Saturday, October 02, 2010

Cassandra Cookbook Conundrum

A pinch of Hard Work.

A dash of determination.

A recipe for no sales.

The Cassandra Cookbook was supposed to be a recipe for literary success. It was well-received by literary agents, book clubs, and most critics It’s a book praised for its solid premise, well-developed characters and tight storyline.

Unfortunately, African-American readers weren’t interested.

Despite handing out numerous free (over 40) promotional and review copies to vendors, aggressively contacting African-American book clubs, and bookstores, the sweet story about the girl working towards developing her own recipe for success in Downtown Brooklyn is a failure. Isis and All About Marilyn kick Cassandra’s ass in sales.

I’m trying to find out what went wrong with The Cassandra Cookbook. It’s a mystery that baffles me. Everyone likes the story when they read it, but can’t it get any takers when it comes time to buy it. I’m still trying to figure out:

Is it the price? $14.95 isn’t that pricey for a trade paperback Cassandra’s size. I mean, I offered it for $5 at the Harlem Book Fair this year with lots of lookers, but no takers. Amazon discounted the book down to $2.36 this summer and STILL no buyers. Meanwhile over the summer, Isis and All About Marilyn continued to sell and pick up readers and interest.

Is it the cover? Some reviewers said they were turned off by the cover. I’m trying to figure out what is it about the cover repulsed people? The composition of the figure? The image of a black woman with blonde hair? Or is it because she’s a light-skinned African-American? My pencils? My ink and color work?

Some complained about the colors I used on the cover. I used pink and blue in the cover design because that’s what most publishing houses were using on their chick lit covers to “cute” up their design. Chick Lit covers often used illustrations to appeal to young females. But I guess African-American women don’t like cute stuff on their book covers. Many in the Black community thought I was selling a children’s book and not a piece of contemporary fiction targeted at them.

Is it the title? Many on the street misinterpreted my attempt to be clever with the title and thought the story detailing a sista’s recipe for success was a real cookbook. Maybe the concept of a Cassandra Cookbook went over most readers’ heads.

Was it the writing? While most liked the story, some complained that I over-worded some paragraphs. I don’t think the paragraphs in Cassandra were wordy; Read Jane Austen, Anita Brookner or any English author and you’ll be in for some dense paragraphs. Others didn’t like the fact that I used the word “digress” or the word “pink” so many times. I don’t know, I thought I by using a word like digress would help readers develop their vocabulary; something a reader would need to expand for exams like the SAT, GRE, or civil Service tests. And White chick lit heroines have pink everythings; from their cell phones to their nail polish. Was I wrong to think African-American women would identify with a woman who liked cute pink things?

Could I have offended some brothers and sisters with the down-low storyline involving Cassandra and her fiancĂ© Gerald? I did my best to be as sensitive as possible tackling that particular storyline showing how the harm down low men cause for black women is emotional, and not about a man’s sexual orientation. What hurts most sistas about down low brothers is their violation of a sista’s trust and their lack of honesty. It’s more about the lying to them about being straight than a man being gay. However, I understand homophobia is rampant in the African-American community, and perhaps many brothers and sistas were turned off by a storyline that explored complex gay issues.

Is it because I’m a black male? I don’t know. Many sistas don’t mind picking up books by other black male authors like Eric Peete, Eric Jerome Dickey, or Carl Weber that feature black female protagonists. Isis and All About Marilyn both featured female lead heroines and readers love those stories.

Was it the editing? I’ll take responsibility for the errors in Cassandra. Truth was I wasn’t in top form on editing because I was starting a new job and working with a new computer a year after my laptop died. But hey, those street lit books have 50X more errors than Cassandra does and brothers and sisters are more than eager to give those titles a chance regardless of quality.

Could it be the timing? I released the book unaware that street/urban lit had become the new hot thing in African-American fiction. The way this book has been recieved, I have to wonder Is anyone black even still interested in contemporary African-American fiction stories anymore?

Or is Cassandra just a victim of the sophomore curse? This is a tragedy usually befalls an author’s second book.

All I know is I did the best I could with Cassandra. I put my whole heart into that story and it hurt to watch it received so negatively by readers, especially women of color who I wrote it for.

While many may not like it, Cassandra was a very inspiring and uplifting story for me. I was out of work for a LONG time (Since November 2002) and was depressed over losing a job I failed to do well at (Brothers at the reception desk= FAIL). While I was writing Cassandra’s story in 2003-2004, I managed to work my way out of depression and lost over 40 pounds. Cassandra was the first book since Isis that put a smile on my face. I loved sharing what I knew about the black business world on paper.

I also loved trying out new techniques. The Cassandra Cookbook was the first story where I experimented with a new softer style of storytelling. In the past I often wrote darker, more cerebral characters and very intense storylines. Cassandra’s story model was the first to feature lighthearted characters, a quirky storyline and a bit of fun. I designed the plot structure to have more of a comical nature than the seriousness of stories like Isis, All About Marilyn, or The Temptation of John Haynes.

Doing things differently with Cassandra’s story had a huge impact on my writing career. When I queried literary agents; it was the first book that attracted their serious interest. Cassandra almost got representation. It almost got sold. It almost made it to a table at Barnes & Noble. It coulda been my big break. I believed in the story even though positive rejections piled up in cyberspace and in the mail. Everyone telling me how great the story was encouraged me to persevere.

Then in July 2007 in the middle of editing it and revising All About Marilyn my first laptop, a Dell Inspiron 2500 died after seven years of service. I put my dreams on hold but continued to do revisions on loose-leaf paper hoping to self-publish Cassandra and share it with readers.

As I found employment in early 2008, I set a goal. No matter what happened with this new job, I was going to publish The Cassandra Cookbook. In my first 90 days on the job I spent my nights revising Cassandra while adjusting to a new work schedule. I saved up money from my first few paychecks eager to share this great story with brothers and sisters and spent several thousand dollars in between the book fairs, mailing out free copies and other promotional efforts to get the word out about this book. It saddens me to see all that work I did to publish and promote this book went nowhere.

The Cassandra Cookbook was my first book back from a long journey back from depression and unemployment. I've done all I can over the past two years and I don't know what to do anymore. I love this book and I don’t want to see it die. I believe in what I wrote. I believe Cassandra is a great story that will put a smile on people’s faces. I just wish brothers and sisters would take the time to give this great book a chance.


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