On a sweltering July afternoon of 2011 at the 13th annual Harlem Book Fair in New York City, as booklovers strolled along 135th Street perusing the tables of the latest offerings by participating authors and a selection of recently released books, there was scant representation of “serious literature.” The scene was a hard-hitting reminder that urban-themed fiction and dramatic love stories have come to overshadow quality literature by Black authors — not only at book-related events but also in bookstores. Much of that upstaging has not settled well with many authors, critics, editors and publishers in the Black literary community.
“Urban lit/hip-hop lit, whatever you call it, it is a tremendously important phenomenon,” says Calvin Reid, senior news editor at Publishers Weekly and co-editor of PW Comics World. “I know some people don’t like it, but this is a movement more than even a genre … Not only has urban lit sent Black folks of all ages to bookstores looking for books to read, it has turned people into writers and publishers. And it has created a new wave of Black-owned book publishers as well as self-published artists.”
Seeking to invigorate the publishing landscape where writers of color are concerned, three professionals in the industry have teamed up with Akashic Books, a notable independent publisher in Brooklyn, N.Y, to form Open Lens. This fall, Open Lens and its co-founders Marva Allen, managing partner of Hue-Man Bookstore, and literary agents Marie Dutton Brown of Marie Brown Associates and Regina Brooks of Serendipity Literary Agency will debut its first title, Makeda, to much applause. “As a bookstore owner in the niche market of Diaspora books, it is quite frustrating to see the direction our literature is taking,” says Allen. “A shrinking representation of the diversity of works by people of color, playing only into the stereotypes, limiting choices and the general lack of understanding how to market and cross over ethnic works is damaging to authors of color. Whatever the justification, the depth, breadth and complexity of our experiences are certainly not coming from the big publishing houses. In talking to some of my colleagues, we were all on the same page and of the same opinion. We wanted to hear more diverse voices.”
Open Lens is not only aimed at the African-American, Allen says. “It is aimed at the Diaspora market, at voices of color the world over. We truly want to take a panoramic view of the ethnic market and bring something new and engaging about different cultures to our curious reading audience.”
Akashic Books, one of the most creative small presses in the industry, has long focused on producing distinctive works. “We have always published works by Black and Caribbean writers. It’s not a political statement; it’s my own idiosyncratic taste in literature. And when we decided to collaborate, we were in agreement,” says Johnny Temple, publisher of Akashic. “We all wanted to publish serious literary fiction [and writers] that wasn’t getting the attention and support we thought it deserved.”
R. R. Bowker, the leading provider of global bibliographic information, estimates that traditional U.S. print title output in 2010 increased 5 percent despite the popularity of e-books. “Output of new titles and editions increased from 302,410 in 2009 to a projected 316,480 in 2010. The percent increase comes on the heels of a 4 percent increase the previous year based on the final 2008 2009 figures. The nontraditional sector continues its explosive growth, increasing 169 percent from 1,033,065 in 2009 to an amazing 2,776,260 in 2010,” Bowker reports. A recent article in The New York Times declared that the publishing industry has expanded in the past three years and that “in 2010 publishers generated net revenue of $27.9 billion, a 5.6 percent increase over 2008.”
An exact figure— even an estimate —for the number of books published by African-American as well as Caribbean writers, whether by mainstream, independent presses or self-published outfits, is difficult to pin down. “Hundreds of thousands of titles are printed, reprinted, transmitted electronically and sold annually. A miniscule number of those titles are represented by books that reflect the interests of a diverse and interested Black readership,” says Brown, a veteran in the publishing industry. “Of course, with fewer and fewer Black publishing professionals who can acquire without approval from the majority publishing professionals, it just is not going to happen.
“Interest in African-American and literature from throughout the Diaspora is cyclical, maybe every twenty years or so, when some bestsellers slip through and demonstrate that there is a readership. Publishers attempt to market books to a target market, depending on the category. Open Lens is making a serious effort to acquire authors who understand their partnership role in the publishing, marketing, publicizing and sales of their books,” Brown says.
Brooks notes that it has become increasingly difficult for mainstream publishers to take the kind of publishing chances they used to. “If it doesn’t fit a particular format with a well laid out positioning plan that is easily articulated to all the players in-house, they tend to pass,” she says. “It’s exciting to be able to champion authors and their projects by giving them a seat at the table from the very start of the publishing process. Having an imprint of our own allows us to work with emerging and existing authors, some that may be overlooked by mainstream publishers.”
