Five years ago hip-hop books didn't take up much shelf space in most bookstores. The perception among publishers was that books about rappers, and rap itself, couldn't sell, but that's no longer the case. In the past year, nearly a dozen books about hip-hop, from bestselling memoirs by big-name artists to serious-minded historical examinations of the musical form, have hit shelves. The publishers behind these books say the change is a testament to a shift in both the culture at large and the industry's realization that people who listen to hip-hop can, and will, buy books.

Although it's impossible to pinpoint exactly when trade houses began taking hip-hop seriously, Da Capo senior editor Ben Schafer believes a string of successful books about Tupac Shakur (from bios like Basic Civitas's 2002 Holler if You Hear Me by Michael Eric Dyson to collections of the rapper's prose) helped establish the notion that hip-hop books were marketable. Schafer, who's editing Third Coast: OutKast, Timbaland and the Rise of Dirty South Hip Hop (scheduled to bow in August 2006 with a 30,000-copy printing), said he thinks the trend has something to do with timing and a desire for fresh music books. "Hip-hop is now over 20 years old... and rock 'n' roll has been documented ad nauseam." That the kids who grew up listening to Run-DMC and watching Yo! MTV Raps are now in their more book-buying late 20s and early 30s also helped persuade publishers to try the market.

This set of readers, presumably ready for literate books that tell the story behind hip-hop while also placing the music in a larger political and socioeconomic context, is one publishers are now addressing. From the critically well-received St. Martin's February 2005 title by Jeff Chang, Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation (currently with 40,000 copies in print and recently voted Best Music Book of 2005 by New York magazine) to more recent titles like Knopf's November Triksta: Life and Death and New Orleans Rap by Nik Cohn and Amistad's October 2005 Raising Hell: The Reign, Ruin and Redemption of Run-DMC and Jam Master Jay by Ronin Ro,there is now plenty of room for literary journalistic books about hip-hop and its effect on culture. Craig Pyette, an editor for Random House Canada, certainly has high literary aspirations for Enter the Babylon System by Rodrigo Bascunan and Christian Pearce. The book, which will be released January 2007 in Canada (no U.S. publisher yet), documents the history of the gun from a hip-hop perspective. Pyette likens it to Naomi Klein's 2002 deconstruction of our brand-driven culture, No Logo. And, like Schafer, Pyette sees his potential audience as 20- and 30-somethings who "represent the maturation of the hip-hop generation... and are ready for journalistic voices to represent their perspective"; they're also, in his opinion, "a target group to buy a hardcover book."

Sloane Crosley, a senior publicist at Vintage/Anchor Books who is currently promoting the Anchor paperback original Queens Reigns Supreme: Fat Cat, 50 Cent, and the Rise of the Hip Hop Hustler, penned by New York magazine writer Ethan Brown,is casting a wider net for her title. Crosley said the marketing efforts for the book, which debuted on December 6 with 50,000 copies, have been aimed at "two fairly disparate audiences simultaneously: younger hip-hop fans—those who know that a G-Unit [the name of 50 Cent's posse] isn't a chemistry term or a hospital wing—and the more established book-buying consumer." With that in mind, Crosley looked to tap the former group first through pieces in the New York Post's gossip column, along with coverage in hip-hop blogs and hip-hop—centric magazines like Don Diva and XXL. The initial press, said Crosley, gave Brown's book "a little street cred" and made it easier to get bites from more familiar book outlets like NPR, the Wall Street Journal and Esquire.

Lauren McKenna, a senior editor at Pocket/MTV Books, which published 50 Cent's bestselling memoir From Pieces to Weight in August and recently launched a street fiction line with the superstar rapper, said the literary dam has broken on hip-hop because the music itself has become undeniably mainstream. While hip-hop books have been around for a while, McKenna said, "only now are the major chains and accounts understanding the buying potential of these customers." Hip-hop, she noted, "is a relatively new brand of music, so only now are we seeing its repercussions in the book world."