies two month after Tupac’s death. PW ran a brief review, and Koen Book Distributors sent Alexander a purchase order for 6,000 copies. “That was the first purchase order I saw,” Alexander said. Soon he got a second, from a distributor on the book on the west coast.
Alexander’s career in children’s books also began by him saying yes. He was invited to be on a panel at the Florida Council of Teachers of English. Afterwards the teachers asked him if he’d like to read from his work. He recited a love poem, and once again sold out of books. At the event Alexander was approached by someone who asked him if he had ever thought about writing for children, and put him in touch with Sleeping Bear Press.
Alexander submitted a few love poems and a poem inspired by his 15-year-old daughter wanting to go on a date, “10 Reasons Why Fathers Cry at Night.” Sleeping Bear liked his poetry, but didn’t think these were books. Thinking back to lulling his daughter to sleep with Ella Fitzgerald when she was a baby, he decided to write a book about jazz music for kids, Acoustic Rooster and His Barnyard Band, which Sleeping Bear published in 2011.
About that time Alexander lost his job, and his wife gave him three months to find a way to sell more books or get a new job. She suggested that he try the farmer’s market in Reston, Va. After two and a half hours, Alexander sold $1,000 worth of books. He spent the next year and a half going to farmer’s markets three days a week, up and down the East Coast. One of the booths had a woman who sold frogs, which is where he got the idea for his new picture book, Surf’s Up (NorthSouth, Feb.) about frog friends Bro and Dude. “The idea,” Alexander said, “was to tell a story about the joy of reading.”
“I believe literature can empower young people,” Alexander continued. “Children’s book authors, like teachers, have a responsibility to imagine a better and brighter world. It’s important for each of us to say yes to ideas and thinking out of the box. You all are the way we can continue this legacy of creating beautiful people.”
He ended his talk, for which he received a standing ovation, by telling booksellers: “Reading is an opportunity for all of us. It’s up to you.”