Selling African-American–themed titles overseas isn’t always easy, but it can be done. Ayana Mathis’s acclaimed multigenerational saga (and Oprah pick), The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, is popular abroad; The Help, Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling novel about black maids in the 1960s, sells well in Italy; and translation rights to Wil Haygood’s The Butler, the background story to the hit film, have been sold in eight countries. Indeed translation rights to comedian and talk show host Steve Harvey’s books have been sold in 30 countries.
What does the overseas reading landscape look like for African-American–interest books? PW chatted with a broad selection of publishers, editors, literary agents, and scouts involved with the selling of books (and their rights) by and about African-Americans into the international market, to learn more about supplying the global demand.
While some acknowledge that what gets published overseas is often simply what is popular, others emphasize the need to carefully navigate differing national cultural tastes. But there always seems to be a market for books on celebrities and pop-culture figures. Some of the people we talked to lament that there are too few African-American books selling into the international market, but others are seeing trends that are opening new doors abroad for African-American subject matter. And it turns out that technology has become an important tool in pushing books out to a global market of readers who might be interested in books by and about people of African descent.
What Sells Over There?
Traditionally, American titles enter the international marketplace (or “travel,” to use the industry term) either as translated editions or export editions. “When a book is [to be] translated, it’s bought by a [foreign] publishing house,” explains agent Erin Edmison of Edmison Harper Literary Scouting, who is a North American scout for international publishers. “That publisher does the translation, marketing, and publicity as though it’s their book. If the publisher translates it, then it’s their book to sell. An export copy is [the original] English edition, sold wherever that publisher has a sales team, so it’s a sales-only issue; there’s no publicity or marketing. It’s the difference between being published [in a market] versus being available for sale [in that market].”
Scouts such as Edmison and Liz Gately are employed by foreign publishers to watch for trends overseas. “Part of my job is to help figure out what sells in a foreign country and match it,” Edmison says, while Gately jokes that her job is to tell foreign publishers “what American books they should be publishing—based on a combination of reading and gossip.” One industry insider, however, warns that in this regard, “the problems of American publishing are replicated overseas. A lot of what happens is that people overseas depend on American tastemakers to steer them toward what to publish.”
But more generally, as Atria v-p and senior editor Malaika Adero notes, most large American publishing companies are multinational, with sibling companies in the U.K., for example. “They let us know what they are interested in,” says Adero. Dawn Davis, publisher of the S&S imprint 37 Ink, adds, “In my experience, if the title is highly literary or broadly popular, there is demand abroad. If the book has either broad commercial success or literary success—prizes or cachet—you can sell the book overseas. But it’s not easy. You have to have demand from foreign publishers.”
When it comes to current trends in African-American–authored or –themed titles overseas, Edmison finds that “the interest is more prevalent for historical novels rather than for contemporary ones. And, of course, books by or about Africans maintain foreign appeal.” Troy Johnson, president of African-American–focused literary Web site
AALBC.com, agrees: “Anecdotally, there appears to be more interest in international black writers here in the U.S. than in black American authors outside the U.S.” He points to such authors as Chimamanda Adichie, Zadie Smith, Ayesha Harruna Attah, Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond, Tope Folarin, Chinelo Okparanta, NoViolet Bulawayo, Uwem Akpan, noting that they “garner a disproportionate number of book reviews and coverage relative to domestic black authors.”
As for books with contemporary themes, Edmison acknowledges that these are more difficult to sell abroad. Each party in the mix helps the other, she adds: foreign publishers know what they want and the scouts help it along. “But it’s always a balance of telling them it’s an important story and it’s well written with strong characters.”
When it comes to translation rights, the consensus among those who spoke to PW is that an African-American title will have a better chance at a translation deal if it is popular in the U.S., if there’s a movie deal, or if the book has won awards. Margaret Busby—who became the U.K.’s first black female publisher when she cofounded Allison & Busby Ltd. in 1967—has served as a judge for many U.K. literary awards, including the Caine Prize for African Writing, the Orange Prize, the Independent Prize for Foreign Fiction, the Bocas Caribbean Literature Prize, SI Leeds Literary Award, and the Commonwealth Book Prize. Busby says that awards “are important, because they can impact positively on the output and viability of African/Caribbean/black British publishing and writers. In terms of how new black U.S.-published authors come to attention [in the U.K.], I think the accompanying buzz as well as who the publisher happens to be has a lot to do with what literary editors pick up for review.”
