Black Book Websites Need Love Too

Over the last decade there has been a great deal of lamenting over the closing of Black owned, independent brick and mortar book stores.  Recently this anguish has even extended to the large chain retailer, Borders Books and Music, which many Black authors say are responsible for a large percentage of their sales nationwide.

Throughout this turmoil Black owned book websites go largely ignored.   When we do get attention it is often in the context of contributing to the demise of the physical book store.

As the owner and sole operator of the largest website dedicated to Black books I feel it is time to emphasize why websites dedicated to Black books are just as important as physical stores.  If these websites are taken for granted they too will disappear, and we will have lost another important platform for celebrating and showcasing books by and about people of African descent.

AALBC.com in 1997

When I first started AALBC.com in 1997, its value became immediately evident  based upon feedback from visitors.  Much of the feedback reflected the excitement visitors experienced discovering that there were so many books written by Black writers.  These visitors not only discovered new books, but older classics as well.

AALBC.com and the other websites around during the late 90’s, including Cushcity.com, Mosaicbooks.com, BlackHeritageBooks.com, TheBlackLibrary.com, BlackBookNetwork.com (the last 3 sites no longer exist) were very valuable as many of our visitors did not live near a bookstore.   There was value even for those who were fortunate enough to have a bookstore in their community, as the selection of Black books was very limited.

Given the current trend of physical bookstores closing and the lack of coverage in newspapers and magazines; websites that promote Black books and authors are more important than ever.

For several years I’ve been maintaining a list described as, Web Sites That Support, Promote, and Sell Black Books(http://aalbc.it/aasites).  The list captures websites dedicated to Black books including the websites of physical book stores, web-based bookstores, book reviewers, book clubs, and other entities.  Many of the websites have been on-line for close to a decade, exhibiting a long term commitment to their respective missions.

This list does not include websites dedicated to an individual book, author or publisher.  The websites are expected to praise or critique books without bias.  These websites are not owned by multinational corporations whose coverage of Black books typically focus on celebrity, and who completely ignore books published by small presses and individuals.

BlackLiterature.com as it appeared in 2008

What prompted me to Blog about this issue is that when I updated the list recently (March 9, 2011), I had to remove more than 20% of the websites that I’ve been tracking.  Each time I update the list I remove more websites than I add.  I found the number of websites I had to remove this time extremely disheartening.  Blackliterature.com, thegrits.com and DockBooks.com, to name a few are gone.

What is more disheartening, alarming even, is that of the literally tens’s of millions of active American websites there less than 100 websites dedicated exclusively to Black books.  Less than 50 are regularly updated and less than 20 receive an appreciable amount of traffic.  In other words, the Black book niche is effectively unrepresented online.

One reason is that it is very hard to earn a living selling Black books on-line.  I started building AALBC.com in October of 1997, sold my first book on-line in December of 1997, launched AALBC.com in March of 1998 and it became my full time vocation in February of 2008.  Even if one is able to earn a living selling Black books online, they will not become extremely wealthy.

On-line booksellers constantly deal with many challenges, which we address in relative obscurity and with even less sympathy.    Early on there was a reluctance for my demographic to provide credit card information on-line, this and competition from Barnesandnoble.com and Amazon.com made making money selling books directly extremely difficult.  I redirected my focus to providing services to authors and selling advertising.

As the economy continues to suffer my income from advertising sold directly to publishers and authors is down, fortunately this revenue made up by income from Google.com, Amazon.com and other affiliate programs.  However today my biggest challenges is staying relevant in a publishing industry and internet environment that is in a state of constant change.

AALBC.com on Facebook

As social media competes for traffic, AALBC.com is forced to become actively engaged in sites like Facebook and Twitter; not only contributing to the conversation, but to using these platform to bring readers back to AALBC.com.  A massive website redesign was performed in 2009 to help accomplish this goal.

On the horizon there are early indications that despite the increased number of books being published and new technologies to facilitate reading – the number of readers is waning.   This reduction in readership appears to be most pronounced for literary.

To further compound the problem the support from authors, and publishers to promote literary fiction and poetry is essentially nonexistent.  When you see a literary title or poetry on AALBC.com it is because I personally feel the work was important to share.  Commercial fiction, erotica, urban fiction, and non-fiction subsidize the promotion of literary fiction on AALBC.com.  Figuring  out a ways to promote literary fiction and the variety of work Black writers produce while earning a living is another challenge.

