Jay-Z has already recorded a self-defense of his new sports agency, but if the hip-hop mogul intends to dominate all entertainment niches, then why not book publishing next? Consider Jay-Z, literary agent.
“As a literary agent, Jay-Z would find that he has 99 problems, but declining hardcover sales in an era of lower-royalty e-book sales isn't one,” said Teddy Wayne, author of The Love Song of Jonny Valentine.
Admittedly, the image of Jay-Z, pawing through slush piles for the next courtroom blockbuster while deleting unsolicited queries from amateur bloggers, is somewhat difficult to imagine. The entire concept of editors issuing authors churlish rejection letters will have to be rethought. Jay-Z doesn’t strike me as the type of person, much less literary agent, who accepts a rejection letter over email. If he’s representing a science fiction-historical romance fusion on behalf of a client — "think Gone with the Wind meets William Gibson" is how Jay-Z pitched it from his Bugatti — then a book deal will certainly follow. Author advances will flourish. Paperbacks will go platinum. The publishing industry will scramble to adjust. Authors will reach out to mentors — both editor and agent — to decipher what it all means.
“I'm guessing he'd demand a 40/40 royalty split,” said Simon & Schuster senior editor Sarah Knight. “And I'm not sure I could say no to that, even though it makes no sense.”
“He's a business, man. And of course his own book was beautiful, and brilliant, and a big success,” said David Patterson, a literary agent with Foundry Literary + Media, who would welcome the mogul as a colleague. “But it would be great if Jay-Z started a publishing company instead.”
That’s an idea. Why settle for a literary agency when he can start his own publishing house? Rocawords. After all, moguls don’t negotiate over fees with building owners when they can afford the building. Rocawords would do things differently — issue rejections via choreographed video, print all books using only the Beyonce font, stop quibbling with book retailers over shelf placement and force novelists onto the sidewalks to sell their masterpieces to passersby.
“Jay-Z has the power to make publishing relevant again. He is that rare soul who perfectly blends artistry and business,” said Amber Dermont, author of the newly released story collection, Damage Control, and a confessed Jay-Z expert. “I believe in one Roc Nation under Hova with liberty and six-figure (make that seven) book deals for all.”
“If he started a publishing house,” added Wayne, “even Jay-Z would find a way to lose money.”
It’s not such an unprecedented idea. Indeed, Jay-Z would not be hip-hop’s first to enter the field. Young Buck’s Cash Money Content is a book label with such titles as Honor Thy Thug and Little Bad Girl. 50 Cent also launched G-Unit Books in 2007.
But Patterson pointed out that Jay-Z has a Midas touch when it comes to new endeavors. Perhaps he would shake things up, spawn an entirely new literary genre — young humorists sampling Sylvia Plath, crime writers sampling Walt Whitman, a William T. Vollman-David Sedaris duet about family vacations.
Maybe, as he will with music and sports, he would open shop and quickly draw the bestselling authors from every genre. Or maybe he would rep young, hungry, up-and-coming wordsmiths, like he once was, helping to mold the next generation of bards.
Literature might even adopt the gritty undertones of hip-hop, more beefs arising over a writer’s use of foreshadowing, another’s one-dimensional characters, authors calling each other out in their novels’ acknowledgement sections. And are book readings really ready for the posse, novelists arriving with an ensemble of security and groupies and copyeditors? Most readings entail two-dozen folding chairs crammed between the children’s and art history sections, possibly large enough for a small posse. But what if two posses show up to the same reading? Is there posse etiquette as to who sits and who stands? There will only be enough complimentary wine for everyone to get a sip.
Once Jay-Z makes the move to literature, other less reasonable rappers will surely follow. Imagine a pitch meeting with the Wu-Tang Clan. Lil Wayne, Ghostface Killa, Nas, Snoop Dogg — all accomplished musicians with reputations as stern negotiators. Busta Rhymes seems like a good guy to have in your corner during the editing process. Kanye West once called out President George W. Bush for not caring about black people during a nationally televised broadcast of the Hurricane Katrina benefit concert. What would he do if a copyeditor had the audacity to accuse his client of rambling dialogue? Libraries will offer bottle service.
Jay-Z does not need to conquer book publishing to secure his place as one of entertainment’s top businessmen. And publishing might not have a shelf for Jay-Z either. Literature is a different beast than sports or music, a more diplomatic institution in which rivals cannot be called out in prose for perceived injustices. In which it would be considered poor form for an author to name a character after a counterpart whose book sold better, and then kill him off in devastating fashion in the opening chapter. In which entourages typically comprise friends, significant others, moms and anyone the author can coerce into coming out at nine o’clock on a Tuesday evening for story hour.
Literature is fine as it is, in a slump at times, but still evolving. And even if it never experiences posses or beefs or gunplay between constituents, it will always have its Chekov’s Gun.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.