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Harem Girls for Sale
By Anastasia M. Ashman and Jennifer Eaton Gokmen

 


In eighteen months, two expatriate American writers in Istanbul converted a sudden book idea into a feminist travel anthology and landed a North American book deal as well as dual language editions from Turkey's strongest publisher, while winning representation at one of New York's oldest literary agencies. All with their first book project.

How Did We Do It?

We recognized our project's potential and doggedly pursued it. We created a compelling brand. We boldly requested counsel, material, and support from family, friends, business acquaintances, and complete strangers. We refused to let the doubts of others impede our trajectory, instead infecting naysayers with our enthusiasm. We shared every success with a growing contact list, sustaining a positive buzz. And from the earliest days we hunted unique marketing and publicity opportunities.

This is the story of Tales From the Expat Harem: Foreign Women in Modern Turkey. Edited by Anastasia M. Ashman and Jennifer Eaton Gokmen, the anthology collects experiences of 32 foreign nationals from four continents, spanning forty years and the entire Turkish nation. (Seal Press, 03/06; Dogan Kitap, 09/05, in both English and Turkish editions).

Recognizing Our Potential

Writing full-time since 2001, California-born Anastasia's arts, culture, and travel writing appeared in publications worldwide, from The Wall Street Journal Asia to The Village Voice. Soon after she moved from New York to Istanbul in 2003, she met Jennifer, a ten-year expat with a degree in literature and creative writing whose writing career had been on a slow burn since her move to Turkey. The Michigan native had been a staff writer for a popular expatriate humor magazine and contributed to other local magazines. To advance our professional aims we established a writing workshop in Fall 2003 with a handful of other American women writers.

"I immediately recognized Anastasia as someone whose energy and goals matched my own," Jennifer recollects. "Interaction during bi-weekly workshops revealed our compatibility and vision: within two months it was obvious that the writing group could spawn our first book-length project. Most pieces critiqued revolved around each woman's Turkish experience and what it revealed about her personally."

"By the 2004 spring thaw we elicited the curiosity of a new Turkish/American publishing house in Istanbul," explains Anastasia. "That was the trigger that launched us into high gear." Translating the small publisher's casual interest into a writing exercise, we charged the group to fashion a book proposal, but our enthusiasm for the potential project quickly outstripped our colleagues' as we targeted what we knew could be a hit.

We had to act fast. World attention was increasingly focused on this much-maligned Muslim country as its new conservative religious party government enacted sweeping reforms to speed the country towards European Union membership. This was heat we could harness for our book.

Although Anastasia had worked in a New York literary agency and was somewhat familiar with the elements of a book proposal, we sought further guidance from published friends and writers' online resources. Consumed with pushing the project forward, we covered ground swiftly, passing the ball when ideas slowed, inspired by each others' fresh input.

Branding

"Since we didn't have established literary reputations to lend recognizable names, the title of the anthology needed immediate appeal, palpable impact," says Jennifer.  "Something born of the literary circumstance we would collect: atmospheric travelogue; tales of cultural contrast and discovery in the streets, at weddings and workplaces, hamams and bazaars; and journeys of assimilation into friendship, neighborhood, wifehood, motherhood, citizenship, business and property ownership."

To decide concept and brand, we spun favorite motifs of female culture in Turkey, snagging on the quaint rural tradition of marking one's visit by weaving distinctly colored thread into a friend's carpet. But the earnest New Thread on the Loom: Outsiders in Turkish Culture sounded too woolly, academic, un-marketable. "Not a title we ourselves would snatch off a shelf or cuddle up with in bed," quips Anastasia.

Instead, the theme had to elicit strong response with a tempting metaphor that could withstand scrutiny. We hit on a conspicuous and controversial tradition of the region, provocative enough to intrigue or inflame book buyers worldwide. We created the Expat Harem.

"We were banking on the title ruffling feathers," acknowledges Jennifer. "Anachronistic. Titillating. Bound to provoke reaction. We decided to co-opt the word harem, with all its erroneous Western stereotypes about Asia Minor and the entire Muslim world."

Infusing "harem" with new meaning, we declared our foreign-born contributors were modern reflections of the foreign brides of the Ottoman sultans: wedded to the culture of the land, embedded in it even, but forever alien. Adding to the title's seduction, we mocked up a book cover with an iconic Orientalist painting by Ingres, a reclining nude looking over her shoulder.

