Langston Hughes received one of the earliest book deals in publishing. Carl Van Vechten, a novelist (Nigger Heaven) who was primarily known for his photography, introduced Hughes’s work to Blanche Knopf in the 1920s. She also helped Nella Larsen, who is best known for the novel, Passing, get a book deal, practically launching the Harlem Renaissance, as Blanche was one of the few women in publishing—before women were commonly being published.
In 1945, Richard Wright’s Black Boy was the first book by a Black writer to make the New York Times bestseller list. Interestingly, he would become known for criticizing Zora Neale Hurston, one of the most prolific authors of the time and whose work clearly indicated that she loved Black people and Blackness.
In the late 1950s, at Doubleday, Charles F. Harris was the first Black editor in trade book publishing. Other Black people who came after him included Marie Brown, hired by Doubleday in 1967, who had formerly worked in the Philadelphia School District’s Office of Intergroup Education. In the 1970s came Phil Petrie; Lawrence Jordan, currently a literary agent; and the legendary Toni Morrison. What’s important to note is that the early Black publishing professionals were hired on their own authority. Often they were recruited from academia, had a teaching background, and strong connections to historically Black colleges and universities, or HBCUs.
During this period, independent Black-owned presses emerged such as Johnson Publishing; Black Classic Press, launched by Paul Coates; and Third World Press, founded by Haki Madhubuti. These presses published Dr. Frances Cress Welsing, Lerone Bennett Jr., and poets Sonia Sanchez and Gwendolyn Brooks—literary voices that are still widely read today.
In the 1980s Harris created Amistad Press, now the oldest Black imprint in trade publishing at 36 years old and housed at HarperCollins. Its initial funders were Warner Books, tennis legend Arthur Ashe, and Essence magazine. Later, the Essence bestseller list and the Black Expressions Book Club were key to informing readers about books by Black authors. The Hurston/Wright Foundation literary awards were established to recognize the work of Black authors who were often overlooked for award consideration. Walter Mosley was instrumental in collaborating with City College of New York’s Publishing Institute to establish a program to provide training and exposure for those interested in pursuing publishing as a career. This program was preceded by Howard University Press’s Publishing Program as an alternative to the Radcliffe and Columbia University publishing programs.
In the 1980s, spoken word poets created an important literary movement. Venues such as the Nuyorican Poets Café were where editors found such authors as a Sapphire or Willie Perdomo.
In the 1990s, the Black authors who made the bestseller list were Bill Cosby, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Arthur Ashe, Diana Ross, Maya Angelou, Dennis Rodman, Christopher Darden, Michael Jordan, Patti LaBelle, Terry McMillan, and a few others.
In that decade, something happened that had never occurred before in publishing. There were four Black women on the bestseller list at the same time—Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, and someone the publishing universe did not see coming, Terry McMillan. Black people interested in publishing, as well as readers, expected Terry to make the bestseller list with her greatly anticipated third novel, Waiting to Exhale. Terry was writing contemporary, commercial relationship stories, something that at the time was not common in the Black literary space. Trade publishers jumped on the bandwagon and attempted to publish into this niche; the result launched such careers as those for Bebe Moore Campbell, Connie Briscoe, Tina McElroy Ansa; publishers had already “launched” Diane McKinney-Whetstone, April Sinclair, and more. These authors sold quite well, and without having to put much marketing money behind them, as word of mouth was strong and they were well supported by publications such as Essence and book clubs including Black Expressions and the first national book club, Go On Girl.
In 1994 the Black publishing market was taken to a whole other place when E. Lynn Harris came on the scene with Invisible Life. E. Lynn had self-published his book and was selling thousands of copies out of the trunk of his car, while traveling across the nation to beauty salons and churches. He also tapped the sorority and fraternity marketplace. Meeting readers in the locations they most frequented, he broadened the audience of Black readers to include, as E. Lynn once described them, “soap opera watchers.”
Black books were moving, and many people wanted to get into the action. The Harlem Book Fair was established in 1998 by Max Rodriguez to showcase both new and established writers.
I’m a Harlem resident, and it seemed as if overnight there were tables lined up along 125th Street, avenue after avenue, featuring remaindered books. Initially, the vendors sold them for $7. It was free advertising of new and classic titles to everyone who walked by, including tourists who could return home and share a new title with friends. Later the vendors began selling self-published titles, for which they could charge more. Some of the vendors also had their own self-publishing services. Because of E. Lynn Harris’s success, self-publishing was becoming a popular option.
Fiction, primarily by Black women, and celebrity books were strong sellers. At the same time, the market took another shift. Scholars who had been publishing with university presses and smaller presses sought mainstream publishers. This produced popular books by the likes of bell hooks, Cornel West, Henry Louis Gates, and more. In another turn, those who loved Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown and The Autobiography of Malcolm X were increasingly interested in memoirs by Black men and made Makes Me Want to Holler by Nathan McCall an appealing bestseller.
