From PCV to Author/Publisher
By Andrew Tadross (Endodo, Tigray & Mekelle, Tigray 2011–13)
In 2015, I did something I never thought I’d do . . . I authored a book . . . about a language I’d previously never heard of . . . from a country I never considered visiting. But such is the beauty of Peace Corps — especially the “old” Peace Corps where your assignment was not necessarily by choice, but you went where you were asked to serve and let the experience unfold. The name of the book is The Essential Guide to Tigrinya: The Language of Northern Ethiopia and Eritrea. A few months later, I completed the The Essential Guide to Amharic: The National Language of Ethiopia using the same template. I’m currently in the process of putting out a similar reference book for Afan Oromo, this time as editor.
If you are a writer, consider yourself fortunate to live in the era of self-publishing. There’s no telling how I’d reach such a specialized market in the 1960s — or even the early 2000s. Today, I can crank out a book, publish it online through CreateSpace, sell it on Amazon; 24 hours later someone anywhere in the developed world can buy it, and a month later I receive a royalty check. Many people don’t write books because they think they are “too late to the game” i.e. it’s already been done, or it is too much work. I believe we are actually just getting started, and I think now is the time to do this — especially if the information you are providing is either new, or better organized than what currently exists.
When I was in Tigray, I was desperate to find a helpful Tigrinya book for foreigners. The PCV handbook left a lot to be desired. I found one rare book in a market that had words and phrases spelled phonetically — it was a Godsend, but it was still poorly organized and left a lot of grammatical confusion. There was also an American-authored book from the 1970s . . . but all the translations were in Ge’ez script, and a lot of it was Bible verses — not so relevant for Peace Corps work. I knew I could organize a more functional guide to Tigrinya, so I began the project, after developing many pages of essential vocabulary.
I met my co-author Abraham Teklu while visiting Mekele, and staying at the hotel his wife owns. After I moved there some months later to teach at the university, we decided to begin this book venture together. It was very fortuitous. I had discussed the book idea with some other Ethiopian acquaintances, but nothing had jelled. Abe has turned out to be a good friend and business partner with whom I communicated easily. Abe’s role is that of the language expert, and my role is to organize the book. As a foreigner/PCV, I knew exactly what I wanted out of a language guide. He translates, and I try to flesh out the grammar rules — which is not an easy task. We also devised a phonetic code so people can read it simply.
A side benefit of the whole project is that I’ve included my original sketches and artwork, and those of fellow RPCVs Eldon Katter (Harar 62–64) and Brittany Franck (Tigray 2011–13), as well as several Ethiopian colleagues.
Selling my books
Peace Corps does not allow you to make a profit while serving. That was fine; I didn’t finish the first book until a year after I was home. Today, The Essential Guide to Tigrinya is the #1 Tigrinya book on Amazon.
I didn’t think the Amharic book would sell as well since the Lonely Planet phrasebook ($9.00) and Colloquial Amharic ($50) seemed to be widely available in Ethiopia. Yet now, three months later . . . The Essential Guide to Amahric comes up first on Amazon search. I expect Afan Oromo will also do well on Amazon as there is very little available.
By the way, I’m not talking about NY Times bestseller . . . a typical month’s revenue for me barely pays my grocery bill. It won’t change my lifestyle much, but I find it satisfying to look at the sales figure every day and see that 1–2 people bought a book overnight. November was a great month — with almost 90 sales. Usually I sell about 40 per month, but I can attribute the growth to marketing with postcards sent to various Ethiopian churches, restaurants, and organizations.
I used CreateSpace to self-publish, and retaining my rights to the book royalties through self-publishing was a great idea. It motivates me to market the book and keep improving it. Rather than accept a one-time payment from a publisher, I can earn revenue as long as the people are purchasing the book online — and I can change the price if needed. I’ve found CreateSpace customer service to be excellent. They even offer a service to adapt the book format for Kindle. There was zero up-front cost, except to form an LLC (mainly to cover protecting my personal finances in the unlikely event of a lawsuit).
I don’t need to have a garage full of extra books since the books are sold by “print-on-demand.” I can also purchase books at cost (less than $5.00) and distribute them without Amazon taking their cut. For instance, I can buy 100 books and sell them at an Ethiopian festival for $10 each. So, there is a lot of flexibility – to do as much – or as little marketing – as I like.
With my Amharic book (and the upcoming Afan Oromo book), I was invited by Marian Beil to self-publish under the Peace Corps Writers imprint. This provides the benefit of a PCW cover label, promotion (interview, review, etc) of the book on their website (peacecorpsworldwide.org), and the opportunity to be amongst the many fascinating publications written by RPCVs.
Most of all, I’ve enjoyed creating something that I know people will find useful. Twenty years from now people might be buying the book still and have no idea who I was, but the work that I did will still be helping to further communications with Ethiopia. That is the great thing about a non-fiction book — you write it once, and it keeps serving its purpose into the future . . . until someone creates a better book.
The Essential Guide to Tigrinya: The Language of Eritrea and Northern Ethiopia
Andrew Tadross and Abraham Teklu, co-authors
The Essential Guide to Amharic: The National Language of Ethiopia
Andrew Tadross and Abraham Teklu, co-authors
A Peace Corps Writers Book