Publisher is outlet for black authors

Columbia company backs aspiring writers

April 12, 1999|By Jill Hudson Neal | Jill Hudson Neal,SUN STAFF

Erriel Roberson is standing in the crowded basement office of his Columbia home, surrounded by stacks of boxes, a fax machine, computers and containers that once held professional publishing software.

Roberson's three-level house, decorated with African art and large wooden ceremonial masks, is also home to Kujichagulia Press, an independent publishing company he founded in 1994 with his wife, Elisa Brown-Roberson.

Books are everywhere -- on shelves, piled on tables, in corners. Kujichagulia (which means "self-determination" in Swahili) has grown steadily since the 30-year-old Roberson -- who also answers to and has written under the name Erriel Kofi Addae -- began the company to publish his second book, "The Maafa & Beyond: Remembrance, Ancestral Connections and Nations Building for the African Global Community."

Kujichagulia Press was founded to provide an outlet for aspiring black authors. The company has seven titles -- about 60,000 books -- in print, and contracts with four authors.

The company's goals are to provide quality books for African-Americans and to offer black authors an opportunity to have their work published -- even if they have been turned down by mainstream publishers.

"These days, African-American authors and books about African-Americans are very popular," Roberson says. "There's even a renaissance of sorts among these works. But you find very few black-owned and -operated publishers.

And the renaissance seems to be falling off, so it's important to establish an infrastructure so that these authors won't be left in the cold."

For a long time, that infrastructure included independent African-American-owned bookstores.

As the number of black bookstores dwindles, "it's very difficult to get onto the shelves of Borders and Barnes & Noble," he adds. Besides, "the market is very different for African-American books than it is for so-called mainstream books. We need a support system in place. We need a system of survival."

In the five years Kujichagulia has been in business, it has grown to include two subsidiaries, or imprints: T'ana Lake Publishing and NanKira Books, which have allowed the publishing house to diversify its offerings.

This year, NanKira Books has published "The Beauty of Creation," a guide to pregnancy and childbirth written by four African-American women (including Elisa Brown-Roberson) and "Love Letters," a romance novel written by Atlanta-based author Kirby Roy III.

"Within the book industry, it's an accomplishment to be able to stay in business this long," Roberson says. "But our voices are screaming to be heard. The market is wide open and is vast enough so that we will have more than enough to do. The quality of our authors has risen and is getting better all the time."

Others are less optimistic about the chances for survival for most small start-up publishing houses.

`Go back to your mission'

W. Paul Coates, founder of the Baltimore-based Black Classic Press, scored a big hit in 1997 when best-selling author Walter Mosley decided to give the small black-owned press the rights to his first novel, "Gone Fishin'."

Having a mission of providing books to a black audience "gives you a reason for staying in the business, especially when things get rough," Coates says. "You can always go back to your mission when you have to say, `This is why I don't have a paycheck or this is why I can't pay my mortgage.' But [Roberson] certainly already knows that he has to bring other things to the table."

Survival for black publishing houses won't depend on "whether there's a market," Coates says. "Black readers support black publishers. There's no question that we've survived 21 years 'cause we've had support. You've got to figure out how best to reach that market. That's where the diamond is."

Kujichagulia has found a number of authors through its Web site ( Roberson estimates that he receives 50 manuscripts a month from aspiring black authors.

Company's best seller

Roberson's book "The Maafa and Beyond" remains the publishing house's best seller.

The book, a close examination of the African slave trade and effects of the Africans' suffering, has spawned a lecture series and workshops that Roberson uses to detail the African diaspora -- the dispersion of African people during the slave trade.

"Most of us have a parity of knowledge about the experience [of the diaspora]," Roberson says. "We need to get some of the sadness out, to be open and free to discuss it in order to begin the process of healing. African-Americans have not dealt with the trauma, and each generation has picked up some of the pathology of the struggle."

Born in Louisiana, Roberson graduated from the University of Richmond in Virginia -- where he majored in biology -- and received a master's degree in education from Loyola College in Baltimore. After an eight-year stint in pharmaceutical sales, Roberson decided to turn his attention full time to African history and contemporary issues.

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