Barry C. Davis took a ribbing from his fellow engineering majors when he squeezed a writing class into his schedule. He loved crafting stories, but he also cared about fitting in. This prestigious campus could feel very far away from the west Philadelphia house where he grew up, sometimes witnessing gang fights out his front window.
So Davis focused. He finished his engineering degree, earned an MBA, got married, became a dad, and put in his first 18 years as an engineer for a telecommunications company. What he didn't do was write. Then he turned 40.
"I really thought about the paths not taken, the things I should have done," Davis said. He decided to make time for writing. And he stuck with it.
The result, eventually, was A Strange and Bitter Fruit, a novel in which Davis faced down the deep legacy of racial conflict and violence that shadowed the world he grew up in. His book, set in the post-Civil War South, tells the story of a young man named Tee Powell. Tee barely escapes a Klan lynching that kills his parents and siblings. He flees far away, joins the U.S. Army, and tries to outrun the violence. But he can't.
In Davis's writing, violence—even violence in self-defense—isn't clean or fun. It stains souls. It's a poison that drips from one generation to the next.
Davis knew A Strange and Bitter Fruit wasn't for everyone, but he believed in the novel, believed in its message, and believed mature readers would value it. He sent it out to literary agents and publishers. He sent it out over and over, for years. Book-world insiders consistently told him "Love your writing. Love the book. But won't touch it with a 10-foot pole."
Amazon gave me a voice and made it possible for my message to be heard.
Davis had given up on A Strange and Bitter Fruit when he learned about Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP). KDP is a self-service way for any author to publish books that can be instantly downloaded and read on Kindles or on any major smartphone, tablet, or computer with one of the free Kindle reading apps. He decided to use it to take Tee's story directly to readers.
Amazon customers gave A Strange and Bitter Fruit an average rating of 4.4 stars and left hundreds of reviews, saying "Simply outstanding", "Could not tear myself away!" and "Definitely a must read. Tee will forever be in my head." The reviews were especially heartening after all the years of hearing that mainstream readers would recoil from his story.
"Most of the reviewers, no matter what their race or gender, get what I'm trying to do," Davis said. "They were able to become Tee Powell and place themselves in the situations that confronted this black man. They enjoy the book, and they really were affected by it. So that's what it's all about for me. I can't say A Strange and Bitter Fruit was an instant success. But over time, sales have taken off. I now sell twice as many books each month as I sold in all of 2012. If I have 100 readers or 10,000, that's not really the issue. I want to just get my books out there and try to inspire and educate."
Davis has gone on to publish seven books through KDP, and he turned to ACX—a service created by Amazon subsidiary Audible—to hire the voice actor who brought A Strange and Bitter Fruit to a new audience as an audiobook. Now that Davis has grabbed the reins himself, he thinks the publishers and agents who rejected his first novel simply underestimated the smarts of the reading public. He's grateful for independent publishing and for Amazon customers. "Amazon gave me a voice and made it possible for my message to be heard."