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NOVEL IDEA

Reading Too Much Into Race

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By Carleen Brice
Sunday, December 21, 2008

December is National Buy a Book by a Black Author and Give It to Somebody Not Black Month.

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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.


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