In the background, still in the ’90s, future literary powerhouses were at their desks writing their first books. They included Jacqueline Woodson’s Autobiography of a Family Photo, Paul Beatty’s White Boy Shuffle, and Sapphire’s Push.
Lightning struck publishing when Oprah launched her book club in 1996. She featured Black authors such as Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Ernest Gaines, and Sidney Poitier, who were long overdue for their shine. She elevated the visibility of writers and helped to establish the careers of Breena Clarke, Pearl Cleage, Lalita Tademy, and Edwidge Danticat.
1997 opened with the eagerly anticipated Gone Fishin’ by Walter Mosley. Most will remember that Bill Clinton claimed Walter as one of his favorite authors, and his sales skyrocketed, with movie deals following. At the height of his success, in an exceptional move, he chose to publish with Black Classic Press.
Also in 1997, there were 14 Black people in all of publishing’s editorial departments, from editorial assistant to editorial director. This was the highest number until today, when we have 25. The leader back then was legendary editor Cheryl Woodruff, who created One World, an imprint that publisher Chris Jackson resurrected in 2016 to incomparable success. Woodruff was the elder publisher for Blacks in publishing and along with Marie Brown mentored many of us. A great many of the books that she acquired are still in print today such as Sacred Woman by Queen Afua, which has since its publication more than 20 years ago been a perennial bestseller.
That year, the Black books that were considered “Notable Books of the Year” by the New York Times were Dorothy Dandridge by Donald Bogle, Jackie Robinson by Arnold Rampersad, and My Brother by Jamaica Kincaid. At Henry Holt, I published Still Life in Harlem by Eddy L. Harris, which was also on that list. Then an assistant editor, I remember the publisher bringing me the newspaper. She was surprised when I began to moan: “Oh, no, this means it won’t sell!” This was back in the day when Blacks inside publishing believed, if the New York Times gave a Black book a stamp of approval, it meant that the everyday Black person would not even find it remotely interesting. This changed in 2016. The New York Times started selecting titles to feature that were also important to Black people—not what white people think are interesting to us.
In 1997, mainstream bestseller lists included Harry Potter, Memoirs of a Geisha, The Four Agreements, God of Small Things, and Book by Whoopi Goldberg. Black people read many of those titles, but were also reading Terry McMillan, E. Lynn Harris, Teri Woods, Eric Jerome Dickey, and Carl Weber.
Max Rodriguez launched QBR: The Black Review in 1992, and a few years later followed up this effort with the Harlem Book Fair. Then in 1999 came Black Issues Book Review, founded by Susan McHenry, William Cox, and Adrienne Ingrum, as a quarterly publication featuring thoughtful book reviews of Black literature. This was a first, as other Black publications were primarily doing summaries of jacket copy rather than assessments of content. In 2005, the publications merged, with QBR ceasing print publication and concentrating on managing the Harlem Book Fair.
In 2005, Sister Souljah’s The Coldest Winter Ever was published by Emily Bestler, at Pocket Books. This was another huge milestone. It changed everything. People who felt like they had never seen themselves in a book, those who had never read a book, were clamoring for it. The initial print run was 30,000 copies, which was probably huge for a Black debut novel at that time, but I remember knowing in my gut, and by my goose bumps response to the book that it would not be nearly enough. She went on to sell more than one million copies.
Souljah’s success inspired a whole other wave of self-publishing. The content went from love stories to street lit. Although Sister Souljah has been identified as inspiring street lit, she does not write street lit. Mainstream publishing jumped on the urban fiction bandwagon, but did not have the greatest results, except those books from Black editorial director Monique Patterson, who published hugely successful authors such as K’wan and Ashley and Jacquavius, and from Malaika Adero, for publishing Shannon Holmes and Vickie Stringer.
By 2001, there were seven Black people in editorial, reduced from 14—the industry’s response to a downturn in the economy. As a result, there were fewer books published by Black writers. And the editors who remained whispered to each other that it was difficult to get books through the acquisitions process.
Then came Zane, who was self-publishing and marketing through the internet to the tune of 50,000 copies. A far cry from E. Lynn Harris, who had sold 5,000 copies of his self-published Invisible Life before he secured a book deal at Doubleday. I acquired Zane’s Addicted, which has sold more than two million copies.
The next year, the African American Literary Book Club (AALBC.com), an online newsletter, debuted with a list of the Black editors in publishing, celebrating our presence and accomplishments. It was the first collective recognition of the importance of the work we were doing, the history we were unaware we were making. Troy Johnson, founder, and book lover, worked for Goldman Sachs while developing the online platform. This operation, which added visibility to the efforts of Black editors, has gone on to become a popular online bookseller today.