While I can’t speak for everyone who runs a Black book website, I can say most are mission driven.  Our reward is knowing we are doing something important: promoting and preserving a culture by providing an important platform for writers.  We enjoy the written word and the exchange of ideas.  We rejoice in the diversity of our stories and take pride in the fact that we help ensure the voice of the Black community is shared not only within our community but globally.

But it can’t be all about flowery rhetoric, Black book websites made a tremendous impact in helping to keep our voices alive.  AALBC.com, for example sold 3,392 different titles in 2010 alone (virtually by writers of African descent).  AALBC.com has published more than 100 videos of authors garnering over 1 million views.  By the end of 2011 AALBC.com will have profiled more than 1,000 different authors.  We have published hundreds of reviews of books which were published by major houses, academic presses and individuals.  I attract 100,000 to 300,000 unique visitors to AALBC.com each month.

AALBC.com has hosted an on-line book club for the better part of a decade and have hosted events from Harlem to Los Angles.  I attend and support events all over the country with money, time and expertise.

The impact of the web based book sellers is incalculable and the potential is unlimited.  Keep in mind on-line booksellers support physical bookstores as well.  I can’t tell you how many people have told me, “I just discovered a book on your site and went straight to the store to buy it.”  Indeed, most book websites actively promote physical bookstores (assuming they don’t own one outright), by publishing content about the stores, promoting their events and even attending signings and making purchases.

Next time you read an article about the demise of the Black owned bookstore, consider the potential demise of the Black book website as well.  We need your support too. Remember supporting web based stores does not come at the expense of supporting a physical store nor does require much effort.

Simply sharing our website addresses with your friends, “liking” us on Facebook or “tweeting” the content you enjoy is a great start.  Buying a book and providing feedback to help us improve is even better.

And always remember, book websites need love too.

Book Industry Professionals Gather at 2010 Black Pack Party — Hosted by AALBC.com, Mosaicbooks.com, Writtenmag.com, and Linda Duggins

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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.
This entry was posted in AALBC.com News, Book Blog, books, Culture, reading, Troy's Rants, Website Tips and Recommendations and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.
  • http://facebook.com/ScottG.BrownorAmazonKindleBooks/ScottG.Brown Scott G Brown

    I am a published Author with a POD Publisher. I did not know of any Black Publishing Companies except JOHNSON PUBLISHING COMPANY which seemed to be for family only writers. I have a paperback that I am hesitating about publishing with CREATESPACE.COM. My e-book was published on 01/17/2011 by Amazon Kindle. When I published my first book, AA was my Demographic reach because it was an AA Genre. Less than 100 copies were sold after expensing over $2,000. The Advertisers made the money, and I made PEANUTS. How does AALBC differ, pray tell?

    • http://aalbc.com Troy

      Hi Scott,

      Just to be clear; AALBC.com is not a book publisher.

      It was not clear from your original question what you actually purchased with $2,000, so I can’t answer your question specifically. Was the money spent on getting your book published, on publicity, advertising?

      On the most basic level I help connect authors with readers. This is done in a number is ways including; reviewing books, profiling authors, writing articles, social media marketing, and even this Blog (in fact you should have included a link to your Kindle eBook in your original post – a little self-promotion in this context is cool).

      In general, the vast majority of self-published books published do not sell very many copies for a number of good reasons; usually because the book is a poorly written, or there is no business plan, or both.

      AALBC.com has a well defined demographic and is the most frequently visited site in our niche. The average click through rate on all of our ads is over 0.5% (a relatively high percentage). Many book covers even see a 1, 2 and 3% click through rates over the course of a month. When a person clicks an Amazon link to purchase a book the book is actually purchased 9% of the time.

      For an author or a publisher with a good product and marketing strategy, AALBC.com can be an excellent advertising and promotional partner.

      • http://scottgbrown.homestead.com Scott G. Brown

        Hi Troy, Thanks for your reply to my question, it was very helpful. I could have used your expertise for stering my book to to the proper demographic groups which, in that case, were African Americans (www.Xlibris.com/ReparationsforSlavery.html). I just happen to come across AALBC from a posting on Facebook, and I will consider your services in the future. I did, however, used two of the top AA connectors in the business, and both did a job well done. I suppose the Genre of my book (slavery) had been exhausted which is the reason that I introduced the concept of “Disenfranchisement” and ” A Modest Proposal,” a plan for actual compensation, and a strong argument for the justifcation of compensation.
        A book, in my opinion, was one that all African Americans could hold to their chests and give a sigh of relief that issues concerning reparations had been resolved in support of the thesis of a New York Attorney who laid the foundation for Slavery Reparation discussions as the Attorney in the Jewish Holocaust Reparations Litigation. A book subject to expire in 2032.

