In light of the critical and commercial success of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s bestselling Between the World and Me, a book that combines the social insight of a nonfiction essay with the emotional power of a literary memoir, we took a look at other such titles aimed at the African-American-interest marketplace.
We found a rich variety of voices and thought on the black experience in America embodied in a trove of recently published and forthcoming books of essays and autobiographical writing. We went to the editors of these books to ask about the acquisition process, the range of issues these works address, and the market risk and commercial potential of both types of titles.
The books of essays we considered for this feature include The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race by Jesmyn Ward (Scribner, out now), which collects essays about race from important voices of a generation; Flyboy 2: The Greg Tate Reader by Greg Tate (Duke Univ., out now), which draws essays from 30 years of the musician and cultural critic’s work; Nobody: Casualties of America’s War on the Vulnerable, from Ferguson to Flint and Beyond by Marc Lamont Hill (Atria, out now), a look at how forces in America have worked to exploit black citizens; and, finally, The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling by Charles Johnson (Scribner, Dec.), essays on writing fiction by a beloved professor, novelist, MacArthur fellow, and National Book Award winner for fiction.
The works of memoir and autobiography we examined include The Louis Till File by John Edgar Wideman (Scribner, out now), which recalls the author’s personal research into the life of the father of Emmett Till, the victim of an infamous American injustice; The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl by Issa Rae (37 Ink, paperback reprint, out now), in which the author (who stars in HBO’s Insecure) pokes fun at herself for not being a “cool black person”; and Rest in Power: The Enduring Life of Trayvon Martin by Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin (Random/Spiegel & Grau, Jan. 2017), which reveals a parents’-eye view of a national tragedy—the murder of their son.
We spoke with the editors of these books, who over the course of our conversations frequently referred back to these titles in order to illustrate their experiences publishing within the essay and memoir categories.
Our interviewees were Kathryn Belden, executive editor at Scribner; Dawn Davis, v-p and publisher at 37 Ink; John Glynn, an associate editor at Scribner; Todd Hunter, an editor at Atria Books; Chris Jackson, publisher at One World and former executive editor at Spiegel & Grau; and Ken Wissoker, editorial director at Duke University Press.
Acquiring and publishing
Ken Wissoker: I had read Greg Tate’s Village Voice columns going back to the early ’80s. I admired his writing style: he had an unanticipated brilliance and made you think. His 1992 book, Fly Boy in the Buttermilk, had gone out of print, and we wanted to reprint it. Then Greg suggested, “What if I update it?” It took eight years—because he has a band, they record and travel a lot, he writes freelance—but it came out right on time. I could be more patient than a trade press could! I couldn’t be happier with the reception, which has been great.
Kathryn Belden: I have been fortunate to work with Jesmyn Ward on several books, and The Fire This Time is our third together. In this anthology there are some seriously gifted writers with dynamic and varied voices shouting out to the world. [The book is] something quite different for her, as it’s an anthology. The idea started with her agent, Jennifer Lyons, late in 2014, as I recall. This book grew out of a discussion, and the discussion took place because there was a need to pull the anthology together and because there was a good moment between Jesmyn’s original works. If I have a mission as an editor, it is to better understand and explore what it means to be American. The Fire This Time directly confronts one of the most insidious of American issues, racism, from many amazing perspectives and in many inspiring ways.
Dawn Davis: I loved Issa Rae’s voice and the Web series she created, Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, some of the themes of which are in her new HBO TV show, Insecure. I thought that she spoke for an underrepresented audience, for all the people who’ve had a complicated relationship with “coolness.” It didn’t hurt that I found her to be laugh-out-loud funny. I want to publish books that entertain, move, and/or inform you, and I want the list to be multicultural. Issa’s book checks a couple of those boxes. She’s not representing black culture so much. But in showing precisely that black [identity] comes in many forms, she’s doing one of the things I hope 37 Ink accomplishes.
Todd Hunter: I received Marc Lamont Hill’s book of essays, Nobody, on submission. I was eager to work with Marc; I knew of him as a respected academic before he was a TV personality. I knew Nobody would be one of the first books, if not the first book, from a major publisher that addressed the death of Michael Brown and the ensuing protests in Ferguson. Sadly, after Michael Brown’s death, there were other similar cases that made headlines: Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, and the [issues of race surrounding the] water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Suddenly there was a greater need to understand these very connected issues. Nobody is a text that is as easily consumed by the academic or policy maker as it is by the local shopkeeper or the parent who’s working nine to five.
