Street Lit and Urban Lit is red hot right now. The authors are making money hand over fist and publishers can’t keep titles on the shelf. However, if writers and publishers in the genre don’t work through their business issues, it could run into the same troubles that bankrupted African-American musicians and African-American owned record labels in the early days of Rock N' Roll.
Like the musicians from a few generations ago, many Urban/Street lit authors are great hustlers who can sell thousands of copies of a book on the street with some slick talk and a charming smile. Unfortunately, like those musicians back in the day, many Urban/Street Lit writers are so busy counting the fast money they’re making on the corner that they have no idea how the business side of publishing works in the office or what’s going on with their royalties or the rights to their material in their contracts.
And like the owners of those fly-by-night record labels back in the day, many of the Urban/Street Lit publishers that are signing authors to publishing contracts have no idea what they’re doing as businesspeople. Eventually, their mismanagement of the titles in their catalog could lead to a very nasty legal situation in a couple of years regarding the rights of their writer’s material.
What could be coming could be a legal can of worms that could take years for the courts to figure out. And with the complexity of U.S. Copyright laws, that’s a fight which could go on for decades.
Many writers have no idea what rights they’ve signed away when they sold their manuscripts. Many publishers have no idea what rights they bought when they offered to publish books. No one has an understanding of the protocols used in publishing to settle grievances about unpaid advances or unpaid royalties. Instead of learning about the business of publishing, everyone is still acting like big shot street hustlers living for the day, and not thinking about tomorrow.
What the writers and publishers of Urban/Street Lit need to understand is Publishing is not a hustle.
Fast money may be the way of the streets, but it’s not how things are done in publishing.
Publishing is a business that runs like a marathon. It requires patience, endurance, experience, creativity, and skill. Smart writers and publishers who plan for the entire 26-mile-course can survive the race because they understand it’s filled with numerous potholes.
Unfortunately, a hustler’s business model is only designed for short sprints.
On the streets, it’s get the cash and go for a hustler. As long as a hustler gets paid they don’t care what happens to the people around them. That mercenary mentality could have a devastating impact on the African-American book market and African-American readers in the future.
Because many in the street lit game have no understanding of how fragile the business model for publishing is or how razor thin the profit margin is, they have no idea that their entire sub-genre is one market shift away from collapsing. As publishers big and small currently flood the Black book market with Urban/Street fiction it prevents African-American reading audience from having choices. That lack of diversity on the bookstore shelf could create a domino effect which could cripple the African-American Fiction genre in the future.
While most in the street Lit/Urban lit game are only thinking about making money today, they’re not planning for tomorrow. Seriously, what happens in the genre five years from now? A decade from now? What happens when Urban lit goes out of vogue with black audiences? What happens when the audience grows up and desires more sophisticated material?
In the aftermath of a major market shift like the publishing collapse of 2008, the hustlers will run away and find another money making racket leaving everyone else who works in the publishing industry to pick up the pieces and clean up the mess.
It’ll be up to the courts to figure out who owns what rights and if it’s possible to collect any lost royalties from bankrupt Urban lit publishers. Large publishing houses burnt from losses on Urban/Street Lit titles could grow wary of publishing any other African-American titles. Bookstores and distributors stuck with overstocks of unsold unreturnable Urban/Street Lit titles due to the bankruptcies of publishers could also grow wary of ordering books by other African-Amercan authors and other African-American publishers. It could take years for African-American fiction market to recover as it corrects itself if it continues on this course.
In that time readers will have a harder time finding new African-American fiction titles at bookstores and African-American writers will struggle to find a mass-market venue to publish their work.
Sure hustlers are selling Urban/Street Lit today. But publishers and authors in the genre need to start thinking about the future of their business. Selling books isn’t always going to be a constant stream of fast easy money, nor is every title a writer produces is going to be a hit. Publishers can go through long periods of financial instability as they search for that next best seller. And writers can go through lean periods where no income from writing comes in for YEARS. If the genre is going to survive, Urban/Street lit publishers and writers are going to have to break out of a Hustler mindset and into a business mentality.