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Kwame Alexander in His Own Words

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by Darhiana Tellez, IBPA Independent managing editor

Darhiana Tellez

Kwame Alexander has been tapped to be the keynote speaker at IBPA’s Publishing University 2016, taking place April 8–9 in Salt Lake City, Utah. Alexander’s keynote session is titled “7 Tools for Publishing Success” (or “How I Sold Nearly a Million Poetry Books”).

Ready to register for Publishing University 2016? We’d love to see you there!
Visit the PubU website for more information.

Kwame Alexander
Photo courtesy of Donnie Biggs/FCPS

Kwame Alexander, renowned poet and children’s book author, makes straddling the worlds of art and commerce look effortlessly cool. As a New York Times best-selling author of 21 books, including the children’s book The Crossover, which received the 2015 John Newbery Medal for the Most Distinguished Contribution to American Literature for Children, Alexander has carved a successful career out of his passion for words and trademark swagger. It’s no surprise why Alexander, who in addition to being an author, wears the hats of educator, speaker, global literacy advocate, and former indie publisher.

Here, the Brooklyn, New York-bred wordsmith who grew up in a family of artists and “socially conscious revolutionaries,” spills his business secrets and offers advice for others looking to follow in his footsteps.

The Best Piece of Business Advice He Ever Received

bookedcvrSmallIt came from my wife. I had published my first children’s book (Acoustic Rooster and His Barnyard Band) in 2011, and I didn’t have an audience. No one knew who I was as a children’s book author in particular and very few people knew who I was as a poet. I had somewhat of a local following but certainly not enough for me to make a living from book sales. My wife suggested that I begin attending farmers markets, which I thought was kind of a wacky idea. Farmers markets are where you sell fruits and vegetables; I didn’t see the value in going to a farmers market to sell children’s books. But I usually listen to my wife—she’s smarter than me. I went to the market. I had a table with my stack of books, a cool design, and some giveaways. It cost me $25 to purchase a booth and over the next three hours, I made $1,100. And I said “oh my.” I spent the first year-and-a-half of my career as a children’s book author and publisher visiting farmers markets and making more money than I ever made on any job. It was the realization that marketing and distribution has a whole other meaning outside of traditional channels. When you are an independent publisher, you have to come up with really creative and innovative ways to move your product and promote your books.

Striking A Balance Between the Creative and Business Sides of Being an Indie Publisher or Author/Publisher

I owned a book publishing company called The Alexander Publishing Group from 1995 to 2005. And I was always this performer and poet who loved being in front of audiences. That was a big part of my artistic side but owning a publishing company, I also understood this wasn’t just some sort of starving artist endeavor. I wanted to run a business—a profitable business—so I had to figure out how to compartmentalize those two things. I’ll give you an example of how I did just that: It was at my first book signing in Marina del Rey in Los Angeles County, California. We rented a gazebo and threw a book party. We invited all of our friends and family and anyone else who was interested in coming to hear two poets [another poet who I published along with for my first book, Just Us: Poems and Counterpoems, 1986-1995.]

When the party started, we both read from our books. I had on this really cool vest and really cool shirt and really cool glasses. I looked like a poet, and it was awesome. I did my reading, and I had so much fun. After the reading was over, it was time for the book signing. I took off my vest and put on my blazer, and I literally transformed myself from poet to CEO. I was very concerned with selling books, and I made sure everyone there got at least one book. In my mind, I was always very clear that art and commerce are two different things, and certainly in my line of work, they feed off each other. I always try to be aware of those opportunities and make sure I’m in the right mindset.

Another example: A couple of times, I would be flying to another city and would strike up a conversation with someone sitting next to me on a plane. They would ask what I did for a living. Every time I would say that I write children’s books, they would respond, “Oh my goodness, I have a grandchild.” And I would respond, “As it happens, I have some books with me.” And I would pull out the books from the bins and pull out my square and sell books…on the plane. You can’t be too proud. You can’t say, “I don’t want to go to a farmers market,” or “I’m not going to be selling books on an airplane.” Those weren’t my plans but certainly, when you are an independent publisher, you have to be open to opportunities and be able to take advantage of those at any given time.

