The Economics of Book Publishing
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.
The publishing industry is a risky business. And like any other industry in America, it's about the green - money. But is this a business that's also about black and white? There was a time when major publishers were reluctant to put out black books. Many of today's top black authors started out selling their books from the trunks of their cars like Edelen Harris did after being rejected by publishers. Today, black writers are drawing lots of fans, and they are big business. And the publishing world is taking notice.
Here to talk more about publishing black books is Wade Hudson, author of several black children's books. He's also the president of Just Us Books, which publishes black interest books for young people.
Also joining us is author and now publisher, Tina McElroy Ansa. Her fifth book, "Taking after Mudear," is the first title to be released under her new independent publishing company, Down South Press. And we're speaking with James Fugate. He is owner of the independent black bookstore, Eso Won, in Los Angeles.
Mr. WADE HUDSON (President, Just Us Books; Author, "Afro-Bets A-B-C"): Hello.
Ms. TINA McELROY ANSA (Owner, Down South Press; Author, "Taking After Mudear"): Hello.
Mr. JAMES FUGATE (Owner, Eso Won Books): Hello, hello, hello.
CHIDEYA: So, Tina, you've got a great start as a first-time writer. Tell us about the unusual circumstances of getting your first book, "The Baby of the Family," published.
Ms. ANSA: Well, this was in the mid to late '80s. Probably about '86 and I live on St. Simons Island, one of the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia. And my husband and I had moved down here because it was beautiful, and it spoke to our culture, and I thought it would be a great place to write. I had been a journalist and I wanted to write fiction my whole life.
And we had a friend whose name is Bill Diehl. He wrote "Sharky's Machine" and "Primal Fear" and another - other sort of thrillers, New York Times best-seller thrillers. We were friends and we were sitting at his beautiful beach house one day and talking about writing and he said, Tina, you know, have you ever thought about writing a novel? And I lied, of course, and said, oh, well, sure, I've got about a hundred pages I've been working. I had about 35 good pages. And he said, well, you have to let me see it. And I said, oh, yeah, I'll let you see it sometimes. He said, no get in the car now and go and get it. So I was so glad I had 35 pages, and I showed it to him and he said, this is really wonderful. And if, you know, if you get a hundred pages together, I'll send it off to my agent. And his agent was Owen Laster, who was the head of the literary department at William Morris Agency. And so I knew a good deal when I heard one.
CHIDEYA: Big deal.
Ms. ANSA: Yeah.
Ms. ANSA: And so I worked about six months - about six to eight months, and it got good to me. I got about 110, 120 pages. And I...
CHIDEYA: And the rest there is history, but after four books with major publishers, you decided to leave the big names and create your own company publishing your next book. Why did you take that risk? Why are you taking that risk?
Ms. ANSA: Well I still wake up in the middle of the night, you know, when your eyes fly open, you think, oh, my God, what have I done? Am I nuts? But I know that I have done the right thing, and I'm not in competition with the big boys or the big girls. It's a small publishing company. We plan to publish, at most, 12 books a year. Probably more like eight. Four lists, two books a list: summer, spring, winter and fall. And we plan to publish an emerging writer and an established writer together.
But I did it because I've been thinking about it for a number years. I'm looking at how mainstream publishing deals with African-American writers who are really very popular, who've made a lot of money for mainstream publishers. And I still don't think many times they publish us in a smart way and a savvy way, that they give us the kind of attention that they give non-black writers. And I know that I can be a better publisher to writers - to African-American writers - of fiction and non-fiction than they were to me. But the biggest...
CHIDEYA: Now, let me just jump in and get Wade in here. What is your story for getting launched in this business? How tough was it?
Mr. HUDSON: It was extremely tough, but we had to make that step in order to get our books out in the marketplace. We could not look to major publishers to acquire the manuscripts that we had. We started publishing in 1987. And before taking that step ourselves to launch our own company, we had gone to major publishing houses with manuscripts and ideas that we had. And we were told by some editors that there was no market for the kind of books that we wanted to write.
