I met Ama Karikari Yawson at the inaugural AfriDiaspora.com Book Swap last weekend where she shared in frank detail her experience self-publishing the children’s book Sunne’s Gift: How Sunne Overcame Bullying to Reclaim God’s Gift. A lawyer by trade, Yawson was moved to write the self-esteem picture book after a barber used the “n” word to describe her three year old son’s hair. But after publishing the book with funds she raised in a 45-day Kickstarter Campaign, she discovered the book’s distributor was listed as the publisher.
Below, Yawson shares the lessons she’s learned in her first foray into self-publishing, her thoughts on Amazon’s discount pricing model, and the part independents can play in the shifting publishing industry landscape.
What inspired you to write Sunne’s Gift?
I have always been a fan of children’s literature, but I did not actually begin to write, until a very terrible incident.
I went to a barbershop with my dad to get my son Jojo’s hair cut. Jojo was three years old at the time and the two other haircuts that he had consisted of a barber shaving his hair practically bald. That is the easiest hair cut for a fidgety child.
I wanted this time to be different and I told the barber not to shave off all of Jojo’s hair and to just make it shorter. He then proceeded to, in my view, shave Jojo’s head practically bald.
“Whoa, whoa, I told you that I did not want it bald, this is way too low!” I exclaimed. “How can I tell you this? You’ve got a real n****r here. He is a native boy. He is from the tribe. This ain’t pretty hair. This is the best cut for him,” said the barber with his clippers still in the front of Jojo’s hair. I forced a giggle and then entered a state of shock. I could not believe that the black barber demeaned my son and his hair.
The next day, I was watching “The Fashion Police” with Joan Rivers and [she and her co-hosts] were discussing Solange Knowles’ outfit to the [Great] Gatsby [film] premiere. Joan Rivers made a comment that an afro is not an appropriate hairstyle for a red carpet event. My head began to spin. I was just tired of all of the natural afro-textured hair hate from black people and white people alike.
I was reading a marketing book at the time which said that the best way to get a message across is through a story. I really wanted to write a story that would honor afro-textured hair. But I did not think of myself as a creative writer. Soon afterwards, I was watching “Super Soul Sunday” on OWN and a speaker said that art is no different from prayer.
I started praying on a story and God gave me the story of “Sunne’s Gift”…[It] is not just about afro-textured hair, it is about anything that makes you unique as individual or as an ethnicity.
What factors went into your decision to self-publish Sunne’s Gift versus seeking a traditional publisher?
There were several factors. The first is speed. I had a dream and I wanted to manifest it quickly. I researched it and learned that it usually takes over a year for a publisher to be able to bring a book to market. I thought that I could [publish] it in less than a year and I did.
The second [factor] is control. Traditional publishers take a great deal of control with respect to editing the manuscript, choosing illustrators and choosing graphic designers. I had a unique vision and I wanted my vision to come to fruition. So I searched for illustrators, editors and designers myself.
The last factor is money. I believe in financial independence and when a person self-publishes that person can keep more of the financial pie. It is true that publishers generally promote the book so that the financial gains become larger, but when you are an unknown author, that marketing budget is very small and yet the traditional publishers continue to take the bulk of the proceeds.
How much did it cost to self-publish your book?
I spent all of the nearly $11,000 dollars that I received (after fees) from my Kickstarter [campaign]. I have added my own funds so the project was very expensive. But that budget is not for everyone.
First, my book is hardcover and fully illustrated so it is more expensive to produce. Second, because of the environmental theme of Sunne’s Gift, I really wanted it to be printed on environmentally-friendly paper. That costs a great deal more. Third, I wanted my book printed in the U.S. by an employee-owned printer so that I could be sure that no one was abused or exploited during the process. That costs more. Finally, I’m very bullish on the book and I printed 3,000 copies. That is a huge run for a self-published book.
All of these factors led to the high cost. Others would be able to self-publish their books for a very low fraction of what I spent.
Did you encounter any surprise or hidden fees during the process of self-publishing?
I would not say that any fees were “hidden”, but the budget kept on expanding. It expanded because I needed more graphic design work. It expanded because I increased the page count to accommodate some design elements. It expanded because I needed to ship the books to multiple places for fulfillment. There are always more fees that one comes across during the process.
Though you published your children’s picture book yourself using funds you raised from your Kickstarter campaign, you learned you would need a distributor if you wanted your book easily available to teachers ordering from school lists and in the Baker and Taylor system which librarians access to add books to their shelves. Did you know you would have to do this before you opted to self-publish and how did you decide on a distributor?
I did not know and it was an incremental expense that I had not budgeted. I really could not find many distributors to choose from. There are self-publishing services like Lulu and Createspace that distribute books, but I could not use those services because I wanted control over the printing process (the choice of printer and paper). That said, there were only two companies that I found that would allow me to control the entire process and then just hand over the books to be registered with Ingram, Baker and Taylor, Follett, etc. One company, charged 15% per distributed book and an upfront fee of about $1,000 and another charged 30% with no upfront fee. I am bullish on my sales so I went for 15% on each book and the upfront fee.
