More Venues for Black Voices
David Earl Jackson -- 12/4/00
Within a year, seven imprints are introduced or revamped for the African-American market

If there once was a time in the not so distant past when mainstream publishers questioned the potential of books written by and for black Americans, the introduction and/or revitalization of seven imprints specifically targeting this market within a year's time is the best evidence to counter that misconception.
Two titles from Strivers Row's
debut list out next month from Villard.
"It's time for us to have some strong African-American literature," said Joi Afzal, one of the owners of the Hue-Man Experience Bookstore in Denver. "It seemed to have died out in the late '90s when it felt like you were reading the same old stuff. Our customers want something that is different, fresh and relevant and not juts the same old relationship drama."
That's just what the people behind the seven imprints hope to deliver. Of course the much anticipated new novel from Terry McMillan, A Day Late and a Dollar Short (Viking), shows that the "relationship drama" Afzal referred to is not without its fans. But she is excited about the new voices and greater options, in both fiction and nonfiction, from the imprints.

Three of the imprints are at Random House: Strivers Row, One World Books and Harlem Moon. The other four are Dafina Books at Kensington Publishing, Amistad Press at HarperCollins, Jump at the Sun at Hyperion and Walk Worthy Press at Warner Books.

The Villard division of Random House will launch Strivers Row next month. Headed by associate editor Melody Guy, the new imprint is devoted to publishing African-American literature in trade paperback editions. "The first thing is that black writers will have more avenues to get their works published, " Guy said. "What we are doing is introducing new writers to an audience that's hungry for them."

Long before names like McMillan and Mosley lead the way, black readers yearned for books that reflected their own experience, histories and fantasies, and often found them from small publishers or in the self-published world. "These are books that don't have a lot of promotion, but people just seem to find them on the shelves, " said Guy. "Some of the books we're publishing were self-published books that had this kind of buzz."

The self-published title on Strivers Row's January debut list is Parry A. Brown's novel, The Shirt Off His Back, a close look at an African-American single father's experiences. When it first appeared it was a Black Board bestseller and debuted on the now defunct Emerge bestseller list. The other launch titles are a new trade edition of Standing at the Scratch Line, the critically acclaimed first novel by Guy Johnson, Maya Angelou's son, and Nichelle D. Tramble's original "hip hop noir" novel, The Dying Ground. The imprint will publish 12 books a year, both fiction and nonfiction.

Not a newcomer to the field, One World--founded in 1992 by Cheryl D. Woodruff, former associate publisher and vice-president of Ballantine Books--garnered awards as the first multicultural imprint of a major publishing company. Its catalogue reflected First Nation/Native American, Latino, Asian-American and Afro-diasporic cultural works. Many industry eyes are watching to see where One World will go after Anita Diggs left Warner last summer to become senior editor of the imprint.

"It's very important for people to understand that One World is not going to stop anything that it used to do," said Diggs. "What we're doing is adding on." One World gained a reputation for its African-American Studies books, autobiographies, biographies, memoirs, history and literary fiction. "None of that is going away," said Diggs. "What we are going to do is add on lots more contemporary fiction, more contemporary affairs." Among the areas One World plans to expand in are travel, pop culture, performing arts and film. Diggs said that One World aimed to double its list to 20 books a year

Diggs said she wants to diversify One World and make the imprint more commercially viable by building on its backlist. "It's nice to have awards, and we want to win more," she said, "but there have to be some books on the list to support the whole thing, books that make money. Otherwise, there's no way to support doing 20 books a year."

Much of the activity among the African-American imprints involves bringing the books out in trade paperback. "Publishers are starting to figure out that customers are willing to pay $14 for a trade paperback over a [more expensive] hardcover," said Afzal. "Otherwise they say, 'I'll wait for the paperback.'" At Harlem Moon, vice -president Janet Hill said the trade paperback model suited its plans to publish original fiction and nonfiction and to reissue books into the marketplace. "I would like to do stuff from the Harlem Renaissance, but I want to do stuff from the '50s, the '60s, maybe even the '70s, too, books that have been published, but not to the right climate or attitude," said Hill.
New from Kensington (top)
and One World.
Hill said that Harlem Moon, which is barely two months old, hopes to introduce contemporary readers to a wider body of work, spanning from old school titles to more contemporary works. Its first titles are scheduled for the winter of 2002. It will start out doing six books a year.
Karen R. Thomas, executive editor of Dafina Books, has already published three books this year, with two more slated to appear before the end of the year. "Dafina," Swahili for "unexpected gift," was launched in September and will average 12 books per year. "Our books will be published in hardcover, trade and mass formats, including fiction, nonfiction, mysteries," said Thomas. "Everything, except romance."

