Now is the Time

Online bookstore 03

It’s amazing what you discover when you take a stroll down the Information Superhighway.

Not so long ago, I was surfing the Net in one of my restless searches for ideas about how to promote and market books online when I wandered into a rather interesting gathering. I noted that they came from different races, nationalities and backgrounds but they had all coalesced around one common interest – their love of books and reading. Looking closer, I noticed that the core of this gathering is a group of 10 innovators who, by their own admission, opted to follow their dreams. They said they wanted to create a “home” for writers “where they can express themselves, promote their work and connect with other writers and book lovers.”

This grouping resembles a rainbow nation. Indications are it attracts a wide range of readers, published and aspiring writers and a variety of publishing and literary professionals, students and researchers. It even has literary and social clubs.

What struck me most profoundly was that, to all intents and purposes, it is a community in every sense of the word, except that it was not built with bricks and mortar and is not situated on solid ground. It is a digital community. This gives it a surreal air of ubiquity and an unlimited reach, plus the “residents” have the ability to execute actions and exchange ideas at the mere click of a mouse. Everything takes place with the immediacy of thought. 

They call themselves the Red Room after the famous Red Room of the White House. They have about 20,000 members and the site hosts about 2,000 authors. They have 12 full-time staff and 8 freelancers.

 Writers like Maya Angelou, Caryl Phillips, Salman Rushdie and Norman Mailer are among the cultural icons who have joined the group. Community membership is free. Authors pay a Premium Membership fee of US$30 a month or US$250 year to market and sell their books on the site.  

Fascinated as I am by the practicality and versatility of the site, I am more inspired by the ideals that led to its creation.  Aside from being motivated to create a home on the Internet for writers, the Red Room editorial team says an integral part of their core mission is to reflect the full diversity of published works.

But the big question is, does it work. Can writers really use the Internet to promote their work and get meaningful results? CEO, Jeff Bezos had no doubt they could. He created his company in 1995 after a market study which led him to conclude that books were the best products to sell on the Internet.

PubTrack Consumer, the US-based R.R. Bowker service that uses a national online survey to track various aspects of consumer book-buying behavior and patterns, in 2008 did a survey to find out where readers buy books and get information about them. The findings were highlighted during the Making Information Pay conference recently organised by publishing consultants Mike Shatzkin and Ted Hill for the Book Industry Study Group  They are astounding to say the least.

Among other things, it was discovered that most readers now get book information online.

  • 67% of readers say they find reviews online vs. in traditional print media
  • 54.8% rely on online/internet ads to find books
  • 24.8% rely on retailer e-mails

The survey also revealed that the internet is the #1 selling channel: 23% of market, vs. retail chains at 21%.  21% of fiction was purchased online in 2008

Phyllis Zimbler Miller, a marketing consultant with Miller Mosaic LLC, a firm which helps businesses, entrepreneurs and writers position themselves online through integrated call-to-action websites, blogging, Twitter, social media, and other Internet marketing strategies says, “My words of wisdom for all aspiring book authors, or book authors looking to expand their book marketing campaign – learn as much as you can about the different Internet marketing strategies and then start with the ones you find most comfortable.  Once you get good at those strategies, expand your book marketing repertoire.” She offers great advice to writers contemplating marketing their books online.

Even the mainstream publishers who are usually slow to adapt to change are joining the bandwagon. The UK online literary magazine, offers publishers a promotional channel to help them get maximum exposure for their books online by showcasing them on a multi-publisher magazine-style website. It is complementary to the publishers’ existing websites, blogs and social media activity, the aim being to help them reach the broadest possible audience. Faber & Faber, John Murray, Canongate, Sceptre and Gallic Books have all jumped on board. As for the US publishers, most of them have cut their marketing budgets by 50-70% over the past year. To save money they are increasingly making use of the Internet.

Meanwhile, in the Caribbean writers are having a tough time trying to get help to organise book tours in the various islands. Rising travel and accommodation costs makes it difficult. The bookstores have their own woes. Shipping costs are virtually spiraling out of control due to increasing fuel costs. So what’s a poor writer to do?

How often has it been said that the Caribbean has spawned beacons of excellence in practically every field of human endeavour, in numbers that belie its size (geographically and demographically)? Is it possible that we who have emerged out of the greatest holocaust the world has ever known to carve out our own nations; we on whose blood and sweat great empires have been built – is it possible that we cannot find among us a group of intellectual, editorial and IT visionaries with the pioneering spirit and the entrepreneurial drive to take up the challenge of creating an online home for our struggling writers and poets to help them stand on their feet so they in turn can help usher in a new dawn of knowledge and enlightenment?  

Do we in the Caribbean Diaspora have the desire and the will – and the magnanimity of spirit – to do what Reason is urging us to do to make a change? Yes, we do. 

Can we pool our resources and help to build a domicile for our bards and writers where they can fellowship with each other, exchange ideas, promote their work, connect with fellow writers and book lovers and help to foster a greater love of knowledge? YES WE CAN.

If we can just resolve to put our heads together and network with educators, academics, schools and universities, publishers, booksellers, the media and potential corporate sponsors to plant a seed of hope in this time of literary famine that is afflicting the region, some day we will reap a hundredfold.

I have a dream that I share with every writer in the Caribbean – that one day, standing on the Hills of Hope we will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. Yes, we too are heirs to the dream that our beloved Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. bequeathed to the world – the dream of Unity, Freedom and Self-Empowerment! We have come to the point where we must appreciate “the fierce urgency of Now.”    


*I’ve downloaded the powerpoint presentation delivered at the Making Information Pay Conference. If you want a copy drop me a line at I’d be happy to email it to you.


2 responses to “Now is the Time

  1. Wow, Tony! This is even more profound than the previous article! I’m sure we could come together and set up something like the Red Room. I look forward to seeing what your other readers have to say about this and where we can go from here. You are a wonderful source of information and inspiration. KEEP ON KEEPING ON!

  2. Tony, Like everyone else, we as writers have to adapt or perish. The Internet is the means by which information is shared at the moment, and while traditional books and ways of publishing are solid, there is another way of getting our material to our readers.

    Like the members of the red room, I’m also a part of a body of writers called, ‘Year Zero Writers.’ We’re all colours, from all over the world. It can work! And as you said, it’s possible for Caribbean writers to do it too.

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