Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Black Books in Controversy: African American Interest Sections

Type the words "African-American" or "black" along with "bookstore sections" into any search engine. You'll most likely pull up a litany of blog posts, articles, etc. likening the the existence of shelf space designated for titles by black authors to everything from "book segregation" to "literary apartheid."

It's a never-ending debate among booksellers, customers, publishers and authors. "Will only black people buy my book if I'm shelved in the African-American interest section?" is definitely a question that I've been asked more than once.

But here are some facts about the two biggest superstores:

Barnes and Noble with the exception of a few outlets, doesn't shelve its African-American fiction separately. That's right, general fiction titles are lined up in alphabetical order regardless of the subject matter, or the author's race. Barnes and Noble does however have an African-American non-fiction section.

Borders does group both black literature and non-fiction titles together, a move they made back in the 70s when instituting an African-American interest section was considered a fairly progressive move. (Two of the more nuanced looks at the issue can be found in this WSJ article and on lit blogger Maud Newton's site.)

Many superstores will argue that having an African-American interest section allows customers interested in those titles to find what they're looking for more easily, and crosslisting all African- American titles would be overly complicated.

But can being shelved in a particular section really hurt a book's chances? I don't think that if someone walks into a bookstore and asks for Beloved or a serious work of non-fiction such as Medical Apartheid and is directed to the African-American interest section that some sort of invisible barbed-wire will prevent them from making the purchase. Still, it's a sensitive issue. And understandably, some people take issue with more literary titles being shelved along side more commercial fare.

But enough of my rambling. I turn this now over to you good readers of this site. Perhaps if enough votes come in from the poll at the bottom of this page, I will send the results to the superstores, letting them know that the people have spoken.

Next Week's Black Books In Controversy: Street Fiction--why it doesn't prevent literary authors from getting published.


Carleen Brice said...

Thanks for inviting me over. I'll definitely be back!

Carleen Brice
Orange Mint and Honey (One World/Ballantine)

Christopher Chambers said...

Thank you for keeping this matter front and center; I blogged on it in April, based on a visit to a big chain. It's something that's been brewing for years--percolating up in casual talk among writers, occasional panels or full blown hating sessions over street lit. I tried to dance that HL Menckenesque razor ballet between nastiness and humor and wound up being plain nasty, I guess.

PS I'm not so sure Barnes & Noble is as meticulous in it's stacking as you think. I suppose if we don't want this Soweto experience we should just buy online?

Anonymous said...

Once again I find myself and other independent bookstore owners on the outside of this discussion. At my stores we simply shelve books in alphabetical order via genre. Most indies do the same thereby bypassing issues of equity.

JMW said...

Interesting subject. I think it would be wrong to put Toni Morrison's books (or Walter Mosley's or Edward Jones') in an African-American section. I do think it's reasonable to have a section for books on African-American history or books that focus on African-American identity, the same way there are sections for books that focus specifically on Russian history or gender studies or economics. It becomes offensive, I think, when someone is shelved their not because of their book's subject but just because of their race.

dweiums said...

"I don't think that if someone walks into a bookstore and asks for Beloved or a serious work of non-fiction such as Medical Apartheid and are directed to the African-American interest section that some sort of invisible barbed-wire is going to prevent them from making the purchase."

Argh!!! The very idea of seeing Morrison's Beloved next to My Cousin's Baby Mama Drama in Church wit' Da Booty on Top by Tukewl Mochaboy makes me cringe. However, I have seen something close to this scene. I've also overheard customers in large bookstores ask "Where are the Black books?"

Mega-booksellers are damned no matter which way they turn. Perhaps the only solution is great promotion by the publisher and the author. That may be the only way to keep the books out in front.

Diane W.
Black Author Showcase

blackgirl on mars said...

This is(surprise, surprise) a complex issue because what we see happening in the bookstores is merely a reflection of a larger dialogue that needs to take place-- not only in the book publishing world, but in the world at large. The whole idea of "Black books" is a reaction to the historically exclusive nature of the business itself, much like BET is a reaction to the historically under-representative nature of television. I think we need to have this conversation on ALL levels, and be a bit patient with bookstores who are actually attempting to either "integrate" or out of respect, oddly find themselves "segregating" the books.
Great blog initiative!

Anonymous said...

I thought we fought for civil rights and more the back of the bus. So why is it acceptable to have an African American book section which unfortunately is 90% dominated by covers that board on soft porn and titles that I'm embarrassed by as a professional, AfAm female.
As a marketer, I don't understand why everything is always 'lets make it easy' for white folks when it comes to anything Black. As such, as long as book sellers continue to segregate our books, I will continue to boycott them, because honestly I don't want to be caught in a book section where I'm embarrassed to be seen by family, friends and esp. my children.
It doesn't matter what readers or authors say, because truth be told, publishers do exactly what they want to do because they believe that all Black folks are a monolithic group. So, until you all change your mindset, and stop lumping all of us together you will never understand our plight and why many of us who are well-read are unfortunately flocking to books by non-AfAm authors, because you unfortunately give us no options and no other choice. Now Toni and Alice don't have to worry because I will search low and high for their book, no matter where it's carried in the store, unless it's in the AfAm section and then I will order it online. Because I don't do AfAm sections.

Anonymous said...

I believe that our titles should be integrated throughout the store! Thank you for giving this topic a voice.

Andromeda Jazmon said...

I agree with jmw - a Black history section OK, shelving based on the assumed race of the author is ridiculous.

