Yaba Blay has no problem confessing that she is a “recovering overachiever.” Which is not surprising since she is also currently a professor of Africana Studies at Drexel University in Philadelphia, co-director of the department, on the advisory board of Philadelphia’s BlackStar Film Festival and, most recently, publisher and editor-in-chief of Blackprint, an independent publishing press that is finding success with its unconventional business model.
Blackprint, which is in its inaugural year, grew out of necessity. Blay was in the midst of a project where she interviewed and photographed people who had at least “one drop” of black blood in their genetic pool. At the end of the project she did not want to define how others should identify, but instead point out the limits and challenges of racial identification based on the categories available and popular opinions on racial “authenticity.” It was a topic that had long interested Blay and, she says, “when I want to do something, it’s what I want to do. And I want to do it now.”
So in September 2011, she launched a small Kickstarter campaign to help with expenses and went about finding people to talk to and photograph for what would eventually become (1)ne Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race. It was a big idea, but Blay only wanted to print enough copies to have one for her coffee table and to distribute to participants.
Kickstarter changed that. It created major interest in the project, including from CNN, which hired her as a consulting producer for its Who Is Black in America?, a television documentary inspired by (1)ne Drop.
It also led to interest from a New York-based literary agent who assured Blay there would be a bidding war and six-figure advance—every writer’s dream. Eighteen months later, there were only rejections from publishing houses, unanimously agreeing that while they liked the project, they couldn’t publish it. Blay can still list the reasons why: “'If we can’t sell 10K units out the gate, we can’t touch it. Photo books are expensive to print—can we do black and white photos or no photos at all?' No, we’re talking about skin color. Someone’s concern was that the project was not prescriptive, it is descriptive. I follow the contributors, sharing their stories, leave to the reader to make meaning of it. They said I needed to take a stand and define blackness and race in a way for the reader. No way was I doing that.”
Many would have given up and gone back to their original plan to print a few copies and call it a day. But since she was not yet in the recovery phase of her overachieving, Blay instead decided to do it herself. To her, the cost of printing the book was not as high as the cost of not telling stories that the world needs to hear. “I’m not in it to make money, I’m concerned with people having access,” she says.
She ran a second Kickstarter campaign in 2013 to pay for (1)ne Drop’s initial print run of 2000 books, and healthy donations poured in, including one from Spike Lee. And upon the book’s release on Black Friday, the momentum continued, with appearances on CNN and other television shows, plus a slide show and article from the New York Times that called the book eloquent, with a “nuanced view of race [that] is enhanced by its dynamic and insightful color portraits.”
It’s fitting praise for a company whose motto is “Our Stories. Our Terms.” “What Blackprint offers is very much what I’d call partnership publishing, a collaborative effort to create a book,” says Blay, who is already working with newly signed authors on her next two titles, Dandy Lion, a book on black male style, and Her Word as Witness, a collection of images of black female writers that began as a photo exhibit. The projects typify the company’s niche, which is non-fiction titles that Blay calls “bookumentaries,” her term for illustrative, photo-driven books that are documentary in nature. “We’re going to give you a new window into black life,” she says of Blackprint. “It’s not new to black people. But it is not the image that publishing is putting out there.” And with that, Blay proudly puts her overachieving hat back on.
[Image: Flickr user Josh Semans]