Black Books: The Word on the Street ; Specialty Vendors and Book Clubs Tap into the Changing Tastes of African- American Readers

Article excerpt

This may be one of New York's last gorgeous summer weekends, but at Sister's Uptown Bookstore, the Saturday afternoon book club is only too happy to be firmly entrenched in the great indoors. They're deep into a discussion about "Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do" by black novelist Valerie Wilson Wesley, and at the same time, eagerly trying to explain to a visitor why book clubs and bookstores featuring African-American writers are so important.

"For years, I read the white authors," says Marilyn Torain. "I didn't have access to these books. When I heard about this, I just jumped at the chance to participate."

"Me, too," seconds Denise Greene. "I discover authors and books here I wouldn't have known about otherwise. I'm learning about aspects of black life."

These African-American women have watched with fascination as the relationship between the mainstream US publishing industry and black authors and readers has undergone a significant revision.

For decades, large publishing houses paid scant attention to the interests of African-American readers. Then "in 1992, everything just changed," says Emma Rodgers, co-owner of Black Images Book Bazaar in Dallas. That year, Terry MacMillan published "Waiting to Exhale,"

and for a time, she, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker were simultaneously top-selling authors.

"The market was always there" for books by and about blacks, says Ms. Rodgers. "But suddenly the mainstream publishers discovered it."

They have since been moving rapidly to mine it. Seven publishing imprints dedicated to books by black authors have been created or revived by major publishing houses in the past couple of years. Black novelists like E. Lynn Harris and Lalita Tademy currently enjoy red-hot reputations.

In addition, Oprah Winfrey and her book club continue to prove a powerful vehicle for catapulting black authors to new heights of success.

Yet, while many African-American readers love to walk into a Barnes & Noble superstore and see books by black authors prominently on display, few would argue that the emergence of a handful of popular authors means that their needs are truly being met by mainstream booksellers.

For decades, they say, they have learned to cope with being ignored by the book world, and in certain respects the situation remains much the same.

Because the tastes and interests of black readers have not been on the radar screens of most US publishers, black publishing has largely created a shadow industry of its own. Self-published black authors with strong followings have long been a common phenomenon, although their books are often available only through sidewalk vendors in large urban areas.

"This is a ridiculously under-served market," says Dexter Brathwaite of Brooklyn-based Culture Plus Books Distributor, which focuses on black-authored books.

Stores that carry significant numbers of such books remain rare outside of a few US cities. Mr. Brathwaite estimates the total market for books targeting black readers to exceed $20 million annually, but believes that, with better distribution channels, sales would dramatically - and rapidly - escalate.

There is little or no formal marketing for many popular black- authored books. Word-of-mouth references and book circles like the ones at Sister's Uptown tend to drive the market. "Everything is very, very personal and much less formal than you would think," Brathwaite says.

For decades, such a system has created strong demand for black history and heritage titles. Even without formal marketing of any kind, Rodgers says, "books like 'The Mis-education of the Negro' by Carter G. Woodson [published in 1933] and '[The] Destruction of Black Civilization' by Chancellor Williams [1971] have been in demand for years, and they always sell. …