As Black Issues Book Review begins celebrating its fifth anniversary this year, its three cofounders are attributing the magazine's longevity to a dedicated staff, a good niche market and the ability to operate on a shoestring budget.
The consumer magazine—which covers black-interest books, authors, publishers and booksellers—has become a staple among African-American booksellers large and small who use BIBR for buying decisions and ideas for display and handselling. Associate publisher and co-founder Adrienne Ingrum said the relationship benefits both: "When we first started, I'd bounce ideas off of booksellers. For example, hearing from booksellers about the popularity of self-published books convinced us to include a self-publishing department." The magazine's Market Buzz section covers not just booksellers but also non-traditional bookselling avenues such as cruises, African-American expos, special conferences and romance groups.
Not Just for Black Booksellers
BIBR is not just a tool for black booksellers; other savvy booksellers are using it in clever ways too. At Book People in Austin, Tex., inventory manager Conor Reed noted that the magazine helps the store guide customers in buying decisions. "Customers get a narrow and homogenized view in a corporate bookstore," he explained. "But we are an independent, so we don't necessarily bow down to the New York Times bestseller list. If you want to support the idea of community, it's important to have everyone represented. We don't want anyone to feel excluded, so we try to carry a lot of different voices and a lot of sections."
The magazine is stocked for customers in the Joseph-Beth store in Cincinnati, Ohio, but when the store's shipping clerk showed a copy to bookseller Jennifer Turner-Collins, she said, "I glommed onto it right away." She now uses it to help make buying decisions for her social sciences section, which includes African-American studies. Her other tools for stocking that section, she said, are Publishers Weekly, Ingram's Advance magazine, the mosaic.com Web site, Oprah Winfrey's Web site and O magazine, and even the reader reviews on Amazon.com. But she values BIBR "because it goes in depth, unlike most of the other sources. Plus, it gives you a different perspective, on things that are really of interest to the African-American reader. It's much fuller in its descriptions, it has the photos, and you get a much better sense of the books."
The magazine gets advertising support from national retailers, African-American independent bookstores and online retailers. Of its bookselling advertisers, the magazine is especially pleased with its relationship with Borders Books and Music, BIBR's earliest advertising supporter. The chain even hosted the magazine's launch party at its Park Avenue store in New York City.
"When we started, we went to Borders and told them what we were doing and they placed an ad right away," Ingrum said. "Borders has respected and supported that black market from the beginning; they were by leaps and bounds the most supportive of the major retailers." The chain also hosts authors@Borders discussions and signings with BIBR authors and is partnering with BIBR in some of the fifth anniversary activities throughout 2004.
"As a bookseller, Borders deserves kudos for supporting us," said BIBR editorial director and co-founder Susan McHenry. She added that for the magazine's Market Buzz section, in which independent booksellers pay to be on the listing of recommended bookstores, BIBR is developing ad packages targeted to independent booksellers "that don't have the kind of advertising budget that Borders has—and booksellers are stepping forward to advertise with us because they want to support us."
"We are pleased knowing that in these tough times they choose to advertise with us," said Ingrum. "But we'd like to have the same support with publishers. It's a self-interest thing to be among our core advertisers."
Birth of an Idea
The third founding team member of BIBR along with Ingrum and McHenry is publisher and editor-in-chief William E. Cox, who is also publisher of the academic magazines Black Issues in Higher Education and Community College Week. Together, the three have more than 70 years of book, magazine and newspaper publishing experience. Ingrum is a 23-year veteran of the publishing and bookselling industry and former vice-president at Putnam, Crown and WaldenBooks. McHenry has held editorial positions at Black Enterprise, Essence and Ms. magazines. And, as Ingrum said, "We're still together, which in the magazine industry is a big deal."
After a year of running one book review per issue in Black Issues in Higher Education, Cox planned to run a small, one-time publishing insert in the magazine. But after looking at everything being published by and for black people, Cox decided to turn the insert into a magazine. "At the time, there was nothing out there except QBR, and I immediately approached [QBR publisher] Max Rodriguez and told him I wanted to start a magazine—I didn't want to blindside him. I wanted to provide our consumers with information."
The magazine has nearly 75,000 readers, with a demographic that Cox feels "pretty good about. These are people who make good salaries, spend money, and are computer literate: 97% black, 83% female. We have a highly educated readership: 27% have at least some college, 28% hold baccalaureate degrees, 23% masters degrees, 8% doctorates, and 9% associates'. And the audience is very mature: 32% are ages 30 to 39, 31% are ages 40 to 49."
BIBR is the only consumer magazine of the three published by Cox, Matthews & Associates and the fastest growing, said Cox. "In our five short years, it's become the industry bible for African-American titles."
Ingrum pointed out that although the core audience is book lovers, "We provide ISBNs and publisher information so that librarians, teachers and booksellers can find the books. Even consumers find that helpful. In 1999, when we had just started, we were named one of the 10 best new magazines of the year by the American Library Journal—and we were on the list with some pretty stellar publications. That let us know right away that librarians found us useful."
On a Shoestring
From the beginning, BIBR has operated in a budget-conscious manner. "Our offices are very modest quarters, and everyone's making a modest salary," Ingrum told PW. She chose to rent office space in the Empire State Building "because everyone who works with us does something else. It's very practical thinking: we all work Saturdays, Sundays and evenings, so I wanted a 24-hour building where we could get the services we needed, where publishers could messenger us books and our freelancers could drop stuff off. It was hard enough for us to be considered legitimate, and it would have been even harder if we were in some out-of-the-way place."
To boost awareness of the magazine and to create broader coverage, regional editors have been added in BIBR's key literary markets. They are essayist Kathryn Stanley and scholar Dr. Sheila S. Walker; academic and poet Quraysh Ali Lansana and journalist and publishing veteran Gwendolyn Osborne; and author Victoria Christopher Murray.
One of the things on the BIBR wish list is stronger publisher advertising support. After publishers get coverage of their titles, Ingrum said she gets calls saying " 'Thanks so much for the great coverage! Would you send me three copies?' But the fact is, we're a struggling magazine. I'd like them to say instead,' BIBR does such a good job that we're going to advertise!' "
McHenry said, "I'm hoping that industry people will advertise more instead of thinking 'any ink we can get for free is better than advertising.' Imagine the publication being gone! I think that for the health of the publishing industry, they should advertise more. A small advertising budget can contribute to the longevity of something that gives you free publicity. You want to be a part of the story of building the institution that gives you lots of free support. You can play the odds that we'll get support from everyone else. But better a participant than a surfer of the trend."