It's not the best of times in book publishing, but it is certainly not the worst of times for African-American book publishing. The enormous growth in the numbers of titles aimed at the African-American reading market continues unabated even in the face of an uncertain U.S. economy.
Commercial and romance fiction continues to rack up sales; an array of illustrated gift books on lifestyle, art and historical events are attracting consumers; and celebrity nonfiction titles—no surprise there—continue to work in the marketplace.
Publishers and booksellers alike tell PW that the word (up) on African-American book publishing is "diversity." Not ethnic diversity, but genre and subject diversity. Black books run the gamut from self-help to commercial fiction, literary nonfiction, art, cooking and just about everything in between. Not only is the number of books by black writers increasing steadily, says Retha Powers, executive editor at QPB, but also "the definition of what a black book might be is becoming broader." So much so that often there is no obvious distinction between the so-called black books on the list and other titles.
Take a look at the inaugural list for Bill Shinker's Gotham Books imprint at Penguin Putnam. Two of seven titles on the list are by African-Americans. Grammy-winning singer (and bestselling inspirational author) Patti LaBelle is back with Patti LaBelle's Lite Cuisine (Apr.). John McWhorter's Authentically Black: Essays for the Black Silent Majority (Jan.) is also due out under the Gotham label.
Even the Free Press, not necessarily known for fiction, is featuring two prominent black novelists to its list. The popular Benilde Little's new novel, Acting Out, the story of a woman who thought she had it all, will be published with much fanfare in January. And bestselling author Jenoyne Adams, author of Resurrecting Mingus, will publish Selah's Bed, the story of a woman who must choose between being herself and being a wife and mother, due out in February.
Nevertheless these are uncertain economic times for all consumers. Target Market News, a firm that studies black consumer spending, reports that African-American income has risen from $543 billion in 2000 to $601 billion in 2001. However, the number of dollars spent on books declined from a high of $356 million in 2000 to $295 million in 2001.
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A shaky economy can mean flat book sales even in a booming category. And St. Martin's editor Monique Patterson cites another problem that publishers of commercial fiction face: getting white readers to realize that the difference between what they're used to and African-American romance is only skin deep. "Black women will read white romance, but we don't find that white women are picking up black romances," says Patterson. "I think its perception. We have to work to change the perception, which I think is possible because the romance community is a very supportive group."
Some areas of the country are especially hard hit by the economic downturn. In Dallas, lay-offs at American Airlines and other large corporations have made sales "very challenging" for Emma Rodgers, co-owner of Black Images Book Bazaar. "It's a struggle to keep our store open," says James Fugate, owner of Eso Wan Bookstore in Los Angeles. "I don't think African-American consumers are buying as much." Even Troy Johnson, founder of the popular four-year-old African-American Literature Book Club (www.aalbc.com), an on-line discussion site and book retailer, cannot afford to quit his full-time day job any time soon. Although his site is an affiliate of both Amazon and Barnes & Noble, old-fashioned sweat equity and advertising revenue keeps it afloat, not book sales. "If I started out doing this only for money, it would be long gone," says Johnson.
Fact or Fiction
Despite flat sales, some things remain the same in the African-American book market. "Fiction still sells better than nonfiction," notes Rodgers, who rattles off a list of fall favorites by well-known authors including Connie Briscoe's P.G. County (Doubleday, Sept.), the tale of five women living outside Washington D.C. in Prince George's, the country's only majority-black suburban county; and E. Lynn Harris's A Love of My Own (Doubleday, Aug.), the story of a hip magazine editor in search of love. Rodgers also cites several new writers whose books are being introduced in trade paperback this season. Among them are Gabriella Pina's novel Bliss (Strivers Row, Sept.), the story of a female violinist for whom ignorance was just that, and Linda Hudson-Smith's Ladies in Waiting (BET, Aug.) a novel touted as a comfort to those with loved ones in jail.
