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KOK Edit: your favorite copyeditor since 1984(SM) KOK Edit: your favorite copyeditor since 1984(SM) Katharine O'Moore Klopf
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Monday, December 22, 2008

Segregation in Publishing and Bookstores

Traditional publishers and brick-and-mortar bookstores still limit the reach of black authors by basing their books' marketing solely on the fact that the authors and/or the preponderance of their books' characters are black and by targeting mostly black readers.

Says black author Carleen Brice, in a column in the Washington Post:
... 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....

It's long past time for publishers and bookstores to change these practices. Authors are authors, no matter what color their skin is.

And remember, it's National Buy a Book by a Black Author and Give It to Somebody Not Black Month.



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