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The Harlem Book Fair - Past, Present, Future


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This conversation was started to continue on initiated on Facebook. I'm not keen on giving Facebook all my ideas so I decided to continue the conversation here:

Nellicito Writes:

Harlem Book Fair isn’t what it used to be…it lost its pizzazz

It seems like each year less and less people are coming thru, or aren’t buying as many books unless they see a recognizable face

I know the science behind everything that’s goi

ng on, but I’ll keep those thoughts and theories to myself and keep observing

Not to mention disgruntled newbies who get discouraged because they’re not making at least half of what they put in…I know because they honestly tell me instead of frontin like they’re selling cases...the game is ugly at times…it is what it is

My Reaction:

@Nellicito Tell me troy@aalbc.com I'll listen. The problem is the vast majority of people feel the way you do "I’ll keep those thoughts and theories to myself" as a result we keep making the same mistakes and never improve.

It is one thing to just plain hate on someone or something, but it is entirely different to tell the truth and offer constructive criticism. So please email me your observations I'll share them on my discussion board. Peace.

Rahiem reacts:

Yes, Troy that makes perfect sense. I have only been two years and it seems fine to me. I'm looking to know what are the big differences.

I Reply:

Rahiem OK I was doing the fair 10 years before you 1st attended, so I understand you simply have nothing to compare it to. Off the top of my head here are a few of my observations:

Only 1 (Penguin) of the big 6 publishers were present

  • Despite the best day, weather-wise, that I could remember -- there were fewer people in attendance
  • The were fewer general book sellers
  • There were a higher percentage on non-book vendors
  • There were fewer independent publishers
  • Self published authors, selling a single title, were over represented
  • Less vendors overall

I could go on. But as Nellicito implied the Harlem Book Fair, which I'm a huge supporter of, has seen better days. I believe it can get better but it won't if we keep making believe there is nothing wrong with it.

Nellicito Unleashes:

Grab your Kool-Aid and popcorn

The cost of vending at HBF is ridiculously EXPENSIVE for a one day event…there are more authors nowadays than ever before and not enough BUYERS to go around…I saw more people at HBF in 2009 (the first time I attended) in contrast to present day

I used to see vending tables with authors by the food and clothing side of the book fair…now every author is situated between Lenox and ACP Blvd

It seems like a good number of people who hit up HBF are there to window shop instead of buying books…it’s like they are just passing by to see “what’s going on?”

Buses full of readers used to hit up HBF…I don’t see that anymore…I also don’t see a lot of book clubs coming through politicking with authors

I don’t think HBF is new author friendly…you need a brand name to get off…there were literally an ant-hill of people surrounding better known authors/writers

Can’t be mad at that…it’s part of the game

HBF is celebrity driven UNLESS you have a gimmick or a kick ass street team to promote your book if you’re a lesser known author

That’s why I tell authors NOT to rely on book fairs to make a lot of money…be prepared to LOSE money, but use that opportunity to network with industry heads

It’s human nature to gravitate toward familiarity…new authors need to either step up their hustle game, or prepare to get burned…and I’m not talking about from the sun

The lack of BALANCE in the Black publishing world is killing HBF

I know people who AVOID HBF because they don’t wanna be bothered with tables filled with Urban/Street Lit…and when you DO have a variety, those authors will suffer be

cause readers don’t wanna take chances by reading outside their comfort zone

They’re too comfortable with what they already know

They’ll TELL you they want something different, but they WON’T SHOW you by supporting the alternative

You can’t say I’m lying because there are authors who write Urban/Street Lit use pseudonyms to write in other genres…Gee, I wonder why

There’s nothing new in the game that excites people to come out to HBF…there’s no Black version of “50 Shades of Grey” to draw people in (I’m talking phenomenon wise, not actual content)

The perception is that the only genre that Black fiction authors know how to write is hood and erotica books…that perception by default make another demographic of readers obsolete and reluctant to show up

You can’t blame the recession because Black folks have been in a recession since 1865…Black people SPEND money like it’s water even when we don’t have it

I also don’t blame eBooks…you still have a good number of people who want to

read paperback/hardcover books

I don’t think readers are enthusiastic to buy books from anyone they’re not familiar with…they pick and choose who they wanna buy to avoid the riff raff…nothing wrong with that

There are TOO MANY authors and their affiliates at HBF and not enough buyers in contrast to the past…especially when you have too many hustlers slanging on the same block (street analogy)

I think HBF should turn into a mini Essence Music Festival by booking a couple of legendary R&B acts to perform on stage to bring more people in

There are people living in HARLEM who either don’t know about HBF, or they bother not to go

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I post this here not to bash the Harlem Book Fair, but to use the Book Fair as a case study of sorts, for the issues that hurts the Harlem Book Fair hurts similar events across the country. Perhaps some of the comments made here will help not only the Harlem Book Fair but other events as well.