Commercial fiction rules at Black Expressions, Bookspan's three-year-old specialty book club for African-Americans. "We've tried throwing a lot of things on the wall and commercial fiction keeps sticking," says editor Carol M. Mackey. She describes Black Expressions as "a girlfriend-to-girlfriend kind of club. My target is black women, median age 40. They're really go-getter kinds of women who live in major metropolitan cities."
This month's main selections include Valerie Wilson Wesley's Always True to You in My Fashion (Morrow, Nov.), the chronicle of a man who can't decide among three lady friends, and Sheila Copeland's Princess Sister (Sepia, Oct.), the story of a black American princess abroad, who is forced to return to Louisiana when her family falls on hard times.
Despite the overall economy, "business is definitely booming," at BET Books, says v-p and publisher Linda Gill. The house is publishing 79 titles in 2003, says Gill, "an increase of 18%, along with sizable increases in print runs." BET got an assist in sales with the addition of two lines last year—the Sepia program publishes commercial fiction, and New Spirit offers inspirational fiction—that complement its Arabesque line of African-American romance. In 2002, BET wound up with its first three books on the Essence bestseller list and four of its Sepia titles were selected for the Black Expressions Book Club. Next spring, Arabesque will publish its first hardcover, To Mom with Love (Apr.), and Father's Day, Man of the House (May), both $9.95 gift books.
The boom in African-American romance titles has created a chaotic marketplace and "a lot of authors that don't have agents—even authors with a few books under their belt," says Patterson. But while the lack of an agent isn't necessarily an impediment, they can be important in nurturing a career. Take Leslie Esdaile, author of Through the Storm (Arabesque, Dec.) and Soul Food #1 (Pocket, Oct.), for instance. Her agent, former Amistad editor Manie Barron, now an agent at the William Morris Agency, told PW, "Leslie's been writing romances for years," Barron told PW, "I thought she could go to the next step. I think paranormal is the next hot area. So Leslie and I have put together a hip-hop Vampire series, The Dark Legends." St. Martin's has already picked up the first three books, which it will publish under the L. A. Banks pseudonym. The first "Banks" book, Mignon, is due out in trade paperback in June 2003.
Illustrated Books and More
If there are any surprises this season, it's the number of African-American art and illustrated books available in prices ranging up from $35. Although the illustrated gift book category has stalled at many general bookstores, African-American retailers have found just the opposite. "We do very well with art books," says Eso Won's Fugate, singling out Freedom: A Photographic History of the African American Struggle (Phaidon, Oct.). Priced at $60, Fugate expects it to be "a huge book. It's priced to be a tremendous seller." Written by the husband-and-wife team of Leith Mullings and Columbia University scholar Manning Marable, this oversize book tracks black American life from 1840s to the present through more than 600 photographs. The book will have an initial printing of more than 50,000 copies.
Fugate has high expectations for Carol Beckwith and Angela Fischer's African Ceremonies: The Concise Edition (Abrams, Oct.), a one-volume edition of the successful two-volume set that in 2000 helped establish a market for African-American art books. The slimmed-down version includes an audio CD of tribal music not previously available, and Abrams is sending the authors on a 10-city tour.
At the newly opened Hue-Man bookstore in Harlem, "illustrated books are doing surprising well early on and we're hoping that they will continue on through the holidays," says store co-owner Clara Villarosa.
She singles out Harlem Style: Designing for the New Urban Aesthetic (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, Oct.) by Roderick N. Shade and Jorge S. Arango ("flying off the shelf") and anticipates strong sales for Black Panthers (Greybull Press, Oct.) by Pirle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch, a collection of photographs of the Black Panthers from the 1960s. And she raves about Separate, but Equal: The Mississippi Photographs of Henry Clay Anderson (Public Affairs, Nov.). "People are looking in some ways for comfort and for attachment to our history," says Villarosa.
