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
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
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
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,"
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  have been in
demand for years, and they always sell. …