They may not have the reach of a Publishers Group West or Ingram, but a number of African-American book distributors and wholesalers are filling the gap when it comes to making available hard-to-find works by black authors and/or of black interest. Academic books, children's books, fiction and poetry are all among the African-American-distributed titles.
The oldest, and largest, African-American distributor is 17-year-old Red Sea Press Distribution, which began in Lawrenceville, N.J., as an offshoot of Africa World Press, Inc. (AWP), founded in 1983, and the Red Sea Press, Inc. (RSP). Like AWP and RSP, which publish books on African, African-American, Caribbean, and Latin-American issues, Red Sea Distribution carries books by and about people of African descent and from third-world countries. It represents eight exclusive lines (including A&B Publishers, MIND Productions, Lushena, Karnak House and Writers and Readers) and more than 50 additional publishers.
"The way we work," explained AWP and RSP president and publisher Kassahun Checole, "is from the office. We do telemarketing, fax marketing and exhibitions." Red Sea also has an active Internet site (www.africanworld.com) that went up three years ago. Checole says it is doing very well, and so far, other e-tailers like Amazon have not cut into his business.
Despite gloomy forecasts for the book business overall, Checole is bullish about the future. "After a few years of lots of change with the decline of the economy and the decline in buying power of African-Americans, the African-American market is holding its own. The stores that have survived are strong and growing: Karibu Bookstore in Baltimore, Md., which has grown from one store to five stores; Eso Wan in Los Angeles, which is still strong; and the Shrine of Black Madonna, which has three stores around the country."
Looking ahead, Checole told PW, "We intend to move into the remainder market slowly. The remainder market has become integral to the African-American market. Everybody is trying to save a penny here and there." He would also like to make more African works available in the U.S. "There are an extensive number of African publishers that are not represented in this country," he noted.
A & B Distribution & Publishers Group in Brooklyn started just a few years later in 1986 and like Red Sea has both a distribution and publishing program. It publishes many neglected, out-of-print books: roughly 15 adult titles and five children's books a year. In recent months, one of the major challenges, or "opportunities" as production manager/editor Maxwell Taylor terms it, is that "a lot of the publishers are now going direct to the bookstore. They're able to cut out part of the discount they would give us. For the bookstores, the discount is less than the publishers give us, but more than we give. Basically the distributors are less and less someone to go to." To combat the problem, A & B now carries a greater variety of books, as well as sidelines like greeting cards, soaps and lotions and incense.
Taylor describes business as "okay, but only because we have been creative enough to reinvent ourselves." In addition to telemarketing to bookstores, A & B uses mail order for direct sales to individuals and special sales to groups, such as prisons. It is also in the midst of revamping its anbdonline.com Web site, which was originally set up to be strictly informational, and plans to begin selling online early next year.
Smaller distributors like Baltimore-based African World Book Distributors, begun in 1993, are also turning to the Internet to increase sales. African World is building a site that it hopes to have ready in the first part of 2003. The company caters specifically to black bookstores, which, according to owner Nataki Nati, "make up about 99½% of our customers. Our emphasis is on African-American titles, but all our books aren't by African Americans. We carry about 60 categories. Metaphysics and politics are strong interests." The company's adult and children's catalogues, 150 and 60 pages respectively, of hard-to-find titles are its biggest selling tools. Like other African-American book distributors large and small, it relies heavily on phone, fax and e-mail to get lesser-known, but important books into bookstores.