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Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Segregation as a Book Marketing Tool

Most African-American authors know the area where they’re likely to find their books. It is usually a section to the rear, maybe juxtaposing the Gay Interest Section and Erotica (not Romance, mind you), sections certain bookstores feel shouldn’t be as readily noticeable. In one of my city’s bookstores, the African-American books are placed behind the register so they won’t “walk away by themselves.”

Booksellers feel that it just makes good business sense to group similar books together to make it easier for its intended reading audience to find certain titles and authors. Therefore, mysteries are shelved together, likewise sci-fi/fantasy, horror and romance. Well, here’s the rub: it makes sense to group by genre, but does it really make sense to group by race? And how does that shelf order work? One shelf for Af-Am mysteries, another for Af-Am romance, and yet another for Af-Am horror? Well, it does make sense to group by racial categorization if the publisher only intends to sell to a black market.

But let’s just think where Walter Moseley would be were he not grouped with the general mysteries. I don’t think his sales would be where they are today (although a plug from then-President Clinton didn’t hurt). Those lucky few African-American authors who have broken out of the book placement ghetto have done so because their books are marketed to a wide audience or through fortuitous circumstances reached outside their targeted market. Writers like Tananarive Due, Halo Hopkinson, E. Lynn Harris, and now even Zane. Exception: literary black writers like Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and Edward P. Jones have always been shelved with other literary authors, because in this case, their culture actually works in attracting a cross-over audience. One strange case of marketing is Octavia Butler, whose sci-fi books have always been shelved with the general sci-fi books only because her publisher marketed her as a white writer or at least presented her black characters as white on the covers. They have since re-issued her books with covers featuring her protagonists as they are written, in glorious technicolor brown and black.

But shouldn’t all books be marketed and shelved by genre, not race? Publishers would argue that they want to make it easier for their core readers to find the books. But I personally feel that the core audience won’t be lost by publishers and booksellers expanding beyond the targeted demographic. Instead of using segregated marketing and book ghettoizing as a marketing tool, why not trust the core audience to search out their preferred books by title and author – similar to what mainstream readers do. Why are African-American books treated as special interest whose readers wouldn’t be able to find the books without a map to the ghetto? And why assume that mainstream audiences wouldn’t appreciate books by someone like Eric Jerome Dickey, Brandon Massey, Monica Jackson, Valerie Wilson Wesley, and, in the near future, hopefully me?

Maybe publishers and booksellers need to give their audiences, both black and white and those who fall between and outside that spectrum, the autonomy to choose what they want to read by subject matter and stop penalizing readers based on some outdated assumptions.

Note: Here are the first issued and re-issued covers for Octavia Butler's Dawn:

Sharon Cullars Coffee Talk at 9/13/2005 09:06:00 AM Permanent Link     | | Home


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