A Diverse Market for African-American Books Keeps Growing
Carol Taylor -- 12/13/99
New offerings from black male novelists, along with commercial fiction, SF, crime novels and lots of quality nonfiction mark the season

In the years since the commercial success of Waiting to Exhale, Terry McMillan's 1992 sister-girl novel of romantic anguish, black book publishing has swelled to proportions not seen since the late '60s and '70s; today, as we head into a new century, this trend is not abating. Now seen as a source of potential revenue with strong readership growth, black writers are signing contracts with increasingly larger advances and bonuses.

However, for many black publishers, booksellers and editors, these trends are somewhat irrelevant when placed in context. Black publishing professionals are more concerned that, as in past decades, the current boom in black-oriented publishing is cyclical. Indeed, they insist that key to maintaining the growth in African-American title output is the continuing effort to educate mainstream publishers about the diversity within racial and cultural groups. Black readers, like all readers, want recognizable and realistic images of themselves and their lives, not stereotypes endlessly replayed in the same venues, neighborhoods, relationships and careers.

Many of the black publishing professionals contacted by PW pointed out the need to not only expand the options for black book buyers but to also look for publishing niches not generally associated with black readers. To some extent, this is already happening: forthcoming books on the African-American experience present everything from p try and biographies to inspirational thoughts, memoirs, historical reference and remembrances, sociological pondering and, of course, novels, both literary and commercial, some in surprising formats. In fact, many retailers have discovered that books targeted to black Americans are of interest to all Americans.

Debra Williams, a Barnes & Noble spokesperson, tells PW, "The black publishing boom is a result of broad, multiethnic consumer demand for books by and about African-Americans. Some books may be of interest to African-American readers, and others will appeal to any book reader." Williams notes that such novelists as E. Lynn Harris, Toni Morrison, Walter Mosley and Tina McElroy Ansa "appeal to all readers." She points to the works of noted social activist Marion Wright Edelman, p t Maya Angelou and spiritualist Iyanla Vanzant, as "books that were featured for African-American women but have since become books for all women."

And the best is yet to come, according to veteran black literary agent Marie Brown: "Every day I read queries, proposals and manuscripts written by smart, talented, savvy and promotable people who I think should be published."

New Trends in Fiction
Manie Barron, editor and African-American marketing specialist at Random House, points to the success of women novelists writing about life and relationships and suggests that publishers should also be looking for male writers who can have the same kind of impact.

Anita Diggs, assistant editor and senior publicist at Warner Books, reports that she's seeing "less and less of the sister-girl book where the whole plot revolves around a couple of friends trying to get a man," adding that there are also a growing number of books that explore "domestic, community and corporate drama."

S&S editor Tracy Sherrod believes "we're coming out of the relationship fiction genre," but g s on to say that "the readers are [still] mostly black women between the ages of 25 and 45. They are the largest consumers of African-American books, and they're interested in a good story that will help them escape." She mentions her own author, Sister Souljah, and Souljah's recently published first novel, The Coldest Winter Ever (Pocket, Apr.), as an example of "a fast-paced novel with strong life lessons for young black women." Sherrod also points to books that use humor to reveal "America's racial and class hypocrisies. I think new trends in black commercial fiction will share stories of greater variety and depth."

Madeleine Morel of 2M Communications has been agenting black writers -- including Harriette Cole, Tony Brown and Linda Villarosa -- for almost 10 years. She believes that there has been an increase in the amount and types of well-written commercial fiction by African-American women, citing Diane McKinney-Whetstone, the author of Tumbling (Morrow, 1996), and her new novel, Blues Dancing (Morrow, Nov.), a love story set in Philadelphia under the looming shadow of heroin addiction.

Yet fiction by the brothers -- including many self-published authors -- also can, and d s, do well. Mainstream publishers are taking note of self-published authors, not only what they are publishing but how they promote their books. Scott Haskin's self-published novel, Sasha's Way, described as a crime/relationship/ thriller, has been popular with readers in the African American Literature Book Club (www.aalbc.com), a Web site devoted to discussions of black titles, according to "Thumper," the anonymous, popular and always opinionated moderator of the AALBC message boards. He also singles out Camika Spencer's When All Hell Breaks Loose, originally self-published, then picked up and reissued in September by Villard. "It's the crown of self-published books on AALBC this year," the moderator said in an e-mail to PW.

