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Monday
May142012

True to the Self publishing game

When I was living in Philly, and going to Temple University, a school situated in a sort-of-rough-but-not-as-bad-as-other-parts area of North Philly, Teri Woods came to campus. I remember thinking at the time that the whole "urban fiction" (or "hood books" as they were commonly called by people I knew in Philly, although that seems to not be the prefered term) thing seemed really stupid. 

Mostly, I'd see urban fiction books on the racks at CVS (still do), and like all niche romances/mysterys/thrillers, they did not appeal to me. But, I was in college studying English literature, and we weren't taught about books outside of a certain schema, which I get—although I maybe don't "get it" as much as I once thought I did, because here I am, devoting a year of my life to reading the books we weren't supposed to talk about. So far, it's been a really fun experience. 

Having said that, I'm not really sure where to start with Teri Woods' True to the Game. Do I start with the story or her story? 

I'll get the story out of the way I guess. 

True to the Game is a book about 17-year-old Gena who meets a guy named Quadir Richards on a trip to New York. Gena and her friends refer to Qua as "the man of life" because he is insanely rich and a major player in the local drug game. All of the girls in New York and Philly want to be with him. Gena and all of her friends seem to constantly be trying to get hooked up with men who will provide them with money. All of the men believe that giving a woman money is the same thing as taking care of them, although Jamal, Gena's boyfriend at the time of the book's opening, provides her with money, but also beats her.

Anyway, Qua and Gena fall in love, and things go about as expected for this young girl and her drug king boyfriend (who sells crack to the very people who make Gena's life in the projects hell): a ton of money is spent, a rival gang is spotted, friends die, Quadir makes a decision to escape his violent life—if you're an American who has ever read a book about a societal villan with a heart of gold who chooses to do right in the end, then you can probably guess what fate will befall him. Because this book is a "fable," Gena, the princess of this story, ends up with all of Qua's money and moves to New York. She is the main character of True to the Game II.

Honestly, I can't decide if I liked the book or not. This book wasn't written for a white girl like me, so there were plenty of cultural norms and touchstones that I just plain missed. Also, while I was empathetic on some levels to some of the characters, there wasn't one character that I liked enough to hang on to and follow through the book. But whatever, not all books are for everyone, and there certainly are enough books written with me in mind. 

While True to the Game isn't an exceptionally written work, this is Teri Woods' first book ever, so I'll save my opinions on her prose until I've read more of her work. She wrote True to the Game in the '90s and spent years trying to get a publishing house to pick it up (a scenario also encountered by Joe Haldeman). When no one else would, she self-published and sold her books out of the trunk of her car all over Philadelphia and New York. When we think of self-publishing, we should think of Teri Woods. She is a self-made, self-published millionaire. (Her books are now put out by Warner Books.) She didn't just write a book and stick it online and wonder why more people didn't flock to her genius. She got out there and made it happen, which is so awesome.

The books she wrote filled a cultural hole, indicating that there is a need for urban fiction. According to Wikipedia, urban fiction isn't a new genre, and includes books like Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. In the '60s and '70s, African American urban fiction—or street lit—became popular with a book called Pimp by Robert Beck (pen name Iceberg Slim). The genre died out during the '80s and '90s, giving way to hip-hop lit, but came back full force in the 2000s with the help of Teri Woods.

My favorite quote in my copy is not from the story, but rather from Woods' letter to the readers:

"People ask me all the time how I did it. How did I sell a million books by myself? I always tell people I've done nothing by myself. I try all the time to explain the power of my people and how they demanded this book and how they made corporate place it on those big shelves of Barnes and Noble and Borders. I love you so much for that because I could never have done that by myself. I tell people how, when I started selling True to the Game in Philadelphia, it was handmade with the white cover and the gold gun on the front. People bought that book from me for twenty dollars, even though it fell apart once they opened it because it was really handmade. To this day, they're holding that book in a plastic bag, thinking it will be worth money one day. I love you for that."

While I may not like her writing or feel her books the way she intends them to be felt, damn if I don't respect her ingenuity, drive, and passion in the world of self-publishing. 

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Reader Comments (3)

Very interesting! I think there's a big ongoing problem in the publishing world in that its larger incarnation (i.e. big publishers) tend to be very traditional and conservative about investing their resources in things they know will sell. At the same time, the smaller elements (small presses, literary magazines, etc.) tend to be fairly elitist in their orientation and focused on advancing whatever aesthetic currently prevails in MFA programs. What Teri Woods' success proves, I think, is that there are many, many readers out there who aren't being well-served or effectively reached by either the major publishing houses or the boutique literary world.

May 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKevin H.

Kevin: It's interesting, the major contemporary lti field is split between MFA program publishing and NYC publishing. Essentially you've honed your craft in one of two very small areas with very small influence. I will never forget the MFA professor I had who said "I don't know any writer who doesn't read the New Yorker every week." And he studied in fo his degree.

Honestly, on some level, if you don't have connections already through the MFA/Contemp Lit publishing world, it seems that your best chance is to pick a genre you like writing and break out in that. There's and added bonus that while Contemp Lit brings you a certain amount of literary cred, genre is where you can make a living.

As a side note, it's interesting that the May book we're reading is Lonesome Dove, which won the Pulitzer. Also of note, recent literary award winners have won for genre work, or shown a distinct fondness for genre. Michael Chabon, Jonathon Lethem & Cormac McCarthy come to mind immediately, and one would like to think that Junot Diaz's blurb for The Forever War was not borne outof kinship of having Haldeman as his colleague at MIT, but actual appreciation for the book and SF.

Makes me think, maybe when the Year of Genre, Courtney and I should cap it off with talking about a genre author we love and why we think at least one of their works qualifies as "literary."

May 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJosh

Ugh. Damn typos.

Last sentence in the first paragraph should read: And he studied in for his degree in NYC.

May 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJosh

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