Unconventional business partnerships that create imprints to publish books for the African-American market are generating a wave of opportunities for authors, publishers, and entrepreneurs alike. Not all of the ventures covered here are new—Strebor Books was founded in 1999—but they do offer examples of innovative and successful departures from conventional publishing models. PW spoke to the principals of five such ventures—Atria’s Cash Money Content and Strebor Books, Karen Hunter Publishing, Open Lens, and SmileyBooks—to find out how they were formed, how they are financed and managed, and the results of their collaboration.
These partnerships combine two crucial elements: the personal touch, vision, and connections of industry professionals (some of whom are themselves authors) committed to increasing the number of black voices in the publishing marketplace, together with the production, marketing, and distribution power of a carefully chosen, established corporate machine (S&S supports three of these ventures) or an established independent house.
Most of the parties told PW that with their combined forces, it’s as if their authors have two publishers. One somewhat unexpected point was their reference to the music business as a model, even though only one of the imprints, Cash Money Content, is directly connected to the music industry. And although the publishers are available for advice and back-end support (printing, distribution, etc.), they take a hands-off approach to the product itself, trusting the imprint partner to know best how the books will fare with readers.
[For a selective listing of current and forthcoming African American adult and children's titles click here.]
Cash Money Content
Launched in 2011, Cash Money Content is an imprint of Atria Books. Brothers Bryan “Birdman” Williams and Ronald “Slim” Williams, founders of the multimillion-dollar independent rap label Cash Money Records, also wanted to reach their fans through books. The arrangement they have with Atria is what Birdman, CEO of Cash Money Content, describes as a “self-financed” deal. “I wanted to structure something compatible with my record company,” he told PW. “Everything I do with music, I cross-support with the books.” This strategy includes introducing authors during Cash Money Records concerts, and featuring the label’s artists at author events. The imprint’s offices are in Miami.
A fan of Atria author Wahida Clark, Birdman “wanted to be with the company that published her,” Atria publisher Judith Curr says. “They wanted to publish with us because we have a strong and committed African-American publishing program; 25% of our list is African-American. And they have a deep relationship within the community of potential readers that we do not have as publishers.”
Both Birdman and Curr also pointed to an important presence behind the scenes of their partnership: literary agent Marc Gerald, whose long association with urban lit includes a stint as head of the ABA Award–winning Old School Books, an imprint formerly at W.W. Norton, credited at one time with reviving an interest in black genre and pulp authors from the 1950s and 1960s. “I was excited to get him to play a major role,” Birdman declares.
Gerald, currently v-p of the Agency Group, whose literary department he oversees, says, “I’m suggesting, more than acquiring. It’s easy because they’re authors I already know. If somebody’s going to do this, I’m glad it’s me!”
According to Curr, Atria does printing and distribution, while Cash Money Content does editing, cover design, and marketing. It’s the marketing that impresses Gerald. “When you work in the world of books, marketing is superconventional. The way that marketing is done by music departments has eclipsed that; they have a direct marketing relationship with their fans. That’s where Cash Money Content makes a difference. I’m impressed by how much they trust artists to be artists, and it’s the same with their writers.”
Cash Money Content’s inaugural list of six titles includes New York Times bestsellers Wahida Clark (Justify My Thug) and 20-something crime and romance writing couple Ashley Coleman and JaQuavis Coleman (Murderville). As new owners of the Iceberg Slim classics catalogue, the Cash Money Content imprint has reissued Pimp and Trick Baby, with five more to come. In 2012, two more bestselling urban lit authors—Treasure Blue and K’wan—will join the party.
Karen Hunter Publishing
An imprint of Pocket Books/Gallery, Karen Hunter Publishing debuted in 2007. In Karen Hunter’s view, when she approached S&S about forming her line of books, “There weren’t a lot of books geared toward African-Americans—at least, not a concerted effort to tackle issues like race relations or novels that weren’t street novels. To me, a publisher’s responsibility is to elevate and stretch readers’ imaginations.”
Pocket/Gallery executive v-p Louise Burke notes, “I’m always interested in publishing or acquiring books for an audience that I’m not addressing. Karen and Charles [Suitt, the imprint’s president] have relationships in the entertainment business that I’m interested to tap into. And Karen made it clear that she wants to be diverse.” Hunter, a former journalist, newspaper columnist, and radio personality who was already an S&S author, describes the arrangement as a 50/50 peer partnership, where she and Suitt fully own the New York–based imprint, and S&S covers production, distribution, printing, shipping, and facilitating the digital uploads.
