As told to Patrick J. Sauer
Triple Crown Publications is the first name in "hip-hop lit," a booming genre of raw, gritty urban fiction, sold everywhere from street corners to small African American bookstores to Barnes & Noble. Vickie Stringer started Triple Crown with exactly one asset: the fictionalized story of her life, which she wrote in the federal penitentiary while serving five years for selling a kilo of cocaine to a police informant in Columbus, Ohio. That book, Let That Be the Reason, and the follow-up, Imagine This, each spent more than a year on the Essence paperback bestseller list. As her reputation grew, Stringer started publishing other unknown authors, and then representing them when the big publishing houses came calling. How Stringer went from drug queen to federal prisoner 63752-061 to owner of a $1.8 million company with 36 titles by 25 authors is an amazing story, one that's worthy of Triple Crown Publications.
I met a guy one summer who was a big Columbus dealer, fell in love, and dropped out of college after my freshman year. I got my first taste of entrepreneurship in those days, managing both a hair salon and an escort service. I found girls by running a weekly ad in The Columbus Dispatch seeking models. When I got pregnant, my boyfriend cut out on me, so when my son, Valen, was born I turned to a familiar business that paid well. I excelled at the drug game; I made $30,000 a week. Even out hustling in the streets everyone does business with people they like and trust.
You have to be careful of stereotypes, though. I wasn't from a broken home. I was raised in a middle-class Detroit neighborhood. My mother was a schoolteacher and my father was an electrical engineer. I got into crime for kicks'¦then I quickly got addicted to the lifestyle.
When I found out I was going to be released from prison I felt free, but also like there was nothing waiting for me. I knew I wasn't going to break the law again and lose Valen. I was a 29-year-old felon with no degree, no resumĂ©, almost no legal work experience, no money, and no prospects. I wanted my life to have meaning and I had no idea what I was going to do.
Ninety days before I got out of jail, I had an epiphany: God wanted me to tell my story. Six weeks later, I had a manuscript for Let That Be the Reason.
I lived in a halfway house and got a job as a bartender at the Columbus airport. After six months, I was able to regain custody of Valen. I've had a lot of success at Triple Crown, but nothing compares with seeing my son again. That was the greatest day of my life.
I was rejected by 26 publishers, so I decided to self-publish. I begged family and friends to lend me $100 apiece and raised enough to print 2,500 copies. I went out and started hustling product again, one book at a time. I was tenacious. I would get up at dawn and start going door-to-door like it was my real job. If you were this guy over here smoking a cigarette, I would walk right up and say, "I wrote a book; would you like to buy it for 10 bucks? My kid needs a haircut."
I always had hustling in me, but it was always in a negative way. As soon as I had Let That Be the Reason, I turned the hustle into something positive. At the bar, I'd pour my customers a shot of tequila and ask if they wanted to hear my story. In 2002, one of them was in the business and took Let That Be the Reason to UpStream Publications, an African American-owned house based in Brooklyn. UpStream responded with a $50,000 offer. When I got the call, I thought it was my brother playing with me.
Let That Be the Reason sold over 100,000 copies. So did my second book, Imagine This.
I will never forget the small mom-and-pop African American distributors because they were there for me from day one when all I had was word of mouth. Small-time operations are a lot tougher to work with than the big companies, though, because they take a lot longer to pay. I've started weeding out low-level distributors who work on a consignment basis. Triple Crown is a bill-paying company, so I get real angry sometimes and feel like bringing out my gangsta background, but I don't act that way anymore. Becoming more professional has been one of my biggest challenges in building the company.
I got into publishing when a writer named K'wan called me to put out his book, Gangsta. Having been in jail, he felt that I was someone he could trust. My sister edited Gangsta. We put a cheap graphic cover on it and published 10,000 copies, which sold out in a month. I was like, Damn, I'm a publisher.