John Glynn: The Way of the Writer was born from an earlier book, The Words and Wisdom of Charles Johnson, curated by poet and critic E. Ethelbert Miller. Miller asked Johnson more than 400 questions about every subject under the sun. But it was Johnson’s musings on the art and craft of storytelling that resonated with many readers of that book, and their reaction convinced Johnson that a writing guide could be culled from those pages.
Johnson has been teaching creative writing for over 30 years, he’s a national treasure, and this book can be seen as the coda to his boundary-shattering career. When Charles and his agent, Anne Borchardt, pitched this project to us, we leaped at the chance to acquire it.
Chris Jackson: Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin’s Rest in Power came to us through the agent Jan Miller. We met with the parents and were moved, of course, by their story, but also by their brave desire to share it, despite their lingering pain. Only the parents could tell the story here—we all watched the movement and trial unfold through the media, but got only a superficial take. The parents remind us that Trayvon wasn’t an icon or a symbol but an actual human, a child with struggles and dreams and gifts and two parents who loved him and who felt his loss like a hole in their hearts. What’s important for me is that it also points a way forward, not just rehearsing pain and suffering, but modeling how we can confront injustice, honor those we’ve lost, but also find consolation and meaning in the fight.
The Issues Addressed
KW: Greg Tate’s Flyboy 2 addresses the range of black cultural creativity. Also, he’s a senior male critic who is very sensitive to women’s contributions to black culture and who thinks those contributions are important. He looks at how the most popular hip-hop, R&B, and jazz all go together and reflects on being a black artist in today’s world. As a musician and writer, he advocates for a freer black creativity. He is the founder of the Black Rock Coalition and urges artists not to stay in the [stylistic] box they are assigned to. I think this book fits well with the works of [the late poet, novelist, essayist, and critic] Amiri Baraka—whom Greg knew and writes about often—and James Baldwin. Both wrote a lot about music and saw musical life as inseparable from black life, everyday black conversation, and black politics.
KB: One of the great gifts of Jesmyn Ward’s The Fire This Time anthology is that it touches on a lot of issues, from those most pressing in the national dialogue, such as police brutality, to exploring patterns in history, as well as more personal takes about family and artistic inspiration. But even the personal approaches have a political edge.
John Edgar Wideman [The Louis Till File] and Emmett Till were both aged 14 the summer Emmett was killed. Through a little-known historical footnote about Emmett Till’s father, Louis, who was executed by the U.S. Army during World War II, Wideman gives us a wise elder’s reflections on race and injustice, incarceration and familial love, memory and longing, and sorrow. He also looks at parallels between the Till family and his own.
DD: The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl isn’t an issues book. It’s a very funny, wry, fish-out-of-water story. If, in pop culture, black is equated with cool, how are you supposed to feel if you’re black and awkward? Her book explores the fun, myriad ways that can affect your development. And though it’s about her, she makes it universal. She is neither the stereotypical African-American nor the stereotypical African immigrant.
TH: Marc Lamont Hill’s Nobody looks at why some American citizens are routinely on the receiving end of state violence or state negligence. It examines how these citizens—largely black, brown, or poor—continue to exist outside of American prosperity and all of its supposed freedoms. The book humanizes them and attempts to show why their condition is largely a result of entrenched economic and social policies that have become commonplace, yet grossly exploitative.
JG: In The Way of the Writer, Johnson discusses the nuts and bolts of the writing craft and his “Writer’s Boot Camp,” an exercise that he made a part of the courses he taught at the University of Washington. [In the book] he touches on topics like close reading, the virtues of journalism, how to seek out mentors, and the psychological wounds that often inform writing. And there’s the philosophy of writing, where Johnson draws on such divergent sources as Buddha, Gardner, and Sartre.
