R.I.P. Manie Barron

by Chris Jackson

I wouldn't want my guest stint here this week to end without saying a word about the passing this week of Manie Barron. Manie Barron was a ubiquitous, trailblazing figure in the world of black book publishing, first as a book seller and sales rep, then as an editor at Random House, publishing manager of Amistad/HarperCollins, and finally as a literary agent, first at William Morris, and then as a partner in the Menza Barron agency.  It's hard to overstate how shockingly and overwhelmingly white the book publishing industry remains, but when I first started working in it in the early 1990s as a kid (I was literally a teenager when I took my first part-time job in the industry), it was, somehow, even whiter than it is today (I searched for a link to the article, "The Unbearable Whiteness of Publishing" by James Ledbetter, published in the Village Voice in 1995—and edited by Joe Wood, who would go on to become an editor at the New Press before his untimely death; in that article, Walter Mosley, who was spearheading a diversity effort in the industry, is quoted as saying that 98 percent of the decision-making/creative jobs in book publishing were held by white people).  PEN had a small group back then called The Open Book Committee (which Mosley helped found), which was designed to introduce young publishing staffers "of color" to more established figures in the industry; it was through that committee (and through travels with my boss Carole Hall and my good friend the literary agent John McGregor) that I first encountered Manie, along with other veterans like the legendary literary agent Marie Brown, Janet Hill, who would go on to found the Harlem Moon imprint at Doubleday, Cheryl Woodruff, who ran the One World/Ballantine imprint, the late Glenn Thompson, who owned and operated Writers and Readers, and others. None of these people defined themselves solely as publishing professionals. They all believed that they were engaged in literary activism that transcended their job titles. They were on a mission.

I was barely in my 20s and worshiped books—specifically, and almost indiscriminately, books by black authors, the books I credited with saving my life. To be in a room with these people, whose daily labor was this life-saving work, was extraordinary for me—none of them particularly noticed me, but I hung on their every word and gesture and mannerism, studied their pauses and knowing looks, was impressed when they took extra time to talk to the younger staffers, was even more impressed when they had to rush off in a fashionable flurry to some more pressing appointment. There were glamorous figures in that small, tight-knit group of publishing professionals: some wearily, professionally glamorous; some with an outre or bohemian glamour; some were glamorous in the bespoke and Chanel way of the boule and Connecticut. I was, of course, not glamorous by even the most charitable extension of the word. Still, urban hillbilly that I was, one of the great inspirations for me was when John shared with me the Esquire profile of Pantheon editor Erroll McDonald ("The Highbrow Days and Downtown Nights of Erroll McDonald"—not on the web, apparently): Erroll's portrait in the magazine was a beautiful black suit and a face hidden behind a silver cloud of cigarette smoke; the article detailed nights at Nell's and days editing controversial bestsellers and Nobel Prize winners, with lots of delightful kiss-my-ass moments in between. More than glamorous, Erroll's profile made book publishing look downright sexy.

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And then there was Manie.

Manie didn't make publishing look glamorous. He made it look like fun. He somehow combined the affect of a workhorse and a brawler and a showman—a theatrical warrior with a smokey voice and quick, enormous laugh. He was, like me, a Harlem kid whose life had been transformed by black books and who believed in their power with an evangelist's zeal—and wasn't going to apologize for it. He carried with him a confidence that no matter how small our numbers in the industry, we were right and they were wrong: he believed with religious faith that black people were book buyers, not because we were exceptional, but because we weren't. Just like anyone else, we would buy the books that were written to our experiences, our tastes, and our interests—and that were sold in places we had access to (of course, all this talk of "our" could be a little problematic, and all the more so as the years wore on and the profile of "us" became ever more difficult to pin down). He was, of course, right. Publishers made millions once they figured out—years after practically every other industry in the country—that black consumers existed as a viable market. Manie's confidence and willingness to battle for black bookstores, black readers, and black authors, from the heart of whiteness in America (and I mean that: walk the halls of a major book publishing company even today and count the black men you see in the halls—who aren't working in the mailroom—and see if you need all the fingers on even one hand) helped open the industry for more editors, more writers, and more great books; in those respects, and others, he set a high and difficult bar for those of us who followed him. His spirit will be missed—especially now, at at time when the things he fought for are as embattled as ever—but his example won't be forgotten.