In conversations with buyers for the African-American category from major chains, independent bookstores and online retailers, there was some consensus (urban fiction keeps selling), at least one new trend (the growth of YA fiction for boys) and a few surprises (flat overall '07 sales at B&N) as well as a strong sense among them all that African-American publishing continues to be a dynamic segment in the industry.

Market Overview

Most of the buyers agree that the African-American book market continues to be strong. “In African-American studies, we had some big books this year like Barack Obama's Dreams from My Father [Crown], Hill Harper's Letters to a Young Brother [Gotham] and Tyler Perry's Don't Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings [Gotham], which did well and are still selling nicely,” says Tim Flannigan, Africana Studies buyer, Barnes & Noble. Although Books-A-Million fiction buyer Margaret Terwey sees growth in African-American fiction at Books-A-Million stores, especially from street lit, B&N fiction buyer Sessalee Hensley feels sales are tapering off at B&N. “Last year was a good year, but this year looks a little flat,” she says. “We're not seeing the tremendous growth that we saw two or three years ago.”

Robin Green, head buyer at Karibu Books in Baltimore, and James Fugate, co-owner, Eso Won Books in L.A., who are both at black-owned bookselling operations, agree that competition is stiffening and that it continues to be a tough marketplace for independent booksellers. “Books are selling, but nationwide, many African-American stores, ours included, are having hard times,” says Fugate. “We are seeing the crunch of the Internet and mainstream stores like Borders and Barnes & Noble.”

However, Troy Johnson, founder of the African American Literature Book Club (, an online bookseller whose site's main demographic is middle-aged African-American women, believes that this group still lags behind in online book buying compared to other population segments. “More people have computers with Internet access and are becoming comfortable transacting online, but I still have people who e-mail me to say they saw a book on my site and went to their local bookstore to buy it.”

Looking at 2007

This was the year for nonfiction, with new titles from Bill Cosby, Tony Dungy, Alice Walker and T.D. Jakes. Sean Bentley, African-American fiction and studies buyer at Borders, believes that these titles represent a shift toward inspirational books that aim to uplift the African-American community. “Books that champion the victor over the victim have been successful,” he says. “This year we saw a lot of biographies do well, like Clarence Thomas's recent title,” observes Green. “And we've also seen a number of writers resurface who we haven't seen in awhile, like Nathan McCall,” whose first novel, Them, is just out from Atria.

For Johnson, the celebrity tell-all memoir ruled the online sales at his book club. “In the early days of, Iyanla Vanzant was one of my biggest authors, and the most popular books were self-help or spiritually uplifting. But now, Confessions of a Video Vixen [by Karrine Steffans; Amistad] is the all-time bestselling book on my site and Carmen Bryan's It's No Secret [MTV Books] is also doing well.”

On the fiction side, the young adult category is emerging as a promising genre. “African-American teen fiction is really growing because it's an area that was lacking titles” says Terwey. She points to Kensington's Drama High as a series that has performed well. Bentley welcomes the arrival of teen series like Kimani Tru from Harlequin and works closely with the Borders's YA buyer. “I've seen a need,” he says. “Let's get these readers early on and help them realize what literature is and what it can do.”

“Thank heavens we're finally getting more people writing with young people in mind,” says Karibu's Green in agreement. “Most of what's available is geared toward girls, but slowly, surely, a few authors are focusing on African-American boys, which is a starving market.” She thinks that Stephanie Perry Moore's Perry Skky Jr. series, which features a Christian high school football star (Dafina), is “well-done” and hopes to see more like it.

Still Going Strong

“Far more commercial fiction [aimed at African-American readers] is being published by mainstream publishers than ever,” says Fugate. Most of the buyers agreed that bestselling black novelists like Zane, Noire, Nikki Turner, Mary B. Morrison and Eric Jerome Dickey still command attention.

Urban fiction, or street lit, continues to sell well and seems to still be growing. “Random House, Hachette, Simon & Schuster are publishing books in that area. They weren't doing those books before,” says Fugate. “There's still quite a lot of street fiction coming from publishers like Kensington and Simon & Schuster, and 95% of titles from our small press department are urban,” says Hensley. “But we're trying to wane that a bit because we're getting backlash against urban fiction from the community. So in our stores, whenever we have an endcap of urban fiction, we have an endcap with more mainstream titles,” she adds.

And Green notes the steady growth of Christian fiction. “[That genre] is doing well, and there are a number of new entries in that field. Kensington has a strong line, Urban Christian, that's coming out with a variety of authors.”

What's Exciting?

Terwey emphasizes her excitement about teen fiction; she said she's looking forward to Scholastic's Hotlanta, a teen series by authors Denene Millner and Mitzi Miller. She thinks the series' Southern setting will have an added regional appeal in her stores.

Beyond the usual favorites—a Dutton spring title from novelist Eric Jerome Dickey (Pleasure), new fiction from E. Lynn Harris (Just Too Good to Be True; July, Doubleday) and another erotic anthology from Zane (Succulent: Chocolate Flava II; Feb., Atria)—Bentley says he's excited about Song Yet Sung, a new novel by bestselling author James McBride due out in early February from Riverhead.

Hensley is expecting January releases of Carl Weber's First Lady in paperback and his new hardcover title, Something on the Side, to tie in nicely. But she's most excited about HarperCollins's rerelease of three Zora Neale Hurston books—Mules and Men, Jonah's Gourd Vine and The Complete Stories—in mid-January from its Perennial imprint. “The books are beautifully packaged” she says, “and with added material, they will be great for classic reading and school adoption.”

Flannigan looks forward to the Harlem Moon trade paperback release of Medical Apartheid by Harriet Washington, a nonfiction title he expects to do as well or better than it did in hardcover. He also notes the promise of scholar Randall Kennedy's Sellout, due out in January from Pantheon, which looks at the political and social stigmatization of prominent African-American conservatives like Clarence Thomas and Condoleezza Rice.

