While university presses have focused on acquiring black-interest nonfiction—materials by and about African-Americans and the African diaspora—for scholarship and course adoptions, many academic presses also look to the trade book market to sell their lists. PW reached out to a number of university presses (and one academically oriented for-profit press) to learn more about how they acquire, publish, and market their nonfiction lists.
In a year that has seen the publication of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s acclaimed nonfiction work Between the World and Me, we are also taking note of a bounty of African-American-focused nonfiction titles in our notable-titles listing—from serious scholarship to popular works of memoir and journalism—produced by the academic market as well as the trade.
The university press responders include W. Paul Coates, who is the founder and director of Black Classic Press, which specializes in reprinting classic works of African-American scholarship and history, and the founder of BCP Digital Printing, one of the few African-American-owned POD publishers in the country, in addition to being the father of Ta-Nehisi Coates; Deborah Gershenowitz, senior commissioning editor of U.S. and Latin American history at Cambridge University Press; Ken Wissoker, editorial director, and Laura Sell, publicity and advertising manager, both at Duke University Press; Susan Donnelly, assistant director of sales and marketing director, and Joyce Seltzer, senior executive editor, both at Harvard University Press; Becky Brasington Clark, director of marketing and institutional outreach, Johns Hopkins University Press; J.D. Wilson, sales and marketing director at University of Alabama Press; Niels Hooper, executive editor at University of California Press; Mark Simpson-Vos, editorial director at University of North Carolina Press; Charles E. Rankin, associate director and editor-in-chief, and Dale Bennie, director of sales and marketing, both at University of Oklahoma Press; and John Donatich, director, Yale University Press.
Coates: Black Classic Press focuses on resources for black studies and teaching. We have the facility to generate the book—working on it with the author—and we can print the exact amount so it can be used in the classroom within days of completing the book. We’ve done this for 20 years.
Gershenowitz: As a university press that publishes some trade books but mainly academic titles, our Cambridge University Press audience tends to be aimed at the latter. But African-American history and related fields are taught at many undergraduate institutions, so I am always on the lookout for classroom-friendly books on the subject.
Sell: The Duke University Press audience is mostly academic. We hope the bookstore and other trade markets will persist but think course adoption will be the most profitable future. It’s important to us to reach the trade market when we can, but some of our biggest sellers are quite theoretical and will do fine without ever expanding out of the academic market, particularly those that are interdisciplinary.
Donnelly: In terms of percentage sales, few Harvard University Press frontlist titles sell entirely to an academic market. We often have the good fortune to publish books that are driven by ideas that are central to current debates and the public discourse at large. We receive a substantial amount of trade and mainstream review attention, and we actively present about two-thirds of each list as candidates for trade sales and attention. Sometimes even the monographs break out.
Clark: Like most of our books, the audience for Johns Hopkins University Press African-American-interest titles is a mix of academic and trade. We price and publish select titles to make them available and accessible to an audience of educated general readers beyond the academy. What’s interesting is that many of these general interest titles also work well in the classroom, so we often follow a hardcover trade edition with a paperback that can be assigned to students in courses.
Hooper: It is important for University of California Press to get appropriate African-American-interest titles into the trade market. We’ve published and marketed a number of such titles as trade books in recent years.
Simpson-Vos: University of North Carolina Press’s African-American-interest books are geared in large part to sit at the crossroads of scholarly and general audiences. But many of our authors are influential leaders and public intellectuals, and their work is by nature meant to inform wider conversations and debates. We work hard to position our books in the trade, tailoring our sales and publicity plans to ensure we maximize visibility for our authors.
Bennie: The University of Oklahoma Press’s African-American-interest titles are primarily academic and are often part of our Race and Culture in the American West series. But the occasional general interest book helps support our publishing program.
Donatich: It depends on the book, and over the years many Yale University Press titles have had significant crossover appeal as well.
Coates: Black Classic Press is primarily interested in nonfiction work—both obscure and new titles—that focuses on the history and condition of people of African descent. We are also excited about a partnership we have made with the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) to republish the more than 100 titles in their collection, which will nearly double our current list.
Gershenowitz: Cambridge University Press has an acclaimed backlist of books on the history of slavery in the Americas and in the world, and I’ve drawn on this to build my frontlist, as well as to think about new print and digital products that might be used in the classroom and in research libraries that focus on African-American history.
