The economy stinks. Book sales are down marginally. Media outlets (and their book review sections) are being shut down at an alarming rate. Oh, and the last time we checked, no one has uncovered the secret to creating an automatic bestseller. All these issues are as pertinent to the African-American book market as they are to the larger American book industry. But what does all of this mean specifically for the African-American book market now and in the future?
Among a variety of responses to this question, it means that editors are becoming very cautious about the books they acquire; it means consumers of African-American--oriented titles may rate pricing more important than whether they buy it at a black book store; and it also means that even the endless demand for more street lit may be slowing down and publishers need to find new categories to target for African-American readers. Publishers Weekly spoke to a variety of book publishing professionals--editors, publishers, marketers, booksellers, and an author or two--to find out how they are responding to the contemporary African American market for books.
Caution, Self-Help, New Possibilities
Economic woes have made publishers very cautious. “We have to be smart about our acquisitions,” says Ballantine/One World senior editor Melody Guy. Editors are looking more closely at an author's platform and fan base, and considering, as a house, what they can do for potential authors. “Writers who want to be published now have to be prepared with a game plan, resources, and a strong Rolodex,” says literary consultant Vanesse Lloyd-Sgambati.
Is this why 2009 has seen so many celebrity self-help titles? Dawn Davis, editorial director of HarperCollins/Amistad, had tremendous success with Steve Harvey's Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man (Jan. 2009), which stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for more than 30 weeks. This accomplishment was attributed to his universal message and position to reach different audiences through The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Good Morning America, and The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Linda Duggins, director of multicultural publicity at Hachette, agrees that celebrity power still translates into media attention. This year the house published books by Serena Williams, Sherri Shepherd, and musician Clarence Clemons, with plans to publish titles by Queen Latifah and Pam Grier in 2010. Duggins also acknowledges the continued success of brand authors, including New York Times bestselling-writer Kimberla Lawson Roby, who Hachette recently signed to a four-book deal.
And what about serious fiction? Jabari Asim, a former editor at the Washington Post Book World and the author of 10 books, believes that fewer titles of serious fiction are entering the marketplace. His current post is editor-in-chief of the Crisis, and he told PW that the publication doesn't receive as much serious literature to review as it has in the past.
Even the once golden street lit phenomenon may be drying up. Selena James, executive editor at Dafina, believes that readers are becoming more selective. “The [street lit] authors who are really finding their way into readers' hands,” she says, “are those who are known right now.”
All is not lost. “The success of the Obama presidential campaign has energized people and provided a number of authors with new angles to explore certain themes,” says Malaika Adero, vice president and senior editor at Atria Books. She also says that the Obama effect--the sense of inspiration and unlimited possibility that flowed out of his election to the presidency--has made the larger American population aware that there's a greater range of African-American narratives and titles available.
“Readers are out there, but they are hard to find,” says Davis of Amistad. Part of the challenge is the decline of traditional media outlets. “Independent black media is underdeveloped,” says Adero.
Nathan Henrion, national account manager for Baker Publishing Group, says his house began focusing on the category a few years ago, and he believes that the African-American market is much more fractured. “There's no centralized place to go after readers,” he says. “People are finding more localized sources to find out about books,” he adds. “Instead of the New York Times, they are going to someone's blog.”
One place where a diverse section of African-American readers tended to congregate was the black-owned bookstore. The decline of these venues has had a noticeable impact on the industry. “Readers of color express a great deal of frustration about being able to find books,” says Adero. “Their frustration reveals lots of interest, but how easy is it to find books for this audience?”
“The sense that I have to buy a book at a black bookstore isn't paramount anymore,” says Lloyd-Sgambati. “Readers are looking for value,” she adds. “It's sad, because African-American bookstores carry nonblockbuster titles, the self-published, and backlist titles long after others have moved on.”
Some black booksellers say they feel a lack of support from publishers. “We're not the first place considered when publishers decide where they'll send authors for tours,” says Bishop Nkenge Abi, manager of Shrine of the Black Madonna Cultural Center and Bookstore in Detroit, voicing a long-term complaint of some black retailers. “If you're going to tour African-American authors, your primary locations need to be African-American bookstores.”
Zane, bestselling author and the publisher of Strebor Books, says that mainstream bookstores and outlets such as Target don't promote books by African-American authors as much as they should. “New York Times bestselling African-American authors should have an end cap like James Patterson,” she says. “We don't get the level of respect that we deserve.” Zane stresses that she writes for everyone. “It's not necessary for every book to have all African-American characters,” she says of her writing. “There are issues that all women deal with that have nothing to do with race.”
But if you promote a black-oriented title to a general audience, will they come? At One World, Guy said she finds it difficult to get all audiences to recognize that the imprint publishes books for everyone, not just black consumers. “Our core audience may be African-American,” she says, “but anyone can pick up our books.”
