HOW TRESSA SMALLWOOD EXPANDED HER PUBLISHING EMPIRE WAY BEYOND BOOKS
You may recognize Tressa "Azarel" Smallwood as the award-winning publisher of Life Changing Books, home to New York Times bestselling memoir, "Game Over: My Love for Hip-Hop" by Winter Ramos, Essence bestselling novel "Secrets of a Housewife" by J. Tremble, or maybe you're in Tressa's VIP Club where she's guiding your entrepreneurial goals. But what you may not recognize is that Tressa Smallwood is more than those things - she's a former school teacher, an author, a mom, a business owner, AND a movie producer. She's had an incredible career so far, and from the looks of it she's just getting started. Tressa's dad says she thinks she's Superwoman, we say she's serving up major inspiration.
Here Tressa chats about her start in the publishing industry, working with family, her steps from book publishing to movie producing, and her newest projects.
Kweli Wright: How were pregnant and on bed rest while cranking out what ended up being a bestselling book?
Tressa Smallwood: I'm still trying to figure that out myself (laughs). That’s how it all started. It was never my intent to be a writer, it just happened. I’ve always been really really ambitious, so I knew I wanted to do something while on bed rest, I wasn’t going to sit and play with the TV remote. I had a family member who worked in a correctional institution and she came over and said, 'You should write a book about what goes on at my job, because you would not even believe what the correctional officers do behind the scenes.' I was intrigued and penned my first novel based on a lot of the things she told me. Of course, I wrote it as fiction so I changed the names. It was called “A Life To Remember” it was my first novella and I honestly never thought it would take me to the next level, turn into a multi-million dollar publishing company and I just never imagined that that would be my life.
KW: What were you doing before you were pregnant and on bed rest?
TS: I was a school teacher. I have a master's degree in education and at that time I was teaching 7th grade history. I love teaching, it’s my passion and no matter what else I do in life, I’ll always be teaching.
KW: What steps did you take to publish the book?
TS: I self-published and obviously because I was on bed rest, I had a lot of time to research, that’s really the key. People think self-publishing is easy, but you really do have to study your craft. I had a lot of time to study all aspects of self-publishing, so I think that was a huge part of my success. I also made sure that I had mentors in the industry, so that’s why I’m really big on mentoring others now.
KW: Most people think there's no money in book publishing. Can you share what you earned?
TS: When I first released my book, I made $40,000 in the first two months, so I didn’t even go back to work. That was it.
From there I started publishing books by other authors, and by 2005 Life Changing Books was making about $450,000 a year. As a school teacher with a master's degree, I was only making $42,000, so that was a serious income shift. Because I wasn’t teaching for the money, I still missed teaching students and I had to find a way to continue to teach. That’s why I started mentoring young girls. I even got a lot of my students from my school to write in a series called, “Teenage Bluez,” that I published in 2007.
KW: You have your publishing house with over 141 titles under your belt, and all these authors to manage. How did you build your team?
TS: I built my team slowly. I started with family, including my family member Leslie Allen who quit her job and started working with me full-time. By 2006, we were shipping 10,000 books a month from my garage! We would be waiting with snacks and water for the UPS guy who had to pack his truck with our books. It’s a family run company.
KW: When did you decide to create your film company, MegaMind Media?
TS: Up until 2012, it was all about building the book empire, and my main focus was signing new authors and the consulting aspect where I teach and mentor people how to publish their books. And as time moved forward, I thought about turning books to film. I was wondering why it took two years to bring films to life. So then I started learning about the pre-production process. I didn’t go into pre-production on my first film, Secrets, until 2014.
KW: It’s really a big commitment…
TS: I can’t even explain the feeling to you while you’re in pre-production-- right now I’m in the second week of filming my second movie called Born in the Game, and it’s based off of one of my books as well—the anxiety going into it. Right now, everything is great, we’re all having a good time. But prior to that was all day and night work trying to cast the film, getting the right producers, making sure the insurance is up to date, just everything. It’s a lot but I absolutely love it.
KW: Tell me more about transitioning to your film company, Megamind Media.
