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Obama opens doors to his presidency with a new memoir

By Mbugua Ng’ang’a | September 19th 2020 at 00:00:00 GMT +0300

When Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize just months after he won the 2008 US presidential election, critics said the Nobel committee had rushed to recognise him yet he had not demonstrated his peace credentials.

As a result of the hullabaloo, Obama, then riding the crest of global goodwill, opted to accept the award but forego the cash prize estimated at $935,000 (Sh101.4 millions). This was a small price to pay for a man whose books had shot right through the global best-seller lists when he announced he would be running for the presidency.

Until then, his wife Michelle, then working for a leading US legal firm, routinely out-earned Obama. All that changed when his two autobiographies, Dreams From My Father and The Audacity of Hope became best-sellers in the run-up to the 2008 US presidential election.

Part of the reason the books did well had to do with the fact that Obama’s was the face of hope in a world that was yearning for change and positive energy. At home, he was making history as the first serious White House contender of colour, a fact that energised a wide cross-section of Americans.

All of them wanted to know: Just who is this man? The answer could only be found in his two autobiographical works. As a result, millions of people first ordered his books after which they made their way to the booths to elect him president.

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The rest would have been history but last week, Obama announced that the first volume of his presidential memoirs, A Promised Land, will be released on November 17, in two volumes. Obama’s successor Donald Trump is also a highly successful author with several business books to his name –while former Vice-President, Joe Biden, has authored Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics, a memoir.

Obama’s last week’s announcement could have been a highly political maneuver. But what is important at this point is just how much money both he and Michelle will make and have earned as a result of the deal they signed with Crown, their publisher.

Crown is one of the 300 independent imprints of Penguin Random House. Collectively, they publish more than 70,000 digital and 15,000 print titles every year, which is probably more than all the books published in Africa annually.

The reason why everyone who loves books is talking about Obama’s and not the other 14,999 titles in the Penguin Random House stable has to do with the high profile of the author and the fact that he is sharing his experiences during his time in a public office that has been the subject of much talk – and equally numerous and controversial books – in America and abroad.

Then there is also the matter of how much Obama earned as advance, and how much more he will be paid once his memoirs hit bookstores. While making the announcement on Thursday, Obama said: “In A Promised Land I’ve tried to provide an honest accounting of my presidential campaign and my time in office: the key events and people who shaped it, my take on what I got right and the mistakes I made, and the political, economic, and cultural forces that my team and I had to confront then — and that as a nation we are grappling with still.”

Sh6.5b royalties

Industry figures indicate that he and Michelle were collectively paid $65 million in advance royalties. For Kenyan readers, that is Sh6.5 billion, just for three books so to speak. And the money was paid before the couple had even written the first word.

The first was Michelle’s autobiography, 'Becoming', which was released in 2018. According to CNN Business, the book sold over 1.4 million copies in the first week alone. By March last year, it had sold over 10 million copies. Barnes&Noble, the online bookshop, sells a hard cover edition of the book for $27 (Sh2,700). Do the math.

The Obamas’ advance payment was a record, even by US standards given that previous presidential contenders like Bill and Hillary Clinton were each paid about a sixth of what the Obama’s earned. Such payments are a huge gamble because publishers expect to recoup the advance royalties once they start selling the book.

Considering that authors earn between 10 and 20 per cent of a book’s cover price, in the case of the Obamas, Penguin Random House will need to sell a humongous number of books just to cover the money they paid the couple.

The upside is that the books create immeasurable brand value for both the authors and their publisher, meaning that even their future releases will likely sell in the tens of millions due to the advance marketing and the global supply chain that makes it easier for readers in any corner of the world to purchase the books.

It is also instructive that Obama’s book will be released simultaneously in 25 languages, so there is an opportunity for keyboard warriors in Kenya to make some noise on Twitter for the publisher to consider a Kiswahili edition.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that Obama’s sister, Auma Obama, also landed a book deal when her brother became US president and that is how she wrote her memoir, 'And The Life Happens', which was also published in German as Das Liben Kommt Immer Dazwischen.

In it, she tells the interesting story of how she used to give Obama a lift in her VW Beetle. When Obama came visiting Kenya after his term as president ended, he offered her a lift in his chauffeur-driven limousine, picking her from the tarmac of Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.

When Goethe Institute hosted Dr Auma for a reading of the German version of her book, some fans begged her to give them free copies. “I will not make it to the best-seller list if I do that,” she told them. It would also have meant foregoing her royalties.

Other Obama relatives who have authored books include Malik Obama – who wrote 'Big Bad Brother From Kenya' – George Obama – who wrote 'Homeland: An Extraordinary Story of Hope and Survival' – and Mark Obama Ndesanjo, who self-published Cultures: My Odyssey of Self-Discovery. That makes the Obamas the most prolific literary family in Kenya, rivaled only by the Ngugis, but what they earn from their books is less than a drop in the ocean compared to Obama’s royalties cheque.

So when he said on Twitter that “there’s no feeling like finishing a book, and I’m proud of this one,” there was more to it than just dotting the last I and crossing the last T. His is the life that every author dreams of.

The writer is a three-time winner of the Wahome Mutahi Literary Prize and two-time runner up for the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature.

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