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Publishers hit the streets

The Baltimore Sun

A year ago, Toy Styles, an Owings Mills massage therapist, sent an idea for a novel off to Triple Crown Publications, the nation's largest publisher of urban hip-hop fiction.

The head of the publishing company wrote right back: She would like to see the whole book in two weeks.

Styles, a single mother of a 16-year-old son, worked feverishly at her home computer, made the deadline and launched a new career as a novelist in a fast-growing genre called "Street Lit." Her first novel, A Hustler's Son, about a mother-and-son murder team, was published last year, and recently her second novel, Black and Ugly, was released.

Last year, African-Americans spent about $300 million on books, according to industry analysts, and Street Lit - urban fiction aimed at young-adult readers - accounted for a significant portion of the sales. New readers, mostly women between the ages of 18 to 35, account for the boom.

Street Lit views the world from a hip-hop perspective, with its emphasis on fast cash, the thug life and the quest for power and respect. Love, infidelity, jealousy and revenge are common themes.

This new pulp fiction comes with provocative titles and risque covers displaying the sculpted bodies of scantily clad men and women. For example, a Triple Crown novel titled Whore: Whoever said whoring wasn't easy ... has a cover photo highlighting the derriere of a woman in a skin-tight outfit as she steps into a car.

Some Street Lit authors have served time in jail or write from behind bars. Vicki Stringer, the Triple Crown executive who solicited Style's novel, served a prison term for drug dealing. A Baltimore author, Dennis D. Wise, is a convicted murderer; Maryland prison officials considered so troublesome that they packed him off to a prison in Arizona.

Street Lit has drawn criticism from mainstream black writers because it is often shelved in the African-American section of major bookstores alongside the works of critically acclaimed black authors. Novels about drug dealers, prostitutes and seedy street hustlers do not belong on the same shelves with the works of Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, Terry McMillan and James Baldwin, they maintain.

Nick Chiles, a mainstream black author, denounced urban literature in an op-ed piece that appeared in The New York Times about a year ago. Chiles described Street Lit as "pornography for black women" and said he was "thoroughly embarrassed and disgusted" when he found it in the African-American section of a Borders bookstore.

"I felt as if I was walking into a pornography shop, except in this case, the smut is being produced by and for my people, and it is called 'literature,' " he wrote.

Street Lit's roots go back to Iceberg Slim, who in the late 1960s wrote about his life as a Chicago pimp, and Donald Goines, a Detroit heroin addict, who wrote about hustling and street life. Sister Souljah's 1999 book The Coldest Winter Ever is considered the prototype for contemporary urban novels.

The reaction to Street Lit is not all negative. John McClusky Jr. an African-American literature professor at the University of Indiana-Bloomington, said getting young people to read, regardless of the subject, is likely to be beneficial in the long run.

"Once they get into the habit of reading, that will guide them to the James Baldwins," McClusky said.

Styles said she has earned more than $100,000 from her writing. Like many other urban novelists, she draws heavily from her experience on the streets. Styles said when she was 21, she spent six months in jail after a fight in Washington. It was one of four times she was arrested in her younger days.

W. Paul Coates, founder of Black Classic Press, a Baltimore firm that specializes in black history and the works of traditional authors, admires the entrepreneurial spirit of Street Lit authors, some of whom pay to have their works published and hawk them on the Internet, at book fairs and on the streets.

"It would have been impossible in the old days to do that," said Coates. "The cost [of self-publishing] would have killed them."

Coates said the advent of digital printing has cut printing costs drastically. As a result, self-publishing has become a viable option for authors who are not picked up by large publishing houses or who choose to be independent.

The popularity of Street Lit comes at a time when retail sales in bookstores are sagging. According to the American Booksellers Association, "October was the fourth month in a row that retail sales at bookstores fell below 2005 levels" based on estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. Overall, retail bookstore sales dropped from $13.3 billion in Oct. 2005 to $13.1 billion in Oct. 2006, the figures show.

Sean Bentley, the buyer of black fiction for Borders Group Inc., which owns Borders and Waldenbooks, estimates that African-American literature has seen double-digit growth in the last few years. He said urban literature now accounts for about 25 percent of his purchases.

"It is popular," Bentley said. "It is speaking to a group of people that for a long time did not have an opportunity to have their lives told."

Borders and Waldenbooks have African-American sections where Street Lit is shelved with traditional black literature. But Barnes and Noble Inc., the country's largest retailer, does not place Street Lit books in its African-American sections, instead displaying them in general fiction.

Joe Holtzman, Borders Group Inc. category manager for fiction, said he has heard grumbling from readers who wonder why urban novels are not shelved in the general fiction section at Borders bookstores.

But Holtzman said the company has done surveys showing that most customers prefer to have the urban novels in the African-American section and "we are going to keep it that way."

Urban Knowledge bookstore in Baltimore's Mondawmin Mall caters to readers of Street Lit. The store's owner, Carl Weber, is the author of nine urban novels, and the owner of six other book stores, including two in the Baltimore area. Some of Weber's novels include Baby Momma Drama, Married Men and Lookin' For Luv.

Stephanie Wilkerson-Hester, the store's manager, said readers often come in search of the latest releases. "I have a very loyal customer base here who are book junkies," she said.

Wendell Shannon, 42, of Baltimore, writes his books, pays to have them published and distributes them. He said he hawked copies of his novel, For the Love of Fast Money from his car. Shannon is the head of Go-Daddy Productions. He has one writer in his fold, Wise, who is serving a life term for murder. In 1999, Maryland prison officials transferred Wise from the state's super-maximum security prison - where he was locked in a single cell for 23 hours a day - to an Arizona prison. Maryland officials said they shipped Wise out of state after linking him to a prison gang with tentacles that stretched to the streets of Baltimore. Wise is the author of a novel titled The Wolf Trap.

Shannon said he wants to move away from Street Lit to write urban gospel plays. Shannon said he could see the bubble bursting with so many urban authors on the market.

Meanwhile, Stringer's rags-to-riches story has been highlighted in major newspapers and magazines. She served seven years in a federal prison after a conviction for drug dealing. She said she got into the drug game after falling in love with a dealer, and she made as much as $30,000 a week dealing in Columbus, Ohio.

Stringer said she was behind bars when she began writing her first novel, Let That Be the Reason, and after her release she asked friends for contributions to get it self-published. Her career took off in 2002 after her novel was picked up by a black publishing house in New York. She went on to found Triple Crown, based in Columbus, which generates more than $1 million annually.

Stringer's said she is optimistic about Street Lit's future.

"It is going to continue to grow," Stringer said of urban literature. "It is very similar to music and clothing. Now it is literature. Everything is urban. Generation Y has an appetite for it."

Stringer conceded that it is becoming harder to turn out original plots and characters as more and more novels are churned out. Only the best writers will survive, she predicted.

"Writers who have authentic creativity, those are the ones who will have longevity," Stringer said. "So many writers may do the same thing, but the fans are going to choose who they love. The others will fall by the wayside."

Styles said her newest work, Black and Ugly, tells the story of four friends who have a murderous secret come out during a game of Truth or Dare.

"A lot of the stories may be the same," Styles said. "But I have got to make sure my stories are on point, it takes fresh ideas."

brent.jones@baltsun.com

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