Hip-Hop Lit Is Hot

Once limited to street-corner sales, hip-hop lit now can be found in major bookstores—and mainstream publishers are taking note.
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Vickie M. Stringer wrote her first novel,Let That Be the Reason, while serving a seven-year sentence in a federal prison for drug trafficking. The novel is about a young female hustler playing "the street game." After sending her manuscript to 26 publishers without success, Stringer decided to self-publish. Soon after the first printing, she was hawking her book in hair and nail salons, at rap concerts and out of the trunk of her car—on the same corners she once sold drugs. Selling 1,000 copies in one week, the book was a success. Today, Stringer is founder and CEO of Columbus, Ohio-based Triple Crown Publications, which has published 41 hip-hop lit titles by 28 different authors since December 2002.

Stringer's story is one that's often told in reports about hip-hop lit for several reasons. For one thing her books fit the classic hip-hop mold. Typical setting: an unsympathetic urban environment. Typical protagonist: black or Latino. Typical plot: A young person joins a gang, deals drugs and/or becomes a prostitute in order to overcome obstacles such as poverty, racism and violence. The books are written in urban vernacular and don't shy away from profanity and sexually explicit scenes. In addition, Stringer's successful guerrilla marketing tactics are ones practiced by most hip-hop authors, with impressive results. And Stringer's books serve to reveal an urban reality she says many young people experience today.

Hip-hop lit—also called urban fiction, street lit and ghetto lit—has been met with a fair amount of criticism. Some say these books glorify drug dealing, gang violence and prostitution. Others point out that many of the books are in dire need of good editors; urban vernacular aside, the books are often riddled with grammar issues ranging from poor syntax to missing end punctuation and quotation marks.

But despite the criticism, hip-hop lit is a moving force in the industry. Once sold on the streets and at independent booksellers, these books now can be found in Wal-Mart and major bookstore chains such as Borders and Barnes & Noble. Large publishing houses such as Simon & Schuster, Random House and St. Martin's Press also are taking notice by signing up hip-hop authors for various imprints and divisions. And recently, rap artist 50 Cent joined with Pocket/MTV Books to produce a new line of street lit called G-Unit Books. Hip-hop authors Nikki Turner, K. Elliot and Noire are slated to write the first trade paperbacks.

Not new, just a revival In 1969, Robert Beck, using the pen name Iceberg Slim, wrote his first book, Pimp: The Story of My Life, while in jail. He wrote many other similar-themed novels. Donald Goines also was a prolific street-lit author at that time. While in prison, Stringer says, she read every book in the prison's library—more than 1,500 of them—and Goines' books inspired her the most. Unlike the other novels that simply entertained her, Stringer says Goines' work described experiences similar to her own and encouraged her to lead a different life.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, hip-hop music overtook hip-hop lit. Hip-hop artists such as Run-D.M.C., Tupac Shakur and Public Enemy described their street-life experiences orally and against a definitive musical beat vs. putting pen to paper.

Then, in the late 1990s and early 2000, three books sparked a hip-hop-lit revival: Sister Souljah's Coldest Winter Ever, Teri Woods' True to the Game and Omar Tyree's Flyy Girl. The rise of self-publishing also fueled the fire. Today many writers don't rely on the support of major publishing houses. Instead, they're self-publishing or finding acceptance at smaller publishing firms, several of which now publish urban lit exclusively.

Troy Johnson is the founder of The African American Literature Book Club (AALBC.com), a website that sells African-American book titles and features author profiles, book recommendations, critical reviews, discussion groups and more. Urban titles make up about 10 percent of AALBC.com's top 10 bestsellers. "They probably make up a larger percentage of all the books sold, which is fairly substantial for a fairly new genre that's predominantly self-published," he says.

AALBC.com currently sells about 20 urban titles directly. "We sell urban fiction because it sells so well," he says, adding that most urban authors aggressively promote their books, which increases their popularity.

Selling on the street Pamela M. Johnson, author and CEO of San Francisco-based Macavelli Press and The Johnson Agency, a literary PR and book marketing company, is a strong believer in self-promotion. "Guerrilla marketing tactics are very important to the small-business owner," she says. "We have to be creative." Initially Johnson used a print-on-demand company to publish her debut novel, From a Hard Rock to a Gem. In four months, she sold 1,200 copies by publicizing in hair and nail salons and selling copies out of her car's trunk. Thanks to her initial efforts, she was later able to secure an investor, print 20,000 copies and get her book in major bookstores.

