Spinning Race at Harvard

The Business Behind the Gates-West Power Play

Gates, sole author of eight books, is associated with the publication of about 119 different titles, in 164 editions on 48 different presses or imprints. While 32 items listing his name are books for which he provided forewords or introductions, Gates is named as editor or co-editor on 71 titles. This is somewhat astounding, particularly when you look at some of the numbers by year: In 1996 alone, his banner year, he was associated with the publication of 30 books. Followed in 1997 by another 13, and preceded in 1995 by 11. His publishing history, which began in 1982, features many years when he was associated with more than a dozen books.

While some of this comes from arrangements with Oxford University Press and McMillan to serve as series editor for a number of releases, one has to conclude that the editor title is also a perk of his power, added to reprints of classic editions of works by dead authors like Zora Neale Hurston, Lorraine Hansberry, Frederick Douglass, and Jessie Redmon Fauset, as well as various slave narratives, in exchange for a foreword. One publishing source who insisted on anonymity says that Gates's agent has made the unusual demand for royalties when asked to contribute to several books.

Gates's second contribution to American literature has its rewards too. His first discovery, Harriet Wilson's Our Nig, the earliest African American novel to come to light, brought him to fame. Gates bought and publicized the book found by an East Village book dealer.

In his 1999 PBS series Wonders of the African World, he discovered a cache of dusty ancient Arabic texts in Timbuktu, which may have a great influence on the writing of the history of Islam in West Africa. According to press material at Africana.com, Gates "publicized" the existence of these thousands of texts, which came from 15 private collections, and is now helping to see that the "lost library of Timbuktu" is digitized. The word "publicized" may have been used because John Hunwick, a Northwestern University scholar also found a collection of 3000 Arabic manuscripts, "on a 1999 research trip to Timbuktu," according to Northwestern.

More recently he has recovered an original handwritten manuscript by ex-slave Hannah Crafts, to be released this year by Warner Books as The Bondwoman's Narrative. The book will unseat Gates's first find as the oldest black American novel. This manuscript was purchased by Harvard for $10,000 from Swann Galleries in New York, but it was found originally by the legendary African American librarian and bibliographer Dorothy Porter Wesley, who, according to Africana, "bought the book in 1948." Gates plans to dedicate the book to her, and Barnes & Noble is touting it as a sure bestseller. Gates's role in the old book biz is clearly to popularize the importance of these kinds of manuscripts more than to dig them up, yet the image of discoverer has stuck.

Gates, West, and Appiah are not just colleagues—they really should be viewed as business partners. Since the early 1990s, they have been collaborating on books that are owned solely by them, and the appearance of their names on collections is something like the granting of a franchise.

Gates and Appiah have 11 joint titles, most of which are essay collections on famous black writers, ideal for the large college and library markets. They also produced the major-book event, Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, and two volumes of the Dictionary of Global Culture. These are ventures of considerable value.

According to a 1999 article on salon.com, their Encarta Africana CD-ROM project received $1 million of its $2 million budget from Microsoft. Gates, Appiah, Quincy Jones, Wole Soyinka, and Time-Warner's Martin Payson started a private company to run the enterprise, Afropedia L.L.C., with Gates and Appiah reportedly receiving $100,000 each as co-editors. The budget was tight for such a huge undertaking—expected to run to 2.25 million words—and they advertised around Cambridge for temporary writers (at 15 cents a word). One of those 15-cents-a-word writers said that the pressure there was enormous and that Microsoft ran the show much more concerned about word count than quality content.

Gates and West have produced two books: The Future of the Race (1996) and The African American Century: How Black Americans Have Shaped Our Century (2000), works clearly aimed at large audiences. Each has as much speaking work as they could ever want, but they sometimes team up for university visits. One professor who arranged for them to appear at a Massachusetts school recalled that it cost between $15,000 and $20,000 for the pair. If each man did only 20 speeches a year in the $10,000 range, they could each add $200,000 to their university salaries, which one assumes are at the top of Harvard's highly competitive salary scale. With talks continuing with President Summers, who knows where those numbers may go.

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