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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Reaching the African American Reader and cracking the African-American Book Market- My Dilemma

Over the past three years I’ve sold  books. And I’ve sold  eBooks.
But I haven’t sold many to African-Americans.

Strangely, breaking down the demographics on more recent titles most of my readers in the U.S. have been White.

Even stranger my books and eBooks are starting to sell better in the UK, Canada Australia and Germany than in the Black community. To my surprise I’ve gained more foreign readers than African-American readers with the YA ebook campaign.

When I first got into self-publishing I never thought it was possible to crack the foreign markets. But strangely, I’ve made more progress there in a year than with the African-American community in a decade.

I’m wondering: What am I doing wrong in the African-American community?

I've done everything I possibly can to reach out to Black customers. I’ve sent out postcards, visited African-American bookstores like Hue-Man, networked with vendors in Harlem and The Bronx and attended events like the Harlem Book Fair to make my books visible to African-Americans. I've spent thousands trying to target brothers and sisters. But for all my work I’ve run into a brick wall of resistance I can’t seem to break through.

I've had more White people get excited about books like All About Marilyn than African-Americans. And that saddens me because it speaks volumes about the state of the Black community. It feels like things are stifling creatively here, and everyone is comfortable in a box full of stereotypes.

One of the main reasons I became a writer and a publisher was to reach African-American readers. But almost ten years in this publishing game, it seems like I’m failing on that part of my mission.

I have to wonder if Black readers want positive stories about the African-American experience. Do they want to read about African-Americans who have good jobs, college educations, and their own businesses? Do they want stories that promote the traditional conservative values of the African-American community? Do they want books where they come out of the experience where they learn something in addition to being entertained?

I also have to wonder if African-American readers want a diversified book market where they can buy books like screenplays, teleplays, and African-American fantasy?

Or do Black readers just want more of the same old stories they’ve been getting for the past twenty  years such as:

The Single Successful educated Black woman who is looking for a man,

The story of the three or four Black women and their problems,

Black Man Bashing Blackwoman drama,

Baby Mama drama,

The street hustler who is looking for the big score,

The street hustler (male or female) looking to get paid in the drug game,

The Ride or die chick on the run with her man while they try to escape the cops,

The story of the Madam and her hoes,

Or the Christian stories which pretty much follow the same predictable premises.
That’s what I’m seeing in the African-American fiction section at the bookstore. That’s what’s selling with Black folks. Not what I’m currently publishing.

I’d like to think there is more than one African-American experience. And I’d like to think there are African-American readers interested in learning about Black life outside of the ghetto. These are the stories I thought African American readers desperately needed to see on a bookshelf.

But it seems like African-American audiences aren’t interested when I present them to them.
 Or am I just going over Black folks’ heads. Sometimes I have to wonder: Do Black readers want fiction like mine?

Sometimes I ponder if I should move on to those White and foreign audiences who are actually paying to buy my books. But I fear if I start writing stories to target those White and foreign readers in the U.S. and the international markets I’ll be branded a sell-out and an Uncle Tom by the Black community.

The same Black community that hasn’t been buying my books for close to a decade. And these same Black people who would deride me for not “keeping it real” were the same ones who passed me by when I was reaching out for them. I’m supposed to starve to prove my Blackness to the Black community while they buy street lit and erotica.

What’s even more frustrating is that I’ve made every effort to reach Black readers. I’ve spent close to ten years and thousands of dollars trying to reach Black readers. Low prices, high prices, free books, autographed copies, none of it is connecting with brothers  and sisters and getting them to buy my work or even try it in significant numbers.

In an age of the plotless idiocy of Tyler Perry, the coonery known as Hip-hop, the brain rot known as BET and the thuggery of Street Lit, it seems like Black people don’t want positive stories about the African-American experience. Sometimes I feel like I’m wasting my time and my money marketing towards the Black community.

It saddens me that almost a decade after I got into this publishing game I’m still having a harder time reaching the African-American readers I set out to sell books to than every other audience in the world. In an age where there’s a 70 percent dropout rate, high unemployment, low literacy, and a political climate that looks like it’s regressing to Jim Crow I know there’s a desperate need for stories like I write in the Black community.
Unfortunately, I’m learning the easiest way to hide the information like I produce from Black people is in between the pages of a book.

I love my brothers and sisters. And in spite of all my losses I’m still making efforts to reach the Black readers. I just wish I could figure out a way to make a breakthrough in the African-American book market. 


  1. Very good, Shawn, and certainly thought provoking. We know by now that it's a fact of life that oppressed people tend to continue that oppression themselves and all too often identify with their oppressors. So, I think we've turned in on ourselves and identify only with the negative aspects of our lives as African Americans.

    I wish I knew the answer the answer to this. No statement was ever truer than the White longshoreman writing in True Believer: "It isn't the monstrous prejudice of whites that hurts black people so much; it's their monstruous inner agreement with that prejudice."

    Sad, but true. Our lives depend on our changing this. Blogs like this can only help.

  2. Shawn, I agree wholeheartedly with Ms. Craft! I also wanted to say, and it's just my opinion, that I truly think you should write for yourself, not anyone else. I think in life you can't please everyone, so please yourself. Writer's only write their best works when writing what truly makes them happy. What is so wrong with selling books to people of all races, or other countries? If you are successful outside the black community, it will follow that eventually you will find success within most, if not all, communities.

    I certainly admire you for your efforts to make a difference in the black community. I think by going your own way you will make that difference by setting an example.

    If you are still curious as to what the stricktly black audience wants, its simple to figure out, do a survey. Go right out on the street, introduce yourself as an author without telling them what you have written, and just ask; 'Out of curiosity, what is your favorite subject matter in a novel?"

    I have actually done surveys like this. You will be surprised at the results, I guarantee it! But please remember that the best fiction novels were not written towards other's tastes.

    Have you thought of not promoting yourself as a 'black writer'? I think, on all levels, it is restricting yourself as a writer to label yourself. To be honest, I never thought of you as a 'black' writer when reading your novels. I just thought of you as an innovative writer.

    And again, I agree with Ms. Craft, your blog can only help the cause.

  3. Interesting comments, but please don't paint all African American readers (especially women) with such broad brushstrokes. I discovered your work last year and purchased two of your novels. I also belong to great book discussion venues discovered on Goodreads and LibraryThing. There are several book bloggers throughout the African disapora that review and promote authors. We have a strong group on Twitter including many authors (well-known and just getting started). While I read books from around the world, I do focus a large amount of my collection on Black authors.

  4. Definitely don't give up. I was able to reach my target audience (African American women and men) by finding bookclubs on; getting book reviews focusing on the African American experience (like Urban Reviews and OOSA); joining online African American Yahoo reader groups; and social media like Blackplanet and Facebook.

  5. Definitely not painting Black audiences with a broad brush.

    Dusky, I thank you for your support. I'm glad you've bought two of my titles. I'm not giving up on trying to reach the Black audience. I just am a little disappointed about reaching more foriegn readers than Black readers. Over the past year I've had sales in the UK, Canada Germany, Austrailia and even China, but not many in the U.S. I rarely hear from black readers, but I hear from foriegn readers and White readers about my work.

    And I'm also not giving up on the Black community. I've submitted to numerous book clubs like OOSA, APOOO, and used social networks like twitter, Facebook, LinkedIN, Blackplanet and I'm looking to stay on my mission to promote work featuring postive stories about the African-American experience and diversifying the Black book market.