  • http://melhopkins.info mel

    I really enjoyed this piece! African-American Literature Book Club is ambiguous,in my opinion and that may lend to its strength. While the mission is stated – I still see this website as a place for African-Americans to discuss literature as opposed to a discussion about African-American literature…and it’s the former that breeds a new appreciation for literature, overall. Most people don’t know how to read literature. Unfortunately critical thinking isn’t taught in most public school curriculum and how many English classes focus on rhetorical devices such as metaphors, analogies and symbolism. Without that background information, reading literature is like going to a new destination without a Garmin. In that respect, AALBC is definitely needed. One other thing I noticed in this post is how AALBC has adapted to its environment. As I posted on another page “Adaptability of a species ensures its success” …I imagine as AALBC adapts, it will continue to lead the pack.

    Finally, I wish this site had – a “Site Map” or a “Guide to AALBC” that will ensure an awesome online experience” . I never knew there was a page on here listing other black Literati websites.

    • http://aalbc.com Troy

      Hey Mel thanks for the much needed feedback.

      Sometimes I forget what is one my own website. One day I was using altavista (remember that search engine) to find information about an author. I found a page and said to myself, “wow this is pretty informative”. I soon realized I was on my own site!

      I agree with you regarding literature. I think the change in the type of titles on my bestselling books lists over the years speaks volumes.

      Actually the site has two site maps, both can be found searching for “sitemap” on the site. One is linked from the about us page. The first one: http://aalbc.com/generator/data/sitemap.html is incomplete as my site map generator keeps choking before completing the build (fixing this is on the list of things to do way down on the list of priorities).

      The 2nd version is more user friendly and gives you a better idea about how the site is organized: http://aalbc.com/contents.htm

      I trust this helps. Thanks again.

  • http://investigateconversateillustrate.blogspot.com Robert Trujillo

    First off Troy, I want to thank you for doing what you do. Because without the work you put in, so many more folks would not know what beauty, intelligence, and progressiveness that is out there in print from an African American perspective. Although I have not purchased a book from this site, i have used it before as I have used Mosaic and Rawsistas as a means to connect with authors. And I am grateful for that. I also did not know you participated in national book events. I met Felicia Pride at the Baltimore Book Festival several years ago because i searched the festival looking for people of color who were publishers/writers and I was lucky to find her because she helped me figure out how to approach publishers.

    This is going to sound biased because im a visual artist, but I believe one of the HUGE ways that sites can bring more youth, young adults, and more men/boys to their books is by including more illustration. I often get frustrated that some of the book covers I see look like reflections of 90’s gangster rap LP’s. Now, there’s nothing wrong with the gangster life but after seeing so many titles based on betrayal, the hood life, etc I start to wonder why other topics are not out there and why the covers all look the same. I’m a life long lover of hip hop, but i think people of color deserve more variety in the covers. The cover is a BIG part of what draws me to a book, and if they have the same glossy fonts, typical model looking guys or girls, I feel under represented. There should be much more of a breadth of diversity in the covers.

    The other thing i would like to bring to your attention because you mentioned Black owned book stores is the fact that times are changing. And although I am no expert in the world of Black publishing, i am a man of color, I come from many backgrounds (African, Latino,Asian) and i believe we as African Americans need to build w/ other POC. Raza stores here in California have been shutting down too, is there someway we can make a book festival for people of color? That way we combine our resources and our constituencies,fan bases? You start talking about spanish speaking market and the work some latino’s are doing to recognize their african roots, i mean, there is a lot of connection that could be made and a lot of learning to do about each other.