Nellicito wrote a lot. I wish I had time to address her points right now. As someone who has witnessed the fair from the beginning and actively participated in all aspects of it, for more than a decade my perspective is quite different. In fact, I suspect if Nellicito been at the1st few book fairs her reaction would be much more critical. I'll be back later with my comments. I hope others will chime in sooner.

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Doesn't all of this boil down to the cardinal rule of any enterprise: supply and demand. And doesn't supply and demand involve a good product and smart marketing?

Could it also be that black book fairs per se are an idea whose time came - and has now gone? I don't think any of them today are now what they used to be, and most around where I'm located have disappeared. Dare I say the internet is the culprit?

Just some obvious conclusions offered in the interim before others "chime in".

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Well, Cynique, those are the conclusions I'm questioning.

I'm not convinced (yet), that bookstores, book fairs are things whose time has come and gone. Too many of the fairs and stores I'm aware of are plagued by issues that have nothing to do with demand.

I don't think the internet is the culprit, and for a very simple reason; the internet can not replace the experience that a well run book fair or book store can provide.

Next month the Brooklyn Book Festival will take place; Edwidge Danticat, Terry McMillian, Sapphire, Colson Whitehead, and others will be on hand for what I can guarantee will be a great event. The internet will support through pre-event promotion, archiving video, photos and more after the event, as well as supporting it with social media during the event. AT&T even has an app for the event.

The internet is a tool to support the book fair not something that can replace it.

If we compared the support and sponsorship secured by the Harlem Book Fair and the Brooklyn Book Festival, you'd see that the differences are amazingly stark. The clearly the difference in the level of support helps explain the relative success of each event.

The question becomes why is the difference in the level of support obtained by each event so different?

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Back to square one. Does a lot of the success of these events depend on the appearance of big names, and on "seeing-and-being seen", rather than on what new books are being hawked??? Obviously I am clueless about these affairs but I am also curious.

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Actually that is a good question too Cynique, Big names obviously help, but there are no guarantee.

This year's Harlem Book Fair featured Zane, Cornel West, Sonia Sanchez. The other good thing about the Harlem book Fair is that it continues to feature important people who are not household names; Nell Irvin Painter, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Carol Mackey and others. The panel discussions (broadcast by C-Span) are typically the best part of the fair.

This year there were fewer panel discussions than last year. I did not see any of the panel discussion this year, I tried to peek in on Cornel's panel figuring I could get some photos, but I was unable to enter the building where the panel discussion were being held. There were a crush of people trying to enter and no one was being let in, so I went home.

I suspect the panel Cornel participated on was well attended. But this does not directly translate to activity on the street or book sales for the vendors -- and it certainly has no impact on the variety and quality of the vendors for the attendees.

The best attended book fairs have well known authors participating, but again, this is no guarantee for success. I'm trying to think of an example of a well attended event that did not feature a well known or celebrity author(s). Right now, off the top of my head none come to mind...

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Comparing the Harlem Book Fair to the Brooklyn Book Fair is apples and oranges

Brooklyn Book Fair is more DIVERSE and has a BROADER audience

Point blank

Black authors, and Black people in general, cannot "think Black" anymore...you need to EXPAND...otherwise you'll starve

"If we had to depend upon Black people to eat, we would starve to death" - Bleek from Mo Better Blues

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Nah'Sun, it would interesting to read what you think the target audiences for the Harlem Book Fair and The Brooklyn Book festival are and why they are so different that comparing them, in our opinion, is not valid.

"Black authors, and Black people in general, cannot "think Black" anymore...you need to EXPAND"

Your logic here is lost on me. I'm not sure what "think Black" means and how that equates to not "expanding". I'm not aware of a single author at the Harlem Book Fair and I know the organizers are interested is selling to a "broad and diverse audience". I'm not sure what the Harlem book fair, or Black people in general are doing to make you think otherwise.

I'll approach it differently for you. The Harlem Book Fair came about not as an effort to exclude anyone. It was a reaction to the fact that Black books were an insignificant part of the world of books. The effort was is an attempt to enable us to be heard. In that regard, the Harlem Book Fair continues to be successful.

If the Harlem Book Fair and all the other fairs like it went away tomorrow do you think Black writers and books would be in a better or worse position?

The quote from Mo Betta Blues does not bolster your argument simply because it is untrue. It would also be interesting to read why you think that statement is true.

