Book Business: The future of Black publishing

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Books by Blacks and about Blacks have undergone a series of transformations since the days of the Harlem Renaissance, the African-American cultural movement of the early 1900s in cNew York City. Works by authors like Richard Wright and James Baldwin explored political and racial injustices in the 1950s, while the likes of Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim gave us raw, harsh images of inner city life in the 1960s. The 1970s, meanwhile, gave way to more literary works from novelists like Alice Walker and Toni Morrison.

Although each period marked a meaningful contribution to Black literature, literary critics agree that the arrival of novelist Terry McMillan’s “commercial fiction” marked one of the most significant transitions in the publishing landscape. McMillan’s immense popularity forced the large publishing houses to view the African-American reading community in a different light. “The industry recognized the African-American market as one that is very much alive, dynamic and profitable,” says Malaika Adero, senior editor with Atria Books, an imprint of publishing giant Simon & Schuster Inc.

Authors like E. Lynn Harris, Eric Jerome Dickey and Omar Tyree launched successful careers as the demand for books by and about African-Americans continued to grow, shattering the myth that Black people did not read.

The book publishing industry underwent yet another sea change in the early 2000s when African-American writers spawned Christian, urban, erotic, contemporary, street and hip-hop fiction. Mainstream publishers once again were forced into action. They began to hire editors of various ethnic backgrounds to head up imprints created solely to capture a slice of the new and burgeoning market. The new imprints set about soliciting manuscripts from Black authors to serve the increasing readership.

“In many ways we’re still in the post-Terry McMillan era, where everyone is looking for that popular voice that can target a wide swath of the Black female reading population but crossover to non-Black audiences as well,” says Dawn Davis, vice president and editorial director at Amistad, a division of HarperCollins Publishers.

Self-Publishing Era
Computer technologies dramatically changed publishing, making it easier for writers to publish works on their own. Self-publishing circumvented the traditional, tortuous route of finding an agent and waiting—sometimes years, often in vain—for that agent to persuade an established publisher to sign the author. Self-published authors saturated the marketplace, arranging their own distribution and sharing shelf space with authors published by mainstream houses.

Resorting to grassroots and other nontraditional marketing strategies, many self-published authors have earned huge incomes. Some have created independent presses, signing on other aspiring authors in similar genres. Events like The Self-Publishing Symposium, hosted annually by Aspicomm Media, have been established to help self and small or independent publishers run more successful business enterprises.

Innovative self-publishers have attracted lucrative deals from the large publishing companies. Indeed, self-publishing has made it easier for acquisition editors at such companies to identify candidates for deals, especially when an author has sold tens of thousands of books on his or her own.

Author-Entrepreneurs
Self-published authors are among the newest and most successful entrepreneurs. Author Vickie M. Stringer is a case in point. Triple Crown Publications is her brainchild. With more than 35 titles to its credit and a steadily growing list, Triple Crown is one of the largest Black-owned publishing companies in the world. Founded in 2001, it is the world’s leading publisher of urban fiction and hip-hop books.

It did not take long for brands built by self-published authors turned full-scale business professionals to attract the attention of the publishing giants. Strategic partnerships between the two sides are not uncommon. For example, Stebor Books, founded by Zane, self-published author of erotic fiction, became a new imprint for erotic fiction under Simon & Schuster. Independent press owners have even taken on the role of literary agents when traditional publishers have come to scout their most popular authors.

“One World has always been committed to multicultural publishing with a goal of publishing the best books. The new imprint allows us to publish more titles,” says Melody Guy, senior editor at One World/Ballantine Books, referring to the new Nikki Turner line. One World/Ballantine is a division of Random House Publishing Group.

Market and Marketing
The growing market for Black literature has resulted in opportunities for Blacks across the publishing industry. Black writers have acquired crossover audiences in such genres as children’s literature, science fiction and suspense, with authors like McMillan and Dickey topping nationally recognized bestseller lists such as that of The New York Times. Other bestseller lists, those of Essence and Blackboard for example, were established to provide recognition for books by and about Black people.

Opportunities abound for supporting roles in the industry. Industry statistics put the number of publishing companies at more than 11,800 in the United States alone, suggesting an increased need for freelance editors, graphic designers and publicists. The tremendous increase in the number of published titles also means profitable opportunities for book retailers, street vendors and critical reviewers.

Marketing books has taken on new forms.
The Internet has revolutionized the way authors, publishers and readers converge. Online booksellers have jumped into the e-business fray, while discussion boards, chat rooms, blogs, newsletters and review sites provide a forum for dialogue in support of the Black book market. In 1997, Troy Johnson founded AALBC.com (African American Literature Book Club) to sell books. However, readers demanded more information about books and authors and the site evolved into a medium for reviews, promotion and advertising. Today AALBC.com is the top-ranking online community for Black books, publishing a monthly online newsletter.
The digital era has also led to new media options for delivering content and advertising. “Pod casts offer great opportunities to promote and sell,” says Linda Duggins, senior publicist with Warner Books.

Literary events, such as the Harlem Book Fair franchise, offer publishers and self-published authors a direct sales channel beyond the bookstore. Lesser known authors do not have to rely on foot traffic, promotion expenses or drawing a crowd for book signings at retail establishments. Book fairs and expos are also opportunities to reach targeted markets. Book lovers enjoy them because they get to meet favorite authors and obtain autographed copies of their books. In most cases, these events are heavily marketed and well often attended.

Publications like Black Issues Book Review support the African-American book sector as platforms for discussion, information and promotion. Since the late 1990s, for example, BIBR has provided a critical discussion of books by people across the African diaspora.

Outlook
Despite fierce competition from other media outlets, book publishing continues to thrive. According to the Book Industry Study Group, more than 3.1 billion books were sold in 2005, up 5.9 percent from 2004. Publishing revenues exceeded $34.6 billion in the same period, up 3.8 percent. Target Market News, which tracks the spending habits of Black households, estimates those households spend about $300 million each year on books alone.

The Study Group’s figures for the first time include sales by small and midsize publishers (those with annual sales of less than $50 million). However, sales by an undetermined number of smaller entities and self-published authors remain unaccounted for. Researchers project that growth within the industry will be flat and could even decline in the area of adult trade for 2006 and beyond. Perhaps the increasing number of self-published authors, whose sales are not accounted for, represents a direct correlation to the projected decline in sales over the next few years.

African-American book market watchers, meanwhile, foresee more growth and diversification with respect to genres and emerging markets, and a continuous rise in the number of independent publishers. Some predict that out of this new generation of publishers, a small percentage will attain a certain level of distinction, even rivaling larger publishing houses in many areas. Others foresee increased pressure to publish better-known authors. Given the inundation of the current market, companies will be less inclined to take risks on unknown authors, some argue. Those who can differentiate themselves from the rest will  stand out and be better positioned to acquire the most appealing opportunities.