Kwame Alexander is adamant that writers have to do more than write books. If they want to be successful, they also have to promote and sell their books. “You have to be able to use your creativity to separate yourself from the pack,” he says. “You have to be open to ideas, use ingenuity to sell books.” A born raconteur, Alexander is eager to share some of the lessons he has learned over the course of a lifetime in his keynote, “The Idea Business: A Life Spent Writing and Selling Books.”
Alexander—who recently signed a four-book deal with his publisher for a prequel to The Crossover, his 2015 Newbery Medal–winning novel in verse, and a middle-grade trilogy—hasn’t always found it easy to make a living as a writer. As recently as 2011, he says, he had to actively market his own books, including Acoustic Rooster and His Backyard Band (Sleeping Bear Press), a picture book illustrated by Tim Bowers, which has since been optioned for a children’s television show.
After Alexander was laid off from his day job, his wife suggested that he help make ends meet by selling Acoustic Rooster and His Backyard Band at a farmers’ market near their northern Virginia home. “It was an amazing idea,” he says. “I didn’t know how amazing it was until I realized I could sustain my family doing this.” Alexander says that he sold $1,000 worth of books in less than two hours on his initial foray and established personal connections with local teachers and librarians over the next year and a half through farmers’ markets.
Not only has Alexander’s life been “framed by ideas”—he is the author of 21 books and owned a small literary press, BlackWords—but the impulse to promote those ideas has always been strong. “It’s hard to flip that switch,” says Alexander, who has been involved in book publishing for most of his life. His parents owned a small press that published multicultural children’s books.
Alexander credits savvy indie booksellers with teaching him about book promotion. He laughs when recalling an appearance at a Virginia indie to promote Do the Write Thing: 7 Steps to Publishing Success (BlackWords, 2002). A huge crowd had gathered, eager to take advantage of the self-publishing workshop that had been advertised. “The posters didn’t have my face or my name anywhere,” he says. “How cool is that—marketing the idea? Nobody knew who I was. If that bookstore had put up a sign saying that Kwame Alexander will be here, nobody would have come.”
When it comes to expressing his appreciation for the independent booksellers who have supported him, first as a publisher and subsequently as an author and editor of books for children and adults, Alexander is effusive. “Independent booksellers have embraced The Crossover, just like they embraced my books when I started my company in the ’90s,” he says. “The only difference is the kind of support shown. My name and picture are on the posters now, which is kind of cool.”
See Alexander’s breakfast keynote on Tuesday, January 26, 8:30–9:45 a.m. in Plaza Ballroom A, B, C.