Getting Knocked Off His Feet

My proudest writerly achievement was definitely winning the Newbery. That was a life changer right there. I have experienced a new kind of normal that I don’t know if you can ever imagine as a writer. To now be in this space is strange and improbable and pretty awe-inspiring and awesome and humbling and wonderful. I was utterly floored and knocked off my feet. My world was rocked. You can never imagine that you’re going to win a Newbery Medal. Certainly, you want to write a good book, a book that’s hopefully going to inspire and impact young people.

Finding His Literary Groove

NSB_Surfs Up CoverhighresSmallPoetry: It is the language of love. I began writing poetry to be able to communicate how I felt about the world, and, in particular, about girls. That’s where I sort of found my way to poetry. But I think that poetry is so concise; it’s so power-packed with emotion and energy and rhythm and you are able to say so much in very few words—I like that. I like that economy of words. I like the excitement of being able to make a few words dance on a page. To be able to have everyone find their groove. I think it’s really thrilling. I also think poetry for young people can be the bridge where kids cross over into an appreciation of language and literature. I think it’s ripe for kids, and we need to give them more of it.

I decided to write children’s literature because I had a daughter who I’ve been reading to every night since she was two years old. I was immersed in children’s literature. And, in a way, I had sort of given up on the adults. I think kids are our brightest chance to create a more beautiful world. The adults don’t seem to want to do it. I want to reach the kids and want to help them imagine and reimagine a better world.

His Most Influential Mentors

My first librarians, writers, and readers were my parents. My father wrote quite a few books and my mother was an English teacher. Both of my parents very much involved in multicultural children’s literature. They owned a publishing company. They were my first mentors in being able to bridge the gap between art and commerce. They showed me how to do that. And it’s not that you are writing for money. You are writing because it’s your passion and you want to change the world one word at a time, and you also want to make a living.

I was able to see it on another level with Nikki Giovanni [who was his poetry college professor at Virginia Tech]. She was not only making a living but a pretty successful living as a poet. I remember thinking that I wanted to be like her. I want to be able to speak about things I care about. It was this distant dream and she served as a model and mentor during that whole process. That was 25-26 years ago. And she just called me yesterday! We’re pretty tight.

His Book-In-A-Day Program

KwamePageToStageSmallI started the Book-in-a-Day program once I closed my publishing company (The Alexander Publishing Group and its sole imprint, BlackWords Press). I still had the publishing bug and still had a certain level of expertise that I wanted to be able to share. So I decided to teach young people how to write and publish books. That lasted about nine years, from 2006–2015. We brought the program to 76 elementary, middle, and high schools and all the schools published anthologies. They published these wonderful trade paperback books. The beauty of the program is that the kids did all the work. They wrote the books, they published the books. I coached them through the process. It got to the point where I couldn’t be everywhere. I wanted to just go to every school but I’m only one person. I wanted to make the program more accessible to more schools. So I ended up partnering with Scholastic Corporation. We’re launching a program called Kwame Alexander’s Page-to-Stage Writing Workshop in March, sort of like a book-in-a-day kit so teachers can do the program on their own. They have a manual and these amazing tutorial videos for teachers and students. I’m really excited about it.

Leap For Ghana
2. KWameCrossoverSmall

Photo courtesy of Nataki Hewling

It’s one thing to be able to teach a child that has resources to publish a book. It’s another thing entirely to go into a school where there are no walls, no floors; just red clay. Where there’s one book in a school of 200 kids. That’s a whole different kind of give back. When I visited a school in the Konko village in Eastern Ghana, I knew I wanted to be able to do something to allow those kids whose eyes were filled with ambition, an opportunity to actualize some of their dreams. So I formed this organization called LEAP for Ghana in March 2012 to provide books, literacy, and training in order to empower these young people. In the fall of 2015, we sent six of our students who we’ve been working with for the past four years to high school. It’s the first group of students from the school to go to high school in 10 years because high school costs $1,000 each year and they can’t afford it. That’s pretty exciting.

How He Would Like To Be Remembered

As a writer who understood that writing was more than putting pen to paper. A writer who got out and shared and interacted with young people. A writer who was concerned about the world and tried to do something about it. A writer who cared so much about what’s going on in the world that nothing seemed impossible. If you can make a difference, than you have to. I would like to be remembered as someone who always embraced the power of yes. Ultimately, I would like to be remembered as someone who wrote good books that had some impact and inspired young people.

Darhiana Mateo Téllez is managing editor of the Independent. She can be reached at darhiana@ibpa-online.org.

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