Barron points to what he calls the "brotherman" novels (i.e., smart and entertaining boys-in-and-out-of-the-'hood fiction), exemplified by the works of Omar Tyree, author of Sweet St. Louis (S&S, Oct.) and Single Mom (S&S, Oct.); Eric Jerome Dickey, author of Sister Sister (Dutton, 1996), Milk in My Coffee (Dutton, 1998) and this summer's Cheaters (Dutton, Jul.); and Van Whitfield, author of Beeperless Remote (Anchor, Jan. 1999) and Something's Wrong with Your Scale (Doubleday, Jan. 1999). These writers try to deal thoughtfully with the male side of relationship issues while doling out a healthy dose of sexy escapism. The three self-published novels of Michael Baisden have also registered impressive sales figures. His latest, Maintenance Man (Legacy, Oct.), a steamy bad-boy novel full of the stuff readers crave -- love, sex, betrayal and money -- has reportedly sold nearly 100,000 copies, placing the author alongside such established brotherman novelists as Dickey and Tyree. In fact, Baisden has been so successful at self-publishing that there are reports that he has declined offers to join a traditional publisher.

Barron d sn't feel that the trend toward brotherman fiction is a bad thing: "I don't see the novels by Eric Jerome Dickey, Omar Tyree, Michael Baisden or Van Whitfield as a rebuttal to black women's issue novels but as an evolution." Barron notes that these novelists are engaging in a sometimes thoughtful but mostly entertaining version of "Black Men Are from Mars and Black Women Are from Venus."

Dickey, in particular, is something of a publishing phenomenon. His first novel, Sister Sister, sold "well over 30,000" copies, according to Dutton publicity director Lisa Johnson, "and each [novel] has done better than the last." The classic brotherman novelist, Dickey mixes up-to“the-minute fashion and street slang, tangled relationships and a vivid cast of fully realized male and female characters from across the wide soci conomic spectrum of Afro-America. Johnson reports that this summer's Cheaters has sold more than 90,000 copies and is #1 on the Blackboard and Essence magazine bestseller lists. "His books continue to sell even after they go into paper," Johnson tells PW. And, much like Marie Brown's description of the perfect author, Dickey is promotable. "Best of all," Johnson adds,'' "he's a good guy. His readers love him."
Black Reprint Series from Coffee House
Minneapolis-based nonprofit literary publisher Coffee House Press has launched the Black Arts Movement series, which will reprint classic African-American titles beginning in March 2000.
Funded by a $173,000 grant from the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund this past January, the imprint will focus on key authors of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The grant will cover a three-year period and includes the development of a Web site related to the new series. The series will produce two books a year, starting with John A. Williams's acclaimed 1972 novel, Captain Blackman, the story of a wounded black G.I. whose mind drifts through the history of African-Americans in war. The second title will follow in the fall.
Coffee House Press has created an editorial review board that will select the books. The board includes novelist Alexs D. Pate; John Wright, associate professor at the University of Minnesota; and Sandrell Adele, associate professor at the University of Wisconsin. The books will be marketed to the trade and the academic and library markets.
Director Jim Cihlar tells PW, "Captain Blackman is the perfect title to start. It reminds us of the role of African-American soldiers." -Sam T. Weller
Literary fiction is always a dicey publishing venture. But even in this sometimes daunting category, the fall season presents some exciting new books. Walter Mosley brings back Socrates Fortlow, the thoughtful, rueful ex-con he introduced in Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned (Norton, 1997), in his new novel Walkin' the Dog (Oct.) from Little, Brown. Hailed by critics, The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead, published in hardcover by Anchor in 1998, is being released in trade paper in January. Whitehead's unusual first novel, a hypnotic postmodernist twist on both classic crime fiction and classic literary allegories on race, sold more than 20,000 copies and appeared on several regional bestseller lists. Anchor has a six-city tour planned for the trade paper release, and publicist Jen Marshall tells PW that the house will also promote it heavily in New York City, where the author lives.Playwright and Pushcart Prize winner Shay Youngblood's new novel, Black Girl in Paris, the story of a young black female writer who leaves the American South to investigate the Paris of James Baldwin and Josephine Baker, is due from Riverhead in February 2000. Youngblood's debut novel, Soul Kiss, was published in 1997 to glowing reviews. Riverhead will promote the novel with a national reading tour to eight cities.
When Cherise Grant, associate editor at S&S trade paper, read Bil Wright's debut novel, Sunday You Learn How to Box (Scribner, Feb. 2000), she was moved by "its depth, readability and emotion." The book's focus on such off-mainstream topics as single motherhood, class and sexuality, told from a 14-year-old narrator's perspective, might not have worked as well in hardcover, Grant explains. The book's agent, Winifred Golden, agreed that the trade paper format made sense for this author. "Agents and writers are realizing what the market is like for fiction," adds Grant. Rather than an 8000-copy hardcover printing, the book will be published with a 25,000-40,000 paperback run. E. Lynn Harris was so impressed with the book that he not only gave it a rave quote but will also host a party for Wright when he arrives in Chicago on his eight-city tour.

