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Is Black Literature And the Arts Going Through a Whole New Renassaince?


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As a writer, and artist of other forms, I see the arts in general, especially the segment of the African American diaspora, as entering a whole new awakening. 

Since 2003, when I self published my first title, Love Don't Live Here I've seen the publishing world go through many fazes. Many new, and unexperienced AA writers, took not just the self publishing world by storm, but the whole punlishing industry. Over the years the whole industry has had to change, how they do things, and aclnowledge that, self publishing isn't a fad. It's here to stay.

One of the things, I'm delighted to see, are the new era, of multi talented artists. These artists, write books, have an interest in music, film, theatre, etc. They bring with them a whole new level of thinking, as they're not just artistic. But they're also businessminded, and understand the importance of creating a brand. This is beneficial for their legacy, and the African American entertainment, broadcasting and media industry as well. 

I am interested, in hearing others thoughts on the matter.

Therone Shellman

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 Hopefully Troy and CDBurns will have something constructive to contribute to your request for input. Although I have self-published, it's not something I currently have anything of substance to speak about.

 I confess that what hooked me on your post is how you, a writer, headlined your article.  It should read; Are black literature and the arts going through a whole new  renaissance instead of: IS black literature and the arts going through a whole new renassaince.  You used incorrect grammar and misspelled a word.  :( 

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Well Cynique, as many typos as I make I'm not about to go after Therone on that one ;).  One could argue "whole new renaissance" is redundant, but this just a discussion forum and the expectation for editing is an issue only when there is a loss of clarity.  Therone is an accomplished author and has been profiled on AALBC.com for more than a deacde, but I understand the point you are making... 

@TheroneShellman, thanks for coming by and sharing your thoughts on this subject.  I can't speak to arts in general, but I can speak to Black books.

I started running AALBC.com in 1997.  Since then I've been a keen observer of what I call the “Black Book Ecosystem.” During this almost 19 year period I've seen Black books and authors really surge in popularity.  Many independent authors (a term I prefer to self-published), were able to ride the wave of this expansion, due to enhancements in technology which dramatically lowered the cost of producing and selling book.

When you got started in 2003 The Black Book Ecosystem had not yet peaked, and was still on the come up. In fact, the most notable writers, benefiting from this surge like, Ashley and JaQuavis, and Wahida Clark were largely unknown.  Vickie Stringer's Triple Crown Productions was really just getting started pubbing Kwan's Gangsta, Stringer's own, Let That Be the Reason and Nikki Turner's Project Chick.  Carl Weber's Urban Books and 50 Cent's G-Unit Books (both owned by Simon and Schuster) were brand new or had not yet started.  Of course that is just the urban fictions genre, novels in romance, "chic-lit", sci-fi, and commercial fiction benefited a great deal.

Today the landscape is very different, since 2003 we have lost a couple hundred Black owned bookstores, and we have lost many Black book websites.  Black authors are not getting book deals in the same numbers, as a decade ago, and those that did, are getting smaller advances.  Many authors have simply stopped publishing, have published independently, or have turned to small indie presses, none of which provide advances which help subsidize the careers of a writers.

Technologies like print on demand and digital books have made it possible for anyone to create a book.  As a result, we have more books in the marketplace than ever before.. But this is not resulting in better books getting into the hands of readers, or increased profits for the authors.  This has just been a windfall for purveyors of ebook publishing and POD services.

I've already mentioned there are fewer book stores and book sites, but there is also MUCH less coverage of Black books in magazines and newspapers. As result, it is harder for books to find their audience.  

Meanwhile social media and Amazon have promised to make promotion of books much easier for authors, still the only real beneficiaries of these promises are Amazon and social media.  In fact today, the vast majority of book sold are sold by Amazon.  I don't have hard data on this, but where else are large numbers of Black book being purchased and sold?

