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Black publishing's inspirational godmother: Susan L. Taylor reflects on her 34 years nurturing writers at Essence and her dozen years as an author in conversation with Malaika Adero, the veteran book editor who midwifed Taylor's In the Spirit.

Those impeccably groomed elegant braids. A flawless, unlined complexion--yes, even at age 58. The high forehead and graceful neck, and an easy carriage that makes her appear taller than she is at five feet nine. This is the iconic media image of Susan L. Taylor. And she looks just so when she greets us with that generous smile and mellifluous voice in her recently renovated office suite in the Times Square building where Essence magazine has been headquartered since the 1980s. When she embraces us unpretentiously, we feel welcomed for sure. Here is a woman who is truly comfortable in her own lovely brown skin.

But as longtime readers of her Essence column "In the Spirit" and her three published books of inspirational writing (see listing, page 15) know, Susan L. Taylor hasn't always been so self-assured. She first came to Essence as a freelance beauty and fashion editor in 1971--without a college degree, newly divorced and the mother of a toddler. While working and raising her daughter, Shana, Taylor earned her B.A. from Fordham University, attending evening classes. (Today, daughter Shana is the owner of a thriving beauty supply business, wife to former NBA player and Atlanta-based businessman Bernard King, and mother to their six-year-old Amina Suzanne.) Leading Essence since 1981, Taylor went on to win the magazine industry's highest honor, the 1999 Henry Johnson Fisher Award from the Magazine Publishers of America. In 2002, Taylor was inducted into the American Society of Magazine Editors' Hall of Fame. She also found a beloved life partner in writer Khephra Burns, 52, her husband of 15 years. Taylor will tell you that she has struggled and worked diligently to earn this ease with herself that now is reflected in the ease in which she moves in the world.

Essence magazine will celebrate its 35th anniversary in 2005, and the guardian of the Essence brand is the woman who served as its editor-in-chief from 1981 until 2000, when she assumed her current role as Senior Vice President and Chief Content Officer for Essence Communications Partners. Susan L. Taylor is a major force in the magazine and media worlds, but her tremendous impact in book publishing is largely underacknowledged.

Her inspirational writing has built an audience for a whole genre that authentically speaks to black women, opening the doors for best-selling authors like Iyanla Vanzant. Many African American readers first met the work of Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and Edwidge Danticat in Essence's pages, which have also been a nurturing proving ground for fiction writers like Bebe Moore Campbell and Terry McMillan. Scores of Essence editorial staff members have gone on to write well-regarded books, contributing to the current boom in black publishing. The boom itself has been chronicled since 2000 by the monthly Essence Bestsellers List. Essence also regularly brings authors and readers together at its annual Essence Music Festival in New Orleans and has published numerous books of its own. It was also a major sponsor of the October 2004 Yari Yari Pamberi Writers Conference at New York University, which showcased black women writers from all over the Diaspora.

BIBR reunited Taylor with Malaika Adero, the editor of In the Spirit: The Inspirational Writings of Susan L. Taylor (Amistad Press, November 1993). Adero, now senior editor at Simon & Schuster's Atria imprint, is a veteran book editor with a distinguished reputation in an industry where few black professionals have attained both success and longevity. What follows is an edited presentation of the high points of their wide-ranging conversation. (For more of their exchange comparing notes on black publishing since 1970, see bibookreview.com.)

BIBR: Tell us about how you personally came to books and reading, Susan Taylor.

Susan L. Taylor: Since I didn't go to college at first, I got my real education in books growing up here at Essence. I started at Essence in 1971 as a young freelancer in fashion and beauty, and working at the magazine really opened up file literary world to me. Most of the reading that has inspired me and formed who I am has been historical work by scholars like Vincent Harding, Chancellor Williams, Jeanne Noble, C.L.R. lames and W.E.B. Du Bois. And I so love and have been influenced by the writings of Audre Lorde, lames Baldwin, and also Alice Walker, bell hooks, Pearl Cleage, and certainly Toni Morrison. And of course, a lot of my reading has been about spirituality. The authors I've lived with for decades--from Rumi to Howard Thurman and their disciples--are from a wide variety of cultures. Some of their writings are excerpted in Confirmation, the book I coauthored and edited in 1999 with my husband, Khephra Burns.

BIBR: In October, Essence launched a new seminar in New York, "Women Who Are Shaping the World," but Essence also took a major sponsorship role the Yari Yari Pamberi Conference.

