It’s hard out here for authors these days. You really can’t be just an author. In order to support yourself—because, let’s be honest, most book advances only go so far—you have to be writer, teaching artist, lecturer, hustler, marketing guru, business owner and grant junkie. And when you do get a chance to write, you’re distracted by the headlines screaming that the traditional book world is going to hell and the chilling reality that many black writers are still left out in the cold. As Kurtis Blow mused, these are the breaks?
But wallowing doesn’t feed burdened writers. Hence, this new book column. You can say it’s a way for The Root to level the playing field a little. To break it up, break it up, break it up. To shine light on the great writers doing great work, and in the process, help them gain more readers. To discuss the issues within publishing—the good, the bad and the ugly. To uplift books to their deserved prominent place in our society and collective psyche.
So to get this party started, I thought a little fantasizing was in order. Again, with the help of Kurtis Blow, I contemplated, what if, authors in the struggle ruled the literary world? I asked a diverse group of writer folk to tell me: How would things be different?
Author and media personality Abiola Abram’s first book, Dare, is a hip-hop-inspired retelling of “Faust.” It didn’t take her long to realize that selling books requires savvy, which she exemplifies in a multitude of ways on Planet Abiola, her talk-variety show.
Abram’s dreams: If I ruled the literary world, parents would quote Baldwin, Hansberry, Angelou and Morrison on a daily basis to their children. Artists would be supported emotionally by their communities and regarded just as valuable as lawyers and bankers. Hip-hop would be a non-commodified art form that would have an even stronger literary presence. So what should we do tomorrow? Same thing we should try to do every day. Try to take over the world.
Carleen Brice recently released her first novel Orange Mint and Honey and is also heading a crusade to get white readers acquainted with black writers beyond Morrison and Mosley through her blog “White Readers Meet Black Authors.” Check for her forthcoming book, Children of the Waters, this July.
Brice envisions: If I ruled the literary world, the African-American fiction section of bookstores would smell like cookies. Every time someone entered the section, confetti would fall, angels would sing and champagne punch would flow like a river. And everybody who bought a novel by a black author would get a kiss on the cheek or a handshake from Barack Obama.
Christopher Chambers, the co-editor of The Darker Mask and author of the Angela Bivens mysteries, is a writer who doesn’t bite his tongue on his in-your-face blog Nat Turner’s Revenge, especially when the topic is publishing. The Georgetown professor’s novel Yella Patsy’s Boys drops next year.
Originally a self-published author, Troy CLE used an alias to act as his own publicist—a ploy that led him to generate enough buzz to land two major publishing deals. Simon & Schuster published The Marvelous Effect, book one of the Marvelous World Saga, and will release the second book, Olivion’s Favorites, this fall.
CLE’s thoughts for a brave, new literary world: Books would have larger marketing budgets and authors would know how to push themselves forward as celebrities. Agents would not be so out of touch. Authors would be able to develop better strategies to build their platforms, so they would have better traction within the press. I don't rule the literary world, but I rule the Marvelous World, and I am working on some of that.
Wendy Coakley-Thompson is the author of three novels, including the most recent Triptych, which she decided to release herself after working with a traditional publisher for her previous books. As the former co-host of The Book Squad, she knows a thing or two about the need for authors to have spaces to talk about their work.
Wendy’s words: If I ruled the world, I would respect and support mid-list authors and help them to build their writing careers over time. I would revamp the royalty system so that it is fair, dispenses payments in a more timely fashion and gives a transparent accounting of authors’ earnings. In my world, editors would work in-house at least five days a week—even during the summer. In my world, editors would return or appropriately delegate their authors’ telephone calls and e-mails in a timely fashion. If I ruled the world, I would not bow to fads, but instead create an assessable and sustainable model for success. I would also lessen the focus on genres. Lastly, if I ruled the world, I would dismantle one of the last bastions of acceptable racism—that infernal African-American section in bookstores.
Spelman professor William Jelani Cobb wrote To the Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the Hip Hop Aesthetic and The Devil & Dave Chappelle and Other Essays—which were released just months from one another. Not easy. Check for his forthcoming book, Change Has Come: The End of the Civil Rights Movement and the New Black America, this winter.
Cobb reveals: If I ruled the world, I would make books matter again. Not in the sense of containing ideas or being tools for learning—they still matter in that sense. But I would want books to be part of the culture in a way they aren’t any more. Thirty years ago, you could turn on the television and see Norman Mailer or James Baldwin on a talk show. A novelist was considered a noble profession, and books seemed much more valuable. On the other hand, they didn’t have a gifted memoirist as president of the United States back then, so it sort of averages out.
Denene Millner has been in the publishing game for a minute; she’s the author of 15 books. Most recently, with writer Mitzi Miller, she co-authored the three-book teen series Hotlanta and, along with Steve Harvey, she co-wrote the New York Times bestseller Act Like A Lady, Think Like A Man.
Even though she’s a veteran in the entertainment world, clocking in close to 20 years, Thembisa S. Mshaka is making her official debut in the book world with Put Your Dreams First: Handle Your [entertainment] Business, which will be released later this month.
Mshaka’s take on the industry: In my perfect author’s world, writers would be just as desirable to corporate sponsors as athletes and entertainers, who often betray them with impropriety from which I personally would refrain. I'd rep the brands I actually love and use. I'm talking strategic partnering for lifestyle tours and events, conferences and commercials. Multi-platform marketing partnerships between authors and authentically connected brands would serve to make the book product as pervasive as sneakers or soda, and I would ideally communicate to people that it's perfectly fine to read more! After all, in today's reality-driven, user-generated landscape, real experts are more credible than someone who’d “play one on TV.”
A writer’s writer, Martha Southgate’s latest book is Third Girl from the Left, and she’s hard at work on her next title which will be released by Algonquin Books. Her publishing adventures led her to write a New York Times piece questioning the existence of writers like her, and to gather other concerned writers/publishing folk to form ringShout, a collective dedicated to raising the awareness of literary works by black writers. Members have written pieces like this that critique the publishing industry.
Southgate’s version of the world: Books would be published primarily in paperback, with just a few thousand hardcovers for libraries. Paperbacks look great and last long these days; people feel hardcovers are too expensive, and if you're not a best-selling author, both you and the publishing house take a loss on them. Let's go European and quit doing it! There would be MFA programs in literature and reading and not quite so many in writing. Who’s gonna read all these books everyone wants to write unless they get taught the value of reading and how to know good from bad? For the same reason, no one would be allowed to major in fiction writing as an undergrad. Go 'head on and be in the lit mag, youngblood. But while you're in college, you should be learning how to read—thoughtfully, deeply and well. Likewise, Sapphire's Push would never be taught without being immediately followed by Percival Everett's Erasure. Read 'em both, and you'll see why I say that.
And well, if I ruled the literary world, let’s just say I’m working on that as we speak. Every day I’m concocting schemes like I’m running for office, without the shadiness, of course. And until one of my plans actually works, you can find me here writing about all things books related. Hey, together we may be able to stage a successful coup d'état, one column at a time.
Felicia Pride is the book columnist for The Root and the founder of The BackList. Her most recent book is The Message: 100 Life Lessons from Hip-Hop’s Greatest Songs. Look for this column here on The Root every 1st and 3rd Tuesday. Send her an e-mail here.
is a writer, speaker, author of books for adults and youth, and the book columnist for The Root. Her most recent book is \"The Message: 100 Life Lessons from Hip-Hop’s Greatest Songs.\" Visit her at feliciapride.com.