Brown, Marie Dutton 1940—
Marie Dutton Brown 1940—
Success Dovetailed With New Era
Marie Dutton Brown’s career in publishing has taken many turns. She began as a bookstore buyer and worked a long stint as an editor at a prestigious publishing house. These experiences helped inspire Brown to found her own literary agency in 1984, at its onset a shoestring operation out of her apartment. A decade later Marie Brown Associates boasts a staffed Greenwich Village office, and its name sake is one of only five African American literary agents in the country. The success of her business-the agency’s client list has grown to over a hundred authors-reflects both her vision and drive as well as the corporate publishing world’s belated realization that African Americans represent a huge book-buying market. Increasingly literate, increasing affluent, increasingly eager to read material that speaks to them in their own voice, African American readers are finding bookshelves loaded with a variety of new titles, many of which Brown helped pilot to success.
Brown was born Marie Dutton in 1940 in Philadelphia. The first of three children of a civil engineer father and a mother who was a high school English teacher, Brown came of age on college campuses in Virginia and Tennessee, where her father taught engineering. She often spent hours in the campus library. She inherited her love of books, along with a no-nonsense attitude, from her parents. Both had worked menial jobs to put themselves through college in leaner times, and, as Brown told Lisa Genasci of the San Francisco Examiner, “I knew something about standards, about hard work, and I knew I’d better not mess up.”
The early 1960s found Brown enrolled at Penn State University, where she was part of the 1 percent of the student body’s African American population. After earning a degree in psychology in 1962, she became a social studies teacher in the Philadelphia public school system, and two years later was promoted to coordinator of intergroup education, an office that was an early attempt to diversify the public school curriculum. When a publishing associate from New York visited Brown’s office to sell some of her company’s titles to the department, she told Brown to give her a call when she next came to New York. She did, and when they met for lunch the editor had brought along some of her colleagues from Doubleday-the lunch date had been set up as a job interview. Brown was hired at the publishing house as a trainee at a time when such companies were trying to
At a Glance…
Bom Marie Elizabeth Dutton, 1940, in Philadelphia, PA; daughter of a civil engineer and a high school English teacher; married Kenneth Brown, c. 1969; children: Laini Education: Penn State University, B.A., 1962.
Philadelphia (PA) public school system, high school teacher, 1962–65, coordinator of intergroup education, 1965–67; Doubleday & Co., New York City, publishing trainee and editorial assistant, 1967–69; freelance editorial consultant, Los Angeles, CA, and Washington, DC, c. 1969–70; Bronze Books Los, Angeles, manager, 1970–71; returned to Doubleday & Co. as an associate editor, 1972, became editor, 1974, became senior editor, 1978; founding editor, Elan magazine, New York City, 1981–82; Endicott Books, New York City, began as bookseller, became assistant buyer and assistant manager, 1982–84; Marie Brown Associates, New York City, founder and owner, 1984-. Consultant to the literary journal American Rag, the Louis Michaux Book Fair, and Howard University’s Book Publishing Institute. Board member, Poets and Writers Inc., Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines & Presses, Studio Museum of Harlem, Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center, The Friendly Place, and The Writer’s Room.
Addresses: Home —New York City. Office —Marie Brown Associates, 625 Broadway, New York, NY 10012.
diversity their workforce.
Moved to the West Coast
Brown stayed at Doubleday for two years, then married Kenneth Brown and moved with him to Los Angeles when he began art school there. She found it hard to find a similar job in publishing in California, and so worked as a freelance editorial consultant and manager of a bookstore featuring third-world and ethnic American titles, which she happened upon one day on the way to the supermarket. She also gave birth to a daughter, Laini. In 1972 Brown returned to New York City and was rehired by Doubleday as an associate editor. Her rise through the ranks during the rest of the decade coincided with a reawakening of interest in African American literary titles, spurred on by the civil rights and black identity movements of the 1960s and a continuation of the Harlem Renaissance literary tradition dating back to the 1920s. With the success of bestsellers like Alex Haley’s Roots, publishing houses were eager to find and shepherd through the publication process works of both fiction and nonfiction geared toward African Americans. Brown was at the forefront of this trend at Doubleday and brought many titles into print, including Vertamae Smart Grosvenor’s Vibration Cooking and Mari Evans’s Black Women Writers.
