At the age of 24 in 1942, John H. Johnson self-published
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.