Quiet modesty is not a characteristic generally associated with the often hyped world of publishing, but it does capture the spirit of one of its stars, Marie Dutton Brown.
Brown is one of only five black literary agents in this country. She’s also one of the few people to have run the gamut of the publishing business--from bookstore clerk to editor at a top publisher.
She sees the changes as part of her lifelong literary quest, her education. And at 55, with about 100 authors on her roster, including Spelman College president Johnnetta Cole, mystery writer Barbara Neely and novelist Faith Ringgold, her hard work has paid off.
Brown’s commitment to books and black authors in particular has expanded into a commitment to her world. She serves on the board of directors of the Studio Museum of Harlem, Poets & Writers Inc. and the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines & Presses, among others.
“She defines commitment,” said Kinshasha Holman Conwill, director of the Studio Museum, describing Brown as a mentor of sorts to many connected to black American culture. “She is enormously gifted and creative, but she does what she does not only because she has the expertise but because she loves and believes in what she is doing.”
Brown’s office in downtown New York City is a frenzy of papers, books and “icons"--her photos of friends and families, notes, invitations and colorful oddities. Somehow the chaos is calming, a place for friends to meet.
The icons remind Brown of “survival, of good times, strong friendships and support.”
“They make me feel that we aren’t in it alone and remind me of the main struggle. That is leveling the playing field and supporting an author who deserves to be published.”
Brown rises at 5 a.m., rarely gets to work after 7 a.m. and frequently works on weekends. The contrasts between rigor and informality contribute to her success, friends and colleagues say.
“She is determined and hard-working, someone who every day is pushing a boulder uphill and never stops,” said CBS newsman Ed Bradley, a client and friend of about 30 years. “She is bucking a tide.”
Born Marie Dutton in Philadelphia in 1940, she was the oldest of three children. Her father, a civil engineer, and her mother, a high school English teacher, taught Brown a strong work ethic and a love of books.
Her formative years were spent in the segregated South--in Virginia and Nashville, Tenn., where her father taught university classes.
Growing up, books by black authors were coveted and hard to come by; most were out of print. But the few they had were lovingly passed among her family.
Brown’s parents, both of whom put themselves through college doing domestic work, also instilled in Brown a strict sense of responsibility. “I knew something about standards, about hard work, and I knew I’d better not mess up,” she said.
Those expectations were reinforced by the teachers at Brown’s all-black schools: “They strengthened my resolve to do the best,” Brown said.
Brown found a different world at Penn State, from which she graduated in 1962 with a degree in psychology. There were no black faculty members and only 250 blacks among the 25,000 students, she said.
After college, Brown, who had discovered the importance of mentoring during her schooling, followed her mother into teaching. She eventually got a job in the Philadelphia school system as a coordinator of racial integration, looking to develop multicultural teaching materials.
It was at a seminar for teachers that Brown met Loretta Barrett, an editor at Doubleday & Co. who had been invited to Philadelphia to talk about new black history books.
Barrett invited Brown to New York, where she met people at Doubleday who, unbeknown to her, were interviewing her for a job. Brown, who describes herself as a beneficiary of affirmative action, signed on with Doubleday in 1967 as a trainee, then parlayed the 10-week program into a job as Barrett’s assistant.
After two years, Brown married Kenneth Brown and moved to California, where he attended art school. There, her daughter Laini was born. Unable to find a job in publishing, Brown worked in a bookstore that catered to the black community.
After another two years, Brown moved back to New York and Doubleday, where for several years she fought to publish books by black authors and for a black audience.
“It was difficult to try to bring into the mainstream thinking things that were part of the ongoing existence of African American people,” Brown said. “There isn’t a familiarity in corporate America with other cultures.”
A whole range of books would never have seen the light of day without Brown’s determination, said Barrett, now a literary agent herself.
“Marie has an extraordinary inner agenda to try and change and improve society,” she said.
Among the books Brown published were the classic cookbook / memoir “Vibration Cooking” by Vertamae Smart-Grovesnor, the Darden sisters’ “Spoonbread & Strawberry Wine” and Mari Evans’ “Black Women Writers.”
But as the fervor surrounding the civil rights movement subsided in the late 1970s, so did interest in works by black American authors. Brown was told to diversify her book list, which meant cultivating white writers.
She helped bring out “Burnout,” a best-seller and one of the first books to note that people were psychologically exhausted. She also published “Coping With Difficult People,” “The Adoption Triangle” and many others.
“Professionally she probably has one of the most astute understandings of publishing of anyone,” Barrett said. “She understands the process and has an incredible background, a much broader background than most.”
In 1981 Brown left Doubleday for the top editing slot for a new black women’s magazine, Elan. But its backers closed the magazine after just three issues.
Unable to find another job in publishing, Brown tried a different side of the book business, taking a job at Endicott Booksellers in Manhattan, where she rose to assistant buyer.
“I learned about book selling and got to look at what was being published,” Brown said. “I learned about how books are bought and sold.”
In 1984 Brown went out on her own as a literary agent, opening Marie Brown Associates. Her publishing contacts stood her in good stead and information gleaned from book selling was crucial, she said.
Now, about 80% of her authors are black or Latino, writing fiction, nonfiction and children’s books.
In difficult times, Brown said she derives strength from the lives of people she knows or has read about--"People who have broken through the barriers that hold most people back, people who are true to themselves.”