Kensington, Dafina's parent company, targeted the African-American romance market in 1992 with the introduction of the hugely successful Arabesque series, which it sold to Black Entertainment Television a few years ago. Since the publisher still distributes the Arabesque imprint for BET, Thomas said Dafina would not compete in that market. It's first three books are now out in trade paperback: Carl Weber's urban contemporary novel, Lookin' for Luv; Souls of My Sisters: Black Women Break Through Their Silence, Tell Their Stories, and Heal Their Spirits by Dawn Marie Daniels and Candace Sandy; and God Don't Like Ugly by Mary Monr . "Our market d sn't want just one type of story," said Thomas. "Overall we're trying to publish diverse books for the African-American community, diverse books for a diverse community."

Amistad Press has a similar mission. Of the seven imprints, Amistad is the oldest, founded in the 1980s by Charles Harris, a publishing pioneer whose career dates back to the 1950s. Last year HarperCollins acquired Amistad, and Harris remained as the imprint's editorial director. This year Manie Barron left Random House to become Amistad's publishing manager.

Barron was quick to explain that Amistad is not aiming for the Terry McMillan-like commercial fiction success. "That's not to say we aren't going to do any, but we're going to be very selective in the sort of commercial fiction that we do," he explained. "We're leaning a lot more toward narrative nonfiction, trying to tap into some categories that no one is dealing with." For example, he said Amistad was venturing into yoga, Buddhism, and, of all things, urban gardening. "What I want to do is take the categories in bookstores and find the folk that would fit there. There are just as many black folk into gardening as white folk, proportionately."

Many were surprised when Barron left Random House, where he was just about to launch Griot, his own imprint. "Money played a factor, certainly," Barron said candidly about his switch to Harper. But more than anything, he said that he felt even with Griot, his decisions would still have to be cleared through the powers that be. "You reach a point where you just get tired of doing Black 101 every time you want to do something. And so the idea of working with someone in a black imprint where you no longer have to explain black people every time you wanted to do a book was very attractive to me."

Amistad is launching its first batch of titles under HarperCollins next month. Among the titles on the list is Norman Kelley's Black Heat, in hardcover. "We're launching Norman as a major new male writer," said Barron. Also on the list: The House That Jack Built by radio personality Hal Jackson; the paperback edition of Skin Deep, Barbara Summer's history of black fashion models; and a paperback edition of Lionel Bascomb's Renaissance in Harlem. Amistad plans 24 titles a year.

Unlike the other five imprints, Walk Worthy Press and Jump at the Sun are more specialized in their approach to the market. Denise Stinson, the Detroit-based literary agent, recently founded the Walk Worthy imprint with Warner Books. Walk Worthy will specialize in hardcover Christian commercial fiction and nonfiction, starting with three novels to be published next year. Jump at the Sun, taken from a Zora Neale Hurston expression, is a special imprint at Hyperion, a division of Disney. The imprint, headed by senior editor Andrea Pinkney, is designed for African-American children and young adult readers, offering both picture books and chapter books. And, while not an imprint, HarperTorch has instituted a new African-American romance program that will include a new title per season specifically for this market, beginning in February with If You Want Me by Kayla Perrin.

The creation of specialized imprints dedicated to addressing the interests of black readers seems like an important step for mainstream publishers; however, some critics wonder if this trend signals yet another form of ghettoization. Manie Barron disagreed. "We were ghettoized before," he explained,. "by being part of these larger lists with people who really didn't know what was going on and didn't care as much. Now [the books] are going to get the concentration and the attention that they deserve."