Thanks for visiting my blog and telling me about this site. I'll be back to read. One request - could you post in a larger font? I am having trouble reading the screen when you use such a tiny font.

Anonymous said...

The Barnes and Noble in Newport News, VA keeps the majority of their african american books behind the counter. I have been to B and N looking for AA books only to be redirected to the front. That is one of the main reasons why I don't shop @ Barnes and Noble. You have to actually put your body half way over the counter just to see what they have. I HATE THAT! Sorry for Sreaming, but I do. The bookstore I frequent in my area is Borders, because I can see the books I am interested in buying and also read the back cover to explain the book. B and N watches you closely as you hold the book reading it up front. Another thing about bookstores in my area they never have what you are looking for and the first thing they say is we can order it for you. The last time I went to borders and asked for All that Glitters by D.L. Sparks I was told that they could order it for me. I told the sales girl I could do that myself; Good Riddance!

rhonda mcknight said...

As a new author, I have to say I want my book in the place in the store where it will sell. I prefer an African American section, because while tiny it serves a purpose. It's another part of marketing. Bookstores are in the business to make money, not heal social ills. Creating an African American section is about visibility for potential sales. From the merchandising perspective the stores think "we'll put these books where the folks will come and find them." It's really about the money, because other than the classics "we" are the only ones buying "our" books. The real agrument for me is not about placement, but about the size of the AA section. Can we please have more than three shelves?

Lisa said...

Thanks for the invitation to visit this great blog. I would much rather see all fiction integrated into it's proper place throughout each book store so when I'm browsing the new releases, I get to see all of them. I agree with Black Girl on Mars that this is actually a bigger dialogue. What I find interesting is that it's really only fiction written by black authors that's singled out for this different kind of marketing. Middle eastern authors and books in translation are all shelved with everything else. While retaining an African American books section may drive African American book buyers toward those works, it inadvertently discourages readers of other races from seeking them out. Since I'm white, I didn't even know there was a separate section until not long ago. Look at all the books I've missed out on because I didn't know they existed.

Anonymous said...

I will be very honest with you. I am a man. Men are lazy when it comes to shopping, so give me all of the African American books in one section. Plus, I feel much more at home and proud of vast wealth of knowledge and the focus on my heritage when I am able to see all of the books written for, by, and about African Americans at one time.

However, I do believe that these mega-bookstores are doing a great dis-service by focusing too much on Street Lit and not on the numerous other genres that African American authors write about. But if the did that, i'd probably be out of business before I got started officially. :-)

Anonymous said...

I'm a mystery writer and I want to be shelved with the other mystery writers. Fans of mystery fiction, aren't going to the black book section looking for mysteries to read. They are going to the mystery section. I've been told this by plenty of readers both black and white.

Rion Amilcar Scott said...

This is a never-ending conversation. It's surprising that it keeps
going and going despite the fact that only one major store, Borders,
separates the black fiction from the rest. Looking forward to next
week's street fiction discussion, another never-ender.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Borders segregates. Barnes and Noble, by and large, does not. On the other hand, Borders is more likely to stock your book (I know first-hand) if you happen to be a black writer writing literary fiction, fiction which may or may not deal with race.

So -- damned if you do ...

I'm ambivalent about this issue for a host of complicated reasons too long to enter here. But one should add that it is not just bookstores. In my local Boston public libraries they helpfully stick a big, orange "African-American" sticker on any book deemed to be "of interest" to black readers. (Who decides this and how, I don't know.) I only know that the last time I went into an unfamiliar Boston library and asked for the fiction section, the librarian helpfully informed me that if I was looking for the black books, they had such stickers on them. I was actually looking for Doris Lessing, but never mind.

Kim McLarin

Cobb said...

Interestingly, I get some twinges of a creepy feeling when I suddenly find myself in the African American section of the B&N. That's because I'm old enough to remember when there was no such thin. But it doesn't compare to the feeling I get in a record store when I'm in the Rap section which while nowhere near mortal panic, can induce goose bumps. But this is mostly the case when I see miscategorizations that are obvious to me but clearly not to the store owners.

It makes no sense to me to see Jill Scott next to Coolio in a record store. Similarly, I don't expect to see Toni Morrison next to E. Lynn Harris. Now this may sound very subjective and it is, but is African American interest objective? Only to the extent somebody thinks African American interest can be objectified should there be a different section. It seems to me that every customer that wants that convenient objectification is catered to by the store. The open presumption is that such people are black and it is therefore an OK customer demographic which ought to be satiated. I disagree from a subjective standpoint.

Whatever happened to Dewey?

Unknown said...

I think the real problem is not where books by African American authors are shelved; it's how they're marketed. Just because a book is by an African American author doesn't mean that race is pivotal to that work. Obviously, it shapes it, just as, say, growing up in Afghanistan would shape the creative work of an Afghan writer. But why does, say, The Kite Runner get to be a wild hit with universal appeal while most works by African American authors are assumed only to appeal to African American readers from the beginning? The fact is, many of the so-called "literary" black novels (that is, not street lit, but "general" lit by writers who haven't gained the fame of someone like Toni Morrison) would probably appeal more to my upper-middle-class white peers with whom I graduated than some of my black friends from home who prefer titles like Flyy Girl over The Known World. That's why these authors lose out, I think, when they're only promoted to African Americans--they don't even get a chance to cross over, and a good chunk of their supposed readership isn't really going to buy them. The battle is lost even before the books make it to the shelves.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Great post. I have always been an avid follower of They are an African American book publisher that prints multi-cultural books for people of all backgrounds.


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