Sade Adeniran proves that hard work and perseverance will get you there.
“Oh no! I forgot about the interview,” Sade Adeniran laughs when I phone to talk to her about the recent success of her first novel, Imagine This. It is no wonder the interview slipped her mind. She has just completed an intensive promotional campaign for Imagine This and is now preparing for a trip to South Africa to attend the Time of the Writer Festival. I offer to call back later but Sade very kindly agrees to talk to me while she does the ironing.
I met Sade last year at a writing retreat in Spain and was impressed by her proactive approach to marketing Imagine This, which won the 2008 Regional Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and was shortlisted for The Book to Talk About 2009. These achievements are all the more remarkable when you realise that Sade published and promoted the book herself.
Like many writers, Sade went down the self publishing route because her manuscript was being overlooked by the big publishing houses. “I thought that if my novel was attractively packaged in book form, publishers would be more likely to read it.” When she looked into printing options, the bargain hunter in her was delighted to discover that the more copies she printed, the more money she would save. I ask how many books there were in the first print run. “Eleven hundred,” Sade replies breezily.
It was not until she saw the books stacked up in her flat that Sade realised her work had only just begun. “I was thinking, how am I going to get rid of these?” Her solution was to organise a book launch and create a website through which she could sell the surplus books. “It all just snowballed from there,” Sade says. Her modesty is misleading. It took a lot of hard work and determination to bring Imagine This to the public’s attention.
Her marketing campaign included appearances on local radio and television. “I got on the phone and bombarded people with e-mails and phone calls until they gave in and let me come on to talk about Imagine This.” For many writers, venturing out of their creative cocoons to talk to perfect strangers about their work is a terrifying prospect. This was also an obstacle for Sade, who confesses, “I am not a people person. Before I send every e-mail I’m agonising over it. What will people think? Will they just delete it? I worry about it.” There is no magic formula for overcoming these fears. “I have to talk myself into it,” she says. Two years have passed since Imagine This was first published and I wonder if it ever gets any easier to approach people. Sade replies with an emphatic “No!”
The success of Imagine This can not only be attributed to Sade’s sheer determination to get the book out there. The well written and compelling narrative has captivated readers and sparked a vigorous word of mouth campaign. The novel tells the story of Lola, a nine year old girl who is torn from her home in London and sent to live with relatives in Nigeria. Although the setting of the novel is culturally very specific, Sade believes it has universal appeal because “it’s about somebody’s life experience, so it doesn’t matter if you are a man or a woman, you just have to empathise with a character’s pain.” She points out that the title of the novel invites readers to imagine what life is like for Lola, even if they come from different cultural backgrounds to the protagonist and do not share her experiences. The cover design reinforces this idea.
“The cover painting was by a friend. I saw the painting on their website and it instantly appealed, just as it was.” Later, however, Sade had a dream that the she was looking at the painting in an art gallery. “I was wondering who the boy and the girl were and what they were talking about. The effect of looking at the characters’ lives from a distance played on the title, Imagine This.” In the first print run, the cover of the novel shows the painting on white background “because the walls in an art gallery are usually white.” The cover design in the second print run depicts the painting framed and hanging on a wall. (A second print run proved necessary when orders for the book were still coming in even after the first batch of eleven hundred copies had sold out.)
Despite the large demand for the novel and the positive reaction of readers, Sade still could not get a big publishing house interested in Imagine This. “No one was biting. I began to wonder if the book was any good. I had to decide who to believe: the readers who loved it or the publishers who wouldn’t buy it.” Sade decided to trust her readers and entered Imagine This into several novel competitions. It was not shortlisted for either the Orange or the Costa prizes and Sade was at a particularly low point when she received an e-mail from the organisers of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize with a letter attached. “I didn’t open it for at least two days. I thought it was another rejection.”
When she finally did read the letter, she was amazed to find she had won the Regional (Africa) Commonwealth Prize for Best First Book. Attending the awards ceremony in South Africa gave her a new perspective of her status as a writer. “I was dreading going as a self published author, a pretend writer,” she admits. “I went with this complex.” After meeting the other award winners, however, Sade’s worries were quickly dispelled. “They were very encouraging. They made me feel like a real writer.” It was a revelation too, to discuss her book with the competition judges. “They are academics and they were talking about Imagine This as a literary novel. I hadn’t thought about it that way before. It did my ego a world of good.”
Sade returned to the UK with a fresh wave of confidence that helped her continue to promote her book. Her perseverance was rewarded when readers voted Imagine This onto the shortlist of ten books competing for the title of The Book to Talk About 2009. During the second phase of voting to determine the winner, Sade sent out blanket e-mails to everyone she knew, encouraging them vote. The result was announced on World Book Day on the 5th of March and, although Imagine This did not make the top spot, just being in the running has been a huge boost. “In the last 3 weeks I have sold more books than in the last year,” Sade tells me.
It is clear that Sade is her own harshest critic when she refers several times to “losing” the Book to Talk About campaign. Nevertheless, she does seem to be approaching a place where she can happy with everything she has accomplished. “It is gradually dawning on me that I have achieved a lot, that I should be proud,” Sade agrees. Although she continues to claim that she has been lucky, she does tell me, “The book is good. I can admit that now. If you don’t have anything in the book, word of mouth will never spread.”
Sade is currently involved in a school outreach programme which has given her the opportunity to discuss Imagine This with a group of year nine students. “Imagine This has no generational boundaries,” Sade explains. “Everyone’s been young.” The positive feedback from the school students has been overwhelming. “I was welling up with tears when one fourteen year old boy came up to me and said ‘I don’t read but I read your book and it really touched me.’ He’d even written a review of it and given it ten out of ten. To me as a writer, that’s better than any prize.”
Imagine This is being put to one side now so that Sade can concentrate on writing her second novel. She hopes that the success of Imagine This, coupled with the fact that she has now snared an agent, will mean that publishers are more willing to read her second book. “That’s half the battle, getting someone to read it.”
Although the marketing of her second book will be in the hands of the publisher, Sade still plans do her own promotional work, such as book readings, on the side. “It’s better for me. It means more royalties. It all depends on what kind of deal you get with your publisher anyway. There might be no budget for marketing my second book.”
Before the interview ends and Sade is allowed to concentrate all her efforts on ironing, I ask if she has any final advice for writers trying to publish their first book. “Self publishing is hard,” Sade says. “Hard, hard, hard. Think twice. I wouldn’t say ‘no, don’t do it,’ just be aware of the pitfalls. You have to be bullish and grow a thick skin. Once you’re on that journey, if you’re as lucky as I have been then it’s wonderful.”