by Lynne d. Johnson
Mosaic #2, June 1998
If you listen to Jessica Care Moore tell it, poetry is more than just an artistic form of expression, it’s a business. In fact, Moore says poetry can be effectively marketed to garner reasonable profits. She ought to know, she self-published her own book, The Words Don’t Fit In My Mouth, which happens to be a bestseller.
“People assume that poetry doesn’t sell books. The big names, like Sonia Sanchez and Maya Angelou are making thousands of dollars off their books. According to the marketing reports for this genre, selling 5,000 copies equals a bestseller. So I have a bestseller,” says Moore.
Moore started Moore Black Press in August ‘97 when she launched her book. With a literary agent and a manager, things weren’t moving quickly enough. “I got tired of waiting,” says Moore. “I had been working as a poet and I knew I had an audience. I couldn’t wait for publishers to decide I needed a book. It was common sense, I was doing shows. I’m doing Black Expo, I need to have a book. Why should I wait for a big company to legitimize me?”
After earning national and critical acclaim winning a record five weeks in a row reciting her poetry on Amateur Night at the Apollo, Moore knew there was a market. “I have something that people want,” she thought. “I need a book so that people like myself can read my stuff.” The frustration of doing huge shows, and afterwards selling no books, coupled with fans and peers asking, “Where’s your book? Where’s your CD? When are you gonna record something? When are you gonna publish a book?” –was the impetus for her company. “Poetry was getting mainstream attention in commercials, in movies, on CDs –and none of us have books. We need to be publishing our work.” So, instead of focusing on a record deal she chose to focus on her book. Once she came up with the name for the company, everything else just followed suit.
This is where the artist became entrepreneur. “People publish books and they just publish themselves.” explains Moore. “Instead of just publishing my book, I said, I’m going to incorporate my business. I’m going to get a logo, and I’m going to do it legitimate.”
Starting a new business can be difficult for anyone, but especially for artists, who are believed not to be able to actualize business acumen. Yet Moore had an edge, she knew the poetry scene. She lived it. She also had a network of friends who were living the poetry life too. They would become key players in making Moore Black Press a reality. One Brooklyn-based poet, Tai Allen, did her layout. Tony Medina, a poet, editor and professor, edited her book, and her boyfriend, Pierre M. Bonnett Brown, designed her book cover. “I got friends together who I knew had talent,” Moore explains.
If it sounds easy, it wasn’t. Releasing her book was only the beginning of the process. “I wiped out my bank account. I put four colors on the cover, which costs a lot of money.” Besides, she had no distribution deal. “I have been doing the shipping and record keeping myself, which isn’t poetic at all.” She never even went after a distribution deal, but now Barnes and Nobles and other large chains are coming after her. “Barnes and Nobles – they are sending me checks. People are going there and asking for it. Now I get calls, and distributors want to pick it up,” says Moore.
Creating Moore Black Press has been a learning process. “I wanted my book to look right, and it’s still not how I want it. I have a revised edition coming out. I have another graphic artist doing layout. I just learned. The business is also becoming this whole other thing.”
After putting together her own successful book party, Saul Williams, who will star in the forthcoming movie Slam–a movie about poetry that also won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and has Alfre Woodard saying it’s the most important movie made in 25 years–came to Moore and said, “Let’s make you the Haki [Madhubuti] of our movement. For Moore, it was an honor. Williams is one of her favorite poets and her friend. It was also a blessing. The hype of the film has companies coming after him, and he’s able to tell them his girl over at Moore Black Press is putting his book, The Seventh Octave: The Early Writings of Saul Williams out. She’s doing it one book at a time.
Lynne d. Johnson is the publications editor in the Department of Public Relations and Publications at the College of Mount Saint Vincent in Riverdale, NY. She has written for Beat Down, The Source, OneWorld, Hydro, and on NetNoir.