The worldwide success of Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling The Help, the story of African-American maids in the South during the early 1960s, which has been translated into 40 languages and turned into a film, has also opened doors. Gately recalls a time when “there used to be pushback from international publishers [over African-American subject matter], but the global success of The Help really changed that. At the literary end of publishing, people have been more interested in stories of people different than themselves. I’ve never felt as much resistance to the voices at that end.”
Changing Global Tastes
Changing demographics worldwide, says literary agent Victoria Sanders, offer hope for a more diverse market in the future. “All the books I represent, regardless of the author or subject matter, I try to sell worldwide. Twenty-plus years ago, if I’d gone to a publisher with The Kite Runner, it wouldn’t have gotten a look. We are seeing more and more books by a diverse authorship. Yes, we sometimes hear ‘it’s too American,’ but that depends on the book.” Akashic publisher Johnny Temple—who licenses books into about 40 different languages from a list that includes African-American and Caribbean authors—frequently hears that comment (“Too American...”) and tries to be objective. “I think they may have reasons [to reject a book], just like I reject books every day.”
London-based literary agent Susan Yearwood notes, “I remember having a conversation about this with an African-American literary agent about a year or so ago; she wanted to know how best to sell African-American titles into the U.K. and Europe and the issue of a book being ‘universal’ came up—not too specifically regional or American in this case. A universal African-American story still requires a major or maverick publisher to make inroads over here. As always, publishers are interested in good storytelling, no matter the nationality of the writer. There will always be interest in emulating the success of writers like Alice Walker and Toni Morrison.”
Titles That Travel
Since the success of The Help, historical stories about African-Americans, most of them set during the antebellum era, are popular overseas, among them The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis and Southern Cross the Dog by Bill Cheng—both, like The Help, debut novels. Edmison singled out the bestselling novel The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom, the story of an indentured Irish white girl brought up among plantation slaves. “The Kitchen House has worked very well in Italy, and that was a surprise—five years ago we’d have assumed it was too specific. But I think it’s because of The Help. Our Italian client also plans to publish The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier, which is set during the Civil War. They say, ‘These novels seem to be selling well.’ And in publishing, people try to repeat their successes.” Rights to The Kitchen House were also sold to the U.K., the Netherlands, Norway, Brazil, Taiwan, Poland, and Hungary.
Gately recalls that “after The Help, they jumped on Edward Kelsey Moore’s The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat,” a story about black female friendship over decades, which she calls “a Frankfurt success, sold in a number of markets at the fair. That’s the commercial end.” Gately adds that “there have also been a lot of black and mixed-race authors who have succeeded in the more literary area. Colson Whitehead’s books sell well internationally.” She also notes that author Teju Cole’s novel Open City, an urban reverie about a Nigerian immigrant living in New York (which received a starred PW review), has been translated into Catalan, Chinese (Taiwan), Danish, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, and Swedish.”
Translation rights to Wil Haygood’s The Butler, which provides the background story to the hit film starring Forest Whitaker, have been sold to date in Austria, Poland, China, Thailand, Brazil, Hungary, Italy, and Japan, reports Lisa Keim, Atria director of subrights. “The Butler has global appeal because of its unique personal insights,” says Keim. Dawn Davis notes that comedian and radio personality Steve Harvey’s Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, which she published at Amistad, has been sold in over 30 countries. Victoria Sanders adds that Harvey’s book is sold in some countries “as a relationship book, not as an African-American book, and with a non-race cover.”
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie sold abroad “mostly after it was chosen as an Oprah Book Club pick,” says Edmison. Rights have sold in multiple territories, including Brazil, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, and Sweden. Other African-American–themed titles whose translation rights have been sold include Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez; Black Water Rising, screenwriter Attica Locke’s first novel; and the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Known World by Edward P. Jones.
