Clara Villarosa, a retired bookseller and former ABA board member, has been the force behind the African-American Program for Book Industry Professionals at BEA for 12 years, organizing, cajoling and doing whatever is necessary to keep the program vibrant and useful. This year the program offered a slight twist—Villarosa served as her own keynote speaker—while offering panels on social media and on the growth of comics and graphic novels.

It was no secret that this year’s program was affected by the economy, and a shortage of sponsors led to a couple of small cutbacks—Villarosa dropped the luncheon—but otherwise the Thursday, May 28, afternoon program drew between 100 and 200 attendees, attracting everyone from booksellers, authors and self-publishers to consumers, editors and publishing executives. Along with her daughter Alicia, Villarosa has written Down to Business, The First Ten Steps to Entrepreneurship for Women, a self-help book for women that will be published in the fall by Penguin/Avery.

Villarosa kicked off the program with the story behind her book—how she reorganized her life and found a new career in bookselling after she was fired from her job as a bank v-p in 1983. “Fired, retired and inspired” was the theme of her book, and she outlined how she went from being depressed (“what do I do now”) to launching a new career as bookseller. Villarosa founded Denver’s Hue-man Bookstore, “the largest African-American bookstore in the country”—or so she fibbed at the time to anyone who would listen—and later recreated the store in Harlem when she moved East.

But much like the rest of BEA, the program quickly focused on the role of social media—Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, blogs, video blogs and more—in promoting African-American authors and helping to drive book sales. “Using Social Networks to Promote and Sell Books” was moderated by YA author Debbie Rigaud (Perfect Shot) and featured a panel of authors who used and shaped the various social media to their own individual needs.

Rigaud has her own Web site, but was leery of Facebook and the release of personal information online (though the panel urged the use of privacy controls provided by the site). Felicia Pride, author of The Message: 100 Life Lessons from Hip Hop’s Greatest Songs (Running Press) and a PW contributor, runs, a blog focused on African American books and authors, and uses everything from MySpace to Facebook, “and now I’m addicted to Twitter.” Novelist Carleen Brice, author of Orange, Mint and Honey (OneWorld), certainly had the funniest social media presence and admitted that, unlike some authors, she mixed information on her personal life and professional career together on her various sites. She also hosts a very funny blog called White Readers Meet Black Authors, and a video of her welcoming a comical succession of “white readers” into the African-American section of her local bookstore has become a minor viral video hit.

The day ended with “African-Americans in Graphic Novels and Comics” featuring award-winning comics artist Kyle Baker, cartoonist/editor Carol Burrell, comics artist Shawn Martinbrough and Alex Simmons, writer and founder of Kids Comic-Con. The moderator, PW senior news editor Calvin Reid, initially probed panelists on whether their race had affected their entry into the comics industry. But ultimately the panel focused on the evolution and status of graphic novel publishing as reflected in the various careers of the panelists. Baker, a multiple Eisner and Harvey-award winner, talked about his recent works such as his comics biography, Nat Turner, and an upcoming biography of President Obama. Baker noted that in his previous projects, such as the Bible adaptation King David, he had looked for the areas of greatest conflict, but after reading Obama’s books he realized, “There's no conflict in his life at all—that’s what's appealing about this guy.”

Burrell, editorial director of Lerner Graphic Universe, a line of trade and educational comics published by Lerner Publishing, has been chosen to adapt Octavia Butler's acclaimed historical sci-fi novel Kindred. She noted that Lerner's line of comics for kids is gradually winning favor with librarians and teachers who realize, "Kids respond to this material; they're excited by the graphic element." For her Octavia Butler adaptation, Burrell, the author of the ongoing historical Web comic SPQR Blues, got the gig after auditioning with a new, more detailed style. And while the panel lost some of the audience as the day wound down, those left responded with good questions on comics, reading and the effect of digital technology and the Web on the future of comics.

Click here for more BookExpo America 2009 coverage from PW.