Crown editor Chris Jackson snapped up a book by Aaron McGruder (the "black Garry Trudeau," says Jackson), creator of the popular and often controversial newspaper comic strip Boondocks, which is syndicated in 250 newspapers. Next fall Jackson will publish The Boondocks Treasury Collection, as part of a four-book deal with McGruder. Jackson isn't neglecting conventional fiction. He's also publishing The Ecstatic, a first novel by Victor Lavalle, author of the short story collection, Slapboxing with Jesus; and More Like Wrestling (Crown, Jan.), a hip-hop—influenced first novel by former Vibe magazine editor-in-chief Danyel Smith.
Celebrity-driven nonfiction continues to find an audience. Popular nonfiction author and NPR host Tavis Smiley has edited Keeping the Faith: Stories of Love, Courage, Healing and Hope from Black America (Doubleday, Oct.), a book offering 100 essays by such notable writers and personalities as Princeton scholar Cornel West, inspirational author Iyanla Vanzant, actor Danny Glover and Smiley himself.
The ubiquitous Johnnie Cochran will publish his memoir, A Lawyer's Life (St. Martin's/Dunne, Oct.); and Reverend Al Sharpton's manifesto, Al on America (Kensington, Oct.), was released with an initial run of 50,000 copies.
But Jackson, for one, would like to move nonfiction into new areas. "I'm looking for people that bring the same energy to nonfiction as fiction," he says pointing to Ghetto Celebrity (Crown, June) by Donnell Alexander, a writer for the hip-hop standard The Source, a memoir combining prose with a chapter told entirely through comic strips.
Marketing and Promotion
Deborah Cowell, who previously acquired books for Doubleday, Broadway and Harlem Moon (Cowell left Random House just before publication of this report), tells PW that "people make a mistake thinking African-American people are looking for one genre." Cowell is very interested in comics and graphic novels and published Lance Tooks's Narcissa (Doubleday, Sept.), an unusual novel about a young black filmmaker that was named as one of PW's best books of the year.
But the challenge in today's economy is to get the word out about a book. Rather than print ads, Cowell prefers online marketing to reach the 18 to 30 age group. "A lot more African-Americans are wired," she says, noting a number of popular sites, such as Africana.com, Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s venture into black e-commerce. She also points to other "guerrilla marketing tactics," such as postcard mailings to churches and hair salons, as well as stickers for college students. "With a lot of African-American books, the way to go is to market them like CDs," says Cowell. Many houses reach out to potential readers through reading group guides, and radio campaigns.
"The one mistake any publisher can make is to try to market all African-American books one way. These are varied readers with varying interests," says Malaika Adero, senior editor at Atria and Simon & Schuster, who returns to S&S after five years as an editorial freelancer. "We have a very diverse list," says Adero, "It's more reflective of the culture as I know it. We have the Dalai Lama and the Pope on one end of the scale and on the other end we have Zane." Zane is the extraordinarily successful self-publisher of black erotica, originally brought to S&S by former editor, now literary agent, Tracey Sherrod.
At Atria, Adero will be shepherding the publication of Zane's latest sexy novel, Getting' Buck Wild (Atria, Nov.), as well as such nonfiction titles as Gunshots in my Cook-up: Bits and Bites from a Hip-Hop Caribbean Life (Atria, Oct.) by Selwyn Seyfu Hinds, former editor-n-chief of the Source; and Fire in My Soul: Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (Atria, Jan.) by Joan Lester Steinau.
Adero believes "there's no need to put an ethnic banner on all books." And she anticipates that Jewell Parker Rhodes's novel Douglass's Women (Atria, Oct.), a fictional treatment of black abolitionist Frederick Douglass's black wife and his white mistress, will appeal to anyone who enjoys historical fiction. So far, sales bear this out; the book sold out most of its first printing of 24,000 copies in a few weeks.
Where the Imprints Are
Adero says, "African-American programs have expanded. Publishers understand that we can make rain."