Enabled by Technology
Some entrepreneurs are turning to creative uses of technology to get African-American books into the hands of a new international market. Mocha Ochoa-Nana is the principal of the Washington, D.C.–based Oracle Group, a boutique-style literary event-planning firm, specializing in nontraditional venues. Since 2009, Ochoa-Nana has offered a value-added service to her clients: connecting authors with readers from other countries to create what she calls “an international book discussion.”
In 2009 she met John Dau, one of “the Lost Boys of Sudan,” the young refugees of the Sudanese Civil War. Dau was a speaker at an International Literacy Day conference, and the encounter inspired Ochoa-Nana to investigate ways to take her work to an international audience. Soon, she got a grant and formed the Reading Across Continents program, whose mission is “connecting students through literature via technology.” Students from Washington, D.C., were matched with students in Nigeria and Ghana for shared reading and real-time video chats about Copper Sun, a novel on the African slave trade by Sharon Draper; Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe; and The Girl Who Can, by the Ghanaian author Ama Ata Aidoo. The interchanges served to promote cultural understanding as well as personal inspiration.
“One group wrote a book together, about what they expected to see in each other’s country,” says Ochoa-Nana. “You’d be surprised at the cultural perceptions before this program started. So it’s creating literacy ambassadors.”
Among the titles she has connected to overseas audiences—primarily school groups and women’s programs in underserved countries in Africa and the Caribbean—are English-language editions of Sister Souljah’s A Deeper Love Inside, Bria Williams and Reginae Carter’s Paparazzi Princesses, Cedella Marley’s One Love, and Marie Elena John’s Unburnable. The Oracle Group has partnered with Atria and its partner imprint Cash Money Content, Random House, Heinemann, HarperCollins, and others. “We took Sharon Draper to Ghana with us, and she was like a rock star! We are trying to take Bria Williams and Reginae Carter to Cameroon and Nigeria,” says Ochoa-Nana.
Ochoa-Nana largely hand-selects the titles, often in response to a publisher or author query, “or I’ll go after an author. I look at the book and think, there’s a bigger lesson here. With A Deeper Love Inside, I felt that there were a lot of teens who could use this message. With Paparazzi Princesses, the message was, listen to your parents.”
Using her contacts with U.S. embassies in Africa, she works with the publishers and the State Department to make it happen. “The authors can’t always travel, but they can meet their fans. It takes some preparation: we ship books out—sometimes publishers will donate the ones going to Africa—and we work with community groups or with a group with which the State Department has a relationship. The authors get lots of local and international publicity, especially when the State Department gets involved. The demand is there; authors love it, and students love it.”
Tony Rose, publisher of Amber Communications Group, affirms that there is high demand for titles in Amber’s Colossus Books imprint of musician and celebrity biographies. He uses a business model from his music industry background to get those titles in the hands of overseas readers. “I learned in the music business—give the people what they want. Our books are biographies of international performing acts that are famous in many countries. The people want to read about these artists they know.”
Using metrics he derives from sales reports, social media, customer communication, and general observation, Rose knows what his non-U.S. customer base wants. “Lynette Holloway’s Nicki Minaj: The Woman Who Stole the World has sold well in Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Barbados, Cape Verde Islands, England, France, and South Korea. Jake Brown’s Lil Wayne: An Unauthorized Biography sells worldwide, and particularly well in Germany, Belgium, England, France, the Netherlands, and Canada. Jake Brown’s Kanye West: Before the Legend sells a lot in certain Eastern European countries like Romania, where young men like rap. Think of rap that’s 20 years old, gangster rap stuff. Though he’s not gangster rap, Kanye appeals. Beyoncé: Before the Legend by Kelly Kenyatta sells really well in Bolivia, Brazil, and Asiatic countries—more fashion-conscious cultures.” Amber’s NAACP Image Award–winning title, Obama Talks Back by Gregory Reed, Rose says, “sells in Japan and England. The Japanese market, he says, favors “Afrocentric things—Obama, music, anything that has people of color.”