Wissoker: African-American research has been central to our Duke University Press list for decades, but it is even more important now. We are seeing a fantastic renaissance of black thought. There is a whole new generation of brilliant younger thinkers, with new ideas and approaches, that develop and play off of earlier writing while stretching in new directions. It’s a great moment.
Seltzer: African-American research in history and the social sciences has been critical to our Harvard University Press list over the last 20 years. Prior to the ’70s and ’80s, research in these areas was minimal. With the civil rights movement, scholars discovered the unmined past of black America and racial relations, and innovative and exciting research emerged and exploded. Now more long-term research studies on issues of economic inequality and injustice are finally being posed and grappled with.
Clark: As a press based in Baltimore, which has a large African-American population, we at the Johns Hopkins University Press are keenly aware of the myriad ways in which race affects the ability of our neighbors to get access to education, employment, and health care. Many of our books shed light on these issues and propose solutions to persistent problems. And we publish Callaloo, the premier journal of literature, art, and culture of the African diaspora.
Wilson: Many pivotal events in African-American history occurred in the state of Alabama, from slavery through the civil rights movement, and the University of Alabama Press feels a particular pride in, and responsibility for, publishing essential book-length histories in those areas. At the same time, our list in African-American literary studies has long been robust and continues to grow each season.
Hooper: Historically, the University of California Press has been a major player in African-American studies, as we publish the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers, the Marcus Garvey Papers, biographies of major African-American figures, and writings by African-American leaders. We have also published some of the leading lights in sociological studies of black communities.
Simpson-Vos: At UNC Press, publishing work on African-American history and culture is part of our DNA, going back to our founding in 1922 as one of the first university presses in the South. Research and writing on African-American subjects are absolutely critical to our trade and scholarly lists. All five full-time acquiring editors at UNC Press are signing books in the field.
Rankin: University of Oklahoma Press publishes heavily on the American West, arguably the most racially diverse region in the country. We have a highly successful series, titled Race and Culture in the American West. A majority of titles appearing in this series are related to African-Americans, though the series also includes work on Latin, Asian, and other ethnic minority groups.
Donatich: Yale University Press has published books in African-American studies for decades and across many disciplines. At one time or another, most every editor at Yale University Press has acquired a book in African-American studies, either squarely within or with some overlap in the category.
Coates: We primarily seek authors teaching at the university level who will use their work in the classroom. We seek referrals from our current authors and attend conferences such as the National Council for Black Studies, to identify new material.
Gershenowitz: [Our authors come] from networks that began over 20 years ago, in graduate school where I studied African-American history, which have continued to evolve over the course of my long career as an acquisitions editor. Authors have ranged from personal friends, to historians I meet at academic conferences and on campus visits to history departments, to historians who served as peer reviewers for manuscripts for me who later approached me with their own book projects.
Wissoker: We go to a wide range of academic conferences and meet with authors and potential authors there. The American Studies Association has been a notable place for African-American scholars, but other places, like the annual EMP Pop Conference in Seattle, are also productive. I give a lot of credit to the annual conference for Ford Foundation Fellows, which has brought together doctoral candidates and postdocs for over 50 years; I’ve met many scholars there that I might not have met elsewhere. A few come through agents, but a very small percentage. I’m an active learner from black journalism and Black Twitter.
Seltzer: First, finding the questions that I’d like to be able to answer and then looking for people who are doing research and writing that would bear on those issues.
Clark: We go to where those authors are—academic conferences, university departments, scholarly journals, and, increasingly, social media. We are looking for excellent, relevant, and timely scholarship. Race doesn’t factor into our selection process.
Simpson-Vos: Increasingly we are finding authors by participating in the social networks where scholars and writers in the field are discussing their ideas and passions. This is an area where Twitter has truly exploded as an acquisitions and networking platform. We also have a good network of agents who are regularly sending us proposals in this area.
Rankin: We are recognized for publishing in certain subject areas, and authors often come to us as a result.
The Business Models
Coates: There is no set number of titles we publish per year, because we’ll announce the book and then we’ll print it. We don’t focus on selling a million copies to everybody; we focus on selling to the markets that know us, know our titles, and continue to support us. If there’s back orders we’ll print to the back order. If it’s new, then we’ll print maybe 50 to send to black book distributors and bookstores. If I send 10, or 100, and you sell them real quick, you can come back to me. If a title matches our publishing focus, we look at how to make that title profitable for both the author and the press.
