How This One Book Publisher, Led by a Black Woman, Is Helping Black Authors Share Their Stories With the World
Editorial director Tracy Sherrod discusses the significance of the esteemed imprint Amistad, and what readers can look forward to.
Where would we be as a culture — and as a society — without recording our stories, lessons and successes? Of course, one way we do that is through literature, but Black writers don’t always have their voices heard in publishing.
For instance, in its 2020 analysis of books released by prolific publishing houses, the New York Times found that while “non-Hispanic white people account for 60 percent of the U.S. population; in 2018, they wrote 89 percent of the books in [the] sample.” The analysis also confirmed the heads of the “big five” publishing houses were white, noting this was “likely linked” to the imbalance.
Enter Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins, founded in 1986 to “specialize in the works of authors who honor and consecrate the memory of those who fought — and continue to fight — for freedom.”
As Amistad celebrates its 35th anniversary in 2021 as “the oldest imprint devoted to titles for the African American market at any major New York publishing house,” it has helped Black writers share their voices and find and empower audiences. And, as a Black woman, vice president and editorial director Tracy Sherrod continues to lead Amistad, which has released titles like Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston, Just As I Am by Cicely Tyson and even Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man by Steve Harvey.
As we look ahead to 2022, when Amistad will publish the memoir by actress, reality star and entrepreneur Garcelle Beauvais (Love Me As I Am in April), a book of essays by comedian and actress Jenifer Lewis (Walking in My Joy in August) and more, we interviewed Sherrod about the significance of her work, her personal accomplishments and what we (and she) can look forward to. (Note: This interview, done in two parts, has been edited for length and clarity.)
Tracy, you’ve been a publishing executive for some time. How are you feeling now as the head of such an esteemed imprint, given its history and the 35th anniversary?
I feel honored, and I feel that it is a privilege to lead Amistad. And it’s not something that I take lightly. We, as a team, are very careful in what we decide to publish and who we want to bring into the family.
Why is Amistad’s work so important?
The type of books that we publish is what makes our imprint necessary. For instance, Bakari Sellers’ book proposal was rejected throughout the industry, but Amistad signed him on and he became a New York Times best-selling author with My Vanishing Country. We also acquired projects by other authors who were rejected by many publishers, such as Clyde Ford’s Think Black, which won or was a finalist for many awards. The same was the case for Jacqueline Woodson’s adult novel (Another Brooklyn) that we published in 2016 and was a National Book Award Finalist. We take on projects and voices we believe in. We don’t consider what other publishers are doing. We publish from the sensibility of our community.
Would you call out any milestones or accomplishments that make you particularly proud?
The publication of Cicely Tyson’s memoir, Just As I Am. I feel that our publicity and marketing teams published her with the importance that she deserved. On our backlist, we have Pulitzer Prize winner Edward P. Jones. And a forthcoming book from Man Booker Prize winner Paul Beatty.
On another note, when it comes to books in general (by any publisher), which book resonates with you?
The Wake of the Wind by J. California Cooper. I love that book … because she fooled me into thinking that people did ultimately work together during the Civil War, Black women and white women … working as a team and supporting each other in meaningful ways. And I believed in that, and when I met J. California Cooper, she told me “No, no, no, no. I made that up, baby.” I was heartbroken. I thought it was a piece of history.
Oh wow. I’m going to check that out. As we close, what’s the best advice you ever received? And what advice would you give to writers?
The motto I live by is: "Don’t act like other people, show them how to act." It’s mostly easy, but sometimes I have issues. [And] my advice for people who want to be writers is, “Write the book, don’t talk about writing the book.” We talk ourselves out of it. Just do it — do it for yourselves first.
Is there anything you’d add about Amistad or the anniversary?
It’s immensely important that Charles Harris started Amistad. It’s been around for 35 years and has inspired other imprints. And it most definitely has led the way in ensuring that Black voices are published and will continue to be published.
And how do you see your role?
I see my role as to continue its founder Charles F. Harris’ dream of making Amistad an important imprint. I’d like to grow its brand recognition. Build a strong backlist by acquired frontlist titles that have long and powerful legs. I’m looking forward to writers recognizing the importance of cultural bonds and supporting them through actions. I want Amistad to be around 20, 30, 40 years from now and beyond.