Last Updated Nov 8, 2010 12:16 PM EST
These days the book business has more execs and investors wringing their hands or jumping ship rather than digging in. But not Ronald (Slim) and Bryan (Baby) Williams. Brothers, entrepreneurs and the rap music moguls behind Cash Money Records, the Williams duo has set their sights on publishing. And they may just be on to something.
With Cash Money Content, the brothers Williams plan to introduce hand-picked novels and non-fiction to a market that's been spoon fed "street lit" (think gritty urban fiction, heavy on the sex and violence) and is hungry for more.
Indeed at Barnes & Noble (BKS), street lit dominates the offerings by African-American writers. B&N's fiction buyer asserted that in roughly 125 of the more than 700 Barnes & Noble stores around the country, urban fiction outsells classics by black authors such as Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker.
Through an agreement with the Atria Books imprint of Simon & Schuster (CBS) to market and distribute the books, Cash Money Content will release Raw Law: An Urban Guide to Criminal Justice, Wahida Clark's Justify My Thug, a paperback original novel and the memoir Pimp by the late Iceberg Slim. Atria will market and distribute, while the Williamses will own the books.
The Williams brothers were smart to forge an alliance with S&S, especially because the publisher is the parent of Touchstone, publisher of the wildly popular novelist Miasha, whose sales figures (think 200,000) are the envy of many a writer in any genre.
However, by owning the content themselves, the Williamses can also hang on to a chunk of the revenues. They're not strangers to this strategy. They used a form of it when Lil Wayne (one of their label's top selling artists) released Tha Carter III (which sold 2.5 million copies) and their distribution deal with Universal Motown allowed them to retain the master recording as well as a significant portion of royalties and revenue.
This will help when it comes time to dole out advances and hire editors. Because that's where the brothers -- like so many traditional publishers -- could run into trouble. But it's worse for them, as money plays such a starring role in hip hop culture. Slim once turned over a briefcase with $1 million in cash as payment to his star artist Lil Wayne.
No doubt that gesture was as much about flash as payment for services (well) rendered. However, splash doesn't always work in the book business and six-figure advances aren't sustainable for the enterprise, no matter how good the cash looks on the table (or in the briefcase, as it were). 7 out of 10 titles do not earn back their advance. Perhaps the brothers plan to finance advances with the proceeds from their oil company, Bronald Oil & Gas, LLC?
As for hiring editors for the books they sign, I'm hoping the brothers Williams have a savvy mentor with serious publishing experience waiting in the wings to help them navigate through that process.
The bright spot amid the uncertainty is the Williams balls-out determination to make this work from a marketing standpoint. You have to admire guys who understand how to reach their market. In addition to YouTube videos of authors, billboards and commercials, the brothers plan to sell in venues they know intimately: at concerts.
Vernon Brown, the brothers' attorney and business manager said, "Our books will also be sold at our concerts. When you're out in front of 18,000 people, some will buy books, some not. But right now many of those fans aren't being told what books are great. We'll do that."