Gershenowitz: Editors are increasingly expected to bring in more revenue than in earlier eras. When I propose a book to the board, I include an estimate of how many copies I expect to sell. Ideally, this happens. Better yet, sales exceed the projected print run.
Wissoker: We have a good relation with Duke University and are supposed to break even. We publish 120 books per year and around 50 journals. The journals help support the full press structure so we can break even. The press director reports to the Duke provost (the chief academic officer of the university) and we have a faculty board that gives final approval for book publication following a rigorous review process. They’ve been very supportive. The university is more interested in the bottom line of the press as a whole—and the nice standout publicity successes that reflect well on the university—than the numbers on particular books.
Donnelly: Like many of our sister presses, we’re a department of the university. We are expected to share the university’s mission to provide education and scholarship of the highest level. Financially, we are expected to be self-sustaining. We are not subsidized by the university, nor are we expected to be a revenue producer. The university expects us to sell at least as many copies of our books per year to cover the costs of our operation. We are concerned to meet our annual sales forecast and cover our costs, but beyond that the concern with sales is the concern of meeting the market potential for the book.
Clark: The press is expected to be self-sustaining, and we are. We are governed by a university faculty board that focuses solely on the quality of the scholarship. Our sales goals are as aggressive as those of many trade and commercial publishers, and we’ve been successful in sustaining strong sales in a tough market.
Wilson: The press is a mission-driven publishing house, and our primary goal is to advance scholarship. We’re fortunate to enjoy the strong support of our university’s administration, operationally, fiscally, and in their belief in the value of our mission. Like many university presses, we are a nonprofit publisher, though we publish our titles with every expectation that they will generate revenue in line with industry standards. We’re proud to say that our sales have risen in the past two years in a challenging publishing environment.
Hooper: I believe that we are not expected to be a revenue producer for the University of California. But we are expected to be a viable business and cover our own expenses and any future growth. It has always been the case that the press was expected to cover its own costs—though this expectation has become firmer, and the small university subsidy that we do get has become a bit smaller in this time.
We also have a nonprofit press foundation that raises money for the press’s work. A core part of our mission as a university press is to publish groundbreaking research through scholarly monographs. The sales of these have dwindled over the years substantially as library budgets have shrunk and library sharing has grown; we do not expect significant sales of these titles. However we also publish books for the classroom and trade books, and we are very concerned with sales of these titles to cover the costs of our scholarly monograph publishing program.
Simpson-Vos: UNC Press is the publisher of the 17-campus University of North Carolina system, so our relationships extend beyond any one campus or its administration. We are largely (though not exclusively) sales supported, so we certainly are expected to generate positive revenue. We have a very strong foundation of support from the UNC system and from the state at large, and that’s been true for many years.
Like any publisher, we’re concerned with sales, but as a university press, we’re also aware that there are other metrics of a book’s impact, from prizes it may win to the ways it circulates through libraries into other scholarship to the way it’s used for teaching. At present we’re enjoying healthy sales, and this fall, several of our books in African-American studies are leading the way.
Rankin: We are expected to pay our own way. We have had the same university president for 20 years, and our relationship with the university administration has been uniformly good. Because we are self-supporting, we are always concerned with sales.
Donatich: Yale University Press is a unit of Yale University and is a not-for-profit entity. The press continues to have a mutually productive, supportive relationship with Yale University. Sales are always a priority for the press, both in terms of our operations and mission, which is the dissemination of knowledge.
Coates: If it’s a book with widespread potential, then we send it to PGW, our distributor to the trade. If it’s something we determine will do well in the black community, we use our three black distributors, who send them to selected black bookstores.
Gershenowitz: We decide in advance on the book’s core audience based on its content and writing, and then assiduously tailor everything from editing to pricing to production to marketing to its target market. We use galleys, social media—I don’t think our methods differ too much from other publishers.
Sell: We aim for trade publicity and work with the authors to do events and media. We make sure our reps know which books we think will cross over.
Clark: [We have] publicity-driven books that rely on reviews and off-the-books-page coverage. We invest a lot of time and effort into publicity. We distribute galleys, use freelance publicists, and pitch stories and op-eds.
