The new bestsellers: titles with ready-made audiences and mega-media support are delivering new challenges and rewards to publishers.

Author:Smikle, Ken
Position:Cover story

Sunday, April 23, 2006, was not just an unusual day. It was a historic one. What occurred didn't make the front page of newspapers, but more than seven million readers of the New York Times were witnesses to the event. They were, that is, if they read with scrutiny the paper's closely followed best-selling books lists.

There atop the entries listed beneath the category "Paperback Best Sellers," with its one and a half dozen nonfiction titles, was entry No, 1, The Covenant With Black America. Among those readers who did take notice was Haki Madhubuti, founder and publisher of Chicago--based Third World Press. He read the Book Review that day with a subdued sense of satisfaction, and his characteristically calm demeanor underplayed the historic occasion.

The Covenant With Black America had just become the first title by an African American book publisher to reach the No. 1 position in the 60-year history of the New York Times' lists of best-sellers.

Not that Madhubuti wasn't proud of the accomplishment, nor was he arrogant about the success. For four weeks proceeding April 23, he watched as this latest book released by his publishing enterprise climbed steadily up the chart. He had every reason to believe that capturing one of the most coveted prizes in publishing was well within the realm of possibility--even for a so-called "serious black book." When it finally happened, it vindicated all that he had worked towards for nearly four decades.

Then, just as the buzz of celebration was taking hold throughout the publishing industry, it happened again. Another "black book" claimed a historic first just one week after The Covenant made news. And the circumstances could not have been more different than the story behind Third World Press' achievement.

Don't Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings: Madea's Uninhibited Commentaries on Love and Life (Riverhead Books) by Tyler Perry, earned the distinction of becoming the first book by an African American author to enter the New York Times list at No. 1. The nonfiction hardback is a collection of shoot-from-the-lip homespun wisdom as told in the voice of his alter ego, Madea Simmons. Perry's portrayal of the grandmotherly Madea in blockbuster movies and theatrical runs has been the foundation of his rapidly growing entertainment empire.

What accounts for the unexpected success of these two books? Are they part of a publishing trend? While each title took a different path to reach the coveted spot...

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