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A New Chapter for Black Literature

TIMES STAFF WRITER

One historical marker often gets bandied about in the black-book trade: “Pre” and “Post-T.M.”

“T.M.,” of course, for those who somehow escaped the great exhale of 1992, stands for Terry McMillan, the mega-bestselling author who proved that not only that a black reading market does exist, but that it is also long-starved and can be fiercely loyal.

As McMillan’s long anticipated latest novel, “A Day Late and a Dollar Short,” (Viking Press) appears in stores this week, the climate is far different from what “Waiting to Exhale” encountered almost a decade ago.

While a brand new chorus of black voices now occupies the “New Arrivals” shelves and black editors installed in decision-making positions at various mainstream publishing houses are milestones to be roundly celebrated, many critics, booksellers, consumers and writers note that there should also be diversity within the “diversity.” Despite the publishing world’s efforts to create a better snapshot of contemporary black life in America, often the new books seem somewhat one-note. Stories of relationship roller-coasters abound, but many are still hoping for a more textured, expansive view of black life.

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That’s editor Melody Guy’s hope for Strivers Row, Random House’s new African American literature imprint debuting this month in its Villard division. It is the latest attempt by mainstream publishers to enhance the market by providing relevant and resonant African American stories.

Guy used as inspiration New York’s historic Strivers Row--a two-block pocket in Harlem populated in the 1920s and ‘30s by black doctors, lawyers, entertainers and teachers. These “strivers” became symbols of black achievement and role models on a national scale.

“I wanted to tie it to a place. Harlem seemed to be the capital of [African American] creativity and energy,” says Guy. “And I figured you can attach your own meanings to that.”

Arguably, the emergence of Strivers Row, which joins other similar ventures, symbolizes a new energy and sense of possibility currently coursing through the book industry. “For the first time in the history of publishing,” says Max Rodriguez, publisher of QBR: The Black Book Review, “African American authors are in the hands of African American editors.” Editors whose duties, it should be noted, often extend beyond this developing niche.

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This shift has hardly been an overnight phenomenon, however. Nor has it been a quiet evolution. But it’s difficult to believe that almost a decade ago, despite the best efforts of some, popular black fiction published by the big houses seemed often to be reduced only to the triad of Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Gloria Naylor.

Indeed, McMillan’s outrageous, bald, sexy contemporary novels are what gave birth to today’s standing-room-only readings, exuberant monthly book clubs--known as sister circles--and the slew of authors writing the whole new genre of relationship novels known as “girlfriend fiction” and, a bit more derisively, “booty books.”

Publishers quickly took note. And McMillan’s inheritors of the relationship genre, such as Sheneska Jackson and Eric Jerome Dickey have flourished. And they are joined by authors like E. Lynn Harris (“Invisible Life” and “Just as I Am”), who started out as a self-published author and has become a cottage industries in his own right.

The market shift made room for someone like Guy, 30, who began her career on the business side of Simon and Schuster as assistant to the associate publisher and migrated with her boss over to Random House in 1997. Because her perch allowed for an expansive glimpse at the beginning, middle and end of the book business, she began to take an interest in the creative side of things. Within a couple of years, she crossed over to editorial and eventually began acquiring books. Her background gave her a different perspective on the market: “I loved the big picture aspect.”

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The three books that make up Strivers Row’s launch reflect Guy’s desire to mix it up: Guy Johnson’s sprawling historical novel “Standing at the Scratch Line”; Parry “EbonySatin” Brown’s “The Shirt Off His Back,” a domestic tale with a twist--a strong black male protagonist; and Nichelle D. Tramble’s “The Dying Ground,” a hip-hop noir novel.

The plan, says Guy, is to find writers within the self-publishing market who have developed a strong base and fervent word-of-mouth on their own, such as L.A.-based Brown, who has sold 10,000 books by crisscrossing the country, even as she works as a computer accounting consultant.

