The Urban Fiction Craze
edited: Monday, March 07, 2005
By Alvin C. Romer
Rated "G" by the Author.
Posted: Monday, March 07, 2005
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This is an assessment of the street fiction and the hip hop culture in literary circles
THE URBAN FICTION CRAZE
There's a windstorm of change taking place in the Downtown Crossing kiosk of Lloyd Hart's Black Library Booksellers. The popular novels by mainstream African-American authors that once held dominant positions on Hart's cart are ceding space to books by Nikki Turner, Carl Weber, Teri Woods, and Shannon Holmes. These cinematic novels about the lives of hookers, hoodlums, and hit men didn't emerge from the presses of big name publishers. This is the fare of independent companies such as Teri Woods Publishing, Triple Crown Publications, Black Print Publishing, and Urban Books. Their titles luxuriate in the slang of hip-hop. There's "A Hustler's Wife," "Gangsta" "True to the Game," and "Baby Momma Drama." They invite potential readers to take a literary walk on the wild side: "Indulge in the world of sex, crime, and brutality," reads the tag line of Wahida Clark's "Every Thug Needs a Lady." If that doesn't persuade customers to pick it up, perhaps the cover image of two hootchy mamas caressing the titular thug will. The novels represent a genre so young that different people call them different things. To some they're urban or street fiction; others prefer the term "hip-hop lit." Ex-con turned author and publisher Vickie Stringer, whose Triple Crown offerings populate Hart's cart, places her novels firmly in the latter category: "It's hip-hop fiction, because it's mirroring the things you saw in the music," she says.
Hart lumps both genres together. "Actually, I don't find too much of a difference between both of them, because the urban genre is essentially the urban environment. It deals with street-savvy gangsters. Hip-hop is more of a gang-type hustling." Generally speaking, says Hart, if a story contains a romantic element, it's an urban novel. Whatever you call them, consumers are snapping them up. About 40 to 55 percent of Hart's sales are now in the urban genre. You can buy the novels on Amazon.com and read reviews about them in Publishers Weekly. Sessalee Hensley, a fiction buyer for Barnes & Noble Booksellers, plans to spotlight the books in her stores this spring. "This kind of fiction sells," Hensley says, "but since publishing is mostly white and mostly middle age, I'm not sure that they have quite grasped what the true market is." Some mainstream publishers are beginning to get the message. Carl Weber snagged a deal last year with Kensington Publishing to distribute his Urban Books line. St. Martin's Press signed K'wan. Ballantine's One World imprint scooped up Nikki Turner, and Simon & Schuster's Atria Books imprint offered contracts to Stringer and Shannon Holmes, whose first Atria release, "Bad Girlz," sold 50,000 copies the first three weeks of its October release.
Miramax Books is so confident about first-time author Erica Kennedy's hip-hop novel "Bling!" it simultaneously signed her to a film and book deal last year. The novel arrives in June with a first printing of 100,000 copies. Even established authors want a slice of the urban book pie. Under the pseudonym the Urban Griot, Omar Tyree plans to enter the fray in August with "Coldblooded."
"We are subject to trends," says Geoff Kloske, Tyree's Simon & Schuster editor. "There was a time where it was all about the Scott Turow courtroom drama. Many pretenders followed. Chick Lit has spawned hundreds of titles. When something works, we use that one example to say, `Hey, that works.' "Urban novels are nothing new. The godfathers of the genre, Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim, first brought their cult stories about gangsters, pimps, and drug dealers to the public in the '70s. Decades later, the authors found an avid audience in the hip-hop generation. It's no coincidence that an adaption of Goines's 1974 novel They Never Die Alone" will hit theaters on March 26 with rapper DMX in the lead role. "They just came out and did it in an unorthodox way," Stringer says of Goines and Slim. "That's why we as authors pay homage to them." The genre acquired a contemporary voice with the publication of hip-hop activist Sister Souljah's 1999 effort, "The Coldest Winter Ever." Souljah hooked readers with her gripping tale about the spoiled daughter of a drug kingpin who becomes a player in that world after the arrest of her father. The mass-market paperback version of the novel has sold almost 400,000 copies since Nielsen BookScan began compiling numbers three years ago. Its success inspired a new generation of writers to tell more urban-flavored tales and spawned the independent publishers that produce them.
