Meet the New York Subway’s Best-Selling Writer

One swipe of a metro card can change everything.

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Stephen Primus/@masterstuffin

On an ordinary Sunday, I took the A train from 14th Street to DUMBO, Brooklyn. The usual mishmash of New York City suspects lined the car when a tall, dashing man in excellent sneakers stepped onto the subway carrying a single paperback book. He launched into a promotional spiel, and unlike dozens of metro peddlers before him (It's showtime! Shoooooowtiiiime!), AirPods were removed from ears, a toddler leaned in wonder and the car fell silent.

"Alex is addicted to newness," he proclaims in a juicy timbre. "Everything around him always has to be new. He doesn't live anywhere for more than six months at a time. He doesn't believe in owning anything because when you own something, it also owns you. He lives off the kindness of women, and he lives well." He leaves his captive audience with the story's cliffhanger, (the main character, Alex, bets his new woman that she'll sleep with him in the first month), offers multiple payment types to acquire his novel (Square, Venmo, Chase QuickPay, PayPal or cash) and saunters on his way. 

As he stepped off the train, I was so perplexed. Why was such a well-dressed man taking his work to the streets? Why hasn't anyone discovered him yet? After a quick Google search, I realized I was decades too late. With 20,000 copies sold at $10 a pop, this subway pitch has made $200,000.

Heru, pronounced heh-roo, is an eye symbol that represents rebirth and resurrection and Ptah (pronounced pah-taah) is the architect of creation and creative energy. The man sitting before me, self-monikered as Heru Ptah, exemplifies these traits, wearing a tailored peacoat, cable-knit sweater and a beaming smile. He's uncharacteristically suave for someone who spends hours underground. Now 40 years old, he was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and his accent is faint but reminiscent of these roots: smooth as butter and smudged with a lilt. At the age of nine, he moved to Brooklyn, New York.

14 years ago, Heru Ptah got lucky. Much like our meeting, a chance encounter with a publishing director at MTV Books on the A train landed him a book deal. Covered by the New York Times, A Hip Hop Story, written and originally self-published by a 23-year-old Ptah, sold 10,000 copies on the trains of New York City before being scooped up by MTV's publishers for a second printing, garnering ample press and intrigue.

Ptah has been questioning the workings of love, relationships and religion for decades. Fresh out of college in 2000, Ptah wrote a book of poetry called Love, God and Revolutionself-published the work and started performing slam poetry. He'd venture into the city's early 2000s poetry scene, performing at open-mics. He even performed on Russell Simmons's Def Poetry Jam on HBO in 2005.

He also penned the book for the Broadway musical Hot Feet in 2006, conceived, directed and choreographed by Maurice Hines. Based on Hans Christian Andersen's The Red Shoes, it tells the story of a dancer whose life is transformed by a pair of red shoes. The show ran at the Lyric Theater on Broadway for about three months and met a short end.

Now, almost two decades later, Ptah's grassroots subway pitch has sold 20,000 copies of his new self-published book, Show Me a Beautiful Woman. He describes the novel as an honest, romantic comedy with teeth that men and women can equally dig. Teenagers, the elderly, singles and people in a 30-year marriage can all benefit from Ptah's frank dialogue about love. Because Ptah originally wrote the work as a screenplay and later adapted it to a novel, the book paints mini pictures, with short chapters encapsulating scenes. It is quick, snappy and culturally relevant. 

He'd rather not have to sell his books on the train, but he can "make money, pay the bills and get the work out there," he says. In a usual day, Ptah completes eight-hour shifts of subway pitching, beginning at 10 a.m. and finishing around 6 p.m. His most successful trade routes lie in Brooklyn, the most supportive borough, in his opinion. He works particular lines—the 2,3,4,5 and the A,C,E—for their strong, black community ties. “Brooklyn has culture,” Ptah adds.

"Selling was easier when I was younger," he admits. People seemingly had more pocket money and relied less on Venmo. "Most people aren't disrespectful, they're just indifferent." I ask Ptah if he'd appreciate a smile from strangers on the train, and he quickly retorts, "Not if you don't buy," with a laugh. "If I got mad at everyone who ignored me with headphones blasting, I couldn't do this business. This is a 'no' business. 90 to 95 percent of the interactions get a 'no.' Most are a passive 'no,' with people paying no mind. But it can be draining." His thick skin is backed by an immense drive to bring his craft to the world—and it's working.

According to Paddy Hirsch of NPR, Amazon's launch in 1995 caused a 40 percent decline of independent booksellers in the following five years "as people opted to shop online rather than visit a physical store." Even if Ptah placed his screenplay-turned-novel into a bookstore, he'd still have to invest time and energy into marketing the product enough that it wouldn't collect dust on shelves. Not to mention, the reseller would take half of his profits and pay on outlandish cycles. "At my independent level, bookstores aren't advantageous."

The sequel to Show Me a Beautiful Woman, called Show Me More was released this summer and Ptah says it’s doing well. He dreams of cinematizing his work. "I've stopped looking for saviors. It might not be about that one person," he considers. 

"It's kind of like mining for people, and sometimes you strike gold." The dedication line in Show Me a Beautiful Woman reads, "To... Perseverance" and that is one lesson we can get behind. 

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