Carol Burrell, editorial director of Lerner Graphic Universe, faced this challenge with the graphic novels that her house publishes for middle-grade readers. “Some expect graphic novels to look a certain way,” she says. “We have to be willing to represent [to the market] what's in the book,” even if that means putting a black face on the cover--a move that could cut the book off from a nonblack audience." But Burrell says, “I don't think that kids are so hung up about [race] as some catering to the market tend to think.”Connection and Community
“We don't just sell books,” says Bishop Abi. “We are part of the community. We offer lectures and events to fulfill our mission of connecting people with our history and culture.” She continues, “We have to ask, as African-American bookstores, how can we draw people into our midst, not just to spend their money but to be enriched?”
R. Lark Young, cofounder of the fairly new online African-American bookstore MahoganyBooks.com, says that one of the problems facing the new venture is the lack of a physical location where the local community can assemble. To tackle this, the bookseller established the Lit Lounge, an online forum for writers and readers to congregate, discuss literary news, and watch videos of literary events. The company also partners with organizations like the Hurston/Wright Foundation to host events in the Washington, D.C./Maryland-area community.
To BPG's Henrion, reaching audiences has been about building trust, especially among booksellers. He sent cover samples of Carol Mackey's Sistergirl Devotions (May 2010) to booksellers to garner their opinions and bring them into the production process.
The African-American reprint publisher Black Classic Press also benefits from asking customers about their opinions and needs. The press is planning an upcoming book on the black social workers' movement, a title developed after talking with professors at conferences and reaching out to heads of black studies departments.
Judson Press, the publishing arm of American Baptist Churches USA, also focuses on direct interaction with its community of churches to spread the word about its books. “We have strong relationships with the black church and we work extensively with leading pastors,” editor Rebecca Irwin-Diehl says. “Pastors continue to be opinion leaders. When people know you're respected by their pastors, they respect you.”
Knowing a book's audience is the gold standard. As a former editor of the Washington Post Book World, Jabari Asim learned that African-American women were serious and critical readers of the section. He writes, and subsequently promotes his work, with this in mind. “Naturally you want everyone to read your books, but a good starting point, for me, are the women who have supported me already.” Even so, Asim knows that his first foray into fiction, A Taste of Honey (Broadway Books, Mar.) will be more challenging to promote than his past nonfiction books. “Writers like me have to be more proactive to let people know about the work we're doing,” he says.
Atria Books v-p Adero advocates that publishers need to pay attention to consumer behavior in other cultural realms such as music, art, and magazines as a way to tap into shared interests. For Total Eclipse of the Heart (Atria, Dec.), her first novel in several years, Zane is doing just that. She teamed up with singer Kenny Lattimore, who recorded a song for the book, and they will appear together at signings and media outlets.An Eye to the Future
“We've made space in our stores for the category,” says Kathryn Popoff, former vice president of trade books for Borders, who said she expects the African-American market to continue to develop after seeing growth in readership and number of writers over the past few years. “We're always looking for new authors to introduce to new readers,” she adds.
Beacon Press hopes to do just that with the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Through its recently announced King Legacy partnership with the King estate, the nonprofit publishing house will publish several books by the civil rights leader, some of which were available in his lifetime, as well as creating new books from material in his archives. In January, the press is publishing Stride Toward Freedom and Where Do We Go from Here and is preparing for the fall 2010 release of All Labor Has Dignity, a compilation of more than 15 speeches by Dr. King about labor rights and economic justice.
James said she hopes to expand the variety of African-American fiction at Dafina by adding paranormal and horror. Monique Patterson, senior editor at St. Martin's Press, who edits paranormal author L.A. Banks, would like to see more urban fantasy by African-American authors, as well as thrillers and mysteries.
YA and children's books continue to be an important segment of African-American books. Exposure, however, continues to be a problem. “If you go into a bookstore, you'll be shocked at how few of our books are on shelves,” says Lloyd-Sgambati. This February will mark the 18th African-American Children's Book Fair that she founded in Philadelphia to help fill this void.
Dafina continues to develop its YA program. The house recently released Holidaze, book nine in the Drama High series by its most popular author, L. Divine. In August, Dafina will publish Two the Hard Way by Travis Hunter, its first YA book by a male writer. Zane is working on a YA line that's “entertaining, but also educational.” She plans to publish four to six books next fall.
“It's important to publish as widely as possible to reflect a true, diverse African-American experience,” says Guy. Davis agrees that the African-American market is ripe for opportunity. “Every year it's unpredictable” she says, “and that's what keeps it fresh.”
For a selected list of African American adult and children's titles released in 2009-2010, go to www.publishersweekly.com/african-americantitles.