Monday, October 06, 2008

A Few Thoughts On . . . The "Black" Bookstore Section Debate . . .

Okay, let me just confess up front, that I've deliberately avoided sharing my views on this "hot topic" for reasons which, if you continue reading, will become readily apparent (smile).

Basically, I view the Black book store section as a marketing strategy that has long worked in favor of African American authors and readers of our work. As the story I shared in a previous post suggests (See Here), I enjoy both browsing in bookstores and reading the work of African American authors. The Black bookstore section makes it easier for me to find my favorites as well as discover work by authors with whom I'm less familiar.

While I can understand why some might feel this strategy has out-lived its usefulness, I'm not so sure shelving all of our books alongside the books of White & Other mainstream authors is necessarily the Best or the Only solution to what some folks in recent years have come to view as a Problem. Certainly, if there is a section in the bookstore set aside for mystery, then African American writers of mystery ought to be in that section. The same, I think, should be true of romance, sci-fi and other such well-defined genres.

But I have serious doubts about the notion of there being a financial benefit to all of our books being shelved in with the general population. I think for many African American authors, especially new and lesser known ones, the exact opposite would be true. Why do I say that? Well, for one, folks like me, who like to browse, would be doing a whole lot less of it. If you're a debut author and your book is shelved in among the millions of other books in the store, chances are, I'm not gonna stumble upon you.

As a debut author myself, what I want more than anything when it comes to bookstores is VISIBILITY. That means, number one, I want to be IN the bookstore, which can be a battle itself, even if one is traditionally published. (Believe me, I could tell you some interesting/horror stories, not just about the chains, but the smaller "Black" bookstores too). And number two, I want to be some place where folks, who are interested, or just might be, can readily find me.

And to those who might ask, "Well, don't you see the importance of courting a non-Black readership, too?" my response, "What makes you think I don't?" (smile). I value ALL of my readers and I'm open to sharing my work and discussing it with any and everyone. Just yesterday, a friend, who just so happens to be Indian (from India) called and told me how much fun she had discussing my book with a friend of hers. At my last bookstore signing, the only copies of After The Dance I sold were to White women. And get this, about a month or so ago, a predominately White bible study group read and discussed my work (LOL). Yes, there is quite a story behind that last example and no, my book isn't Christian fiction.

What I've discovered is that the people who truly want to read my book will . . . and oddly enough, they seem to know how and where to find it--whether in the bookstore or elsewhere (smile). Yes, I am being somewhat sarcastic, but that's only because I've begun to sense that underlying SOME of the current angst about the African American bookstore section is a desire to stamp certain forms of African American literature as "less than." For the record, I don't think my work will be tainted if it sits on a shelf next to the latest street lit author, any more than I believe it will be elevated somehow if it sits on the shelf alongside a book by Morrison or Atwood. Nor do I view the Black bookstore section, as so many others apparently do, as some sort of waste-land or rat and roach infested ghetto. Sorry, I just don't.

Yes, there is plenty of what I'd call garbage out there, not just in the Black book store section, hell, all over the dang bookstore. But that's the beauty of life and being able to make choices. As I've stated elsewhere in the Old School Mix, one person's 10 day old cabbage is quite often another's manna from heaven. So, no, I don't really have any problems with my work being shelved in the "Black" section of the bookstore.

Now, on the other hand, what I don't care for so much is all of our books being labeled, "urban." I'm sure for some, this is the same issue, but for me, it's a trickier matter of semantics. Not every book written by a Black author is necessarily "urban" in either tone or feel or subject matter. I have a friend who writes historical fiction, primarily from the Civil War period and recently while wandering through the bookstore, I saw a stack of his books on a table marked, "Urban fiction." Clearly, my friend's work is anything but "urban."

But you wanna know some even bigger pet peeves of mine? Bookstores owned by Black folks who offer little beyond street lit and erotica and mainstream publishers who have apparently decided that the aforementioned are ALL we read. Now, until some folks are willing to discuss those kinds of issues in an open, honest and zealous fashion, there's not a whole lot more I care to say about the buying, selling and marketing of books by African American authors . . .


Anonymous said...

I agree, if African American books were shelved with popular fiction, (White & Other mainstream authors) a very small percentage of Afr. Amer. books would ever be read or sold. By browsing the Afr. Amer. section, we get the opportunity of learning about new Black authors because, let face it, the few Black magazines promote one or two books by the same Black authors. And, there are more than that number of Black authors being placed on the shelves each month. Perhaps publishers & agents knew this when they decided to create that whole other separate section.