    Not only that, but there is a HUGE and growing scene of graphic novels and comics written and illustrated by African Americans. Black literary writers/sites need to unite with them!!! When you think of the success of comics like
    Brotherman-Dawud Anyabwile
    Witchdoctor-Kenjji Marshall
    Black comix-Damian Duffy & John Jennings
    Ashley A. Woods-Millenia Wars
    Aya-Marguerite Abouet
    Storm-Xmen
    Black Panther-
    Felipe Smith-MBQ
    Nat turner-Kyle Baker
    Bayou-Jeremy love

    I see you already got Keith knight and Tyrese about Mayheim though! but damn, if you want to flip the script, we need to start thinking beyond words and include the visuals too. Holler back and keep doing what you are doing, we need you!!! Love and light!
    -Robert Trujillo
    young man, parent, illustrator, muralist, author in training.

    TYS Collective/ Come Bien Books

    • http://aalbc.com Troy

      Thanks Robert – sorry for delayed response. I have a bunch of African American cartonist on the site. Indeed at one time it was every Black syndicated cartoonist. I’m not sure if that is still the case, but here are a few on AALBC.com

      In addition to Keith your find:

      Robb Armstrong – Jump Start – United Media
      Ray Billingsley – Curtis- King Features Syndicate
      Stephen Bentley – Herb and Jamaal- Tribune Media Services
      Barbara Brandon – Where I’m Coming From (a weekly) – Universal Syndicate
      Charles Boyce – Compu-toon – Tribune Media Services
      Jerry Craft – Mama’s Boyz (weekly) – King Features Syndicate
      Charlos Gary – Working It Out
      Aaron McGruder – Universal Press Syndicate (Fall 1998)
      Bill Murray – Appearing in over 450 publications around the world
      Morrie Turner (The first black cartoonist in national syndication) – Wee Pals – Creators Syndicate
      Kerry G. Johnson – Talented cartonist creator of Harambee Hills.

  • http://theobsessivereadersculturedghetto.blogspot.com/ Susan D. Anderson

    Dear Troy,

    I thank you for all the research you’ve conducted, that goes into this site. I have your aalbc.com/blog on MY blog http://theobsessivereadersculturedghetto.blogspot.com/. As an African American writer blogging about books and culture, I would love to be included in your lists. Check me out. Either way, I will continue to include your blog on my blog list and – I hope – help introduce readers to you.

    Thanks,
    Susan D. Anderson
    The Obsessive Reader
    theobsessivereadersculturedghetto.blogspot.com/

    • http://aalbc.com Troy

      Will do Susan!

  • Denise Lyles

    Yeah Troy,
    As a person who works exclusively with books, I am often asked about “new black books.” Not only will I direct them to you, I will use it more myself. Keep it up….

    • http://aalbc.com Troy

      Thanks so much Denise I a greatly appreciate this and hope I can continue to provide some value.

  • sherri

    I’ve been fighting over my domain for close to a year. BlackLiterature.com will be back soon. It’s nice to know someone actually missed the site.

    • http://aalbc.com Troy

      BlackLiterature.com! Of course you were missed! As soon as you are back please drop me a line troy@aalbc.com. I’ll help spread the good news!

  • ronn

    I’ll just echo the sentiments of Denise: Thank you so much for all you do. And I also send readers your way when they express interest in African American lit.

    • http://aalbc.com Troy

      Thanks Ronn! I think I was actually on your Blog yesterday. Did you do some rather extensive coverage of the Central Park Jogger case?

  • http://www.tracypricethompson.com Tracy Price-Thompson

    Hi Troy!

    Thank you for penning such a relevant piece. I fondly remember the days when I spent hours perusing many of the websites you mentioned. As an emerging author, there was so much to learn on those sites, and so many opportunities to be mentored by those in the literary community who were dedicated to their craft.

    Unfortunately, with the demise of these websites many authors and readers must find other ways to connect and to evaluate upcoming titles and to learn about new authors. I applaud you and Thumper and the rest of your staff for not only remaining dedicated to black literature, but for staying the course and continuing to provide a valuable service during these times of shifting attitudes and trends.

    Hats off to you, and may AALBC continue to be a beacon to those who thirst for black literature. Peace and balance, T.

    • http://aalbc.com Troy

      Thanks Tracy!

  • http://freeblackspace@blogspot.com Yao

    Troy,

    I read the article and the mission and collective work of the web-site is both impressive and admirable.

    The presence of streetlife books radically changed the culture of bookselling. It was a paradigm shift from older forms of bookselling which stressed consciousness to more trend based and commercially viable ideas which paralleled the entertainment industry. These trends were eventually endorsed by white publishers based on cash value and (then perhaps-I am as not as clear on the industry now) downgraded as the market tightened up. However, the most important content we can produce comes from a center of our being.