The First Sale

"We'd love to do this book!" said the owner of a new local publishing house, herself an American expat. She bought the slim proposal composed in six weeks: a brief introduction to the Expat Harem concept, a list of chapters and proposed contents, editor bios, and an essay by Anastasia about a meet-the-parents trip to Istanbul which gave alarming Turkish connotation to her Russian name and urge to belly dance.

Despite the publisher's limited resources and fledgling distribution network in both Turkey and America, on that overcast day in April 2004 we were thrilled to have our first book deal.  Undeterred by the reality that we bore the onus to propel the project to our envisioned heights, our adrenaline would compensate for all.

Dogged Pursuit

"With the project green-lighted, Anastasia and I became a dangerous combination," recounts Jennifer. "Between her industry experience, drive, and efficiency and my marketing background, local connections, and knowledge of the Turkish language and culture, we complemented each other seamlessly." Having a hands-off publisher was a blessing: it forced us to learn the ropes of book-making.

We called for submissions and publicized the project, set up a barebones website, posted flyers around Istanbul, and announced the book on bulletin boards and online communities of expatriates, writers, women writers, travelers, and Turkey enthusiasts. We wrangled free listings in local city guidebooks. By July 2004 we convinced one of the top Turkish newspapers that the project was newsworthy and received a full page in the weekend lifestyle section, the first in a long line of local and international media coverage.

Responses began streaming in from the worldwide diaspora of eligible contributors. From West Africa to Southeast Asia to America's Pacific Northwest, more than a hundred women sought to recount their sagas. We were overwhelmed with positive reactions to the project, and braced ourselves for darker interpretations. A few people chastised the title as unthinkably Orientalist while others were baited by our sexy cover. "Wow, I wish I were an expat!" declared an airport security screener in New York.

Asking For Help

We brainstormed all of our personal and professional contacts-- people who might assist us. We approached friends who had published books for their advice on the agenting process and targeting publishers. We sought mentoring from corporate friends on image and branding, marketing strategies, potential blurbists, and press contacts and introductions. We requested aid from family members with expertise in promotions and press relations. When mentioning our project to random acquaintances, we savored any practical advice they offered.

With a few ready essays we began sending requests for blurbs to prominent people who had a strong connection to Turkey, like the author of the international best-seller Harem: The World Behind the Veil, and a prominent news correspondent for Le Monde and The Wall Street Journal. Positive quotes spurred reviews from increasingly higher profile experts. In September 2004 an international design team began to construct a cover for the book as a personal favor, including the raves that were rolling in from experts in expatriatism, women's studies, the Ottoman harem, and Turkish society.

By the Frankfurt International Book Fair in October 2004, it was obvious to more people than just us that Tales from the Expat Harem was a hot property. Our proposal had expanded to 28 pages with seven essays, including tales from an archaeologist at Troy, a Christian missionary in Istanbul, a pregnant artist in the capital of Ankara, and a penniless Australian stricken with influenza in the moonscape of a wintry Cappadocia.

Unfortunately the Istanbul publisher's catalog for the German fair revealed that our hot property was not being handled the way we thought it deserved.

We acted swiftly, calling a meeting with the Istanbul publisher to express our disappointment but it was evident our priorities and expectations didn't jibe with theirs. As discouraging as it was to admit, it seemed they didn't foresee as stellar a future for Expat Harem.  "Neither of us could tolerate being confined to small goals," explains Jennifer. "And the publisher certainly didn't need the worry of two authors thinking so far beyond the scope of their freshman enterprise. Everyone agreed our partnership for this project wasn't a good fit. Amicably, we decided to cancel our contract once we found a new publisher."

Meanwhile, we reached out to a literary agent who had been following Anastasia's writing career, since it was clear the book could benefit from professional representation. Within a month, top New York literary agency Curtis Brown, Ltd. agreed to represent us!

Suddenly several Turkish publishing houses approached us after reading about Expat Harem in the local media and we explored their interest even though we had already set our sights elsewhere. Freed from the limited resources of our first publisher, we aimed for the best Turkey had to offer: Dogan Kitap. The strongest publisher in the country, Dogan Kitap is part of the largest Turkish media conglomerate of television and radio stations, newspapers and magazine holdings, and a nationwide chain of bookstores. But we didn't approach the publisher first… Instead, we contacted the owner of one of Dogan's television stations who is known for her active involvement in promoting the image of women in Turkey, which dovetailed nicely with the theme of our project. Through professional connections we also requested aid from the head of Dogan's magazine holdings. By the time Dogan's book publishing branch received our request for an appointment, they had already heard about us through those two executives and had seen coverage of the book via three of their news outlets and at least two of their competitors. Our follow up call secured us a meeting with the publisher's general manager in December 2004. "You've come to the right address," he declared.