But, to your point, I believe the pendulum is beginning to swing in the other direction, back in our favor, and that Black literature is indeed in the dawn of new renaissance. This renaissance, like all the others, is driven by need.  Writers are beginning to see that all of these technologies are not serving us the way they are currently being used.  I also believe that people are beginning to see that going it alone is not working.  

We are starting to exploit technologies to our benefit and stricking alliances to leverage our collective strengths.  This is the change in thinking we must make, from a business perspective, to continue to fuel this renaissance.

So the quick answer is; "Yes, we are." :)

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@Cynique You spelled Is as IS. Maybe, you didn't notice the typo. Not for the intention of debate.

@Troy I definately understand, what you've mentioned in regards to the closing of so many African American book stores. Many urban literature authors, benefited greatly from them. I personally, only dealt with four. Two of which, are still open. This being, because No Love Lost, is my only street literature, title. My first novel, Love Don't Live Here revised edition, is literary fiction. So I didn't have much success through Black Book Distributors. I then focused my efforts on, hand to hand sales (which is where any indie author should), and I took the risk with, signing with an independent book distributor, which catered to the chain retail market (Borders/ Waldenbooks/Booksamillion), etc. Luckily, I found some success, and had some fun too. 

Today, independent authors, are selling in Barnes & Nobel, Booksamillion, and I'm not sure. But, I would assume they're utilizing African American book stores. The library market, is always available. Hand to hand sales, is always here to stay. It's way more than setting up on the streets as well. Vendor opportunities, on a short term basis, are available everywhere. I will always be a fan, of authors, publishers, controlling as much of their distribution as possible. 

I was lucky to be able to out the gate sell alot of copies of the revised edition, in 2005. But an independent author should be focused on the longterm, and building their catalog. This, is how a career and brand is built. With the emergence, of the NYC street market. It was great but it also decieved many. Many authors, and companies were able to build a platform and careers, because of the hardwork, of some authors and the street vendors, who built incredible customer bases, and networks with readers, within NYC. From 2010-2015 this market began to change, as some street vendors left, for various reasons. I took a 4 year hiatus, because I went down south, and I also wanted to restructure, after my distributor closed its doors. Other authors, I assume just focused, on their own boroughs, and locales. When I came back in 2014, and decided to stroll around, no more did I see authors set up as usual. I used to even see out of state authors, occassionally. So many authors, were able to take advantage from the market, which existed. But, many didn't want to put the work in, when it was time for them to grind on their own. Believe, it or not many authors obtained the big book deals, because of the street market.

I really don't know why any independent author, would see amazon, or Facebook, as the main avenue to sell books. I see them, as part of an authors portfolio, for marketing, sales channels. Again, controlling avenues to ones customer base is important. Whomever, controls this, controls career(s). There's no easy route to building the ground floor. 

As far as why so many African American sites closed. You know more than me, because this is your lane. I have my speculations. But as an author, I'm going to remain mute. My position may be prejudiced, a bit. I will say that, your site is broader in it's view, than just books. News, commentary is what attracts people.

You mentioned authors, not going it alone. I think any artist needs to protect their brand, and artistic vision. With that being said. They should be a fan of contracts to protect their interests. Most importantly  deal with folks, who are on the same page as their vision. After all, it's their career, their ship. I work with quite a few people. One of them does video media for me. I just recently signed on with a company to host a live webshow, beginning July. Working out something with a brother, who is connected to the media. So yeah, I don't think it's about writing and printing books. It's bigger. Just have to be careful, and I do stress from an artist standpoint contracts. Never mix business with pleasure. Some folks have found themselves without a business, and others having unecessary headaches, and drama. I feel we are all creating legacies. So lets view it like this.

Thanks for responding @Troy @Cynique 

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I live in NY City and there are simply not as many street vendors moving books as there once was.  I understand the laws changed making it harder for street vendor to vend on the street, as you mentioned a Black owned distributor, who supplied many of the street vendors shut down.

Then you know all of the controversy surrounding Carl Weber dumping books onto the street vendor market, way below retail, which effectively eliminated author royalties...