The first title released under the Open Lens imprint, scheduled for publication this month, is Makeda by author and human rights activist Randall Robinson. Makeda is a tale about family, heritage and love. Makeda is a laundress who has been blind since birth and has lived several lives; she has traveled in her dreams across ages and time. As she reveals her colorful and inspirational “journeys” to her grandson, the young man embarks on his own journey of self-discovery. Makeda is a mesmerizing story written with passion and detail that illuminates the complex characterizations that are elements of the African and Black-American experiences.
Each title on Open Lens’s upcoming roster will feature a guest editor. The goal is to engage an editor familiar with the subject matter, someone who can bring that “something extra” to the project, an editor who will lend his or her own sensibilities, which in turn will enhance the authenticity of the work. Janet Hill Talbert, former executive editor at Random House and founding executive editor of the Harlem Moon imprint, edited Makeda.
Each of the co-founders of Open Lens comes from various backgrounds in publishing, and each brings her unique specialty in publishing to the venture. Allen will work on the marketing, promoting and the innovative positioning of authors for success. Brooks says that one of her primary roles is to bring in new talent. While Open Lens plans to produce quality fiction and nonfiction, the main intention is to preserve good literature and have works that can be universal and that will entertain, educate and inform. The imprint is also aiming to reach a broader audience.
“We intend to focus on advancing authors’ brands, coaching them to expand their existing audiences and to develop inventive marketing campaigns,” says Brooks. “Our size gives us the flexibility to try alternative approaches to getting the word out, and we are not bound by a system that prides itself heavily on tradition. We will create new traditions that work for our authors and reach their core audience where they are.”
Some people fear that with the mass closings of large-chain book retailers and the rising popularity of electronic, wireless reading devices and tablets and e-books, the traditional book publishing business is going down the drain. The current publishing environment is sure to have some influence on a developing publishing venture, but the team of Open Lens is prepared for the challenges they know lay ahead.
“The Diaspora marketplace the world over is not on the same page as the American market. Though we intend to publish our books both digitally and traditionally, we will be assessing our market very closely before having a knee-jerk reaction to the changes taking place now. So whatever happens in terms of innovation, as a publishing house we can adapt,” says Allen. “We don’t fear change. Automatically, we’ll be different from other publishers by the literature we’re putting out. We are catering to more curious readers in the marketplace. We are putting out books that aren’t necessarily commercial; for us it’s more about pleasing the right audience with the right authors.”
Dawn Davis, publisher of Amistad and executive editor at Ecco, both imprints of HarperCollins, says, “It would be an inspiration for all — writers, readers, publishers, librarians, retailers — to see a house succeed by publishing only literary fiction. In the past several years it’s been difficult, though not impossible, to make a go, commercially, of mid-list, Black fiction.” Will Open Lens fill a void in the industry? “As to how deep the void is, that is something only the readers can really answer. If they come to the table with their purchasing dollars, so to speak, then we know a much-needed void has been filled,” says Davis.
Reid notes that any time there’s a line of books that concentrates on publishing quality works, that’s encouraging. “Open Lens is starting at a time of tremendous change in the book industry as the transition to digital delivery begins. That means challenges as well as new opportunities,” he says. “Digital delivery will be a challenge for print publishers and for conventional retailers, but it is coming. And while it will create some, digital delivery will make more books more affordable and easier to get for people all around the world, no matter their race. But certainly the developing world and Africa in general will see the benefits of e-books and easier access to books.”
During this particular era in book publishing, additional, i.e. alternative, publishing opportunities for Black authors is “an absolute necessity,” Brown insists. “I have viewed Open Lens as an opportunity for those writers, in many categories, who have been denied publication basically because the industry and its gatekeepers either do not know or care about diverse reading interests in the areas of Black life and culture where there is a proven readership,” she says.
The next project on Open Lens’ schedule has yet to be revealed. But the publishers say that with each of the projects they undertake, readers can be assured that it will be fresh and thought provoking. “We are developing as we speak,” Brooks adds. “The best is yet to come.”