Therone Shellman

Interview by Taylor Nix
February 2009


As black people, we don't own much in this day and age. However, it seems as though whenever we reach a particular level of success we are always eager to put a for a sale sign on our efforts, especially when mainstream America comes calling. What is your opinion on that? Should we sell? Or continue down the road of independence?
I personally do not think there is a problem with selling. Whites build companies all the time to sell and make a profit. This is the spirit of an entrepreneur. The real issue is whether blacks in general tend to sell themselves short. And this is the case for a lot of us in the music and literary business. Just because you sell and make a deal doesn’t mean it’s a good deal. A deal should either take your career to the next level, enable you to obtain capital which will put you in a position to do a lot more for yourself personally and with your career. Or in the case of someone who has built a business and is going for a sell out, it should be a deal of all deals, one in which you are getting your monies worth for your time and your contributions plus some. Not soon after I released “Love Don’t Live Here” I created my buzz on the street market, pushed some numbers and then put it on the market for sale. I was approached two times with deals. One was a manuscript sale where the literary agent had a cash deal. Another was by a mid sized publisher who got wind of the numbers I was doing in the streets, and wanted me to help them with a few titles and in return they would provide and expansion loan to Third Eye Publishing. In retrospect I should of sold “Love Don’t Live Here” because, I could of negotiated an imprint deal. Deals are not endings, they are the next step.

With the way things are progressing in "street/urban" literature, do you think there should be some form of industry standard in regards to editing and overall manufacturing, that publishers and authors meet before publishing books?
I’ve been down this road myself, and am committed personally as a writer, and publisher to put out titles which look no different from editorial and packaging then what mainstream publishers are putting out. Overall, I do feel there is an unwritten rule as to what a book should look like from front to back. With the release of “Even Numbers” by Barbara Grovner 12/07 I really started to pay attention to the overall manufacturing of a book-inside and out. People compliment me on the look and feel of our 2008 releases.

What advice would you give a new author?
First, get yourself a copy of’ The Secrets Of Self Publishing” A Booklet To Guide You by who other than myself. It seems like a plug-in for me, but it’s not because I know all the info in the book so I did not have to write it. I wrote it to help people like yourself. Recognize the business aspect of this out the gate. Secondly, create a three year plan out the gate. Furthermore, read this whole interview because I touch upon some important issues.

Is there a difference between street and urban literature? It seems everyone is quick to call their book "urban" but many do not know what it really means. Why is the word "urban" always tied to  Blacks/African Americans?
Street literature is what it’s coined, street. When you think of the streets, reality, gritty and raw come to mind. I’ve heard Donald Goines name used many times in reference to street literature. If he is a yard stick to measure the genre by then there is definitely a difference between street and urban lit. It’s obvious many do not even know what the word urban means. It means city, or having the characteristics of a city. Just because the characters are black does not make a story urban. Just because drama and crime is going on doesn’t necessarily make it urban. Mafia books have a whole lot of crime, but it’s not urban lit. In Amerikkka’s terms when you think of city, the thought of ghettoes and hoods come to mind because that’s where all of black America who lived in the northeast dwelled 3-4 decades ago. And believe it or not they would like to put the ones who escaped out back in there. Unfortunately many black folks minds are still there. They cannot see past poverty or how so and so is doing this and that to keep them down. Urban is tied to blacks, because it’s not pretty. Blacks identify with the term because psychologically they still believe they don’t deserve better than the worst of what America has to offer. The Mis-Education of The Negro by Dr. Carter G. Woodson for anyone who has read it gives a clear look at what we are talking about here.

How can we get this genre respected and put back on the right track?
For starters there are a lot of good writers. But the image that a lot of writers bring is what does no justice for the genre. You have the gangster, glamour and glitter, which tarnish our image as black professionals’ period in the lit business and as people who are progressive. Coming from the streets is no badge of honor. And let me tell you it’s safe to say 90% of cats who sold drugs, did a bid or know a little about sticking up are not gangsters. I’ve seen dudes turn homo, turn to the church, mosque, join gangs, posse up and for the most part in some way break down in prison and the streets. If the image of the genre is to change then it’s going to take the people who write to change. If you’re enslaved mentally, then that’s all you can spin from your mind. You have not matured to the point where you look at problems and seek solutions. Most of these books provide no solutions to the problems they present.

