Kwame Alexander isn't your typical, buttoned-down book publisher. Equal parts poet, businessperson, and revolutionary, he's an interesting mix of artistic/political idealism and bling-bling business savvy. One minute, he's riffing convincingly about publishing works "from the cutting edge of black literature." In the next breath, he's talking about turning his company, BlackWords, into "the Motown of black literature." If such notions seem incompatible, Alexander's track record suggests otherwise.
Since founding the Alexandria, Va.-based BlackWords five years ago, the 32-year-old Alexander has put together a lean but diverse catalog for the company, a catalog with both literary cachet and commercial appeal. For every challenging volume of poetry, such as Tonya Maria Matthews' These Hips and Other Songs to Minista to a People's Soul, there's a popular page-turner, such as Tony Lindsay's One Dead Preacher, an urban mystery for the Easy Rawlins crowd.
"I believe very strongly that books are entertainment in addition to being educational," Alexander says. "I really try to promote that concept with what we choose to publish." (Alexander has also released a compact disc, Jazz Poetry Kafe: The BlackWords Compilation CD, that mixes spoken word performances with classic and acid jazz.)
When asked if BlackWords' diversity reflects the company's origins, Alexander is candid. "Actually, I kind of backed into that," he says. "I started off with the focus being poetry."
A poet himself, Alexander attended Virginia Tech, where he studied with poet/activist Nikki Giovanni. After graduation, he went to work for his father, who was a publisher of educational books. "I wanted to publish poetry, and my father, like most publishers, kept telling me that poetry didn't sell," Alexander recalls. "So he wasn't going to do it. After a couple years of beating my fist against the wall, I quit and moved to D.C."
There, he immersed himself in the local poetry scene, performed at various slams, and finally mustered the courage to form his own company. "After a few years of research and development, I knew that poetry would sell and I was determined to show [my father] and show the world that it would," he says. "In 1995, I decided to publish a [poetry book] and promote it heavily to prove that it could sell."
Actually, Alexander published two volumes of poetry--Stacey Lyn Evans' Real Soul Food and his own Just Us. He and Evans embarked on a whirlwind, 30-city tour of readings, signings, and performances that took them from Washington to Los Angeles and back. It was an exhilarating and sobering experience. Alexander says he sold a couple thousand copies of each book, but after deducting printing, marketing, and administrative costs, the company was left with about $500 in the coffers. He knew that wasn't going to cut it.
Encouraged by the success of Terry McMillan's Waiting to Exhale, Alexander decided to publish fiction. "There already seemed to be a market on the boom, and I thought that maybe I could sell a novel a lot quicker," he says.
That's exactly what happened. An unknown writer named Van Whitfield approached Alexander about publishing his book Beeperless Remote, a romantic comedy about the contemporary dating scene. Alexander liked the book, had some innovative ideas about marketing it (a series of mysterious posters asking after the book's protagonist--"Have you seen Shawn Wayne?"--were plastered across D.C. Metro stops), and gave it the green light in 1996. It generated quite a buzz, sold about 5,000 copies in a month's time, and caught the attention of major publishers. A weak contract between BlackWords and Whitfield enabled Doubleday to eventually scoop up the book. "It was a devastating loss for the company," Alexander admits. "And it made me consider getting out of the business, but I got over it."
He did so by getting into yet another genre, literary nonfiction. After Tupac Shakur was murdered in September 1996, Alexander asked a variety of writers to reflect and pontificate on the slain rapper's impact on popular culture, especially the African-American community. The result was Tough Love: Cultural Criticism and Familial Observations on the Life and Death of Tupac Shakur, which was released just two months after Shakur's death.
Alexander admits a business element to the decision, citing the success of other ripped-from-the-headlines books. "After O.J. Simpson had his trial, 16 people became millionaires with their books," he says. "So we decided to do a book on Tupac. . . . Because it was about Tupac, it had a built-in advertising and marketing plan. We were able to piggyback on to things that were already going on, in terms of tributes and new albums. [The book] was a huge success."
But if Alexander the businessperson greenlighted the Tupac book, Alexander the revolutionary poet also had his hand on the switch. "Actually, the grandiose idea of making some money was my secondary thought," he says. "I knew that after Tupac's death the media pundits would be turning out articles and books on his significance, or lack thereof. I also knew that we--meaning the young, black writers who were Tupac's peers--were going to complain and be upset because, once again, we would have allowed people from outside this particular community to define him for us. My idea was to define Tupac for ourselves, from a place of love."
Despite the successes, BlackWords continued to be "somewhat undercapitalized, like most small presses," Alexander says. "As a result, distribution has always been our main obstacle. It's been difficult getting access to the traditional markets: the chain bookstores, the libraries, and the independent booksellers. That's where you generate your most significant revenue. Many people view the Internet as an equalizer to the whole distribution model, and to a certain degree it opens up other avenues such as Amazon and BarnesandNoble.com. We even have our own e-commerce site (www.blackwords.com), but that's still not enough to put you on parity with other publishers and their distribution models."
Alexander hopes an upcoming joint venture and infusion of capital will remedy the situation and allow BlackWords to compete at a higher level. On Jan. 1, the publishing house will complete its deal with Austin, Texas-based Manisy Willows, another indie press. The new entity will be called the Alexander Horton Group, and BlackWords and Manisy Willows will be imprints of the parent company. "We will focus on publishing fiction and nonfiction that teaches something vital about a particular culture," says Nina Horton, Alexander's new partner. "It could be Korean, or Jewish, and it could be written by someone who's black, white, blue, green, or whatever. As long is it's good."
The new company has seven titles scheduled for release next year, including poetry chapbooks, another mystery by Tony Lindsay, mainstream fiction by Horton (published under the pen name Nina Foxx), and a book of inspirational verse. Horton expects to handle marketing, sales, and distribution in Austin, while Alexander takes care of editorial matters in Washington. "Now, we'll be able to pitch the large chains and possibly print 15,000 to 20,000 copies of each book," Alexander says. "And we'll be able to maintain some level of independence to preserve our innovation and creativity. We will be able to grow and maintain control over our ideas. That's always been the goal."John Lewis writes for the Baltimore City Paper, where this piece first