I’ve always written fiction.
While in boarding school during my middle and high school years in Nigeria, I had sign-out sheets for my hand-scribbled stories in notebooks. Friends and fellow students would borrow my fiction books and return them for the next batch waiting to sign them out. Till this day, many of my high school friends still remind me of this.
In essence, I was running my own little library.
Then over the years, I pushed fiction by the wayside, and opted for creative nonfiction and travel writing. I self-published award-winning DUE NORTH and was approached by a large publisher to write LAGOM, which is now in 18 foreign language editions.
But fiction was always there, in my mind, in my heart, and I knew, one day, I would be able to add it back to my portfolio.
I tried re-writing one of my novels, TOUGH, but it has been stalled at 43K words for the last seven years. The story I was supposed to write at this point in time hadn’t come to me yet.
So, I waited for it…
It was while laying out on a sofa on a hotel balcony with lovely views of the Mediterranean in the distance that the idea finally materialized. We were on vacation in Portugal’s Algarve region and I’d left my smartphone back home in Stockholm.
I was there to rest and read.
After I turned the last page of Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah (which I loved, by the way!) that was when I realized “that’s it!” She wrote what she deeply knew and had experienced. Even though her main character Ifemelu wasn’t “her”, I could deduce a lot of experiences were personally pulled from Chimamanda’s private spaces to fill her out.
That was when my idea for AFRÖSWẸDẸ began to materialize.
Three Black women. One influential white man. I could visualize it all.
I immediately pulled out my notebook and started outlining scenes, descriptions, characters, traits, features, interactions, quirks, all of it.
By the Stockholm Writers Festival, I had already written the first five or so pages and was so ecstatic and elated to share it with my (late) dear friend Sandra Carpenter who had always been supportive of my wild ideas.
I wasn’t sure which way I wanted to go with the book in terms of prose. Whether or not I wanted it to be pure literary fiction which is what mainstream publishing expects from me as an African writer in the diaspora. Especially, if I wanted to be taken “seriously” as a literary writer. We needed to keep proving our command of language to primarily white audiences while writing stories mostly rooted in Africa.
But as I struggled to get into Chapter 2 of another literary fiction book by a different writer in the diaspora, I made the decision on the spot.
I was going to take the risky route and make my book upmarket fiction. I didn’t want to hide what I wanted to say behind pretentious literary prose.
In a nutshell, upmarket fiction is fiction that sits between literary fiction and commercial fiction. It is heavily character-driven and strongly written with relatable plots.
This was a very risky decision that, over the next year, brought a lot of heartbreaking rejections.
(Read on to learn why)
May – December 2018
I didn’t really start writing crazily until the fall, but the months from May to August were spent deeply laying out the book as a series of outlines and one-line statements.
So, by the time my fingers proactively hit the keyboard, I already knew my characters so deeply that they essentially wrote themselves out in four months because I had taken time to know them by previously outlining them the prior four months.
The editorial process – Winter 2019
Once I got my dirty draft ready, I reached out to my friend and writing guru Leigh Shulman to be my manuscript editor.
And I have to say, those weeks working through my draft with Leigh and bringing it up to the level it needed to be for submission were some of the most exciting during my writing process.
Then I brought on a lot of beta readers (13 to be exact and 1 sensitivity reader later on) to read and provide feedback. Based on their honest and raw feedback, I added an extra 14K words to my manuscript, bringing it all to roughly 108,500 words.
Soon it was back to Leigh to help edit and finalize the updated manuscript. I also had my sister Dami and her company Orbit Shakers do some last minute copy edits.
Now it was time to find an agent for my polished manuscript.
Finding my agent – Spring 2019
I participated in a Twitter pitching initiative called #DVPit where, on a specific day and time range, writers are invited to pitch their manuscript ideas to agents and editors. If they liked your story idea, they requested the first few chapters or 50 pages.
Even though several agents requested my manuscript, there was still no solid bite.
Then when prolific Booker prize shortlisted author Chigozie Obioma was in Stockholm promoting his new book (watch his interview on Sweden’s premier book show, BABEL), my friend Yomi Abiola sent a brief email introduction of me to his agent Jessica Craig who was traveling with him on his book tour.
I met Jessica for 30 minutes and I instantly knew that even if she didn’t like my books or new fiction manuscript, we would remain friends because we had great energy. She really liked my novel AFRÖSWẸDẸ (and its title too!), responding with a resounding YES! that publishers will be interested in its unique storyline.
In her words:
“I think it’s a remarkably polished first draft, and I really like your voice and writing style! And you bring a refreshing and intelligent new perspective to women’s fiction.”
After a few tweaks, it was ready for submission.
Putting it out on submission – June 2019-2020 (1 year)
Any traditionally-published novelist will tell you that this part is the most nerve-wracking, nail-biting, patience-testing stretch on your road towards publication.
Remember I decided to go the upmarket fiction route with my novel?
We were so eager and positive that the book would be snapped up right away in an auction. It was unique, different, epic, genre-crossing, and boundary-breaking.
But traditional publishers were nervous about it. My book didn’t fit into a neat category they could easily check off even though many of them liked it.
The main problem is that most publishers are either literary or commercial. So, my book was too commercial for literary imprints and too literary for commercial imprints.
We got lots of positive feedback with the rejections which stumped even my agent and she’s one of the best in the business.
Then we realized many of the rejections assumed because my characters were strong Black women, their base won’t relate to them. The same base that easily connects with vampires, werewolves, and aliens.
But I stuck with my conviction because I knew my book AFRÖSWẸDẸ was meant to be upmarket fiction. These voices needed to be shared on the broader mainstream level.
