Friday, August 04, 2006

Location Location Location

I happened to be making the blog rounds the other day and came upon discussion about black book segregation in bookstores on author Monica Jackson's new blog Books in Black. I was reading the visitor comments on this particular post and saw one that made my jaw drop. A reader named Katiem shared her experience with going to Border's to buy my latest book Tangled Roots. I won't post her comment word for word. You can read it here (scroll to the bottom) if you'd like. Long story short, Katiem easily found Tangled Roots in the black book section of Borders, which was no big surprise to me. I knew my books were shelved in the black book section. The thing that was so disheartening to me was when she said she went to the mystery section to see if my books were shelved there as well. Not only were my books not shelved in the mystery section, which again was no big surprise to me, but she goes on to say that there were a lot of black readers in the mystery section buying mysteries by white authors, which tells me black mystery lovers are NOT going to the black book section to look for mysteries. Why?

Is it just a lack of awareness of black mystery writers? Is it a belief that mysteries by black writers can't be as good as their white counterparts? Or is it simply that readers black and white assume that the only place to find mysteries in a bookstore is in the MYSTERY section? I'd love to think it's mainly the latter. So, I decided to do a little research to see if ALL mysteries by black mystery writers are shelved in the black book section. I limited my search to Borders. I went to because you can not only search store inventory to see what Borders stores carry a particular book but you can see what section the book is shelved in.

Here's what I found:

The following books were listed as being shelved in the Mystery Section of Borders

Cinnamon Kiss By Walter Mosley
Dying in the Dark By Valerie Wilson Wesley
Strange Bedfellows By Paula Woods
Chosen People By Karen Grigsby Bates
A Dark and Deadly Deception By Eleanor Taylor Bland
Blood on the Leaves By Jeff Stetson

The Following Books were listed as being shelved in the African-American section of Borders

Down and Dirty By Gammy Singer
Every Reasonable Doubt By Pamela Samuels-Young
Tangled Roots By Angela Henry
Plain Brown Wrapper By Karen Grigsby Bates
Ghosts of Saint-Michel By Jake Lamar
The Other Brother by Brandon Massey

As you can see, not all books by black mystery writers are being segregated. The question now is why are some black mysteries segregated and not others? Is it the publisher? Gammy, Pamela, Brandon and I are published by black imprints. Gammy and Brandon write for Kensington's Dafina, while Pamela and I both write for Harlequin's Kimani Press. So, at first, I thought maybe it was writing for a black imprint that landed us in the black section. But that can't be the only reason because Jake Lamar writes for St. Martin's Press' Minotaur Books, which is not a black imprint and Karen Grigsby Bates writes for Harper Collins' Avon, also not a black imprint. Also strange is the fact that Karen Grigsby Bates' first book, Plain Brown Wrapper, can be found in the AA section BUT her second book, Chosen People, is shelved in the mystery section. So then I looked at the cover art thinking maybe that was the reason for where our books were getting shelved.

The cover for Plain Brown Wrapper is brown with an illustration of a black woman. Chosen People is just a plain pink cover with title and author, no people of any color. So, is it a cover with a black person on it that determines where books are shelved? Again, I'll point out Jake Lamar. His new book Ghosts of Saint-Michel also has no people on the cover yet his book is listed as being shelved in the AA section. And as a matter of fact, Walter Mosley's Cinnamon Kiss HAS a black woman on the cover and is listed as being in the mystery section. As you can see, there seems to be no rhyme or reason as to where books get shelved. But I do feel a little better realizing black readers are going to the mystery section and being exposed to at least some black mystery writers. But they still aren't finding my books and I'm really at a loss as to what to do about it ; (.

On a more positive note, Black Issues Book Review Magazine named Tangled Roots as one of the best Summer Reads of 2006! And for those of you who live in the Minneapolis area, I'm going to be profiled in Insight News. I think it might be in today's issue but I'm not sure. If you see it let me know.