That's especially good news for imprints specializing in black-oriented titles. Over at HarperCollins, Amistad Press, the oldest mainstream black publishing imprint, continues to flourish, now under the editorial leadership of Dawn Davis, who was named editorial director late last year. "Our goal is to keep the list small and boutiquey," says Davis, who plans to publish about 12 hardcovers and six to eight paperbacks a year. "We would like to do serious nonfiction, with literary fiction and commercial fiction to balance the mix and some illustrated books."
Amistad is good example of editorial diversity. Forthcoming titles include comic nonfiction like Three Black Chicks Review Flicks: A Video Guide with Flava! (Oct.) by The Diva, Bams and Cass, based on the popular Web site; Should America Pay? Slavery and the Raging Debate on Reparations (Feb.) by Raymond Winbush collects essays by Congressman John Conyers, John McWhorter and Shelby Steele on a controversial topic.
Striver's Row, Villard's African-American imprint, released its first books early this year, says the imprint's editor Melody Guy. And although change is under way at the imprint, Guy says, "Things are going well."
Initially Strivers Row published both fiction and nonfiction, but now will focus solely on fiction, while African-American nonfiction is published under the Villard imprint. Last summer, Strivers Row released its first hardcover titles and began to expand its list from about three books a year to about 12. "We've found the brand is strong enough to have hardcover," notes Guy. "We try to make publishing a more interactive process," she said. "We have conversations with the author and offer reading group guides in our books. And all our authors have Web sites or e-mail addresses."
Nichelle Tramble is an example of an author who started out in paperback on Strivers Row's debut list for her "hip-hop noir novel," The Dying Ground. Guy, who compares Redfield's books to Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins series, plans to move Tramble to hardcover for her second novel, The Lost Way Back, due out next summer. To date Gloria Mallette's Shades of Jade is Strivers Row's top seller, with more than 48,000 copies in print since its release in June '01. But Parry A. Brown's Sittin' in the Front Pew (April), the story of four sisters fighting over their father's funeral arrangements, may soon surpass it. "It's a #1 Essence bestseller," says Guy, "we have more than 41,000 copies in print, and it's in its sixth printing." She also anticipates a strong showing for C. Kelly Robinson's relationship novel No More Mr. Nice Guy (Oct.).
Harlem Moon titles will reach the stores this fall for the first time, but the imprint's director Janet Hill, v-p, executive editor of Doubleday, is encouraged by the initial reaction to the HM list. She plans to be selective. "We don't want to put too many books out at the same time," says Hill. "We want to give each book a chance to grow." Hill plans to publish between 15 and 20 nonfiction and contemporary fiction titles a year, and to add classic reprints by the end of 2003.
And although fewer self-published authors have moved to mainstream houses this fall, Hill has two on her inaugural list. Nicole Bailey-Williams's debut novel, A Little Piece of Sky (Oct.)—Hill compares it to Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street—sold 7,000 copies initially in its self-published edition. Set in North Philadelphia, it describes a young woman's hard life, made harder after her mother is murdered.
Kensington's Dafina Books imprint has grown from just five books on its first list in fall 2000 to 32 books this year and a projected 40 in 2003. According to editorial director Karen Thomas, "it's a really large varied list. We're doing everything but poetry and science fiction." Like her colleagues, she's eager to serve the many African-American readers who don't read just one type of book. To make sure her list is timely, Thomas visits accounts in major cities regularly.
And next year Dafina is publishing A Mighty Love (Feb.), a first novel by Anita Doreen Diggs, former director of Ballantine's One World imprint, the story of a fire that splits a loving couple apart.
Despite worries over the economy, the boom in black titles that arguably began a decade ago with the publication of Terry McMillan's Waiting to Exhale is still going strong, says Carole Hall, editor-in-chief of African-American books at John Wiley. She points to "the rise of the book club and the rise of contemporary fiction. You have the continual launch of new imprints. Business goes on, and it's a business that connects to the reader." But it's more than just a business that drives Hall and her colleagues. It's a passion for bringing African-American books into the mainstream of American literature where they belong.