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In the past decade, the publishing industry has seen an impressive and steady growth in books aimed at the African-American reading market. From the growth of black book imprints at New York houses to the burgeoning movement of self-published "street lit" and an ever increasing number of small black publishers, there has never been a better time for books aimed at black readers—or readers of any background—interested in the lives and history of African-Americans.
Between 2001 and 2003 (the latest figures available from Target Market News), black consumers' spending rose from $295 million to $326 million. Black book—focused imprints are flourishing at Ballantine, Doubleday, HarperCollins, Hyperion and S&S. Harlequin now boasts three black imprints after acquiring BET Books this year. Even in a flat overall market and in a black market overloaded with self-published fiction, consumers are finding variety and publishers still cite continued growth in the category.
Steven Zacharius, president of Kensington Publishing, says the African-American category represents "11% of our revenues, and it's still growing. Our backlist has an 80% sell through." Zacharius says sales of Kensington's African-American titles are up 10% over last year and rose even more (33%) in 2004. Even taking note of the number of titles and the need for "retailers to market the books better," Zacharius says the biggest problem "is running out of talent."
"These days, every category has too many books," says Zacharius, "but if you make your books stand out and build your authors over time, you'll do well."
In this issue we take a look at five individuals we think are representative of this new era in black book publishing: Malaika Adero at S&S's Atria Books; Kassahun Checole of Africa World Press and Red Sea Press; Brother Yao of Karibu Books; Johnny Temple of Akashic Books; and Janet Hill of Doubleday/Harlem Moon Books.
These figures are not unique, by any means, but a look at their careers and accomplishments offer some measure of insight into the current state of African-American—oriented publishing and bookselling.
Malaika Adero: Black Books Plus
Atria Books senior editor Malaika Adero is out to find that elusive common ground between book publishing professionals and the big world of readers that they're all desperate to reach.
She's seen it all, working as both a writer and an editor for nearly 22 years; and she still has more waves to make in book publishing. A former college sales rep, she worked as an editorial assistant with New American Library, moved over to Simon & Schuster and by 1991 had written her own book (Up South: Stories, Studies and Letters of African American Migrations). She moved to Amistad—at that time still under the direction of founder Charles Harris—before it became part of HarperCollins, eventually leaving to freelance as both a writer and editor for about 10 years.
She returned to S&S in 2002, joining Atria and taking over the role of editing Zane, the house's popular African-American author/entrepreneur, the erotica writer first acquired by Adero's predecessor at S&S. But she really returned to S&S because it offered her a chance to publish books "that truly reflect American society and American contemporary readers." Adero says book publishing still needs more "progress in racial and gender and class attitudes in publishing." The industry, she says, has to learn more about "who our readers are, who buys books, who's interested in what, and how and where they wish to purchase books. There's a lot of room for growth outside of the boxes that we've designed for ourselves."
Breaking down cultural presumptions is a recurring theme for Adero. While the Atria imprint is chock full of black authors, the list is not an exclusively African-American line. "Atria aims to be truly reflective of American society," says Adero. "It represents the multiethnic nature of the U.S. and the breadth of the American market and the world market." Adero points out that her authors are Mexican, Indian, Irish and Puerto Rican; "this has always been my agenda."
Publishing works ranging from the steamy adults-only potboilers of Zane to the books of business-guru Kevin Lyles and even a forthcoming book of kids' quotes from actor Blair Underwood, she says that no market—and certainly not the African-American market—is monolithic in its taste. "I'm the point person on African-American books," she says, "but that's not all I do. I acquire for our Latino list. But all the Atria editors are like this."
"You have to appreciate the diversity within certain ethnic markets and not generalize and not fail to pay attention to the nuances." The African-American public, says Adero, is more diverse in its interests and tastes than the general media often understands. "We don't compartmentalize ethnic literature here at Atria," says Adero.
Adero authors also include photographer Gordon Parks, and novelists Tananarive Due and Guillermo Arriaga. But she's also publishing books on the American slave trade (by Ron Soodalter) and Jimi Hendrix (by David Henderson) and a book on weddings. "[Publishers] need to re-evaluate our approach, because we need to make reading as appealing and as attractive a leisure time option as film and music and dance."
Kassahun Checole's African Diaspora
In the quiet but forceful manner that reflects his personality, Kassahun Checole, founder and publisher of Africa World Press and Red Sea Press, has spent the last 20 years building a profitable international publishing and distribution company dedicated to serious, indeed scholarly, books about the African diaspora. "In 1983, I decided to start a publishing house almost like a mission more than anything else, started from the ground up, and here we are," says Checole.