Except for Amber’s oldest backlist titles, all orders are fulfilled either as e-books or as POD titles from a local source in the country. “I used to do rights deals until 20 years ago,” Rose says. “They’d give me an advance, but I’d never see a royalty. So I stopped that. I’d prefer that a customer in Greece click the link in Amazon, and we get a check.” Rose adds, “We sell books in every country because of the distribution source we use. K-Tel licenses some seven of our e-books for worldwide sale, plus there are a million Web sites selling books, and we try to be on all of them. We send out electronic stories and press releases to the media in each country, and everything links to a sale of the books. So there’s no printing, packing, or shipping here. Money, books, payments—it’s all digital to me.”
Publishers of African-American books have shown they’ll do whatever it takes to get their product, whatever the format, in front of readers, no matter where those readers are. As Victoria Sanders puts it, “Sometimes you gotta make noise to make change.” The overseas audience for African-American–interest titles is there, and creativity, innovation, and technology are all playing a part in reaching it.
Notable African-American Titles
The Good Lord Bird by James McBride (Riverhead). This novel, which won the 2013 National Book Award for Fiction, tells the story of abolitionist John Brown and a slave called “Little Onion,” who finds himself in Brown’s gang after Brown kills his master.
Who Asked You? by Terry McMillan (Penguin). McMillan’s latest novel tells the story of Betty Jean, who finds her white neighbor is the first to offer help.
Glyph by Percival Everett (Graywolf, Feb. 2014). Graywolf brings a hilarious Everett novel back into print in the form of a brainy, scathing satire of post-structuralism.
Bedrock Faith by Eric Charles May (Akashic, Mar. 2014). Stew Pot, a notorious troublemaker, returns to his old neighborhood after 14 years in prison a changed man—he is now a fervent religious moralist, piously obnoxious and as menacing to his neighbors as when he was the local criminal lout.
A Madaris Bride for Christmas by Brenda Jackson (Harlequin). For her 100th book, acclaimed romance author Jackson returns to the fictional Madaris family (where she began her writing career) with a holiday romance story starring one of the notoriously charming Madaris men.
The Returned by Jason Mott (Harlequin). Long-dead loved ones return to life in Mott’s debut novel, which has been adapted into a forthcoming TV series.
Heart of Gold: A Blessings Novel by Beverly Jenkins (HarperCollins, Apr. 2014). Jenkins returns to the fictional town of Henry Adams and the people who live there.
Most Wanted by Kiki Swinson and Nikki Turner (Dafina). Two of street-lit’s hottest bestselling authors deliver two equally hot novellas about women on the run.
Queen Sugar by Natalie Baszile (Penguin, Feb. 2014). Inspired by the author’s family, this novel tells the story of recently widowed mother who inherits 800 acres of sugarcane land in New Orleans with the stipulation that she must farm it, or lose it.
Sister Betty Says I Do by Pat G’Orge-Walker (Dafina). The bestselling author and Christian standup comedian returns with a novel about her wacky-but-pious alter ego, Sister Betty, and her hilarious plans to get married.
Ebony and Ivory: Race, Slavery and the Troubled History of America’s Universities by Craig Steven Wilder (Bloomsbury). A bracing look at how slavery historically funded and sustained the country’s great universities from the Ivy League and elsewhere.
Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward (Bloomsbury). Ward, 2011 NBA winner for Fiction, returns with a memoir looking at the dispiriting deaths of five young men close to her life.
The President’s Devotional by Joshua DuBois (HarperOne). Short passages of scripture, inspirational quotes, and prayers that were sent to President Obama during every day during his first presidential campaign by Dubois, aka the “Pastor-in-Chief.”
Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker by Stanley Crouch (HarperCollins). The first volume of the long-awaited, vivid biographical appraisal of the life and music of Charlie “Yardbird” Parker, the jazz musician who helped bring bebop to life.
Harlem Nocturne: Women Artists and Progressive Politics During World War II by Farah Jasmine Griffin (Perseus). An inspirational account of three black female artists—novelist Ann Petry, dancer Pearl Primus, and jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams—who laid the groundwork for the Civil Rights movement.
