Shea Serrano is a staff writer for sports and pop culture site Grantland. He’s the author of Bun B’s Rap Coloring and Activity Book and The Rap Year Book: The Most Important Rap Song From Every Year Since 1979, Discussed, Debated and Deconstructed, which will be in bookstores this fall is now available for preorder (order it now so Shea can see that this interview was totes worth it).
Shea was nice enough to share some of the lessons he’s learned in releasing books and of course, working with rappers.
(Spoiler alert, he loves Drake more than I do)
Shea, how did your first book, “Bun B’s Rap Coloring and Activity Book” come about?
Well it started off as Tumblr where I would post coloring pages of rappers I’d drawn. The site went viral, got a bunch of press and a bunch of followers, then Abrams Books approached me and asked if we would be interested in turning the site into a book. Abrams does art books and they do them really well. I said yes because I’m not dumb.
What was the marketing like for the book’s release?
We used social media extensively. And whenever we sent the book to a reviewer or someone in the media, I would actually draw that person as a coloring page and add their drawing into the book. I wanted people to be excited about receiving it, and I can’t think of anything more exciting than to be turned into a coloring page, except for maybe money or a new motorcycle or a new hat or like about 100,000 other things. I don’t know. It seemed like a good idea at the time but now that I’m saying it out loud it sounds silly, haha. But I liked it. And it got a nice response. And then, back to the social media thing, we had Bun, and he has like a million followers on Twitter, so he was tweeting about it. I also asked some of the rappers who were in the book to share it on Twitter and Facebook as well, and so you had, like, Ludacris talking about it and Common talking about and so on. That was very cool and very helpful.
So with the Tumblr and Twitter we had a pretty wide reach. It definitely helps to have an audience.
Will the marketing change for the second book?
Philosophically, it shouldn’t change too much. I have these care packages that I’m going to include that I’m pretty excited about. I’m also hoping to do some little videos and different art things and stuff like that. We can grow off of the platform that we built for the first release.
The coloring book features a lot of really popular rappers. Was it difficult to get the rights to the their images and likeness?
(Laugh) Oh man, it was a total nightmare. It was a tedious process. It’s just not that easy to get a very famous rapper to sign a piece of paper. But it was mostly a fun experience. A lot of the guys were very cool and professional. What surprised me about the process was the bigger the artist was, the quicker we got through the paperwork. Drake is the biggest rapper in the world and when he decided that he was going to be in the book, it took like two days to get it done. For some others, it took longer. I didn’t mind. I mean, all of the people in the book did it for free just because so I was on their schedule, you know. For context, it took me, like, a week to draw all the pages in the book and it took me six months to get all the paper work.
Really, it was all about finding the decision maker as quick as possible. A lot of the delays were caused by talking to the wrong guy, so getting to the right person is the difference between six days and six months. I imagine that’s how it works with a lot of things, haha.
As I’m sure you know, driving and music go very well together. What do you listen to when you drive?
I’m an album guy. I can’t listen to one song on it’s own. I have to hear the whole thing. It doesn’t make sense to listen to a piece of music out of order. I’m saying, listening to only a couple songs from an album and then some others from a different one seems to me to be like reading a chapter from one book and then another from a different and so on. They don’t flow. So why would you do that for music? If it’s a good album, you can listen to it in order. If it’s not a good album, then why are you listening to it?
Besides writing for Grantland, you’re also an 8th Grade Science Teacher for ESL students. Did you ever think you would be both a writer and a teacher?
Well I always knew I wanted to be a teacher. When I finished college, my brother-in-law gave me a job at this construction company and I worked there for two years until I had my money situation straight. But I always knew I wanted to be a teacher and was going to become a teacher. I had a degree in psychology and then I took an accelerated course for my credential.
I knew I wanted to be a writer in 2007, though that came completely out necessity. At the time, my wife was pregnant with our twins. She was on bedrest so she couldn’t work so I had to supplement that income. I tried to get a second job as a waiter or a grocery store stocker or whatever but nobody would hire me because I already had a full-time job. Writing seemed like a flexible option, like something I could do from home, and so I was like, “I guess I’m a writer now.”
So I began reaching out to local papers, telling them that I was a new writer in town and that I could cover certain things for them. I got started that way and then I latched on with the Houston Press and then the LA newspaper and from there it turned into MTV, ESPN, Grantland, GQ, etc.
It’s easy to say that now, to sort of run through the history, but it was a process that took a fair amount of time. We’re talking about, say, four years before I really had any real idea about what I was doing.
Grantland is one of the most popular sites. It would be a dream position for many writers. What advice would you have for anyone looking to work at Grantland, or looking to work in the Grantland of their field?
Grantland is amazing. I can’t say enough nice things about the people who work there and run that place. It’s full of smart, talented, intimidating people. I got started there completely unintentionally –I was writing for the LA Weekly and a thing I wrote there caught the eye of someone who worked there and so they asked me if I had any interest in pitching them. It felt like if the Spurs called me up and asked me if I had any interest in playing point guard in a few games for them. So, really, I guess the advice I would for someone trying to work there, or work at the Grantland-version of their field, is to try and do dope things where you are and pray that someone is paying attention to what you’re doing.
You mentioned the process of figuring it out. A lot of millennials are going through that as we speak. What advice would you have for them or for new graduates.
Man, the struggle is the fun part. I’m not really sure if there is anything anyone can say to make the process easier. It’s going to be difficult to figure it out. That’s the whole point of it. The process, the struggle is the exciting part, the fun part. If you have an idea of what you want to do, great. That will help. And if you don’t have an idea, then whatever. You’re 22. I didn’t have it figured it out when I was 22. I didn’t have it figured out when I was 32. Just do stuff you think is interesting. Hopefully, others will too.
Also, work with people that are smarter than you. At Grantland I work with amazing writers and editors. I know that when I submit a piece and there are changes made to it, I know that it’s for the better. And I look and learn from the changes.
Also-also, when you begin working (this goes for writers too), say yes to everything. Even if you don’t know how to do something, say yes. Either you’ll figure it out and learn or you won’t and then you can say it’s not for you. It’s fine.
Thanks for your time Shea! Last question, if you had a hip-hop album coming out, what would you title it?
(Laughs) Wow, I’ve never had anyone ask me that before. Let me think… it’d probably be something super corny and terrible, like “Thug Passion” or something silly that. Thug Passion would jam so hard, bro.