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Hip Hop Lit

September 09, 2004

A former federal inmate started a hip hop lit publishing company -- and biz is good. (NYT 9/8/04)

September 8, 2004

Unorthodox Publisher Animates Hip-Hop Lit

OLUMBUS, Ohio - Don't underestimate Vickie Stringer, zipping along in her BMW X5, multitasking as she goes, giving one radio interview on her cellphone to a station in Florida, another interview to the reporter beside her and depositing a check at her drive-in bank.

Three years after completing a seven-year federal prison sentence for drug trafficking and money laundering, Ms. Stringer has entered the slightly more rarefied precincts of book publishing. And she's getting rich. "I plan to be a millionaire by the end of this year," she said.

In 2001 Ms. Stringer self-published her first novel, "Let That Be a Reason," about her life as a madam and drug dealer. She said it has sold more than 100,000 copies.

She founded Triple Crown Publications, named after her drug crew, and now publishes 15 other writers of "hip-hop," "street" lit, or "ghetto fiction," as it's called. They are writers in the tradition of Donald Goines and Robert Beck, their work mainly African-American in content, filled with vivid depictions of sex and urban violence.

Along with Teri Woods, author of "True to the Game," about the Philadelphia drug trade; Shannon Holmes, who wrote his novel "B-More Careful," from jail; "K'Wan," author of "Gangsta"; and Nikki Turner, author of "A Hustler's Wife," about a woman led astray by a drug lord, Ms. Stringer has tapped a market that until recently has been largely ignored by major publishers.

Now Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, has bought Ms. Stringer's second novel, "Imagine This," a sequel to her first. Published in August, it is part of a two book, six-figure deal. Simon and Schuster and St. Martin's Press have been talking to her about distribution deals with Triple Crown.

When big publishers began poaching her authors, she became their agent. "My attorney said: 'Don't get mad. Get paid,' " Ms. Stringer said. She negotiated a three-book, six figure deal for K'Wan, her first author, with St. Martin's. His book for that company, "Street Dreams," is due in September. She also negotiated deals with St. Martin's for two more of her authors, Tracy Brown and Joylynn Jossel, and was co-agent for her author Nikki Turner with Ballantine's One World imprint.

At a time when the National Endowment for the Arts warns that book readership is declining, "hip-hop lit" is finding a larger audience. There are no hard sales figures on the books because most are self-published and marketed the same way as hip-hop music was a generation ago: out of cars, in the streets, through flyers, in beauty salons and car washes in African-American neighborhoods. But now, as it did with hip-hop, the mainstream is beginning to notice.

"The mainstream publishers forgot the African-American market, that will buy books, that wants to buy books," Ms. Stringer said. "What I wanted to read, you didn't have in your store."

Manie Barron, an agent for African-American authors, said he regularly checked for new authors among the hip-hop lit sold by vendors on 125thStreet in Harlem. "They are all making money," he said. "Where does the N.E.A. report come in?"

One reason for the genre's growth is that "self-publishing is much easier now," said Calvin Reid, an editor at Publishers Weekly. "Before, you had to spend thousands of dollars. Now you can have your book wonderfully published for several hundred dollars and print on demand."

Add to that, "conscientious, relentless marketing," Mr. Reid said, "and you have a recipe for success. They have set up an alternative network of marketing and selling."

Who's reading these books? Most of Ms. Stringer's authors are women, but she insisted that men, traditionally a difficult group to reach for fiction, read them too.

"Black males are coming back to literature," Mr. Barron said. "These are characters that reflect them.''

Malaika Adero, a senior editor at Atria, said that the readership for hip-hop fiction "crosses class lines.''

"It's not just one type of black reader who is drawn to this work. African-Americans of all ages will read this, people who don't have a hip-hop sensibility, for the same reason non-Italians like 'The Sopranos.' "

Ms. Stringer, 34, is herself an example of crossing class lines. She grew up in Detroit. Her mother was a teacher, her father an engineer for General Motors.

She had dancing lessons and piano lessons. She attended Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo for a year, and was about to transfer to Ohio State when she met a man who was a drug dealer.

"I loved him," she said. "I wanted to be with the bad boys."

In 1992 they had a son, Valen, now 12. After she and Valen's father separated Ms. Stringer became a madam, she said, and dealt drugs to support herself and her son. She said that she was never a heavy drug user.

"My vices are shopping and overeating," said Ms. Stringer, who is not above laughing at herself. Then in September 1994 she was arrested outside her son's day care center. "A friend set me up," she said. Her child's father was also arrested.

She pleaded guilty, and prison followed. Her parents took custody of Valen. The separation from him was agonizing, she said.

She began writing "Let That Be the Reason" in prison out of boredom. It took three weeks. Like Ms. Stringer, Pamela, the main character, starts an escort service and is led into drug dealing by her boyfriend, Chino.

"Chino taught me so much," Pamela says in the book.

"Lessons of the streets. Rule No.1: Get Paid; Rule No.2: Don't trust nobody, not even yourself; Rule No.3: Stay Free. It was time to accept the fact that he had raised me as far as the streets were concerned." Ms. Stringer said she tried to make the characters complex. Chino can be hard and abusive, and loving: "I'd give all my love to you, and if you need me baby, I'd come running.'' Pamela may be a drug dealer and a madam, but she's also a devoted mother and treats her prostitute employees well. The Colombian drug lord who runs the operation has an Old World courtesy.

In January 2001 Ms. Stringer was released from prison. Working as a bartender, she began sending her manuscript to publishers and agents. She had 26 rejections. "They said it was not well written," she said. "It was unrealistic."

So she borrowed $2,500 and had 1,000 copies of the book printed. She sold them in the neighborhood and sold out in three weeks. People called asking for copies. "Word of mouth is important in the African-American market," she said. "We're not always able to trust advertising." She founded Triple Crown with a $5,000 loan, to keep up with the demand.

Other writers began to send her manuscripts. One was K'wan who sent her "Gangsta." "I sold 10,000 books in the first month," she said. She persuaded a friend to design the jackets free and to set up a Web site, www.triplecrownpublications.com. Today Ms. Stringer lives in an upscale development in Columbus and sends Valen to private school.

Triple Crown has a staff of nine. Ms. Stringer met her office manager, Tamara Fournier, in jail. Two of her authors are inmates and appear on her Web site in prison garb. "Do you know how proud that makes me when their mothers call me up crying?" she asked. "They say, 'I'm gonna take this book to a family reunion.' "

Business is getting so good, Ms. Stringer said, that she is hoping to move to 5,000 square feet of space in a former library. The space is very appropriate, Ms. Stringer said. "It's filled with the spirit of reading."

-- Baby Tees Are Sold Out! --