Weston: Indicative of the importance of our trade market for African-American history titles, our trade marketing efforts sometimes center around African-American History Month and anniversaries like Langston Hughes’s birthday, Martin Luther King Day, or the 50th anniversary of the day Malcolm X was assassinated.
Simpson-Vos: We work hard to position our books in the trade, tailoring our sales and publicity plans to ensure we maximize visibility for our authors.
Bennie: [We use] Media review copies, social media, space advertising, robust metadata, wholesaler promotions, and our sales reps.
Donatich: We use every marketing tool available to us, including, but not limited to, media outreach, online marketing, direct mail, special sales, book clubs, academic conferences and literary festivals, educational and course adoptions, lecture programs, business and club outreach.
Donnelly: One of the best things we do is send a strong team of reps and publicists out into the world who are engaged and passionate about our books—and about the role of a university press in the world of ideas.
New and Forthcoming Titles Through Spring 2016
A. Igoni Barrett
(Graywolf, Mar. 2016)
In this much-anticipated comic novel, Barrett, author of the acclaimed story collection Love Is Power, or Something like That, tells the story a young Nigerian who awakes in his Lagos home to find he’s been transformed into a white man—except for his decidedly black ass.
The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter
(Seven Stories, Jan. 2016)
Starting in 1941 and moving into the 21st century, this first novel by Corthron, a celebrated playwright and TV writer, tells the story of two white brothers from rural Alabama and two black brothers from small-town Maryland, whose lives span the fierce social struggles over race, civil rights, and labor rights in America.
Ghost Summer: Stories
(Prime Books, out now).
In this debut collection of short fiction, Due, a master of speculative Afrofuturist fiction, offers a novella and 15 stories in which ghosts and shape shifters abound and mark the human capacity for monstrous transformation.
Leonard Pitts Jr.
(Agate/Bolden, out now)
In his second novel, the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist examines 40 years of race relations in the U.S. through a black newspaper columnist and his editor, whose lives are transformed by an incendiary column about the death of an unarmed black man killed by police.
(W.W. Norton, Jan. 2016).
Hill, author of the novel on which The Book of Negroes TV miniseries was based, has written a novel that examines the issues around statelessness and belonging; it’s focused on the story of a refugee, a competitive runner from the fictional African country of Zantoroland, and a black wheelchair-bound reporter on a mission to expose government corruption.
(St. Martin’s Press, out now).
A new novel from one half of the urban lit writing duo, Ashley and JaQuavis Coleman, Luxe centers on Bleu, a young coed who gets off the tough streets of Flint, Mi., via a scholarship to UCLA. But LA offers endless temptations and before long, the cars, clothes, booze, and drugs on campus begin to drag her on a path towards violence and addiction.
A Moment of Silence: Midnight III
(Atria/Bestler, out now)
The activist, hip-hop artist, and bestselling author returns to the character of Midnight, a black Sudanese Muslim transplanted to Brooklyn, as he continues his journey to manhood.
Possessed by Passion
(Kimani Romance, Feb. 2016)
Returning to her hometown of Phoenix to open her own firm, architect Hunter McKay finds herself mesmerized by the charms of her old high school flame, Tyson Steele, a surgeon and no-strings-attached bachelor.
(Kensington/Dafina, Feb. 2016)
In Swinson’s first hardcover release, the bestselling urban lit author spins a tale of street hustlers who turn to identity theft for their next big payday.
The System of Dante’s Hell and Tales
(Akashic, Jan. 2016)
Two long-out-of-print legendary works of fiction by the late poet, novelist, and activist Amiri Baraka. Originally published in 1965, 'The System of Dante’s Hell' is a novel structured around Dante’s themes of violence, fraud and treachery and presents a fragmented, hellish depiction of the reality of black life in America. The masterful short stories in 'Tales' were first published in 1967 and offer some of Baraka’s most perceptive and nuanced works of fiction.
America Dancing: From the Cakewalk to the Moonwalk
(Yale Univ., out now)
Pugh documents the cross-pollination of race, class, and culture in American dance beginning in the 19th century, marking the impact of black vernacular dance traditions on everything from ballet and Broadway to modern dance and Hollywood.