Hunter takes some lessons from music business marketing: “The way they sell records is different from how the publishing industry sells books. In publishing, they use the throw-stuff-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks model. And they wait three to four weeks out before they start their push, at least on no-name books. Our goal is, every book has a plan, so every book can have success. We end up getting our books into a second or third printing.”
She is proud to have published her newest author, 20-year-old Kyle Chais, whose novel Nameless pubs next month. “It’s a quirky, weird book about fallen angels who seek redemption. But I liked it. No one else would have published him.” To develop a social media following for Nameless, Hunter used the project as a teaching tool (the class did social networking marketing) in the Introduction to Publishing course that she teaches at Hunter College (no relation); Louise Burke reports that Hunter “was amazed that it helped raise the Amazon ranking of the book.”
The imprint averages five books a year; this year, three made the New York Times bestseller list, most recently Kris Jenner’s Kris Jenner... and All Things Kardashian joined Janet Jackson’s True You (out in paperback in January) and E. Lynn Harris’s last novel, Mama Dearest. She said other high-performing books include “our very first book, Why Black Men Love White Women, which is still selling. And we have a contract with Kroger’s to have Patti Labelle’s cookbook, Recipes for the Good Life, in their stores.” Also forthcoming for the imprint is My Country ’Tis of Thee, nonfiction from Minnesota congressman Keith Ellison.
Founded in 2011, Open Lens is a co-venture between Brooklyn independent publisher Akashic Books and literary agents Marie Brown and Regina Brooks, together with Hue-Man Bookstore owner Marva Allen. “I’m really tired of what the majority publishers push as African-American literature. That’s not representing what I am—I don’t run around half-clothed!” says Marva Allen, voicing a regular complaint about the proliferation of urban and street lit. “I want to know about different cultures and how things happen around the world; I want to hear all those voices. So I’m going to find those voices and look at them through another lens.”
With an editorial mission to provide an opportunity for writers of color to publish serious narrative fiction and nonfiction, the New York imprint’s first title is Makeda, a novel by noted human rights activist Randall Robinson. “It’s very generous of him to sign on,” says Akashic publisher Johnny Temple. “He has options—he can sign on with any number of publishing companies. I think it’s intriguing to people to see him write a novel when he’s best known for his nonfiction.”
As Marie Brown points out, “There are limited opportunities to publish in mainstream trade publishing, especially for African-American writers who are not in a category that’s currently trendy, or who don’t fit into a celebrity category. So we are an alternative to that.” Brown says Open Lens “was created to publish writers who are not being considered for publication by mainstream publishers, whose works Regina and I see because we are agents. We know after years of working in this field that most of them would be rejected, because publishers are not as committed to publishing black authors as they have been in the past.”
Since each of the partners is already running a business, Regina Brooks says, the plan is to keep the list small, at no more than four per year, with authors getting the individual attention that they deserve. “Our boutique size allows us to be flexible, so that gives us the ability to work on alternative ways of getting the word out. Because we’re so small, we can take chances that others can’t. We can be creative and don’t have to use those old models that are quickly outdated.”
In their collaboration, Temple explains, Akashic pays author advances and costs of promotion and printing; Open Lens acquires and edits and “brings their wisdom and connections.”
But their arrangement is flexible, notes Temple, a musician himself, and yet another music business analogy emerges. “I have a background in rock ’n’ roll music and as a performing artist: touring, albums, making videos; I’m a bassist. One of the many things I didn’t like about the record business is that the contracts can be so binding, and artists can get so locked in. An artist may sign a record deal with one person, and down the line if the company changes, can be stuck in that deal six years later with people he doesn’t like. So my book contracts do not have options in them. I think the best kinds of partnerships, whether with authors or other companies, are voluntary.”
SmileyBooks is a co-venture between motivational publisher Hay House and broadcasting personality Tavis Smiley that was launched in 2004. The choice to partner with the Carlsbad, Calif.–based Hay House was an easy one for SmileyBooks publisher Tavis Smiley, who had already worked with them as an author. “The kind of work they publish syncs well with my interests: it enlightens, empowers, inspires, and uplifts people. And I wanted to be with a distributor who had channels to cover a broad international audience.”
“Our mission,” according to Hay House publisher Reid Tracy, “is to get people of color to get their voices heard and out in the marketplace.” Hay House, he explains, finances the imprint and prints and distributes the line; SmileyBooks does the editing, marketing, and publicity. The imprint publishes about six titles annually, with plans to expand. In Hay House’s New York City offices, president and associate publisher Cheryl Woodruff oversees editorial, promotion, and marketing, while production, design, fulfillment, and warehousing take place in California.
