The independent publisher making a business of celebrity book imprints

In recent decades, corporate consolidation of the book industry has shrunk the number of and the visions of publishing houses, concentrating power at the top of the remaining Big Five, prioritizing profitability over cultural contribution. Countering that contraction, the 2020 murder of George Floyd has triggered long-overdue inclusionary change in America, and in American book publishing. One manifestation of that change also began that year, when publishing veteran Molly Stern, former senior VP of Penguin Random House’s Crown, founded Zando Books “to connect inspiring authors to the audiences they deserve.” In contrast, Zando is growing a collection of imprints, each with its own mission, market and leadership.

“After 15 years as an editor and eight years as a publisher at a big house,” Stern said via email, “I felt intuitively that building a new company unencumbered by historic precedents would allow me to move faster, experiment and think creatively about how to find readers for interesting books.”

One “historic precedent” Zando hopes to change is the institutional racism that has plagued American publishing from its start. “We specifically sought out partners who have a proven desire to use their platform to lift other voices, report on an issue or share a point of view,” she said.

Zando’s imprints include Atlantic Editions, its partnership with the Atlantic magazine; Slowburn, for romance novels; Zando Young Readers; Gillian Flynn Books — helmed by the “Gone Girl” author — and Crooked Media Reads, led by former Obama administration members Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett and Tommy Vietor.

Zando’s highest-visibility imprints are its collabs with celebrities: Sarah Jessica Parker’s SJP Lit, John Legend’s Get Lifted Books, Ayesha Curry’s Sweet July Books and Lena Waithe’s Hillman Grad Books. And Zando’s celeb-hosted Los Angeles book launches have helped establish L.A. as the New York publisher’s second home, growing Zando’s West Coast community along with its name recognition.

One such star-studded event at the NeueHouse Hollywood in March gathered 200 culture lovers, most of them people of color, to celebrate the first graduating class of Hillman Grad Books.

The crowd snapped to attention as the stars of the show — Waithe, Waithe’s interlocuter, “Project Runway” judge Elaine Welteroth, and the first five Hillman Grad authors — took the flower-festooned stage.

“You have such a full plate, Lena,” Welteroth began. “Why books?”

“Books tell us who we are,” Waithe answered. “They help form our identities. Every author you see up here tonight has a very distinctive voice, a very distinctive personality, and they’ll take you on a very distinctive journey. There are so many blind spots in publishing. My hope is that if we all look at each other like teammates, with the same goals, progress will be easier moving forward.”

The crowd roared. Beside me, Cynthia Erivo snapped her ivory-polished fingers in the air. “We want to support books and authors that wouldn’t ordinarily have that type of support or platform,” Waithe added. “We love amplifying writers that really speak to us and what we think is missing.”

Via email, Hillman Grad’s authors reported that Waithe’s plan is working. “I worried that going the traditional publishing route might mean giving up certain parts of my story or myself,” said Elaine U. Cho, author of the newly released space novel “Ocean’s Godori.” “But Hillman Grad honors my voice and the specific way I’m telling my story. They said my book made them feel seen. Their saying that made me feel seen too.”

“Old School Indian” author Aaron John Curtis reported a similar experience. “When my agent shopped my novel around, the first thing I heard from other publishers was changes they wanted to make. The first thing I heard from Hillman Grad was where my book hit home with them as readers. They really understood the work.”

Jay Leslie, author of “What I Must Tell the World,” said, “When I was growing up, finding books celebrating Black women was daunting. Finding books addressing LGBTQIA+ identities was unthinkable. Zando is making sure children always have books that represent them.”