Have a great weekend!



S. Yiler said...

I think it's sad. Here we are in the year two thousand SIX and there is still blatant segregation. I'm sure as a writer you'd like all people to read and enjoy your work, no? Well white people don't visit the black section of teh bookstore. How do I know this? Trust me. Kind regards in your frustrations...

katieM said...

I found your site through Monica Jackson's blog. First, let me gush- I LOVE YOUR BOOKS !!!!!

I share all my books with my mother, grandmother, aunts, cousins, and friends. We love mysteries and for some reason we all go straight to the mystery section for books. I know it never occured to me that mystery books would be shelved according to the color of the author. Since I've started to buy books via Amazon, I've found more black authors, but the same thing happens. I expressed interest in mysteries by black authors, and now all they can recommend is books by black authors without regard to genre. It leads me to believe that white online buyers never receive recommendations for books by black authors.

Angela Henry said...

S. yiler-

Hi! Yes, I would love to be read by all people and it's very frustrating to find out that because of where some bookstores shelve my books I'm getting so much less attention from all readers. I guess that just means I need to do more promotion. Surprise surprise ; ).



Hi! I'm so glad you found me and thanks for sharing my books ; ). I know what you mean about Amazon. I get those recommendations for books that have nothing to do with what I ordered, too. Anyway, thanks for stopping by. It's great to meet a fellow mystery lover!


Dakota Knight said...

This is a very sensitive issue for a lot of people - authors and readers alike. It's going to take a collaborative effort between authors, publishers, booksellers, and readers to see real change. For myself, I would love to see more general covers. You can look at most mainstream bestselling books and see that the covers are "general." I think that would help a lot. But I have this one true belief...I will promote my book with readers in mine - whatever their races. If they choose not to read my book based on my race or the race of my characters, that's their problem - not mine.

Sylvia Hubbard said...

I agree that we have not made a dent the regular worlds suspense and mystery genre.

thank you for saying this so eloquently, cause a sistah wanna walk in borders and act her color real bad for the injustice. LOL.

At a booksigning for LA Banks she also made that notation about some major chain stores only stocking her books in the AA section and not horror or paranormal like they would Anne Rice's old stuff.

Karen said...

Great post, Angela! Even though I read your blog regularly, I came to this particular post from Monica Jackson's blog.

We're having a similar discussion at the African American Authors Group at MySpace (Have you joined that group yet? Shamontiel would be very interested in your post.)

While I'm not in love with black book sections, I've started to understand the need for them.

When I was signing at a small DC bookstore, the owners explained that when many of their black customers rush in during a lunch break, they don't want to search the entire lit section for a book by a black author. Especially since most books are spined. When they come to the black book section, they're more likely to pick up a book by an author they aren't familiar with.

I don't want to defend the practice, but I do understand it's good for business.

Monica said...

I'm resigned that the black book section and overall marketing segregation is good for business and good for black authors as far as getting loyal readers and sales.

I'm sad that this is the case though. In an ideal world books wouldn't need to be separated by the race of the author into categories of black and not black with only the rare black-authored book transcending the niche.

People would buy books regardless of the race of the author or characters.

Unfortunately, this isn't the case and the reality is that the niche may be the best any of us are going to get.

Mainstream commercial fiction readership (our books purchased and read by nonblack readers) may be out of reach except for that rare and lucky author.

Angela Henry said...

Hi Guys!

Thanks for all your comments! As far as the black book section debate goes, I have mixed feelings about it, too. I understand that the bookstores that do have black book sections have them because they want to please black readers who want to locate books by black authors easily and lets face it, bookstores are in business to make money so it only stands to reason they'd want to please their customers. But I agree with Monica. As far as building a readership beyond the niche the black book section is definitely a double edged sword. Most black authors will have a hard time breaking out to a mainstream audience. As far as the lucky few who do break out, what are they doing that the rest of us aren't or is it truly just pure luck? Any ideas anyone?

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