Saturday, July 11, 2015

Pre-publication activities: Colson Whitehead and Ta-Nehisi Coates

Advance Readers' Editions of Colson Whitehead's Zone One and Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me

The pre-publication activities of publishers tells you a lot about how much they value their authors.

While there is an extensive conversation among scholars of African American literature concerning writers who are overlooked and "forgotten" and thus presumably in need of rediscovery or recovery, we might also turn our attention to the efforts of publishers who encourage you to consider authors' works long before they are published.

In 2011, I noticed that Colson Whitehead's publisher Doubleday, a division of Random House, invested considerable resources in pre-publication activities for the upcoming publication of Zone One. Months before the scheduled October publication of Whitehead's novel, Doubleday circulated dozens, if not hundreds, of advanced reader copies of the book to a wide range of readers (journalists, bloggers, general fiction enthusiasts). The goal was to build considerable buzz for the book prior to its publication.

A similar path was taken with Coates's book. His publisher Spiegel & Grau, also a division of Random House, circulated large numbers of free, advance copies of Between the World and Me, which was initially scheduled for publication in October and then September. The publication date for the book was eventually moved up to July 14.

The promotional campaign for Coates's book has been a success. As of today, to take one measure, Between the World and Me is in the top 10 books for "Amazon Best Sellers Rank," which means the pre-orders for the book have been doing really well. In addition, the book has been covered in several prominent media outlets, including The New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR, Slate, and The Economist

All the pre-publication coverage, orchestrated in part by Spiegel & Grau/Random House, is a reminder of how important publishers are to the production of books and authors. We can all certainly identify many talented black writers out in the world. But our list of writers who receive substantial support from well-resourced publishers is much shorter.  

But let's not minimize the talents of Whitehead and Coates. After all, their publishers did not take wild, calculated gambles by choosing to publish and ultimately invest so much into these two writers. Instead, Doubleday and Spiegel & Grau correctly predicted their brands would benefit by adding Whitehead and Coates. Someone or a group of people at the respective companies spotted exceptional talent and moved on it.

In African American literary studies, discussions of print studies and publishing typically focus on historical accounts and documents, with much of the scholarship concentrating on authors and literary works published during the 19th century up to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Given my own interests however, I've been fascinated by the culture of print related to contemporary writers.

The pre-publication activities that have facilitated the rise of Whitehead and Coates certainly deserves more of our attention, especially if we are to understand why and how some black writers become more prominent and major than other ones. Scholars often bemoan the fact that many talented black writers are often overlooked. It's worth considering then what factors contribute to the prevalence of those writers who do receive substantial attention.   

Between Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Ta-Nehisi Coates
Coverage of Ta-Nehisi Coates and "Between the World and Me"

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