Last night, launching its first book, Cho’s “Ocean’s Godori,” Hillman Grad once again demonstrated its marketing agility and its commitment to community-building. Dozens of mostly young Asian Americans packed the buzzy, Korean American-owned streetwear shop the Hundreds in L.A.’s trendy Fairfax District, listening intently as Waithe and Cho movingly shared the real-life meaning of collaborating across products and ethnicities, and amplifying underrepresented voices. “Growing up Korean American,” said Cho, who wore a traditional Korean dress, “I was hungry to see myself in the sci-fi books I loved. Never did I dream I’d be publishing a Korean space opera myself.” Cho smiled at Waithe. “This feels like a dream. The best dream of my life.”

The use of celebrity imprints to build publishers’ brand recognition and sales became popular more than a decade ago. In 2011 Ecco named an imprint for Anthony Bourdain, who published 13 titles before his death. Simon & Schuster created Jeter Publishing for Yankees icon Derek Jeter; HarperCollins established Johnny Depp’s short-lived Infinitum Nihil; Random House opened Lenny for Lena Dunham; Henry Holt bestowed an imprint on Andy Cohen.

“Publishers want celebrity stardust and, let’s face it, most writers don’t have that,” Claiborne Smith, editor in chief of Kirkus Reviews, told Time in 2018, when Parker started her first SJP imprint — at the invitation of Stern, then at Random House.

The phenomenon is not without controversy. Publishing strategist Kathleen Schmidt emailed, “Celebrity imprints are tricky because the publisher is depending on someone else’s brand equity to carry out the publishing program.” Zando, Schmidt said, is “an interesting model. It was smart to bring Sarah Jessica Parker into the fold because her brand aligns with books. Carrie Bradshaw is a reader and a writer.”

Parker confirmed, “I’m a lifelong reader, constantly in search of stories that are new to me, full of universal heart and honesty. I had a glorious experience with Molly at Random House. So when she shared her vision for Zando, I was immediately on board. It’s such an honor and a wonderful responsibility to help shepherd fresh voices into the world.”

Legend, too, fits Schmidt’s profile. “He’s known as an intelligent artist. His brand lends itself well to publishing. And it’s always a good thing when a publisher makes a concentrated effort to acquire diverse books, as Get Lifted and Zando are doing.

“There was a sense of urgency after George Floyd’s murder to ‘fix things,’” Schmidt added, “but you still sit in meetings and hear people say that BIPOC books don’t sell well. Rather, there’s a lack of understanding of how to market books by BIPOC authors.”

Book critic, author and Times contributor Bethanne Patrick, who hosts the award-winning publishing podcast “Missing Pages,” said, “The people involved at Zando are industry-savvy, experienced and passionate about discovering new models of helping readers discover books. They seem to have superb taste married with superb connections.”

So far, so good. In its first four years, Zando Books has launched nine imprints and published 40 books. Seven became bestsellers. Most are written by members of historically muted demographics: people of color, immigrants, queer folk, literary experimenters. “Our 2025 slate is robust,” said Chloe Texier-Rose, Zando’s director of publicity. “Our editors are actively acquiring additional titles across all imprints, and Zando has around 50 titles in the pipeline for 2025/2026.”

Sweet July Books, whose mission is to “uplift diverse stories and help women navigate modern relationships and families,” is the brainchild of actor, cookbook author and entrepreneur Curry. She and her husband, NBA star Stephen Curry, also run the Eat. Learn. Play. Foundation in Oakland, aimed at ending childhood hunger and increasing access to quality education.

Sweet July’s first title, forthcoming in January, will be Roselle Lim’s Chinese folk tale “Celestial Banquet.” “Representation in media is very important to me,” Curry said. “I want to create a world where my kids turn on the television or open a magazine or book and see people who look like them. We really clicked with Molly and her vision, disrupting the world of publishing.”

The trio that runs the “Get Lifted” imprint — Legend, Tony-winning producer Mike Jackson and Emmy winner Ty Stiklorius — had similar motivations for joining Zando. “Get Lifted has always been about celebrating love, artistry and connection,” they said. “About helping people see and empathize with each other and bringing the world closer together. So when Molly presented us with another avenue to uplift writers with a unique voice, we leapt at the chance.”

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