Black Books in the Age of the Coronavirus
A Conversation about Black Books & Publishing
On Sunday afternoon, March 22, I attended a virtual meeting about the state of Black book publishing. Being in a forced shut-in due to the Coronavirus Pandemic led to a vibrant dialogue. “Keeping the Black Book Ecosystem Strong: Black Books in the Age of the Coronavirus” and why it is important to us, as a culture, to maintain our agency when it comes to determining how our stories are told according to Troy Johnson, founder of African American Literature Book Club (AALBC). He, along with Paul Coates of Black Classic Press and other book sellers, distributers, publishers, educator, librarians and authors laid out a blueprint of why it is vital that we charter our own paths in the business of Black Books.
Other notable panelists included James Fugate of Eso Won Book Store in Los Angeles, Kassahun Checole of African World Press, Shirikiana Germina of Sankofa Books in Washington D.C. and Cheryl and Wade Hudson of Just Us Books. Paul Coates and Katura Hudson of Just Us Books were the moderators and took comments from Kadija George in London, Nati Nataki of Maryland and poet/literary E. Ethelbert Miller, among others.
Uppermost, was the question of how Black booksellers are coping and staying solvent amidst the pandemic. James Fugate of Eso Books says his online book ordering has increased but there is a problem with the elderly population who are not computer literate. At the beginning of the Pandemic, Sankofa Books took the chairs out of the store because it didn’t allow for social distancing and with the lockdown of nonessential businesses, they are attempting to do online sells but have sent back many of the books to the distributor/publishers. Some of the book sellers are offering curbside service.
A dialogue ensued about us as a people writing, publishing and distributing our books. It was made clear that Amazon.com does not have to be the option for online businesses or otherwise. Troy Johnson founded AALBC 20 years ago. He used Amazon.com to sell his books until the cost became prohibitive and it was no longer economically feasible. He put measures in place to be able to sell through his own company. What he found when he dropped Amazon.com, was that he sold more books and gained more customers because many of his customers were anti-Amazon.com for whatever reasons. He did stress that there are challenges with direct book sales, but it is worth it. Nati Nataki from Maryland is co-owner of Everyone’s Place Books and Cultural Center. She stressed that they are here to help customers. Kassahun Checole, as a book publisher of African World Press from Trenton, deals with literature from the African Diaspora.
Shirikiana Germina spoke on her need to be more innovative as gentrification has invaded D.C. as it has in other metropolitan cities and Black bookstores need to have a plan to stay relevant and prominent. Germina owns the store near Howard University but her monthly property taxes are astronomical at $3,000 a month. She is securing an abatement and other measures to reduce it but until then someone on the panel suggested a campaign to write the City to reduce the taxes. It is vital the store remains lucrative through this pandemic crisis.
Another crucial dialogue was about social media and Black publishing. Should we be concerned about mediums we don’t own? Twitter, Amazon.com et.al? Someone said most of the online book sites were here before social media; we must utilize the Black bookstore websites. However, literary activist, E. Ethelbert Miller reminded us that we should find ways to use those mediums to promote ourselves. They all have advantages that we should utilize to our advantage.
Kadija George from London, is a publisher/literary activist working on her doctoral thesis and has been working with New Beacon Books which specializes in African and Caribbean literature as well as African American literature to document the 50th anniversary of the book store and other African Diaspora books stores but is closed down now due to the pandemic and is selling online. Fugate of Eso Won reiterated we have an incredible opportunity to use publicity for Black bookstores to sell directly online. Eso Won was going out of business a few years ago but one email by a journalist sent out to Los Angeles city officials, community leaders etc. got people to order books and the sales kept him solvent. He emphasized that every bookseller must have a stringent budget; that is the key to remaining solvent. Calvin Reid, a reporter for Publishers Weekly expressed this is a pivotal moment for independent book selling. A spokesperson from Mahogany Book Club which is an online book club and bookseller said Black booksellers must take advantage of social media and digital services.
Just Us Books is an online book seller and publisher specializing in children’s literature and according to Cheryl Willis Hudson is now accepting online manuscript queries.
Johnson said the Brown Bookshelf is an excellent resource for book lists as well as his site, AALBC. Alia Jones, librarian is going to make book lists available. Authors on the group were asked to list their books in the chat section.
The seminar ending with Coates saying they didn’t want people giving suggestions of what they need to do. If you see a need, then offer some assistance. The email address for more information is Blackbookcommunity@gmail.com.
I was aware of most of the panelists; some like Paul Coates and Troy Johnson have been in the publishing, selling and promoting of Black writers and books for decades. These esteemed speakers have stepped out and taken chances in charting their paths on their own terms and not without mistakes and challenges but doing so, nevertheless. I have long believed and advocated our ownership in the publishing game on our terms and applaud and support those who have done so. My feelings are those that can, should and start their own publishing houses, publicity and stores, whether they are brick and mortar or online.
I also believe in working with the systems and mediums that exist. Huffington Post and Medium both have Black/African American extensions, Black Voices and Zora respectfully where Black writers can have their voices heard. Black Twitter has been an outstanding advocate of African Diaspora issues, a voice that is heard internationally. While the publishing industry lacks diversity (77% white), they are on notice as publishing entities such as Lee & Low and Nothing But the Truth Press are pushing for diversity in big ways. When big name entities make desperate moves such as the Barnes & Noble Classics black-face debacle, their glaring mistakes come at a high price, but it is one more step to achieving our rightful place in all spaces. Our stories are plentiful and here to stay and we will not be deterred.
I could not complete this article without mentioning my local Black bookstore. Marcus Book Store in Oakland, California is the oldest Black bookstore in the U.S. The original store in San Francisco was founded over 60 years ago by Drs. Julian and Raye Richardson. Recently, our dear Dr. Raye made her transition in February. She was the first Chair of African American/Black Studies at San Francisco State College that set the blueprint for Black Studies all over the country. Her memorial was to have been on March 13th at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco but due to the mandatory shelter-in-place and social distancing that the entire country is in, it has been postponed until further notice.
While Marcus Books was not represented at the virtual seminar, unofficial representatives Christine Munroe, Marcus Book Club member and book activist, Wanda Sabir, English professor/writer Wanda Sabir, and me, Dera R. Williams, all of us long-time Marcus Books supporters were present.
Many resources including bookstores, book sellers and online resources regarding African American literature and publishing were mentioned in this seminar and Christine and I have compiled a list for your use.
Black Book Publishers, Black Book Stores, and Resources
African American Literature Book Cub (AALBC)
Black Audio books
Just Us Books
Heart and Soul Magazine plans to post black books
Black Classic Press
Eso Won Books
African World Press
Sankofa Videos Books & Café
Everyone’s Place Book Store Cultural Center