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When I started RedBone Press, I didn't think that's what I was doing. I actually just wanted to get these stories—the stories in does your mama know? An Anthology of Black Lesbian Coming Out Stories—out! I'd put out a call for submissions in 1995 after looking for a book like does your mama know? and not finding it. I came out in the early 1980s, and I hadn't really read much coming out literature since then. At that time I read books like The Original Coming Out Stories edited by Julia Penelope Stanley and Susan J. Wolfe, which is still on my bookshelf. Come to think of it, there are quite a few Persephone Press books—and Diana Press, Crossing Press, Naiad Press—still on my shelf, and I thank the universe for that.
Anyway, I put out a call for submissions, sending it out as a classified ad to nationally distributed publications such as Sojourner, Washington Blade, Lesbian Connection, BLK Magazine, Common Lives, Lesbian Lives, and Sinister Wisdom. I gave a deadline of six months from the time of the call. Of course, I should have known that writers are notorious for missing deadlines – I mean, I did it regularly at my editorial assistant job for HealthQuest Magazine and at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where I was a clerk and, later, a copy editor. (That was after graduating with a degree in journalism in 1995. It was my second bachelor's; I'd gotten one in accounting in 1987.) When the six months were up, I'd only received two submissions, so I renewed the ads and then sent the call to all the women's bookstores in the U.S. – addresses courtesy of the Feminist Bookstore Catalog, which lists them in the back. Those bookstores put the call up on bulletin boards or passed it on to writers they knew; I know because I always asked respondents how they heard about the book. I even got a few email responses; one of the contributors had posted the call on an electronic bulletin board.
My new deadline was one year from the second call, so by the end of a year and a half, I’d gotten quite a few stories, poems, and essays. During that time, I also went through my collection of Common Lives, Lesbian Lives and Sinister Wisdom and tried to contact writers of certain stories so I could reprint them. I also obtained permission to reprint Becky Birtha's and Jewelle Gomez's stories. I received 62 pieces and chose 49 for publication. Then I began the editing process.
Once I actually had all the stories, the project took on a life of its own. I had already begun researching how to publish, but I wasn't sure if I wanted to do it myself or submit the book to another publisher. One character fact/flaw: I'm a control freak (the euphemism is “detail-oriented”). That helped me decide to self-publish, since I wanted to control how the book would look, who'd design the cover, how many copies would get printed, and how it would get marketed and sold.
I hired an artist, Kamela Eaton, who lives in Sacramento, to do the cover. She came recommended by my editor at HealthQuest Magazine. I knew the cover had to be striking enough to grab the reader from across the room – or so all the literature says – and once I saw Kamela's work, I knew she could do it. Kamela and I swapped Fed Exes regularly, she drawing possible cover and spine ideas, me approving a few of them, until we gradually narrowed it down to one image, which is the present-day cover. Neither of us had ever designed a book cover before, and I'd never negotiated for one, so for two neophytes I think we did a really good job.
One day I realized I had all the makings of a book but no money to print it. I'd been working three part-time jobs to pay contributors as I contracted them and to pay Kamela. I found out much later that it's customary to pay "upon publication." (Believe me, every contract since that day has had those specs!) Then, as I was bemoaning my fate to a friend, she announced that she had the money; indeed, she'd been saving it for me, knowing that I really wanted to publish this book myself. Such good friends-with money to lend!—are hard to come by.
Now I had no excuses. The cover design was done, the stories were edited, the contracts were all signed. I contacted a print broker who got quotes for me while I sat at my computer and did the book's layout. Within a month, I had typeset pages and a printer to print them.
Five weeks later, 3000 copies of my first baby were delivered to my kitchen – I mean, inventory storage. From the research I'd done, I knew that books typically need a six-month lead time for publicity, and I didn't have that. So while the book was at the printer, I created color flyers with the book's cover and mailed them to all the women's bookstores, gay bookstores, Black bookstores, and Black lesbian social groups I could find, not to mention every friend I'd ever had. I also sent notices to women's studies departments at universities. Within a week of the books' arrival, I was sending out 100-plus review copies to gay media, women's media, library media, and Black media – but not the mainstream. I knew from working at the newspaper that the mainstream rarely pays attention to a fringe book like mine, so I didn't bother letting them know about it.
Within a month after publication, I'd set up readings at women's and gay bookstores in major cities where the contributors lived: 18 stops in all – including Atlanta, New York, Boston, Chicago, Toronto, Philadelphia, Detroit, Minneapolis, Austin, Oakland, and Washington, D.C. – in a single summer. I became quite handy at tripping through airports with a case or two of books as carry-on luggage. The book's sales enabled me to pay the monthly travel bills and shipping and handling. Thanks to the word-of-mouth publicity generated, I got lots of single orders, and women's bookstores discovered that a $19.95 book as singular as mine sold, repeatedly.
