QBR is our country’s first national book review dedicated to books about the African experience. QBR also produces the Harlem Book Fair, the largest African-American book fair in the United States.
Free to the public, this annual book fair features panel discussions on the state of black publishing, celebrity authors, live readings, music, entertainment, as well as vending and exhibition of a variety of foods, arts & crafts, novelty items, and a vast selection of over 250 titles by black authors. This year marks the event’s 16th Anniversary and will begin with a fiction festival at Columbia University on Friday, July 11, 2014 and will continue with its tradition of the outdoor exhibits on Saturday, July 12, 2014 at West 135th Street & Lenox Avenue (rain or shine). With the annual Harlem Book Fair having maintained its legacy of promoting literacy within the Harlem community and abroad, NYCHA/NAACP literacy ambassador Eartha Watts-Hicks interviews QBR’s founder, Max Rodriguez.
Harlem World Magazine: When was QBR’s official launch, and what was your inspiration for starting this endeavor?
Max Rodriquez: I officially began QBR The Black Book Review in 1996. Always an avid reader, I would read book review publications looking for books that reflected my experience. Most often, I would find none; and that prompted me to publish book reviews that told our stories.
HW: Once you were actually up and running, how easy or difficult was it for you to gain and build support?
MR: It was relatively easy to gain and build support. We began publishing at a time when Terry McMillan had just written Waiting to Exhale, black folks were hungry for stories,and publishers were clamoring to serve a ‘new’ reader market. Everyone was being published. We were the only publication on the market ready to fully capture the trend.
HW: The Harlem Book Fair forum has become like the Apollo stage for aspiring authors of color. What noted authors have you witnessed ascend from humble beginnings?
MR: Too numerous and count! It’s easier to count the major authors who have not come through the book fair! But more to your point, the author Joe Young presented his title, Diamond Ruff, at the Harlem Book Fair in 2009. Five years later, the film maker Joe Young is screening his adaptation to film at the 2014 Harlem Book Fair. The Harlem Book Fair Urban Arts & Lit Festival was created, exactly, to showcase talent like this.
HW: How has this Book Fair changed over the years? How has it adapted in this new age of social media?
MR: Actually, this is the year of change for the Harlem Book Fair. With Columbia University’s School of the Arts, we are launching our first annual World Fiction Festival and, most exciting; we are launching the HBF Urban Arts & Lit Festival, a festival of music, art, film, theater and books that reflects the global influence and impact of Hip Hop culture. All of this within our Harlem Book Fair weekend!
HW: What is your favorite genre currently and what was your favorite genre as a child?
MR: My favorite genre is autobiography, memoir and history. Aside from fiction writing, these books consistently hit home for me. As a child, mysteries (the Hardy Boys) and sports stories were my favorites.
HW: What are your feelings concerning the book publishing industry as it pertains to children’s books, diversity, and authors of color?
MR: Mine may be a slightly different approach. Publishing is a business, and publishers, I believe, have no moral obligation to promote diversity. Their corporate mandate is simple: maximize profit, and at the least possible cost. If promoting diversity impacts their bottom line, then they should do it. If diversity does not work for them as a business model, they should not. As a business owner, one is responsible for bringing one’s service to market. Know your market; know how to access and leverage into it, or create alternate accesses so as to ensure your viability. We want more books that look like us in the marketplace. We should keep pushing large publishers into printing more books but only as a complementary profit strategy to our primary business strategy.
HW: Have you yourself ventured into creative writing, and if so, to what degree was your passion?
MR: I have published exactly eight books – all in my head. I know for the next time – if I have a passion for books, become a librarian! The business of it all will always place your passion in perspective.
HW: What other platforms or services does QBR offer?
MR: Beyond publishing book reviews, we offer a 40,000 dedicated reader email list, generated from 15 years of Harlem Book Fair attendees, to whom authors, publishers and marketers, big and small, can target their promotions. Our newsletters and press releases hit the target audience that will read a book, at pricing that is accessible to all.
HW: What advice would you offer aspiring authors and aspiring entrepreneurs?
MR: Digital publishing is a beautiful thing but the idea of ‘self’ publishing’ is a misnomer. While printing has been democratized (anyone can write and print a book) distribution, bringing a book to market, is not. You will need a team to prepare and turn your book to profit. Understand that publishing a book is a business enterprise. As is commonly said, ‘write the book; then the work begins’. Find a professional editor (have them list references and published books that they have worked on. (Do not give your to work to “someone you know”). Create a cover similar to those on large-chain bookseller shelves. Create a budget for promotion and advertising. To ‘save’ money by not advertising is like breaking a clock to ‘save’ time. Track your costs. Keep your job. Or, find an agent to guide your work (an equally daunting task, but doable)…and keep your job!
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Eartha Watts-Hicks is the author of Love Changes, New York City literacy ambassador for NYCHA/NAACP and a member of the esteemed Harlem Writers Guild. For more information, visit www.earthatone.com.