"THE PROBLEM OF THE 20TH CENTURY IS THE PROBLEM OF THE COLOR LINE," said W.E.B. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk, published in 1903. In that too-recently-ended era of legal segregation, the powerless condition of black people could be recognized as a "problem."
In today's parlance where the desire for diversity has all but replaced the imperative for affirmative action, and it sounds almost inappropriate to ask if blacks wield power in the book industry commensurate with the $326 million that blacks spent on books in 2003 (the most recent study), according to Target Market News, which tracks spending by African Americans.
But BIBR asked the questions: In the 15 years since blacks became recognized as a bankable book market, have African American individuals made commensurate strides in book industries, and are we in charge of our own cultural destiny? We chose to ask these questions now because 15 years is a generation for the industry, and most would identify 1992 as the demarcation of when the book industry saw black readers as book buyers.
That was the season that, as Toni Morrison recalled in a 1994 interview with The New York Times Book Review, "there were four books by black women on the best-seller lists--at the same time. Terry McMillan's, Alice Walker's and two of mine." She also noted that Brothers and Sisters (G.P. Putnam, 1994) by Bebe Moore Campbell was a Book of the Month Club main selection. (Walker had the 10th anniversary edition of The Color Purple (Harcourt) that year and Morrison had Jazz (Knopf, 1992) and Playing in the Dark (Harvard University Press, 1992).
All surprised their publishers, as well as booksellers, with phenomenal sales. McMillan's Waiting to Exhale (Viking, 1992) sold 1.75 million copies and remained on the New York Times Best Sellers list for 24 weeks. The following year, Morrison also won the Nobel Prize for literature.
Since Richard Wright's Native Son in 1940 and The Street by Ann Petry in 1946, the industry had seen an occasional best-seller by black authors and in 1992 books by Alice Walker and Toni Morrison had graced The New York Times best-seller list at the same time. (Morrison's Song of Solomon, in 1977, had sold 3 million copies and was on the New York Times best-seller fist for 16 weeks.)
What made that 1992 season different was that these authors were writing for black readers, and blacks were buying their books in numbers that made publishers and booksellers take notice. The numbers indicated that a lot of white readers must be buying them, too. To capitalize on that momentum, the industry would need more books and authors that appealed to the same audience.
Before and after it became apparent to white people that African Americans were a market (We knew we were), a few blacks had been in place inside the industry bringing the occasional quality book by black authors to the market. In the 1990s, they stepped in to fill the void, along with newcomers who were sought out by publishers. These black managers built imprints inside major publishers or created books on their own, generating a phenomenal rise in titles and genres in fiction and nonfiction, reflecting the black experience in America. An eager audience snapped them up, churning up millions in sales.
Those factors also led to the creation of Black Issues Book Review in January 1999, and as we thought about our 7th anniversary, we wanted to look at the industries that bring black books to market--publishing, distribution and sales--and for blacks in positions of power in these industries. Our researchers consulted Internet resources, made direct queries to individuals known in the book industries, drew on BIBR's knowledge base and checked out word-of-mouth sources.
What emerges from the list we compiled is insight into who is controlling the black literary landscape. Writers write, but decision makers in these industries provide or block access to publication and distribution.
They essentially lock and unlock the gates of black book culture. Yet we found that few blacks were in positions of power in the established book publishing, distribution and retail industries. That is the bad news. Our search turned up only three black people at the vice president level at major publishing houses, none at a major distributor and none at a national book retailer.
Owning the Press
The good news is that ownership, often starting with self-publishing, is beginning to translate into power, although with great struggle. Our list includes a healthy number of black-owned publishers, distributors and booksellers, who together have had a huge impact on the growth of black reading culture these past 15 years.
(That number is sadly diminished by the deaths of Toni Trent Parker in September 2005 and Glen Thomson in 2001. Parker was founder of Kids Cultural Books and Black Books Galore!, and almost single-handedly brought black-interest children's books to the widest possible audience with her traveling book fairs and huge events at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D. C., and St. John the Divine in New York City.
Thomson's publishing house, Writers and Readers, made a strong mark on the cultural landscape since its founding in 1974. His "For Beginners" documentary comic book series covered subjects from Marx to Malcolm X and his Black Butterfly children's books won numerous awards.
The list is alphabetical with sidebars on some subspecialties. It is not ranked because no blacks are in true power positions or are owners of companies with major competitive power in the overall $23.72 billion book industry. There is simply not enough difference between these individuals to rank the list. All have impact and influence, and together they are the creators of the current vibrant black book industry.
Though unintentionally, we have almost certainly left people off the list who should be on it. Let us know where we erred. (Contact us at www.bibookreview.com.)
Finally, it will undoubtedly be asked, why we limited this list to blacks. Since today's watchword is diversity (gone are the stronger terms equality, affirmative action, reparations, economic justice), we'll be questioned...