Although book distributor Ingram and book wholesaler Baker & Taylor now distribute Macavelli Press titles, Johnson still swears by unorthodox marketing methods. She and her friends will take an afternoon to "poster the city," putting up posters of book covers in urban areas and at major construction sites. She'll leave bookmarks in taxis and approach people with them at malls. "Urban literature is catching ground at the street level," she says. Last September she took a trip to New York City. Street vendors located next to subway stations were hawking hip-hop lit—and people were buying. "Everybody was reading on the train," she says.

Mark Anthony is publisher and president of New York City-based Q-Boro Books. Recently Anthony partnered with Urban Books, a firm that publishes three to four hip-hop books each month and will, eventually, publish all Q-Boro Books' hardcore street lit. Urban Books was founded by bestselling author Carl Weber, whose work includes The Preacher's Son and So You Call Yourself a Man, his latest. Anthony also writes hip-hop lit. St. Martin's Griffin is publishing his fourth book, The Take Down, this October. To sell his earlier works, Anthony also hit the streets, quickly realizing that he could easily make $1,000 simply by hawking his book for four hours on 125th Street in Harlem. Anthony would also load up a van with books and visit every street vendor in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens. He'd offer vendors a price that beat their distributors' prices, and then he'd collect directly from the vendor. "You see the difference in sales numbers," he says.

Harsh critics and fervent supporters Civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois, author of The Souls of Black Folk, inspired many hip-hop authors, including Macavelli's Johnson. Through her characters, Johnson says she hopes to show people outside the "veil"—a term coined by Du Bois—how urban people arrive at their ideas, philosophies and opinions. But she also wants to give black readers something they can identify with. "We want to read books that have characters that look like us," she says. "Black people have been starved for so, so long."

AALBC.com's Johnson agrees. "[Hip-hop lit] appeals to so many kids in the city because they can relate to it," he says. "The stories are familiar. The scenes and characters mimic characters in a rap video." But he also says that, as with rap videos, readers need to remember that hip-hop lit doesn't reflect the way all black people live. "When this does cross over, which I suspect it will, more and more white people will read the genre," he says. "Some will take it for what it is—entertainment—and some will use it to stereotype black people."

Still, many critics say the genre glamorizes gang viol ence, drug useand prostitution. Stringer's response? "I wish I could give you a different experience," she says. "If it makes you ashamed that there is urban society, you're ashamed of something that's bigger than what I'm writing about. What else can I write about?"

Macavelli's Johnson also has strong reactions to the genre's critics. "A lot of people shun it, but it's a reality and it's somebody's reality. To shun it is to deny someone's reality." She adds that hip-hop authors aim to get inside the mind of inner-city people and really understand how the thug mentality is created. Many hip-hop authors also say their books offer a "you-can-change-your-life-around" lesson. In fact, Macavelli's Johnson says several area schools are incorporating her novels into their curriculum.

But then there's the quality issue. "I think editing is a very tough job," Stringer says. "That is the weak link in our chain." But finding editors who both excel in grammar and have a solid understanding of urban slang is tough, she says. AALBC.com's Johnson says that because the hip-hop-lit trend is on an upward swing, more authors will be introduced, which will mean stiffer competition. "Nothing that starts out in the beginning is as good as it's going to be," he says. "It'll improve over time."

AALBC.com's Johnson says this improvement will continue as hip-hop lit reaches a more diverse audience. Currently, the primary buyers are black females from major urban centers and, more recently, young, black urban men drawn into the exciting story lines. While street lit also is embracing the Latino culture, Macavelli's Johnson says she foresees the genre soon embracing many other cultures. "The urban culture knows no color," she says, noting the number of middle- to upper-class white kids who listen to hip-hop music.

On October 21, 1974, author Goines and his wife were shot and killed. Stringer remembers an interview with Goines' family, who noted how sad it was that Goines died before his books became bestsellers. She says she's thankful she's had the opportunity to see the reaction to her hard work, proud to follow in Goines' footsteps and doesn't see the genre going away anytime soon. "Hip hop is here to stay."

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