Again I don't have data around how books are sold.  I just know there are fewer bookstores and many of the ones remaining are struggling.  (BTW please mention the two stores that you currently work with, other authors reading these can benefit from the information.)  I also go into B&N's across the country and they simply do not stock a variety of Black authors and definitely no indie authors.  Borders was a much better chain for Black authors, but you know what happened to them.

I also know target and Costco and other retailers sell Black books, but again you will not find many different book. The library market has some potential, but getting into that market, while easier than in the past, is still tough--particularly as an indie author.

The reason I mention Amazon and facebook is because this is what I see day in and day out--literally everyday.  There is also a trend for authors toward suing Facebook as their only presence on the web.  Most authors behave as if Black book sellers don't exist and using direct reader to buy on Amazon.

Direct selling is perhaps the best way for an indie authors to sell books, but most simply don't have the skill or desire to do this.  I've seen authors like Nikki Turner sell books like no other, she is a machine, but few people are like her.  Many of the authors in the street lit space were successful because they are great salespeople, Wahida Clark, Relentless Aaron, J.M. Benjamin, etc,.  

On the commercial fiction side this skill can not be discounted NY Times bestselling author Omar Tyree back in the 90's was the hardest working author I had ever seen.  Kwame Alexander, who just won a Newbery award the highest honor in children's literature was a worked hard on the promotion side too.  Authors like Reshonda Tate Billingsley, Victoria Christopher Murray and many other grind, day in and day out. 

What do authors who are not great sales people (the majority) do?  How do the great writers among this bunch get discovered?  Honestly this is a gap that an AALBC.com can easily fill, but even I'm resource contrained and can only do so much.  We need more booksellers recommending books online and off--the auhtor can only do so much on their own.

@TheroneShellman, regarding other sites not lasting, don't remain mute.  Say what is on your mind.  I don't want to make the same mistake, otherwise I might be able to shed some insight.

 

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You have the two book stores listed already. Mejah Books in Deleware, and Hakim's in Philadephia. Under Therone Shellman Media, they don't currently stock my titles, because we just had all of my book covers done over, and entered into Ingrams system. But, they're both open. Mejah, does signings. I've done quite a bit with them in the past.

In regards to what can authors, who aren't good sales people do to sell books, without going hand to hand. The only option I see, is to sign with an established publisher (big or small). Or they're going to have to create a budget, for paid social media advertising, on facebook, develop an email list through a service like constant contact, advertise on sites like yours, and definately utilize pr releasing service blackpr.com to get the word out to media. Reach out to online radio shows, on blogtalkradio, to possibly do interviews, etc. This is just a start. But their road, will be harder, and more costly. Consistency, and taking inventory of what works, is important for them. Their skillset, plus type of book is going to determine, what hits off and what doesn't. No way of knowing, beforehand. I would never go this route again, because I don't believe in exclusive distribution contracts, and I am working to control my own distribution. But it would maybe be in their best interest to sign with an independent book distributor, so they can obtain shelf space in B&N, etc. 

My pov on the many sites disappearing. Quite a few sites were started by readers, many of whom catered to the Urban literature market, and some Christian. Their programs were too narrow in scope. Plus, many were just doing it for fun, and as a hobby. Other sites catering to the same market, (moreso urban market) were showing personal favoritism, to certain authors. Which isn't a smart idea ever, from a business standpoint. Within the Black book market, there are those who write to entertain, and those who do so to educate. A smart site caters to both. Let the authors have their views, and commentary, without choosing sides. There are readers on both sides of the spectrum. Dialogue and heated debates are great between the authors and readers. But there's a fine line, when admin gets involved, in this grey area. Especially when it's blatant and obvious. Some of these sites caused some writers, who were bringing them considerable traffic to stop messing with them. No interesting topics, and the following dwindles. If the site is going, to cater to a specific genre. Then say so outright, and be savvy enough to market to get this following of readers, and writers to come to the site. The site has to be interesting enough to stay. Some of these sites reminded me of, reality TV because there were no interesting articles, commentary. Cannot keep book readers, or writers interest, with that stuff for long. There are way more people who don't read books than who do. This says, something about readers. 