"Black people have survived because of other Black people" - Troy from AALBC.com

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"Think Black" means don't just rely on Black people to support you because you'll starve

That comment wasn't toward HBF...it was a general statement

Black people have survived with each other in the past because THOSE generations struggled with each other and KNEW they NEEDED one another in order to survive

This generation doesn't understand the importance of self sufficiency...that concept is lost...it's every man for him and herself nowadays

We would rather support larger corporations than mom and pop spots...the closing of mom and pop spots solidifies my argument that Blacks won't help each other UNLESS they BELIEVE that

A) You're making major moves (which is why authors generally LIE about book sales or at least exaggerate their progress)

B ) You're validated by the white man

It's Socio-Marketing

Brooklyn is an ENTIRE borough filled with a diversity of people...Harlem is just one area in Manhattan

From my observation, the event draws in different crowds because of its marketing and promotions

They have authors of different nationalities showcased whereas HBF have Black faces in the forefront

When you think of Harlem, you automatically think Black regardless of gentrification...the "exclusion" is automatic

Black writers that HUSTLE will thrive without book fairs...I mean, hell...it's not like they're making money at book fairs anyway unless they have a brand name

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"Black people have survived with each other in the past because THOSE generations struggled with each other and KNEW they NEEDED one another in order to survive"

I agree 100% with this statement. I'm not even going to play devil's advocate to tease out any more of an explanation. "Point blank"

A ) Many people lie about book sales -- not just Black authors.

B ) Validated by the "white man' is a little misleading. It is a validation by the institution or entities that generate the most money that people seek. Of course the vast majority of these entities are run and owned by white men folks.

Here is one of many anecdotes to support your point B: For years a big complaint I've heard from Black writers is that Black magazines, websites, etc don't pay anything or pay too little to Black writers. As a result, it was virtually impossible for Black entities to secure good writers. Fledgling websites and magazine, new ones in particular, struggled and died in part to a lack of good content. Meanwhile many of our best writers proudly wrote for the Huffington Post -- for free. It was only after the HuffPost was sold for millions did I hear anyone complaints. But Black writers still Blog for free to this day.

For sure, some Black entities took advantage of Black writers trying to make a name for themselves by writing for free. But when the motivation is only money it is easy to see why folks would not hesitate to give away their content to the Huff Post versus a much small Black publication. The idea that we need each other is never a factor.

I'll take it a step further. I get emails all the time from writers wanting me to promote the fact that they have published something on the Huffngton Post. Now I pay authors pretty much for everything I publish or give then a excellent barter deal -- rarely do they promote the fact that they had an article published on AALBC.com. I could go on...

Na'Shun I still disagree about your assessment of the differences of the HBF and BBF. Both events attract attendees and vendors who live out outside of the physical locations of both events. Yes the authors showcased and vending at the BBF are more diverse in terms of race, but again that does not explain any of the issues Nellicito described at the beginning of this conversation. Many of the problems Nellicito and I described are relatively recent problems with the Harlem Book Fair.

Some Black writers (who hustle) will make money, but the vast majority will not profit very much. The reasons are plentiful and have nothing to do with the existence of book fairs and more to do with the quality of the product.

Consider this point I made earlier; "Self published authors, selling a single title, were over represented" at the Harlem Book fair. For the 1st couple of years I had a table where I sold books of many different authors -- it would be nothing for me to clear $400 in a day. I would be willing to bet money an unknown author selling a single title will not make this much.

But more importantly a fair populated with a large number of unknown authors with a single book will attract fewer people than a fair with actual book sellers, and publishers. This is one big difference between the HBF and the BBF. Again, the Harlem Book Fair, in the past, attracted all of the big 6 publishers, many independent presses, antiquarian book sellers, book stores, even the likes of an AALBC.com. Again I could go on...

Nah'Sun thanks so much for offering your perspective here. The willingness to express your thoughts, in a public forum, and not be intimated by someone who disagrees with you is an increasing rare thing.

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Of course the vast majority won't sell because it's too many hustlers on the same block unless they hustle from state to state (untapped markets)

New York City is painfully saturated with authors hawking their books on the street level

I too think it's a wash to set up shop at a book fair with only one title...I think that's laughable...you're only as strong as your catalog

I don't mind writing for free...it's practice to me...that's if you're not trying to take my kindness for a weakness and the publication is true and positive

I'm a contributing writer for Urban Grapevine as a matter of fact

But more importantly a fair populated with a large number of unknown authors with a single book will attract fewer people than a fair with actual book sellers, and publishers.


That's one of the reasons why HBF is falling off

By the way...



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Nellicito! Well thanks doubly for stopping by and sharing here. Facebook is one of our other problems -- but I've given up trying to help people understand why...

I'm not familiar with Urban Grapevine, but I'll look into it. Again, Nellicito/Nah'Sun you are, in many ways I'm discovering, the exception not the rule. I hope Urban Grapevine appreciates your contribution and that you grow together and share in the benefits.

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