Author Martha Southgate Reflects on the State of African American Fiction

This article was brought to my attention by author Eisa Ulen (www.EisaUlen.com/blog).

Author Martha Southgate (http://authors.aalbc.com/martha_southgate.htm) muses about the state of African American Fiction

“I am a 46-year-old writer of “literary” fiction. I’ve had three novels published — the first for young people, the last two for adults. All have won minor prizes, been respectfully reviewed and sold modestly. I’ve been awarded a few fairly competitive fellowships and grants. The business is full of fiction writers like me. With one difference: I’m black, born and raised in the United States. At the parties and conferences I attend, and in the book reviews I read, I rarely encounter other African-American “literary” writers, particularly in my age bracket. There just don’t seem to be that many of us out there, and that’s something I’ve come to wonder about a great deal. And so I got on the phone with some editors and African-American writers to talk about it.”

Read the rest of this article at: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/01/books/review/Southgate-t.html

Adero, who I know and respect, in the article bemoans;

“Literary African-American writers have difficulty getting publicity. The retailers then don’t order great quantities of the books. Readers don’t know what books are available and therefore don’t ask for them. It’s a vicious cycle.”

I agree with Adero, in fact authors, unless they are a celebrities, have difficulty gaining publicity. However, in my mind, the solution is simple: If you want to bring attention to your novel, focus more on effective advertising instead of trying to acquire “free” publicity.

It is A LOT harder to acquire meaningful and sustained publicity for a book, than it is to purchase advertising. I’m not saying (yet) that a publicist is not needed, but after tons of conversations with authors; the overwhelming majority relate that they, themselves, have been more effective at securing mentions in the media than their publicists.

I know part of the problem is the authors expectations; but rarely do I hear about an author singing the praises of a publicist. This the way I discover good books, in rank order:

  1. Reviewer raves about a book
  2. Someone, whose opinion I respect, recommends the book (really the same as #1)
  3. Book makes a bestseller’s list (not always reliable, but it is better than “randomly” selecting from everything that is available)
  4. I discover the book on my own (rarely)

Relatively unknown literary authors should considering advertising their own books, and engaging in a little self promotion if order to increase sales. Now Martha’s book The Fall of Rome (reviewed by Thumper here: http://aalbc.com/reviews/the_fall_of_rome.htm) could sell even more copies today, five years after publication, if more people knew about it. It is an excellent book.

Assuming people like author’s work, once the reputation builds, the only advertising they need is to let reader know the next book is out. Everyone else has to build a reputation buy writing a good book and be willing to spend a little money and energy to let people know you are out there.

Photo AALBC.com founder Troy Johnson and author Martha Southgate at the National Book Club Confernece in Atlanta, 2006.

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About Troy

Troy D. Johnson is the President, founder and webmaster of AALBC.com, LLC (The African American Literature Book Club). Launched in March of 1998, AALBC.com has grown to become the largest and most frequently visited website dedicated to books and films by and about people of African descent.
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  • AALBC.com

    Troy’s Note: The following was emailed to me in reaction to the conversation we had to Martha Southgate’s recent article in the New York Times (http://www.thumperscorner.com/discus/messages/1/28007.html).

    The author of the following piece is a publicist who chose to maintain their anonymity.

    Thoughts from a Publicist: Writing, Publishing and Promoting

    After reading Southgate’s essay in The New York Times and Troy Johnson’s comments [Editor's Note: Please review discussion at Thumper's Corner] about not relying on “free” publicity and whether or not a publicist is really necessary, yet, I offer the following observations and comments:

    Yes, black literary novelists have extra challenges. This is so primarily because black readers are not purchasing those titles in the record numbers they are purchasing commercial fiction/street fiction, even if that writer has been fortunate enough to receive a good deal of publicity.

    There are multitudes of print, broadcast and other media opportunities available across this country and abroad. Does mainstream media have a vested interest in the lives that are created between the pages of a particular black novelist’s book? What responsibility, if at all, does the black press have to black writers? Is the black press also not struggling to stay a float?

    Authors, and publishers, forget that publicity is a gift. It is not guaranteed, promised, paid for or even “deserved.” The concept of what title deserves publicity is in the eye of the beholder and the beholder would not be the publicist, it is the media outlet. That outlet controls what their audience gets to see or read.
    Does/should Good Morning America, The New York Times, or you fill in the blank, care about the lives of black people – those that write the books and those they write about?

    I know from pitching various media outlets across the country the response usually sounds something like this, “this would not be of interest to our audience.” Just to be clear, when I pitch commercial/street fiction to various outlets that seem to make sense, I often hear the same response about a book not being applicable to a certain audience. It is difficult, and increasingly so, for all types of books from all writers who dare to enter the publishing landscape to garner “free” publicity, and the reasons are plentiful. The author must come to the table prepared to work just as diligently as they have been in getting their book published.

    Publishers expect authors to utilize whatever contacts they have to get the word out and the bottom line is – to get the books purchased, not to garner publicity per se. Yes, publicity is a good thing because it provides validation that the author/book is getting some outside attention. Without pre-publicity that publicists work to secure the internal sales force can’t get Barnes and Nobles, Borders and other booksellers to pre-order that book well before pub date.

    The lack of pre-orders can severely impact the number of copies that are distributed and available around the country on publication date. Just how many books are sold as a direct result of the publicity campaign? Does anyone know, keep track or care?

    This brings me to the advertising and promotion budget dilemma. Authors need to ask their editors what those budgets look like. Is there any money in them? Sometimes there is no money in the publicity budget as strange as that sounds. Believe me, a well-prepared author, a dedicated publicist and editor and a some cash in the publicity, advertising and promotion budgets goes a long way in the life of a book.
    I realize all publicists are not created equal. If you are fortunate enough to have an in-house publicist who fights for you and works with your editor to get as much as he or she can to keep your title in the forefront of the minds of those that get easily sidetracked by the many titles a publishing house covers simultaneously, know that you are blessed.

    Put in the extra time (and your own cash), and yeah, so what, go get some of your own publicity (just let your publicist know before it hits the street) – it is your book and you do want to be successful, however you define success. Is success the number of copies sold, the number of times you see your name in print, the number of times you appear on TV or radio? That is for you to decide. As Johnson stated, “It is A LOT harder to acquire meaningful and sustained publicity for a book, than it is to purchase advertising”.

    Do a little homework and ask other authors how they supplement what the publisher provides. Go out and meet the people who handle author events at your local bookstores. Your local bookstores have media lists and they are more than happy to work with authors who work with them. Support black bookstores such as Hue- Man Books in Harlem, Medu Books in Atlanta and EsoWon Books in Los Angeles. Subscribe to Black Issues Book Review, Mosaic Magazine, African Voices, Essence, Ebony, Upscale, and JET to name few. Utilize the expertise and skill that you will find on http://www.AALBC.com, http://www.mosaicbooks.com and http://www.centricproductions.co.uk. Black writers must give back and cultivate their community, first, always. Then go out and impress the rest.