Book covers, I'll be very honest, I've seen some of the worst designed and produced covers in all my days since street lit hit the scene. However, I want to take you back a few years, when Sistah Souljah released Coldest Winter Ever. I didn't see such sexual images and flesh on that particular cover nor was any of it on True To The Game or B-More Careful or even the first set of Donald Goines and IceBerg Slim books. When and why do you think this happened?
Well, back then for the most part there wasn’t much erotica, especially when it came to African American lit. Secondly, the books and authors you mentioned blew up for the most part because of male readers in prison. As men our visuals are different than women, and once women started taking notice of these books, book clubs started forming online and off. Authors, publishers started taking heed to what women readers were saying and how they were responding to covers. So the sexually explicit covers were a result of women readers. Not all women but women for the most part who want to be entertained, with fantasy like stories, as well as cover imagery. They’re not even thinking about their culture, or how their identity as black women is being exploited.

Let's set the record straight right now: Is this literature, as literature is defined?
I think the question really is, is this form of literature in line with the history of African American literature? Well, it doesn’t take much for one to see that literature in every way has played an important part in the progress of our people here since the early 1900’s, probably before then. It started with black newspapers, dictating and defining our needs nationally. This is how we were kept in tune and in contact with one another in regards to important issues. Then came the books, which again provided needed information. Even when it came to African American fiction the stories did more than entertain. Now across the board in many ways African American fiction has changed. Yes, more young black people are reading. We all need to eat, but is eating a good thing if we are not eating the right foods? Take a look at obese people and what they eat. Then take a look at people who are in shape and see what they eat. So is reading alone justifiably a good thing? Literature is supposed to expand your mind beyond your every day circumstances and make you more worldy and well rounded. “You are what you think”. Well, what you think has everything to do with the knowledge and information you absorb. Is this literature as literature is defined all depends on whether you are looking at it through the eyes of a black person who realizes that knowledge is the first step to freedom and empowerment. Or are you a black person looking at it threw the eyes of someone who is mentally enslaved and sees books as a mere form of entertainment, even though brothers are getting gunned down by police every month, young black men are joining gangs and killing one another at an alarming rate. I could go on on, but in the face of all this lit is just a vehicle to entertain.

They say street lit (just as Hip Hop) destroys communities and creates violence. Do you agree? Can you elaborate on this a bit?
I don’t know if you mean urban lit or street lit. Street lit makes up a very small percentage of what’s being written. If Donald Goines is a yard stick to measure street lit, then I will say street lit not necessarily urban lit is a good tool to utilize on street culture and urban studies. And at many schools they do use his works for such. Remember there are no happy endings to his stories which make them a lot different than what we have right now. Urban lit, however is very different because like you said before everyone is throwing their books in the pile of this genre. So you have the hood rat stories, gold digger stories, the millionaire hustler stories, stick up kid stories, on and on. It’s no different with music. If your work encourages people to do good or spotlights solutions to problems, they will be in influenced by it. If it encourages people outright or subliminally to do other than that, they will act upon that because people are influenced by words and energy. If this was not the case they would not listen to music. They would not read books. It does something for them internally because words are spiritual in nature and causes people to think and therefore react.

What adversities have you faced as an author and publisher?
As an author I finally came to the point of defining who my readership and target market is early 2008, two and a half years after the release of “Love Don’t Live Here”. Even though I’ve sold 16,000 copies of the title with more than half of this number in the street market it was hard to tell because, I have good energy, I know how to speak and I deal with people in the hood as well as well to do people who shop in suburban malls and buy from the chain book stores. For the most part as an author I’ve sort of been caught up between readers who represent two different mind sets and variations between the age groups. As a publisher I built this company from the ground up with no loans, no partnership funds and no partners, so I basically multi-tasked up to this point of 11 titles. This year I will be doing a lot of structuring, and bringing on people to take my vision further. Being too involved with day to day tasks has been my main adversity as a publisher, but at the point right now where things will change.

[[ VIEW VIDEO CLIP OF THERONE SHELLMAN BELOW ]]

How has your relationship been with the African American book market and the Mainstream book market?
For starters my first title “Love Don’t Live Here” is not the typical book a black male would write, especially here in NY. The story is a little bit of urban, Christian and contemporary all in one so I knew I would not fair too well with black distributors. So I took it to the streets, and then decided to get distribution into the mainstream store market because in these stores I would find middle class blacks and those who are a little better read. Out the gate the mainstream store market accepted me. With my grind in the streets I made a lot of contacts, financed a few vendors, a year ago started selling other publishers titles. I would have other people buy the books so I wouldn’t have to deal with some folks. Then I started buying directly myself from a few publishers. Triple Crown, and Augustus Publishing to name a few who gave me good deals. But then about 3 months ago I stopped selling other publishers titles because aside from the publishers I was personally dealing with I cannot see myself supporting an industry (urban book market) who I feel are full grown people who have the minds of little children; the jealousy, backbiting and b/s that one day someone is going to make the wrong mistake and I’m going to catch another case sooner or later. I’ve kept my distance and been doing me since I came in this business, so that’s what I decided to keep on doing in regards to the black book market.