My Country ’Tis of Thee: My Faith, My Family, Our Future by Keith Ellison (KH/Gallery Books. Jan. 2014). The first African-American Muslin elected to Congress, Ellison tells the story of his religious beliefs and the political journey that brought him to Congress.
Starting at Zero: His Own Story by Jimi Hendrix (Bloomsbury). Alan Douglas and Peter Neal pull together a lifetime of interviews to create a biographical portrait of Hendrix using the guitarist’s own words.
Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion by Robert Gordon (Bloomsbury). A story of the racial integration, black power and musical innovation at the famed record label that produced such soul superstars as Otis Redding, Booker T and the MGs and Isaac Hayes.
Everything I Needed to Know I Learned from My Six-Month Old by Kuwanna Haulsey (Viva Editions). A finalist for the Hurston/Wright Debut Fiction award, Haulsey has now written an inspirational memoir about the birth of her child.
The Book of Jezebel: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Lady Things by Anna Holmes (Grand Central). The creator of the Jezebel.com Web site brings together an illustrated compendium of both comic and feminist responses to the culture and lives of modern women.
Black Livingstone by Pagan Kennedy (Santa Fe Writers Project). Kennedy resurrects the extraordinary life of William Sheppard, an African-American who operated a mission in the Belgian Congo in the 1890s.
Pageants, Parlors and Pretty Women: Race and Beauty in the Twentieth-Century South by Blain Roberts (UNC Press, Mar. 2014). A look at the history of Jim Crow–era cosmetics, the rise of makeup that emphasized whiteness and the role of black beauty shops in the Civil Rights movement.
The Hippest Trip in America: Soul Train and the Evolution of Culture & Style by Nelson George (HarperCollins). An in-depth look at the 1970s variety show Soul Train, its creator Don Cornelius, and the crossover power of black popular music.
Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance by Carla Kaplan (HarperCollins). A groundbreaking history of some of the White women—including Annie Nathan Meyer, Nancy Cunard, and Fannie Hurst—who played key roles in the Harlem Renaissance.
Louis Armstrong: Master of Modernity by Thomas Brothers (Norton). An examination of Armstrong’s life in the 1920s as well as his innovative instrumental and vocal styles.
Invasion by Walter Dean Myers (Scholastic) Two soldiers—one black, one white—arrive on the beaches of Normandy in May 1944 and prepare themselves to face the test of war.
Please Louise by Toni Morrison and Slade Morrison (Atheneum, Mar. 2014). A young girl’s imagination is unlocked by a simple library card.
Africa Is My Home: A Child of the Amistad by Monica Edinger and Robert Boyd (Candlewick). A nine-year-old African girl is captured by slave traders, brought to Cuba eventually to sail on the slave ship Amistad on the journey of its historic slave mutiny.
Jump Shot by Tiki and Ronde Barber (S&S). The latest in series of books starring the two NFL superstars as young athlete, this time in basketball.
The Blossoming Universe of Violet Diamond by Brenda Woods (Penguin, Jan. 2014). Violet’s mom is white, her late dad is black, and now that she’s 11, she’s determined to learn more about her African-American heritage.
March Book One by Rep. John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell (Top Shelf). An inspirational graphic memoir of Civil Rights legend John Lewis that doubles as a vividly told history of the struggle to end Jim Crow.
The Harlem Hellfighters by Max Brooks and Caanan White (Broadway Books, Apr. 2014). Brooks switches from zombies to a heroic and fictionalized graphic novel celebrating the history of the black soldiers of Harlem’s 369th Infantry Regiment, the legendary Harlem Hellfighters of World War I.
Watson And Holmes: A Study in Black by Karl Bollers, Rick Leonardi and Larry Strohman (New Paradigm). In this lively reimagining of the Sherlock Holmes narrative, the crime-solving duo are African-Americans—Holmes is a dreadlocked PI; Watson an Afghanistan war vet and medic—based in Harlem and tracking a missing girl and a drug dealing gang.—Calvin Reid