It’s almost absurd to think that Phoebe Robinson — a successful comedian, author and actress of 2 Dope Queens fame would have difficulty selling her first book (You Can’t Touch My Hair) in 2015. But that reality is on-brand with the current state of the publishing industry, which — while it's become a somewhat more inclusive space in recent years — is still majority cis, straight, and white. This makes it especially difficult for first-time Black writers, including someone as influential as Robinson, to get past gatekeepers and have their work published.
“People just felt so comfortable telling my agent, ‘Oh, this book will never sell. People aren't interested in funny book collections from Black women. It's not relatable,” Robinson shares with R29Unbothered over the phone. And it was those moments of rejection that inspired Robinson, who recently published her third book (Please Don’t Sit on My Bed in Your Outside Clothes) and announced her new Freeform show (Everything’s Trash, based on her book), to launch her own publication imprint.
“I just didn't want any other writer to go through such an ignorant process as I went through in 2015,” she continues. “I really hope that I'm one of many imprints where the goal, in addition to publishing great works, [is to make] the process easier for marginalised people to get their work out there. It just should not be this difficult.”
There is just a small amount of Black folks in the publishing industry who have authority in the spaces they work in. Because of this, many quality books by Black and brown authors go unpublished, and this is the same reason why people like Marie Dutton Brown and Toni Morrison got into the publishing industry decades ago. Tiny Reparations Books, under which Robinson’s latest book is housed, is a curated imprint committed to publishing literary works that highlight marginalised voices and push critical conversations forward. And that commitment extends beyond its publication roster.
Robinson shares that her imprint team is as passionate about bringing visibility to BIPOC authors as she is. “There's nothing wrong with talking about struggles that different races or sexual orientations go through, but we don't want those to be the only stories that get told,” she says. “We're making these initial steps and we hope to keep doing more to have everything reflect the way the world looks.”
With book number three under her belt and a mighty imprint poised to disrupt the publishing industry, Robinson is just getting started. Below, R29Unbothered speaks to Robinson about her new book, Tiny Reparations, and the future of the publishing world.
R29Unbothered: You are doing so much these days. Not only is Everything's Trash getting a Freeform television series, but you just announced your debut comedy special, you've published your third essay collection, and you’ve launched your own publishing imprint. What are you feeling these days?
Phoebe Robinson: I’m really tired. [Laughing] It’s so funny. You’re trying so hard and you face rejection and [you ask yourself], ‘When is it going to happen for me?’ Then it all happens at once and you’re like, “Oh SHIIIIIT!” But it feels really cool just because it's just always amazing when you just have an idea for something [and it materializes]. I have wanted an imprint since 2014, and I told my lit agent about it and [in those moments] it just feels like such a far away thing that feels really impossible to happen.
Now we have 11 books, including mine, and all these fantastic and incredible writers. I feel like no time has passed at all, and so much time has passed. And I just feel really grateful and so stoked that people want to work with me and believe in the vision that I have for them and their career. It really just feels like a dream come true. I know that it's very cheesy to say, but that's the truth.
It's not cheesy at all! You mentioned feeling tired amidst all the excitement. How are you prioritising self-care right now?
I started meditation this month. I try to do it five times a week, which has been really helpful. I think before I was very much a person where I'm waking up and I'm immediately diving into work, and then I would just feel so drained because I didn't give myself a moment to just sort of be a person.
I'm still quarantining pretty intensely. I'm really only leaving [my house] if I do work out of the home and I do like one friendship hanging outside the home a week. Because I'm staying in so much, I run like three times a week [in my apartment’s gym], and that really helps me feel like I'm moving even though I'm staying indoors, which is really nice. I think those three things — meditation, friendship and running — have really changed a lot.
Can I just say that it's so affirming to hear that I'm not the only one who is still quarantining!?
I feel like everybody has been outside, and I'm just not there yet!
Before we dive into talking about Tiny Reparations more in-depth, tell me about Please Don't Sit on My Bed in Your Outside Clothes. What inspired this essay collection, and what sort of impression do you hope that it leaves on your readers?