Since publishing does your mama know? I've learned that the hardest work of publishing is marketing and distribution. Publishing may seem like a lonely activity—just you and the computer—until you realize you've got to get out and see who your readers are. You also develop relationships with the bookstore owners, since they know the women in their communities who will be interested in RedBone books. It wasn't quite what I expected to be doing as a publisher, but I've since developed a whole other side to my personality: Lisa C. Moore, Director of Publicity.
My sister had worked in a Black bookstore in Florida that fulfilled mail orders, so I quizzed her on shipping. I found companies that deliver boxes and padded mailing bags, packing materials and rolls of packing tape by the dozen. Between my sister's knowledge and my accounting background, I knew I could handle sales and distribution. I bought QuickBooks and used it to keep up with accounting, making sure I printed and included invoices and packing slips when mailing books. From working with the newspaper's book editor, I already knew how the press kits should look, what is required in a press release, and how far in advance calendar editors need it. I used that information to design my own press kit and book readings. Every time the book got reviewed, off to Kinko's I went to make copies to add to my press kit. Whenever I booked a reading, I sent press kits to the gay/lesbian, women's, and Black media and followed up with a press release two weeks prior to the event. The book's contributors really helped by getting me information on what media contacts to target in their cities.
So the summer of 1997 was my whirlwind summer. I was still working part-time at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, traveling three to four days at a time, and shipping out books when I got back home. Libraries starting sending in orders. I even got a few college textbook orders. Borders and Barnes & Noble sent single-title orders, at the special request of women in places without independent bookstores. (I've been pretty adamant from the beginning that I wanted to focus my marketing efforts to the women's bookstores, since they got me my contributors.) I was still getting individual orders. And the book was reviewed in so many places! Mama Bears' newsletter, Chicago's Blacklines, the Lambda Book Report, the Bay Guardian, Venus Magazine, and Sojourner among others, not to mention the publicity from online bulletin board recommendations.
The first print run of does your mama know? sold out in eight months, so I went back to press for 2000 more in late November 1997. Those sold out in another six months, and now there are 8000 in print.
I guess all the publicity was what helped does your mama know? sell so consistently—and get nominated for the Lambda Literary Awards. Actually winning two Lammys—something I never expected; just ask the audience when I got the second award!—helped get me a distributor. Quite a few bookstores had refused to do business with me until I'd gotten a distributor, but I was reluctant for at least two reasons: Distributors take a huge (to me) percentage, and I felt they didn't know my market as well as I did. I signed up with LPC Group in 1998, but as of August 2001 I’m with BookPeople Distributors in California, as well as Alamo Square for gay bookstore sales.
So, the RedBone Press story. The new book, the bull-jean stories by Sharon Bridgforth, came out in October 1998. The first print run was 2000; it’s now in a second printing, with 4000 in print. It's been excerpted in Girlfriends Magazine and won the 1998 Lambda Literary Award for Best Small Press Book, and was nominated by the American Library Association for the Gay/Lesbian Book Award. There have been readings in Austin, Atlanta, New York, Chicago, New Orleans, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Seattle and Vancouver, among other cities. In 1999, I produced the audiobook on CD of the bull-jean stories. Sharon is well-known in theater circles, so we're tagging book readings/signings with performances and workshops. Sharon also actively publicizes her work; we check with each other to coordinate and make sure we don't duplicate efforts. What money comes in from does your mama know? goes back into publicity, and to my second child, bull-jean.
Sharon out on tour with bull-jean. (I’ll be traveling with her for some events to see how the response is.)
What have I learned? That there is a market for Black lesbian writing, that a distributor does indeed help, that small print runs are good, that there's nothing like a well-publicized reading to sell books, that women's bookstores stick together, . . . that y'all like me, you really like me! (I still can't believe I said that at the awards dinner!)
And that I love this business, so I guess I've been bitten by the bug. RedBone Press is committed to publishing one book per year – unless a fairy godmother comes along to subsidize. Until then, operations are still on a small scale – though my computer has a room of its own in my house now, instead of a place next to the bed. But the smell of fresh ink still gets my adrenaline pumping, and the incredible response from readers, booksellers, and other publishers lets me know my work is worthwhile. Y'all really do like me!
version of this article appeared in Feminist Bookstore News,
Jan/Feb 1999 issue. Copyright © 1999, 2001 Lisa C. Moore.
Does Your Mama Know
the bull-jean stories
the bull-jean stories On CD
Sassy Be Gone
"Where were all the black lesbians?" Lisa Moore of Redbone Press asks in her video project, "Sassy Be Gone." Through oral histories of black lesbians in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, Moore explores where Black bulldaggers, femmes, studs and women who liked to wear "wife beaters" fit in the black communities of their youth. From Chicago to Kentucky to New York City, Moore listens to the stories of women who helped to make way for contemporary Black lesbian existence/movements. She also raises important questions about the dearth of formal historical inquiry into the lesbian presence in famed movements such as the Harlem Renaissance. -- Gail CooperHome