Saturday, December 09, 2006

Novelist, or black novelist?

The WSJ has an interesting article (free here) on racial segregation in the US book market. The debate housed within the feature concerns how novels written by black authors should be categorized: As black novels, or by genre like the rest of the fiction world.

While bookstore revenues are down 1.6% so far in 2006 (and given the continual growth in second-hand online auction sites like Ebay that hardly indicates a drop in total book purchases), black consumers are now spending $300 million a year on books, twice what was spent in during the nineties (hopefully this is in part a result of potentially rising black IQs).

In a nation with nearly 39 million blacks, that comes to a paltry $7.70 per year, but at least the growth rate is significant. The most recent year I could find comparative national data for was economically stagnant 2002, in which US consumers spent $26.9 billion on books, or about $90 per person. Taking the WSJ estimate and removing blacks from the total 2002 number, non-blacks in the US spent about $102 on books. The gap is still huge.

Why the segregation? Because it makes money:
Carol Stacy, [Romantic Times Book Reviews'] publisher, says the African-American label makes it easier for readers to find those books. "We know we're walking a fine line, but the reader wants to know if a book has African-American characters," she says. Publishers deliberately market books to black readers that way, she adds.
Translation: Blacks want to read about blacks. Yeah, we're race-pandering, but we're talking about black racialism. That only elicits a subtle frown in elite circles, and only when the issue can't be skirted. No curtain please, we have images to cultivate.

A top business executive from Third World Press, comforting putatively ammoral and unscupulous marketing majors ("We don't create culture, we represent what is already there"), echoes Stacy's sentiments:
Bennett J. Johnson, vice president of Chicago's Third World Press and a longtime publisher of black authors, says the practice appeals to a universal proclivity to think in terms of race. In that sense, publishing is merely a reflection of how the world works, he says.

Of course it does. Racial groups are best understood as extended families with some level of inbreeding present. As a son prefers his father over a stranger, and shares more in common with his father than the stranger, so do blacks tend to prefer the company of other blacks and share more in common with them than with people of other races. This closeness is cemented in both genetics and culture. Grasping this creates a world that is much easier to make sense of. And it's not rocket science. But widespread, willful ignorance on the subject is why discerning guys like Johnson are able to propel their companies to the top--Third World is the largest black-owned press in the US.

The article highlights an interesting court battle:
Ms. Aldred filed a lawsuit against her publisher, the American arm of Pearson PLC's Penguin Group, in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. In the suit, she alleges that her editor asked her to change the characters in her newly published second novel, "The Great Betrayal," from white to black or race-neutral. In an attempt to lure black readers, the proposed cover art featured an African-American couple, the suit adds. ...

In her filing, Ms. Aldred says the publisher eventually backed down -- the final cover features an unmade bed -- but she still sued, alleging racial discrimination.

Racial discrimination against the characters in her novel? Even the fantastical recesses of our minds aren't safe!

Presumably Penguin's done its marketing research and doesn't want to move away from marketing to an explicit black identity, although the article mentions that there are no publicly available sales figures to compare the two alternative strategies (I assume there are plenty of private data, though). To understand how powerful this identity is (constantly reinforced in media sources from magazines like Ebony to clothing lines like FUBU to audio broadcasts like the Steve Harvey Morning Show), consider this:

Although there are eleven times as many white households with home computers as there are black households with home computers in the US, a Google search for "White community" yields only 415,000 hits. "Black community", in contrast, returns 1,140,000. Aldred wants to hit it big time, but risks capsizing in the open ocean. Marketing by genre is an all-or-nothing proposition; marketing exclusively to blacks is a safer bet.

The challenge she faces is similar to the challenge black politicians face--they can either race-pander unapologetically in majority-black districts and be elected to the House (where there are 42 black representatives) or take the message to the broader public, usually with very limited success (Barack Obama is the US' lone (half) black Senator, and unlike the world of politicking, building a sustainable reader base requires more than vague press adulations (ie "rising star") and euphemized, unspecific policy positions).

Perhaps Aldred, in trying to determine if her books will do better in the "Romance" section or the "Black" section of bookstores should heed the advice of another author quoted in the article:
[McMillan's] solution: Put books by African-Americans in both places.
Great idea. I'll ask Google to follow suit. Instead of returning this site only when "state iq estimates" or only when "audacious epigone" is searched for, let's also return it when "movie", "politics", "religion", "thanksgiving", "football", "music", "blog", "mammon machine", or any of the first 26 letters of the alphabet are present somewhere in the search.

1 comment:

Fat Knowledge said...

I remember being amazed when reading Freakonomics how different the top watched TV shows were between white and black audiences. If I remember correctly only Monday Night Football was in the top 10 for both races. Seinfeld (the greatest TV show of all time) never made the top 10 for black audiences (if I am remembering correctly). I just never understood that. But, after the whole Kramer incident, maybe they knew something that I didn't. :)