Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Interview with Kelli Martin, Part 1

Kelli Martin is the Senior Editor of Kimani Romance, Harlequin’s flagship imprint for contemporary, category-length romance written by and about African Americans. According to its guidelines, Kimani Romance offers “sexy, dramatic, sophisticated, and entertaining love stories featuring realistic African-American characters that work through compelling emotional conflicts on their way to committed and satisfying relationships.” Martin has published romance superstars like Brenda Jackson and Donna Hill, as well as up-and-coming authors like Michelle Monkou and Ann Christopher. Prior to her tenure at Kimani Press, Kelli Martin was senior editor at Disney’s Jump at the Sun and editor of HarperCollins’ Amistad. She began her career at Simon & Schuster.

I interviewed Kelli for an article that appeared in the May 2008 Romance Writer’s Report, entitled “Romance in Color: Is it Time to Move Away from ‘Multicultural’ Book Marketing?” Kelli was so generous with her time and her answers that I couldn’t just let all that great information that didn’t fit into the article go to waste. Ergo, here is my full interview with Kimani’s Kelli Martin. ...

Tracy Montoya: Why is it so important that African-American writers have their own imprints and category lines, like those that make up Kimani?

Kelli Martin: The importance of having imprints devoted to publishing work by and for African-Americans varies from publishing house to publishing house. Some houses have specific imprints (Kimani at Harlequin; Amistad at HarperCollins; One World, Strivers Row, and Harlem Moon at Random House), while others don’t and simply incorporate multicultural books into their flagship imprint (Simon & Schuster, Pocket Books, Grand Central Publishing, St. Martin’s Press).

At Kimani, we believe a distinct imprint is important for many reasons: first, for such a long time there were very few books that featured African-American characters, that showed them on the covers of books, that portrayed them in a rich, sophisticated, non-stereotypical and real way. Kimani Press and other imprints are devoted to doing solely just that. In a way, the imprints are making up for lost time.

Second, a huge demographic of African-American reading communities tend to buy books this way. Books in African-American imprints depict certain shared aspects of African-American culture, like history, language, custom, trends, humor, and about a million other things. Specific imprints like Kimani make sure no characters are stereotypical. They make sure books reflect trends that are actually happening within African-American communities. Imprints make sure the books are marketed and publicized to African-American-specific media and web sites, which are often not known or not paid attention to by other houses.

Imprints like Kimani make sure readers find a wide breadth of books that speak to how diverse African-Americans are, as well as the commonalities. The imprints make sure there are fun and entertaining novels, serious and thought-provoking books, and moving, soul-inspiring tales. And last, we’ve got to remember that it wasn’t even two centuries ago that African-Americans were not allowed to read or write in the first place. So now Kimani and other imprints are turning that upside down—with a vengeance!

Tracy: Harlequin as a whole publishes a few writers of color inside other lines, like Caridad Piñeiro in Nocturne, Brenda Jackson in Desire, me in Intrigue. With Kimani’s success, is it possible that we’ll see more multicultural writers and storylines in Harlequin’s other category lines?

Kelli: Absolutely. Some books by African-American writers are race- and culture-specific so they would be published at Kimani. And other books are not focused on a particular cultural aspect. It really depends on the content of the book, the wishes of the author, and who the book/author’s core audience is.

Tracy: Do you think breaking out the African-American romances into Kimani lines in any way limits their audience, and therefore their potential sales?

Kelli: No, I do not believe starting out in Kimani limits the author’s growth, the audience or sales. If anything, I believe just the opposite! African-American readers are some of the most loyal readers ever. Kimani readers are so amazingly hungry for well-written, rich books, and they communicate that. Readers go to book conferences, have chat rooms, write the authors, write the publisher asking when their favorite authors’ next book comes out, and put their money where their mouths are. And if it’s an author they really enjoy? Readers will always be back for more. No doubt about it.

Tracy: We had a couple of years there where a lot of publishers seemed to really want chick lit and mainstream women’s fiction books by and about Latinas and Asians, for example, but now some of them are backing off. What do you think is going on with these markets? Do you think Harlequin will ever expand Kimani to include other ethnicities, or even create a new line for multicultural books other than African-American books?

Kelli: I’m actually in the dark about this and too wonder why. I believe with Latinas, the many languages may play a factor. Ecuadorians are wholly different from Puerto Ricans who are different from Cubans who are different from Dominicans. So the nuances and pride in language and culture and custom may have readers not that interested in buying a certain type of general “Latino” book. Maybe they want something more regionally specific? So the publishers aren’t seeing the sales numbers that they want.

