Reverse-Gentrification of the Literary World

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News & Features » May 2013 » A Conversation with Marva Allen, Regina Brooks, and Marie Brown, Publishers of Open Lens

A Conversation with Marva Allen, Regina Brooks, and Marie Brown, Publishers of Open Lens

Welcome to Akashic in Good Company, a weekly column featuring managing editor Johanna Ingalls’s interviews and profiles with many of the remarkable people in the publishing industry today. Over the past fifteen years, Akashic has worked with an amazing array of talented, hard-working, committed people, and Akashic would not be the company it is today without their help and advice along the way. This week’s installment features Marva Allen, Regina Brooks, and Marie Brown, copublishers of Akashic’s Open Lens imprint.

OpenLensAkashic has been home to several imprints over the years. Punk Planet Books brought us the lovely and talented Joe Meno (who we refuse to stop publishing ever), along with Jay Ryan and Elizabeth Crane. Dennis Cooper’s Little House on the Bowery series brought us Trinie Dalton, Derek McCormack, and many other talented authors. And Chris Abani’s Black Goat Poetry series introduced us to a world of wonderful poets like Gabriela Jauregui and Kate Durbin, and allowed us to publish some of our favorite novelist/poets in the series, such as Kwame Dawes, Cristina Garcia, and Percival Everett.

In 2011, we were delighted to add a new imprint, Open Lens, run by three industry experts: Marva Allen, Regina Brooks, and Marie Brown. Their initial release, Makeda by Randall Robinson, was very successful and is currently in its third printing. In celebration of this imprint’s new release, The Roving Tree, a debut novel by Haitian American author Elsie Augustave, we would like to introduce our readers to the dedicated and hard-working women of Open Lens.

Marva Allen was born and raised in Jamaica. She attended school in England and the US, and was the past president and co-owner of USI, a multimillion dollar technology firm in Southfield, MI that was a three-time nominee for the Ernst & Young Entrepreneurship Award. Winner of numerous business awards over the years, Allen also runs the Harlem-based bookstore Hue-Man, which closed its physical location last summer, but continues to sell online and host offsite author events.

Allen’s vast experience as an author, bookseller, and editor gives her insight to multiple sides of publishing. In addition to her numerous accolades in the business world, Marva has published two successful books: Protegee (1993), which sold well over 10 thousand copies in a time when self-publishing had never been heard of, and Protegee’s sequel, Camouflage (2000), which also enjoyed similar success. Her new novel, If I Should Die Tonight…, is forthcoming.

Regina Brooks is the founder and president of Brooklyn-based Serendipity Literary Agency LLC. Her agency has represented a diverse base of award-winning clients in adult and young adult fiction, nonfiction, and children’s literature. Writer’s Digest magazine named Serendipity Literary Agency as one of the top 25 literary agencies of 2004. Formerly, Brooks held senior editorial positions at McGraw-Hill and John Wiley and Sons, where she was not only the youngest but also the first African American editor in their college division.

Prior to her publishing career, Brooks worked as an aerospace engineer and made history as the first African American woman to receive a Bachelor of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering from The Ohio State University. She is a graduate of School of the Arts high school in Rochester, NY.

Similar to Marva, Regina is an author in her own right, and her children’s book, Never Finished Never Done was an Essence magazine “quick pick.” She is also the author of the books Writing Great Books for Young Adults and You Should (Really) Write a Book: How to Write Sell and Market Your Memoir.

Marie Dutton Brown was born in Philadelphia and grew up in Virginia, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania. She attended Penn State University as a Psychology major and worked for the Philadelphia school district. Her work in education led to a job in publishing at Doubleday and Company. She spent many years at Doubleday in various editorial positions before she moved on to work as editor-in-chief of Elan magazine, a publication targeted to black women. She then worked as an assistant manager and book buyer for Endicott Booksellers in New York City. Inspired by a former Doubleday colleague’s urging, she began to work as a literary agent, and has been one for the past few decades.

Clearly Marva, Marie, and Regina have a vast amount of experience and a wealth of knowledge between them. Eager to hear more from these three women, I ask Marva to talk a bit about Hue-Man bookstore and its importance within the Harlem community as well as the general African American community.