Being one of the most outspoken voices in the independent book market has this in some ways affected your progress?
Of course anytime you speak and express your opinion when its not inline with the views of the majority you will witness some backlash in some form. My issues with certain black book stores have been the result of individuals or cowards as I would like to call them being disgruntled about my views and the fact that I’m not a puppet and they cannot control me or dictate to me how I am to think or conduct my business. So they have tried to create barriers. “Don’t carry this author or publishers books”. They have their little hate groups going on, but they are all bunch of spineless cowards who hide behind screen names, and would never want any issues in real life. But that’s fine with me because it means they do know there is a difference between me and them. I can’t blame anyone for using their head, and in this case it’s good for me and them. From day one when I came in this industry I stated my views, three years later I have not changed. I spoke about the stories back then, I spoke about the sexist covers back then, I spoke about the business side of things back then. The book cover, and story issues are two of the most talked about in the black book world today, three years later. Affected my progress they have not. They could have had I been weaker than them, but I’m not. They snoop around my online social network pages, join to see what I’m doing, or tap into my friends lists. They send their phony as friends at me to try to befriend me. And some of them are in my face in real life, but I always look people in the face when I speak, anyone will tell you this about me. You can see a persons soul through their eyes so there is no deceiving. Man, I used to hustle, and stick up dealers so what they call being grimy and shiesty to me is child play. I stand from a distance, watch them and get a laugh and appreciate my supporters and the few true friends I have. Three years, 11 titles.

How did you manage to get your companies titles into the mainstream market and why are some black authors/publishers having a hard time? Do you think it will get harder?
I first started dealing with Baker & Taylor books early 2006 so I could do signings in the mainstream book market and market to the libraries. From there I signed a distribution deal with Biblio Distributors who at the time were the premiere distributor for independent black publishers. Out the gate I dealt with the street market, and from the start Third Eye Publishing was formed as an S-Corp, and I had a professionally built website as well as a promotional package. So yeah it’s about the hustle, but it’s also about professionalism. A lot of these folks can’t get the street mentality out their minds. You have to have your paperwork and pitch together when you approach these folks; it’s a lot different then dealing with the black distributors who you just come to with books and an invoice. Will it get harder? Of course it will. A lot of stores have started facing some books face out which means there is less book space on shelves. Sexist and hoodified covers are being seen less and less in the mainstream stores by independents. A lot of what’s going on is for the sole reason that now the independent black market as a whole is at the point where its competing with the mainstream market in regards to black book sales.
 
Are book sales down around the board or within certain genres?
According to store statistics book sales have not been down drastically. This is especially so when it comes to fiction. Since late 2005 I have been involved with the street market, having sold a lot of my books, financed a few vendors, and even selling other authors and publisher titles myself. In the streets it’s been up and down, depending on the weather, time of month, holidays etc. But people are reading, and they have not lost interest in reading. What I’ve seen though as far as black fiction is concerned is authors and publishers who are following trends of brands which have etched out a name for themselves witness a decline in sales or find it hard to break into the market if they are starting out. In the streets it’s a lot easier to eye and pinpoint than in the store market because a table may have anywhere from 40-150 titles so you know what books are sitting around, and by what companies. I have heard vendors, authors and some publishers talk about a slump in sales. In regards to my own titles I haven’t seen it in regards to customers buying habits. I’ve taken a big hit in sales because last year we had 7 title releases, 3 of which came out the last quarter, so my focus was elsewhere instead of the usual grind. But from the second quarter on in 2009 for our catalog I foresee it to be a 2006 year all over again for my company, recession, and depression, whatever. “Survivor” I Changed the Rules my biography, expect it the third or fourth quarter of 2009.