Yet things had not changed that drastically in the tradition-bound halls of publishing, Brown recalled in the interview with the San Francisco Examiner’s Genasci. “It was difficult to try to bring into the mainstream thinking things that were part of the ongoing existence of African American people.” Indeed, the “fad” seemed to be on the wane by the late 1970s, when publishing houses like Doubleday began losing interest in issuing such a diverse roster of titles. Additionally, this time also coincided with a cutback in public spending that had originally financed the large-scale purchase of such books for schools and libraries. Brown received direct orders to diversify her list of authors and titles, but did manage to champion the publication of one or two pet projects, such as Carolyn Rodgers’s acclaimed How I Got Ovah. In 1980 she quit Doubleday to become founding editor of Elan magazine, an upscale, glossy magazine that focused on the cultural life of the international black community. After over a year in the job and seeing three issues launched, Brown was left jobless when Elan’s financial backers pulled out. She took a job in a bookstore on Manhattan’s West Side, a job she has said gave her an important retail perspective of the publishing industry. Soon she had advanced to assistant buyer and assistant manager at the store, but left at the urging of a friend in mid-1984 to begin her own company.
Launched Own Venture
Marie Brown Associates opened its doors for business in the fall of 1984, but its doors were also Brown’s Harlem apartment. The fledgling literary agency had some initial strokes of luck, including the signing of J. Randy Taraborelli, the biographer of Diana Ross and later Michael Jackson, onto its roster, yet times remained lean for several years. In 1987, Brown told Essence magazine’s Judy Simmons about her worklife: “I am the company, the secretary, the copy center, the mail room. I go to the post office and the bank, do the typing. “The long hours paid off, however, and by 1995 Brown was still working weekends, but this time at her offices in Greenwich Village. Her list of writers had grown to include several old friends and some new ones as well. Ed Bradley, the CBS news program Sixty Minutes correspondent whom she had known when they were both teachers in Philadelphia, was heeding Brown’s directive to complete his autobiography. Vertamae Grosvenor was also part of the literary agency’s talent roster, as were Alexis Deveaux and Eloise Greenfield, both friends from Brown’s Doubleday years. New clients included mystery writer Barbara Neely, Spelman College president Johnnetta Cole, and acclaimed children’s author Faith Ringgold.
Success Dovetailed With New Era
Brown’s success in a field that is traditionally white-and long known for its Ivy-League-educated, East-Coast-bred air-is a testament to her years of hard work and determination, but in more recent times she has also been encouraged by the rise of a number of prominent African American authors. Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Gloria Naylor-all of whom achieved bestseller success in the late 1980s-helped pave the way for a second generation of African American writers in the 1990s. The popularity of novelists like Terry McMillan, Walter Mosley, and Bebe Moore Campbell seemed to be a sign that the long-locked corporate gate to publishing was now opening. The critical and financial success awarded these authors “delivers the same message to publishers: The African-American community can no longer be overlooked; in fact, it is one of the fastest growing segments of the book-buying market,” as Carolyn M. Brown put it in Black Enterprise. When the larger publishing houses began courting African American writers, Brown’s agency was at the forefront. Her established stable of writers and contacts within the African American literary world ushered in a new era of success and acclaim for both author and agent.
Despite working seven days a week and rising at five a.m. every day in order to maintain control of her growing business, Brown still finds the time to contribute her talents to the community. She serves on numerous boards and is a consultant literary magazines as well as Howard University’s Book Publishing Institute. Such outreach efforts win Brown the praise of her contemporaries. She sits on the board of the Studio Museum of Harlem, and its director Kinshasha Holman Conwill told the Examiner’s Genasci that the literary agent “defines commitment. She is enormously gifted and creative, but she does what she does not only because she has the expertise but because she loves and believes in what she is doing.” Journalist Ed Bradley also spoke glowingly of Brown’s achievements, telling Genasci that “she is determined and hardworking, someone who every day is pushing a boulder uphill and never stops. She is bucking a tide.”
Black Enterprise, February 28, 1995, p. 108.
Essence, May 1987, p. 135.
San Francisco Examiner, August 13, 1995, p. B3.
Additional information for this profile was provided by Marie Brown Associates publicity materials, 1996.
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