Though most writers are stuck on the traditional publishing dream, there are so many different and viable paths and options to publication. In addition to getting published by a traditional house or self-publishing your novel, there are small presses as well as literary groups like the Harlem Writers Guild that publish members’ works. Author Ayesha Harruna Attah’s debut novel Harmattan Rain, for example, was published by a co-op called Per Ankh which is run by a collective of friends.
Here, Attah shares her publishing experience; careful to point out, “Whether you go with a big publisher or a small one, you are ultimately the one who has to make sure people hear about the book.”
How/why did you choose Per Ankh to publish Harmattan Rain?
Per Ankh is a publishing cooperative run by a worldwide group of friends who choose the books they want to publish. Per Ankh also runs a writers’ workshop, Per Sesh, for young African writers and gives them the resources—space, time, mentorship—to write novel-length manuscripts. I’d applied and been accepted to Per Sesh, and four months into the nine-month fellowship one of Per Ankh’s members, Dr. Natalia Kanem, came to visit and heard me read excerpts of my work in progress. After that meeting she decided to invest in Harmattan Rain and have it published. And here we are! Luckily, Per Ankh chose me and I did not have to seek other publishers.
Please share the details of your publication process.
One of the goals of the Per Sesh workshop is to have African writers be more independent, so in addition to learning to be better writers we were taught how to typeset manuscripts, the ins and outs of the business of publishing, and what goes into distribution. This meant that I had control over everything from the book cover to the kind of paper Harmattan Rain was made from. The cover art, for instance, was painted by the son of Ayi Kwei Armah, the author of several novels including The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born and coordinator of Per Ankh. This isn’t an experience a lot of writers get, and it’s made me a lot more savvy on what goes on backstage once your manuscript is completed. With editing, once the book was completed I sent the manuscript to Per Ankh members as well as people whose editing I trust (my mother, for instance, is a mean editor!). It took about seven months for the physical book to appear.
How did your publisher support you once the book was finished?
Once the book was done, a member of Per Ankh, Bonnie Kwan, helped distribute the book in the US, and Dr. Kanem threw a launch party in New York City. Another member, Ama Gueye, introduced me to Centerprise Books in the UK, where I held a reading. Ayi Kwei Armah has become a lifelong mentor and I find myself emailing him when I seemed blocked or unsure if I’m cut out for this writing life.
What’s the biggest revelation you’ve had about the publishing business in your experience getting Harmattan Rain published?
Whether you go with a big publisher or a small one, you are ultimately the one who has to make sure people hear about the book. Books are constantly being published and after yours has received some buzz another hot piece will soon kick it out of the way. You have to keep it in peoples’ sight by using channels like social media, word of mouth etc. Then again, some might say a good book is a good book, and it will do the talking for itself.
How do you think technology is impacting the discovery of good books?
I’m fascinated with the current evolution of publishing. Everyone is scared technology is turning people into Philistines, but I disagree. If anything we have more access to books than ever before, and I’m convinced a lot of people are taking advantage of that. It’s not just the religious leader’s job to be literate and translate to the masses. Now, if you have a kindle, nook, or Ipad you can get a copy of Anna Karenina with one swipe. This is not to say I don’t buy physical books. I love the feel and smell of books that have been sitting on shelves for goodness knows how long, and flipping through a book I’m really excited about for the first time makes me heady!
What advice do you have for authors currently shopping their manuscripts for publication?
Don’t give up! Keep trying. The publishing world is not an easy one to break into. You also have to learn to be creative. If the traditional way isn’t working for you, look into contests, smaller presses, even publishing an e-book. You never know how that might open up possibilities for you.
What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned overall?
Keep writing. Writing, like any profession, has to be honed and crafted. One of the best ways to do this is to read good and bad writing. Bad writing will show you what you don’t like and what pitfalls to avoid. Good writing you can steal from and then make your own. Read everything. The back of a cereal box might inspire your next great short story!