The Business of Black Book Clubs
Recognizing the power book clubs wield, author Curtis Bunn founded the National Book Club Conference (NBCC) in 2002 to connect clubs and writers. “When my first novel [Baggage Check] came out… I visited with many, many book clubs across the country,” Bunn remembers. The experience sparked an idea.
“Most readers really never get to meet their favorite authors. They may get in line at the bookstore…and get their book signed,” he says, “take a picture maybe, and then it’s on to the next person. But the book club situation allows for you to really engage.”
With zero financial backing, Bunn invited bestselling writer Walter Mosley to participate in the inaugural conference. “I can’t even recall how I got connected to him, but it wasn’t easy,” he recounts. Mosley loved the idea, which helped Bunn to secure a roster of bestselling authors to speak on panels and meet with book club readers. “[Mosley’s participation] legitimized my conference,” he says. “From there we’ve been rolling.”
Since the first conference, Bunn estimates at least 1,200 book clubs have been represented at NBCC. Everyone from Iyanla Vanzant to Dr. Cornel West and Terry McMillan has attended. Bunn recalls, “It grew to a point where I had to limit registration” — which eventually attracted sponsors including Harper Collins, Simon & Schuster, Penguin, and Triple Crown Publishing. Sponsorship rates range from $2,500 to $10,000 with specific packages offering sponsors the opportunity to directly pitch their books or authors to the clubs.
Mackey, editor-in-chief of Black Expressions Book Club, is on the board of NBCC. “[I] have seen firsthand how beneficial this meeting is for authors and readers,” Mackey says. “A couple hundred book clubs are represented, and the meeting gets bigger every year. An invitation to become a featured author is a high honor because authors know it’s a premier chance to get in front of the people who will go out and talk up their book in book club meetings and in social media.”
A testament to the power — and lucrative business potential — of book clubs, Black Expressions is part of a consortium of clubs owned by Direct Brands Inc. and Bookspan that includes Book of the Month Club. Black Expressions promotes a selection of books curated by Mackey; members are required to purchase at least eight books at a discounted member price. At its height, Black Expressions boasted close to half a million members.
Mackey says books are carefully selected for the club. “We target our books to the members’ needs based on a number of variables which include sales and marketing data. It’s not a shot in the dark.”
But even with all the time and operational logistics required to run a book club these days, their value to the black book market lies in the club founders’ and members’ desire to promote and preserve African-American stories, and by extension, the black community.
The coming year will mark AALBC’s 15th year working toward their prime goal of “promoting the diverse spectrum of African-American literature.” Similarly, Mackey says, “[Black Expressions] was created to showcase the works of African-American authors and to make sure our stories got told by us and for us.”
Every year, NBCC honors book clubs that do commendable community service. GOG produces an annual award show that also acts as a fundraiser to cover operational costs and endow a scholarship fund for unpublished writers. They’ve also instituted Junior GOG chapters to ensure the love of literature extends to the next generation.
“Nobody gets paid to do anything,” Johnson says, referring to GOG’s board and executive committee. She says the disturbing lack of widespread promotion and distribution for black literature keeps her going.
“We’ve seen a lot of the black imprints disappearing from the publishing companies, and, you know, although the say they want it to be mainstream, it’s not treated as mainstream. You go in the bookstores, you still can’t find as much play for books by black authors unless you’re noted,” she laments. “You’re not finding the new voices.”
Johnson says, “We feel that that is really important so that our stories can be told and be authentic, and be out there for us to read.”