Hustle and Grow

7 minute read
Ta-Nehisi Paul Coates

When St. Martin’s press begins promoting the latest work from novelist K’wan next month, the campaign won’t look like the marketing for, say, the corporate thrillers of Joseph Finder. Funkmaster Flex, the hip-hop evangelist, is closer to the flavor. K’wan’s reading audience is loyal–he has more than 400,000 books in print. But titles like Gangsta, Road Dawgz and his latest, Hood Rat, have captured an audience well outside St. Martin’s usual purview. So instead of signings at Barnes & Noble, St. Martin’s is planning giveaways and readings in barber shops and beauty salons. There will be ads on urban radio and an official Hood Rat mix tape CD.

“When they signed me, they were like, ‘Great. We got him,'” says K’wan. “But they didn’t really know what to do with me until now.” St. Martin’s isn’t alone in that dilemma. For years, book publishers have catered to the $250 million African-American market with the aspirational stories of authors like Terry McMillan and Eric Jerome Dickey. But attracted by the gaudy numbers generated by the genre known as street lit, such publishers as Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins and Random House are hitting the pavement.

Street lit profiles the black underworld in graphic detail. Like gangsta rap, street lit often has thieves, pushers and prostitutes as protagonists. And like gangsta rap in its heyday, street lit is hot business. In an industry that considers sales of 20,000 copies of a typical novel a success, gritty street-lit authors like K’wan are routinely doubling that number.

And just as rappers reshaped the recording industry, street-lit authors have applied their own considerable entrepreneurial skills to publishing. They have insinuated themselves into every step, from negotiating the book deal to promoting the finished work. In the process, they have expanded the fiction market, a trick that has eluded mainstream publishers, making customers out of people who aren’t exactly pining for E.L. Doctorow’s latest.

Although street lit’s roots reach back to the 1970s and the novels of Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim, the development of cheap digital printing smashed one barrier to entry. And the advent of Amazon, which diminished the need for display space in bookstores, smashed another. So street-lit authors had a route around mainstream publishing houses. Following the success of The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah in 2000–it sold 475,000 copies–a flood of gritty, self-published crime novels hit the market. What street-lit authors may have lacked in wordsmithing, they made up for in cold business savvy.

On a recent afternoon, Relentless Aaron parks his white SUV near Rockefeller Center in New York City and begins digging through a pile of books in the van. A giant portrait of him covers the side of the SUV along with the tagline AUTHOR, PUBLISHER, PRODUCER. In the late 1990s, Relentless, as he likes to be called, was jailed for passing bad checks. He turned to writing for therapy, and when he was sprung, restructured himself into a one-man publishing house. Now, with a Bluetooth hands-free in his ear and a stack of books in hand, he prowls tourist-filled 50th Street, approaching anyone who seems to fall within his target audience. Last year Relentless signed a four-book deal with St. Martin’s Press. Two of his books have been optioned for films.

When he talks, Relentless sounds more like a marketing executive than a burgeoning author. “My goal is to sell into the future,” he says. “You can’t just come out here and sell nothing. But more than selling now, I want to create an awareness that I have an entertaining brand.” That’s exactly the sort of sales-speak that makes publishers dance. While most editors claim a love for literature, they need to move the merchandise. “You’re more likely to find that sort of hustler, business mentality among street-lit authors,” says Monique Patterson, a senior editor at St. Martin’s. “The streets are all about going out and being competitive and hustling your own stuff.”

Putting it in business terms, some street-lit authors have transferred their core competency to publishing from other sectors. Like drugs. K’wan was still selling marijuana at the point where his Gangsta started to fly off the shelves. He moved out of public housing in 2004–the same year he signed a book deal. But he didn’t leave everything behind. “In the morning I load up my trunk and hit the streets,” says K’wan. “It’s the same as when I was on the block hustling, except it’s a different product. I hit the street vendors in the Bronx, Harlem and Brooklyn, talk to the kids and sign a few books.”

Street-lit auteur Vickie Stringer has become vertically integrated to protect her market share. Currently, she’s enjoying the fruits of a six-figure book deal with Simon & Schuster. In the early 1990s, Stringer says, she was trafficking up to 30 kilos of cocaine weekly to street gangs in Ohio. She was busted and served seven years in prison. When she got out, she self-published her roman à clef Let That Be the Reason–and got nowhere. So she developed a business plan. “I finished the book in 2001, and I sent out letters to over 26 agents and publishers, and no one would touch it,” says Stringer. Instead, she self-published. “I just took it to the streets, just trying to recoup my printing.”

Stringer has repeatedly reinvented herself for the shifting dynamics of her genre. When a number of authors rejected by mainstream publishers approached her for advice, she founded a company–Triple Crown Publications–in her kitchen. When mainstream publishers began competing with her for authors, she started a literary agency, ensuring herself a cut from the contracts of writers who went big. K’wan was her first author and her first client as an agent. “Even when I was a hustler, I never wanted to sit on a street corner. I always wanted more control,” she says. “I always wanted to have the freedom. I wanted to be the check signer, not just the receiver.”

The boom in street lit has led to an equally potent, if not predictable, backlash from black writers with a more literary bent. “I’ve heard from agents and writers, all telling me the same thing,” says author Nick Chiles (In Love and War), who blasted street lit in a New York Times editorial earlier this year. “There’s all this talent out there that five years ago editors would have been clamoring over, and they aren’t getting a shot. I’ve seen a waning of the industry’s interest in contemporary black fiction.”

Even among its purveyors, street lit’s ethos has taken some knocks. “There are so many people flooding the market, but they’re not taking responsibility for what they’re writing,” says K’wan. “It’s just a bunch of guns. The life we live is graphic and real, but authors need to have some type of moral lesson in their books.”

Like every other kind of media, publishing is faddish. The rapper 50 Cent recently started an imprint. Vibe magazine, in conjunction with Kensington Publishing, followed suit. The expansion has left some of its authors ambivalent. “In the beginning it was about a need to express ourselves on a greater plane,” says K’wan. “But now it’s such a money thing. It affects how the genre is perceived by the public, and it affects authors coming in. They look at this like it’s Hollywood. They don’t understand that to endure this game, you have to love this game.” But as he well knows, to play it, you’ve got to make the numbers.

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