Many years ago in another lifetime I sat in the office of a friend and mentor. I was complaining about my employer at the time, reciting a long list of things I felt was wrong with the company. My friend sat patiently and listened to my diatribe, nodding his head thoughtfully as I went on to exhaustion. Once I was done, he leaned back in his chair and said, ‘Milton, I’m sure there are a lot of things your company could do to improve. But on the other hand, you work for a $400 million dollar company. Instead of concentrating on what they’re doing wrong, you should take the time to find out what they’re doing right.”
This explains my attitude toward Street Lit. After bursting onto the literary scene from the streets of New York years ago, Street Lit had become the dominant form of African American literature on the market today, for better or worse. As a black science fiction and fantasy writer, I constantly listen to my fellow writers complain about the genre, how it is lowering the standards of black readers and stealing shelf space from not only our works but those of ‘more literary writers’ like Terry McMillian and Tony Morrison. While there are complex reasons why this is happening, the obvious reason to me is simple: hustle.
Street Lit wasn’t created by mainstream publishers. It wasn’t nurtured by small press publishers. The Street Lit market was created by self publishing writers who wrote their stories, printed their books and took to the streets to sell them. They called on beauty shops, barbershops, street corners, any place where they thought they could sell their books. They didn’t pursue the traditional outlets because they either didn’t know how to or didn’t want to. They pursued the readers. In the process they founds readers who responded to their words and who overlooked details such as editing, spelling and grammar. In the end these entrepreneurial wordsmiths created a lucrative market that mainstream publishers couldn’t ignore. And as much as book store managers complain about the content, these books still fill the shelves. Why? Because they sell.
So what has Street Lit taught us? That’s it as much or more about hard work as it is about skill. The lesson should resonate more among independent writers such as myself than my mainstream published kin, although they too should take note. Like my mentor taught me long ago, don’t concentrate on what you feel the Street Lit writer is doing wrong, focus on what they’re doing right then apply it to your efforts. And as far as converting the millions of Street Lit fans to science fiction and fantasy? Don’t waste your time. There may be a few that would warm up to a Sword and Soul epic or lose themselves in a YA post apocalyptic yarn, but they are already reading what they prefer. Get out there and find your own audience. The process has been created; all you have to do is adapt it to your needs.
So get out there and get your hustle on.