I believe the publishing world today uses the term “urban” as a tricks of the trade to pull in the younger readers with a promise another walk-on-the-wild-side book will be just as exciting or similar to other urban lit they love so well. I remember years ago a popular book club declared Terry McMillan's Mama as written in the style of Toni Morrison. Now, everyone knows those two writers are worlds apart. Because I was a lover of Morrison's work, I ordered Terry's book. It’s an old trick but it enhances sales.

I’m not sure readers, as a whole, define what’s put before us for reading. Let’s face it, street lit, urban lit & erotica sells. So we have shelves full of what some of us term “trash” because that’s where the money is. And the bottom line is money. Urban lit generate big bucks. Another fact we may have overlooked is the many reading levels in our culture. We have readers living in urban situations who can only relate to what’s written in those so called trashy books and can not comprehend what some of us term serious books. Marketing knows what to present to the readers in order to generate money. I like serious books but there’s not enough reading material written by our people on the shelves. So, I read books by other cultures until one of my serious Black writers publishes another good book

I also believe age is a great factor. The younger generation will not hesitate to spend money on a good book. Someone of the older generation, such as myself, uses the library for reading material instead of making a purchase. Marketing knows they can’t make money off of me or my kind, so they’ll go after the younger age group. Again, money is the bottom line.

This is off the subject, but the dirtiest ugliest trashiest book I’ve ever read was Push by Sapphire. After the first sentence, I couldn’t put the book down because I had to know what happened The story opened my eyes to the fact that even though we live in a nation full of opportunity; some of our people don’t know chances of a better life exist. Because of Sapphire, I learned that, yes, some of our people live, in my grandson’s words, really really very very bad. And I learned it from the dirty ugly trashy book. Regardless, whenever a person reads, they gain knowledge

Sheila Wilcox

Lori said...

Very well stated, Shelia. Thanks! Email me your remarks next time and I will post them in the form of a "guest" column, if you'd like.

I appreciate and agree with a lot of your comments. But I would like to point out that I don't consider all street lit trash. Nor do I feel that way about erotica. If you browsed my own personal library, you'd see a little bit of everything . . . (smile).

I do have some issues with the "it makes money" line of reasoning, but I'm not interested in hashing it out in this particular forum.

What I will say is that once upon a time, the publishing world claimed, "Black folks didn't read." So what happened? I think the folks making that claim were either wrong, stupid, misguided or lying.

These days they appear to be saying, "All Black folks wanna read is street lit and erotica." I think my previous statement still holds true--the powers that be, the gatekeepers, the dictators of literary taste are either wrong, stupid, misguided or lying.

We are not a monolith. Our tastes are diverse as are our interests. There is enough shelf space to accomodate a wider variety of Black and Brown voices. Even within inner city communities there are other stories worth telling that aren't being told. Instead we get bombarded with more working the pole and ho stroll stories. More stories about dope-dealing and gang-banging. More stories about pimps and superfreaks. More stories about abused women and children that border on an almost twisted kind of voyeurism to me.

I don't believe in censorship. When it comes to literature, I think grown folks should be able to pick and chose as they please. I don't want to see any books banned. But I also believe African Americans readers and authors are currently being short-changed and pigeon-holed by folks who don't necessary have our best interest in mind or at heart . . . And rather than protest, I think far too many of us are going along with the program.

Malcolm said...

Back when I worked at a bookstore in the 90s, I established a "Black Interest" section. As a result, I found that sales did increase dramatically. However, there were some Black consumers who weren't in favor of separating Black authors into their own section. It's a classic Catch-22. Having said that, I still believe that there is value in setting up an African American Lit section at bookstores. As you said, a first-time or a "mid list" author is more likely to stand out if their work is placed with other African American authors.

There is no doubt that urban lit sells. Unfortunately, this is causing some retailers not to stock lesser known Black authors who don't fit into that genre. I have been beating the "we are not monolithic" drum for years. Although I won't begrudge someone for reading urban lit, there are plenty of consumers who want no part of it.

Lori said...

Malcolm, keep beating the drum. Maybe if more of us do, the gatekeepers will eventually act like they hear us (smile).

Also, thanks for sharing your experiences and expert opinion. It's always nice to get a little back-up from folks who've actually worked in the business.