Taylor: Yes, and Essence Editor-in-Chief Diane Weathers and I cochaired the dinner gala for Yari Yari Pamberi. To hear beautiful literature and poetry and essays from black women's voices is so empowering and so important, but it happens all too rarely. So we're happy that we could play a part in creating this space where black women could meet and share our work.

BIBR: Let's talk about how Essence Books developed.

Taylor: Patricia Hinds, who helped us complete the very first of the beautiful large-format books we produced in 1995, Essence: 25 Years Celebrating Black Women, deserves a lot of credit.

We work closely together, and we now use her company, Mignon Communications, to package each book. We've created a unique new genre by offering gorgeous images of both celebrity and everyday people along with inspiration and practical advice beautifully packaged in coffee-table-sized books. In 2002, we published 50 of the Most Inspiring African Americans and learned a lot about the market. For the first time, we partnered with the custom-publishing division of Time Inc. on the book's production and printing, and Time Inc.'s distribution capabilities helped sales greatly. It sold north of 100,000 copies, exceeding all expectations. That book attracted a surprising and unusual mix of buyers--people of all ages, males and females. At speaking engagements, I'd meet teenagers, young adults and mature African Americans who'd ask that I sign their book.

The next book in the series, Wisdom of the Ages: Extraordinary People, Ages 19 to 90, was released at the beginning of this year, and its sales has already surpassed 50 of the Most Inspiring African Americans. I've just reviewed the proofs for our next release, Making It Happen: Creating Success and Abundance.

The Roots of Spiritual Writing

BIBR: You still write "In the Spirit" every month for Essence. Your 1993 book by the same name uncovered an unrecognized genre and market: inspirational writing addressed to black women.

Taylor: I'm the last person I would have expected to be a published author. Initially, I did everything I could to avoid writing a monthly editorial. Just the thought of following the brilliant columns of our former editor-in-chief, Marcia Ann Gillespie, who edited Essence for nine years, terrified me. But our publisher, Ed Lewis, insisted, "If you're editor-in-chief, you must write a column." So I thought about my own life and what I was hungering for--peace and contentment and a deeper understanding of myself and also of the fear and stress that combine and cause us anxiety and illness. These are the things I decided to write about.

Malaika Adero: I remember presenting your book proposal to the editorial board at Simon and Schuster, when I worked there much earlier in my career, during the latter half of the '80s until 1991, when I left to work on my own book, Up South: Stories, Studies and Letters of This Century's African-American Migrations (The New Press, 1992). Simon and Schuster's response was interesting: They liked your essays, but they thought there was simply too much about God in them, and they didn't quite know how to react to it, because this dearly wasn't a book about religion. But they didn't understand that your audience wouldn't be confused by how you referred to God; in fact, your audience resonated with it. So it wasn't until I went to work for Amistad, the black-owned independent publisher--and this was long before Amistad became a part of Harper-Collins--that I acquired and published your book.

Back in the day, when I first started working in publishing, if black writers got published at all, they were our literary geniuses. Publishing, as an industry, didn't appreciate bibliotherapy for black people, that black readers would go to a book for advice, that we wanted someone with wisdom and our experience to break down and deconstruct our lives so that we could see ourselves outside of ourselves. And that is what In the Spirit did, and it paved the way for a whole list of black nonfiction authors to be able to be published and to do well--including social scientists, therapists and spiritual teachers. But I wanted to ask you this: What does being a book author do for you?

Taylor. Being an author has greatly expanded my world. I'd spoken all over the country, but always at downtown hotels and universities. I hadn't had a chance to visit neighborhoods where black people live. So for me the most exquisite part of being an author was visiting black-owned bookstores, which I always insist on, and having the community come out. I'd do radio first, because talk radio, I found, was the best way to let people know I was in town. I'd say, "Please come and see me. You don't have to buy a book. There are enough people to buy books. I just want to see your face." So going on book tours really brought me up close and personal even more than before with the people we serve at Essence.

Adero: And your editors began to publish books. You know, corporations are jealous of their employees' time. What allowed you to be so supportive of the people working with you?

Taylor: When I joined Essence in 1971, I was the only single parent in editorial, and trying to cover all the bases at home and at work created tension for me on the job. For example, I couldn't attend meetings beginning at 6 P.M. because I had to pick up my daughter. Those years made me so sensitive to how difficult it is for people to meet the many demands on them outside of work, and over the years I've worked with brilliant women who also care deeply about black people and have more to say than they can communicate in Essence. My commitment is to try as best I can to support anyone trying to advance our people. I also believe in wealth building for black folks, and no Essence editor's salary is enough for her to live comfortably ever after, so I feel it's important for editors take the advice we give to our readers--have a gig on the side and invest. I may have occasionally gotten flak for giving editors the time and space needed to write books, but in the end, everybody's happy because Essence editors' books also promote the magazine.

