Black Books

Are black readers being served by the African-American book boom?

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Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Gloria Naylor, Nelson George, Brent Staples, Edwige Danticat. These and scores of other good writers make up an unprecedented boom in African-American literature, a boom that is easy to sample in any mainstream super-bookstore from Walden to B. Dalton to Barnes and Noble. Does this mean that -- at last -- the reading preferences and tastes of African-Americans are being served by the American mainstream?

There's reason to doubt it, suggests Patrik Henry Bass in the New York African-American magazine Shade (Jan. 1995). He notes that mainstream (read: white) book publishing, marketing, and best-seller rating can still leave black tastes and book-buying habits out of account. Bass cites the case of Susan L. Taylor, editor-in-chief of the thriving Essence magazine, and one of the best-read columnists and most sought after inspirational speakers in the African-American community. A large mainstream publisher turned down Taylor's book In the Spirit, arguing that there was 'no audience' for it; picked up by independent black publisher Amistad Press in 1993, it went to 200,000 copies. HarperCollins will bring out the paperback later this year.

Yet IN THE SPIRIT has never appeared on any of the major best-seller lists. Why? Because the compilers of the lists survey the chains, not the independent black bookstores from which Taylor's book went flying off the shelves; and they certainly don't survey the street vendors in African-American urban communities, some of whom do big business with black-oriented titles. Add to that the fact that there are a grand total of six African-American editors among the one hundred or so major publishers, and it's pretty obvious that African-American book people still need their own networks. In an article in the same issue of SHADE, Elsie Washington points out the key nodes in the networks: New York's Quarterly Black Review of Books, the Baltimore-based National Association of Black Book Publishers, and black bookstores like EsoWon Books in Inglewood, California, Afrocentric Books in Chicago, and Marcus Books in Oakland.

Under the same sort of pricing and volume pressure from the superstore chains as their white counterparts, these independent bookstores are fighting back by expanding: According to the black newsmagazine Emerge (June 1995), Denver's thriving Hue-Man Experience Bookstore has become a full-service Afrocentric cultural center. EsoWon Books has reached new markets by going online. Given that book sales to African-American households grew by 26 percent between 1988 and 1991 while sales to white households declined 3 percent (according to Chicago-based Target Market News), it may behoove the majors to become more sensitive to what black readers really want, and where they prefer to buy it.

For More Information

Patrik Henry Bass, 'Black and Read All Over,' SHADE (Dec.-Jan. 1995), pp.21-23. Subscriptions: $24.50/yr. (10 issues) available from 636 Broadway, Suite 214, New York, NY 10012; 212-533-0051.

QUARTERLY BLACK REVIEW OF BOOKS. Subscriptions: $16/yr. (6 issues) available from 625 Broadway, 10th Fl., New York, NY 10012; 212-475-1010.

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