Reading Too Much Into Race
By Carleen Brice
Sunday, December 21, 2008; Page B04
What, you haven’t heard of it?
Wondering whether it’s a joke?
Well, it is and it isn’t. I’ve got my tongue firmly lodged against my cheek, but I’m really hoping that this holiday season you’ll buy a book by a black author and give it to somebody who isn’t black.
Because as a black author trying to reach a wider audience, I believe that this guerrilla marketing effort — although sort of a stunt — may be one of the only ways writers like me will be able to find white readers.
The accepted wisdom of the publishing industry is that books by black authors should be marketed to black audiences; after that, hopefully, they will cross over to whites and others. This is what a writer friend of mine was told when she wrote her first book. Ten books later, she has yet to cross over, despite respectable sales and favorable reviews. Without that crossover success, she’s having a hard time finding a publisher for her latest literary novel. One editor rejected her latest work with the comment that it was beautifully written, but since there hadn’t been a new “breakout” African American author in years, she would have to pass on it.
It’s not that black readers aren’t buying books. According to the research firm Target Market News, which tracks African American consumer spending, black households spent an estimated $270 million on books in 2007.
But as my writer friend’s situation and that of many others illustrates, it’s extremely hard to have a viable career in publishing without support from a wider (read: not exclusively black) audience. And it’s difficult for black authors, especially of literary fiction, to develop the buzz that sells books. White readers don’t hear our books discussed generally (except, of course, the ones by heavy hitters such as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and a few others). And without media exposure and water-cooler talk, they don’t know which of our books they might like.
Publishers themselves are spending their precious marketing dollars targeting black readers specifically. “As editors and publishers we have to acknowledge that the base audience for these books are African American readers,” said Stacey Barney, an editor with the Penguin imprint G.P. Putnam’s Sons. “Once you’ve secured that base readership, then you can go after other markets for the book.”
But securing that base readership is part of the problem. A trip to one of the major chain bookstores shows what Barney’s talking about. Walk past the general fiction section, and you’ll find the African American fiction section. The shelves there will be lined with all the same subjects you find in the rest of the bookstore. The one thing linking them is that the authors are black. It’s very handy if all you read is fiction by black people. You can go right to your “special section.” Someone like me, who enjoys a wider variety of reading, might look in both general fiction and the black fiction section. I’m black and would never feel out of place browsing in the black books section. A white reader, on the other hand, might not take that same look and might not know that the books exist at all.
Borders developed its stand-alone African American fiction section more than a decade ago, according to buyer Ernesto Martinez. “The stand-alone section is a successful strategy,” he said.
After years of being against the idea, the Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver, my local independent bookstore, is considering launching an African American fiction section in its flagship location. Black customers asked for one after the store moved to a more diverse neighborhood.
To me, it seems a bit ironic that, at a time when black authors are fighting not to be marginalized, some black readers are asking for African American fiction sections. But I can understand their reasons. Some blacks read only books by black authors out of loyalty or a desire to keep seeing stories about themselves in print. It makes sense that they’d like to find those books in one location, but it also speaks to the way readers have come to expect a dividing line, books clearly marked “us” and “them.”
Marketing black books only to black readers is frustrating in another way. Who says that all black readers are alike? That’s a question Karen Hunter has struggled with. She’s an author who also has her own imprint with Simon & Schuster’s Pocket Books, primarily publishing works by black authors. “Black people are not monolithic — we don’t all like the same things,” she said. “So why wouldn’t a white person be interested in some of the same subjects that a black person would?”
Of course, one best-selling black author of the moment happens to be our president-elect. Black writers are hopeful that Barack Obama‘s election will help publishers “get a clue about our stories,” as Lori L. Tharps, author of the memoir “Kinky Gazpacho” put it recently in an article on the Root. “Obama has proved, after all, that readers of all races and backgrounds can take to non-mainstream literary portraits of the American experience,” she wrote.
The novelist Bernice McFadden wrote on her blog that Obama’s popularity has the potential to change how black authors are published and marketed. She hopes that the interest in Obama — as president and as an author — might translate into a different approach to introducing black authors to a wide range of readers. “How many other industries practice this [segregated marketing] behavior?” McFadden asked. “I love me some Paul Simon and when I drive through the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn I see Jewish boys pushing Cadillac SUVs blasting 50 Cent and Jay-Z, so why is publishing operating as if this is the Dark Ages?”
Sometimes it seems like the Dark Ages to me, too. But I remember an even darker age. After all, it wasn’t too long ago that the publishing industry thought that black people didn’t buy books. I own a how-to-get-published guide that’s copyrighted 1985. “Your book may be of interest to minorities, the elderly, or the handicapped,” it states, “but stressing these groups won’t help sell your proposal because publishers do not perceive them as important book buyers.”
I purchased that guide in 1992, the same year that Terry McMillan’s blockbuster “Waiting to Exhale” proved to publishers that black people do indeed buy books. I ignored the guide’s advice and wrote a self-help book targeted specifically at blacks.
More recently, I turned to fiction. That’s when I found not only that minorities are “important book buyers,” but that it’s often impossible to predict the universal appeal of a specific story.
My first novel, “Orange Mint and Honey,” is about the adult child of an alcoholic and her now-sober mother. A few months after it was published this year, I got an e-mail from a reader. “I bet you never thought a middle-aged white guy would read your book and cry,” he wrote.
I guess I’m naïve, but yeah, I did kind of hope that I might get a few teary-eyed white-guy readers. While I was writing, I wasn’t thinking about the characters being black, and I certainly never thought of their story as “a black story.”
So although it might not be in the best taste to recommend that particular title for your holiday gift-giving needs (at least, not only that particular title), it would help you mark the traditional season — plus our new December holiday: Buy a Book by a Black Author and Give It to Somebody Not Black Month.
Carleen Brice is a writer and blogger living in Denver.