TS: I first thought about reaching the masses. Every book is not meant to be a film. I have published 146 titles to date, directly under Life Changing Books. I have two of my books that I’ve developed into TV shows which I’ll be pitching to Netflix. You have to take the emotions out of it because sometimes we can be really connected to a project, but not every book is meant to be a movie.
I already have my next 10 projects lined up and ready to go. We do primarily fiction, but we do do a few memoirs that are worthy. For example, we’ll be putting out a film based on a book we published called, “Left For Dead.”
KW: As the executive producer, you have to find the director, do the casting, so many things on your plate. How do you stay focused?
TS: You just really have to study leadership. Not only do I teach but I love to learn, so I’ve had lots of training on how to run the ship. You can’t build an empire if you don’t know what to do. I stay grounded and pray a whole lot, because you get hit with challenges all day every day.
KW: Tell me about Secrets – you’ve got great things happening for this film.
TS: Secrets is the adaptation of J. Tremble's book "Secrets of a Housewife." The movie won Feature Narrative Film at the American Black Film Festival (ABFF). It's a love story that deals with family issues, infidelity, and the secrets that we all have, so it’s relatable. I did a six city tour in 2016 before I started pitching it to networks and distributors and it was a huge success – we had a great turnout in every city and the feedback was amazing. So now I’ve licensed it to BET to a TV deal, so it will come on BET in late summer, and it’s going to Netflix after that, and it will be available on Amazon and iTunes and all of that good stuff, so we’re excited!
It’s prepared me for everything that we’re doing now on this second film. It’s easier because I know to expect 14 hour days. Also, we have Elise Neal, Lil Mama, Jim Jones, Rob Riley … so when you have an increased level of talent, the expectations change. But like I said, I was prepared for it.
KW: Movies are expensive, how did you work on funding yours?
TS: I’ve definitely used up some credit cards, but my entire movie company is family-funded, so I provide the majority of the funding but my brother, my husband, my father...everybody is an entrepreneur so it’s not like I’m going to someone with a 9-to-5 and asking them to give me their life savings. They recognize what it takes to do these kinds of things, but they also realize what it means for us later.
KW: What’s your favorite part of seeing books come to film?
TS: I like seeing the characters come to life. For example, Lil Mama was my pick for the role of Keema in Born in the Game. She’s doing such an amazing job, I cannot tell you how happy I am.
KW: How is balancing motherhood and work unique for you?
TS: I’m grateful because my kids have grown up seeing entrepreneurs. My daughter Bailey started her first business when she was 11. My daughter Iman is a writer. She wrote in the “Teenage Bluez” series, and she co-wrote the movie I’m filming now, so and she’s on-set every day. My husband is very active in the business as well, so it’s not like I have to balance spending time with them because we’re all together.
KW: Why did you develop a VIP Club?
TS: It’s the best way for people to connect with me. I’m on calls every week with my VIP members and they get to ask questions about writing books, making movies, and instead of answering 8000 emails and 4200 DM’s they hop on these calls with me and get all the answers … we talk about all types of entrepreneurship. Everything is recorded so VIP members can log in and listen at any time.
KW: I love all the things you’re doing, including a summer camp for young entrepreneurs in Maryland...
TS: It’s called Be The Boss Summer Camp. It starts the last week of June at Bishop McNamara High School. What’s most exciting right now is all these movies are coming out, and my VIP members get to take a journey with me in real-time and behind-the-scenes footage from the movie set. I'm grateful.
KW: I have a big belief in women designing the life they want and I think you're a perfect example of this.
TS: My belief in myself is really uncommon. Sometimes my dad says, 'You think you’re superwoman.' And I say, 'I really think I am,' because if I set my mind to do something, there is no stopping me. Even when it came time to produce my first film, everybody was saying, 'Don’t do a movie with a $500,000 budget, it’s your first time.' And I wasn’t doing a low-budget movie that’s filmed on an iPhone. I’m always a little more aggressive than I should be but it’s because I believe in myself so much.
Waiting for others to do something for you is a waste of time. That’s probably why I self-published, that’s probably why I’m an independent movie producer. And it has paid off for me, I am in control of my own destiny and I love it. I wouldn’t have it any other way.