Mystery and crime fiction author Valerie Wilson Wesley made the leap into contemporary black women's fiction with her novel Ain't Nobody's Business if I Do (Avon, Oct.), the story of a disintegrating family. And look for more thrillers aimed at a black readership. Sterling Anthony's psychological thriller Cookie Cutter (Nov.), a chilling story of a race-obsessed serial killer, was recently released by Ballantine's One World imprint. Knopf published Everybody Smokes in Hell by John Ridley in September, another of Ridley's grimly funny tales of the agents, rock stars, screenwriters and two-bit criminals who populate Hollywood's less glamorous underside. In January, Putnam offers Gar Anthony Haywood's All the Lucky Ones Are Dead, a gritty crime thriller set in Los Angeles that follows the precarious fortunes of black private eye Aaron Gunner.

Barron would also like to see more horror titles for black readers: "Blacks have been reading Stephen King and Dean Koontz for years; imagine the excitement of finding a black writer who can publish successfully in that genre."

Joining distinguished African-American science fiction writers Octavia E. Butler and Samuel R. Delaney, Nalo Hopkinson brings a fresh multicultural voice to the genre with Midnight Robber (Warner/Aspect, Mar. 2000), set on a Caribbean-like colonized planet. Hopkinson's first novel, Brown Girl in the Ring (Warner/Aspect, 1998), was published after being chosen from among 1,000 entries in the Warner Aspect First Novel contest.

Wide Range of Nonfiction
Earl Cox, African-American books manager for John Wiley & Sons, is bullish on black nonfiction in general, citing not only Wiley's list of narrative and reference nonfiction but also forthcoming titles on business, finance and history. "More academic and scholarly works are starting to hit the mainstream in terms of publisher promotion and advertising," he remarks. Wiley has released two significant African-American reference works -- The Black New Yorkers: 400 Years of African American History (Oct.) and The New York Public Library African American Desk Reference (Sept.) -- both published in collaboration with the historic Schomburg Library in New York City. This spring, Wiley will also publish the third book in its Black Enterprise series, The Millionaires' Club: How to Start & Run Your Own Investment Club by Carolyn M. Brown (Feb. 2000).

This season also brings the release of two works by the prolific author and scholar Henry Louis "Skip" Gates Jr. Africana (co-edited by Kwame Anthony Appiah), the first scholarly encyclopedia to encompass the full scope of the African and the African-American experience, was published by Perseus Books in November. In September, Knopf published Wonders of the African World, a tie-in with PBS that documents a 10-month trip Gates made to the African continent. In addition, nonfiction author Herb Boyd, co-editor of Brotherman, the award-winning 1995 anthology on black men in America, has edited another anthology, Autobiography of a People, a collection of writings by historical figures that traces 300 years of African and African-American history, to be published by Doubleday in January.