And so rather than continue to complain and to pressure them into doing what they really did not want to do, my wife, Cheryl, and I said, well, we'll just start our own company. And we knew that there was a demand for the kind of books that we wanted to publish because we were looking for them for our children. And we knew friends of ours who were looking for these kinds of books as well.
CHIDEYA: Now what were the...
Mr. HUDSON: So we started just...
CHIDEYA: What was the worst moment...
Mr. HUDSON: I'm sorry.
CHIDEYA: ...and the best moment of running your own company?
Mr. HUDSON: Well, there have been a number of worst moments and a number of really great moments. It's - the business is peaks and valleys, you know? You do well for a period of time. A title may sell extremely well, and then you go through a period when your title is not selling that way. And we've been at it now for about 20 years. And I think I'll - the fact that we are still doing it and we are still surviving, and we are still making money, what we are doing is really the testimony to our dedication, to...
Mr. HUDSON: I'm sorry.
CHIDEYA: No, no. Absolutely. I wanted to bring again James in. Eso Won Books here in L.A. I get a chance to visit you guys in Leimert Park. You've been around for quite a while. How does the publishing business - and comment on both the sort of mainstream general interest publishing business and African-American distributors and publishers - affect your business? And what have been some of the recent ups and downs?
Mr. FUGATE: Oh. I think independent publishing has grown tremendously in the last ten years. As has regular mainstream publishing, I think we have seen an explosion in both. And I remember, you know, we've worked with Tina McElroy since her first book came out. We've worked to have Wade Hudson's books for 20 of the years we've been in business, too. But you see now a huge leap in the publishing industry towards, I think, non-fiction, but also urban fiction has become a huge part of the African-American selling landscape.
CHIDEYA: When you think about who treats you the best - and please be honest here.
Mr. FUGATE: Yeah.
CHIDEYA: When you talk about the margins on the books, when you talk about return rates, when you talk about author appearances, what publishers treat you the best? James?
Mr. FUGATE: Oh, I - the biggest one, of course, is Random House. And they have been great partners with us since about 1990, when we started a direct account with them. Their discounts are pretty much the same for all bookstores - the chains and the independents. Even though the chains can get a higher discount by having a warehouse where they have books shipped to centrally, but Random House, Harper Collins, all of the big publishers have given us authors over the years.
It's a competitive field now. Everybody wants - as Barack Obama, who we had last year, said everybody wanted him this - last year for his book, but 10 years ago, Eso Won Books wanted him for "Dreams from My Father." So it's very competitive marketplace, though.
CHIDEYA: When you talk about things like how easily it is that you communicate about returns, about just the financial issues. Is it hard sometimes dealing with independent publishers who may not have the same infrastructure?
Mr. FUGATE: Oh, definitely. I just was telling someone yesterday - an independent publisher called, and she was very upset that we wouldn't take her book because it's not available from a distributor. But when you have thousands of books, you just can't deal with individuals unless it's someone like a Tina McElroy. I would, you know, would definitely carry her book even if we have to get it directly from her...
Ms. ANSA: Thank you very much, James.
Mr. FUGATE: ...if it's not available, yeah.
Ms. ANSA: I appreciate that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FUGATE: You better believe it. I mean, somebody like her, you're going to carry. But a lot of times, we want to support authors, and you can now. I mean, publishing has changed where this print-on-demand technology has made it where you can look up on Ingram, which is a book distributing company. You can look up on their database and order these books that are print on demand. You can carry them, but the risk is you can't return them.
But, you know, there are a lot of titles that are going to sell, and they're going to sell through. And sometimes you order instead of 10, you order 3 and try to sell through. But a lot of the smaller publishers just do not realize that you can't deal with them independently. Wade, we've always gone through Africa World Press and Africa World Books out of Baltimore to get his books. But sometimes even directly through him.
CHIDEYA: Tina and then...
Mr. HUDSON: Yeah.
