A confession: In an industry where cynicism rules, I still get psyched by the arrival of publishers' catalogues. As books editor of Essence magazine, I'm always searching for titles that will surprise, inform and inspire our eight million readers. But too often, after thumbing through the pages, I find myself wondering why, if there's such a boom in African-American publishing, it's still a challenge to find a range of new titles for my readership, largely made up of female baby boomers from the south and midwest who purchase more than $300 million in books annually.
It's not that there's a shortage of emerging and established African-American authors for me to recommend to our readers each season. In fact, there are more African-American authors published now than ever. But as Essence readers, who typically visit bookstores twice a week, have discovered, their choices usually come down to a handful of authors anointed by the literati, such as Derek Walcott, or an overcrowded shelf of "street life" novels by self-published writers like Terri Woods.
From the trade newsletter Target Market News, I know that the same women and men who make up Essence's market also drive the sales of African-American fiction. However, through their e-mails and letters, and from chats at the laundromat and in airport lounges, I'm hearing more and more of our readers say that they're finding few novels to sustain their interest. Clearly, publishers are missing the readers who fueled the early '90s African-American literary boom that propelled novels by Terry McMillan, Alice Walker and Toni Morrison onto bestseller lists and ushered in new, exciting authors like Diane McKinney-Whetstone.
What do these readers want? They're looking for fiction that reflects their passions, curiosities and lifestyle. For them it's about connecting with authors and their multifaceted characters, including flawed heroines in their 30s, 40s and 50s and, yes, desperate housewives. Where is the new generation of authors who model themselves on Bebe Moore Campbell, who's still going strong almost two decades after the publication of her first novel, with several bestsellers to her credit? Essence readers are looking to remain loyal to authors who consistently deliver compelling stories, but more often than not are leaving the bookstores empty-handed.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying publishers shouldn't focus on appealing to African-American Gen X'ers with books like street life fiction. So far, those fast-paced, profanity-laced cautionary tales about modern urban life—which vary from drug deals gone bad to tough girls seeking redemption—are pulling in a new audience. But it doesn't make sense to bypass one well-defined market out of a single-minded focus on another. If the industry continues to release a narrow selection of African-American fiction, Essence readers, like me, will just turn to backlist classics—which, by the way, are quite profitable.
While growing up in rural Laurinburg, N.C., I loved reading Tolstoy, Henry James and Edith Wharton. Loved Joan Didion and Philip Roth, too. But even though I found their work captivating, I also wanted to read stories that reflected my own experience. I can remember the exact moment when I read Toni Morrison and saw my working-class self: alive, breathing, talking and feeling. It's an unforgettable discovery to find oneself between a book's covers.
I'm so grateful to those editors in the '70s and '80s who recognized the originality of writers like Morrison, Maya Angelou and James Alan McPherson. And I tip my favorite sky-blue baseball cap to those publishers who realized then that what we're all looking for in a bookstore is choice and variety, no matter the category. I'm still an optimist. I believe that in spite of publishers' determination to ride the latest trend until its last gasp, some editors are still searching for fresh voices. The question is whether publishers are willing to take a chance and make a wise investment in a new generation of African-American authors. Edgy one-offs about urban street life are fine, but what do these writers do for an encore? Only by building authors whose work reflects the full complexity of African-Americans' lives will we create a generation of readers who'll leave bookstores with bags full of books and satisfied smiles.
Patrik Henry Bass is books editor at Essence and author, most recently, of Like A Mighty Stream: The March on Washington, August 28, 1963 (Running Press).