Chris Jackson, nonfiction editor at John Wiley & Sons, cautions against publishing black "generic product" and points to "interesting publishing in the self-help area with books that incorporate specifically African and African-American ways of approaching mind/body/spirit issues." Ballantine's One World imprint may have just such a title in its forthcoming Sacred Woman: A Guide to Healing the Feminine Body, Mind, and Spirit by Queen Afua, a nationally known Afro-centric herbalist and natural health practitioner and the author of the 1993 black bookstore bestseller Heal Thyself.
A Question of Goals or Quotas
Five years ago, Ward Connerly, a black businessman and a University of California regent, almost singlehandedly forced the University of California -- the largest public university in the country -- to end racial preferences, or affirmative action goals, in admissions and hiring. As a result, some viewed Connerly as bringing Martin Luther King's dream of a society based on character rather than color a step closer to reality, while others labeled him an Uncle Tom and a traitor to his race.Connerly refuses to back down and continues to lead campaigns against affirmative action, or "race preferences," as he calls it. In his new book, Creating Equal: My Fight Against Race Preferences, to be published by Encounter Books in March, he™ll address what he describes as his commitment to racial justice.
Fascinated that Connerly, a black man, was campaigning against affirmative action, Peter Collier, publisher of Encounter Books, pursued him. "It's an intriguing human story that became an interesting political story." In fact, Collier told PW, Connerly would be "aghast" at being put into an "African-American books feature. It is the sectioning of African-American life that he's against."
While the book chronicles Connerly's efforts to fight racial preferences, it is also a memoir of growing up in poverty and his refusal to accept dependency and victimhood. The initial print run will be 50,000 copies and Connerly will make bookstore, library and university appearances in eight cities. -Diane Patrick
Publishers lists also show that there will be a significant number of titles focusing on Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement as well as serious nonfiction works on sports and on boxing in particular. Among the civil rights titles are I May Not Get There with You: The True Martin Luther King Jr. by Michael Eric Dyson (Free Press, Jan. 2000), a controversial challenge to embrace the full meaning of King's words and life, and Shared Dreams: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Jewish Community by Rabbi Marc Schneier (Jewish Lights, Nov.), on the historic collaboration between blacks and Jews in the struggle for civil rights. Prominent among the boxing titles are Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight: Cassius Clay v. The United States of America by Howard Bingham and Max Wallace (M. Evans, Feb. 2000), a look at the five-year battle over Ali's refusal to join the military. In January, two books are due out on boxer Hurricane Carter and his 20-year imprisonment for three murders he did not commit: Hurricane: The Miraculous Journey of Rubin Carter by James S. Hirsch (Houghton Mifflin) and Lazarus and the Hurricane: The Untold Story of the Freeing of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter by Sam Chaiton and Terry Swinton (St. Martin's).

Specialized Marketing and Promotion
Of course, publishers are always keenly aware of demographics: Who are the people buying our books, and what else do they like? Agent Brown tells PW, "Over my 30 years in book publishing, I've observed that there are many books published by black authors that have little or no appeal to the projected audience. Could that be due to the lack of real concrete information that the publishers have about our diverse community and potential readership?"

Could be. As if in answer to that question, Warner Book's Diggs has spearheaded an effort to study the book-buying habits of the African-American community; according to Target Market News, a Chicago-based firm specializing in African-American consumer research, spending by black Americans reached an all-time high of $320 million in 1998. The study will be conducted by TMN under the auspices of the Book Industry Study Group and funded by contributions from Time Warner, Scholastic, Black Entertainment Television, Essence magazine, Random House Inc., John Wiley & Sons and Simon & Schuster. According to Ken Smikle, president of Target Market News, black spending on books "has practically doubled in the past four years. Research on these consumers' buying habits will be vital to keeping this level of growth." The results of the study will be announced in April 2000.

Tanya McKinnon, of the Mary Evans Agency, was a foreign scout for three years before becoming an agent. "It's not enough for the editorial board to like a book," she explains, "marketing must like it." McKinnon just sold Diggs A Plentiful Harvest: Creating Balance and Harmony Through the 7 Living Virtues by Terrie Williams, a well-known black public relations and promotional guru and an author who knows something about marketing herself. McKinnon says the book is "about inspiration," adding that "black women don't have nearly enough books to choose from within this genre. There's room within the black market."

