Originally launched as a self-publishing project for a single book, RedBone Press, a black gay/lesbian-focused independent publisher, is celebrating its 15th year in the book business. And RedBone is an independent publisher in the literal sense: since day one, the founder and publisher Lisa C. Moore has been the house’s sole staff member.
RedBone began by accident, Moore told PW. She had compiled a collection of black lesbian coming-out stories and was shopping it to feminist publishers. Instead of sending it around, though, she used the telephone first. “I called them to find out how a book gets published, and how publishing works. They’d ask me what kind of book it was, and when I told them, they’d say there was no market for it.”
After hearing this from at least four publishers, Moore decided to self-publish. Although she had no clue how, she was willing to learn. At the time she was a copyeditor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she also handled layout. She supplemented these skills by reading Dan Poynter’s how-to-publish books, taught herself Quark, and hired an artist to do the jacket.
The book, does your mama know?, came out in April 1997. The 3,000-copy print run sold out in six months. Moore went on a book tour in Atlanta, then to all the cities the contributors lived in. In 1998 it won two Lambda Literary Awards: Best Small Press Book, and Best Lesbian Studies Book.
The day after the awards, Moore was at BEA—where she met someone who had seen her win the awards, and who advised her to get a distributor. “They walked me over to one—[now defunct] LPC Group—so then I had distribution. I still did readings and signings on the road, but with distribution it was easier. Booksellers appreciate distribution because they only have to write one check instead of many small ones.”
A year later, Moore was approached by author Sharon Bridgforth, who asked if Moore could publish the bull-jean stories, Bridgforth’s book of storytelling and verse. “By then, I was doing distribution, marketing, editing, layout, design, publicity, packaging, and shipping, and I’d fallen in love with it. So I said, ‘Sure!’ Our initial print run was 1,000. Now we’ve printed over 5,000.” There’s an audiobook, too: during readings, Moore explained, “People would swoon at [Bridgforth’s] voice,” so Moore read a book on how to produce an audiobook. In the studio, “[Bridgforth] read, her daughter sang the blues tunes, and I brought in my dad, Deacon John, to play the guitar.”
RedBone’s bestsellers include Brother to Brother, edited by Essex Hemphill, and In the Life, edited by Joseph Beam—important gay black men’s anthologies originally published by Alyson. “When I discovered they were out-of-print, I was so hurt.” Both authors had died, but Moore contacted the rights holders and brought them back into print.
Another current top-selling RedBone title is the novel Erzulie’s Skirt by Ana-Maurine Lara, “because I got an order from the University of Oregon. All of my books are taught in colleges. I think professors are looking for diverse works and my books seem to be the go-to books for black gayness.”
“How do you define the black/gay market? Lots of people buy [the late] E. Lynn Harris’s books, but they’re straight women! And there’s so many down-low novels out there. I won’t publish one,” she said. “RedBone publishes books that celebrate the culture of black lesbians and gay men, and promotes understanding between black gays and lesbians and the black mainstream. The fact that these books are taught in academia—I’d like to imagine that it opens their minds.”
RedBone publishes only one or two titles a year and has a current list of 17 titles. Moore works a little differently than most publishers: she doesn’t print galleys and prefers to start publicity once the book is printed. She markets through social media, mailing lists, and word of mouth. RedBone’s spring 2012 release will be a collection of plays by theater professor Djola Branner.
Moore is wrestling with digital. “E-books are only 4% of the market. Amazon’s being sued. Plus, I’m heavily influenced by the work of [technology skeptic] Nicholas Carr on how the Internet is affecting our brains. I believe books on paper lend themselves to focus, thinking deeply, and to thinking critically. I’m a firm believer in the printed word.”
When selecting manuscripts, Moore uses her instincts. “Erzulie’s Skirt was written by an anthropologist, and I have a master’s degree in anthropology. I read Ernest Hardy’s film and music criticism collection Blood Beats, and thought it was great. He tried to get them published before, but he was told the book was ‘too black’ or ‘too gay.’ Publishing people just don’t know what to do with it. But I do!”