Fugate is betting on a long-awaited biography of Thelonious Monk by Robin D.G. Kelley, forthcoming from Free Press. And Johnson expects two publishing programs headed up by prominent African-American media figures to sell well in the upcoming months. He says, “Karen Hunter's new S&S nonfiction imprint is coming out with some titles that are probably going to do well, and I have my fingers crossed about new books from Smiley Books, Tavis Smiley's publishing company.”

Decisions, Decisions

Beyond the mainstays of catalogues, sales rep meetings, author sales tracks and marketing budgets, buyers use a variety of resources to help them decide which books to order. “It's as much about what the author can do as what the publisher is doing,” says Bentley. “I check out what authors are doing on MySpace and visit their Web sites and blogs to see what they're doing on their end.” Also using the Internet for research, Terwey says, “I use advance orders placed through Books-A-Million's Web site as an indicator of early buzz.”

At Karibu Books, staying in touch with managers and staff is key, but perhaps more important is the role of customers in the ordering process. Green says, “Avid customers will provide us with a list of books that they want six months in advance. They know what's coming out before we do.”

Sometimes ordering decisions are a little more intuitive. “I try to have a feel for what issues are going to connect with the community,” said Flannigan, citing the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. “Issues which are controversial and are going to get media coverage, or have a deep longstanding concern.” Fugate suggests that an experienced retailer can just spot the good books. “When you see certain books that sound like good stories and will also get the publicity,” he says, “you just know it's going to be a big book.”

Promotionally Speaking

What gets readers to pay attention to a particular title? “It's the authors' and publishers' job to make the book sell; to get people into the store to buy it,” Fugate says. “People usually want to hear something about a book before they take a chance on it.”

Hensley says, “Radio has worked best; especially the talk radio programs in the African-American community.” But she also supports grassroots efforts, working to get the book in front of individual readers. “For his next book, E. Lynn Harris may rekindle the grassroots movement that he had for his first book,” she said, recalling how Harris took his first book to beauty salons in the trunk of his car.

“Authors who tend to be the most successful are the ones who keep their name in front of their audience,” says Green. “They are diligent about doing the tour circuit, have an effective Web site and keep in contact with their readers,” she adds. “Authors like Tyler Perry and Tavis Smiley have their own platforms,” Flannigan notes. And he points out that connecting with that platform via viral marketing techniques such as e-mail blasts is doubly effective.

Connecting to the Market

Books-A-Million recently started an African-American fiction book club, which launched in November with title suggestions, co-op funds and marketing help from Kensington, as another way to interact with customers. The first selection was Mary Monroe's God Don't Like Ugly (Kensington); upcoming selections include novelists Pearl Cleage's Babylon Sisters (One World) and Kimberla Lawson Roby's Love and Lies (Avon).

February, which is African-American History Month, is not the only month for selling black-interest titles, booksellers point out. “We focus and highlight African American-interest products throughout the year,” says Bentley. Borders is launching a new program inspired by the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also known as the Negro National Anthem, which will include an electronic gift card and will spotlight titles that capture the song's spirit and legacy in the African-American community. Borders also offers discounts on books featured on the African-American bestseller list that the company compiles throughout the year.

Green says that as a black-owned bookstore chain, it's important for Karibu to keep a high profile among the black book-reading (and book-buying) community. “We're very active in the Baltimore community,” she says. “We have strong relationships with local schools like Bowie State University. We service a number of different book clubs and offer discounts. We also do a lot of offsite bookselling at events like the Baltimore Book Festival and the Congressional Black Caucus annual conference to keep our name in the forefront.”

“Ten years ago, I had to look around for black books, and sit and wait for the next one,” says Johnson. “Today, I can't keep up. There are more books than I can possibly promote or sell.”

Author Information
Felicia Pride writes regularly about African-American publishing and is the author of The Message: 100 Life Lessons from Hip-Hop's Greatest Songs.

Check It Out!
Here are a few more noteworthy African-American titles, released between September 2007 and next March. Also click here for a complete listing of upcoming books of African-American interest.


Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill (W.W. Norton, Nov.). In his latest novel, Hill tells the epic story of an 18th-century African woman, enslaved and brought to America, who escapes and eventually manages to return to Africa among the group of freed slaves who found the African state of Sierra Leone.

Fanon by John Edgar Wideman (Houghton Mifflin, Feb.). Wideman, the acclaimed author of more than 18 books, re-creates the life of Franz Fanon, the philosopher, activist and theoretician of neo-colonialism, in a book that combines fiction, memoir and biography.

Blonde Faith by Walter Mosely (Little, Brown, Oct.). In what may be the last of Mosley's bestselling Easy Rawlins novels, Easy has to solve the mystery of a friend's disappearance; his best friend Mouse is accused of murder; and his lover, Bonnie, tells him she's decided to marry another man.


Aaron Douglas: African American Modernist, edited by Susan Earle (Yale Univ. Press, Oct.). YUP has produced the first major illustrated study of acclaimed Harlem Renaissance artist Aaron Douglas, whose African, cubist and art deco—inspired paintings and illustrations have influenced generations of African-American artists.

Ida: A Sword Among Lions by Paula Giddings (Amistad, Mar.) Giddings has written a magisterial biography of Wells (1862—1931), a pioneering female black journalist and publisher in the early 20th century, a cofounder of the NAACP and a relentless opponent of lynching and racist segregation.

Party Crashing by Keli Goff (Basic Books, Mar.). Goff examines the hip-hop generation—young black men and women who have never experienced open, vicious racism—and suggests this generation is uninterested in traditional black identity politics or in continuing to support the Democratic party.