Tuesday, July 19, 2011

'The $64,000 Question'

Today I participated in an internet conversation about how African American (AA) books and authors are not getting their due.  This was based on a conversation started on the FaceBook page of author Victoria Christopher Murray about why she isn’t a fan of ‘The Help’.  The onus was “why is it when an AA writer pens a book about US it doesn’t generate buzz.  But when a white person writes a book about us it garners praises, literary prizes, and movie rights”.  ‘The Help’ was written by Kathryn Stockett and the two AA books that were being used as “control” were ‘Wench’ by Dolen Perkins-Valdez and ‘Glorious’ by Bernice L. McFadden. 

It was a good discussion that made you feel bad and good at the same time.  Good because you had a page full of people talking, sharing, laughing, sympathizing, debating, all for the love of books.  Bad, because we all see a problem and are not quite sure on how to fix it.  Our authors are writing VERY good books, the readers are chatting it up and reviewing the books, and the bookstores are closing.  Oops.  The purpose of this blog is to answer one of the questions posed by Bernice L. McFadden; “what do we need to do”?  I commented that it was the $64,000 question and others were stumped as well.  So tonight as I was making my bologna and egg sandwiches I jotted a few ideas, thought about them for a few seconds, and decided to write this blog.

So… “What do we need to do”?  Taking everything into consideration I think we (the AA book community) need EXPOSURE!  Discussions on authors FaceBook pages, book talk radio, and blogs are all good but the problem is we are preaching to the choir.  If someone tunes into a book talk radio it’s because they want to be there.  It isn’t like some show on NBC that you keep on only because you are too lazy to look for the remote.  You have to actively GO to a website to listen.  Same with an author’s website or FB page.  Yes, you might have joined as a fan in the beginning, but if you participate in discussions it is because you WANT to.  You initiate the contact.  What we need to do is get to the people who ARE NOT reading.  How?  EXPOSURE.

I know advertising takes money but that is only one venue.  We need to call out OUR media to take some responsibility for their lack of participation.  When was the last time you saw an author on ‘106 & Park’?  I’m calling them out because that show is extremely popular what a ton of influence.  We have numerous authors who would LOVE to have the opportunity, to talk about their book for a few minutes.  I work in a bookstore and I can tell you this for a fact: the fastest growing demographic for readers now is young adult women.  But not young Black women.  The young adult market has blown up as of late due in part to a number of extremely popular series.  So much so that authors that have usually written only for adults are now writing for teens.  Can you imagine how inspiring it would be to have a beautiful, articulate Black woman taking the books she has written?  Imagine a ReShonda Tate Billingsly or a Victoria Christopher Murray speaking to a group of young black women?  Pipe dream?  I don’t think so.

I watch '106 & Park' and they have plenty of time to showcase authors, especially with some of the dumb stuff they put on there to fill in time.  Black men have always brought up the rear in the demographic that reads the least.  Want to change that?  Put Eric Jerome Dickey and let them hear… let them HEAR how intelligent and traveled this brother is.  Let them bask in his sense of humor as I have, let them read about Driver… about Gideon.  And since I’m not the type of person (like some) to put down “street lit”, while you’re at it, put K’wan in front of the camera and watch him grind.  Something like this is NEEDED to help with the exposure.  And it can happen… tomorrow.  And I don’t want to hear about the weak excuses as to why it can't be done.  If ‘106 & Park’ can take time to talk to some B-rated rapper then can easily take the time to welcome a New York Times Best Selling author.  They have an obligation to promote the written word, one on which they have fallen embarrassingly short. 

The NAACP Image Awards.  While having a category for literature, does not show the awards live.  This needs to change as of yesterday.  I’m not saying you need to do every category but is two too much to ask?   And with the celebrities in attendance you mean to tell me that you can’t let Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Walter Mosley, or Nikki Giovanni say a few words about the craft that they helped shape?  Again, I’m talking about EXPOSURE.  We all know that anything sells better if you put it in the face of the masses.  I have no doubt that this would be the same with books.  Don’t believe me?  OK then, explain the feeding frenzy that comes when a movie is release based on a book.  Even if the book has been out for YEARS!  Before ‘Twilight’ how many commercials did you see promoting Stephanie Meyer?  Before ‘Precious’ how many magazine adds did you see for ‘Push’?  Hell, even with Harry Potter I didn’t see J.K. Rowling books on the big screen in New York before the movies came out!

If you build it, they will come.