Even the editors that really wanted the book ultimately passed because they didn’t have the vision of how they would position my book commercially.
Here is the breakdown of the submissions:
Still waiting for a response/sitting on manuscript: ~35
I tell you… getting roughly 70 rejections was not an easy pill to swallow. Even as someone who knows how to handle rejection as a freelancer.
In November, I did NaNoWriMo to get my mind off the book and started working on a new novel, AFTERMATH, a sequel of sorts with the same characters and I wrote over 50,000 words.
We decided that, by June 1, 2020, if we hadn’t found an interested publisher, I would consider self-publishing AFRÖSWẸDẸ.
The miraculous turning point
Then my DUE NORTH book fiasco happened.
A traditional publisher in essence ripped off the cover design of my self-published book.
I was (and am) too in love with AFRÖSWẸDẸ that I knew that, if I self-published it and someone else stole my idea and got published through a traditional imprint, I would be devastated beyond words.
So, I told my agent I would keep on fighting.
Of all the editors that responded, Christa Désir stayed with me. She was the right editor (someone who passionately loves your book!) but at the wrong imprint (Sourcebooks Casablanca), so she had to reject the book.
I kept thinking about this particular editor who I also follow on Twitter. Then I decided to reach out to her to let her know how her words comforted me despite the rejection, and how they pushed me to keep fighting on for the right publisher.
Christa was so gracious in her response and gave me publisher recommendations. She kept championing my book and then one day, she said “Wait!”
She reached out to her colleague Erin McClary at Sourcebooks Landmark, which is their crossover literary-book fiction imprint. She urged Erin to give my book a read and if Erin loved it too, they would both offer to co-edit the book and present a publishing offer.
Long story short…
Erin loved my book too. The pre-empt offer from Sourcebooks Landmark came in on June 10, 2020.
I told my agent we didn’t need to go back to the other 35+ publishers we were still waiting on to try to drum up an auction because none of those editors would ever be like Christa Désir.
Not only did she love my book way before the pandemic and Black Lives Matter revolution, she went to another imprint to help champion it and make that sale.
Publishing a book comes down to who truly gets you, your voice, and your vision for what you’ve created, not who pays the most at auction for your manuscript. Getting to this point in any author’s life, especially as a debut novelist, is in itself a huge privilege and dream.
I am beyond grateful to have found both Christa and Erin, and deeply thankful to my agent Jessica who realized she had signed a crazy person with unearthly perseverance and a strong resolve that just never quits… Me!
I am grateful to all my friends and beta readers for your time and support. You’re all going into my acknowledgements in the book. To my family and to God whose continual grace and mercy I don’t deserve and is more than sufficient for me.
AFRÖSWẸDẸ will be published in 2021 and I can’t wait for the world to finally read my edgy book .
In the words of the lovely Christa Désir:
This book is lovely and I want it to soar. It deserves to.– Christa Désir / Sourcebooks
Official press release
Press release from Craig Literary. Sent 29 July 2020
In a first-ever joint acquisition, Christa Desir and Erin McClary have pre-empted debut novel, AFRÖSWẸDẸ by Lola Akinmade Åkerström, for Sourcebooks Landmark fiction imprint to publish in 2021. Agent Jessica Craig/Craig Literary is submitting to UK and international publishers and expects this trail-blazing novel to resonate with readers worldwide, and for there also to be strong interest for film/tv.
AFRÖSWẸDẸ explores timely social issues, from class to immigration, yet is written in a breezy accessible tone. The novel follows three different Black women who each find themselves starting a new life in Stockholm, Sweden and who are each linked in varying and uncomfortable ways to the same influential white man.
Christa Desir: “Every once in a while a book comes across your desk that you can’t stop thinking about. For months. AFRÖSWẸDẸ was that book for me. I can’t tell you how many people I talked to about it in the office. It was like having an extended book club. This book cuts to the bone on so many fronts: racism, tokenism, immigration, the hypersexualization of Black women. I am absolutely thrilled to bring this to Sourcebooks Landmark, and have the opportunity to partner with Lola in bringing her beautiful, timely, and essential story into the world.”
Erin McClary: “Lola’s novel hits on so many important topics around the Black woman experience, from tokenism to fetishism to immigration. The writing is vivid and immersive, the characters complex and beautifully imperfect. This is a story that needs to be shared and discussed the world over. I’m thrilled to be a part of it.”
Lola Akinmade Åkerström: “Finding not just one but two editors who get your voice and vision, and are equally as passionate about championing your work as you are is every writer’s dream. I couldn’t be more ecstatic and honored to be joining the Sourcebooks Landmark list.”
Nigerian-American and based in Sweden, Lola Akinmade Åkerström is an award-winning author, speaker, and photographer. Her work has appeared in National Geographic Traveller, BBC, CNN, The Guardian, Sunday Times Travel, The Telegraph, New York Times, Travel + Leisure, Slate, Travel Channel, Adventure Magazine, Lonely Planet, amongst others. In addition to contributing to several books, she is the author of the following books – 2018 Lowell Thomas Award winner for best travel book, Due North and bestselling LAGOM: Swedish Secret of Living Well (Headline Home, 2017) available in 18 foreign language editions. She has been recognized with multiple awards for her work, including 2018 Travel Photographer of the Year Bill Muster Award, and she was honoured with a MIPAD 100 (Most Influential People of African Descent) Award within media and culture in 2018. Her photography is represented by National Geographic Image Collection. Lola is also the editor of Slow Travel Stockholm, an online magazine dedicated to exploring Sweden’s capital city in depth.
She tweets at @LolaAkinmade
For more information contact Jessica Craig: firstname.lastname@example.org