"The customers kind of dictated it," Weber says. "They said, `I want a book with drama in it, a book with regular people.' "Weber learned what readers wanted in his other job as the owner of five bookstores in the New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia areas. By the time "Baby Momma Drama," his third novel, reached fans' hands last year, he'd clearly struck a chord. The novel remained at the top of Essence magazine's bestsellers list for five months. Now he pulls triple duty as author, publisher, and editorial director of Urban Books. Its first entry, "Drama Queen" by La Jill Hunt, debuted last fall. The people who flock to Hart's cart for urban books are often women between the ages of 15 and 35, says Hart. With hip-hop ensconced in the mainstream, the audience isn't only black or Latino. A Wall Street bookseller told Stringer that investment bankers clamor for Triple Crown titles. Some read the literature because it spirits them to a dangerous world populated with characters who speak in familiar slang. "They're real interesting," says Kelly Lewis, 32, of Lower Roxbury, who planned to buy three urban books from Hart's kiosk. "The talk in them, the ghettoness, I like that."
Others embrace the novels because, like hip-hop lyrics, they reflect the readers' humble origins. "I've been through all of this," says Juan Flores, 34, of Charlestown, who was on the verge of buying "Street Life" by Jihad. He intends to use the books to show young men like him who were raised in the projects that there are other options. You don't have to page through the books to get that message. The personal stories of some of the authors contain morals as well. Stringer, who lives in Columbus, Ohio, began writing her first novel, "Let That Be the Reason," while serving seven years in a federal prison for cocaine trafficking. When you speak to the 30-something entrepreneur now, she peppers her sentences with allusions to her "checkered past" or the time when she was a "wayward person." Her company, Triple Crown, is a daily reminder of where she came from -- it's named after the crew she ran with before her arrest in 1994. Stringer received 26 rejection letters from mainstream publishers for her tale about a female hustler caught up in the streets that's loosely based on her life. Fed up, she decided to self-publish three years ago, selling 1,000 copies from the trunk of her car in a week. Word spread about her success, and soon other writers began begging her to publish them. The next year, armed with $5,000 in investment money, Stringer started Triple Crown by publishing her first author, K'wan. Now Stringer oversees a stable of 25 writers with 14 books in print. She sold 300,000 books her first 14 months in business, she says. Her goal is to sell 1 million novels this year. The genre hasn't evaded controversy. Some criticize the books for glamorizing the underworld. The complaints are not much different from those leveled at hip-hop lyrics and movies. Stringer responds that her publications are "cautionary tales." "Quite frankly," she says, "I would like my life to be an example of what not to do."
The first portion of it, at least. Lately, Stringer's life reads like a fairy tale. She juggles phone calls from buyers representing Wal-Mart and Barnes & Noble who offer to carry her hot titles in their stores. She's made the jump to the mainstream: Atria Books will publish Stringer's "Imagine This" in July. After two years in business, she's grabbed the literary brass ring: Stringer is currently mulling over Atria's offer to distribute Triple Crown. "It was almost comical to see it go full circle," Stringer says. "That was the sweetest revenge: You went from unwanted to most wanted."She's less magnanimous when it comes to other authors' attempts to elbow into the genre -- authors such as Tyree, who sees his Urban Griot persona as a way to move beyond his predominantly female readership. Tyree made his name writing relationship novels such as his popular self-published 1993 tome "Flyy Girl," a coming-of-age story about a middle-class girl from the Philly suburbs. In comparison, "Coldblooded" is a fast-paced story of a college student in love with a hit man that is packed with car chases and violence. "It's like an action movie as opposed to a novel," says Kloske.
Instead of getting intimidated, Stringer is learning how to hustle in a different arena. She's become an agent, getting deals for three of her authors, including K'wan, who signed a six-figure, three-book deal with St. Martin's Press. There's no doubt in her mind that she can succeed in this genre better than the mainstream houses because she knows the lingo and the life. "I have something they don't," Stringer says. "I know how to pick them." Barnes & Noble's Hensley thinks Stringer has a point. It's also possible, she says, that the publishing world is betting heavily on a genre that has already peaked or that works by a different ethic. Will fans clamor to buy 100,000 copies of a story about a hip-hop music mogul's attempts to make a star out of a small-town singer if it's written by Erica Kennedy, an unproven author? "I go back to when all the mainstream publishers jumped on the Gen-X bandwagon," says Hensley, "about two years too late. It may be a little of that. It may be something that mainstream publishers can't really grasp."