Based in Lawrenceville, N.J., Africa World and Red Sea Press have about 21 employees, 14 in-house. The house is decidedly international, with offices in London, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Ghana and has grown to publish about 124 books a year. The distribution side represents the books of about 24 black issue—oriented publishers. AWP's varied list includes Kenyan novelist Ngugi Wa Thiong'o (Ngugi Speaks: Interviews with the Kenyan Writer) and The Sun by Night, a new novel by Ghanaian author Benjamin Kwakye. And there's Islamic scholar Ali Alamin Mazrui (Islam: Between Globalization and Counter-Terrorism) and a new volume of poetry from African-American poet and activist Ewuare Osayande (Blood Luxury).
Checole, a soft-spoken former professor of African studies and sociology at Rutgers University, started his publishing house to address a lack of thoughtful publishing aimed at the African-American market. "I realized that the African community did not have a very good publishing network. It does not have a publishing house that tells its story," says Checole about why he started Africa World.
Since AWP's inception and the creation of its sister house, Red Sea Press, in 1985, the house has managed to prosper by specializing in books with a "global perspective." Despite the emphasis on academic works, business is good. Checole acknowledges that his distribution business is "slowing," but the publishing side has grown 30% to 40%. "Our list has grown dramatically," he says, "even though we're a niche, academic house."
What's next at Africa World and Red Sea Press? Checole says to look for more fiction: "We're introducing 10 new novels, new African writers." Look for poetry as well, and the house will be relaunching its Web site (www.Africanworld.com) early next year. "And the number of books that we publish will definitely increase," he says.
But Checole's most proud of the notion that "scholarly works on African, African-American issues have value, that they are read by the community." That's a big difference, he says, from when he launched the press. "The old notion," says Checole, "was why publish such a book if there's no buyer for it? I think we have disproved that. In fact, there are readers, there are buyers, and they are both black and white, the old and the young."
"The black book market is going through changes," he says. "Fiction is big right now, although it's not necessarily literary fiction—it's street lit. But the country is beginning to examine itself. I've been doing this 23 years. The market goes up and down, but eventually people come back to literature and critical thinking."
Karibu Books: The Poetry in Business
Over the past 13 years, Karibu Books has grown from a book cart to a six-store chain of African-American—owned bookstores in the Washington, D.C., area, including a new store in Baltimore. Founded in 1992 by Brother Yao (aka Yao Hoke Glover III), who is also a published poet, along with his wife, Karla Wilkinson-Glover, and co-owner, Simba Sana, Karibu Books literally began out on street, with Brother Yao selling books from a cart around Prince Georges County in Maryland.
The store's mission is to "empower and educate people by providing complete access to books by and about African people 365 days a year," says Yao. And despite the usual struggles of small independent booksellers, he says, the chain continues to grow. A new marketing director, Lee McDonald, says Yao has lifted the chain's profile with an expanded slate of new events and book signings. "She has taken the company from 50 events or so per year to over 500," says Yao.
Karibu Books offers an unusual combination of grassroots word-of-mouth marketing aimed at the local black community with a solid business plan for growth. Yao says the store provides a unique "brand of customer service and corporate image. We are about the business of developing a large framework for a store without weakening our focus on the customers. We stand out in terms of the amount of titles we stock, the beauty of our stores, our customer greetings and our product knowledge."
The Karibu flagship store is located in the Mall in Prince Georges County, and the chain looks to continue to expand. Yao says their plans are "to grow the company into a regional/national chain," with 20 to 30 stores within the next three to five years. Having started out literally on street and close to their customers, Yao and Sana have an organic knowledge of black books and of their consumers, whose interests, while focused on black titles, are as diverse as the store's inventory. Karibu's current bestsellers range from Rick Warren's The Purpose-Driven Life to Amy Goodman's The Exception to the Rulers: Exposing Oily Politicians, War Profiteers, and the Media That Love Them.
It's a store that provides a lot more than just books, says Yao. There's a comfortable environment where customers can plop down and check out a new book as well as a place to meet and hear national authors like Zane and Maya Angelou. Local budding writers stop by to join free workshops held by the Black Writer's Guild, and Yao makes a point of highlighting street lit, urban fiction and self-published books—categories that continue to boom in the black community—shelving the ever-popular books right next to black classics.
Despite having to overcome the obstacles typical of independent bookstores, Yao says, Karibu is here to stay. "Hidden in the mammoth world of business is the poet," he says. "The voice and the human spirit documented through time in literature. African-Americans need access to books by and about themselves. Karibu's team is capable of creating this bookselling machine. In essence, it has already been created."
Johnny Temple's Brooklyn Noir
What's a white indie rock star doing promoting black book events in Fort Greene? Well, Johnny Temple, Akashic Books founder, publisher, and leader of the alt-rock band Girls Against Boys, happens to live there. His publishing company is based there and he makes it a point to publish books that the community—in this case an overwhelmingly black and literate neighborhood—wants to read.