“Literacy is the cornerstone of a good potential life in under-served communities where fast food litters every corner,” Marva says. “Hue-Man became an oasis . . . a place of thought and leadership and a vault of the rich and interesting heritage of people of color. When we decided to close [the physical] Hue-Man after ten years, there was an outcry. But it was a sound business decision in the changing landscape of publishing. I wanted to find new and forward-thinking ways to engage the community/neighborhood. We thought, How wonderful to continue to be involved in readings and literary events in a pop-up way—it brings value to other businesses and affords us the opportunity to still make the clarion call to the importance of literacy and give our constituents the same up close and personal engagement with our authors.”

I ask Marie and Regina to talk about the important role literary agents still have in the ever-changing publishing industry, where independent publishers and those who self-publish don’t always require an agent’s involvement.

“This is certainly a time of change in the publishing industry, and the shift offers a myriad of opportunities for the creative and hardworking author,” Regina says. “Many authors start out on their own, but ultimately end right back looking for an agent because they soon find out that self-publishing requires more than just writing a GOOD book. They have to develop a team to really make headway on their book’s sales. You need an editor, a publicist/marketer, a social media strategist, and it doesn’t hurt to have a graphic designer on call. [Publishing a book] requires more effort and expertise than usually anticipated.

“And yes, in response to the transitions in the industry, some literary agents have reconfigured their business models. Many agents have started e-book publishing divisions where they directly publish the author’s e-book edition. My agency, Serendipity Literary Agency, is driving sales by managing my authors’ international revenue streams by tapping foreign booksellers directly to sell their books; developing events for the authors to sell their books in non-traditional venues; and we have also added opportunities to assist authors in building their platforms through social media. However, the traditional role of the agent is still where I, and the other five agents at my agency, spend the lion’s share of our time.”

Marie shares her thoughts on the role of literary agent, both now and when she began. When she started in the 1980s, she says, “It was at a time when publishers were encouraging authors to have their work submitted by agents, ostensibly to cut back on over-the-transom submissions. From that time to now, I have seen my role as a literary agent vary. Mainly, the services that I perform depend primarily on the needs of the authors. Very rarely does that consist of simply submissions and negotiating/making the deal, but it also requires my serving as an interpreter of book publishing and literary marketplace policies; mediating between the author and the publisher (primarily editor and/or publicist) regarding policy and practices; assisting the author in developing proposals; creating promotion plans; and developing the acquired manuscript. In other words, I find that it is mainly a role that goes way beyond making a deal, but also requires that the agent be skilled in negotiation, editorial guidance, promotion, diplomacy, and peace-making.”

In closing, I ask for remarks from all three about Open Lens—specifically why thought there was a need for their imprint and what lead them to approach Akashic as its host publisher.

“It is my firm belief that a literate people will have exposure beyond their borders,” Marva declares. “I loved the direction that Akashic was taking and the opportunities it was giving to real writers. It seemed a perfect fit to my vision. I approached Johnny Temple and he was receptive. I then reached out to people I deeply respected in the marketplace to find a core team. The idea of Open Lens, as the name suggests, is to find those voices that can paint a panoramic view of the world through literature.”

Regina adds: “Open Lens was a well-needed outlet for me to assist authors who had incredible book ideas but were getting shut out of the mainstream publishers because the editors did not know how to ‘position’ the books. Explaining to editors the viability of a book in the marketplace had become more and more challenging, and, shall I say, frustrating. So when Marva asked me to help her start a publishing program, I jumped at that idea. I had been approached in the past and often encouraged to start my own publishing company, but knew that it’d take an incredible team to really do it right, so when Marie came on board it was a no-brainer.

And the topping on the cake was that we’d have the support of a creative, out-of-the-box publisher like Johnny and his incredible team.”

Similarly to Regina, Marie was immediately interested when Marva approached her to join the imprint. “I was invited by Marva to join in a partnership with her and Regina. I think that we were all in agreement that there were so many authors whose books were being denied publication by trade publishers—large, small and in-between. Open Lens would be an opportunity to introduce to readers authors and their works that otherwise would never be considered by such publishers, because their decision-makers . . . would not recognize the innate value of works from authors who were culturally different and who were not promoted by mainstream media or other cultural gatekeepers.”

Their responses line up so perfectly with Akashic’s own mission that it seems clear they did find the perfect home for their imprint. I thank all three of these incredible women and look forward to working with them on future selections. For now, we’re all excited about the release of their second book, Elsie Augustave’s The Roving Tree. I encourage everyone to keep an eye on both this exciting imprint as well as the talented Ms. Augustave, who is touring throughout the spring and summer in support of her debut.

Posted: May 9, 2013

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