Looking to provide a publishing platform for serious literary works, Brooklyn indie publisher Akashic Books is teaming with three notable African-American publishing and bookselling figures to launch Open Lens, a new imprint specializing in quality fiction and nonfiction aimed at the African-American reading audience. The new imprint will be called Open Lens and will debut in September with Makeda, a new novel by Randall Robinson, founder of the human rights and social justice organization TransAfrica.
Open Lens is a co-venture between Akashic Books and literary agents Marie Brown and Regina Brooks along with Hue-Man Bookstore owner Marva Allen and initial guest editor, former Random House executive editor Janet Hill Talbert. Akashic Books has long focused on the African-American market with a list of titles focused on African-American, African, and Caribbean authors.
Akashic's publisher, Johnny Temple, said he has worked with all the Open Lens principals before and said the group approached him about launching an imprint that would focus on both quality literature and the black book consumer. Indeed, the imprint has been crafted as something of a reaction against the popularity of commercial works like street lit and romance fiction, Temple said. "They all feel the publishing industry has turned its back on quality black literature, something that Akashic has always published," he said.
While Robinson, an inspirational antiapartheid activist and social critic, has published fiction before, he is best known for nonfiction—his most recent book is An Unbroken Agony: Haiti, from Revolution to the Kidnapping of a President (Basic Books). The new novel, Makeda, is a family drama set in Richmond, Va., in the early 1950s at the beginning of the civil rights movement. The book was repped by Brown, but Allen said the imprint will reach out both domestically and internationally to add titles to its list.
"We want to be the voice of the world," said Allen in a phone interview. "We're not limiting ourselves to work from a particular agent. We want voices from the world beyond America: from Africa, the Caribbean, wherever. We're very optimistic and excited about Makeda, because Randall has put his history and his political vision into the book." While the imprint targets readers interested in books by or about African-Americans, Allen said Open Lens titles will be "aimed at any reader who appreciates great works from people of color the world over. In other words, open and curious minds that love literature in Technicolor," she said noting, "We seem to be getting only monochrome literature these days."
Allen agreed the new imprint was launched to address what she perceives to be a lack of support by mainstream publishers for serious literary works by black authors. "So much stuff I'm seeing is an insult to the reader," she said. "We're not getting the voices of new authors." Allen said Open Lens would likely publish "no more than four titles initially, so we can pay attention to the author." Hill is the first guest editor, and Allen said there will be others to follow. Allen plans to use the Hue-Man Bookstore to provide "support for Open Lens authors. It's always been our ambition to have an imprint. We think publishers don't always know how to support these kinds of books."