Cooking the Books

The Harlem Book Fair: A Report

What will I do to sell copies of my latest book?  Read on.

I left home yesterday at 6:30 am to pick up a friend in Bantam and drive on down to Manhattan to take part in the 2011 Harlem Book Festival.  Set-up was scheduled from 8:30 to 11 and we arrived shortly after 9.  I found a parking meter only a block away and a volunteer guided us to the assigned spot on 135th Street just west of Malcolm X Boulevard and the Schomburg Library.  We were quickly set up and ready to go – but the official opening wasn’t until 11 and the sun was slowly eliminating all shade.  There were times when a light overcast shielded us for awhile but for most of the day there was no escaping the sun as temperatures climbed up over 100̊.    I had brought three water bottles and bought two more but it wasn’t enough.  My friend from Bantam deserves a medal for heroic endurance!

I never did make a thorough search of the booths set up on both sides of the street and along two long blocks of 135th Street but it was all books and food vendors – though “books” and “food” covers a wide range of offerings.  The booth to the east of us was staffed by a young woman who is a dietician and who was offering a book called “Why Black People Can’t Lose Weight.”  Maybe fifty yards to the west was a stage on which various “musical” groups performed and from which was broadcast what they had to offer.  It made it hard to hear anyone else.  To the west were two vacant slots assigned to vendors who never showed up – though some free enterprise types attempted to set up for business and had to be advised to leave by police (after all the rest of us had paid $150 for our slot) – and then, perhaps fifty yards to the west was a booth focused on HIV-AIDS.  Sometime after mid-afternoon they acquired a loudspeaker and began a constant chant of “Get your free HIV-AIDS information. Get free condoms.”  So perhaps that gives you a picture of the street scene: loud, colorful, varied.

I cannot say we had a constant stream of visitors, but a good many people stopped by.  Many took flyers.  Some engaged me in conversation.  Quite a few asked, “Is it on Kindle?” or “Can I get it from Amazon?”  The answer, of course, is, “Yes.”  So they moved along, sometimes assuring me that they would be placing orders.  A few asked for a way to contact me so they could get me to send them an autographed copy later since I didn’t take credit cards and they didn’t have enough cash or a check book.  I will be watching the Amazon sales rank for American to the Backbone to see whether some of those planning to order followed through.

But did I sell any books?  Yes.  The Fair closed at 6.  At 5:30 pm, I exchanged a book for an IOU to a nice lady from the United Negro College Fund booth with whom I had had extended conversation earlier.  I have occasionally done that before and never been disappointed.  Then at 5:55 pm – minutes to go – I was given cash for a book.  The buyer was a French scholar specializing in the abolition movement and very familiar with Pennington.  She thought about getting it on Amazon but finally decided she needed my autograph.  “This,” she said, “is an important book.”  I had been telling people that all day.

I haven’t mentioned the fact that twice during the day small crews came by with cameras and microphones to interview me.  I’m not sure who they represented but one mentioned a New York themed web site.

It might also be worth reporting that I had first been made aware of the Harlem Book Fair when I saw a segment on Book TV showing a panel of authors of biographies held during last year’s event.  Surely my book belongs on such a program, I thought, as I signed up for this year’s fair, but I was never asked.  This morning I turned on Book TV and there was yesterday’s panel: a white author of a book on some hip hop musicians, a woman who had written about black family life in nineteenth century Harlem, and black authors of biographies of someone who played for the Harlem Globetrotters and a black businessman. Is the Pennington biography more important than these?  I think so, but I can see that a general audience might not agree.

So was it worth while?  It remains to be seen.  I will watch the “Sales Rank” numbers on Amazon for the next few days.  Lots of people have now heard of James W.C. Pennington who hadn’t heard of him before and I think that matters also.  And there are still lots of events on my schedule – most of them indoors and when the weather is cooler.

Leave a comment

Your comment