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Copyright © 2007 by Open Horizons and John Kremer
Last modified: 11/17/06

The Self-Publishing
Hall of Fame

John Johnson

 


At the age of 24 in 1942, John H. Johnson self-published Negro Digest, using a $500 loan secured by his mother's furniture. In 1945, he launched Ebony magazine with a press run of 25,000 copies. From this meager beginning, he built up a billion-dollar publishing and cosmetics empire. In 1982, he became the first African-American to be featured on Forbes magazine’s list of the 400 richest Americans.

At the time he began his publishing company, Johnson was working at black-owned Supreme Life Insurance Company. He used their mailing list to offer discount charter subscriptions.

To encourage a distributor to pick up Negro Digest, he asked co-workers to ask for the magazine at newsstands around Chicago. His friends bought most of the copies at these newsstands to convince the dealers that the magazine was in demand. In turn, Johnson bought the copies from his friends and resold the copies they had bought. He continued to use this tactic to open up the markets in New York, Detroit, and Philadelphia as well. Within a year, Negro Digest was selling 50,000 copies a month.

He created Ebony to counter the stereotyped portrayals of blacks in white-owned newspapers and magazines. His goal at the time was to “show not only the Negroes but also white people that Negroes got married, had beauty contests, gave parties, ran successful businesses, and did all the other normal things of life.”

As he later pointed out, “We try to seek out good things, even when everything seems bad. We look for breakthroughs; we look for people who have made it, who have succeeded against the odds, who have proven somehow that long shots do come in.”

He built his publishing business step-by-step. It took years for him to convince major companies to advertise in his black magazines. For example, he sent an ad salesman to Detroit every week for ten years before an auto manufacturer agreed to advertise in Ebony.

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