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Leading the Way

Independent Black Publisher Cracks National Best-Seller List for the First Time

DRESSED FOR SUCCESS: Tavis Smiley’s new book is setting bestseller-list precedents.

By Makkada B. Selah | Posted 4/5/2006

Tavis Smiley

April 8 at 9 a.m., Sharon Baptist Church, 1373 N. Stricker St.

For more information visit covenantwithblackamerica.com.

The Covenant With Black America is a publishing phenomenon. The self-appointed “step-by-step how-to manual for taking action against the political, economical, physiological and medical issues threatening black society,” co-authored by syndicated talk-show host Tavis Smiley, was released this past January by Chicago’s Third World Press and strategically marketed to reach as many black readers as possible. Since then, those readers have responded as they never have before. The book debuted at No. 6 on the New York Times best-seller list March 26 and moved up to No. 4 April 2; this coming Sunday, April 9, it is projected to be the second-best-selling nonfiction paperback book in the country. And if this unprecedented success—Covenant is the first book published by a black-owned company ever to appear on the Times’ nonfiction best-seller list—has shown the publishing world anything, it’s that it has vastly underestimated the country’s African-American readership.

On the morning of a scheduled Miami promotional appearance, Smiley sounds animated and chipper. “This is historic,” he says in an early morning phone call from a Lake Buena Vista, Fla., hotel room. “Black people did this. We did this ourselves. We ain’t go on Oprah. We just discussed the book on black radio and toured black churches. And by pushing this book to No. 1 on the list,” he proposes, “we will force all of America to have a conversation about the content of this book.”

Two weeks earlier, on a March midday filled with snow flurries in Chicago’s south side, Third World Press’ Haki Madhubuti (aka poet Don L. Lee), 64, sat in what would have been the priest’s office above the remodeled refectory that has housed America’s oldest continuous black book publisher since 1967. Light flooded in from stained-glass windows that line the spacious office. A towering oil painting is mounted above an ornate wooden fireplace in the room. In the painting, a young Madhubuti, wearing an Afro, beard, knee-length dashiki, and ankh medallion, is set atop a green and red background on a brown canvas and stares into a distance. “I was in my 20s there,” he says, “when we founded this place.”

Since, Madhubuti has penned 27 books and become a distinguished creative writing professor at Chicago State University. “Third World Press is an independent black publishing company,” he says. “We didn’t get any money from outside of our company. I want to make that very clear. The significance of that is [that] this is the first time in the history of the New York Times best-seller list that a black publisher has put a book on its list.

“It’s significant for us, because the book is not ‘booty call,’” he continues. “It’s a book that’s trying to move black people in a direction where we are empowered in those 10 areas outlined [in Covenant]. Unfortunately, there are people in our community that only care about what white people think. Of course this appearance in the Times is going to highlight our press’ backlist and frontlist. We will now at least be nationally known. Heretofore, major white media just would not review our books. The New York Times has never reviewed one of our books. None of the major white media has basically touched us. But when Mr. Smiley came to us, he voiced that others had doubts that this could happen with Third World Press. We knew that we could do it.”

The professor, as he’s called around Third World, has guided the company from a self-publishing entity in the late ’60s born during the Black Arts Movement to being the most thriving and viable black press in the nation, publishing about 18 books per year. Madhubuti had mainly been distributing the books himself to small, independent black bookstores, but in order to accommodate the unprecedented demand that Covenant would generate, for the first time he hired an outside, black-owned marketing firm, R.J. Dale Advertising and Public Relations. He also got support from a private donor, Walter Lomax, a wealthy African-American doctor in Philadelphia, and hired an independent distributor, Independent Publishing Group, to ensure that Covenant got into national outlets such as Amazon, Borders, Books-a-Million, and Barnes and Noble.

Covenant’s release was a coordinated plan of attack. “Mr. Smiley and I began to talk about this book in July,” Madhubuti says. At that time, Third World’s 2005-’06 annual budget had already been finalized, and Madhubuti had to explore other budgetary avenues for Covenant’s hot-tracked release. “We didn’t get the total manuscript—everything—until December 2,” he says. “And we had the book out the second week in January.

“That’s unheard of,” he continues. “You cannot do that anywhere else in the publishing world. We put everything aside,” he says, picking up copies of new releases from Gloria Naylor, Lorene Cary, and himself. “We worked weekends and evenings to make sure the book was out. We did it—[and] we did it in 30 days.”

Now that the book was out, Third World Press had to get it to readers. “We were challenged by Mr. Smiley to get the book to all black people, wherever they may be, so they can buy the book,” Madhubuti says. “So we isolated 16 cities where the majority of the black population lives. Then, we got a second list of 16 cities. So we broke down where blacks were living. We told our advertisers, ‘Don’t spend any money in Iowa. We don’t need to spend any money in North Dakota.’ Let’s just concentrate on these cities. That’s how we have made an impact.”

Thus far, the strategy has proven fortuitous. “Our first printing of the book was 50,000 copies,” Madhubuti says. “And we immediately went back to [publish] another 50,000. And then went back for another 50 [thousand]. Now we’ve got 150,000 books out there in six weeks. We’ve got another 50,000 coming the first week in April.”

The 10 areas Covenant targets for improvement—including health care, education, justice, housing, democratic power, and employment, among others—are addressed in do-it-yourself language, and suggestions are made to individuals and elected officials. Statistics are presented in bullets that bear out the crisis facing African-Americans: “One of every three black males born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime.” It also offers suggestions for individuals (“read to your children every night,” “support children whose parents are incarcerated”) presented in equally plain-spoken language, augmented by short case studies of successful community-action programs, such as Thelma Harrison’s “Mama, I Want to Read” program in Norfolk, Va.

Some of Covenant’s points, however, are well-meaning if vague—“reform drug laws”—and point to a few of the book’s faults. For one, it rarely connects African-Americans’ struggle with those of blacks in the Caribbean, Europe, and Africa. More problematic, it argues for an overwhelming appeal to and dependence on the government and the status quo political process throughout. Because of this engagement with Democrats and Republicans—both Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Party, and Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Party, have agreed to address issues in the book in upcoming 2008 campaign forums—Covenant can feel like it is shopping black voters to both parties.

Third World “has published books with much more of an Afrocentric agenda,” Madhubuti says. “But I think these essays are absolutely useful. They might not be the most radical, or the most strategically intrusive in terms of the white agenda, but it is a black agenda that can work. You’ve got to take steps. I think the ideas generated in the book are still somewhat new ideas to the majority of African-Americans. Start with this, and then they might be ready for John Henrik Clarke, or they might be ready for Chancellor Williams. You just can’t shock people into new politics. It just doesn’t work that way. ”

“Politics is a part of everything in our lives,” Smiley says. “When you’re born, the government gives you a birth certificate. When you die, somebody in your family gets a death certificate from the government. And they are in your life and in your pocket all the way in between. From the cradle to the grave we cannot avoid being engaged in, and often times punished by, a political system. These books are selling because they ain’t radical. That’s precisely the point. The point of the text is—and the reason why it’s on the best-seller list and people are embracing it—is because it ain’t radical.

“It’s about meeting people’s needs where they are,” Smiley continues. “It’s about the very simple things that they can do to address these issues. We don’t need radical solutions. We need solutions that people can actually engage in. We need things that reasonable people can do, and, ultimately, if everyone as an individual takes responsibility and does those things, then the aggregate takes care of itself.”

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