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on the African-American experience present everything from p try and biographies to inspirational thoughts, memoirs, historical reference and remembrances, sociological pondering and, of course, novels, both literary and commercial, some in surprising formats.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."
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.
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."
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.
Volume 245 Issue 50 12/13/1999