The Little Press That Could
Sharon Bridgforth feels like she and Lisa Moore are in a movement together. Sharon Bridgforth is the author of the Lambda Award-winning book the bull-jean stories. Lisa Moore is the owner of RedBone Press, the publisher of the bull-jean stories. According to Bridgforth, "Lisa is ... changing the face of the publishing industry, literally. So around the country, people in the publishing industry, particularly in the small press pockets, are taking notice of what Lisa's doing." What's she doing? "A lot of the publishers don't think black people read and buy books. And she's selling," Bridgforth explains. "Her target is black lesbians, but she's selling universally and selling lots. So they all want to know, 'How are you doing this?' Particularly with work like mine."
She's doing it by busting her butt. In 1995, while living in Atlanta, Moore was in the midst of completing her second bachelor's degree, working at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and searching for black lesbian coming-out stories. She assumed there was such a publication. There wasn't, at least not since 1980. And with that discovery, Moore decided to put together her own anthology of black lesbian coming-out stories, thinking in the long run that someone else would publish it.
"It turns out I'm a control freak, so I decided to do it myself," she says. Moore is so petite and speaks with such a little girl voice that she doesn't appear to have room in her body for a control-freak bone. "I wanted a say in what the cover would look like and how the stories would flow," she explains.
She put out a call for submissions, took on three jobs to finance her operation, got a $4,000 capital investment from a friend who had secretly set aside the cash to help Moore fulfill her dream, took in a nephew, quit one of her jobs, got advice from a sister who'd worked as a bookseller, and two years later, in 1997, published does your mama know? with 49 coming-out stories by 41 authors.
It garnered two Lambda Awards and, so far, 8,000 copies are in print. But for all that, writers aren't going to get rich at RedBone. Some does your mama know? contributors were paid as little as $25. A very few got paid $175. Some sent their checks back to Moore, asking her to invest the dollars in RedBone. "I just wanted to see this get published," their notes read.
"I had always heard that some 90% of writing that people submit to publishers is trash, and it's so true," says Moore. She gets work that reads like first drafts. She gets work that isn't appropriate for her press -- stories by straight Nigerian men. "This is not the mission of my press," Moore jokes. And, despite the appearance of bull-jean, she doesn't publish poetry.
But when bull-jean came across Moore's desk, she fell in love with the character and started working even harder because she believed everyone should fall in love with bull-jean. "I just put everything into it," she says. "And because it looks like poetry on the page, it was that much harder to market. People would pick up the book, and go, 'Oh, it's poetry.'"
She admits that at this point in time, because of grad school and Moore's divided attentions, Bridgforth's affiliation with RedBone could be limiting the author's potential. "But at the same time, I think that if she weren't with me, I don't think she'd get the market that she's been getting. I don't think any other publisher would know how to market her." The proof, Moore points out, is the many rejections Bridgforth received for bull-jean prior to signing with RedBone. "It's obvious that they didn't see that this was something they could make money off of," says Moore.
"Am I proud of myself?" she wonders aloud. "I try not to think about it. I own it, definitely. But it almost feels like I can't be too proud because I still got a whole lot of work to do."