Since Troy Johnson started the African American Literature Book Club (aalbc.com) in 1998, much has changed in African-American publishing and the way books are promoted and sold. Johnson launched aalbc.com, a popular online literary portal serving black interest books and authors, as an experiment. He was looking to learn how to make money online and set the goal for aalbc.com as one that would expose readers to good books and authors. Once it was launched, “People e-mailed me saying how much they liked the site and had no idea there were so many black books.” At the same time authors began asking Johnson to feature their books. The site was monetized by fees to feature titles and by various book sale models including direct sales to consumers and sales at book fairs.
For the upcoming anniversary, Johnson is planning a celebratory event; he’s publishing a free 15th anniversary commemorative magazine that will be in print by the spring. The magazine will include a time line of black publishing-industry history over the past two decades. Johnson’s partners on the magazine project include Paul Coates, Black Classic Press publisher, along with his POD printing company, BCP Digital Printing; Lynda Johnson (no relation) and Tracey Y. Smith, organizers of the national Go On Girl book club; and Sheila Prevost, of SL Prevost Design. Johnson expects to create an initial print run of 500, followed by print-on-demand; the issues will be distributed at such events as the Harlem Book Fair, the Baltimore Urban Book Festival, and the National Book Club Conference.
The biggest difference between 1998 and 2012, Johnson said, is that there are far more authors and books being published. “When I started, I could cover every author and every book. Today, it’s impossible,” he said, emphasizing, “the technology has improved so much it’s incomparable. It is infinitely easier to create and run a Web site now.” He added, “Today, I can go to an event, shoot some video, edit it down, and post it. I can drive video real time to the Web site.” The site is now integrated with social media (“I’m on every social media platform ever invented,” he said) and offers author profiles, book reviews, and discussion boards on black literature and culture.
On the other hand, Johnson said, “It is far more difficult to rise above the crowd of other stuff online. Competition for eyeballs is infinitely more difficult. It would be impossible to start [aalbc.com] now.”
To supplement the commissions on book sales, banner ads, direct ad sales to publishers, Google ad network, and advertising, aalbc.com continues to derive revenue from providing promotion and marketing services to authors. Recently, Johnson has also started offering editorial services to authors through the site’s Edit1st portal. “There are a lot of talented publishing professionals who are no longer working in-house and/or who are freelancing. So I’m trying to help our independent presses and authors take advantage of their talent.” Among them are former Random House editors Anita Diggs and Carol Taylor, plus Silver Tongue Press editor Lisa Binion.
Future plans for aalbc.com include “expanding on the types of services I provide to authors: book printing, publicity, media coaching, distribution, agenting, and editing—creating a virtual publisher of sorts.” Johnson is in talks with BCP Digital Printing to provide part of that suite of services. “I want aalbc.com to be a resource for both readers and authors.”