CJ: Rest in Power does three things: it recaptures the lives of the Fulton/Martin family before Trayvon was killed; takes us on the journey of the parents from grief to leading a movement, all driven by their love for their child and their irrepressible need to find justice for his killing; and finally takes us through the drama of the trial and its aftermath—a devastating portrait of our legal system and how it treats black lives. But in the end, it’s still hopeful—the day after the trial they grieved but then kept up the work of making their son’s life matter through their foundation and activism. In some ways Rest in Power reminds me of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, which we also published. It takes some of the discussions we have about race and our criminal justice system and the violence in our society and it makes [them] intensely human.
KB: With Jesmyn [The Fire This Time], the risk seemed pretty minimal to me. At this point in her career, critics and readers are interested in what she’s producing, which is the result of Jesmyn’s hard work and singular talent. Second, we had an incredible crew of writers. Third, this is an issue worthy of much discussion, and it’s on people’s minds for all of the terrible reasons we know.
I suppose anthologies can be quiet on publication. That was a risk, but The Fire This Time hit the New York Times bestseller list because the essays and poems are so strong and because the critical community took it seriously. Thanks to the warm reception in hardcover, I imagine it will have a long life in paperback, especially through course adoptions.
John Wideman [The Louis Till File] is a known quantity, and has been acknowledged widely for his talents; this minimizes risk. But he’s also been around a few years and published a good number of books, some of which have been received better than others. There’s some sales risk in publishing any writer with a long publishing history. But when a book like this one crosses your desk, so creatively and intelligently executed and so moving, well, the artistic achievement trumps.
DD: The risk with publishing someone who’s popular in another format that is free, as Issa was on YouTube, is that her audience won’t want to pay for content.
JG: While The Way of the Writer is packed with concrete takeaways, it also offers a more profound examination of the craft. Charles Johnson would probably tell you that not everyone agrees with his philosophical approach to literature. But to me, his trademark blend of Eastern and Western philosophy is a fascinating and essential lens through which to explore fiction. Johnson shows us how fiction and philosophy are in constant dialogue.
KW: I’ve been really pleased with sales of Flyboy 2: The Greg Tate Reader. We’ve done a lot of books by music writers and this has jumped out faster than anything I remember. I’m not worried about sales—people still teach Flyboy in the Buttermilk. It’s not something that will just date itself. Anyway, we keep things in print forever!
KB: Essay collections [such as The Fire This Time] aren’t always easy to sell. For every successful essay collection—and we can name them all—there are dozens of collections behind it, quietly wilting in the marketplace. However, I do think the World Wide Web has created more opportunities for excellent long-form work. The Fire This Time hit the bestseller list and we went back to press several times, so it actually exceeded our expectations.
DD: As the publisher of the 37 Ink imprint, I have to be concerned about sales. For Issa Rae, essays were a natural extension of her Web series and allowed her to use wit to share autobiographical content. This is someone who is going to cultivate content for many years and across platforms, as she did with her new television show on HBO, Insecure. We want to support that. Her audience for the website tends to be millennials and beyond: hip, influencers in their own right. Absolutely, they matter.
TH: We put a lot of emphasis on publicity for Marc Hill’s Nobody, scheduling speaking opportunities for Marc, pushing for reviews, media coverage, getting the book in front of people however we could. I knew the substance was there and there was a sense that the book would continue to have sales success when it became a New York Times bestseller and received a solid New York Times review.
JG: Charles Johnson’s The Way of the Writer has already garnered much support from the academic community. We expect it to find a long life in the academic market, but we’re also publishing in paperback and hardcover simultaneously for the general reader. We see The Way of the Writer in the tradition of great books that blend memoir and craft—Stephen King’s On Writing and Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. And it comes from a towering figure in American literature.
CJ: From the time we acquired Rest in Power, our primary interest was never that it simply be a bestseller. We had other criteria for success: Does it honor the story? Will it help people understand and make sense of the larger movement? Will it give comfort to others who have lost people through violence and racism, in death or in incarceration? Can we come up with a publicity and marketing campaign that isn’t crass but honors the spirit of Trayvon and the movement? I think if we can do all of those things, the sales performance will take care of itself—and the reads we’ve gotten in-house have been phenomenal and the publicity lineup is already incredible, so I think the sales will come.
Below, more on the subject of African-American publishing.