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Riding a Wave

A Durham-based publishing house grows along with the market for black literature

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Durham's John Riddick and Dominique Grosvenor take the term "husband-and-wife team" seriously. Riddick, 29, and Grosvenor, 36, are the brains and will behind Sadorian Publications, a small Triangle-based press they founded together, and the Black Writers Emerge Conference that took place July 6-8 at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh.

Riddick and Grosvenor operate the publishing company from the second bedroom-turned-headquarters in their Camden Avenue apartment. Its walls are lined with a computer, boxes of Sadorian's three releases, manuscripts submitted by hopeful writers and FedEx envelopes. Their home office is their shared love of writing made manifest.

The couple met when Grosvenor submitted her self-published novel for a review in Rhapsody, a quarterly literary journal publishing work by black artists that Riddick founded in 1997. "It was her tenacity that attracted me," says Riddick. "She was always asking when I was going to publish the review."

After a positive review and months of e-mail correspondence, the pair finally met in person and established a personal as well as a working relationship. Sadorian Publications began partly as a way to publish Grosvenor's second work of fiction, Like Boogie on Tuesday. Riddick, a North Carolina Central University alumnus who studied for a short time in a publishing program at the University of Baltimore, did all the typesetting and artwork for Grosvenor's book, except for the photography.

But Sadorian--a name the couple selected for their as-yet unborn first child--was also Riddick and Grosvenor's response to a competitive publishing milieu that can be discouraging to newcomers. As the editor of a N.C. Central literary magazine from 1989 to 1994, Riddick found he "enjoyed publishing other people ... the look on their faces when they see their work in print" for the first time.

While it's difficult for any novice writer to break into the professional ranks and secure the backing of a publisher, it's many times more challenging for black writers. Vanessa Woodward, a Raleigh-based publicist who promotes five black authors, says that new writers often have few options, though that is changing as more small companies crop up. "Most black writers either have to self-publish or go someplace like Sadorian, where they feel like they can get more books on the market quickly," she says. "Having a place like Sadorian, where the editing is done, a kind of one-stop shop, makes it easier."

Being a one-stop shop translates into long hours for Riddick and Grosvenor. Most section editors for Rhapsody work electronically, and Riddick and Grosvenor are the press' only full-time employees. Hence they are editors, designers, guerilla marketers, envelope stuffers, fund-raisers and webmasters. Riddick designed Sadorian's Web site and relies primarily on the Internet for public relations because, he says, it's a cheaper, more active mode of communication.

Piles of "snail mail" and other correspondence began stacking up recently as the pair promoted their Black Writers Emerge conference, a gathering for writers, publishers and readers. A full slate of published authors appeared, including Robert Fleming, who wrote The African-American Writers Handbook, and Donna Hill, a romance writer. Though several popular authors, including Venise Berry, backed out due to a schedule conflict with the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans, Grosvenor said that the response from authors was tremendous.

"We got lots of e-mails and more authors than we expected--30 when we wanted 20," she says. The enthusiasm of writers and conference participants shows, she adds, that "North Carolina is an untapped market." Riddick says that the Triangle's location--between the black-majority metropolitan areas of Washington, D.C., and Atlanta--makes it an ideal meeting place for authors from all over the Eastern Seaboard.

Now all that's left is putting the Triangle on the black literary map. While the area is known as a hotbed for traditional Southern literature, Riddick says that it has miles to go in terms of its opportunities for black writers. "After I got into publishing, I'd look around and say, 'That's not all that.' And I'd been here for 10, 11 years. Why hadn't there been a conference for black writers? We have seven historically black colleges and universities within a 100-mile radius, and I wondered why can't we do that here."

So Riddick and Grosvenor did it, organizing a conference with a menu of hands-on panels, a poetry slam and discussions. For the writer ready to push his or her manuscript into the market, there were Saturday sessions about marketing and finding an agent. For those who still wanted to hone their skills, experienced authors directed workshops in character development.

These were all topics that Dominique Grosvenor struggled to learn as she published her books. She spent about $5,000 to self-publish her first book and then began sending her work around. Grosvenor also had little knowledge of the distribution networks that get books from printer to warehouse to bookstore shelves. But she learned quickly, set up an Internet site (www.prolificwriters.org) to network with others, and scored an agent as she shuttled her manuscript from company to company.

It all paid off. Glenda Howard, the senior book editor at BET's publishing arm, read Grosvenor's Like Boogie on Tuesday, and the book will be re-released in October as the debut novel of a new BET line called Sepia.

BET isn't the only company to ride the wave of black popular fiction. According to Chicago-based Target Market Research, blacks bought $307 million worth of books in 1999, and mainstream publishing houses aren't immune to the numbers. In the last year, at least seven publishers started black imprints with names like Harlem Moon (Doubleday), Amistad Press (HarperCollins) and Striver's Row (Villard, a division of Random House).

The trend of the big publishing houses creating ethnic spinoffs has yet to bear fruit, though it's a positive development. But whether the imprints get the maximum energy of publishing executives, Grosvenor and Riddick plan to be around to fulfill their mission--"to thrust the voice of those once unheard into the forefront of the literary spectrum"--and to raise to maturity the child of their labor, Sadorian Publications. EndBlock

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