I believe Kimani will and should stay focused on African-American books. Sometimes when you reach out to too many groups, the mission of the original entity gets convoluted and watered down. You’ve lost your core audience. Plus, how do you market to all those different types of groups? It’s pretty difficult. And buying patterns are different too. For example, with African-American readers in particular, we often buy a book three months after it’s been on the shelf rather than immediately in the first month like a lot of other readers do.

Tracy: Speaking of, I was surprised to see Kimani Tru publishing a book called How to Salsa in a Sari, with a heroine who was black and Indian, and a supporting character who was Latina. Do you see potential for more “melting pot” books like that in Kimani, particularly in Kimani Romance?

Kelli: Yes, absolutely! With the large number of bi- and multi-racial families these days, I think that’s a very
important and fun phenomenon to tap into. Talented writers can get so creative with how to weave the many cultural threads together! It Chicks, another YA novel, has a similar cast of characters.

At Kimani, we’ll be sure to acquire more writers that explore this. Of course, our focus will still be African-Americans falling in love with Africa-Americans since that’s our mission but we’ll be mixing it up a bit to reflect what’s going on in the world.

Tracy: Since you’ve been an editor at several houses, what kinds of struggles do you see publishers going through to get books by and about women of color to a larger audience?

Kelli: The top struggle I’ve seen are with the jacket/cover. When it comes to the jacket, it’s all about whether to have African-American people on the cover or not, and whether that will enhance or limit sales. In my experience, Black women readers often tend to respond to an image that looks like them. But sometimes that same book is just a love story that any woman could relate to, regardless of race/culture. It’s the perennial struggle. It really depends on the content of the book, how recognizable the author’s name is, and who the core audience is.

Tracy: Can you talk about your various publishers’ experiences getting bookstores to buy books by writers of color? Are they in any way a harder sell than books by Anglo authors?

Kelli: You know, I’ll be honest: In ten years of editing, I have never experienced a hard time getting a bookstore to buy a novel by a writer of color. And I’m happy to say that! We all know how important Terry McMillan was in breaking-out contemporary African-American fiction, so since then bookstores have been clamoring for them. When I was at HarperCollins, the sales force was constantly asking when Darren Coleman was coming out with a sassy, sexy new novel. Black authors are big business.
Now sometimes the literary novels were a harder sell, and the bookstores would take a slightly smaller quantity than we had projected, but that was the case for all literary writers, not just ones of color.

And now with stores like Target and Wal-mart selling books, we’ve found them very devoted to writers of color. Plus, many publishing houses have a sales rep(s) specifically devoted to African-American stores. And many stores and book distributors have “buyers” specifically devoted to covering ethnic-oriented books. And that’s very necessary.

Stay tuned for part 2 of this interview, to come tomorrow!


Michelle Monkou said...

Thanks for sharing this, Tracy.

I love working with Kelli Martin. She's a great editor, very supportive and insightful. Definitely if people should step outside the box to read and/or write for Kimani.


Urban Reviews said...

Very enlightening. I'll be sure to share this with our Yahoo Group.

Can't wait to read the rest tomorrow.

Radiah of Urban Reviews

Tracy Montoya said...

If I didn't love my editor, I'd be jealous that you have Kelli, Michelle. What an amazing person.

And Radiah, thanks for stopping by. I'm glad you enjoyed it!

LaShaunda said...


Great interview. I'm looking forward to part two. I will tell the SORMAG readers to stop by and check it out.


Rhonda McKnight said...

Very good interview, particulary the comment about AA women prefering covers with pictures that look like us. I agree, but sometimes when I look at the content of some of the covers (not Kimani's) I wonder what it truly is that we think about ourselves. Breast and booties, g-strings and I'm not just talking street lit. What would make a woman buy a book with such an insulting cover?

Rhonda McKnight said...

I also meant to say great blog Tracy. I'm glad I found it.

Jennifer McKenzie said...

What a great interview!!! I've posted a link from Romance Divas. This was too good not to share. Thanks Tracy.

AC said...

Great interview, Tracy.

I, too, love working with Kelli. She's insightful and funny and every author's dream. Kimani's a great line with fantastic authors writing wonderful stories.


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Tracy Montoya writes romantic suspense for Harlequin Intrigue.

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