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
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;
World Wide Web
(Afrocentric ideas and education online)