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Saturday, October 23, 2010

Hey Street Lit Authors, The Publishing Industry Is NOT The Music Business

I’ve read a couple of articles about the drama going on behind the scenes of urban lit publishers. Stuff like Wahida Clark’s issues with her former assistant and several street/urban lit authors complaining about publishers like Carl Weber’s Urban Books and Triple Crown Publications not paying them royalties. While publishers and authors have had disputes over things like this for years, urban lit/street lit authors are taking it to another level by broadcasting their grievances with their publishers in public forums.

I kinda saw this coming a couple of years ago. Mix ignorant inexperienced writers with ignorant inexperienced publishers and eventually I knew it’d be a recipe for trouble. Some Urban/Street lit writers have made a little change on their advances, sold a few thousand books, and now think that they’re stars. The publishers think they’re ballers cause the money is rolling in. Everybody is running around with bling, buying Escalades, drinking Dom and posing like celebrities.

Now they’re trying to have beefs like rap stars.

Someone needs to tell these fools the publishing business is NOT the music business.

Please don’t bring that ignorant ghetto nonsense that ruined hip-hop into the literary world. We do not need shoot-outs at book signings, drive-bys in front of the Barnes & Noble, fistfights at readings, and writers shooting jabs at back each other in their novels.

Books are not songs, and a no publisher will ever be Diddy, Jay-Z, or Swizz Beatz. Publishing is a business with a three to six percent profit margin in a good year. No one is going to become a media mogul publishing books alone. There’s just not enough money going around in the industry to support that lifestyle. Most professional writers use the little money they earn from their writing to supplement their salaries from their day jobs, and most publishers rely heavily on the licensing of properties from their best-selling books to make ends meet. Listening to all the craziness, I wonder if most urban/street lit authors and publishers understand the business model for their products.

Some best-selling authors think all the money made from the sales of their books should go to them. And how is the publisher supposed to pay to produce new material, develop new writers and gain new readers? Isn’t the revenue from the best-sellers and backlist books supposed to pay for the publisher’s new titles? That’s how it’s done at all the other publishing houses in Manhattan. But I guess Urban/Street lit authors are special.

If these authors want a bigger piece of the pie on their titles, I suggest they invest in self-publishing. 60 percent profits, 100 percent of the headaches. Then they can learn first-hand how 55-60% retailer discounts to bookstores and returns take a huge chunk of the money they allege the publisher is taking from them. And I won’t get into the headaches from distributors. Where are the books that were supposed to go to the Barnes & Noble on 23rd? They were sent to Borders on 32nd!

Then there are the Street/urban lit authors who believe their books should remain in print indefinitely even if they’re not selling. Here’s a fact every author Urban or otherwise needs to understand: 90 percent of all new titles published each year fail to get an audience. Most new published books are out-of-print after six months, and nine of the remaining ten percent that do survive are out-of-print after three to five years.

For authors who want their books to have more shelf time, I suggest print-on-demand publishing. Pay $12 a year and Lightning Source will keep a book in print all year.

Along with those misguided writers are the Urban/Street Lit publishers who want to hold onto the rights of out-of-print books with the delusion that they’re gonna go up in value like songs in a music catalog. A title that’s out of print has no value to a publisher. Going to court and suing over worthless rights takes away money from a publisher’s already razor thin profit margin. Smart publishers let the rights to discontinued titles revert back to the author so they can invest resources in new titles.

Along with those deluded publishers are the paranoid urban/street lit writers who think the publisher is out to steal their rights. Usually when a writer sells the rights to publish their manuscript, it’s only for the rights to print a title in North America. All other rights belong to the writer. This includes, electronic, (ebook) film, TV and foreign rights. If the words “all rights” are in ANY contract a publisher is offering the writer should RUN AWAY AS FAST AS THEY CAN FROM THAT PUBLISHER!

If a writer is worried about their rights I suggest they read their contract. Better yet, get a literary agent or an entertainment lawyer to look over the terms before signing on the dotted line.

Another group of paranoid writers with stars in their eyes think their publisher is gonna steal their book’s film rights and sell them to a Hollywood producer. Usually when a writer hits this stage of paranoia, they’ve gone insane. It’s best to batten down the hatches because the writer’s ego is at critical mass and will blow at any moment.

