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
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
Money changes hands, and another
satisfied reader goes out the door.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
"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
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
"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."
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.
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."
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
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
"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
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.
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
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
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
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
"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
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
"Even if things worsen, people still
have to be entertained," says Guy.
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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 email@example.com or 954-356-4710.