    Black consciousness is a product of some form of education, Malcolm is a prominent example of this. Yet, the entertainment based books are opposed to many of our thrusts for education. The polemic is like the movie industry. The more substance the less enjoyable.

    There can be bridges built between commercial entities and more academic educational folks based on literature. These efforts will require educated folks are viewed as possessing skills which have something to do with the maintenance of our reality as a people. Unfortunately, we are confused about those skills and constantly place stars in the same category as the educated. Educated African Americans are the folks who are most capable of building our institutions.

    I am not sure any culture can afford to have as weak a relationship with books as ours does. Furthermore, there are real questions about the sustainability of the market in the long term. These questions are raised for the larger book industry; but are even more important for the African American Community. Our relationship with reading is almost adversarial. Our belief in books as an essential part of our culture is trumped by the fact we can always go find a place where folks are not into books.

    The minimal response to both black book stores and black web-sites is a fundamental aspect of our culture. It is hard and fast data. By no means does this make our future anymore predictable than anyone us; but it does leave us hinged to trends and blind optimism about what’s next and what’s big.

    The only thing that will save and promote black bookstores or web-sites is black culture which promotes seeking knowledge, documenting history and dispersing that knowledge via the written world. While I think the chances of this are slim or limited, I do think those who work in the industry are capable of running other ventures effectively given their difficult experiences in the black book market.

    With Respect,

    Yao

    • http://aalbc.com Troy

      Brother Yao I can think of nothing to add to your remarks. Thanks for taking the time to post the I will share your comments with others. Peace.

      • Bro. Yao

        Thanks Troy

  • http://www.millerscribs.com Minnie E Miller

    I echo Brother Yao’s comments. But this has been a problem with African American writers for the last 7 or 8 years, and since an article about AA books were discussed in the “Wall Street Journal” three years or so ago. Imagine that! The WSJ! Many of the indie and major publishers forster these type of books because blacks buy them–I can’t call them literature because they seem to be templates of the same old, same old. But I know you see where Yao and I are coming from by reviewing your own “best seller lists.”

    What I really like is “Authors you Should Know.”

    About advertising AALBC, I tell all those interested in AA books, anyone’s books, to drop by and read about the ones reviewed. I do religiously. Many times what I read here and on amazon.com will cause me to purchase a book or reject it. [Yeah, I do that and I’m a writer.] Your site packs a lot of information for writers as well as readers.

    Oh, about the black owned websites, you left off Ella Curry Creations, including her Black Pearls Magazine. I’m a big fan of Ella and have been for several years. She is one hard working lady and so personable.

    If permitted, please include this information in my note.
    Peace.

    Ella Curry, President of EDC Creations Media
    Black Authors Network Radio-Founder
    Black Pearls Magazine Online -Founder
    Book PR packages available: http://www.edc-creations.com

    • http://aalbc.com Troy

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts Minnie. I know Ella and will adjust my list accordingly. Yeah my best seller list speaks for itself, you can derive a lot from what books people actually purchase. I try to make the “Authors You Should Know” section as diverse as possible I’m glad you like it. Thank you so much for sharing information about AALBC.com — that type of support is invaluable. The reality I can make a lot more money focusing on the types of books and authors reflected on my best sellers list, but my mission is different.

      Bro. Yao’s comment;

      The only thing that will save and promote black bookstores or web-sites is black culture which promotes seeking knowledge, documenting history and dispersing that knowledge via the written world. While I think the chances of this are slim or limited, I do think those who work in the industry are capable of running other ventures effectively given their difficult experiences in the black book market.

      is the most telling. Given my time in the industry I, unfortunately, am inclinded to agree. I’m not giving up just yet. But I am prepared for what may be inevitable.

      I will say when I look at publishers that have supported AALBC.com with advertising dollars they are typically smaller and more conscious entities — not the big time, successful, literary authors/publishers one might expect. I may blog more about this later.

  • http://www.speakloudly.com patrick

    Great piece! Your website has impacted so many writers and publishers in so many ways. Keep it up.

    • http://aalbc.com Troy

      Thanks Patrick for the kind words Patrick I’ll continue to do what I do as long as I can.

  • http://aalbc.com Troy Johnson

    Check out out new book web site site list: http://aalbc.it/aasites