BUILDING THE BUSINESS
A Publishing House Spawned in Prison
by Vickie Stringer
As founder and CEO of Triple Crown Publications, “the world’s largest independent African American publisher,” I’ve come a long way from the prison where I served time for drug trafficking. In the hope that others can make use of what I learned as I built my publishing company, I’m sharing my story here.
From a Journal, in a Jail
It was behind bars that I wrote Let That Be the Reason, a semi-autobiographical cautionary tale based on my personal journal. Hoping that I would be able to use this novel to change my life for the better, I set out to get it published after I was released January 22, 2001. Unfortunately, I got rejection after rejection from major publishing houses and agencies.
The next step was looking to family and friends to help make the dream a reality. I wrote a letter explaining my situation, and waited for the help of my loved ones. When I had received the $2,500 I needed to put the book in print, I encountered yet another problem: no marketing and distribution resources. So in November of 2001 I went back to the streets, but this time instead of selling drugs, I began pushing my book.
I knew early on where my market was. My readers were at the carwashes, clubs, and beauty salons, and that’s where I went. In a few short weeks, I had sold out of the first print run, 1,700 copies, all from the trunk of my car.
To make my very first sale, I approached a woman working in a hair salon. As she stood at her workstation, I held up my book and asked her to buy it. I can remember her looking the book over without ever reaching for it. And I can remember the fear of rejection that comes with hand-to-hand selling. But I stood there, took a deep breath, and trusted that my novel was worth the 10 bucks I was charging.
“Do you like to read?” I asked, holding my book out to her. Still, she didn’t take it. Then, finally, she relented. Grabbing my book, she looked at the glossy cover, flipped some pages, then gave me $10.
50 Titles Later
With annual sales in the seven-figure range, Triple Crown Publications has published more than 50 hip-hop urban fiction titles by over 30 authors, including a sequel to Let That Be the Reason called Imagine This, and Dirty Red, a novel following the exploits of the young and manipulative main character, Red; and I’ve completed the sequel to it, Still Dirty—slated for release in July 2008.
Looking back, I think my best move in the beginning was not waiting for readers to come to me and, instead, going to meet them where they lived, worked, relaxed. I knew I needed to take the books to them, and by doing that I began to create a following.
Those early readers helped me break through into major bookstores. When fans requested my novel, bookstore owners and managers began to take notice. Eventually they started contacting me and helping me take the proper steps for getting into their databases. One thing I learned then is that you’ve got to put your contact information on your book—and make it easily visible—just in case anyone wants to find you. So much of your marketing depends on the cover and book design.
Since I had identified my customers, of course I wanted a cover that would appeal to them and get them to pick up my book instead of the one next to it. Too many authors want to reach everyone, which creates an impossible marketing strategy. There comes a time when you have to look at your book not as a book, but as a product, a commodity, and you have to give it a cover that tells readers right off the bat what they’re getting.
In December 2001, Let That Be the Reason was picked up by Upstream Publications, a small independent publisher in Brooklyn, and I used my advance to start my own publishing company. After careful consideration of branding, I decided to call the company Triple Crown after the gang I had associated with before my arrest, because that name had brought me early success on the streets. The name represented who I was even though I wasn’t out in the streets anymore.
Whether you brand your book, your company, or yourself, I believe you must brand some aspect of your business. Your brand sets you apart from other companies and helps you stand out in a crowd. Readers will keep coming back to a brand—author, title, publishing company—that they trust because the content supports the image.
To keep our readers returning, all Triple Crown books have an order form that lists the most recent titles and releases, making it easy for the consumer to keep up with our ever-growing collection of titles. The less work our fans have to do to get that next book in their hands, the better. If our titles aren’t easily available to them, they will find books that are.
We also serve our readers through a Web site designed to have everything a fan could ask for—an online bookstore, a message board for posting thoughts and concerns, a blog where I share my thoughts on everything from books to life, author bios, and contact information for every department at Triple Crown Publications.
In the end, it all comes down to the fan base. Our fans are amazing. They truly appreciate what we are about at Triple Crown, and they trust that we will keep providing them with the kinds of books they like. Our marketing strategies can bring them in, and they seem to be effective based on sales and book club membership; but if we want readers to stay, we need to make sure that we consistently provide high-quality products. Ultimately, that is what I learned we need to be about.
Vickie Stringer, publisher and CEO of Triple Crown Publications, was named Entrepreneur of the Year by Ball State University, and has been featured on MTV News and in The New York Times, Newsweek, Essence, and Black Enterprise. More of her story appears in her book How to Succeed in the Publishing Game, which is available along with other TCP titles at triplecrownpublications.com, as well as in bookstores.