Arthur Ashe: Tennis and Justice in the Civil Rights Era
(John Hopkins Univ., March 2016).
A new biography of Ashe that documents how he worked to further Civil Rights while playing a country club sport in a segregated white world.
Becoming Beyoncé: The Untold Story
J. Randy Taraborrelli
(Grand Central, out now)
The first major biography of the superstar pop singer.
Better Git It in Your Soul: An Interpretive Biography of Charles Mingus
(Univ. of California, Feb. 2016)
Gabbard examines the musical career of one of the giants of Jazz, Charles Mingus, offering a look at the man beyond his sensationalized musical career and personal mythology.
Between the World and Me
(Random/Spiegel & Grau, out now)
Winner of the National Book Award for Nonfiction and a PW Best Book of the Year, Coates’s acclaimed and bestselling work is written in the form of a letter to his son, examining the dire consequences of the delusional American notion of race.
The Episodic Career: How to Thrive at Work in the Age of Disruption
(S&S/Atria, Jan. 2016)
Journalist Chideya takes a look at the radical changes in the American work economy, exploring the recent impact of longterm unemployment and globalization, while assessing the current achievability of the American dream.
The Invisibles: The Untold Story of African American Slaves in the White House
(Globe Pequot/Lyons Press, Jan. 2016)
Holland, a longtime correspondent covering the White House, documents the daily presence of African American slaves in the White House and their relationships with the President from the earliest days of the republic.
Negroland: A Memoir
Margo Jefferson (Pantheon)
A piercing and personal look at race, sex and achievement in American culture among the “privilege and plenty” of the African American social elite.
Not Straight, Not White: Black Gay Men from the March on Washington to the AIDS Crisis
(UNC Press, March 2016).
A history of black gay men from the 1950s to the 1990s that examines the lives of little known black gay activists as well as figures like James Baldwin and Bayard Rustin
Picturing Frederick Douglas: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American
Edited by John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd, and Celeste-Marie Bernier
(Norton/Liveright, out now)
The 160 photos collected in this book offer clear evidence that Douglas, the former slave, abolitionist and orator, was a pioneer in exploiting the social power of the emerging art form of photography.
Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis edited
(Univ. of California, out now).
A lifelong abstract painter and key figure in African American art history, Lewis (1909-1979) provided a link between the Harlem Renaissance and the Abstract Expressionism of the New York School. The book is the catalog for Lewis’ first museum retrospective, on display November 2015 to April 2016 at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia
The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition
(Yale, Feb. 2016).
A new history of the abolititonist movement that places it in an international context—with black uprisings and slave resistence driving the movement—linking the end of slavery to both the ongoing development of American democracy and global human rights.
Where Everybody Looks Like Me: At the Crossroads of America’s Black Colleges and Culture
(Amistad, out now).
Stodgill looks at the challenges facing HBCUs, historically black colleges and universities, once the backbone of the black middle-class, now threatened by funding cuts, right-wing political disdain, and the loss of the best black students to elite white universities.
(S&S/Gallery, out now)
William’s fifth book of poetry collects a range of vivid thoughts on race, class, gender, and freedom, filtered through hip-hop, pop culture, and living abroad.
First Man: Reimagining Matthew Henson
(Lerner Graphic Universe, out now)
Schwartz’s graphic novel mixes biography and fiction to examine the life of Matthew Henson, the first African-American explorer to visit the North Pole, in 1909.
Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph
Roxane Orgill with art by Francis Vallejo. (Candlewick, out now)
In 1958 on a street in Harlem filled with an amazing group of Jazz musicians, photographer Art Kane took what has since become a legendary photo. Orgill has written poems inspired by the photo, and set them alongside each of Vallejo’s gorgeous illustrations.
Little White Lies
Brianna Baker and F. Bowman Hastie III
(Soho Teen, Feb. 2016)
When Little White Lies, the popular Tumblr of black 17-year-old Coretta White, goes viral (she’s even offered a TV deal), she freaks out under the pressure of the notoriety and expectations. So she hires a 41-year-old white man to ghost write it for her. Hijinks ensue when the two are exposed.
Below, more on the subject of African-American publishing.African-American Interest Adult Titles, 2015-2016African-American Interest Young Reader's Titles, 2015–2016Chris Jackson: Acquiring Nonfiction on Race and Justice