Black books: the word on the street

Specialty vendors and book clubs tap into the changing tastes of African-American readers

This may be one of New York's last gorgeous summer weekends, but at Sister's Uptown Bookstore, the Saturday afternoon book club is only too happy to be firmly entrenched in the great indoors. They're deep into a discussion about "Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do" by black novelist Valerie Wilson Wesley, and at the same time, eagerly trying to explain to a visitor why book clubs and bookstores featuring African-American writers are so important.

"For years, I read the white authors," says Marilyn Torain. "I didn't have access to these books. When I heard about this, I just jumped at the chance to participate."

"Me, too," seconds Denise Greene. "I discover authors and books here I wouldn't have known about otherwise. I'm learning about aspects of black life."

These African-American women have watched with fascination as the relationship between the mainstream US publishing industry and black authors and readers has undergone a significant revision.

For decades, large publishing houses paid scant attention to the interests of African-American readers. Then "in 1992, everything just changed," says Emma Rodgers, co-owner of Black Images Book Bazaar in Dallas. That year, Terry MacMillan published "Waiting to Exhale,"

and for a time, she, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker were simultaneously top-selling authors.

"The market was always there" for books by and about blacks, says Ms. Rodgers. "But suddenly the mainstream publishers discovered it."

They have since been moving rapidly to mine it. Seven publishing imprints dedicated to books by black authors have been created or revived by major publishing houses in the past couple of years. Black novelists like E. Lynn Harris and Lalita Tademy currently enjoy red-hot reputations.

In addition, Oprah Winfrey and her book club continue to prove a powerful vehicle for catapulting black authors to new heights of success.

Yet, while many African-American readers love to walk into a Barnes & Noble superstore and see books by black authors prominently on display, few would argue that the emergence of a handful of popular authors means that their needs are truly being met by mainstream booksellers.

For decades, they say, they have learned to cope with being ignored by the book world, and in certain respects the situation remains much the same.

Because the tastes and interests of black readers have not been on the radar screens of most US publishers, black publishing has largely created a shadow industry of its own. Self-published black authors with strong followings have long been a common phenomenon, although their books are often available only through sidewalk vendors in large urban areas.

"This is a ridiculously under-served market," says Dexter Brathwaite of Brooklyn-based Culture Plus Books Distributor, which focuses on black-authored books.

Stores that carry significant numbers of such books remain rare outside of a few US cities. Mr. Brathwaite estimates the total market for books targeting black readers to exceed $20 million annually, but believes that, with better distribution channels, sales would dramatically - and rapidly - escalate.

There is little or no formal marketing for many popular black-authored books. Word-of-mouth references and book circles like the ones at Sister's Uptown tend to drive the market. "Everything is very, very personal and much less formal than you would think," Brathwaite says.

For decades, such a system has created strong demand for black history and heritage titles. Even without formal marketing of any kind, Rodgers says, "books like 'The Mis-education of the Negro' by Carter G. Woodson [published in 1933] and '[The] Destruction of Black Civilization' by Chancellor Williams [1971] have been in demand for years, and they always sell."

But at the moment, the interest in black fiction - including works by both widely promoted authors like Eric Jerome Dickey and lesser-known self-published authors - seems to be outstripping the demand for such classics.

Sekou - he uses only one name - has been operating a sidewalk bookstand in Harlem on 125th Street for years, and says he's actually unhappy about much of the new demand. Ten or twelve years ago, he says, he was delighted to be doing a brisk business in history books focused on "knowledge about the African self."

Although such titles remain popular, he says, he now also carries much of the new black fiction. Black women, he notes, are enthusiastic consumers of such books, but he himself finds them both overly sensationalized and lacking in any distinctive hint of black culture. "These books could have been written by any Caucasian author," he says. "They tell us nothing about ourselves."

The members of the Sister's Uptown book club tend to disagree. "I read my first black romance novel here," says Ms. Greene. "It had our history in it."

"I always loved Westerns," says Ms. Torain. But, she adds, when she discovered there were Western-themed novels featuring black characters, it took her pleasure in such books to a whole new level.

A quick glance through the shelves of Culture Plus's New York warehouse reveals a broad range of black-oriented material. There are biographies of Nelson Mandela, collections of the plays of August Wilson, tomes on Egyptian art, and Swahili counting books for children. Advice books include "How to Marry a Black Man: The Black Rules" and "How to Plan Your African-American Reunion."

And yet, black booksellers point out, there continues to be a need for new material in many categories, particularly when it comes to young black readers.

"Black parents used to have to buy books about white children and color in the faces," remembers Glenderlyn Johnson, who for 10 years operated Black Books Plus bookstore in New York and today organizes literary events. "There are more today, but publishers are still slow to respond."

Black adolescents remain a particularly underserved group, agree many booksellers. It is a need that seemed so dramatic to Alexus Rhone, a former human relations executive, that she left her job to write "Premature Pleasures," a novel with an 11-year-old urban heroine whose troubled young life is turned around by a Christian mentor.

Ms. Rhone deliberately chose to create Unshackled Publishing to bring out her own book. Although self-publishing was once largely a strategy black authors were forced into because few large publishers took interest in their work, Rhone says it actually offers some significant advantages.

"With mainstream publishing it can take up to two years to hit the shelves," she says. "By self-publishing I was able to write, publish, and market within a year."

Anyway, she says, mainstream publishers don't yet grasp the best way to market books to black readers. "The way our books are sold is by someone reading it in the hairdresser, and someone else seeing the cover. The big publishers wouldn't know how to find the readers I'm trying to reach."

In the case of Rhone's book, the word-of-mouth system seems to have been highly effective. The book recently hit the bestseller list for children at Houston-area Barnes & Noble bookstores - no small accomplishment for a self-published title.

It's successes like these that gladden the heart of a black bookseller, says Janifer Wilson, owner of Sister's Uptown Bookstore.

Ms. Wilson says she sees a wave of change rippling throughout the book industry today, and is thrilled to be able to stock self-published black titles and mainstream megaseller books by black writers side-by-side.

But one of her greatest joys, she says, has been to work with young black readers. She used to cringe when African-American children who asked for a book were handed books by white authors filled with pictures of white children.

"We've long been made to feel that we don't count," she says. "But now I can take the children right here to the shelves and tell them, 'Look at this. It's all stories about us.' "


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