Tales of a Literary Heathen: Marketing a Taboo Subject

On her journey to self-publication, Sikivu Hutchinson, author of Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels and Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars, faced a daunting challenge in being the first African American woman to publish on the taboo subject of atheism. Here, she discusses the obstacles she's encountered along the way--and how she's overcome them.  

One of the most popular images mainstream America has of black women is the bible-thumping, wise-cracking Madea, the now iconic flagship character of the multi-million dollar Tyler Perry movie empire. According to the Pew Religion Research Forum 87% of African Americans are religious, making African Americans among the most religious communities in the U.S. And the majority of those packing the pews and plumping up the collection plates are black women. In my predominantly African American South Los Angeles neighborhood the most common personalized license plates are decidedly faith-based. Fish icons, hands clasped in prayer, and church congregation names grace cars buffed to a blinding sheen. For a variety of cultural and historical reasons, religion is central to black identity. So how does a black female author go about writing, publishing and marketing a book on atheism and secular humanist morality?

Atheism is a taboo subject in black communities. It is a notion so foreign to mainstream African Americans that some equate it with devil worship. Like many Americans, blacks reflexively associate morality with Christian beliefs. Mindful of this context, in 2009 I wrote a blog post called “Out of the Closet” that explored the marginalization of black non-believers. It became something of an Internet sensation, and I received tons of supportive emails from non-believers of color hungry for greater visibility in the largely white-dominated world of New Atheism. Bestselling white male authors like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens had put atheism on the global map as a cultural and political force. Still, there were only a few books by writers of color on the subject, and none by African American women. And after sending my book prospectus, Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars around to small academic/scholarly publishers I received little to no interest.

Even though the publishing industry was in freefall, I was warned by my academic friends that self-publishing would be imprudent. Ignoring their caution, I decided to set up my own imprint, Infidel Books, and publish through CreateSpace. The explosion of social networking sites and online groups has given atheism an entirely new purchase in the information technology age, mitigating some of the anxiety that non-believers have dealing with their outsider status in real-time. Sites like Atheist Nexus, Think Atheist and Atheist Universe have all provided non-believers with forums for dialogue and network building.

Over the past three years, this social networking vanguard has blossomed into advocacy groups across the United States. These groups have buttressed established secular and atheist organizations steeped in church/state separation and science education issues. As a result, I’ve been able to market and promote the book through speaking engagements and appearances with these organizations. I’ve asked writer friends to post reviews of the book at cultural and literary websites. I’ve also kept the book in the public eye by writing robust blog posts and articles on religion, politics, race, gender, and sexuality. Publishing my blog posts at a variety of sites, maintaining a print presence in local black newspapers and national secular magazines, tapping into secular-oriented podcasts, radio shows, and video streams, in addition to continuing my advocacy around secular humanist issues nationally, has also increased the book’s visibility. Social networking, blogging, press releases, and word of mouth about the uniqueness of Moral Combat and, now, my latest release Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels, have allowed me to capitalize on all of the “niche” sectors the book appeals to.

The book has been out for four months and sales are building within humanist and atheist circles. Yet, the greatest frontier will be reaching women for whom Jesus and the Lord are never far from their conversations and shifting mainstream consciousness about the morality of secular belief systems.

For more about Sikivu and her latest book, Godless Americana, visit her website, www.sikivuhutchinson.com.

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Comment by Kamy Wicoff on August 11, 2013 at 3:43pm

Sikivu thank you so much for contributing this piece to She Writes, and sharing your journey and lessons learned.  It is very hard to "write against type," and then to find your audience, when assumptions run so deep.  And I love that you had the bravery (and savvy) to publish it yourself.  Nobody cares about your book--or understands it better--than you do, which is eloquently underscored here.

Comment by Avril Somerville on August 7, 2013 at 6:42pm

"maintain an online"

Comment by Avril Somerville on August 7, 2013 at 6:38pm

Great article, Sikivu. Chock full of insightful ways to market your book, maintain and online and print presence.... in essence, work the self-publishing "circuit" and maintain visibility of your work and brand.  I wish you well on your journey, and as you promote "Godless Americana".  I am sure there are hurdles given the subject, but I find it a welcome entry for authentic discussions on religion, race, and identity.  

Comment by Mardith Louisell on August 7, 2013 at 5:26pm

Great piece. I'm so impressed by your courage on so many fronts. Am  glad someone is writing about this. It's not only a taboo for black people, it's a taboo for non-blacks who want to talk about it and worry they can't say anything if they are with blacks. Fantastic the ways you are keeping the book in public view.

Comment by S. Ramos O'Briant on August 6, 2013 at 8:05pm

great piece!  Good luck w/your book.

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