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Big publishing houses want their cut of the urban market, too, even if they don't want to admit it. Most have separate imprints (such as HarperCollins' Amistad label) targeted to the street lit audience. Every so often, as with Sistah Souljah's best-seller The Coldest Winter Ever, a street lit book is so well-written and popular that a major publishing house buys the rights to redistribute it.
"These books do play to stereotypes," Graham says. "The men always need to prove their manhood, and their relationships with women are abusive. Violence drives the plot. But at the same time, I think once you're writing a book in prison, you're countering the stereotype by the very fact that you're already defying it. That's the way you transform your life. They're not telling kids 'be like me.' They're telling them not to be this way."
In any case, people want to read these books.
"These novels have always been popular," says Kaite Stover, the readers' adviser and head of circulation at the Kansas City Public Library "Street lit as a genre is probably about as popular to its readers as Harry Potter is with kids and Twilight is with teens. If we get a copy and put it on the shelf, it's checked out within 30 minutes."
At the moment, readers on the waiting list will have to wait an estimated 51 days for a copy of In Cahootz: Sequel to Hoodwinked. Assuming that whoever has checked it out returns it.
"Everyone complains to me about the library," Carter says. "I'm like, go buy it."
No one can accuse Carter of trying to drive up sales by exaggerating his outlaw past. Missouri court records document how the future best-selling author was handcuffed facedown on the curb near 18th and Vine during a campaign stop by George W. Bush in 2000.
The day it happened, Carter was supposed to be finishing last-minute business before he and Acklin left for a vacation in Jamaica. While he was handling his obligations, Acklin planned to take her grandmother on an errand to City Hall, then to get a manicure and a pedicure.
Carter arrived at his connection's house that morning, planning only to drop off $30,000. He hadn't intended to pick up any drugs, but Carter's connection wanted him to take a kilo of crack. "I didn't want it, but it's like, 'Take the key, man, take the key.' So it was like, fuck it, I'll take it."
As he was driving back to his apartment, his mother called to warn him about the Bush rally. Lots of Secret Service men would be just outside his doorstep. Kansas City, Missouri, police officers, too. Throngs of Republicans were waiting for the nominee when Carter arrived. He went to his apartment to cut the drugs, then went back to his car with a newly mixed kilo.
Before he could drive away, an old customer spotted him and ran over. Carter knew that he shouldn't have done it, but he made the sale.
"I remember seeing somebody, looked like a janitor, in the doorway of a building watching us," Carter says. "I can't know for sure, but I think he saw it and he signaled the cops or the Secret Service or whoever that something was going down."