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Black in Print

Black in print

By CHAUNCEY MABE      
Web-posted: 7:03 p.m. Feb. 9, 2001

On a recent Monday afternoon, Anthony Harrison is explaining how handselling -- recommending books to customers -- is the way he keeps his Ujamaa African Book Store in business, when a young man walks in and requests a book on the Zulu Nation.
   By asking one or two questions, Harrison determines that the customer isn't interested in the Zulus -- "only a small part of African history," Harrison tells him -- so much as African civilization in general.
    Within minutes, he steers the fellow to a book called From the Browder Files: Survival Strategies for African Americans, by Anthony T. Browder, published by the Institute of Karmic Guidence.
   "Read that for an overview, then come back and I'll give you something more detailed," Harrison says.
   Money changes hands, and another satisfied reader goes out the door.
   Harrison's modest shop is little more than a nook at 3600 W. Broward Blvd. But here, where books are sold one at a time, it's on the flashpoint of an explosion in African-American book publishing.
   Thanks in large part to Terry McMillan and Oprah Winfrey, major publishing houses have discovered the African-American market. Realizing the existence of a huge demand for black-themed books -- African-Americans spent some $310 million on books last year -- publishers are producing black books in unprecedented numbers and variety.
   There are now seven African-American imprints at major U.S. publishing houses, three started in just the last year: Strivers Row (Random House/Villard); Harlem Moon (Random House/Doubleday); and Dafina Books (Kensington Publishing). Walk Worthy (Warner) will begin publishing Christian fiction later this year.
   These ventures join established black imprints Jump at the Sun (Hyperion), which focuses on children's literature; One World Books (Random House); and Amistad, founded as an independent by Charles Harris in 1986, which was bought by HarperCollins last summer.
   "There was a hunger for this kind of writing, which is why there is this sudden proliferation of imprints," says Melody Guy, editor at Strivers Row. "There's something wonderful about making these books accessible."
   Black Expressions, a book club under the organizational umbrella that includes Book-of-the-Month and the Literary Guild, has gained 150,000 members since its inception in September of 1999 -- far exceeding expectations.
   Unlike the general book market, African-American pubishing is driven by fiction. Inspired by the success of McMillan's 1993 best seller, Waiting to Exhale, relationship books ("girlfriend" or "sistah" novels) lead the way, followed by hip-hop fiction, mysteries, thrillers, and, increasingly, more serious fiction.
   But nonfiction is strong, too -- African-American heritage, self-help, inspirational, Christian, and especially children's books. What they all have in common is that they are by, for, and about African-Americans.
    "What's affecting my business and my readers is the welcome variety of books that reflect black people to themselves," Harrison says. "As a child, I never saw images that looked like me in the books I read."
    Industry insiders agree on three essential reasons for the sudden outpouring of African-American books. First, McMillan proved that commercial fiction about black characters could sell in big numbers; second, the growing black middle class had more money to spend on books -- and did; and third, an increasing number of black editors joined New York publishing houses.
    "When I was at Doubleday in the '60s, I don't think any other publishing house had any other black editors," says Harris, who continues to helm Amistad for HarperCollins. "Now there are many black editors. Not enough, but enough to make a difference."
   Unbelievable as it seems today, before Waiting to Exhale, it was thought that black people didn't read. Most of the African-American writers getting published were the prestige literary authors, which meant Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Gloria Naylor. By inventing "girlfriend" fiction, McMillan uncovered an audience for commercial black fiction in the millions.
   "Girlfriend fiction is popular for several reasons," says Monica Harris (no relation to Charles Harris), editor of Black Expressions book club. "One, it's funny. Two, it tends to show hot drama, soap opera. Three, it's an examination of the relationship between the sexes. You can really relate to them, live vicariously, or you can see them as cautionary tales."
   Guy agrees: "You had your Morrisons and Walkers, but they have a wide audience, not a primarily black audience. Terry really hit in such way commercially that she drew people's attention."
   In addition, Amistad's Harris says, Winfrey's TV book club cannot be overlooked. "Not so much for the individual books she's chosen, but that she's told the black audience that these are books that reflect your experience."
   The truth, of course, is that black Americans have always read. Harris read Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison while growing up in Virginia, but he also recalls black people talking about the books of Frank Yerby, a largely forgotten black writer of best-selling historical novels in the '40s, '50s and '60s.
   Max Rodriguez, the founder and publisher of QRB: The Black Review, sees a connection between the black appetite for reading and the traditional African-American devotion to education.
   "Reading and education have always been the ladder by which the African-American community has grown and sustained itself," says Rodriguez, whose quarterly book review wields an influence with publishers and booksellers that far exceeds its 31,000 circulation. "From the point at which were were told reading was forbidden, we grasped for it. It has always been critical for those building a place for themselves in America."
