Phoebe Robinson’s imprint, Tiny Reparations Books, will amplify marginalized voices
Dope Queen Phoebe Robinson published her second book, “Everything’s Trash, But It’s Okay,” in 2018. Since then, the world has pulled the rug out from under us all a few more times.
Between skyrocketing coronavirus numbers, crises of anti-Blackness and police violence, and the outcry over racial exclusion in the publishing industry, everything is even more “trash” now than in 2018’s wildest dreams.
But Robinson, known for her “2 Dope Queens” podcast, sees young people fueling a genuine movement, and thinks everything will still be OK — eventually. Her new publishing imprint, Tiny Reparations Books, aims to channel that change and, as she wrote on Instagram, to “uplift and center voices that [are] oft disregarded, discredited, and disrespected.”
“Just like with ‘2 Dope Queens,’ Tiny Reparations Books is really a space where I accept everybody,” Robinson told The Times in a phone interview earlier this week. “Everyone is welcome. Everyone’s story is valid, everyone has the right to speak out and share what they’ve learned, and share their lives and share their creativity.”
“2 Dope Queens,” which Robinson cohosted with comedian Jessica Williams, featured a diverse roster of guests, from Aparna Nancherla to Chris Garcia. The new imprint will follow suit, curating a selection of underrepresented voices.
“I really want to pick and choose the things I think represent the brand, but also push it forward and make society better,” Robinson said. “Because I’m going to be publishing a smaller collection of books, it’s also like tiny reparations here in that each book would be like a little bright spot, hopefully, in the world.” She hopes to start by publishing four books a year.
An imprint like this has been an “active dream” of Robinson’s since she first sat down with her literary agent, Robert Guinsler, in 2014 — before she even wrote her first book. Two books later, when she brought the idea to her publisher, Plume (a division of Penguin Random House), Tiny Reparations Books was born. The project shares its name with her production company.
Robinson came up with the title as “sort of a wink,” she said. “I like to joke that, in my life, I’m not getting full reparations, but I’m getting these tiny moments of reparations.” Those include Bono sending her flowers on her birthday (she’s obsessed with U2) or her white friends hailing cabs for her.
Amid some intense recent conversation over the book industry’s shortcomings in supporting emerging writers of color, she wants to pay those reparations forward. The #PublishingPaidMe hashtag that surfaced on Twitter in mid-June referenced an anonymous spreadsheet in which predominantly white authors shared the advances they earned for book deals.
The spreadsheet highlights major discrepancies between the advances received by Black and non-Black authors. Although Robinson’s imprint had been in the works since early February and the announcement had already been planned for July, the current reckoning across many fields made the time feel ripe.
“I think the publishing industry is hearing — I think they are more receptive to the sort of critique that’s being presented to them, and they’re more willing to make those changes,” she said. “And I think it is up to people like me to make sure those changes keep happening.”
“It just felt like, ‘Oh, this is absolutely the right time. You’re already thinking about this, so let’s just go ahead and do it now.’”
Robinson announced the imprint on July 8, and she already knows the first book on her roster: her next essay collection, slated for the fall of 2021. She’s already written two books (“You Can’t Touch My Hair” in 2016 and “Everything’s Trash” in 2018), and after publishing those, she felt that an imprint was within her career’s reach — plus the timing aligned perfectly.
The upcoming collection will tackle subjects including performative allyship, Black excellence, choosing not to have children and, as she put it, “what it means to have missed out on being a thot in my younger age.”
After that, Robinson has her two goals: “One of the things for this imprint that I really wanted to make sure happened is behind the scenes as well: Whether it’s marketing, whether it’s publicity, whether it is acquisitions and who your editor is, that it is a diverse group of people. Like it’s not just gonna be me and a bunch of white girls who live in Brooklyn and have bangs and love ‘Ozark.’”
(To clarify, Robinson does, in fact, love “Ozark.”)
Her second goal is to publish diverse books that are fiction and fun. Drawn to the #BlackoutBestsellerList, which nudged readers to pick up books by at least two Black authors, she was frustrated that most of that buzz translated into nonfiction purchases.
“For every ‘Such a Fun Age’ and ‘Crazy Rich Asians,’ there are probably a graveyard of stories that never got the chance to be told, because, ‘If this is fiction, who’s gonna want to read a story about a Black family?’” Robinson asked sarcastically.
Those are exactly the kinds of stories she wants to back: made-up stories by and about Black, queer and diverse writers. Especially for underrepresented literary talent, the bridge from dream job to published author can be tough to find, let alone navigate. It certainly was for Robinson.
“Even when I met my lit agent at the end of 2014, I had the dream of being an author, but I was just like, ‘I don’t know how to do that,’” she said. “I don’t think I believed all the way, just because the path wasn’t there for me to see.”
Five years later, Robinson is building the bridge that wasn’t there for her to cross. But she can’t do it by herself. She’s hoping for more imprints, also created by people of marginalized identities, to join her.
“I think, hopefully, what WNYC will learn from this is that it’s great to do this one thing, but just keep in mind that this is a day-to-day process,” Robinson said. “This is a lifelong journey of rejiggering the institution to reflect more what society looks like.”
From her podcasting career (now including “Black Frasier,” which she launched last month) to Tiny Reparations Books and the Tiny Reparations production company, Robinson is a queen of all trades. She doesn’t exactly have a job description.
“I would say I am an arbiter of joy, conversation and self-expression, whatever that may be: so whether it’s writing a book or doing stand-up or hosting a podcast or producing,” she said. “I just always want to be a vessel with which I can express myself, and other people feel like they can also express themselves and feel seen in some way.”
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