BEA 2012: The African American Literary Marketplace

There were only six people who weren’t panelists sitting at the start of a Thursday morning discussion devoted to the African-American literary marketplace. But the spectator shortage didn’t faze the participants. “Less is always more in my world,” said moderator Vanessa J. Lloyd-Sgambati, a publishing consultant called “the literary diva” by peers. She said that there were twelve African American bookstores operating in Philadelphia when she started her business and that, today, there was one solitary merchant serving the City of Brotherly Love. As I was to learn from Troy Johnson, president of the African American Literature Book Club, magazines and websites devoted to African American books have also closed up shop in recent years. What you needed to get by was hope and grit and stamina and hard work and whatever flash you could pluck from the bottomless barrel of ingenuity.

“There may be a different way that is not book-centric to reach the African American marketplace,” said Marva Allen, CEO of Hue-Man, a bookstore in Harlem. She expressed frustrations that people don’t always know how to promote African American books. Did people really not know how to sell books to this audience?

Enter radio personality and author Michael Baisden, a bowtied Robert McKee acolyte who had a few admirers planted in the crowd as it mushroomed from two handfuls into several dozen.

“I always know there’s a purpose in what I do,” said Baisden. “You’re looking at the old school in the business.” He compared the book industry to a team sport and insisted that it needed stars to bring people on. Baisden had sold two million books because African American bookstores had supported him when other booksellers would not. “Target doesn’t value African American literature. It can’t be guaranteed that it will be in stock.” He was understandably skeptical about BEA, which he didn’t even know was going on until his manager informed him about it. “The expense of this is too much,” he said. Baisden said that African American booksellers needed their own convention and was a bit rueful over losing so many African Americans to other industries.

Baisden certainly has a point. But Nakea S. Murray of the As the Page Turns Book Club (and the Literary Consulting Group) said, “What others have to remember is that a book club is a selling opportunity.” But it’s also a place for quality discussion. As she was to elucidate later in the conversation, her book clubs “have zero drama” and Murray has adopted a “no frolic with the talent rule” to maintain the caliber of talk. This regulation came about because of unexpected entanglements between smitten women readers and the authors who arrived at their homes. “I know male authors use this to their advantage,” said Murray, who did not expand upon the nature of these mysterious hookups.

But while such peccadilloes are inevitable in any industry, some of the larger concerns offered by Troy Johnson were also quite serious. Troy Johnson noted that two thirds of independently operated African American bookstores have bitten the dust in the past five to ten years. “In 2012,” said Johnson, “there should be more competition in this space.” The books that got attention in the African American market were devoted to celebrity and scandal, with even established authors finding it difficult to nab a deal.

“The profit-driven market discourages talented writers from entering the marketplace,” said Johnson, who initially clutched some paper like a life preserver but whose offerings became looser and more vital when he stopped reading so closely from his sheet. “Readers need more than ever to critically assess and identify quality product.” But without the critical mechanisms in place (those dying review venues for African American books), this was increasingly difficult to do. “If we’re going to move forward and improve and regain what we’ve lost,” said Johnson, “we’re not going to do it in isolation.”

“You have to create an experience for that consumer,” said Allen, who cited a Tokyo bookstore that had appealed beyond its physical space. “Beyond the Americas, there is a huge audience. The geographical boundaries must be removed to reach all of our audiences.”

Baisden believed that expos had allowed African Americans to reach audiences. “You have to go where the people are,” he said. “You have to find out where the organizations are and go to where the people are. You’re looking at the ultimate hustler.”

Baisden wasn’t interested in hundreds showing up to an event. He identified himself as “a thousands guy.” He felt that taking an event on the road with only authors wasn’t going to be successful. You needed music and social activism as well. “One thing I’m going to say,” said Basiden, “and it’s going to sting. We’re not writing enough good books.”

But Baisden’s notion of “good books,” as befitting a man more keen on Robert McKee than Samuel R. Delany’s About Writing, was more about “the entertainment business.” He insisted that audiences were “not coming for your blackness or your soul or your issues. Go to a college campus and speak power to the people.”

“My bestselling books,” said Allen, “are The New Jim Crow, things like Sister Citizen and The Warmth of Other Suns.”

This led Baisden to get somewhat defensive.

“But I can’t stay on the radio if I’m not entertaining you and playing music,” he said.

“But that’s a different medium,” countered Allen. Lloyd-Sgambati pointed out that literacy was down everywhere. Getting people to read wasn’t just an African American problem.

But as one audience member observed, “If we don’t have a naked lady on the front of the book, or somebody with muscles or something, they think we know nothing but that.” But Baisden had to catch a plane for another gig. And as this entrepreneur retreated, it was not only clear that the African American literary marketplace needed to be considered by those still in bed nursing last night’s hangovers, but that it needed far more than a hour of BookExpo programming.

[CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story mistakenly referred to panelist Nakea Murray of As the Page Turns as “Lynda Johnson of the >Go on Girl! Book Club.” Murray replaced Johnson at the last minute. We apologize to Ms. Murray and Ms. Johnson for the error.]