The Business of Black Book Clubs
Over the last 20 years, the channels for discovering new books, especially books by first-time and emerging authors, have shrunk or disappeared. Newspapers and magazines dedicate mere slivers of arts sections to book reviews — if at all. Those papers like the New York Times that do devote more space to book coverage rarely review debut authors. Likewise, bookstores prefer to invite already established, bestselling, or celebrity writers to do readings and signings. That leaves Oprah — and the Queen of Talk has endorsed only 72 books since she started her eponymous book club in 1996, including the two she has recommended since her 2.0 reboot.
It’s even more difficult for black authors — new and established — to get their books on readers’ radars. As it is, African-American interest books receive a mere fraction of the coverage noted above, and with the closing of more than 100 black-owned independent bookstores in the last 15 years, as well as the shuttering of Black Issues Book Review there are even fewer places for black authors’ work to gain visibility. Mosaic, African Voices, and the new Spook can only review so much.
“The last [issue of] Essence covered the same book Oprah covered,” observed Troy Johnson, founder of the African-American Literature Book Club better known as AALBC.com.
In this landscape, black book clubs offer authors a valuable — albeit extremely competitive —promotion and sales channel. “[Book clubs] have advanced far beyond the small get-togethers in someone’s living room,” says Carol Mackey, editor-in-chief of direct-to-consumer book club Black Expressions.
In keeping with the tradition of African-American book clubs that dates back to the 1820s, many are highly-structured reading societies. The book club model has also evolved to leverage the internet as a promotional vehicle similar to AALBC. Of course, writers and publishers are eager to get their books on the lists of both traditional and 2.0 clubs.
For his part, Johnson says he is deluged daily by emails from authors vying for a review. “It’s like a fire hose,” he says of the volume of author requests. “They all feel like their book is the best book, ‘You really need to read it’; and it’s hard for them to understand it’s impossible for me to read every book request that I get.” He says even when he can read the author’s book, the review may not be free.
“Unfortunately, for a self-published author, the main way they get reviewed is if they pay for the commissioned service. And, you know, sometimes, the review is not favorable.” Johnson offers a range of paid services including ads and manuscript editing via AALBC.com, and says some bestselling black authors even pay out of pocket for ad placements on his site to maximize their exposure to readers.
Authors hoping for free exposure must work to get on the radar of a more traditional book club like Go On Girl!, one of the largest black book clubs in the country. Every month, its 300 members meet in 31 chapters in 13 cities to read the same book. But getting on their reading list is not easy.
“The books are actually selected by a committee,” explains Lynda Johnson who co-founded Go On Girl!, also known as GOG, in 1991. “[There] is a Reading List Chair, and she oversees the selection of the books with members of the organization.” GOG holds a selection meeting twice a year with strict adherence to the club’s founding principle of a genre-diverse reading list.
“We’ll read social commentary. We will read historical. We will read a classic. We search out new authors.” Johnson says they whittle the final list from a large volume of recommendations by traditional publishers as well as self-published authors, and work with online bookseller Mahogany Books to offer members discounts on selected titles.
Smaller book clubs like Sistah Friend, which has 35 members across three branches in South Carolina, Atlanta, and online, are also valuable. Though founder Tasha Martin allows each of the three branches of her club to choose the book they will read each month to keep the reading list diverse, authors and publishers still have the opportunity to sell their books to multiple readers at once. “[In] January which is our anniversary month,” Martin shares, “I select the book of the month [for all three branches].”