Woodruff, founder and former associate publisher of Random House’s multicultural imprint, One World, had also long admired Hay House’s business model, particularly in electronic marketing. “Six to eight years ago, their online marketing was far in advance of anything traditional publishers were doing,” she says, “with online classes and close interaction with their authors. The combination of the vision and creativity and commitment made me want to work with them.”
Woodruff also sees how the music business can inform the book business: “Consumers want what they want, when and how they want it. So the production timetable [between creation and publication] has contracted incredibly. I’m interested in the potential for getting readers what they want when they want it without getting tied to the single print-run model.”
As an example, Woodruff refers to Tavis Smiley’s PBS series Too Important to Fail: Saving America’s Boys, which aired in September 2011. SmileyBooks created the companion title as an e-book, so that viewers could purchase it immediately after the show aired; while all SmileyBooks titles are also published as e-books, Too Important to Fail was the imprint’s first title to originate on that platform.
In addition to Iyanla Vanzant’s New York Times bestseller Peace from Broken Pieces, Woodruff cites other SmileyBooks successes, such as Brainwashed by Tom Burrell, which she notes is still a strong backlist seller, and the tie-in book series to the traveling America I AM exhibit, especially the Pass It Down Cookbook by Chef Jeff Henderson. “And working with Dr. Cornel West [another SmileyBooks author] has been its own pleasure.”
Next season, Smiley says he looks forward to publishing Tricia Rose and Rick Najera, as well as Health First! A Black Woman’s Wellness Guide by Eleanor Hinton Hoytt and Hilary Beard. “We’re also putting out controversial singer R. Kelly’s memoir with David Ritz, because I believe in taking risks and giving people a chance to be heard. Reid Tracy knows that the book might get some pushback. But it’s not a Hay House title; it’s a SmileyBooks title. It’s hard to find a partner that will allow you to be uniquely who you are without trying to shape you. If you have the right partner, the possibilities are endless if you have respect for each other.”
Originally launched in 1999 by bestselling author Zane as an independent publisher, Strebor Books became a part of Atria Books in 2005. “Zane was our Atria author,” explains Atria publisher Judith Curr, “and she wanted to publish her own line because many people kept coming to her with manuscripts. It seemed like a good business opportunity. And we couldn’t publish these many books under Atria by ourselves—we could not find all these authors on our own.”
Zane, still publisher of Strebor Books, explains that before becoming an imprint, from 2003 to 2005 Strebor was a distribution client of S&S. That relationship made it easier for her to increase her list and to get the books noticed. “Up until January 2011, for at least 10 years I had a big warehouse in Maryland. I had the books printed, did the shipping, was doing all the royalty statements—and with a small staff.” She adds that she was offered imprint deals by two other publishers, but went with S&S because of her existing relationship with the house.
In the arrangement, Zane says, “We combine my grassroots marketing with what S&S has traditionally done and get the best of both worlds.” Zane’s pioneering use of the Internet to market her work dates back to 1999, when she was known as an author of erotica; her online marketing was so successful, “I never went on a book tour until 2004!” The Internet is still a strong marketing tool for her, and she uses it to reach out directly to her fans, for instance, to give away galleys on several Facebook groups. “A traditional publisher sends out galleys to media; I give out galleys to regular readers. I’m constantly thinking of ways to make things work.”
From their offices in Maryland, Strebor handles editorial and cover designs; Atria does the marketing, sales, and publicity. Key titles for 2012 include nonfiction books from music industry notables: Death of the Cheating Man: What Every Woman Must Know About Men Who Stray by Ray J and Make It Last Forever by Keith Sweat.
Although Zane made her reputation as an erotica novelist, as a publisher, she says, “I’m all over the place. I publish over 80 authors, and only two are erotica; my titles cover fiction, nonfiction, relationships, historical fiction, paranormal, YA. We publish 32 to 60 original titles a year, which does not include the conversion titles that are printed in mass market and paperback. We are doing extremely well. Last year, 2010, was our most profitable year, even in this economy.”
Notable African-American Titles
The Taste of Salt by Martha Southgate (Algonquin, Sept.).
A family is tested by an unending cycle of addiction over the course of two generations.
My Soul to Take: A Novel by Tananarive Due (Atria/WSP, Sept.).
The story of descendants of an immortal line of people who are the only ones capable of saving the world.