Strivers also wants to lure consumers into taking a chance on an unknown author, says Guy, in part by competitively pricing these trade-paper books, so that buying them is not a sacrifice but a feel-good splurge. “We’re competing with various forms of entertainment . . . CDs, movies,” so putting them out in trade paper and pricing around $14 a title puts them on the same playing field.

Publishers Are Joining the Action

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Others also share the goal of better representing the whole range of black life. Random House is already looking to publish fiction and nonfiction trade originals under the Harlem Moon imprint; and Dafina books, a division of Kensington Publishing--launched last fall with two trade paperback titles “Souls of My Sisters: Black Women Break Their Silence, Tell Their Stories and Heal Their Spirits” a collection of personal memoirs, and “Lookin’ for Luv,” a novel by Carl Weber.

Hyperion’s Jump at the Sun imprint focuses on African American children’s literature and Walk Worthy, a co-publishing venture between Warner books and a Detroit-based agent, Denise Stinson, plans to develop a list of black Christian-themed fiction. They join a field already staked out by other long-standing imprints, including Amistad Press--once independently owned and now a division of HarperCollins--and Ballentine’s One World Books, another Random House imprint. This list doesn’t take into account independent ventures like Black Classic Press, Third World Press or African American Images, which have attempted to go it alone.

“What’s unique now,” says Calvin Reid, news editor at Publisher’s Weekly, “is that, yes, there are more imprints than ever before. Mainstream publishers are recognizing that black people are buying books if you publish them. Surprise, surprise.” But, says Reid, the other side issue, which is of more far-reaching importance, is “there are many more young, aggressive ambitious [black] people on the editorial side who now have the power to buy the books that black readers want to read.” From business and travel books aimed at black audiences to serious academic books looking at African American culture, what we’ve learned, underscores Reid, is “not just black people are curious about black people.”

Farron Roberts, co-owner with his wife Joann, of the Phenix Information Center in San Bernardino, is hopeful, but guardedly so. His store is one of the must-stops for many high-profile African American authors on book tours. “The concept is good,” he says of Strivers Row, “but it isn’t an original one. It seems to be a fashion or a trend. Our culture is not a trend. Not like a pair of platform shoes that comes back into vogue.”

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The issue isn’t just about simply putting the books out, Roberts suggests, but also making sure they get the right attention. “Black books have a longer shelf life. It takes awhile for them to get into the right hands and get the word-of-mouth going,” he says. "[The publishers] try to meet the bottom line, but the bottom line doesn’t translate to cultural issues. It takes a different approach.”

Reid, though, thinks that aspect is changing, too. “The key is that the people running the imprints at these major houses have a much more sophisticated notion about how to market these books. You market them the normal way--that’s pretty key--but you [also] take in the habits of your market. You can’t just buy an ad in the New York Times Book Review.” This means marketing through beauty shops, church groups and book clubs.

“I think you are going to be seeing a number of these publishers using some of the same techniques that these self-published authors have used to promote these books,” says Reid.

QBR’s Max Rodriguez sees a larger, logical evolution. “Someone once asked Toni Morrison to give a definition of African American literature, and she answered: ‘Any literature based on slavery.’ . . . I tend to agree. A body of work that is rooted in the pathos of not being recognized, the lack of love between men and women . . . and pain. Is that not reflective of the experience of slavery?” asks Rodriguez. “These new imprints give us another point of view that is not rooted in any sort of ‘lack.’ In many ways, we’re actually asking these publishers to help us through our self-transformation. These books are a place that we make assessments about where we’ve been and where we’re going.”

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The next stage, Rodriguez hopes, “should be books that simply talk about our life. Not about black issues, but human issues. Not at the expense of traditional black literature. I think it’s possible that as the market expands, that room will be created where they can sit side-by-side.”

“I think that the question has shifted to where it rightfully should be: What is it that the market wants to know about? What is the language they want to hear it in?” says Rodriguez. “What is credible and what is not?”


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