Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Audio Visual


First, I want to say peace & thank you to my readers, consistent or sporadic, long-time or just tuned in. Thanks to your support, I am moving into other endeavors and continuing to push the envelope regarding ideas that are relevant & relative to the issues that communities face all across this country. While my focus is original people as well as the poor & oppressed, the ideas that are discussed are meant to be beneficial for all that read this blog.

- Since we're on the subject of adding on (+), My illustrious brother Divine Culture & I are manifesting a new addition to the blogosphere: Urban Anthropology (UA)! UA will focus on original people and the intersection of ideas & concepts that give birth to what is now conviently termed as "Urban Culture" (Read: Nigga S_ _ _). While the subjects will be exhaustively researched and analyzed, expect the writing to be engaging, and relative to a wide variety of people. The address is www.urbanology1.blogspot.com. Come on over and learn, explore, & grow with us!

- Next, I gotta send strong universal greetings to my brothers at www.blackelectorate.com regarding their first "Business & Building" weekend held this past weekend in D.C. What I saw of both events was inspirational, forward-thinking & progressive. While so many profess rhetoric, there are few who walk the walk with real solutions for our people, and those brothers are in that category. They have my support & backing as they strive to elevate the condition of original people.

About a week ago, i was perusing BE and noticed a link to an article about Street Lit in TIME magazine. Now, I'm aware that there are a number of perspectives about street lit, some good and some bad. To me, there are some larger implications on the development of the genre that make it an important discussion. Below, please find the article with my comments in bold:

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(My man is about five years late. Flex today is about of much of a tastemaker as I am. Flex was able to leverage the power and following that he has from Hot 97 to represent the "Hip-Hop" market. In my estimation, Jay-Z would have been a better example, given the sophistication of his current plan) 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(I'm all about keepin it real, b.u.t. there has got to be some limits).

"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(Read: Middle-Class). 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(This paragraph is really the crux of the article. Using a model that's less top-heavy and more mobile, street-lit authors have been able to turn the stuffy publishing industry on it's head. For better or worse, they've been able to bypass the obstacles that make the publishing industry almost impossible to enter for the average person, as there are virtually no barriers to entry for street-lit authors).

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 (Again, a testament to the insular, slightly elitist nature of the publishing industry), they made up for in cold business savvy( Was it business savvy, or was it a untapped market?).

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(We should look at this development as inspiring & empowering for future generations: apply a DIY ethos to traditional fields in order to create value for you as well as your communities)."

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." (He should be studied and spoke about in the same way that more mainstream black entrepreneurs are spoken of, regarding grassroots marketing and keeping a pulse of the demographic that you serve)

Street-lit author 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." (The larger issue here is that many of those writers are not entrepreneurial enough to survive in a changing market, as they were used to the traditional system. They should leverage their time spent in the industry and be able to deliver product to their demo through whatever channels are applicable. At the end of the day, the book business is about selling books)

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."(His point is well received. I read street-lit (No really, I do), and some of it is the literary equivalent to a Gangsta rap album made in somebody's basement by a bunch of would-be criminals that can barely spell. Like "Gangsta" Hip Hop, some of it is really good, and much of it is really not. On another note, we must realize that poor people are going to follow whatever pathway they think will earn a dollar for them without any concern for the quality of the product. Everybody's got a story to tell, and they'll make one up if that's what people want)

Like every other kind of media, publishing is faddish. The rapper 50 Cent(The Black Sir Richard Branson) 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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