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Phoebe Robinson was finding comfort in reading while quarantined amid the coronavirus pandemic when a thought crossed her mind: “I’m having this sort of connection with books right now. I’m sure other people are, so maybe this is the right time to go ahead and try and get an imprint going.”
Robinson — a household name already known for being a New York Times bestselling author, comedian and co-creator and co-star of the hit podcast 2 Dope Queens, as well as its subsequent HBO show — announced last month the launch of her official book imprint titled, Tiny Reparations.
Partnering with her publisher, Plume (a division of Dutton/Penguin Random House), Robinson’s Tiny Reparations Books will be a curated imprint dedicated to publishing both literary fiction and nonfiction as well as essay collections that highlight and amplify unique and diverse voices. The imprint aims to publish honest and comic work that reflects the current conversation and tackles ways to push it forward.
“I always feel like with everything that I’ve done, that it’s good to sort of vent about what is wrong with whatever particular industry I’m in. But then at the end of the day, you have to put it in actions. They can’t just be words,” Robinson tells The Hollywood Reporter.
The imprint’s journey to an official launch has been a long one, as Robinson recalls meeting with her lit agent, Robert Guinsler, six years ago to first discuss her idea. Though the dream was always there, it wasn’t until this summer when Robinson knew it was the time to turn the idea into reality. After having a conversation with Plume, the plans were set, that is, until the world began grappling with a pandemic and uprisings for racial justice followed the death of George Floyd.
“I sort of felt like, ‘Oh, maybe it’s not the right time.’ The world really feels upside down and so stressful. And to me, not that it felt silly, but it just felt not as important to work on an imprint right now,” she tells THR.
Unable to do standup, and with a show on hiatus from production, Robinson says the one thing that helped her stay “uplifted” amid this time has been reading. “Every morning, I would get up and read for maybe couple of hours a day …. Books were really was what made me feel happy,” she says, praising Wow, no thank you by Samantha Irby and Kevin van Whye’s Date Me, Bryson Keller for being some of the books that kept her company amid quarantine. Robinson began to hope to spread that power of literature to fellow bookworms needing that salvation during a year that’s had its fair share of trials and tribulations.
Robinson, a self-proclaimed “book geek,” grew even more determined after noticing a surplus of voices speaking out against racial inequities existing within the publishing industry. Her previous works, 2016’s You Can’t Touch My Hair and 2018’s Everything’s Trash, But It’s Okay may have become New York Times bestsellers, but the journey to the top wasn’t smooth sailing, and the outcries from underrepresented literary talent sounded all too familiar.
“Plume was the only place that wanted it,” she reflects of her first book. “We were shopping around in 2015 and my lit agent was told, ‘Oh, this is too niche’ because I’m Black or ‘no one’s going to be interested. This is not relatable.’ Super dismissive and basically acting like my voice and my point of view isn’t valid in this industry.”
Adamant that the industry “still has a long way to go,” Robinson aims to play a part in making sure the work is done and change is made “in front of and behind the scenes.”
“It’s not even just about getting Black and Brown and queer authors published. It’s also about the people behind the scenes. Who’s in the marketing department? Who’s doing publicity? Who’s doing art design? Who are the editors? Who are the editorial assistants? All these factors really contribute to what the landscape looks like,” she notes.
“I really hope that my imprint could be one of many steps that that need to be taken in order to really transform the industry,” she says, adding that she hopes her imprint helps the publishing industry become “more inclusive” and “representative of the people in America and around the world.” The goal is for Tiny Reparations to publish three to five books a year, with the intent of increasing the amount to 10 or 15.
As for the criteria of what books she’s aiming to publish, Robinson is searching for those special stories that have a “very unique, definitive voice” and are “culturally relevant” whether it be essay collections, literary fiction or nonfiction. When asked for more specific examples, Robinson is quick to admit she would love to have a “juicy fiction” a la Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere or Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age, which she describes as a book that “has something to say.”
Robinson welcomes established authors but has a soft spot for championing up-and-coming authors. “My first book … I was such a little baby newbie author in this industry, and it was really great to have people believe in me and be like, ‘You could be a voice in publishing.’ So, I have a special place in my heart of wanting to do that for someone else,” she says.
However Robinson says she would “do backflips” should she publish authors akin to Samantha Irby or Roxane Gay. And if Viola Davis is ready to pen a memoir, Tiny Reparations will be there. “That would be fantastic. I would just cry,” she says.
In an entertainment industry that has become book-centric, Robinson is only the latest star (see Reese Witherspoon and Oprah Winfrey’s book clubs) to supplement her entertainment work with publishing endeavors. Though future plans are still formulating, Robinson would love to collaborate with leading book clubs or foresees starting her own. “I want to be able to do anything that will help any of my writers out whether it be moderating book talks, virtual events, in-person events. I just want to be able to support books in that way,” she says.
Launching and running an imprint amid a pandemic can be “strange” and a feat in itself, but Robinson finds comfort in the “tiny” but mighty team of Tiny Reparations. Christine Ball, publisher of Dutton and Plume, will serve as publisher of the new imprint. Robinson’s longtime publicist, Sam Srinivasan at Sechel PR, will partner with Plume to provide publicity.
“We’re really just like grinding away and we divvy up submissions. We are always doing research or reading people’s stuff,” she explains. “I feel like we all are working so well remotely and checking in with each other that it really feels like there are no hiccups. We’re going to find those amazing great books that will represent the brand, but also represent incredible, amazing voices that deserve to be heard.”
Robinson is aware had she launched Tiny Reparations years ago, people may not have “cared that much” or continue to uphold beliefs that books from authors of color “won’t sell.” “Well, my book was a New York Times bestseller,” Robinson emphasizes. “So to say that books written by Black and brown people don’t sell, well we have the receipts. They do sell.”
Whether the dollar signs remain always at the forefront, activists like Robinson argue the time has come for the industry to not judge a book by its author. “College educated Black women are some of the biggest readers of any demographic in the country. I think that acknowledgement that we want those stories and we also want to write those stories, that can’t be denied anymore,” she says.
In addition to the imprint, Plume has also bought world rights to Robinson’s next book, Six Feet Apart, set to publish in the fall of 2021. In her new book, Robinson “dismantles the stereotypes we hold about ourselves and others with hilarious and always honest timely observations,” Plume describes.
Though she’s published two successful works already, Robinson says the third time has proven to be the charm. “I’m putting less pressure on myself. I have a word count that I want to hit per day. I’m much more planned out,” she says, while questioning the cliche advice to “just write when you’re inspired.” “Truly writing a book is like rolling up your sleeves, sweating, hating everything you’re writing and editing,” she says, laughing.
For her third book, Robinson is writing with ease. “Sometimes with people of color or women or queer people, you’re so worried about your work in the canon where I’d be like, ‘this doesn’t measure up to Toni Morrison….[But] no one’s expecting me to be Maya Angelou,” she adds. “I’m able to have fun with it and just be able to write and tell stories that I want to tell that are entertaining. Maybe make people think and laugh without it being like: Is this the next great Black book? You just can’t do that to yourself.”
While it’s difficult to foresee an end to the pandemic anytime soon, Robinson is proving she’ll never stop being a woman of all trades. In the midst of writing a new book and launching Tiny Reparations, Robinson is also debuting a new podcast called Black Frasier on Aug. 11 where she’ll welcome Tracee Ellis Ross as her first guest.
Though things are still in early stages, Robinson is excited and ready to “give back to the publishing industry” and authors with her Tiny Reparations imprint, which was named as homage to “tiny moments where something good happens.” “I feel like every book coming out is like a tiny reparation,” she says.
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