Publishers are also turning to readily recognizable and well-established African-American institutions for publishing and marketing relationships. Magazines such as Black Enterprise, Vibe and Essence have all contracted with publishers, including Wiley and Crown. Essence magazine even launched Essence Books, a separate book division, directed by former Harper & Row editor Patricia Mignon Hinds (who is also the editor of 21st Century Sister: The Essence Five Keys to Success, due out in April 2000).

Doubleday Direct has launched the Black Expressions book club to specifically reach black readers. The club covers both adult and YA, fiction and nonfiction, from publishers large and small. Monica Harris, founder and former editor of Arabesque, the African-American romance line now owned by Black Entertainment Television, is the editor-in-chief. Harris says the club "gives readers a central place to buy their favorite books as well as create a book club community. I'm able to introduce new authors alongside favorite bestsellers." Styled as a magazine, the club's catalogue includes author interviews, book excerpts and articles by those in the publishing industry, as well as reviews from the book club members. Harris reports an initial club membership of more than 30,000 and plans to launch the Black Expressions Web site (www.blackexpressions.com) in December.

Vanesse Lloyd-Sgambati, who runs The Literary, a public relations and publicity firm in Philadelphia, believes that the bottom line is marketing and promotion. She notes that while African-American authors have prime avenues of promoting their books (urban radio and newspaper and mainstream print, radio and television), "a wise publisher will have a backup plan. Along with primary cities, there are also secondary cities where there may be a strong and untapped audience for the book. The Carolinas, Portland, Seattle, Birmingham and Raleigh-Durham all have a readership hungry for black books."

Lloyd-Sgambati says that the African-American market "is looking for substance in fiction"; as for nonfiction, "we are going to see more books on finance, such as Investing in the Dream by Jesse B. Brown" (Hyperion, Jan. 2000). She also points to the traditional charisma of "media-genic" black preachers, who "already have a built-in audience base in their congregations."

Reading Groups
According to Emma Rodgers, owner of Black Images Book Bazaar in Dallas, it takes an African village to sell black books, and she stresses the power of the local reading group. Book clubs -- groups of devoted book lovers who regularly meet to read and discuss books -- and reading groups are an important venue for selling and promoting books. Of course she invokes the ultimate reading group, Oprah's Book Club: "You have to think in terms of ˜before Oprah' and ˜after Oprah.' A great majority of the clubs have evolved and been organized as a result of the Oprah reading group." The Intuitionist is one example of a popular reading group title at her store. Rodgers also notes that these gatherings are a great way to meet people who have similar interests. The groups also help to support the store. "We get the groups to cohost our author signings. They help develop the audience and assist with the author and with all aspects of the signing," Rodgers tells PW.

Last April, Glenderlyn Johnson's Black Books Plus closed its doors after 10 years of bookselling in New York City. Not out of the book game completely, Johnson has launched a new company, Black Books Plus Promotions, which will create and produce author events, organize panel discussions and offer consulting services to publishers and organizations. "I want black books in every household, black or white," she says. "In the same way blacks have been reading books written about the white experience, black books are also for anyone interested in the black experience."

Wiley's Cox notes that "it's important to remember that different African-American books work better in different channels but should be promoted, to some degree, in all channels." He points to such new Internet sites as the aforementioned African American Literature Book Club, WritersandP ts.com, DrumandSpear.com, Mosaicbooks.com and Blackfamilies.com. These sites allow publishers to reach the consumer directly through e-mail or online promotions and are among a burgeoning number of African-American Web sites that can help promote books that might not get a lot of marketing support otherwise.

The extraordinary range and the sheer numbers of titles make it clear that it is no longer necessary to convince publishers that the market for African-American titles exists. Whether it's nonfiction or fiction, a well-written, honest book about the black experience will find its readership. Books about the African-American experience must be given the same support and chance to succeed -- and sometimes to fail -- as their mainstream counterparts.

Much as he d s online, AALBC's Thumper gets to have the last word: "I feel the misconceived boundaries that the major publishing houses may have held concerning African-American book buyers are coming down. We aren't content with just the you-go-girl novels. African-American book buyers are beginning to connect with authors who want to explore our whole world, and not just a segment."

Taylor, a former book editor at Random House Inc., has worked with many of today's top black writers. One of the editors of Sacred Fire: The QBR 100 Essential Black Books (Wiley, 1999), she is editor of a forthcoming book from Plume.