When I was 16, I saw a book cover with one of my favorite musicians. I bought 50 Cent’s “From Pieces to Weight” and read it cover to cover in a single weekend. I wasn’t a huge reader at the time, but I couldn’t put down the book. 50 had just come out with “The Massacre” a couple of years prior, and he had a hell of a story (I mean, the man got shot nine times).
I didn’t know it at the time, but that was my initiation into Marc Gerald’s work. This happy accident was by design. Gerald’s focus was on getting non-readers to become interested in books again. It’s a challenge not of illiteracy, but aliteracy — one that authors like Gene Luen Yang have identified.
And much like how familiar fictional characters on the cover can get young readers’ attention (as Yang highlighted, DC’s Young Superhero Girls graphic novels authored by Lisa Yee), so can celebrities.
Gerald’s idea, specifically, was always to tie culture into books. It worked like a charm with “From Pieces to Weight,” and Gerald’s other early projects. And he still keeps his finger on the pulse. “I’m probably the oldest person in the world still listening to Future,” he said. (On “HNDRXX,” several days after its release: “It’s pretty awesome. I’ve been listening to it all morning actually.”)
Gerald’s career has been one of chasing curiosity. Based out of L.A. early in his career, he worked in magazines (editing “True Detective”) and television (writing and producing “America’s Most Wanted” for Fox). During these years, his curiosity with African-American noir set the foundation for what would become Old School Books. He started the Old School Books imprint for WW Norton having never worked at a publisher or agency.
“Everything I did, I did from far away. I’m a pretty reserved person, so I’m not out hanging and socializing with people,” said Gerald. “I just did it my own way. Just figuring out lanes that were unexplored and things that I really loved… There was no rhyme or reason to it, exactly. It just needed to happen.”
After Old School Books, Gerald moved on to form a company called the Syndicate Media Group with Wesley Snipes and Def Jam. He would become an agent after the Syndicate shut down. He said, “Ultimately, the company didn’t really work — not because the fans weren’t there, but just because the internal dynamics of our partnership made it hard. But I think the idea was proof of concept that people would be excited, people would turn up, that artists would be excited to engage in books.”
Gerald is still not interested in playing it safe. He said, “Getting somebody famous a book deal, that’s one thing, but getting things that are unknown to a big place, that’s still what gets me excited. My focus originally was always, if I found areas of business that I knew were really important but there was no one spokesperson for that, I would always get excited in the non-fiction space.”
It shows through his work with Steven Rinella’s “The Scavenger's Guide to Haute Cuisine,” to Eddie Huang’s “Fresh Off the Boat,” and Isa Chandra Moskowitz’s “The Superfun Times Vegan Holiday Cookbook.” Each author represents a very new, clear, underrepresented demographic.
“I like things that sometimes start from a lonely place. People that have to be obsessive about the things they’re into to the exclusion of anything else. People that have to come up with an operating system to make life make sense to them. That’s always interesting,” said Gerald. “I love magicians. I think that’s why I love pickup artists. I love when people try to find some way back from awkwardness, because I haven’t managed that. I have to figure out how other people do it.”
Isolation and underrepresentation get Gerald’s attention. So does the author’s very clear focus on their story and book:
“I work with people who don’t really care about the marketing and promotion — really don’t know how to do it. And they’ve risen to heights despite that. That’s cool,” said Gerald.
“It’s fun to work with true artists who are really just true to their spirit and somehow find a way to connect in a huge way. There’s not a lot of them. So when you find them, that’s pretty amazing.
“In terms of dealbreakers, I like to work with people who don’t get in their way of their success. If you’re continuously getting in the way, tripping yourself up, that’s probably not going to sit well with my personality. I need things to move fast just to be excited. And people that don’t want to be change agents for what the world is about.”
He said, “I can’t really speak to the mistakes. I can only speak to the things that don’t get my attention. I just don’t feel you’re there. If you want it enough. By the same token, I’m also turned off when an author comes in with more marketing ideas and haven’t thought about their book ultimately. That’s even worse, in a way, when those two things are out of alignment. You need someone who’s thinking about their editorial and marketing in tandem, as opposed to, ‘We’re going to market so much, I have so many great ideas!’ Like, ‘Let’s talk about your book, man.’”
A few days after writing the rough draft of this piece, I picked up “From Pieces to Weight” again. And I read it cover to cover, again. Gerald’s fundamental reminder echoes in my mind: promotion is important, but it means absolutely nothing if you don’t get the book right.