DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
Walk into a bookstore these days, and the section for African-American literature will likely have a prominent display of a popular genre called hip-hip or urban fiction. The books are typically gritty stories full of drugs, sex and violence. One of the most successful publishing houses focusing on these street-life dramas is run by Vickie Stringer, a woman who served time for drug dealing before turning her business acumen to books. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.
CHERYL CORLEY: She is an author as well as a book publisher, and Vickie Stringer's latest book is called "Dirty Red."
Ms. VICKIE STRINGER (Publisher and Author): Red took one of the keys and cut up the leather interior seats. She carved the letters R-E-D into the dashboard.
CORLEY: "Dirty Red," a story about a con woman, is Vickie Stringer's third book. She wrote her first, "Let That Be the Reason," weeks before being released from prison. It was a fictional look at her own life. Stringer had been convicted 10 years ago on charges of money laundering and drug dealing and was called Columbus, Ohio's cocaine queen.
Now Stringer, who's in her late 30s, is considered the queen of hip-hop literature or urban fiction.
Ms. STRINGER: Print the outline for "Dope Man."
Unidentified Woman: Okay.
CORLEY: At a recent meeting with her staff at Triple Crown Publications, Stringer got the update on manuscripts being reviewed and talked about the suggestions two ghost writers had made for a sequel to Triple Crown's book entitled "Crack Head."
Ms. STRINGER: They even titled it "Dope Man." They've come up with a name and everything. And I love the name of the book. And I was cracking when I saw it. I was like "Dope Man." I was like - here I am thinking we have the original titles and I would love to have a book called "Dope Man".
CORLEY: Stringer started Triple Crown in 2001. She had tried to get other publishing houses to consider her first book but was turned down 26 times. So she decided to publish on her own. Stringer says even though major publishing houses were ignoring street literature at the time, that wasn't the sole reason she started her own company.
Ms. STRINGER: You know, I really wasn't paying attention to the market. It was more from the personal experience that motivated me to want to share my urban experiences, my experiences in the street game; you know, the dope game, those sorts of things. And I want to inspire other young women that - so that my mistakes wouldn't have to be theirs.
CORLEY: At the beginning, Stringer sold her book from the trunk of her car. She attracted the attention of a small publishing house in New York and eventually sold 100,000 copies. Other authors approached her for help and she ended up publishing them. It was the start of her new career. There aren't any hard figures on the urban fiction market since so many authors hustle their books on the street or sell them online, but industry analysts say they are an increasing part of the $300 million black book market. With that success has also come criticism.
Author Nick Chiles blasted the genre in a New York Times op-ed article entitled "Their Eyes Were Watching Smut". He says the literature glorifies street life, and like hip-hop videos, gives a distorted view of African-American life.
Mr. NICK CHILES (Author): And I think that, you know, if you have 200 pages of sex and violence and drugs, and then at the end the character goes to jail and you want to tell me that that's like a redemptive tale, I would quarrel with whether that's the message that a reader, especially a young and impressionable reader, is going to get from this.
CORLEY: It's a criticism Stringer has heard before.
Ms. STRINGER: I just think people who make those comments, they are ashamed of our experiences and they want us to go away. But I think people who are living in the projects, I think women who have baby daddies and people who are incarcerated, they have a story that needs to be told and they need to have their 15-minutes of airtime like everyone else. And I'm not exploiting anyone. I am just shining the light on me.
CORLEY: Stringer says critics can simply read something else. It's an understandable controversy, says Calvin Reid, senior news editor of Publishers Weekly. But he believes the popularity of urban fiction is due to American readers' attraction to gangster stories, regardless of a reader's race or color. Reid says Stringer had little to lose when she started Triple Crown Publications, but she did take a risk. A risk that paid off.
Mr. CALVIN REID (Publishers Weekly): What she's done is really set up, in some ways, basically a traditional publishing house now. What her advantage is, is that she's just - it's very connected to her market. She knows what her readers want to read.
CORLEY: Triple Crown has published 50 titles, the work of 30 authors, six of them inmates. Bigger publishing firms took note and have sometimes offered writers with Triple Crown more lucrative deals. Stringer says instead of getting angry, she decided to get paid by becoming an agent. She created the Triple Crown Management Agency.
Ms. STRINGER: Yeah, might you know, I'll be happy to help you start your career and I'll be happy to help you move on. So if you leave, just you know, toss us back 15 percent while you go. And it's kind of - it's worked out just that way.
CORLEY: Stringer says she's been able to broker a million dollars in book deals for authors with major publishing houses like Random House and Simon & Schuster. Early next year, Stringer will be on the road. She'll be holding a series of publishing seminars, teaching potential writers how to make their own way. Cheryl Corley, NPR News.
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