By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Alasan Mansaray sees opportunity everywhere, be it in shopping malls or at gas stations. Wherever he sees people, Mansaray approaches. "Hello," he says, his manner friendly. "My name is Alasan, and I'm very happy today."
When the person asks why, he tells them. "I've just published my book," he says. "Would you like to see it?"
With little prompting, Mansaray reaches into the bag slung over his shoulder and pulls out a copy of A Haunting Heritage: An African Saga in America. The book is fetching, its maroon cover featuring a picture of a man in sub-Saharan African garb saluting the Statue of Liberty. Mansaray's name is in dark letters.
"If you are interested, I can sell you a copy," Mansaray tells those who take time to look.
Mansaray's dream is to be a best-selling author, but he is doing it without the usual trappings--like a name publisher or pricey publicity program. Instead, he is taking the book directly to the public, literally, peddling it himself on street corners. He personally has placed most of the 1,500 books he has sold so far directly in the hands of the customers.
It is an inauspicious start for a would-be bestseller, but the 40-year-old Sierra Leone native is undaunted.
Mansaray says he has always wanted to be a writer. One day in 1992, the former computer operator at Southern Methodist University says, he decided to write his first book about what he knew best--the experiences of Africans who come to America. He worked for two years, finding time between his job and his crumbling marriage. Haunting Heritage is the result.
It is the fictional story of Yaya La Tale, an African who abandons his ancestral destiny as an herbalist in a small village for the modernity of America. But he finds that the United States isn't what he has seen on television. The book is really two tales--one about Yaya's culture shock upon settling in the United States, the other about Yaya's coming to terms with his own destiny.
Mansaray says he wrote the story for both Africans and African-Americans, who each have their own set of stereotypes about the other.
Africans, for example, believe America is the promised land, where no one is poor and everyone gets along. Their impressions of blacks in this country are formed through encounters with dignitaries, musicians, and Peace Corps workers, he says.
"It is very one-sided," Mansaray says. "[Africans] fantasize about America and African-Americans, and when they get here they get a rude shock."
The shock is that people here also live in poverty, and that not all black people share a connection with Africa. Indeed, Mansaray himself experienced just how much ignorance many blacks have of Africa when he came to the United States in 1986.
"People called me Kunta Kinte and Shaka Zulu," Mansaray says. "You run into people who can be ugly."
Africans also learn that they may have to start from the bottom rung economically in America. Mansaray himself worked as an English teacher and actor in Sierra Leone. He came to the United States to study, but after losing his passport to muggers in Houston, started an arduous journey of menial jobs and working toward legality.
There is pressure on Africans to make it in America, he continues. At home, people, both in the city and the village, believe that if you are in America, life is good, he says. "I just wanted to depict the struggle of the African," he says. "And to explain why Africans are so aggressive."
Mansaray's own aggressiveness is evident. To publish his book, he founded his own company, Sahara Publishing. He read up on self-publishing to avoid the pitfalls of others. Mansaray realized that self-publishing still has a vanity-press stigma attached to it. So he decided that, if he wanted to get his book noticed without a big powerhouse name behind it, he would have to act like a large publishing house.
And he has. He sent a galley of the book to Kirkus and Booklist, companies that do advance book reviews that are read by librarians and publishers. Each gave Mansaray's book a favorable writeup, as did The Dallas Morning News and Publisher's Weekly.
Mansaray added his favorable reviews to the book's jacket, and tried to parlay them into even more coverage. He had 4,000 hard-back copies printed, because "if you want to get them into the hands of reviewers, you have to have them in hardback," he explains.
He talked to distributors, but found many of them took months to decide what books they would carry. When Mansaray lost his job in the SMU computer department because of downsizing, he realized he needed to recoup some of his money as quickly as possible. That's when he took to selling Haunting Heritage himself, one book at a time.
"I realized that I had to be the one out there selling it," he says. "I really needed the publicity."
Mansaray launched his own one-man public-relations campaign. He printed slick-looking press releases, and press kits with a color photograph of himself. He contacted small papers, sending review copies to reporters and editors. He walked into book stores, peddling the book, showing them his industry reviews.
One of those bookstores was Black Images Book Bazaar. Emma Rodgers, co-owner, says she was impressed enough by Mansaray's presentation to take a chance and sell the book on consignment. The store has sold three copies since getting it in June, she says.
"You might have the best book in the world, but if you don't have a marketing plan to sell it, it won't sell," Rodgers says. "We try to encourage all self-publishers to do that."
Yet Mansaray still thought things weren't going fast enough. People who go to book stores don't go to browse, he says. They usually have their minds made up.
"It's better to catch people before they get to the store," he says. "So I do that through meeting people."
Now, Mansaray will use any opportunity to sit and talk with people and pitch his book. Once while on a plane, he talked to a few people sitting next to him, and sold three. Another time he was pumping gas at a service station when he approached a man at the pump next to him. That man also bought a book.
Mansaray isn't always successful. At first, he had a hard time working up the nerve to approach total strangers. And, he says, rejection can be hard.
"I'm a big dreamer and thinker. I've never considered myself a salesperson," he says. "But it got to a point where I wanted to succeed. This was the most practical option."
His brashness took him as far as New York and into the office of The New York Times Book Review Editor Charles McGrawth. Mansaray says he had been wanting to see McGrawth for months and had sent the paper a book, but never received a review. So when Mansaray went to New York in July, he decided to look McGrawth up. He found the office, rode up the elevator, and walked in.
"I'm here to see Charles McGrawth," he told the woman in the outer office.
"Right this way," she said, and led Mansaray straight to him. The two talked, for about 10 minutes, about the book and a bit about Texas. Mansaray made a quick pitch for a review. Then, Mansaray says, he began to feel guilty about imposing on such a busy man, so he cut his visit short.
McGrawth says he was impressed with Mansaray's chutzpa.
"I admired his initiative," he says. "I couldn't help it. I looked up and all of a sudden there was this charming man at my office.
"But this doesn't guarantee his book any more or less chance at a review," he adds quickly. The book hasn't been reviewed yet.
The New York trip was also lucky for Mansaray in that he sold his largest number of books there. He set up a stand on the street and hawked them to passers-by, selling 49 in a few hours.
The book is never far from Mansaray. He has at least one copy with him at all times, and keeps a box of them in the trunk of his car. He chooses his customers in a very unscientific manner: He mainly talks to black people. White people often eye the nearly 6-foot coal-dark Sierra Leonean with suspicion, he says. Black people are much more sympathetic.
"And I usually give them a discount" off the $21.95 cover price, he says.
Mansaray concedes he still has a ways to go before he makes the bestseller lists. Although he has interest from a couple of distributors, there still are about 3,000 unsold books stored in a Carrollton warehouse. He is making ends meet by doing computer work for a temporary agency.
Mansaray says his next step will be another publicity method used by the big publishers: the book tour. He plans to rent a van this winter and travel cross-country to California, Florida, any place that has nice weather. He will have a portable sign to set up anywhere, and a cooler so he can offer potential customers food and drink. "If I have to sell on the street, then I sell on the street," he says. "I will be like a roving salesperson."
Mansaray says he will sell his books until he has recouped some of his investment. Then he'll rest and get to work on his next book, a tale about the trials and tribulations of an interracial marriage.
"I want one day to focus on my writing," he says with a weary sigh. "But first, I have to be known.