After you signed with your distributor, you were surprised to find the company listed as your publisher online. Why do they have the right to do this when you and the many who funded your Kickstarter campaign are the publishers?
I was horrified and I am working diligently to get this resolved. The distributor says that because it gives the books to Baker and Taylor et al. those companies just use the distributor as the publisher. In most cases the distributor and publisher are the same company, but that is unacceptable to me. I did not get an advance. The distributor did not give me money to print the books and to pay for illustration and graphic design. The listing of the distributor as the publisher is insulting to me and the 210 people who donated to my Kickstarter campaign. I’m working on getting it changed.
In your contract with your distributor, you stipulated that they could not sell the book on Amazon, but before the release date of your book, you were locked out of your Amazon account for more than a week and could not get in for more than a week. What reason did Amazon give you for barring your access?
I printed the books at the end of March  and started selling the book on Amazon through my seller account. My distributor said that it would take a month for the distributor to register the book with Baker and Taylor, Follett, Ingram etc. and that for those purposes the release date would be May 6th. Amazon works with Baker and Taylor, Follett, Ingram and other major wholesalers and so information from those wholesalers feeds into the Amazon system. In late April, Amazon’s system was fed the information that the release date for my ISBN was May 6th and so the Amazon system saw my information on my seller’s account as being incorrect information. It as if the Amazon system saw me as someone who was pirating the book, despite the fact that I’m the author and publisher. Therefore the system suppressed my listing and blocked me from selling the book. Amazon created its own listing and started accepting pre-orders.
How did you resolve the matter?
The problem was “resolved” a few days before the May 6th distributor release date. Amazon gave itself the buy box which still said that it was available only on a preorder basis at a steep 25% discount. At the left side, my small listing was there at full price. So my listing went from being the only listing to being the small listing on the left side.
About two days later on May 6th I was shocked to see that on day one over a dozen companies, including Amazon, were selling my book at deep discounts. There were over a dozen sellers on the left side and Amazon still kept the buy box. Out of solidarity to the wonderful independent bookstores that are carrying my book and can’t afford to give deep discounts, I kept my list price at the suggested retail price. Guess what? I have not sold a single book on Amazon since late April because I don’t have the buy box and my price is high.
The price competition is insane. At one point there were 36 sellers and some where selling the book for $10.01 which is the wholesale price plus 1 cent. A day after the release date, stores were listing the book as used. That is highly unlikely. They were probably selling new books as used knowing that some people prefer to buy used books for environmental reasons. I presume that these additional sellers get the book from my distributor or from Baker and Taylor, Follett, Ingram etc.
How did the vendors, outside of your distributor, get access to your book?
I stipulated that my distributor can’t sell to Amazon, but my distributor can sell to “BookSnatchers” or some other company that will then list the book and sell it on Amazon.
Do you blame Amazon or your distributor for this snafu which cost you revenue for a book you invested time and resources in, and wrote for such a personal reason?
I believe that there is room for a great deal of improvement with respect to Amazon’s systems and its relationships with small independent publishers like myself. Amazon is not perfect and neither is my distributor. But I don’t really cast blame on anyone. I’m just learning from this, as with any new experience. Additionally, it is important to note that I will still get the wholesale price minus the 15% distribution fee from those sales that Amazon and “BookSnatchers” etc. made.
There has been growing sentiment in the publishing community that Amazon is undermining the marketplace for books because of its aggressively low pricing. Do you think Amazon is harmful to the book business, particularly writers seeking to earn a living from their work?
I think that Amazon is dangerous with its low pricing in a similar way that Walmart is dangerous due to low pricing. We need independent bookstores which we can visit and relax in and listen to authors and have our children attend storytime. We need independent publishers that bring new ideas to the population. We need boutiques that we can walk into and have a relationship with a salesperson.
Insofar as companies like Amazon or Walmart shut out independent bookstores, small publishers and boutiques, it is harmful. But the power lies with us. We have to diversify the places that we go for books, clothes, etc. We have to decrease our reliance on Amazon. We have to be willing to spend more to live better and to support the small businesses that are so dear to us.
Knowing what you know now, would you recommend other writers self-publish?
I would still recommend it because it is an opportunity to control your work, control your finances, control your creativity and control your life. It is easier to do it now than it has ever been before. Yes there are going to be challenges. Marketing is a major challenge. The issues I had with Amazon and my distributor disturbed my peace of mind. But there will also be rewards.
I’m so uplifted anytime that someone comments on the gorgeous illustration, fantastic design and amazing story that is Sunne’s Gift. I served as art director and design director and that gives me great pride because no one would have been able to execute my vision like me. The amazingly talented illustrator that I chose had just graduated from college, had no prior children’s book experience and would not have been picked by traditional publishers. That is the power that one has with self-publishing. Don’t cede that power easily.
Ama Karikari Yawson earned a BA cum laude in Social Studies from Harvard University, an MBA from the Wharton School and a JD from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. Her articles have been published in MSNBC’s The Grio, The Huffington Post, The Atlantic, Madame Noire and other publications. She has also appeared on the Today Show, Al Jazeera’s The Stream, The Nate Berkus Show and Fox Business. Follow her @amakywason.