I'm so proud of these books written over the years: Children of the Dream by Audrey Edwards was one of the first books about black success. Harriette Cole's first book, lumping the Broom, gave sisters everything needed to plan a beautiful wedding, and her resource guide expanded opportunities for so many small black-owned businesses. Valerie Wilson Wesley was an author before she worked with me, and her mystery novels, the Tamara Hayle series, are a great success. And veteran editor Stephanie Stokes Oliver, recently returned to the magazine, just had her third book published, an amazing memoir, A Song for My Father.

Most Essence editors I've worked with became authors---Linda Villarosa, Pamela Johnson, Rosemarie Robotham, Benilde Little, Andrea Pinkney, Veronica Chambers, Martha Southgate, Tara Roberts and Robin Stone. Our cover and beauty director, Mikki Taylor, and the chief editor of essence.com, Ingrid Sturgis, are new authors. Our books editor, Patrik Henry Bass; food editor Jonell Nash; and gifted entrepreneur and former editor-in-chief of Essence, Monique Greenwood, have all written books while at the magazine.

A Report Card

Adero: Let me hear your report card on the book publishing industry. How do you think we're doing? What are we doing better, what are we not?

Taylor: I think you get points because today great numbers of African American authors are being published. It's amazing to see the number of books that come into our offices each week. Recently, I had a discussion with my agent, Marie Brown, a veteran in the industry and a talented book editor, about the quality of the work that's being published. Many publishers are interested in authors who write about thug life, and they're spending on the "chick fit" genre, while some of the work of skilled writers who honor our literary legacy is overlooked.

Black folks buy books because we love reading about us, and there's a place for the breadth of books that are true to all the ways that we live in the world. The writing by young urban authors is powerful and important, but the industry shouldn't be sacrificing complex novels and elegantly written memoirs that offer insight to the social forces shaping our personal and political lives. We need it all.

The industry needs to hire more talented African Americans in all capacities, who know what black people want to read, how to develop our authors and market their work. Churches and the many huge conventions our organizations have are prime places to sell books. Thousands of books are sold during the Empowerment Seminars at the Essence Music Festival. Wherever young people gather--concerts, clubs, sporting events--presents a prime opportunity to host authors with sales handled by a local bookstore. Talk radio has been our drum and a powerful marketing tool, but it's fast disappearing as the communications industry consolidates.

Book publishers should advertise more in black media and form marketing partnerships with our newspapers, magazines and radio stations. With advertisers' support, a publication like BIBR, which has a tremendously valuable database of readers who love books, could present authors at black events all over the country.

BIBR: So what do you read for yourself?

Taylor:. I sample a lot of books, and I'm always reading three or four at once. Finishing them is my challenge, but I'm carving out more time for reading books. Now I'm reading Warrior Poet, the Audre Lorde biography by Alexis De Veaux, All Deliberate Speed by Charles Ogletree, and A Small History of Almost Everything by Bill Bryson. Our books editor, Patrik Bass, just gave me Queen: The Life and Music of Dinah Washington by Nadine Cohodas. I also want to finish Pulitzer Prize-winner Edward P. Jones's The Known World. His first published piece appeared in Essence.

BIBR: And what about your own next book?

Taylor: It's about relationships and how we can better sustain them. The title is The Ten Commandments of Love. Much further in the future, I want to teach magazine production on a black college campus. I want to teach our young people how to produce successful and beautiful magazines. African Americans demand beauty. We're not going to buy anything that's not beautifully packaged.

Adero: I'm going to quote you: "African Americans demand beauty." Thank you.

Taylor:. That's just who we are. Go back to images of us during the Depression even, and check out black style. It's incomparable, and it's not about affluence. It's all about attitude. Aesthetics are very important to black people, whatever one is producing for us--books, magazines, television, a music festival. Delivering anything that's below our aesthetic standard dishonors who we are. I've learned so much on this remarkable journey at Essence over these nearly 34 years--so much about the beauty, intelligence and creative power of black people, and so much about myself.

Susan McHenry, BIBR founding editor and editorial director, facilitated this conversation. She is also a former Essence special projects editor and currently an Essence contributing writer.
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Author:McHenry, Susan
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2004
Words:2697
Previous Article:The 2004 Miami Book Fair International.
Next Article:40 Days to a Life of G.O.L.D. (God-Ordained Life Development).
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