Then we didn't hear from Dogan again!

The Submission Process

The vast potential of the project began to dawn as our agent Jonathan Lyons compared it to accessible personal stories of life in the Middle East, bestselling titles like Reading Lolita in Tehran and The Bookseller of Kabul. He began submitting the growing manuscript to U.S. publishers.

"What could be more timely than an insider's view of women's lives in the Middle East-- as told by resident Westerners?" we asked in our November press release, generated in four languages and sent to foreign press correspondents in Istanbul, followed up with phone calls. Agence France Presse, one of the world's largest news agencies, interviewed us before an important European Union vote on Turkey, while in February 2005 Newsweek International published our letter to the editor, exposing the upcoming anthology to more than a million readers across Europe.

Meanwhile, in New York, Norton's editor effusively praised the manuscript but her editorial board demurred. Turkey was too small a subject they felt, suggesting we expand the book to other Muslim nations like Sudan, Kosovo, and Iran. We countered with a franchise series of Expat Harem books. Too large a project, they said. Editors at ten other New York houses including Simon & Schuster, Harcourt Brace, Random House, St. Martins, and Farrar, Straus & Giroux also were split in their reactions, recognizing the appeal of the Muslim setting and the foreign female focus, yet unconvinced that a collection by unknown writers would draw major audiences. By February 2005 all the top New York houses had passed so we targeted more independent houses, university presses, and those which had published our blurbists.

Staying Positive

During the excruciating winter months of manuscript submissions, sustaining enthusiasm wasn't easy. Doubts began to multiply. We hadn't heard back from Dogan Kitap, they weren't answering our e-mails, and U.S. publishers weren't biting. Taking inspiration from a chapter in our own book, one devoted to Turkey's shamanistic roots and methods of banishing the envious evil eye, we created a ritual to cast off negative energy. We wrote down fears we had discussed as well as those we would not openly admit to having: "We will not find a publisher. We will not finish the book. No one will read it. It will be embarrassing to promote…"

"Then we burned the list-- and not just anywhere," says Jennifer. "Since the Expat Harem co-opted the image of the Ottoman harem, we headed to the Topkapi Palace, visited the chambers of our namesakes, and asked their blessings." In an outside courtyard, we literally reduced our fears to ashes.

We also considered the mindset of our agent. It can't be easy to break bad news to clients so we never expected our agent to be our cheerleader. "We responded to his rejection e-mails with the successes we were achieving on our front, however small," says Anastasia. "As the person responsible for selling the book, it was crucial his enthusiasm remain high. Refusing to be deterred by any setbacks, we instead offered him alternative solutions to help him continue submitting with optimism."

"We invested no energy in the negativity of others," explains Jennifer. "Without rebutting critics, we would smile and say, 'we'll see' as if we knew something they didn't."

Naysayers couldn't argue our continued success when they-- along with all our contacts-- received bubbly e-mail announcements every time we appeared in the media, received a new blurb, or made another advance. The Expat Harem editor image we were painting became one of increasing importance.

Marketing

We both have professional experience and a personal predilection for marketing and turned our attention to finding every opportunity to get the word out.  Before we had one page of the manuscript, we had already perused John Kremer's 1001 Ways To Market Your Books, were tracking academic conferences in which we might participate, researching comparable books, and compiling lists of audiences and organizations that might like to host us as speakers.

Even so, the book was rejected by fifteen publishers before we tackled the daunting official marketing plan. Most editors commented that they liked the idea but didn't see the market. Was Turkey truly too far from the U.S.A. to matter to American audiences? "We needed to make our case and identify potential markets American publishers might not traditionally consider," says Anastasia.

In January 2005 we defined our main audiences as having something in common with the contributors -- travelers, expatriates, women writers and travel writers, those interested in women's and Middle Eastern studies, and people whose lives were linked with Turkey. We noted the 1.2 million Americans who've traveled to Turkey in the past five years, the 87 Turkish American associations serving more than 88,000 Turkish nationals in America plus tens of thousands of Americans with Turkish heritages, women's and Middle Eastern studies programs at hundreds of North American universities, and specific Turkophile populations like the alumni of the Peace Corps who served in Turkey. We also compiled more practical subsidiary audiences. "Multinational corporations with operations in Turkey, embassies, and tourism organizations might use the book as a cross-cultural training tool or a promotional vehicle," suggests Jennifer. "We imagined the book developing a positive image of Turkey abroad, addressing the often unvoiced but deep concern of many businesspeople, travelers, and diplomats: will our women be safe?"