   But even though Rodriguez is especially interested in books of literary quality, he applauds the breadth of titles made possible by the new industry acceptance of black commercial fiction.
   "You have relationship books, but you also have a fiction writer like Tananarive Due, who writes horror novels more akin to Peter Benchley or Stephen King," Rodriguez says. "Ten years ago we would not have seen that."
   Due, a former reporter for The Miami Herald, has become a popular horror writer since her first novel, The Between, came out in 1995. "I was very fortunate to get started when I did," Due says. "I came right after the McMillan phenomenon. Five years earlier, I don't know if I could have gotten published. I'm thrilled by the whole thing. There was a fear it would peak, but I haven't seen that."
   Due is only one of dozens of black fiction writers to benefit from the boom; others specializing in girlfriend fiction include former Fort Lauderdale resident Lolita Files; Omar Tyree; Eric Jerome Dickey; and E. Lynn Harris.
   Dickey and Harris both began as self-published authors, but their books sold so well they were quickly snatched up by major publishers. Before the hunger for African-American stories was acknowledged by the major publishing houses, self-publishing was the only avenue for many black writers, and black audiences seem more apt to buy self-published books than white readers. Harrison says self-published books, such as Inside/Out, by retired Broward deputy sheriff Sharon M. Hawes, are among the better sellers at Ujamaa book store.
   "Self-publishing is an underground kind of activity," says Melody Guy. "It can be an avenue to commercial publication. Omar Tyree's Fly Girl sold 12,000-14,000 copies in self-publication. That makes publishers notice."
   Although the strong economy of the '90s gets substantial credit for enabling black readers to buy more books, industry insiders aren't worried that an economic downturn will hurt the new popularity of African-American books.
    "Even if things worsen, people still have to be entertained," says Guy.
   Rodriguez says even in a strong economy, a good book is still the best entertainment buy. Reading for pleasure is a constant, he says, noting that during the Great Depression of the 1930s, book sales declined little, if at all. "What we all hope is that this interest remains steady, instead of rising and falling as it has in the past," Rodriguez says.
   As the boom in African-American publishing matures, it will likely see a rise in quality; it will also attract more and more crossover readers. After all, black readers do not read exlusively African-American books, Amistad's Charles Harris says.
   "I know many black parents who went out and bought the latest Harry Potter book," he says. "Black people know it's unhealthy to read exclusively black books. They don't live in an all-black world. You can't think black all the time."
   While black writers write from their own experience, their stories, like all fiction, are universal, says Rodriguez, and will attract readers of other ethnicities.
   "So I can read Toni Morrison and see the story there, but I can also read Faulkner or Hemingway and see the story," Rodriguez says. "The African-American writer writes for himself or herself alone, but all writers write for a global audience."
   Due already enjoys considerable white readership, in part because her genre, horror, has intrinsic appeal to readers of all groups.
   "I want to reach the widest audience possible," Due says. "The first time I went to a horror writers meeting, I felt like I was at a family reunion with people I'd never met. I write about black characters, but there are a lot of crossover horror readers. Black readers have been buying Stephen King for a long time."
   Beyond the matter of whether black literature will gain substantial numbers of white readers, there is the question of its potential influence on the general culture.
   There is a way in which American culture can be viewed, in large part, as African-American culture. Black music has pervaded all forms of American music -- even country music. Black comedy, black slang, black social and sexual attitudes are adopted unthinkingly by whites, and inform much popular entertainment.
   Rodriguez believes African-American literature will have an equally strong impact in the long run. Indeed, to some extent it already has. Black voices and narrative influences can be detected in much canonical American fiction: Twain, Faulkner, Jack Kerouac and the Beat poets are only the more obvious examples.
   "Because of the speed of electronic communication, television, CDs, books seem to arrive at the finish line last," Rodriguez says. "But books last much longer. I believe absolutely that African-American literature can have as much influence on the culture as African-American music."
   Is there a downside to the explosion in African-American publishing? "I don't believe there is," says Rodriguez. "We've all been working very hard to ensure the current interest continues to grow."
   But in the Ujamaa book store, small independent bookseller Anthony Harrison can identify one sad effect of the elevated profile enjoyed by African-American publishing.
   "Unfortunately, the big bookstore chains are wise to it, too," Harrison says. "I'm losing some customers to the chains through disloyalty. I can't match lower prices and other incentives. I only survive because this is a mission."
   Chauncey Mabe can be reached at cmabe@sun-sentinel.com or 954-356-4710.
   

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