Lifestyles of the Rich and Shameless by Kinki Swinson and Noire (Dafina, Dec.).
An anthology of urban fiction.
Erasure by Percival Everett (Graywolf, Oct.).
A new edition of Everett’s blistering satire on race and writing.
The Loom by Shella Gillus (Guideposts, Dec.).
A secret threatens to unravel the marriage of a slaveowner and the lives of those among his family’s household.
Is Just a Movie by Earl Lovelace (Haymarket, Apr. 2012).
The first novel in a decade by the great Caribbean novelist is set during the 1970s and looks at the complex impact of Black Power militancy on the island of Trinidad.
A Woman’s Work: Street Chronicles by Nikki Turner (One World, Sept).
In this collection of stories, women sacrifice in order to seize power, money, and fame.
EyeMinded: Living and Writing Contemporary Art by Kellie Jones (Duke Univ., May).
A combination memoir of a childhood in the vibrant arts community of New York’s Lower East Side and an art historical analysis of black and multicultural art movements by a daughter of poets Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and Hettie Jones.
Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? What It Means to Be Black Now by Touré (Free Press, Sept.).
The hip-hop essayist and cultural critic examines the state of blackness in America today.
The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness by Kevin Young (Graywolf, Mar. 2012).
An encyclopedic collection of essays on the improvisational nature of African-American culture and its role at the heart of American life and history.
The Last Holiday: A Memoir by Gil Scott-Heron (Grove/Atlantic, Jan. 2012).
Coming-of-age and personal observations of the civil rights movement and the tumultuous 1960s by the late pioneering musician, novelist, poet, and spoken-word artist.
Life upon These Shores: Looking at African American History, 1513–2008 by Henry Louis Gates Jr. (Knopf, Nov.).
A mammoth work of nonfiction that traces African-American history from the arrival of the conquistadors to the election of Barack Obama.
Simeon’s Story: An Eyewitness Account of the Kidnapping of Emmett Till by Simeon Wright (Lawrence Hill, Sept.).
Wright shares his personal account of the historic and tragic 1955 kidnapping and murder of his cousin Emmett Till.
Ali and Liston: The Ugly Bear and the Boy Who Would Be King by Bob Mee (Skyhorse/Herman Graf, Nov.).
The contrasting lives of two great prizefighters during a period of dramatic social change in American history.
Magic Trash: A Story of Tyree Guyton and His Art by J.H. Shapiro, illus. by Vanessa Brantley-Newton (Charlesbridge, Oct.).
The true story of conceptual artist Tyree Guyton and how his art saved his Detroit community.
African-American Classics: Graphic Classics, Vol. 22, edited by Tom Pomplun and Lance Tooks (Eureka, Dec.).
A collection of comics adaptations of stories and poems by America’s earliest black authors, illustrated by contemporary black cartoonists.
Maya’s Choice by Earl Sewell (Kimani Tru, Oct.).
The sixth title in the Keysha and Friends series. Maya Rogers’s rebellious cousin Viviana comes to live with her, and summer plans are turned upside down.
No Crystal Stair by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson (Lerner, Feb. 2012).
A novel in documents about Harlem bookseller Lewis Micheaux and his work to support literacy, researched and written by his great-niece.
Kimani Holiday Bundle
A Steele for Christmas by Brenda Jackson (Sept.).
A lifelong bachelor meets his match after he sets up a business arrangement with Stacey Carlson.
A Christmas Affair by Adrianne Byrd (Oct.).
The joy of romance and the spirit of the holiday season.
Baby, Let It Snow by Beverly Jenkins and Elaine Overton (Oct.).
A two-in-one collection demonstrating that the power of love can help overcome any obstacle. —C.R.
Decoded by Jay-Z (Random/Spiegel & Grau, Nov.).
Released in hardcover in 2010, Jay-Z’s bestselling memoir/lyric deconstruction has been released in an updated trade paperback with 16 new pages and new songs. Random House has also updated the e-book edition with 30 minutes of video interviews. Users with Apple devices can “build their own version” with their 10 favorite Jay-Z tunes and listen to Jay-Z’s interactive annotations. The book has sold more than 355,000 copies since it was released last year. —C.R.
Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White by Lila Quintero Weaver (Univ. of Alabama, Mar. 2012)
A vivid, insightful, and moving illustrated graphic memoir by Weaver, who emigrated from Argentina to the American South as a young girl in 1961, recounting her impressions of her family’s new and unexpected life in racist, rural Alabama during the civil rights movement. —C.R.