Second and Third Sales

Unsure how to interpret Dogan Kitap's silence, we wondered if they had been serious about our book. After our visit in December, why didn't they call? Why didn't they answer our e-mails or those from our agent?  Staying positive, we phoned until we secured follow-up appointments by the end of January, and at that meeting they acted as if the project were already theirs. Contrary to our gloomy speculation, their behemoth operation had slowed their response. Reluctant to misstep, they seemed hesitant to start negotiations until our agent sent them a draft contract in English.  Though Dogan originally planned to publish only in Turkish, on the strength of our marketing plan we convinced them that the local English language market was large enough to warrant two editions. In February 2005, Dogan bought the Turkish world rights and the English rights for Turkey.

Success snowballed. On Valentine's Day, the feminist imprint of Avalon Publishing Group, Seal Press, offered us a publishing contract for the North American rights! When Seal's marketing department presented the book at a June 2005 presales conference to book distributors from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and others, everyone was "flushed with amazement" at our detailed marketing plan.

Spawning Continued Marketing Opportunities

The marketing never ends! In April 2005 we produced at our own expense 5,000 promotional postcards with our book cover, photos, website address, and reviews from scholars, journalists, and diplomats, distributing them via our worldwide contributors. When the postcard found its way into the hands of the producer of Publishing Trends, an American book industry intelligence newsletter, Tales from the Expat Harem garnered nearly a page of coverage in the June 2005 issue, winning us the attention of a highly influential international publishing audience.

Our website consistently delivers a stream of queries from people identifying themselves as future book buyers while our web-tracking reveals the growing global audience we've created in the past year.  Thirty-five hundred visitors from 90 countries have dropped by since we began tracking site activity in May.  To tap into this ready-made market, our publishers set up pre-sales via Internet bookstores, while our local speaking engagements have generated offers for additional receptions and book signings.

We kept the pressure on once the book was released in Turkey, using the printed books to seek new media coverage and fresh blurbs in September 2005. Stephen Kinzer, the former New York Times Istanbul bureau chief, offered us a quote for the cover of our Seal Press edition. We also turned our attention to the official launch party scheduled for November.

"Since our publisher's launch party budget didn't cover our starry-eyed fantasy of an event at the Topkapi Palace harem, we looked for a sponsor," explains Jennifer. Though we didn't exactly end up with our fantasy, through fearless soliciting we did land a prominent hostess for our 200-person cocktail at a five-star hotel-- the owner of a Dogan television station who initially paved the way for our book deal. A woman concerned with Turkey's image abroad, and in particular with the perception of women's lives in Turkey, she invited her own A-list guests as well as our growing list of international press correspondents, blurbists, supporters, and many of the influential people we hope to cultivate. The event was broadcast on television news for several days, and featured in newspapers, their glossy weekend supplements, and magazines.

Hard Work Pays Off

At the Istanbul International Book Fair in October 2005, where we headed a panel discussion and had a book signing, our Turkish publisher promoted Türkçe Sevmek, the translation of Tales from the Expat Harem, on a 15-foot illuminated display alongside its translations of Umberto Eco and Julia Navarro.  "Exalted company!" says Anastasia.

After hitting the Turkish bookshelves, both Dogan editions sold out within six weeks, with the English edition debuting on the best-seller lists at several national bookstore chains and making its way to the number two spot-- beating out two J.K. Rowlings, a Michael Connelly and three Dan Browns!

We have appeared on a handful of national television stations, including three different CNN-TURK shows which were simultaneously broadcast on CNN-TURK radio, and have been invited to appear on several other stations; we were featured in all the top national Turkish and English newspapers, with one providing three consecutive days of extensive coverage during one of the country's highest circulation weeks; we are sitting for interviews with specialized media; we're fielding requests for review copies from international culture journals; and, quite edifyingly, we are meeting readers as well as our expat peers in cities throughout Turkey on weekend book tours.

The Expat Harem tale continues…. At the Frankfurt Bookfair in October 2005, our agent (who has since moved to the renowned McIntosh & Otis) reported sixty publishers expressed interest in the property including some from Spain, France, Germany, Holland, Belgium, and the UK. Seal galleys will go out in January 2006. Soon we will see how our momentum in Turkey helps launch the North American edition, due on shelves in March 2006.  With the United States an obvious testing ground for a book by Americans who aim for an American literary career, we eagerly await our upcoming U.S. launch and the potential it holds.

Follow our progress at: www.expatharem.com.

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