Stuart Roberts joined Simon Schuster in 2014 as the assistant to Alice Mayhew, v-p and editorial director of the SS Publishing Group. Two years into his job, Roberts made his first acquisition, buying what would become The Autobiography of Gucci Mane, a memoir written in prison by a rapper from Atlanta who helped change the hip-hop landscape. Roberts bought the memoir at auction, from Robert Guinsler at Sterling Lord. The process, said Roberts, who was promoted to associate editor in October, was electrifying, especially for a Gucci Mane fan.
“I think his music is inherently autobiographical,” Roberts said. “I’ve closely followed the narrative of his story and the myth and legend around his life, which has grown and grown over the past few years.”
The rapper—born Radric Delantic Davis but boasting a robust list of nicknames that include Gucci Mane La Flare and the East Atlanta Santa—saw his reputation grow exponentially after he began a three-year stint in federal prison on gun charges in 2014 (he was released in May). In addition to his outsize influence on Atlantan and Southern hip-hop talents, Gucci was remarkably prolific during his years in federal prison, releasing well over a dozen mix tapes from behind bars. Roberts saw potential in his story and was able to convince his bosses at SS, who were far less familiar with Gucci’s work, that the book was worth acquiring.
“It came in house on submission and I had, for a long time, been trying to find a book by someone into rap,” Roberts said. “Instinctively, it’s not the kind of book that Simon Schuster does a great deal of. There haven’t been that many rap books which have crossed demographics in the way that they were published.”
Roberts said that the book was more than the typical celebrity tell-all: “The book wanted to be something really smart and sophisticated. I knew it was a must-must-have—but it was one of the first times that I had pushed a submission that high up the hill in the process. I tried to use all the ammunition that I had in order to communicate why he mattered and why I thought it would be a good book for us to publish. I thought that I had a very specific vision for how to publish it correctly.”
That vision panned out, and it gave Roberts the opportunity to work hands-on with a musical hero—an experience he calls the “most rewarding and fun professional experience of my somewhat short career,” even as it was difficult. As an assistant, Roberts was still primarily tasked with working with Mayhew on her list, which meant much of his editing of Gucci and his coauthor, Neil Martinez-Belkin, occurred on nights and weekends. “That was a huge challenge, figuring out how to carve out time for this particular project,” he said.
Since he joined SS, Roberts has thrilled in working with big-name cultural tastemakers such as those—including Doris Kearns Goodwin and Walter Isaacson—on Mayhew’s list. (“Mayhew has been a perfect mentor, and has really taught me everything I know about every facet of the business,” he said.) Yet his beginnings were less commercial. The son of a former Kansas City Star reporter and a father with a fondness for Victorian poetry, Roberts grew up in the Great Plains literary haven of Lawrence, Kans., where “the ghost of [former resident] William Burroughs looms very large” still. He spent a year at Evergreen State College in Washington State before a “sabbatical, if you will, in New York, working in fashion and music.” Afterward, he returned to Lawrence and finished school at the University of Kansas before enrolling in the Columbia Publishing Course.
“I started with a pretty rarefied notion of book publishing as this sort of old-world, esteemed gentleman’s club—that myth that’s been fostered over the years,” Roberts said, adding that it’s been “a step-by-step process of learning.” That learning included stints at Ugly Duckling Presse, Gigantic magazine, and Oxford University Press—not to mention work at a scholarly journal and an e-book publisher of public-domain literature during his college years. But since, his tastes have veered more toward the works of big, polished nonfiction that Mayhew is known for.
“Broadly speaking, I’m looking to publish tastemakers with a vision who are leaders in their field and in the culture at large—art, fashion, entertainment, tech,” Roberts said. “And younger, incisive writers who are thinking and writing about culture and have something different and original to add to that conversation.”
In Gucci, it seems, Roberts found both. And since the memoir was released on September 19, it has sold more than 54,000 copies, according to NPD BookScan. Of that, Roberts said: “It’s been a huge, huge thrill. It’s validating to see it come out and be a smash hit. It’s been so exciting to see it connect with fans.”
Title: Associate editor, Simon Schuster
Higher education: B.A. from the University of Kansas in English and classics; Columbia Publishing Course
Favorite books: Good-Bye to All That by Robert Graves; Miles: The Autobiography by Miles Davis; Honor Thy Father by Gay Talese