Before America was alerted to the power of the literary pen in the African-American community, Black authors had to hustle to sell self-published novels by any means necessary. Before E.L James set the world asunder with 50 Shades of Grey, there was Zane with The Sex Chronicles. Before the storied tales of teendom and debauchery in Gossip Girl, there was Omar Tyree with Flyy Girls. Black books with Black protagonists peppered beauty salons and barbershops across communities and were deliciously passed room-to-room at HBCUs turning those free-time storytellers into full-time superstars.
That spirit of beauty shop entrepreneurship has continued to evolve as authors move to social media as a new means of storytelling. And whether booking it beauty shop to beauty shop, creating Kickstarter campaigns for graphic novels, or posting poetic snippets on Instagram, Black authors are taking success into their own hands — and succeeding.
Cleo Wade first started publishing her poetry on Instagram in 2014 and quickly amassed a following of over 500k and the title of “The Millennial Oprah” by New York Magazine. Her first Instagram poem reflected her poetry that centers around female empowerment, self-love, inspiration, and affirmations and was written in her now signature all caps and ink blot style: “DEAREST, I AM WRITING YOU THIS LETTER TO INFORM YOU OF MY UNBREAKABLE NATURE. THATS ALL, LOVE, WOMEN EVERYWHERE” — and led to her book deal Heart Talk: Poetic Wisdom for a Better Life through Simon and Schuster Imprint, Atria/37 INK.
Kristina Laferne Roberts started publishing racy erotica under the pseudonym Zane in 1997. She started her career by writing stories after putting her children to sleep at night and, soon after, self-published her first collection of stories The Sex Chronicles online, which went on to have a large following. Her next self-published book Addicted propelled Zane into erotic author superstardom. Zane has gone on to publish over 40 books, many hitting the New York Times best seller list, and has over 5 million books in print.
Kwanza Osajyefo and Tim Smith 3 are creators of a Kickstarter-led graphic novel title BLACK that depicts a world where only Black people have superpowers. The graphic novel took off on Kickstarter (raising $60k more than needed for publication) and was optioned for film by Studio 8 who has a distribution deal with Sony. The demand has led to a spin-off YA version BLACK [AF]: America’s Sweetheart and WHITE, both set in the same universe.
Lola St.Vil is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling romance writer of adult contemporary and young adult fantasy novels with over 40 novels published. She started writing novels after experiencing more than a year of unemployment as an actress. Her first novel Guardians: The Girl was written in three months. She is now the author of five fantasy series: Guardians, The Noru, The Toren, Kissed by Shadows, and Isle of Midnight along with several other contemporary Romances.
Tressa Azarel Smallwood started writing after getting word from her doctor that she needed to be on bed rest for six months. By the time she got off bed rest, she had a fully formed book that she self-published soon after, amassing $40k in its first two months. Realizing her opportunity, she decided not to go back to work as a teacher and, instead, continued publishing books for herself and others through her company Life Changing Books. She also used her book company reservoir to step into film creation, which led to her company MegaMind Media.
Omar Tyree is a New York Times best-selling author known for his contemporary urban fiction. He self-published his best-known novel, Flyy Girl, in 1993, which was widely released by Simon and Schuster in 1996. He has published more than 20 books that, as a collection, won him the 2006 Phillis Wheatley Literary Award for Body of Work in Urban Fiction. His other well known novels include For the Love of Money and Just Say No!
Terah Edun is a self-published New York Times best-selling author with over 500,000 books sold. She started publishing her young adult fantasy series Courtlight (12 books and counting) in 2013 and followed that series with another fantasy series titled Crown Service (four books and counting). Of self-publishing, Edun says, “I would recommend self-publishing to individuals who are willing to work hard and stay up-to-date on publishing practices, are willing to market their own books, and have the desire to succeed. You need all of those things to be successful.”
The late E. Lynn Harris exploded on the scene in the 90s with his best selling novels featuring affluent and fly Black men who hid their gay or bisexual identity. Before being “discovered,” E. Lynn Harris hustled to sell his first book, Invisible Life, at HBCUs, in beauty salons, with Black-owned bookstores, and from the trunk of his car. He went on to author a slew of back-to-back New York Times best sellers making him one of the most successful African-American or gay authors of his time with over three million of his novels in print.
Known for her best-selling inspirational women-based novels, often set in the church, Kimberla Lawson Roby started small, self-publishing her first novel Behind Closed Doors through her own company Lenox Press. She has now gone on to sell more than 2.8 million books sending her to several best seller lists including the New York Times and Publishers Weekly. With 27 novels completed, her best-known works include Sin of a Woman, Be Careful What You Pray For, and Casting the First Stone, among many others.