If we would take advantage of what we already have to help with what authors are already doing, I think we can turn this apathy for reading around.  One of the few authors that actually advertise on TV is James Patterson.  Now before you say “but he’s rich”!  1. Yeah… he is.  2. His commercials aren’t all that.  His latest commercial has him standing holding his book looking at the camera 60% of the time.  We can’t do that?  Why can’t we do better than that?  We might not be able to advertise on primetime TV but we can make a commercial.  Can’t we?  Please don’t think I’m making this to be simple, I’m not.  I just think that we need to FIND a way to get the EXPOSURE.  If there is a movie based on a book, why not show a short trailer of the book before the movie?  Give the author a few minutes to speak about their work, make it fun, and then start the 46 minutes of trailers.  The more I think about it, the more sense that makes.  Movie theatres have every toy, t-shirt, and stupid widget known to man and Klingon in their lobbies promoting the movie, why not the book?

Even if a movie isn’t based on the book why could you still not promote a book in the same genre?  Have Kimberla Lawson Roby introduce a T.D. Jakes movie.  Zane could introduce the next ‘Basic Instinct’ movie. (hehehehehehe).  Stephen Carter, the next John Grisham.  I work in the book industry so I know money is tight everywhere, but I think in order to save our industry we must re-invest in our industry.  Borders Books announced today that they will close every single one of their stores.  Books-A-Million said they might buy 50 of the stores.  Good for them.  Re-invest in the industry.  Most of the authors I know bust their butt on tour and even drive themselves around using their own money.  Re-invest in the industry.  One author has started her own chapter-a-month website.  Re-invest in the industry.  How about an ad or three in ‘Ebony’ magazine? 

Can you tell me what day and time gets the lowest viewer ratings?  Sunday morning from 5am-9am.  Why not use this time, in the beginning, to have a 30-minute segment about books on BET?  I would venture to guess that a small segment on the hottest AA books out is a tad more important than an infomercial on the newest way to boil your veggies.  I’d be happy with that because it’s a step in the right direction.  I don’t expect a book segment on The Source Awards, but BET and the NAACP Images Awards should be a no brainer.  We always hear that “we should stick together”.  We lovingly, and at times not so lovingly, call each other brotha' and sista'.  So let’s start acting like it.  Brothers and sisters are family.  Family helps family. 

There needs to be more pride in our written word and those who write it.  Just because society as a whole has fallen off into the non-reading sink hole does not mean that we should follow suit.  Matter of fact, we need to grab a cement truck full of books and plug said hole.  We should set the pace for once instead of following.  It all starts with one.  Who will be first?  To her credit Monique has had a few authors on but she can do better.  Steve Harvey can do a lot better.  Wendy Williams, if she could read, would probably have authors on.  As a bookstore manager I am always in the position of having to think of ways to get people to read books.  I’m always thinking of a book contest or something quirky to post or write.  We are in the position that we must think outside the box.  Did I not see somewhere where Mary B. Morrison had a Lexus dealership to sponsor one of her book functions?  THAT was a very unique move.  EXPOSURE.  That will be the difference between ‘The Help’ being made into a blockbuster movie and ‘Glorious’ being made into a Lifetime movie.

Most people think that the #1 revenue for bookstores is bestsellers.  Most people would be wrong, its book signings.  Wanna take a swat at what #2 is?  Its recommendations by staff.  Let me say that again, with all the useless coupons being forced down our throat and all the gaudy in-store signs, the #2 revenue for bookstores are staff recommendations.  IE: word of mouth.  Believe it.  I’ve seen it, I do it, and I swear by it.  I remember last year (I think) when Victoria Christopher Murray said how phenomenal ‘Perfect Peace’ by Daniel Black was.  She started a wildfire!  So fierce was her word, that for a while Ingram's stock on that book was on back order.  I ordered two for my store and kept reordering to keep it in stock.  A few months later two young ladies came in and were checking out my AA section.  They were shocked and excited that we had the books and bought BOTH copies because they couldn’t find it anywhere … and … AND one of them had taken his class.  Small world huh?

Nothing makes me feel better than reading a thread and seeing authors that I know and love respond to the thread.  REAL authors support other authors and know that the world of the written word is not a place for competition.  Because I’m a book reviewer I have a special place in my heart for my kin.  We do a special job because we love what we do.  This is how we contribute.  This is how we do our part.  This is our shouting from the mountaintop.  But even with the work that we do, the authors, and the publisher, it’s still tough out there.  We are a multi-facetted society.  OUR media needs to be the same.  OUR media needs to get just as excited about the new Carleen Brice book as they do about the new Tyler Perry film.  OUR people need to see more authors, writers, publisher, in their everyday life.  OUR media needs to be taught to respect and honor the craft.  OUR society needs to see that reading isn’t just some passing fad; it’s the first step in keeping the populace educated. 

It’s all about EXPOSURE.  Give a man a fish you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.  Give a man a book and he’ll read for a day, teach him what to read and he’ll read for a lifetime.


  1. Great post. Very insightful and very true! We all need to come together and places/institutions like BET and NAACP need to do a better job of serving our community! We all do! Thanks!

