News flash: a recent study by the Pew Research Center shows that African-American women represent the highest percentage of readers in the country. So why haven’t mainstream publishers leaped at the opportunity to sell books to this market? A panel of industry professionals that includes Regina Brooks, CEO of Serendipity Literary Agency; Ken Smikle, president, Target Market News; and Vanesse Lloyd-Sgambati, CEO of the Literary Media and Publishing Consultants, discuss this study and aim to show publishers marketing tips—how to find readers and what they buy—and overcome the lack of books that service this demographic. Troy Johnson, president, AALBC.com (African American Literature Book Club), moderates the panel, “In Search of a Book Buyer: African American Women Top the List.”
Lloyd-Sgambati organized this panel because, she says, “There is a hunger in the market for what is called ‘sister friendly’ books, which can be about black or white characters as long is they speak to the issues. African-American women are core book buyers, but there is still a void in the industry of books that cater to this group. Any other market would be looking for products to satisfy that hunger.”
Still unconvinced? Look at Johnson’s AALBC.com’s list of almost 800 African-American book clubs across the country, and it is by no means a complete list, he says. There is even an annual conference of African-American book clubs.
African-American women hit the books because it’s a way to spark a conversation, and to learn, validate, and share, says Lloyd-Sgambati: “You have to remember that not so long ago, it was punishable by death for an African-American to read, mainly because white society feared the spread of knowledge. Now many readers think, ‘I am doing this for my ancestors.’ My mother had eight children, but she ended every day by reading a book. It’s a large part of the African-American tapestry of their lives. It’s a myth perpetuated that they don’t read.”
It’s not just African-American women who are reading, says Johnson. The men are also hungry for something that speaks to their lives. “It is not clear to me that men are reading less, but they are reading differently,” he says. “Women are more likely to get together and talk about books and go to readings. Those types of things are more visible, but that doesn’t mean men aren’t reading and exploring as well.”
The main problem is not only the lack of books, but the lack of knowledge among mainstream publishers of how to reach the audience. “The key ingredient is knowing how to position books and market them. My mantra is that as much as we need diverse books, we need people to market diverse books,” says Brooks. You can’t buy and you can’t read what you can’t find. The panel will offer advice on finding readers.
Brooks believes it is important to have this conversation today. “There’s been so much emphasis in all forms of media that there is a dearth of opportunities for people of color. Look at the Academy Awards. A spotlight has been put on this topic, and we need to address it,” she says.
“The system has to change to give people opportunities,” says Lloyd-Sgambati. “I’ve heard black books are dead, and it’s not true. There’s a thriving market; it just has to be nurtured. I am carrying the banner and banging the drum.”
The panel takes place today, 12:30–1 p.m., on the Downtown Stage.
This article appeared in the May 12, 2016 edition of PW BEA Show Daily.