Vickie Stringer: The Queen of Hip-Hop Lit
While her business card officially lists her as “Author/CEO,” Vickie Stringer has earned many other titles, both formal and informal, in the book publishing world—from founder of Columbus, Ohio-based Triple Crown Publications and Queen of Hip-Hop Literature to literary agent and marketing guru. Her publishing odyssey began in an unlikely setting: in a federal prison, while serving a seven-year sentence for drug trafficking. It was there that Stringer wrote her first novel, a semi-autobiographical account about a young, female hustler, called “Let That Be the Reason.” Once she was released from prison, she began to shop her manuscript to a variety of publishers. She was met with rejection from all 26 of them. With money she borrowed from family and friends, Stringer self-published 2,500 copies of her book and took to the streets to hustle once more––this time pushing her words instead of drugs. Her persistence paid off when the book caught the attention of Brooklyn-based UpStream Publications, which made Stringer a $50,000 offer to publish it.
The rest, as Stringer says, is Triple Crown history––a tale best told in her own words. Here, she speaks with Book Business about how she grew her now six-year-old company from a home-based, one-woman operation into a successful independent publishing house with more than 45 titles and almost 30 authors.
• How did you start Triple Crown Publications?
Vickie Stringer: … I had all these [other] writers coming to me [to help them get published], and I didn’t want to help them. … They’ll tell you I’m a marketing genius, I’m a guru, but let me tell you the truth spiritually. I was praying for this new life in prison … and I said, “God, I want to be of service.” So when the offers [from other writers] began to come to me, I had to wrestle with the choice to help someone else unselfishly. And I believe, because I was willing to sacrifice for myself, God has rewarded me with Triple Crown.
It’s very powerful because my first book deal was $50,000, and I literally had to take that $50,000, living dead smack in the middle of the hood, and I had a choice: Go to the BMW dealership or help [other authors]. It’s a very tough choice. …
When [Triple Crown’s first author] K’wan sent me his book and when Nikki Turner sent me her book, I was like, “Gosh, these writers are talented. I love their books.” But then I said, “My book will have to compete with their books if I help them. They’re going to put them on the shelf next to my book.” I remember going to sleep and wrestling with [having] the courage to not be afraid and [to] believe, not just in the genre, but in these books, that they were fun and necessary. So I did something that I never thought I would do, and I said, “I’m going to give you the only money I have to help [you] put this book in print,” and that’s how my company was started. And I look at the life that I live today, and I think, “Oh my God, I have sold over a million books. … OK God, this is how it works. You help somebody, and you get blessed ten-fold. …” I wondered how he was going to give me this miraculous life that I prayed for, but I didn’t know it was going to come through me being humble.
I share this story with people, and I say, “This is the story of my success that people won’t print.” I wrestled with my success and almost missed the window myself.
• Why did these writers come to you for help?
Stringer: I self-published my first book, and it was everywhere. It was on the streets, so [these writers] were seeing it and reading it. They became Vickie Stringer fans, and they recognized that we had similar genres. They said, “No one else will help me, and you get it, so why don’t you put my book out?” I remember talking to K’wan … and I said, “Look, you keep calling me, but this company does not even exist. I don’t think I can do this.” But he said, “I trust you. I think you can do this. Let’s do the damn thing.” …
… I just took a chance. … I thought [to myself], “Nobody gave you a chance.” And I saw myself in [these writers], and they saw their hope in me … and giving them that chance, it’s the best self-fulfillment. I was just meeting with my editor-in-chief, and [we] signed three new authors. … That’s the best. ... [But] now I don’t get to do the only job I love to do here, and that’s call people and tell them I want to give them a book deal. [My editor-in-chief] gets to do that now.
So now the best part of my job is when a new book comes in. … My warehouse staff will bring me, as soon as the box comes in, the first book out of the box. It’s like seeing a baby [for the first time].
• Out of all the submissions you receive, how do you decide which authors to go with?
Stringer: It’s truly a gut feeling. … That gut feeling makes a difference, I believe. If you over think it too much, you’re going to lose it.
• To what do you attribute the growth and success you’ve had with Triple Crown?
