Known best for writing a string of successful novels for the African-American commercial women's fiction market, Carl Weber is part of that small group of author/entrepreneurs who just can't get enough of the book business.
He writes, he publishes, he sells, juggling interests that simultaneously complement each other and compete for his time. Eventually, something will have to give, and Weber expects in a few years he'll stop writing to concentrate on his businesses. For now, though, this trained accountant with an MBA and a talent for storytelling is running hard on all three tracks.
With plans this year to more than double the output of Urban Books, the publishing company he started in 2002, and to add an additional six locations to the small chain of bookstores he started building last year, he's also packing for a month-long tour to promote his latest novel from Kensington's Dafina imprint, So You Call Yourself a Man. "The main reasons I am still writing is that the fans really, really want it, and it's good for business that the guy that's running the bookstores and publishing company is a bestselling author," he says.
Weber, 39, has always known he wanted to be his own boss—he once aspired to own five McDonald's restaurants—and his writing career actually stemmed from his work as an entrepreneur. While he never realized his fast-food dreams, he did make a career owning and running bookstores. There, the self-described "regular guy from Queens" discerned a hunger among African-American readers for books that reflect the lives of ordinary, working people. "I don't write books where everyone in it is a millionaire. I'm sure there are a lot of African-American millionaires out there, I just don't know any," he says.
Weber mines his stories about the relationships among friends, lovers and family members from the lives of the people around him. "When I write about friendship, I'm writing a lot about me and my boys," he admits. For Married Men, he drew on his experiences with his four best friends; Player Haters was based on a relative.
Since his debut, which also marked the launch of Dafina in 2000, Weber has published six books with the imprint, steadily building an audience made up primarily of African-American women. All of his novels have been Essence bestsellers. The most recent, The Preacher's Son, debuted at #1 on the Essence bestseller list and hit the New York Times extended list.
His new book centers on the sort of fraught situation, borrowed from real life, typically found in a Carl Weber novel: "A woman told a friend of mine that he had a child, years after the fact. He was happily married and had forgotten about this woman. What does he do? For about three years he didn't tell his wife."
So You Call Yourself a Manis a follow-up to an earlier novel. "After I wrote Player Haters, a lot of people e-mailed me to tell me I left them hanging because I didn't reveal the father of Michelle's baby." In this latest saga, he ties up that mystery, but lets loose plenty of other complications. He delves into the messy lives of three married men and explores friendship from a male point of view, a perspective that Weber believes is rare in African-American fiction. "Male friendships are a lot different, we don't go deep into each other's business, we're a little more secretive, but at the same time we think we know each other." The book also tackles abusive relationships and homosexuality, new territory for the author.
Despite the strong themes of church and family and friendship that define his books, Weber says he's had to deal with false assumptions about his work. "In the beginning, people tried to slot me as a street writer, especially some readers of literary fiction." Street fiction— gritty dramas, usually filled with sex and violence, that reveal the ugly side of urban life—is not what Weber aims to write. Nor is it exactly what he wants to publish at Urban Books. "We're more of what I call tweeners, settling between street books and commercial fiction," he says. Weber asserts that the street fiction trend that only recently looked so promising is already on the decline. "Big publishers paid too much for many of their urban books," he says. "They figured it was like anything else, and they thought they could transition a trade paperback street book into a hardcover. It hasn't worked."
Weber is a numbers man—with an MBA in marketing—who thinks he's figured out the right formula for expanding his publishing company. He launched Urban Books in the basement of his home. He moved his family to a bigger house with a bigger basement, only to outgrow that as well. The company now has offices in Wheatley Heights, on N.Y.'s Long Island, and he figures that his staff of 10 will need more room soon. Having published 28 books in 2005, Weber expects to release about 60 this year. The house recently started two new imprints: Urban Mass, which will release mass market originals and reprints, and Urban Soul, which will publish trade paperback women's fiction.
Meanwhile, he's also expanding his retailing business. After selling his three bookstores a year and a half ago (Black Facts I in Brooklyn and Black Facts II in Queens, N.Y., and Horizon books in Newark, N.J.), Weber began building a new bookselling chain, Urban Knowledge. The first store opened a year ago in Baltimore, Md. Other locations include Owings Mills, Md; Memphis, Tenn,; Newark, N.J.; Springfield, Va.; and Delaware. He expects to open an additional six stores in 2006. Every store manager is also a co-owner with a profit-sharing stake in the store. Weber believes this combines the best of both worlds: mom-and-pop service with corporate backing.
When Weber talks about the future, the role he foresees for himself is not a writer hunched over a keyboard—and certainly not a regular guy trying to make a living. He's a businessman confidently presiding over a nationwide chain of bookstores and the largest African-American publishing company in the U.S. No wonder, then, that while he says he's still got stories left to tell, he doesn't plan to keep churning out novels at the pace of about one a year.
That's likely to disappoint Weber's fans, who relate so strongly to his books that they sometimes confuse the author with the romantic protagonists of his books—both the good guys and the bad boys. "I've had more invitations to get married and to sleep with women than you would ever want to believe," says the happily married family man. One woman even followed him home to Long Island from a book signing in New Jersey just to get out of her car and introduce herself. But Weber the entrepreneur hasn't quite eclipsed Weber the writer yet. Fans and would-be stalkers will get at least one more chance to meet him when he embarks this month on a 20-city cross-country book tour.