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.


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.

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