Book Smart: Phoebe Robinson on ghosting, refusing failure, and shaking up the publishing industry
Dear reader, yes, I look fabulous in these photos, but please know that I wrote this essay while pantless and seated on my couch, rocking a push-up bra (for who? I'm by myself ) and listening to Omarion's "Ice Box" because there's never a wrong time to live the way I was living in 2006. Anyway, here I am in Entertainment Weekly tasked with summarizing, IN 1,200 WORDS OR LESS, (1) my journey toward launching my literary imprint Tiny Reparations Books with my third book, Please Don't Sit on My Bed in Your Outside Clothes (Sept. 28), and (2) my opinions on the ever-changing publishing landscape. Insert shocked emoji followed by the Kanye West lyrics: "Poopy-di-scoop/Scoop-diddy-whoop." Basically, this writing assignment initially caused my mind to overload with a barrage of thoughts that all I could make out were some poops and scoops. Still, I'm not one to back down from a challenge, so here goes.
It was 2014. I told my now-former manager that I wanted to write a book. Her response: "Well you're not famous, so you shouldn't be writing a book." Did I fire her after she said that? Nope! My goofy ass kept working with her for several months until she GHOSTED ME because I was still not famous. Let's soak that in for a moment. I continued paying someone 15 percent of what I make to tell me I ain't s---. LOL I will unpack that in therapy right after I work through the fact that I wore foundation eight shades too light for my skin tone because I got my makeup done at the mall before I went to senior prom. ANYWAY! The point is: I was a struggling stand-up comic with a dream and zero knowledge of how to make it happen. And because many famous authors, movies, and TV shows romanticize what it's like to write books, I thought it would be easy, aside from the occasional bout of writer's block. I was wrong! Writing and selling a book proposal to a publisher ain't sexy! Writing a book ain't sexy! Promoting a book ain't sexy! In fact, the whole process — the idea phase straight up to publicaysh — is mostly like lovemaking after a hearty Thanksgiving dinner, a.k.a. sometimes tryptophan won't let you be great and the same can be said for the world of publishing. Let me explain.
Back in 2015, my literary agent Robert and I shopped around my proposal for You Can't Touch My Hair and Other Things I Still Have to Explain. Imprint after imprint rejected it because they claimed that books by Black women don't sell (wut?) and are not relatable (to whom, DAVE?), and that no one is interested in funny-essay collections by Black women (wut? the sequel). In the end, Plume was the only imprint that wanted me, and as Lady Gaga taught us, ya only need one person to believe in you, boo! Anyway, cut to 2016. You Can't Touch My Hair was on the New York Times best-seller list for two weeks, and the very places that turned me down emailed Robert asking why we never tried to sell my proposal to them because "they would have loved to publish me." He politely reminded them that he did and what their responses were. And while it's good for the ego to prove a bunch of close-minded and biased heauxes wrong, I kept thinking about all the women, POCs, and queer people who don't end up with this happy ending, let alone the opportunity to get their writing published. I wanted to do something with what little power I had, but then life happened.
My TV career grew thanks to my 2 Dope Queens specials for HBO. I fell in love. Finally traveled after being in debt for over a decade. Had creative projects fall apart. Got a Peloton. JK. But also, #PelotonIsLyfe. Was in early talks with Plume to partner with me and launch an imprint. And yes, of course, coronavirus. It made the world stop. All the plans everyone had vanished. Like most people, I clung to anything that felt "normal," and that "anything " was books. Every morning, I would get up early and read for hours. Books became my escape, an oasis, a new way of understanding our drastically different world, and most important, they brought me immense joy. Robert could sense this whenever we chatted on the phone just as friends, and when I told him about my idea for Please Don't Sit on My Bed, he said that I should launch my imprint and that could be the first book published. #UltimateFlex, but also, hmm. In the face of the summer of social reckoning spurred by the murder of George Floyd, having an imprint seemed… irrelevant? But then I reminded myself that every time I read, I felt inspired that there was something more than the collective trauma we were enduring. If anything, the suffocating bigness of COVID and police brutality illuminated how special and important books are. So having my own imprint went from seeming trivial to a "why the hell not?" Given the state of the world, the worst that could happen is failure.
A word, if I may: After you've been told more times than you care to count that you don't have what it takes to achieve your goals, that you and your work are not valuable, or you're just given an emphatic "no" without any further explanation only to prove them wrong by not just knocking your goals off your to-do list, but exceeding the wildest dreams you've ever had, you start to realize that worrying about failing is not worth your time. Even if what you're going after doesn't work out, betting on yourself is the smartest and the best no-brainer thing you could do. And launching an imprint during COVID AND the reckoning AND in an industry that, to say the least, has not always embraced women, POCs, and the queer community is pretty damn smart. The contributions to the written word from these groups are ASTOUNDING, and it's my privilege to, in some small way, help them carry on the tradition.
Sure, the jury's still out on how Tiny Reparations Books will perform, but in my eyes, it's already a success. I have eight authors on the slate. All of them are first-timers. I guess my experience shopping around You Can't Touch My Hair really stuck with me, and I never wanted anyone to experience the amount of ignorance, disinterest, and lack of faith in their talent as I had. So it is my honor to be in the trenches with them, and my only hope is that every promise made by publishing houses during the summer of 2020 and the viral #PublishingPaidMe conversation is delivered upon. It's not up to me nor any of the brilliant writers on my slate to do the long overdue work publishing needs to do to be more inclusive, to pay writers from marginalized communities better, to nurture and hire more women, POCs, and queer people in gatekeeper positions. We're watching you, publishing industry, because we love you — and we know you can do better.
Stay tuned to EW.com for more spotlights on this fall's biggest books over the coming weeks.