Over the last 20 years, the channels for discovering new books, especially books by first-time and emerging authors, have shrunk or disappeared. Newspapers and magazines dedicate mere slivers of arts sections to book reviews — if at all. Those papers like the New York Times that do devote more space to book coverage rarely review debut authors. Likewise, bookstores prefer to invite already established, bestselling, or celebrity writers to do readings and signings. That leaves Oprah — and the Queen of Talk has endorsed only 72 books since she started her eponymous book club in 1996, including the two she has recommended since her 2.0 reboot.
It’s even more difficult for black authors — new and established — to get their books on readers’ radars. As it is, African-American interest books receive a mere fraction of the coverage noted above, and with the closing of more than 100 black-owned independent bookstores in the last 15 years, as well as the shuttering of Black Issues Book Review there are even fewer places for black authors’ work to gain visibility. Mosaic, African Voices, and the new Spook can only review so much. “The last [issue of] Essence covered the same book Oprah covered,” observed Troy Johnson, founder of the African-American Literature Book Club better known as AALBC.com.
In this landscape, black book clubs offer authors a valuable — albeit extremely competitive —promotion and sales channel. “[Book clubs] have advanced far beyond the small get-togethers in someone’s living room,” says Carol Mackey, editor-in-chief of direct-to-consumer book club Black Expressions.
In keeping with the tradition of African-American book clubs that dates back to the 1820s, many are highly-structured reading societies. The book club model has also evolved to leverage the internet as a promotional vehicle similar to AALBC. Of course, writers and publishers are eager to get their books on the lists of both traditional and 2.0 clubs.
For his part, Johnson says he is deluged daily by emails from authors vying for a review. “It’s like a fire hose,” he says of the volume of author requests. “They all feel like their book is the best book, ‘You really need to read it’; and it’s hard for them to understand it’s impossible for me to read every book request that I get.” He says even when he can read the author’s book, the review may not be free.
“Unfortunately, for a self-published author, the main way they get reviewed is if they pay for the commissioned service. And, you know, sometimes, the review is not favorable.” Johnson offers a range of paid services including ads and manuscript editing via AALBC.com, and says some bestselling black authors even pay out of pocket for ad placements on his site to maximize their exposure to readers.
Authors hoping for free exposure must work to get on the radar of a more traditional book club like Go On Girl!, one of the largest black book clubs in the country. Every month, its 300 members meet in 31 chapters in 13 cities to read the same book. But getting on their reading list is not easy.
“The books are actually selected by a committee,” explains Lynda Johnson who co-founded Go On Girl!, also known as GOG, in 1991. “[There] is a Reading List Chair, and she oversees the selection of the books with members of the organization.” GOG holds a selection meeting twice a year with strict adherence to the club’s founding principle of a genre-diverse reading list.
“We’ll read social commentary. We will read historical. We will read a classic. We search out new authors.” Johnson says they whittle the final list from a large volume of recommendations by traditional publishers as well as self-published authors, and work with online bookseller Mahogany Books to offer members discounts on selected titles.
Smaller book clubs like Sistah Friend, which has 35 members across three branches in South Carolina, Atlanta, and online, are also valuable. Though founder Tasha Martin allows each of the three branches of her club to choose the book they will read each month to keep the reading list diverse, authors and publishers still have the opportunity to sell their books to multiple readers at once. “[In] January which is our anniversary month,” Martin shares, “I select the book of the month [for all three branches].”
Recognizing the power book clubs wield, author Curtis Bunn founded the National Book Club Conference (NBCC) in 2002 to connect clubs and writers. “When my first novel [Baggage Check] came out… I visited with many, many book clubs across the country,” Bunn remembers. The experience sparked an idea.
“Most readers really never get to meet their favorite authors. They may get in line at the bookstore…and get their book signed,” he says, “take a picture maybe, and then it’s on to the next person. But the book club situation allows for you to really engage.”
With zero financial backing, Bunn invited bestselling writer Walter Mosley to participate in the inaugural conference. “I can’t even recall how I got connected to him, but it wasn’t easy,” he recounts. Mosley loved the idea, which helped Bunn to secure a roster of bestselling authors to speak on panels and meet with book club readers. “[Mosley’s participation] legitimized my conference,” he says. “From there we’ve been rolling.”
Since the first conference, Bunn estimates at least 1,200 book clubs have been represented at NBCC. Everyone from Iyanla Vanzant to Dr. Cornel West and Terry McMillan has attended. Bunn recalls, “It grew to a point where I had to limit registration” — which eventually attracted sponsors including Harper Collins, Simon & Schuster, Penguin, and Triple Crown Publishing. Sponsorship rates range from $2,500 to $10,000 with specific packages offering sponsors the opportunity to directly pitch their books or authors to the clubs.
Mackey, editor-in-chief of Black Expressions Book Club, is on the board of NBCC. “[I] have seen firsthand how beneficial this meeting is for authors and readers,” Mackey says. “A couple hundred book clubs are represented, and the meeting gets bigger every year. An invitation to become a featured author is a high honor because authors know it’s a premier chance to get in front of the people who will go out and talk up their book in book club meetings and in social media.”
A testament to the power — and lucrative business potential — of book clubs, Black Expressions is part of a consortium of clubs owned by Direct Brands Inc. and Bookspan that includes Book of the Month Club. Black Expressions promotes a selection of books curated by Mackey; members are required to purchase at least eight books at a discounted member price. At its height, Black Expressions boasted close to half a million members.
Mackey says books are carefully selected for the club. “We target our books to the members’ needs based on a number of variables which include sales and marketing data. It’s not a shot in the dark.”
But even with all the time and operational logistics required to run a book club these days, their value to the black book market lies in the club founders’ and members’ desire to promote and preserve African-American stories, and by extension, the black community.
The coming year will mark AALBC’s 15th year working toward their prime goal of “promoting the diverse spectrum of African-American literature.” Similarly, Mackey says, “[Black Expressions] was created to showcase the works of African-American authors and to make sure our stories got told by us and for us.”
Every year, NBCC honors book clubs that do commendable community service. GOG produces an annual award show that also acts as a fundraiser to cover operational costs and endow a scholarship fund for unpublished writers. They’ve also instituted Junior GOG chapters to ensure the love of literature extends to the next generation.
“Nobody gets paid to do anything,” Johnson says, referring to GOG’s board and executive committee. She says the disturbing lack of widespread promotion and distribution for black literature keeps her going.
“We’ve seen a lot of the black imprints disappearing from the publishing companies, and, you know, although the say they want it to be mainstream, it’s not treated as mainstream. You go in the bookstores, you still can’t find as much play for books by black authors unless you’re noted,” she laments. “You’re not finding the new voices.”
Johnson says, “We feel that that is really important so that our stories can be told and be authentic, and be out there for us to read.”
article by Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond via madamenoire.com