CHIDEYA: ...Wade, how hard is the business side? Both of you are creative people and you're entering the world of business or you have been in the world of business. Does all of this talk about how you deal with bookstores and distribution worry you or excite you?
Ms. ANSA: Well, I guess it does a little bit of both. I was just going to speak to what James was saying. One of the things about independent publishers, truly is, I know that there are many challenges that James just spoke to. But the other thing I think that there is an excitement about this because we do see that there is such a huge market out there. And there's such a huge hunger for our books.
And that - other thing is that I think many authors know a good deal about publishing. I can just speak for myself. I think that you have to be a smart and savvy author now. You know, many authors do a great deal of their publicity even when they're a bit with a large publishing company. You know, there are -many authors have outside editors even if they're with a big publishing company.
So I think that many authors are very savvy, those who have gone into publishing. And I hope that, you know, my step into publishing urges other folks to at least look all alternatives because I think there are all kinds of ways to do things and went through the turnstile at a time just because there's a huge market for urban fiction or urban lit right now, doesn't mean that, you know, you should take such a huge bite out of the literary landscape for African American writers.
CHIDEYA: But, Wade...
Ms. ANSA: And, of course...
CHIDEYA: Let me ask Wade a very specific question. How do you deal with submissions? You know, there's the business and the trying to get things out, but what about the business end of taking things in? Can people just send you a manuscript and say, this is what I want to get published. Do you want it? How does that work?
Mr. HUDSON: Well, when we first started we were very open to receive manuscripts in the mail, authors will call us and we would say, yeah, send the manuscript. But we get tons and tons of manuscripts now from writers, so we really cannot review all of the manuscripts that we get. So, what we do is, we let agents and authors know what time of the year that we are reviewing manuscripts. We publish from eight to 10 titles a year and that's what we can manage. So, we don't really take on more than what we really can handle.
But I want to speak to bookstore sales and - for us, you know, we recognize early on that we could not really depend solely on bookstore sales to grow our company. So what we did was looked at ways that we can actually get our books to where people were. So, we set up book fairs and we hooked up with sororities and churches where we actually took our books to the people. And that is the way we have sort of grown our company. And also, the educational market - the school market is enormously great for us as well. So, bookstore sales certainly are important, but they are just part of what we do in terms of getting our books to the marketplace.
CHIDEYA: And, James...
Ms. ANSA: Farai, I'm sorry, can I just say quickly...
Ms. ANSA: ...I think that that's one of the things that independent and small publishers can do that larger publishers don't seem to take advantage of. It's just what Wade just said, and that's taking advantage of private findings and sororities. And I went to Spelman College, taking advantage of all this - every year - graduating a whole, you know, a whole - another generation of readers and going to those places, and not just going to the established bookstores, in places that, you know, that traditionally we've gone to. And I think that smaller publishers can sort of turn on the dime, and if they see a trend, they can sort of jump on it without having to turn the whole machinery around.
Mr. FUGATE: Exactly.
Ms. ANSA: I don't know if Wade found that out. Don't you agree, Wade?
Mr. HUDSON: Yeah, you're right, you're right. Yeah, I agree a hundred percent. Yeah.
CHIDEYA: Well, we have to wrap now, but I know that James also spends a lot of time going out and doing events, not just in his stores, but here, there and everywhere.
And Wade, Tina and James, I want to thank you all for coming on the show.
Mr. HUDSON: Thank you for having us.
Ms. ANSA: Thanks for having us.
Mr. FUGATE: Thank you, thank you, thank you very much.
Ms. ANSA: My joy(ph).
CHIDEYA: We've been talking with author and publisher Wade Hudson, president of Just Us Books. He spoke with us from member station WBGO in Newark, New Jersey. Also, Tina McElroy Ansa, an author who has recently launched Down South Press, her own independent publishing company of African American literature. And James Fugate, the owner of Eso Won Books in Los Angeles. He was here with me at our NPR West studios.