  2. That was a great post Jason! I am trying to help promote AA authors as much as I can!

  3. Jason you have said a mouth full thank for this wonderful and true statement. I spoke to Mrs. Emma Rodgers the former owner of Black Images last night about Borders closing and "The Help". She had told me four years ago to purchase my books when they come out because it is going to be hard to find AA books. And author will have to work hard to market their books to studio and learn how to write screen plays for their books. Ice Cube, Tyler and Oprah just to name a few with their own production company can also step in to help the authors. This is just my opinion.

  4. OMG if you were in front of ne I'd give u a big hug And high five. This statement was wonderfully written. Its true. African AMerican authors are not exposed more but they should because they write great stories. For example...I read "Push" when it first came out and a lot of people were like the movie has a book out...I'm like yeah that book was out years before the movie. It was the second African American book I ever read.I. also believe that BET should expose AAA just like they do with these so called rappers. Have an educational segment...make the youth out there and adults read. Young people nowadays are wasting their lives doing stupidness out there everyday. I support AAA most of my goodreads books are AA novels

  5. Great post! I also contacted some of the popular celebrity blogs: Bossip and The YBF to see if they would be willing to post a brief blurb about some AA books (mine included). I asked if they would be willing to have a member of their staff do a brief review. Those sites get high traffic in the near millions every month. I've yet to receive a response. But I hope to see a change soon. Until then, I will keep on pushing!

    Monique D. Mensah
    Author of SMOKE SCREEN

  6. A lot of the books published by small presses don't offer e-Reader format. For every print book I read, I read 3 more on my Nook or Kindle. I see lots of books on Black Expressions or I go to Amazon to pick it up. I could be reading that book in 30 seconds but it's not available on kindle or Nook. So I order it... and by the time it gets to me, I've read 2 or 3 other books. These books have to show up in the same market where other books are pushed in my face. I rarely see a black author on daily emails I get from Random House or Algonquin. Does your press offer a newsletter of books that are due to come out? Goodreads is also great resource, I see authors doing Q&A sessions and answering questions there all the time. James Patterson's annoying TV ads for his books probably sell him a LOT of books. I realize this means money... but this is why other books are selling.

    Word of mouth is how I hear about great books. If I love a book, I am talking about it. If I'm not reading it, if I have to jump through hoops, if I have to spend 50% more to get it, I can't talk about it.

  7. I've said all these same ideas several times. You're right. What authors need is a clearinghouse advertising agency to make all these things happen. Perhaps, that may be where you start. Start your own one person advertising agency for books and see what happens.

  8. Unfortunately reading has become a dying art. Books have to become great and cool and fun in order to keep it alive. It has to be something that the young adults of all colors want to do. Right now reading just isnt cool but I think the Kindle and Nook do help because it blends technology and books into one. Having authors on BET and other shows would definitely enhance it but it will take some time. Unfortunately, it may be up to parents to get their kids into reading. Most of what we do is what we saw or learned at a young age. I love to read and have passed that passion down to my son. He gets a new book for Christmas along with the new hot game. Will more advertising work? Maybe but I think it will take an entire cultural change to actually see more black readers.

  9. It’s rather sad and disgusting that we have a channel that is supposed to be about its name – Black Entertainment Television – yet we skip over some many forms of entertainment. Reading and writing ARE entertainment. People love to jump on the bandwagon when movies like “Beloved,” “Waiting to Exhale,” “The Color Purple,” “For Colored Girls,” and “Push” come out, not ever really giving consideration or paying homage to the books and the writers behind such movies. Without the book, there would be no movie. NAACP Image Awards and others take the time to honor the actors that were on the big screen playing roles, but skim past the writers that created and developed those characters and made such roles possible. Something is real wrong with this picture. Yes, I’d love to see BET and any other channel pick up on, embrace and celebrate AA literature with some form of a show of its own. We need the exposure. BUT…before we can do that, there needs to be some serious house cleaning. At this point, think of WHAT would be exposed. I was happy to see Monique take the initial step with having authors on her show. But seriously, she had one author on there who isn’t an author and who is known for her unscrupulous tactics. Folks like that should not be celebrated or recognized. Recognize the unpaid men behind the work. Some of these folks with deals with majors shouldn’t have a deal no more than I need to record an album. And half of those folks aren’t even writing their books. Some of the better books I have read over the past few years have been by self-published authors or authors with smaller publishing houses. The chances are great that those authors would fall to the wayside for bigger names. And bigger does not definitely mean better. Let me stop before I get to going on a rant. Yes, Jason, I’m with you. Our writers deserver better. We need exposure. But we need to shake the industry of the foolishness first or we’ll just end up like BET in heavy rotation of mindless entertainment.

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