A deluge of books come from African-Americans


This is a new era of black consciousness, and of works of vast variety expanding the market.


African-American storytellers are finally having their say. More books by, for and about black people are available now than during any past decade of my life. Fantasy. Christian fiction. Self-help. History. Potboilers. Adventure travel. Memoirs. Science. Love, and -- oh -- careless lovemaking, in all its brown-skinned beauty.

This news is of interest not just to African-American readers and dollar-hungry booksellers and publishers, but to thoughtful readers of every stripe who explore culture through the written word. Many in literary circles are trying to assess what fuels this hot '90s market, and how to stoke the flame. They struggle to name it: It is a boom. An explosion. A deluge.

I have witnessed two great explosions of African-American authorship. The protest drumbeat of the 1960s filled my childhood, when Black became Beautiful. I came of age during the 1970s, when writing women dared -- in flashes of brilliance.

The 30 years since have ushered into print more black authors than were published during all the preceding 70 years, according to the editors of the "Norton Anthology of African-American Literature" (Henry Louis Gates Jr., et al. W. W. Norton, 2,665 pages, $53).

The '90s will be remembered for another kind of revival. Many in the book industry trace it to June 1992. That month, Terry McMillan ("Waiting to Exhale"), Toni Morrison ("Jazz"), and Alice Walker ("Possessing the Secret of Joy") soared together on the New York Times best seller list. What happened next in the publishing world was a feeding frenzy: Black became Bankable.

Just don't call it a literary revival. This is not the new Harlem Renaissance. I am still waiting for the next heyday of black bards and catalysts and radical thinkers. I am still waiting for breakthrough books to seize the contradictions of our time and lay them bare with arresting clarity.

Fortunately, there is plenty to read while I am waiting.

"This is the first time in history that African-Americans are permitted to read about themselves in a vast number of ways -- to see ourselves as people who love each other, and live interesting lives, or even who eat a certain way," says Faye Childs. "We have more to choose from than ever before -- books about people who live and love and romance each other as we do."

Childs, an author, nudged the burgeoning market from her office in Columbus, Ohio, in July 1991. She founded a best seller list of books by black authors. Today, her list appears in Publisher's Weekly and Essence magazine.

Today, the list has cachet: "# 1 Blackboard Bestseller" shouts the new trade paperback cover of Colin Channer's debut novel about love, "Waiting in Vain" (One World, 346 pages, $17.95).

"I don't think there is a parallel to this time," says W. Paul Coates, founder of Black Classic Press, the Baltimore publisher of rediscovered cultural works. To him, the black-interest book market is beyond deep and wide. It is at flood stage.

"You have an oversaturated market," he says.

It is small, but lively. Ken Smikle of Chicago-based Target Market News, a frequently quoted analyst of black buying power, estimates that African-Americans spend $290 million a year on books. That's a little more than 1 percent of the $23 billion in American book sales in 1998.

What's for sale? Keyword African-American in Amazon.com turned up 450 titles. Category search "People of Color" culled more than 1,000. A more comprehensive selection of thousands of books waits on the shelves in Baltimore at Everyone's Place, an African-American bookstore -- one of at least five in the metro area. Meanwhile, black book catalogs are sprouting on the Internet.

"I have stepped in to fill a void," said Joseph A. Phelps. His five books and on-line African-American Bookshelf showcase blacks in the military (www.japhelps.com).

He is on the front lines of writers who have carved out niches within the niche. Some genres affected include novels and relationship fiction; self-help and spiritual guidance; history/slavery; and the family bookshelf. A good example in the last category is "The Black Parenting Book: Caring for Our Children in the First Five Years," (Anne C. Beal, M.D., et al. Broadway Books, $20, 416 pages, paper), which tells how to explain racism to children.

"Today's literature reflects the economic and social progress wrought from Malcolm, Martin, urban unrest, open-door policies and affirmative action," writes Max Rodriguez, in "Sacred Fire: The QBR 100 Essential Black Books" (John Wiley and Sons, 256 pages, $22.97).

"Accommodation and demand, protest and personal introspection mark this current period of African-American literature."

(QBR is the Quarterly Black Review -- the older of two book review journals on the market. The newcomer is the glossy Black Issues Book Review, launched this spring by the publishers of the journal Black Issues in Higher Education.)

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