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t is probably time to look in again at what is the most exciting recent adventure we have witnessed in book publishing, the rush to acquire and sell work by African-American writers.
Given that the black experience is a vibrant bouquet of mixed events and images, each with its own power and beauty, it's somewhat surprising that book publishing, which by its nature should be ahead of the curve, has been among the last to catch on to the commercial potential of the ever-growing black middle class and its desire for books. Yet it must be said that it is likely that the makers of books who will be the leaders in rediscovering and popularizing the culture that's ready to jump out from African-American history and life.
It's no longer news that there are now five imprints (three of them created within the last 18 months) in major book publishing companies committed to fiction and nonfiction by black writers on black subjects. Anita Diggs, director of one of them, One World Books, a Random House Inc. imprint, calls this "the great publishing experiment." Manie Barron, publishing manager of Amistad Press, a HarperCollins imprint, the oldest such black publishing venture, said, "There's been an explosion in black fiction and black readership but unfortunately not yet a reciprocal explosion of black literary agents and editors." Publishing also has been lagging in adding more black marketing personnel and more black sales representatives and black buyers for the chain stores.
It's too early to issue a report card on the "experiment." Still, there are positive glimmers. Patrik Henry Bass, book editor of Essence magazine, said, "Black mystery and suspense novels are taking off, and there's growth in spirituality and Christian ficition." (In the Amistad pipeline is what Mr. Barron calls "a black Tom Clancy-type government espionage book.") Essence, with a circulation of more than a million, has its own black book best-seller list, and Mr. Bass also edits a three- page book section in the magazine that includes profiles, articles about publishing news and trends relevant to black readers as well as a column that prints the first lines of a book or lines of a later chapter.
"It's one of the most widely read sections of our magazine," he said.
Until relatively recently, many of the books that filled the empty spaces of black bookstores were self- published or came from small publishing houses because black writers, with few exceptions, didn't have easy access to the major publishers. Nonetheless, the black bookstores served as a word-of-mouth network that greatly helped awaken the sleeping giant that was the mass of black middle-class women waiting for good books to read. "In seven years, we went from the point of mostly having book covers on display to mostly having book spines on display," said Carl Weber, owner of the African-American Book Store in Jamaica, Queens. "We'll even need more space when the new imprints start kicking in in 2002 and 2003."
The picture is not entirely rosy, of course. The need for black books in the pipeline could cause black editors to be seduced by works of lesser quality. The process of acquiring high-quality books is more difficult than just finding a writer who can turn the horrors of street life into a novel. Moreover, this is complicated by the fact that not a single black person in book publishing has the authority to write the check that buys the book. Now, this is not entirely a matter of racial discrimination. The white chiefs of even very visible imprints cannot write checks either. Only the chiefs of major publishing groups or divisions have that authority, and all of them are white.
But for blacks it can be a problem. "If the white manager can just trust in things they don't know about, then this great experiment will work, and we will come out of it with some fantastic books," Ms. Diggs said. "I'm lucky my boss has trust. In many of these decisions on what to buy, these managers have to check their historical and cultural baggage at the door, just as I would sometimes if I had the checkbook in my hand." Ms. Diggs's imprint reports to Gina Centrello, publisher of Ballantine, a major Random House Inc. division.
Karen R. Thomas, executive editor of Dafina Book, an imprint at Kensington Publishing, said: "Because so much depends on this trust, in essence this company is trusting your judgment on what works for black readers, African-American editors suddenly have a big responsibility. With some work it's obvious what's good or bad, but a lot of it is your judgment, so you have this responsibility to do your best for African- Americans, for book buyers and for your company." Her company obviously trusts her. Since the imprint was started in September, Dafina has published 12 books, with plans for 26 more this year. And several of its novels already have more than 50,000 copies in print.
Janet Hill, who heads Harlem Moon, Doubleday's black imprint and who also edits and acquires hardcover African-American books for Doubleday, said that black readers "tend to be very, very loyal to writers they like and come back again and again, so we have to search for quality" and not lean toward buying a book simply to help the writer. At Striver's Row, the black imprint at Villard, Melody Guy at times gets over 100 submissions a week, which gives "an idea of how excited black writers are about the possibility of being published by someone other than themselves."
Self-publishing allowed black writers to be heard. Often their work was a bit rough, exploring stuff many didn't want to know existed about street life, hustling, drug dealers anyone could watch by simply looking out their window, broken homes. But it greatly helped open up the black experience to conventional book publishing, even if the stories sometimes dwelled on the seamier side. What it also did is make book publishing an exciting place to be for an African- American. And that has made the books better and very much broadened the subject matter, too.