In the Black

IN 1967, Haki Madhubuti was living in a one-room apartment in Chicago. He was doing daywork, loading trains for $18 to $25 a shift. He was only paid on those days when he was lucky enough to get picked for a crew.

Not, perhaps, the most advantageous time to set yourself up in the publishing business, but that is just what Madhubuti, then 25, did. Third World Press is still in business, the oldest and largest continually operating black-owned book publisher in the country. After 19 years of losses, it finally broke even last year. In 1988, there might even be a profit.

"I'm single-minded about this," says Madhubuti. "If Third World Press fails, I fail. We fail as a people. And I'm not a failure." The press has endured, he says, through an exact targeting of its market: "We've survived not by sending our books out to Commentary or The New York Times or The New York Review of Books. That just doesn't work in our market." Much more important, he says, are the jacket blurbs he gets from established writers such as June Jordan, Woodie King Jr. and Mari Evans.

Madhubuti first got involved with publishing in 1966. He paid a printer $350 to do a thousand copies of a poetry collection, Think Black, and sold 600 of them on street corners for a $1 each. That success suggested the possibility of working outside the mainstream. "The street culture I grew up with," he points out, "said it was not logical to take your unpublished work to white publishers when you were being critical of these same people."

Third World owns a bookstore in Chicago, the African-American Book Center, which allows Madhubuti to take the pulse of the whole spectrum of black publishing. "Many of the black writers, the Afro-American writers in print now, are being published by either small presses or universities," Madhubuti says. That, however, has its good side. "With the major publishers locking out black writers, they come looking for us. Twenty years ago, I had to beg them to publish with us."

New printing technology, he adds, has also lent a hand. "It allows us to put out books that are not only comparable to, but better than, the major publishers. Technology is not discriminatory."

Third World's greatest success has been with now-retired Howard University professor Chancellor Williams' Destruction of Black Civilization, which has gone through 16 printings. Two forthcoming books Madhubuti is especially enthusiastic about are former Howard professor Frances Cress Welsing's essays on the structure of society, The Isis Papers, and a collection of political and cultural writings by University of Maryland professor Acklyn Lynch.

"Our books for the most part are directed toward the development of the black community," Madhubuti says. "There's just so much negative material out there, and so little that helps. That's not to say we don't publish material that is critical, but it has to be constructive."

The firm, which has a staff of four and is issuing 18 books this year, also does fiction and poetry, including Pulitzer Prize winner Gwendolyn Brooks' verse. In Washington, two stores that stock Third World titles are Pyramid and Common Concerns.

Madhubuti, who has written eight collections of poetry and eight other books, taught writing and African-American literature at Howard for eight years in the '70s, commuting home to Chicago every weekend. Understandably, he got tired of flying, and now teaches at Chicago State University. In spite of reaching the 20-year mark with his firm, he's not relaxing.

"The hardest are going to be the next 20 years. We just had White Monday {the stock market crash} a couple months ago, and we'll have to see how the the national, the international economy is going to affect us," he says, noting that, for example, "many of the large, urban school systems are failing. Our dominant readership, which would come from that system, may not be able to read or have an interest in reading anything, let alone black books. Our job is not just publishing and distributing books, but how do we interest people in reading?"

Best-Seller Summit

MIKHAIL GORBACHEV's summit with President Reagan may have been only a mixed success, but the Soviet leader's encounter with the best-seller list has resulted in unqualified triumph. Perestroika hit No. 1 in Washington, which may be understandable, but it's also racking up excellent sales everywhere else. Who is buying it, and why?

Simon Michael Bessie, a Harper & Row vice president and the book's editor, says it's selling "reasonably well" everywhere, but is especially strong on the Boston-Washington and L.A.-San Francisco corridors. (It's a worldwide phenomenon, too. Rights were sold in 40 countries, and Bessie says that in every country from which he's had a report, it's a best seller.)

"Gorbachev has captured the world's attention," Bessie says. "He's given people all over the world at least the possibility of hope, and the sense that maybe things in the Soviet Union can open up." In this sense, buying Perestroika is like casting a vote for mutual disarmament and world peace.

Furthermore, he speculates, some of the 200,000 in-print copies are being bought as a hedge against the future. "A head of state who writes a book while he's running a government really puts his neck on the chopper. This book is full of hopes and claims that could, if they're not fulfilled, be used against Gorbachev."

Harper & Row was also the publisher of David Stockman's autobiography, which started fast and then fizzled. And in the '70s, the firm issued Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago. "We sold two million copies in paper of the first volume," Bessie recalls. "How many were read? Probably not very many." That must have been a different sort of vote -- perhaps an expression of solidarity with the millions of Gulag victims.

Nevertheless, the editor declines to guess how many copies of Perestroika are actually being read, how many are being bought as a wish for peace, and how many are just casually plunked down on the coffee table to impress cocktail party guests.

"I've been in book publishing longer than you've been on earth," he says, "and I rarely profess to know whether a book has been read or not."

Livings for Writers

THE MILDRED and Harold Strauss Livings are a relatively new award. They don't match the Pulitzer in name recognition, but they sure exceed it in financial remuneration. The Pulitzer pays $1,000; the first two winners of the Livings, the result of a bequest made by the former editor-in-chief of Knopf and his wife, have each received $175,000. Such a sum, even spread out over five years, irrevocably changes the life of its recipient.

"Although I wept at the start, with obscure shame, at the closure one feels a great loss," says Cynthia Ozick, whose term as a Livings recipient has now, after five years, come to a close. "One gets used to $35,000 a year. One gets used to manna." Her co-winner, Raymond Carver, says that the money "gave me time to write what I wanted to write. It worked as a great incentive. There were no strings attached, but it made me want to do more, and better."

Actually, the Livings, which are administered by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, are given with one small string: the recipient cannot accept any employment during the five years. When they won, both Ozick and Carver gave up teaching -- not, it seems, a difficult thing to do. "Now I look back and wonder," says Carver, "how I was ever able to get anything done when I was teaching full time."

With the current proliferation of cash awards, grants and prizes, it's still mysterious precisely what effect this money has. Does it improve a writer? Make him faster? Or could it make some fat, happy and lazy?

"Fat and lazy, perhaps, but I don't know how happy," says Carver, whose Where I'm Calling From: New and Selected Stories will be published in May. "Anyway, I don't hold with the idea that suffering ennobles. I know too many people that suffering and hard times have simply wiped out." The stories he has written over the past five years, he adds, are different than his previous work. Not necessarily better; just different.

Ozick, whose most recent novel, The Messiah of Stockholm, appeared last spring, says she has "puritan rather than dissolute tendencies. I live a lot in my head, and what this did for me was enable me to live there even more. It gave me courage, and it let me say no to a lot of things I wasn't able to say no to before." She also confesses to having switched to Bounty from cheaper paper towels, and doesn't plan on giving them up.

The third and fourth Livings winners have recently been selected: Diane Johnson and Robert Stone. But they won't get the same amount of money as Carver and Ozick. Spread out over five years, the award has been increased to $250,000. In the Margin NAN ROBERTSON'S A.A.: Inside Alcoholics Anonymous, billed as the first major book on the extremely popular and influential self-help organization, has been postponed for a month, until April. The problem was that A.A. decided it didn't want Robertson to use some of their copyrighted material. "Too much A.A. material would make it look like they're putting the book out, and they're not," says a spokeswoman for Morrow, the publisher. A.A. also wanted Robertson, a recovering alcoholic herself, to conform to A.A. style and not use her full name on the book, but she's holding firm on that . . . ::