Comments page 2 of 6:
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Therone Shellman :
Posted 3177 days ago
@Rhonda, I see where you're coming from. This is why my biography "Survivor" is not a urban biography. My life experiences
have been a whole lot more than the streets, prison etc even when I was in these situations. Yeah, I got busy and put work in. But I also ran educational programs, stayed educating myself and encouraged those around me to learn all they can. I never encouraged gang activity
(white, black hispanic) and all the drama I got into were against them, or just cats being ignorant or the police in prison getting out of line. In the streets my life of crime revolved around getting ahead. Understand I've spent thousands of dollars on books and have read The Art Of War, The Prince and many great works before I reached 17 or seen a prison. This is going back into the 80's. So yeah, my life has been gangster, The Black Panthers were gangster too--but its a whole another spin on the word when its based around education or social advancement. I've also worked to and have had decent jobs. Thats not the life of the everage cat from the streets.Physical aggression , or mental aggression and warfare are necessary tools for men. I could go more into it--but I'll leave it there...On the subject of urban and classic piece of literature you said a lot. Yeah, well thanks for passing through and giving your two cents.
Rhonda Crowder :
Posted 3177 days ago
I see. But, don't you agree that urban/street lit writers are adult/contemporary?? That's where you find it in the library. Also, if urban means of the city and a mafia story is set in the city, couldn't it be considered urban? It's not urban because no one ever called it urban. Isn't the mob, gangsters?? Why isn't "The Godfather" called gangster or mafia lit?? Instead, it's considered a classic peice of American literature. That's because it was well-written.
And, one more, if someones writes their biography and it's set in the city, telling the story of how they were gangster and into crime, is that not a steet/gangster tale?
Good dialogue though and I do applaud your efforts and accomplishments!
Therone Shellman :
Posted 3177 days ago
@Rhonda--3 minute video on the company myspace page www.myspace.com/thirdeyepublishinginc on the right hand side toward the bottom. It's titled Therone Shellman, President of Third Eye Publishing
Therone Shellman :
Posted 3177 days ago
@Rhonda, nope! If you listen to my second to last radio show on www.blogtalkradio.com/keepingitreal (where the companies authors are guests)as well as watch the 3 minute video you will get a glimpse of what the future of Third Eye Publishing will be. Most of the authors signed to the company will not be having another title released b/c we are no longer publishing adult literary fiction, urban or street lit. We are only publishing childrens books, adult literary fiction, some young adult fiction and non fiction. Our program is going to be based around education-because thats the network I've built as an author. I made this decision at the start of 2008, but already had signed contracts. And I wanted to give the new authors an opportunity to get their careers started and move on from there. After "Survivor" I Changed the Rules I myself will stick around adult literary fiction and contemporary and non fiction. But no love stories, street or urban.
Rhonda Crowder :
Posted 3177 days ago
That I agree. So, are you saying that all the books you've published are doing the things you say literature should do within the realm of fiction?
Therone Shellman :
Posted 3177 days ago
@Rhonda haye we agree to disagree. Joey thanks for passing through. Cythia, don't take my response personal
Rhonda Crowder :
Posted 3177 days ago
But, you got to remember that so many of us are in the simply "showing for the sake of others to see" mentality anyway...
That's what it's reflected in the writings.
I'm saying let's stop talking about talking about focusing what's bad about the literature and spotlight the good. Like Tracy Brown's White Lines... that book was real!!!
Therone Shellman :
Posted 3177 days ago
@Cythia, not for debate sake, all I'm a say to you is time will tell what I own or do. My publishing program has been built around independence. If I started my company with a 200 thousand dollar loan instead of financing it myself we would not be talking about doing our own editing, printing etc You need to point this out to these other authors/publishers who been in this game a lot longer than me. I've sold thouands of my own books out my hands, and have sold quite a few other authors/publishers titles. I'm a lot further down the road of what you're talking than many who are more successful than myself. There are no publicists or this and that one as a barrier between me and anyone I network with in this industry from jobbers to the stores and distributors--I know all of them personally.It don't take a rocket scientist to figure out how I'm striving to set up my company. @William Hood--you're question really is not a black business issue but a black people issue. If there were a lot more black business minded folk we would not be stressing black ownership like it's a rare thing, occassion and reason to celebrate. Our people like being consumers and slaves who go to school get degrees to make others rich. @Mya and Real Talk, thanks for passing through. @Even Realer--yeah gossip and stupidity sells. But thats not a plus, it just shows how dumb, death and blind people are and what we have been reduced to as humans. When we have to use such tactics to get peoples attention it shows that we have no real mental or spiritual value and cannot attract people with our intelligence or good qualities. It's one of the reason why I will not publish certain genres b/c my program is not built on sensationalism, or marketing hype. I've sold thousands of my own books by meeting people face to face. I've built a grassroots following based on people believing in me-realism not hype. @ Marshall, when you play in the big leagues you play with the big league players. It's that simple. Was BET 100% independent? Who controlled the network that the channel was seen on? Don't the network get a percentage of the profits. isn't this