Urban fiction publisher Crystal Lacey Winslow started out wanting to become a writer and ended up a publisher (and sometimes agent). In the late 1990s, Winslow was working as a legal assistant but her passion was writing. In 2000 she wrote and self-published her first novel, Life, Love & Happiness, the story of an entertainment industry diva who would do anything to succeed. The book went on to sell more than 80,000 copies, and a writer, as well as a publisher, was born.

Building on the success of her novel, in 2001 Winslow founded Melodrama Publishing, a house focused on urban fiction, a popular African-American—oriented category featuring dramatic stories about sex, money, crime and ghetto survival against all odds. Seven years later, Melodrama Publishing has a backlist of 19 titles, distribution through Ingram, a bestselling author and plans by Winslow to expand her publishing program into the true crime and self-help categories. Melodrama is based in East Patchogue, N.Y., and has a staff of about five, including Winslow, who has hired Dan Haldeman Associates to represent the house to the trade. Melodrama plans to publish eight new titles in 2008 and 10 in 2009.

“I just wanted to build a writing career,” said Winslow. “But the success of Life, Love & Happiness allowed me to move forward with a bigger plan.” In 2004 Winslow published Wifey, a novel by novice writer Kiki Swenson, the story of a woman living with a notorious drug dealer; it went on to sell more than 100,000 copies. Wifey has generated two sequels, I'm Still Wifey and Life After Wifey, and another is coming.

Since Wifey was published, Winslow has acted as Swenson's agent and negotiated three-book deal for her with Kensington. The first book in that deal will be released in August.

However, while urban fiction continues to be popular in African-American communities, the category has generated controversy. Some African-American writers and cultural critics claim that the category's excessive focus on stories about crime and sex stereotypes the black community and pushes other black titles off the shelves

“There are nay-sayers about urban fiction,” Winslow acknowledged, “but there were nay-sayers about rap, too—it's no different.” She noted that, like rap, urban fiction is moving beyond its original black readership. “I love James Patterson—a black person or a white person can read his books. Black books shouldn't be pigeonholed. We're getting our books in chains like Hastings, and when our books are in K-Mart and Walmart, then you'll really begin to see crossover.”