When Molly Stern was conceiving the idea for a new publishing company that would leverage the fan bases of celebrities and influencers to fuel sales, she made a list of people she dreamed of working with.
Among them was the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony award-winning artist John Legend.
Stern had worked with plenty of celebrities at Crown, where she was publisher until three years ago; she had encouraged Sarah Jessica Parker to start her own imprint, then edited Michelle Obama’s hugely successful memoir, “Becoming.” And this September, that new publishing company, Zando, announced its first two partner publishers: blockbuster novelist-screenwriter Gillian Flynn and comedian Lena Waithe.
But for all her connections, Stern had no direct path to Legend — until she met Mike Jackson. The producer had co-founded the Get Lifted Film Co. with Legend and his longtime manager, Ty Stiklorius.
“Mike immediately understood what was possible here, both for Get Lifted and why John in particular would be so impactful,” Stern said.
After meeting Legend, Stern was even more convinced. “When you scratch the surface with someone like John and hear the sort of enthusiasm, commitment and seriousness in which he engages ideas that are from books, you think, ‘This is exactly the kind of person who has the visibility and impact on the world and the intellectual seriousness to be a publisher,’” she said.
And so the dream was realized. Legend is joining Zando as a publisher with his own imprint, Get Lifted Books. Along with Jackson and Stiklorius, he will acquire and publish four to six titles across fiction and nonfiction over the next three years. Per Zando’s business model, which hands off much of the promotion to its partner publishers, Legend and his team will be involved in marketing and promoting the books to their own fans.
“We’re in a good position in life where we can enable a lot of creative voices to be heard,” Legend said in a video interview with The Times, “and we take that as a responsibility to illuminate and uplift voices that might not get heard otherwise. We’ve been wanting to do that in our film, TV and theater business for a long time, and we believe doing it in publishing will be great for authors.”
Their first book acquisition is “Rosewater” by Liv Little, founder of the British magazine gal-dem. “Rosewater,” set to publish in spring 2023, is a coming-of-age story about a queer, Black, working-class poet in London.
“Authors and novelists are some of the greatest voices we have, and a lot of them are untapped,” said Jackson. “We’ve had a lot of success launching careers, and we felt, as avid readers who love books and novels, ‘Why not expand the platform we’re providing for these artists into publishing?’”
The Get Lifted team will be looking for biographies, memoirs, fiction “that challenges assumptions” and other works about race, culture, history and science.
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“We always want our content to be provocative and interesting and enlightening and illuminating, and we want to feature storytellers who deserve a chance to be heard,” said Legend.
With the caveat, Jackson added, “that if some super famous author wants to write a book with us, we’ll do that too.”
Although Get Lifted began as a film company and Zando has major film-industry investors, Jackson and Legend said adapting books into film or TV is not the primary mission of Get Lifted Books. “We want the books to stand on their own as great books,” said Legend. That doesn’t preclude eventual adaptation, however.
Legend and the Get Lifted team are Zando’s third publishing partners after Waithe and Flynn. The Get Lifted Film Co. emerged from a longtime friendship among Legend, Jackson and Stiklorius. Legend and Stiklorious met as undergraduates at the University of Pennsylvania in an a cappella group; Stiklorius grew up with Jackson and introduced him to Legend. Jackson would go on to become the “All of Me” hitmaker’s first manager.
Since launching in 2012, the Get Lifted Film Co. has established itself as an industry player, often highlighting the voices of marginalized communities. The company executive-produced the Oscar-winning “La La Land” and is behind the TV series “Underground.” Forthcoming projects include a film adaptation of “Blacktop Wasteland,” S.A. Cosby’s noir tale of a Virginia family man pushed to the edge by poverty, racism and his criminal past. The novel won the 2020 L.A. Times Book Prize for mystery/thriller.
Recruiting luminaries with big platforms is at the core of Zando’s unconventional marketing and publicity model, an effort to help solve a growing problem in book publishing — an industry increasingly dominated by algorithms and pre-existing platforms that make it difficult for unknowns to break through.
“We’re using the adjacency of well-known figures to create awareness for work we believe should be well known, and without the support of these platforms, it’s possible that this work will never be read or embraced or discussed,” said Stern. “So to have Get Lifted and John in a very concerted, focused, strategic way support this work, to me is a win-win.”
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Dorany Pineda writes about books, publishing and the local literary scene for the Los Angeles Times.
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