Stringer: Just God. It’s a miracle. I want you to write that I’m smart and just a super entrepreneur, but I think it’s so much God’s grace. … I’m a big believer in preparation-meets-opportunity, and that if you just prepare to be in the right place at the right time, timing is going to kiss that opportunity and make it so perfect. The reason why I really believe this is because … [people say] I invented hip-hop fiction. I invented this? The genre is not new. … But for some reason, Vickie Stringer got on the bus at the right stop at the right time.
• What are your biggest challenges as a publisher?
Stringer: Distribution. … Distribution is driving me nuts. I hate it. I don’t want to do it anymore. … I use to have a company that did my fulfillment, and they were charging me $8,000 to $9,000 a month. So I said, “Oh no, I could do that.” I go out and get a 5,000-square-foot warehouse [and] decorate it. It is gorgeous, and I hate it. The warehouse is loud and noisy. I have attendance issues, I have accountability issues, I have shipping issues, return and invoice issues. Issues, issues, issues. My life is this dag-gone warehouse. I’m up there Friday nights, Saturdays, Sundays, packing boxes, shipping boxes, looking for tape, a box cutter. …
We need to be exclusively distributed by someone else. We have the demand, and then I can focus on the sales and marketing and publicity and production. I don’t need to be worrying about how to get the books in the stores. So I hate this part of my life. … Charge me a fee and get my books everywhere. …
• You recently overhauled the Triple Crown Web site (TripleCrownPublications.com) and added new features. How does the Web site help to promote Triple Crown?
Stringer: We [now] have Triple Crown TV [on the Web site] with our own reality show [featuring the staff]. ... I have my blog. … We try to be innovative. That’s what [our customers] are looking for from us. With the Internet being such a prominent place … that should really be our focus instead of shipping the books.
• Over the summer, Triple Crown was given its own bookshelf in Borders and Waldenbooks. Do you feel you were taking a risk by displaying your books by the publisher, rather than by the author, in these stores?
Stringer: I didn’t because I believe in all of my books equally. I’ve never loved one book over the other, so I was embracing the genre more than [Triple Crown author] Tu-Shonda Whitaker [for example]. I love the genre. I love that I do it that way because now the staff and the authors have something they can be a part of, that they’re proud of. So when you say Triple Crown, my shipping clerk can smile, my author can smile, my receptionist can smile. But when you’re a publishing house and [it’s all about the individual] authors, how divided is the team? ... When you say Triple Crown, it really is a collective effort. It is not just the author who’s written a great book, it’s the editor, the typesetter, it’s everyone. So I was never afraid of that. … We’re going to be united, and it’s going to be Triple Crown Publishing, and we’re going to have a lot of great books––not just a book by a great author. …
• Is this something you’re looking to do in other bookstores as well?
Stringer: I think they should. If Barnes & Noble knows what I know. … Barnes & Noble continues to be very conservative. So I don’t know. I would love to approach other marketing departments, to talk to them to say, “This is what you should be doing … .” … I told [my son] I got my own shelf in Borders and Waldens. He said, “Mom, you already have one in Barnes & Noble. I go passed the African-American section, and all your books are there. You already got a shelf.” … I think they’re doing it, but Borders and Waldens are doing it the right way, in the supportive way. They’re putting our name on the shelf. They’re doing it the marketing way because, guess what, they want to make money.
• Triple Crown is getting ready to move into films. Tell me more about this.
Stringer: We just launched our film division, called Triple Crown Films. We are doing three of our novels straight to DVD with the hopes of getting a shelf at the video store. We’re in the bookstore, so why not the video store? … [It’s] wonderful because now I’m giving [screenwriters] and directors opportunities. That’s the most fun part … to give a person an opportunity. That’s so important to me because, you see, I lived my life feeling [like I had no opportunities], and I just felt nothing was available to me. I remember being so mad at God because I was like, “Can’t you do something? Why do I have to live in the ghetto? Why do I live like this? Can you open a door please?” So now I’m able to give people a chance. We’re actually using first-time screenwriters and first-time directors. We have some great scripts and B-list actors who are attached and interested, and you never know because we could be working with the next [director Quentin] Tarantino. … To be able to just broaden the field a little bit is wonderful because there’s talent out there that, sadly, people are never going to be exposed to.
• You’ve written three novels and are currently signed with [Simon and Schuster imprint] Atria. With all of your Triple Crown responsibilities, how do you still find time for writing?
Stringer: That’s my biggest problem. … That’s the downside … that I sacrifice my own career ultimately for [my authors]. That’s something I’d like to see change.