Next came the National Book Club Conference, founded by Curtis Bunn of Atlanta. I recall attending one year, ending up standing next to Wendy Williams and asking, “Who is that?” I remember having dinner with Cornel West and Walter Mosley. Attendees could meet and get close to the writers.
Over the next several years Tyler Perry, Barack Obama, Ishmael Beah, Jay-Z, and Steve Harvey were prominent on the bestseller lists. The biggest highlight was Edward P. Jones winning the Pulitzer Prize for The Known World, edited by Dawn Davis.
Two key events took place in 2012—the murder of Trayvon Martin, and the publication of the million-copy seller The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, with the assistance of the New Press’s Tara Grove. Publishing was not exempt from the outpouring of support for Trayvon and his family, and it ushered in the Black Lives Matter Movement and a wave of social justice books.
The issue of unjust mass incarceration and unjust death row sentencing was addressed in Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, which became a long-running bestseller. Other bestsellers were Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me and Ibram X. Kendi’s National Book Award–winning Stamped from the Beginning.
Let’s not forget When They Call You a Terrorist by BLM founder Patrisse Khan-Cullors. When the proposal was on submission, publishers were debating if it would sell, rather than recognizing that it was an important book to be in print regardless, as it was documenting the emphasis for a historic movement.
When Michelle Obama’s proposal was in circulation, I heard that white editors were concerned, even though they used the word, “surprised,” that being a Black woman would be central to her book. They wondered how big the book could be with this slant.
Around this time, I counted 16 books by Black authors on the New York Times bestseller list—fiction, nonfiction, and children’s combined. That was the first time in history something like that had happened.
Fast forward to 2020 and the murder of George Floyd. This tragedy woke up the world and woke up publishing. Publishers created DE&I positions, hosted town halls, and issued press releases in support of BLM and a commitment to inclusion. And Black authors and social justice and antiracist books began to saturate the New York Times bestseller list. Publishers hired more people of color, particularly in senior editorial positions, something that was rare in the past. It’s encouraging to see the talented Retha Powers (Henry Holt), Janet Hill Talbert (HarperCollins Christian), Melody Guy (Hay House), Krishan Trotman (Legacy Lit), Selena James, and Shannon Criss return to publishing. To name a few other exciting additions, Lisa Lucas, publisher of Pantheon and former executive director of the National Book Foundation; Jamia Wilson, executive editor at Ballantine, after leading the Feminist Press; executive editor Patrik Henry Bass and senior editor Jennifer Baker at Amistad; Adenike Olanrewaju (HarperCollins); and Rakia Clark (Mariner). In children’s books there’s Andrea Davis Pinkney (Scholastic), Stacey Barney (PRH), and Luana Horry (HarperCollins).
• In addition to hiring even more people of color, what else can publishers do to increase equity in publishing? Don’t worry about hiring too many editors of color. We’re all different and have different tastes. Trust that Black editors are more familiar with what other Black people want to read, and give them the freedom to publish as they see fit, as well as to make mistakes. Don’t assume that all Black editors like every Black submission and can’t discern quality and the project’s potential place in the Black canon. Yes, we believe and know that there are books that can and have thrived without a white audience. We are also encouraged to know that young people are being exposed to Black literature in schools and are hopeful they will continue to read similar works throughout their lives.
• Grant Black editors more autonomy and less scrutiny regarding acquisitions. If you look at other forms of entertainment—television/film, sports, music—you will notice that being Black curated has generated many success stories and great profitability. They include Shonda Rhimes, Lena Waithe, Jordan Peele, Kenya Barris, in television/film; LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Colin Kaepernick, in sports; and Dr. Dre, Jay-Z, Nipsy Hussle, in music. See Chris Jackson’s success.
• There’s plenty to go around. Black publishing will continue to grow and innovate, as second- and third-generation academics and creatives are offered opportunities to publish prior to being “discovered.” This guarantees content, writers, and a bright, plentiful publishing future. As conveyed in this article, Black publishing is always evolving.
In the early days of the racial reckoning, I started #BlackOutBestsellerList to show the book purchasing power of Black people, as well as our enthusiasm for reading. My intention was to remind the industry that it was good business to publish Black voices, not because you’re feeling some guilt today. There’s a large audience of Black book purchasers, and that will continue to grow as we provide content that reflects their sensibilities. Black publishing has a rich story. We have made invaluable contributions to the industry—monetary, discourse, and otherwise.
Tracy Sherrod is a former v-p and editorial director of Amistad.
Correction: The publishing house where Rakia Clark works was incorrectly noted in an earlier version of this story.