why they have commercials? @Marie---I've sold my own titles to all ethnicites. Like I said in the article I be in the hood and I also be in well to do areas. I've been upstate NY in Border stores where I've sold to more whites than blacks. For me business is business. And if you're in business and you want to be sucessful in this country then you better in some way extend yourself beyond just your own race. @Taste-T thanks for passing through......The bottomline is out the gate I built a grassroots following so I can have control and it not be in the hands of distributors, stores, publicists or even the book clubs. This is the main reason why i've decided to not publish certain genres anymore from other authors. My company is built around my personality and ability to make sales and a personal relationship with customers. @Rhonda Crowder- Read for entertainment fine. But why most of these authors say they write to show what's going on? Or that they write reality? You're not going to show anybody anything unless you are trying to teach. And you cannot teach unless you show, explore and give a summation of some sort. Otherwise people are not going to get it ,like they don't right now and they are just going to be entertained...Reality---If you write reality then people are going to get more from it than just being entertained because the reality of situations in the hood is not an entertaining matter.....right? So what's missing? I don't want a response b/c I have my thoughts on it. It's for others to ponder about.
Rhonda Crowder :
Posted 3177 days ago
Although I think his responses in regards to the business are on point and very insightful, I disagree with some of his opinions concerning literature - especially pertaining to the question, is this literature as it is defined.
Webster's defintion of literature is: written compositions in prose or verse, esp. of lasting quality and artistic merit; writings produced in a certain country OR during a certain time period. etc.
There are many who reserve the term for prose or verse of SUPERIOR quality and ACKNOWLEDGED excellence.
So, people refer to this form as Hip-Hop lit because the writers are of and/or influence the Hip-Hop era (it's reflected in the writings); therefore, that seems to be the umberella street/gangsta/urban (whatever you want to call it) lit falls under if they author is young and writing against the grain. Urban does refer to the city or town; oppose of rural. Street incorporates ideals of hustling while gangsta is extra gritty and grimey. Something can be street but not neccessarily gangsta. Contemporary is anything of modern times. But, basically, one's writings IS going to be a reflection of THEIR personal experiences and influences.
And, like music, some books are going to out perform others, depending on who's pushing it and how it's marketed then sold to the people. Not saying it's right or wrong, just is what it is.
Personally, I want to be more than entertained when I read. I seek to learn something between the pages of every book I pick up - even if it's how not to write. And, just because a story is about selling dope or a$$, don't mean I'm unable to learn from it. But, that's me.
There's nothing wrong with people reading to just be entertained, particularly when it comes to fiction. That could be their way to relax and escape after a long, stressful day. If you want to really, truly learn something thorugh books, you can read non-fiction. That's what self-help, motivational, financial books are for.
AND, there are plenty by intelligent black people. PLENTY!
When it comes to art, which fiction is, it is NOT always going to give the solutions. No form of fiction achieves that with every book and author. Not all songs, plays, paintings, movies, poems, sculptures provide answers to society's problems, so why should all books written by "urban" authors. Not all writers possess the intelligence to write such thought-provoking books. But, who are we to say, that shouldn't or aren't worthy to be an author.
We should, however, uplift and overly promote the ones that do teach valuable lessons. There are some gangsta stories that can be learning tools for 13 and 14 years olds that are already having sex, doing dope, and hustling. It could slow them down, if nothing else.
For the books that don't offer answers either create dialogue around them to stimulate solutions within the readership or ignore them. Books should inspire people to talk about the content. There can even be a disussion around which books are trash, but you have to be able to provide constructive criticism as to why it's bad.
Overall, I'm just glad that there are books at least exposing problems as oppose to pretending as they are non-existent. I'm glad young people are discovering writing as a tool to express and take care of themselves at the same time.
Taste_T :
Posted 3178 days ago
You made alot of good points, Mr. Shellman and i agree with Marie Antionette's comment as well.
Marie Antionette :
Posted 3178 days ago
Therone you made a lot of good points. I believe selling is good, but I only wish we were selling to and amongst ourselves. The though of selling my work to a Caucasian in order to see a profit gets to me. That may not be the way everyone else views it, but I've been through enough to want to hold on to my own creations and leave it for my kids once I'm gone.
I believe there is a big difference between street lit and urban lit, but I also believe the difference comes in with the writer, their experiences and their focus. I won't knock anyone for what they write, it may be an alternative to selling drugs or prostitution for all I know. Yet there are several titles, and covers that I find degrading, offensive and put us back as a people some 40 years... My only comment on that note is in time, that author, writer or publisher will grow. Someone made a comment that gossip, rumors and stupidity sells... That may be true but it only sells to a certain group. At the same time, we need a balance among all of the gossip, rumors and stupidity, and that's the point I think Therone was trying to make.
Deuces'
Even realer :
Posted 3178 days ago
That's why Nas didn't sell but Souljah Boy and Lil Wayne sells millions!!!
 




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