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.
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.
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 are 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 fantastically wealthy do it–but we all know that going in or at least we should.
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.
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.