I think because we were all inside quarantining last year, you just had a lot of time to think. And not just sort of your usual obsessive anxiety sort of stuff, but we're thinking about big themes and big ideas, life and what it looks like. For me, it really forced me to sort of just kind of sit with decisions I’ve made and the things that I want to do, and I really just wanted to be kind of open and vulnerable, which is why I wrote about the decision my boyfriend and I made to be voluntarily childfree, and watching the performative allyship happening in real-time, and me running a business and COVID. We went from seeing each other every day to not seeing each other for a really long time. So I think the combination of being indoors, thinking about stuff and just wanting to be creative was the perfect sort of storm to write another essay collection, but I still wanted it to be funny at the same time. I didn't want it to be so weighted down by COVID. I think it is of the moment but also the book is very evergreen, and that was always the goal. I really wanted that mix of here's where we are, and here's also where we can go.
With us now approaching two years in this pandemic, which feels really crazy to say, I've talked to multiple writers who have worked on new books during this time. From what they shared, they either found the process to be really challenging, really therapeutic or a bit of both. What was the writing process like for you with this book compared to your previous ones?
We turned our dining room table into my desk, and so that's where I wrote it. And I went away to huddle up in a hotel room for like two-to-three day stays just to really jam on it with zero distractions. I really enjoyed writing the book. Every book is always hard. There is no ‘This was really easy to write and I was able to just watch Gilmore Girls!’ [Laughs] I don’t know any writer who feels that way. So for me, it was definitely challenging but so rewarding, and I think I turned to books so much last year just to read in general to sort of have some kind of sense of normalcy. So I really found it enjoyable and great and I’m like, ‘I'm going to take a break from writing books for a while, but I'm so glad that I got to write a book during quarantine.’ It was really, really nice.
And now you’ve launched Tiny Reparations. As someone who knows what it feels like to hear “no” as a Black writer trying to publish their first book, what has working with these new writers felt like?
It's just great. They remind me of [myself] when I had started working on my first book where you're just really excited. It's really cool to work with people who love books as much as I do, who have an amazing work ethic, and I'm really excited for people to read these books. I love them all and think they're so great and there's so many different kinds of books that we're publishing. Artist Tourmaline is writing a biography of Marsha P. Johnson, which is incredible. We have some poetry. We have an art-house book by Grace D. Li called Portrait of a Thief that's coming out in April, and that is about five Chinese Americans [in their] mid-twenties [who] get hired to steal Chinese artwork from American museums and bring it back to China. It speaks to identity and all that stuff, but it's also just a great page-turner. It feels really cool to publish things that normally I'd be like, ‘Oh, this is like what I would buy in a bookstore.’ Now I can be the person who is greenlighting that. It feels really awesome.
While more Black and brown authors are getting the green light, the publishing industry has long been criticised for hiring and retaining so few employees of colour. Where do you think it might be in the next few years with the shifts that have already occurred?
It'll do better if people keep showing up. This isn’t a set-it-and-forget-it situation; you really have to dig in. I love that I have an imprint. I love that Roxane Gay has an imprint. I want to see more of that. I really think publishing can kind of go anywhere it wants to go. I hope that it keeps expanding. I hope that behind the scenes, the diversity changes and shifts a lot because it's great to have all these imprints publishing work by people of colour and for the queer community. But if everyone in the marketing and publicity side is still cis, straight and white, and things are only going to change but so much. I think every avenue of publishing needs to grow and expand, and I think we can do it. I think it's going to take a long time. But I am encouraged by the changes that I am seeing, so I hope that everyone just continues to keep working and trying to improve things for the better, for everyone.
You made a note earlier about performative allyship, and it made me think about a piece that I wrote over the summer. I spoke to Black independent bookstore owners about the increase in sales of white anti-racist books and books by Black authors in response to the “racial reckonings” in 2020. There's been increased conversation about Black Lives Matter. Now many media outlets are telling people to support Black-owned bookstores and Black authors, which is great, but it's also unsettling to think about the fact that this push for sales is connected to the death of Black people.
I feel the same way. I think Black people dying should not be the reason why you go, ‘Oh, I guess I should have a Black author on my plate.’ That's just really ignorant. I think that for a lot of people, this is a trend. It's just about saying they're doing one or two things initially and then they move forward and forget about it. I just really want people to be serious about this and really understand that this isn't just like something we're doing so you can post on Instagram to get a bunch of likes; we want all kinds of authors because there's so many talented people and gatekeepers shouldn’t be preventing certain people from getting their work out there.