I understand what you mentioned in regards to books being sold below market value in the streets. Which messed it up for vendors. They messed it up for themselves. Just because, they bought the titles cheaper, doesn't mean they had to sell the books for less than $10. Especially when they're buying books everywhere else from $5-7 and have to sell thesr books, for $10-12. Greedy, and stupid. As for the authors, this had nothing to do with their hustle. A quality product, the owner dictates the value. This is in any business. 

If you're an independent author. The only options are to hustle hand to hand, sign with a distributor and create a marketing budget, and strategy. Possibly do both like I first did. OR hire a book consultant, and alIow them to do most of the work for you. Sorry, books won't sell themselves. So before you begin, think this through. There are plenty of resources on this site, as well. 

In the past many independent authors, were found by the noise book clubs were making, street sales, and through being signed by known publishers. I believe the future wave of those, who get big deals, will be the result of the big companies, seeing them as being businessminded, and folks who they can forge longterm relationships with. So they're going to be looking for more than just sales. Talents, such as public speaking, business intelligence, marketability within other platforms, etc. Changes in the music industry is a good indicator, of what's to happen in the publishing world. 

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In the case I mentioned with Urban Books, the authors had no control of the price which their book were being sold on the street. I recall one of the Urban Book Authors Jihad ranting in a video over what was happening during the period.

To your last point about changes in the industry, which also relates to much of what you wrote is the importance of the author's "Platform."  The concept of platformed seemed to become much more popular around 10 years ago.  Authors were not just expected to come to the table with a great manuscript they were also expected for have a platform, a quantifiable, preexisting audience.  

According to some agents authors with a platform, got book deals over better writers.  Publishers would look at how many Twitter followers an author had as a factor when signing them.  But at the same time they were not sophisticated enough to know that Twitter followers could be purchased.  The same goes for purported sales as a self published author, does anyone look at receipts from the printer for validate these claims?

While publishers looked at the platforms of all authors, Black authors platforms seemed to be scrutinized the most.  The idea of a promising writer being nurtured, by a major publisher just does not happen very often--especially if their characters are Black.

As far as Black sites, or indie websites in general, traffic is down for a plethora of reasons.  AALBC.com survives because of organic traffic, from search, but Google can take that traffic away tomorrow.  Disappearing, or being pushed way down in search results killed many sites.  

When authors stopped linking to Black book sites, or stopped participating (for whatever reason), this only exacerbates the problem, the nail in the coffin was authors taking all of their energy and devolving it to social media--even over their own websites.  This has the effect of cannibalizing the very platforms that can and will support them.

In 2010, I wrote an article about the need to support Black book websites, highlighting a few of the more popular sites that remained (image on the left below). Five years later almost all of those sites were gone (grayed out in the image on the right). Now Mosaicbooks.com, The Urban Book Source, Rawsistaz, and the others may describe their reasons for the shutting down completely differently, but they were all operating under the same adverse conditions and they were generating meaningful revenue; I suspect they would still be around today. 

losing-black-websites.jpg

Just today when researching something related to urban lit, I used the Way Back Machine to retrieve an article that used to be in The Urban Book Source's site. As we continue to lose these sites the internet becomes less rich.  Social media simply can not make up for what we are losing.

Back to the renaissance, I'm beginning to see more entities authors, publishers, book clubs, etc, looking to work together to improve things.  @TheroneShellman, your very participation in this conversation is reflective of this change in mindset.  I think you can appreciate that a conversation like this could never have taken place on any social media platform.

Hopefully, in 5 to 10 years, we will look back on this very conversation and agree that we were right about a being in the verge of a renaissance in Black literature :)

 

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