"I think Akashic brings an emphasis on trying to revitalize the relationship between local communities and book publishers," says Temple. Not a surprising sentiment from a publisher who says his publishing philosophy is "reverse-gentrification of the publishing world." He's a noted musician—he started his company with money from his first big record deal—but book publishing is his other passion.
Since 1997 Temple's published not only new fiction from Cuba and the West Indies, but also an impressive list of serious nonfiction—from punk rock histories to countercultural politics and cultural criticism. The Brooklyn Noir anthology has sparked a series of popular crime and mystery anthologies set in San Francisco; Washington, D.C.; and other urban centers. He publishes veteran black crime writer Norman Kelly's Nina Halligan series, which follow the crime solving of a black female academic, as well as such acclaimed black novelists as Percival Everett and Jervey Tervalon.
Temple says mainstream book publishing needs "a shot in the arm. Fresh literature that no one else is publishing." A visit to a recent and lively reception in Brooklyn for his newest author, West Indian writer Marlon James and his debut novel John Crow's Devil, shows Temple at work, showing off his author at a popular community venue. A group of art and book lovers are gathered in Brooklyn's Corridor Gallery, owned by Danny Simmons (cofounder of the Def Poetry Jam and brother of both hip-hop magnate Russell Simmons and Run from Run-DMC). "I don't want to be just duplicating what another publishing company is doing," Temple says. "Our challenge is to remain invigorated and inspired. Because if this just becomes a machine and the books aren't so important, then why be in book publishing?"
Temple graduated from Wesleyan with a degree in African-American literature, worked the alt-music circuit with his band and eventually landed a record deal with Geffen Records. He used the money to start Akashic (the name is Sanskrit for "open, never-ending library"), a publishing outlet not only for books aimed at the African-American market, but a broader audience of young, multicultural, literate and politically minded readers Temple believes mainstream houses ignore.
"A lot of publishers are still just scrambling to try to sell their books to the same old book buyers," he says. "I want to bring in new readers, bring in new people, make reading fun and sexy. By being involved in community activities, you're broadening the base of readers for all publishers."
Janet Hill's Biography in Books
"People of all colors should be reading and appreciating African-American literature as part of the American canon," says Janet Hill, vice president and executive editor of Doubleday/Harlem Moon, discussing the academic and personal interests that drive her personal publishing philosophy. "Somebody told me once," she says, "an editor's list of books almost becomes their biography."
While in college she noticed that most of the books for her African-American women's literature courses were on reserve in the library. "And I thought, wow, wouldn't it be great to do classics? And now I have this great opportunity," she says, laughing.
Turns out the launch of Doubleday's trade paper African-American imprint, Harlem Moon, in 2002, was an opportunity for Doubleday and for Hill to do classics and much more. "Doubleday had a long history of hardcover African-American titles," says Hill, who has headed the imprint since its launch. "We didn't have a softcover outlet. The market is changing, people want paperbacks, and we want to do paper originals."
Hill's career path reads like the script for an up-by-her-bootstraps movie. She started as an editorial assistant at Doubleday ("when Nelson still owned the house") in 1986. She rose to managing editor, and in an unusual move, she began acquiring books. She became an editor in 1989, editing the late black novelist Dorothy West, and a senior editor in 1997. She was named an executive editor and v-p in 2000, "the year we began planning for Harlem Moon. Doubleday has been good to me," she says.
Since Harlem Moon was launched, Hill has taken advantage of this publishing opportunity to build a publishing biography. Harlem Moon can boast the literary works of J. California Cooper and Helen Oyeyemi; popular fiction by Connie Briscoe and Bertice Berry; serious nonfiction from Jill Nelson and Scott Poulson-Bryant. There's even a line of classics reprints, enhanced editions of seminal out-of-print works by such authors as W.E.B Du Bois and novelist Gayl Jones—including a forthcoming edition of Billie Holiday's classic autobiography Lady Sings the Blues. She's published a little Christian fiction—Norma Jarrett's Sunday Brunch and Brenda Rhode Miller's The Laying on of Hands have both gone through multiple printings—and emphasizes, "We want to do more."
Harlem Moon works to support the titles with Black Ink, a free print newsletter that goes out to more than 40,000 subscribers three times a year, and a Web site of the same name that offers all kinds of information about Harlem Moon authors and their books. The Black Ink newsletter goes to bookstore chains, black bookstores, reading groups, churches, sororities and more, says Hill. "Fashionable watering holes, beauty shops, barber shops," anywhere you might find readers interested in black books.
"We want to do hardcovers and reprints," says Hill, "a breadth of writers and a book for every taste. Just great books at every price point for an ever-changing marketplace."
For a listing of African-American titles being published September 2005 to March 2006, visit www.publishersweekly.com