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. 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.
"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. 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.
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, they made up for in cold business savvy.
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.