Rosarium’s Faces of Diverse Publishing: ‘Get Out of Our Way’

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

As Rosarium publisher Bill Campbell adds South African author Nikhil Singh to his list, he talks about how multicultural books are sold today.

Rosarium Publishing

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘Introducing the World to Itself’

Independent house Rosarium Publishing, based in Maryland in the United States, has announced its acquisition of North American rights for the South African-born writer Nikhil Singh’s Taty Went West. Prior to Frankfurt Book Fair in October, the book’s UK and Commonwealth rights (excluding Canada, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda) were acquired by the UK’s Jacaranda Books.

The first book of a trilogy, Taty was longlisted in the Kwani? Manuscript Project in Kenya and later published by the Kwani? Trust.

The acquisition of Singh’s book is the latest in Rosarium’s growing list of international authors, including:

The Kwani? Trust publication of Nikhil Singh’s book

What’s also evident from a quick perusal of the Rosarium site, however, is that its offerings are even more eclectic in nature than its authors’ geographical backgrounds. The publishing house’s blurbs tout “afrofuturism” anthologies, Rastafarian sci-fi, Southeast Asian steampunk, hip-hop time-traveling fantasy, and tattoo artist vampires.

Founded in 2013, the company takes a defiant if good-natured stance, terming itself “a fledgling publisher specializing in speculative fiction, comics, and a touch of crime fiction—all with a multicultural flair.”

Many of its books’ covers carry the energy and raw visual idiom of comics and graphic novels—some of which have begun to appear on Rosarium’s list and are being distributed by Comixology. And if anything, founder Bill Campbell says his publishing company stands as an answer to people who “are so determined that diversity doesn’t sell.”

A science fiction author and satirist, Campbell self-published his first three books because his agent couldn’t place his work, even as he was making inroads into university reading lists with Sunshine Patriots, My Booty Novel, and Koontown Killing KaperAt the time, he says, “It was during the whole ghetto-lit thing. Ghetto was 80 percent of the stuff being published about black people, and you were three times likelier to be portrayed as living in the ghetto than you were to actually be living in the ghetto.”

Finding it ironic that he was “good enough for academia but not for the publishing industry,” he decided to create a publisher for other outlying authors, some 40 of them today.

‘I’ve Been Black for Quite a While’

Bill Campbell

“I started Rosarium with no money. It’s all been one heck of a learning curve,” Campbell says.

With print on demand, initially, and crowdfunding at Indiegogo, he was able to get the company off the ground. Another crowdfunding campaign for $40,000 drew $45,000 last year for offset printing. IPG is distributing the company’s list and BiblioBoard has begun distributing the Rosarium collection to libraries nationwide, as of June.

Libraries offering their patrons the growing Rosarium list include the Elizabeth Braswell Pearsall Library at North Carolina Wesleyan College; the Queens Library system in New York; and the influential Califa cooperative of more than 220 member-libraries in California. In a note sent to BiblioBoard’s staff in Charleston, Campbell has said that the company is “the first vendor who’s really taken us seriously,” a reflection of the challenges that young, specialized presses face, as well as the importance of library expsosure of their content in a crowded marketplace.

These efforts are helping to raise the company’s visibility, Campbell says, remembering times when he’d offer Carlos Hernandez’s books to an independent bookstore, only to be told, “But we don’t get any Cuban customers in our store.”

“Look, it’s not like it’s a ‘Woe is me’ thing,” Campbell says with a laugh. “I’ve been black for quite a while.

“But it is kind of surprising,” he says. “I don’t even look at myself as ‘doing diversity.’ When you approach these things as diversity, then diversity is the end product.

“We’re simply introducing the world to itself.”

Artwork for the new publication of Nikhil Singh’s ‘Taty Went West’

‘Showing Up’

So ask Campbell what a publisher with such a broad range of talented authors needs the most and he tells you, “In an odd way, we just need people to get out of our way. There are 100 million brown people in America, that’s 20-percent more people than are in Germany. Just get out of our way.”

He’s saying not that he can’t sell books from the multicultural platform of his publishing house. He’s saying that he can sell them but that the publishing industry doesn’t see that.

Campbell—who’s based in the Washington DC area—cultivates his audience far beyond the regular hubs of publishing, often exhibiting at “cons” and other events in the US and Europe, the themed conventions that draw consumers to his titles, not just in the States but also “in Amsterdam, Berlin, London, and Cambridge.”

Being at such festivals, he says, gives him two advantages.

“First is showing up,” he says. “Just showing up.” There’s a parallel here to the way a major trade house’s marketing folks will talk about how many ‘impressions’ they may need to make in social media and commercial forums to seize a consumer’s attention.

“In the three years” since he founded Rosarium, he’s learned, he says, that “I can almost tell you who’s going to be successful. Because I keep seeing them. I don’t even know where some of them are writing, but I keep seeing them. I’m at New York ComicCon or I’m at East Bumble ComicCon, and they’re there. And a lot of authors don’t get that. And what I’ve given them” at Rosarium “is the platform so that they can go out everywhere.

“The one I see the most is Amy Chu,” a writer and artist working with DC Comics. I was vending at a symposium at Princeton, she came by and said hi. We met in Philly to have a cup of coffee together. The next thing I know, she’s doing a signing five miles from my house.

“Those are the people who make it. They’re just out there. Not only are they talented, but they realize that in a land with 500 TV shows and 10,000 movies released a year, you have to do that.”

The second advantage Campbell sees to being on the road and meeting readers at conventions and in festival settings is that you’re able to circumvent what he sees as the inaccurate expectations of the trade.

“I had seven white suburban Republican women buy My Booty Novel about black people falling in love,” he tells Publishing Perspectives. “And you tell that to somebody in New York, and they’ll say, ‘Dude, that didn’t happen.’ But yes, it did. And it’s constantly happening” when he makes appearances.

“This isn’t a matter of quality,” Campbell says. “Rosarium comes out with books that are really good. No, this is a matter of perception.

“Look at DayBlack” by Keef Cross. “It’s very steeped in African” sensibilities, “it’s a very black thing. But Keef was a guest of honor at NerdCon in Minnesota. And they loved it. We sent them 40 books and we haven’t gotten one back. And that’s a weekend in Minnesota.

“There are people out there of all different shapes, sizes, and hues, who just like good stories, good art. They gravitate to something different. And we’re different.”

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. Prior to that he was Associate Editor for The FutureBook, a channel at The Bookseller focused on digital publishing. Anderson has also worked with CNN International, CNN.com, CNN USA, the Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and other media.