The burgeoning industry of books by and for African Americans, the sudden spiral of Edmund Morris's Dutch, poets in the District, a longtime fiction guru hangs up his spurs, and the president gears up to write.
To Market, to Market
What are the distinctive reading and book-buying habits of African Americans?
Good question. And one that fascinates the publishing industry. To look for answers, the Book Industry Study Group (BISG), a New York-based nonprofit bunch that ponders the pub biz and provides research material to its members, is conducting a three-phase study of African-American consumers. Scraping together the requisite $50,000 was "the toughest part of the whole project," said Robert E. Baensch, chairman of the study, a Study Group board member and the director of the Center for Publishing at New York University. "It's a sad commentary."
Baensch and others believe that the African-American reading market is growing larger and more powerful. The Study Group's project piggybacks on a Target Market News study, which reported that black consumers spent $320 million on books in 1998 -- more than ever.
Phase One of the study begins this month in the form of a survey that will be mailed to 2,500 readers of Essence magazine. Phase Two entails interviewing shoppers at half a dozen retail outlets in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Houston and New Orleans. Phase Three will bring together focus groups of black readers, ages 18-49.
"What we hope to learn," said Susan Spilka of John Wiley & Sons, one of the participating companies, "is what books African-American buyers are buying, when they are buying, where they are buying, what factors influence their selections, and what methods of purchasing they are using."
David Rosenthal, publisher of Simon & Schuster's trade division -- another participant -- said, "We see the African-American market as an area of tremendous growth. With the study, we hope to see how we can even better get books of interest to those readers."
We conducted a spot survey of our own. Faye Williams, co-owner of Sisterspace and Books, a 5-year-old shop on U Street that caters to black women, told us, "The African-American market is growing." But she adds that it is also changing. "A lot of our readers are getting tired of the `girlfriend stories,' " Williams explained. "They are looking more at health issues, at financial issues. Relationship issues are moving down the ladder a little bit."
Williams also believes that more and more books targeted to appeal to black women should attract the public at large. "We're all overweight," she said, and so diet books for black women will hopefully become diet books for everyone. The same goes for books on spirituality. Women of all colors are buying In the Meantime: Finding Yourself and the Love You Want, for instance, and One Day My Soul Just Opened Up: 40 Days and 40 Nights Towards Spiritual Strength and Personal Growth -- two spiritual-growth books by bestselling Washington writer Iyanla Vanzant.
The scope of African-American-interest titles offered by publishers today is too narrow, says Anita Diggs of Time Warner Trade Publishing. She is hoping that the BISG survey will help publishers understand the expanding interests of black readers. "I am convinced," she said, "that the black community is not getting the books it wants."
Remember when Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan, the controversial quasi-biography by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Edmund Morris, was the toast of the town?
Now it's just toast.
After a great start, the book dropped rock-like from the bestseller lists. Debuting at Number 2 on Publishers Weekly's Oct. 11 national nonfiction hardcover list, Dutch stayed in that spot a second week, then slipped to 3, to 9, to 13. By November 15, it was gone.
In Book World, which runs a regional Washington bestseller list, it had a slightly better history. Within three weeks of publication, it climbed on the list at Number 2, stayed there for a month, slipped to 8 for one week, to 9, and then dropped from sight by Thanksgiving.
Dutch, says Janie Hulme, owner of the politically attuned Cleveland Park Book Shop, "is dead in the water. No one cares."
Tom Perry of Random House admits that it's not selling as well as it once did. "We would love this to be Tuesdays with Morrie," he says.
"The list has changed quite a bit over the last few weeks," observes Perry, who points out that Dutch is still showing up on a few "extended" bestseller rosters. "Books fall off the list all the time."
There are other signs that Dutch is stumbling: When it burst onto the first Publishers Weekly list, the book was already in its fourth printing, with 425,000 copies in print. The book has not been back for a fifth printing yet.
And, at press time, the paperback rights still hadn't sold.
Slightly overshadowed by the millennium, the Word Works of Washington -- a poetry advocacy group -- celebrated its 25th anniversary last month. Part of the festivities included the publication of Winners: A Retrospective of the Washington Prize. The group has awarded an annual Washington Prize for poetry since 1981. This year it was worth $1,500.
Winners features the verse of 80 poets, including the work and short bios of many past recipients of the prize. One of the best comments comes from Christopher Bursk, an award winner in the late 1980s: "Winning the Washington Prize did not advance my writing career. It did something more important: it gave a home to poems I care about."
The Word Works sponsors a summer poetry series every year at the Joaquin Miller Cabin in Rock Creek Park, and literary get-togethers at Strathmore Hall Arts Center in Rockville. In a blurb on the cover, Henry Taylor, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and American University professor, wrote, "The Word Works is one of those organizations -- I almost said `movements' -- that keep our literature vital."
While the Word Works is gearing up for the next 25, George Garrett is downshifting. Poet, essayist, novelist, professor, bearer of the Southern Lit torch, Garrett retired last month as English professor at the University of Virginia. For years he ran the school's creative writing program. He nurtured a generation of young writers. Some, like Madison Smartt Bell and Carrie Brown, you may have heard of.
He also found time to write a passel of prose and verse. He is perhaps best known for his Elizabethan Age fiction -- Death of a Fox, Entered From the Sun -- but he has also written of the contemporary South and other unfathomables.
Brown, who has written novels herself -- Rose's Garden and Lamb in Love -- and teaches at Sweet Briar, said, "He was a wonderful teacher. He's patient and he's supportive and he's smart and he's funny -- four great characteristics. What else do you need, except maybe handsome. And he's that, too."
George Core, editor of the Sewanee Review, said that Garrett is "a master of the novel, historical and otherwise; of poetry of various kinds and of criticism of Southern culture. It is hard to overstate his great contribution to Southern literature in our time."
"I especially admire his Elizabethan works," Core said. "They make life in Elizabethan England come alive."
To boot, Garrett recently received the $10,000 Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry from Core's literary magazine.
Bill of Writes
News leaked out last month that Bill Clinton is writing another book. Or, more precisely, that he is rewriting another book.
This time it's personal, said White House spokesman Jake Siewert. The working title of the book -- a primer on race and economic justice -- is "Out of Many, One." How does the leader of the free world find time to write? Well, he delegates.
The early drafts of the manuscript, based on the findings of Clinton's commission on race, were compiled by Clinton speechwriter Terry Edmonds and Harvard prof Christopher Edley Jr. "He had some people work on a draft," said Siewert. "He would give them comments. Now he's working on it himself."
There's no telling when it will be finished. "Once the president decided he wanted to put himself in it," said Siewert, "it's going to take longer."
Siewert added, "It's hard to wrap up while he still has a day job." So far the book does not have a publisher.
According to Time magazine, there has been some White House wrangling over what should be in the book and what shouldn't. But if the book receives the same ho-hum attention as the president's earlier effort, Between Hope and History, it may not make a whole lot of difference what's in it. Or how long it takes to write.