Every day for months, Heru Ptah would board the subway near his Brooklyn, N.Y., home, lugging 50 copies of his self-published debut novel, A Hip Hop Story. When the train doors slid shut, he started working, pitching his book to the captive audience. He'd ride for hours, for as long as it took to sell all 50 copies at $10 each.
"You do the main, big pitch, then you go individually to each person," Ptah explained, re-enacting a spiel built on boasts like, "You see me here today, tomorrow you see me on Oprah." He sold 9,000 copies that way, he said.
Then, one evening at around 10 p.m., the 23-year-old Jamaica-born writer stepped into the train car in which Jacob Hoye, MTV's director of publishing, happened to be riding. "I was actually reading a manuscript and I just started watching him. It was clear he had a kind of charisma about him," said Hoye. "He was just working the train, being friendly with the men and flirtatious with the women."
Hoye handed Ptah $10, stayed up all night reading his book, and knew by sunrise he wanted to publish it. On October 7, MTV Books, an imprint of Pocket Books, will publish the novel as a trade paperback original, with a first printing of 20,000 copies. It will be the imprint's first novel by a black author. Perhaps as significant for a publisher that's trying to appeal to the same audience that tunes in to MTV, it will be also its first novel focused on the world of hip hop.
The phrase "hip hop fiction" has been around for a while. But it's typically used as a synonym for gritty novels about life on the street, often written by black ex-cons, in which hip-hop music plays only a peripheral role. Ptah's book represents what some see as a nascent subgenre of this category—novels that focus explicitly on the music: its artists, its fans, the business.
Ptah's novel revolves around the rivalry of two up-and-coming rappers, with a West Side Story—inspired romance as a subplot. It is not alone. This fall, Akashic Books is publishing Phat Death, a paperback original mystery by Norman Kelley, set in the hip-hop milieu. Next year, Miramax will publish Bling, a debut novel by Erica Kennedy that focuses on a hip-hop mogul and his protégé and will be published in hardcover. And in fall 2004, Crown will publish a novel by Adam Mansbach titled The Blackest White Boy in the World, which centers on a white suburban boy whose political views are shaped by listening to the music. "It's hip hop as a radicalizing force," said Mansbach. Given that there's a generation of publishers and writers who have grown up listening to hip hop, and rappers have attained wide, mainstream appeal, it seems surprising that there hasn't been a corresponding boom in novels infused with the music until now. Some blame a bias among mainstream publishers. "People think, 'kids these days, they just watch MTV; they're not interested in reading.' " said Johnny Temple, publisher and editor-in-chief of Akashic.
Others say it's only a matter of time. "Hip hop has evolved in so many different directions," said Carl Weber, editorial director of Urban Books. "Look at Fresh Prince [Will Smith]—everyone goes to see his movies. It's really part of American society, so we're going to end up reading about it."
Temple agrees hip-hop literature will take off in the next few years. "When hip hop started, everyone thought it was a flash in the pan," said Temple. "Now it's 20 years later, and it's almost as popular as rock 'n' roll. I would say the same thing could happen with the hip-hop novel."
The danger—as always—is that publishers will end up churning out imitations of whatever hip-hop—inspired novel makes it biggest fastest. That would be missing the rich literary potential of the music, said Phat Death author Kelley. At 49, Kelley is too old to be part of the "hip-hop generation." But he chose the hip-hop industry for the setting of his latest novel because he's fascinated by its political and sociological relevance. "At this point, it's the most dynamic form of music in the United States, if not the world," Kelley said. "If I had written my novel during the 1960s, I would have written it about soul music."
With A Hip Hop Story, S&S is aiming straight at the MTV audience, placing ads in the new MTV magazine, which is launching this fall, and on the network's recently acquired college cable network. Ptah will also do a satellite tour of MTV's college radio stations, as well as several bookstore readings in New York City during September and October.
It's hard to imagine a better choice than Ptah to stoke interest in hip-hop fiction. He's young, good looking, articulate—and just as hungry as when he was riding through the boroughs with a bag of books to unload.
"I'm a hustler, so when this book comes out, I'm still going to be all over the place promoting, getting the word out and making sure everybody's reading it," said Ptah. "That's my dream: to get on the subway and see everybody reading it."