Q&A: Sherrod Celebrates Amistad Press

by
Dana Isokawa
From the September/October 2016 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

How do you know when a title is one of those books?
For nonfiction, it’s straight-up practical reasons—the community has been waiting for a book from this person forever, so things are all lined up. There are so many people behind it that it doesn’t really matter what it is that they do, but chances are that they’re doing something smart and it will work. For fiction, it feels like a warmth that overwhelms you—it’s a sensation. When there are so many elements to a story that embrace where you come from that you know it’s going to work. Like Edwards’s The Mother and Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn.

Are there more specific challenges you encounter as an editor of color?
The number one thing is that I think most of the publishing industry looks at African American editors as one and the same. They believe that our tastes are going to be the same, that we’re going to want the same books, that we’re building identical publishing programs—but that’s not really true. We all have very different tastes. Some are more literary than others; some are more interested in books that have historical relevance; some only want to do books that will make a difference. And it goes across the board. Everybody has different tastes. And we’re friends—even though we sometimes compete against one another, we’re friends and support one another and recognize more than anything that if one book fails, it could jeopardize all the books. We face more pressure because we can only acquire a few books. So if you pay a lot for one and it tanks hugely, there’s no telling what might happen. So we’re all very careful and very smart and think of publishing multicultural books as a whole, not about our careers. It has nothing to do with our individual careers. And I think this was shown when Chris Jackson was given the opportunity to start his own imprint, and he decided to resurrect One World [at Random House] instead, which shows that he was concerned about the multicultural publishing community.

Do you sense that the publishing industry has adopted the view that black readers have diverse interests and read across racial and cultural lines?
I don’t think it’s adopted by the industry as a whole. Someone once said to me, “Are all of your books about race?” And I said, “No!” Multicultural writers write about various aspects of their lives. Even though racism has shaped all of us, unfortunately, and I’m not sure it has shaped us to be our best selves. I do believe that something special is going on right now, where all of us are questioning our biases and racism in a more serious way. I also believe there’s another segment of the population that is embracing their hostility towards other races, and they are really speaking loudly. So those of us who are trying to do better and [create] a more beloved society need to speak louder. And perhaps show some love to the other people who are really having a challenging time, and maybe then we can make America great again.

It’s a scary time, right?
It is, it is. But I think it’s going to be a productive time. I remember back in 2008 and 2009, there was a drought in multicultural literature. There were great books, but there were very few in terms of the number of books that were coming out. I remember telling a friend in publishing, “Believe it or not, this is a really good time, because I know that people are in their homes writing and creating and in the next few years, it’s going to be an explosion of just amazing, amazing literature.” And I think that is happening now.

What are your plans for Amistad’s future, and how do you hope to grow the list?
We plan to grow the staff, to find someone who specializes in marketing and publicity. As for the list, I’ve learned from the success of Edward P. Jones winning the Pulitzer Prize for The Known World, the reception of Another Brooklyn, the reception of The Mother, that literary fiction is the route for Amistad. As for nonfiction, [we’ll be looking to publish fewer] celebrities and more serious narrative nonfiction. That’s how we’ll grow the list. We have some really great books coming that reflect that. We’re doing Black Detroit: A People’s History of Self-Determination by Herb Boyd, and Making Rent in Bed-Stuy, which is a memoir by a young man, Brandon Harris, about gentrification. And we have a book called The Original Black Elite by Elizabeth Dowling Taylor that’s a history from the Emancipation Proclamation to the Jim Crow era of the really wealthy class of black people and their philosophies and ways of life.

Does Amistad have a target audience?
I definitely want our books to reach people of color in addition to everyone else. I think it’s the same hope that we have for every book: We want our books to reach everyone. So my goal is that I’m publishing for people of color, but I hope that everyone is interested.

What would you like to see in the industry in terms of increasing diversity?
I would like for the industry to see that it’s wonderful when all the cultures come together and do things together. There’s so much joy, there’s so much pleasure, there’s so much excitement to be found there. And I think that we should try to achieve that more often—because it’s a beautiful experience, and we all learn so much, and what we learn provides joy.

In what way would we be brought together?
In making books! And not thinking that books are for a particular audience, or that when we go to market that only women or only whatever the “only” is buys books. Don’t think of it that way. Because we’re sharing a story that we’re all a part of. This is supposed to be some melting pot, so let’s see what’s in the pot! I’d like for us to see that bringing things together is joyful and not work. Inclusion is not work. I think living in isolation is work.

Dana Isokawa is the associate editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

 

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