Urban/Street Writers need to understand this: Hollywood is the only interested in a book if it’s a best-seller with a million or more copies in print and a built-in commercial audience. Most Urban Lit/Street Lit novels are niche books that barely crack 25,000 in sales and the top sellers barely reach the 100,000 mark in sales. Harry Potter and Twilight numbers those ain’t. Heck, those aren’t even Getting to Happy Numbers.

Seriously, there’s no need for all this drama from street lit authors. If an author is having issues with their royalties, they can call their agent or a good entertainment lawyer and request an audit from their publishers. If an author continues to have issues with a publisher they can wait until their contract expires, let the rights revert back to them, and take their titles elsewhere, or self-publish them. All this airing of dirty laundry just further tarnishes urban/Street lit authors, publishers, and their products in the public eye.

Some advice to Street Lit/Urban Lit writers and the publishers who print their books: The literary world isn’t the music business. You’re not stars. You’re not media moguls. You’re working writers and publishers struggling to survive in a crowded book market. All it takes for your audiences’ taste to change and you’ll be unsellable mid-list authors and bankrupt publishers with an out-of-print catalog. Keep your eye on the prize. Stop being flashy and focus on improving the substance of your books.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Shawn very good piece. Have you thought of doing op ed pieces or movie/commentary for for blog sites?

    Lotus Writing & Communications

    SEE my URLs:

  3. Can you share the links of where authors and publishers are feuding over the issues you outline here? Thank you for a very interesting post.

  4. Liz, I've thought of doing op-ed peices for other blogs, and my work gets simulcast on Onixlink.

    There are several articles discussing this issue

    On the AALBC Board:

    Deja Joy King discusses her issues with her former publisher:

    Tobias King tells his side of the story in his conflict with Wahida Clark:

  5. Man, Shawn. First and formost my name is Sean too. I couldnt help but notice that. But anyway, you don't even know how significant this piece and those links are to someone as young and aspiring as me. I'm from Chicago, 18 yrs old, and a street lit/ urban fiction writer myself. Wahida Clark is the very reason I began writing in the first place. She and Noire (Author of G-Spot, Candy Licker, and more) are my inspiration because they seem to be two of few writers with actual talent for this. However the reason I'm leaving this comment is because I see a promising future ahead for me but your article and the one written by Tobias A. Fox (The first article I've ever read relating to this writing industry drama) are true eye openers to things I have to deeply consider when it comes to trying to make it not only as a writer but in the few other careers I plan to pursue. You know what, to keep a long explanation short I would really love to email you or something, in regards to this whole writing thing because you seem to be extremely knowledgeable and I could use a little guidance. Espeacially since I'm young and promising, and there's no doubt about it. I mean, I'm somebody that believes with hard work and dedication any measure of skill can be obtained, be it skill that surpasses Jay-Z or Kobe Bryant; I believe I can really succeed in this world but I need...advice. Therefore, I'm hoping you reply to this so I can get it.

  6. Sean:

    You can hit me up on my MySpace or My Facebook. Links are at the bottom of the page in the listing of websites I frequent. I'm on there all the time. I'd be glad to share what I know with you.

    My goal with this article was to help writers like yourself understand the business of writing. There's a lot of pitfalls in the publishing game and you have to watch out for them. Writing is a craft and publishing is a business and if you're not savvy, you can get taken by sharks and hustlers. Publishing is a long-haul business and it may take a long time to see any profits. So you definitely have to have a day job while you write and a long-term business plan for marketing and promoting your book when you publish it. Some books take years to find an audience, and you have to take care of your bills until that big break hits. I'm on my fourth book and still waiting for hte big break to come.

    And you have to know what rights you are selling when you sign up with a publisher, and what their plan is to promote your book. Usually, there's next to no promotional support when you publish a first book so you have to hustle and hustle hard to get the word out about your story.

    You also have to know how long the publisher is gonna hold your rights so you can get them back. It's best to do your reserarch before submitting any work. is one of the first places you should check out when you finish your book.