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Friday, September 30, 2005

Book segregation redux

I previously posted about the illogical marketing practice by publishers and booksellers of separating Af-Am books into one section by the race of the author, and not the actual genre of the book. I said that I believed this would curtail sales for the author, despite the industry's premise that black purchasers appreciate the convenience of being able to go to one section to find their favorite author. My concern was that books marketed this way would only reach a limited section of the buying market and now I've been proved right.

Acclaimed author Tayari Jones (Leaving Atlanta, The Untelling) blogged today at Maud Newton about her change of mind from supporting book segregation to eventually realizing how the racial separation had limited her sales. She previously believed that people bought her book because they liked black authors and specifically sought out black authors. Her Amazon listing seemed to prove that point as she noticed those who liked her book bought books by other black authors and likewise books by white authors were bought by people who bought books by other white authors. To her, it was an open and shut case. But then something happened to change her mind:

I went on tour to promoteThe Untelling. Luckily, Warner Books assigned my novel to Linda Duggins, one of the best (and highest ranking) African American publicists in the business. On my own, I hired Lauren Cerand, an Anglo-American who specializes in event bookings and online publicity. The combined efforts of these very smart and very different women put The Untelling in the hands of a wide swath of the literary community.

I visited black bookstores like
Marcus Books in Oakland, and "mainstream" stores like A Clean Well Lighted Place for Books in San Francisco. Valerie Boyd reviewed The Untelling for the Atlanta Journal Constitution and Susan Straight covered it for The Believer. I hit the women’s book circuit, reading at Charis Books in Atlanta and Bluestockings in New York City. A few weeks ago, I published an Op-Ed in The New York Times. As a result of these varied efforts, The Untelling has worked an uncommon mojo: it has found readers in all different sectors of the reading population.

I am surprised and pleased — as are many of my new readers. Their letters often begin with a disclosure of their race and/or gender. "I am a white man, but I really enjoyed your book" or "I’m not black but your book really touched me." Often they explain the string of coincidences which caused them to read this book of mine, a work that they wouldn’t have read except for these extraordinary circumstances. I answer all the mail I receive because I really do believe that literature is universal. I want to encourage these readers to keep reading work by women and people of color. I don’t want to be the Great Exception on anyone’s bookshelf. I want to start something.

This takes me back to the bookstore question. With the increased readership, I find myself wondering what would happen if my book were shelved differently. Right now, you’ll find
The Untelling in The Colored Section, cozy between Yolanda Joe and Benilde Little. Now that I have managed to make a little bit of my name for myself, I would probably get more action if I were shelved in the "literature" section right in the front of the store instead of in a separate section, three aisles back. (bold added by me)

Exactly what I've been saying.

Sharon Cullars Coffee Talk at 9/30/2005 08:22:00 PM Permanent Link     | | Home


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