Despite its critics, street or urban lit continues to attract readers as well as entrepreneurs looking to produce books aimed at an audience interested in action, crime, and urban style. Launched in 2005 by a designer and a writer, Augustus Publishing has grown from selling its books on the streets to a distribution deal with Publishers Group West that it signed last year.
Founded by Anthony Whyte, a former social worker turned novelist, and operated along with Jason Claiborne, Augustus president and creative director, Augustus Publishing has a backlist of about 20 books and plans to release 10 new titles in 2010. The two met while living in the same building in New York City and began designing and selling T-shirts before branching out into publishing. Whyte is the author of Ghetto Falsehoods, an early street lit hit published by 1st Books Library in 2001. It's the story of a group of young African-American women of different social backgrounds trying to make it in show business. The book has since been retitled Ghetto Girls and republished by Augustus as part of a three-book Ghetto Girls series.
Like most street lit, Augustus Publishing's titles survey life on the city streets, often featuring young people faced with the lure of drugs, crime, and fast money and their consequences. Street/urban/hip-hop lit has come under criticism from some in the African-American community who charge that it glamorizes crime and exploits teen readers. But others cite the continued popularity of the genre (and hip-hop music) and its ability to inspire readers to write and even become publishers themselves. Claiborne and Whyte describe their books as hip-hop literature and claim that the use realism to draw readers into situations they are already familiar with. “Critics of street lit or hip-hop are right up to a point,” said Whyte, “but these books can also transform someone's life.”
Augustus is self-financed, and Claiborne and Whyte handle everything from design to editing. Claiborne said Streets of New York, a three-volume anthology of short stories by such bestselling street lit writers as Shannon Holmes and Erick Gray, is the current bestselling series, selling 7,000 to 8,000 copies per title. Whyte said the three Ghetto Girls novels have sold about 80,000 copies over the seven years the series has been in print.
The Augustus list includes everything from gangsta lit to chick lit—including Lipstick Diaries, an anthology of female street lit writers. The house offers a consistent and hip trade design across all its titles and uses social networking as well as online marketing with a series of video trailers for its books on the Augustus Web site. The house also publishes SLR: Street Literature Review (Streetlitreview.com), a magazine that covers street lit publishing and serves as a vehicle to market Augustus titles and authors. Two Augustus titles—Whyte's Ghetto Girls and Streets of New York—have been optioned for films. Augustus has also partnered with the owners of the now revived Vibe magazine and Uptown magazine to launch an Uptown book imprint (fiction and nonfiction) and has plans to relaunch a Vibe book imprint focused on graphic and photography books.
Claiborne emphasized that both the creators and the audience for street or hip-hop literature go far beyond the African-American market. “Hip-hop is broader than just African-Americans. It includes Latino readers, Canadians, you name it. Hip-hop is international, and it's the language that holds our books all together.”