Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Ebooks: An End to the Race Debate?

Yesterday on Twitter, there was an interesting conversation under the hashtag #litchat. The topic: White Readers Meet Black Literature. It was spearheaded by the fabulous Carleen Brice who has made it her mission to open the world of black literature to non-black readers.

I suspect I could go through an entire ream of paper printing the pages of discussions I've read on this subject in the years since I started following it, which I'll admit occurred only after I became published. You see, like many who aren't immersed in the publishing world, I didn't realize this was such a huge issue...until I understood how it affected my bottom line. But that's human nature, isn't it? This is also why I think many fellow writers who are not banished to the black section of the book store really cannot understand what this means to those who are.

One moment...I just had to check my calendar to make sure this is 2011, because there's no way I'm using language such as "banished to the black section" in the second decade of the 21st century. But, yes, it is. And, yes, I am. Excuse me while I heave a huge, disappointed sigh.

I had no intention of rehashing this issue yet again. I've written about it before, and it has been discussed ad nauseam by countless bloggers. But as I read through yesterday's Tweets and clicked through some of the links, I stumbled upon an interesting observation. Someone suggested that eBooks will bring an end to the racial segregation that several major book retailers have practiced for years.

Could it be true? Can the death of this unjust practice that has hindered authors for years be a byproduct of the eBook revolution?

To test it, I went to a major eBook retailer's website and searched for "football romances" to see if my football romance would be listed with all the other football romances available to readers. It was. And on the first page.

Does this prove that the race in publishing issue may be coming to an end? I'm not in any way convinced that eBooks will usher in a significant change, but my little experiment did give me a small, single-speck-of-fairy-dust, measure of hope.

What are your thoughts?


Connie Keenan said...

Farrah, first, excellent entry. And how exciting if that is the case! I was published in ebook form since back in its early years, and I remember people in the industry saying they'd never take off. Now ebooks have slowly changed the landscape in so many areas of a business that needed renovating, including the area of allowing a book to have an audience rather than banishing it to a particular table. Anyway--I loved your post!

Tom said...

I guess I may be a bit naive on this subject, but, can you explain in simple terms how books are segregated? Because the only areas I see in a B&N (for example) that are racially seperate are the Ethnic Studies sections. As far as fiction goes, I guess I never noticed any racial divide. That being said, I tend to meander most in the Sci Fi/Fantasy section, which has a broader range of "races" represented as a general rule. :)

Farrah Rochon said...

Connie thanks for dropping by!

Tom, B&N is the one chain that, thankfully, does not practice this. However, Borders and Wal-Mart (arguably the largest bookseller) have done so for years. Both retailers categorize books by African American authors based on the skin color of the author, not the genre in which they write. In Borders my romance novels are shelved with horror, historical fiction, non-fiction, etc. The common thread...the authors are black. It's extremely blatant, you only have to travel to your nearest Wal-Mart to see it for yourself.

Charles Gramlich said...

I always wonder if there's actually any data on this topic. I could see under some circumstances it might benefit the writer, and in others hurt them. But I don't know if they have or could even get any actual sales figures that would reflect on the topic.

Irene Preston said...

Wow - I too can not believe this is still happening in 2011. I don't often purchase books in Wal-mart or Borders, and I won't be doing so at all after reading this. I have seen the segregation before, and I naively assumed that books would be cross-shelved (thereby making the African American section a good thing - additional exposure).

You raise a very positive point about e-books. My own thoughts have gone the other direction. It seems much harder to "browse" e-books to me. Maybe I just haven't gotten the hang of it yet, but I seem bombarded by 2 specific things - the national bestsellers and the "recommendations". There is no escaping the best-sellers, even in a bookstore. Since I am an eclectic reader, the recommendations frequently don't cover all the type books I'm interested in. In fact, they frequently just seem to be offerings of more books by the same authors I already read. So far, scrolling through pages of offerings by genre or keyword just doesn't measure up to a lovely afternoon browsing the shelves. So, my own thoughts have been - if you aren't that nationally recognized author - how do you get that all-important exposure?

Thanks for sharing your good experience. The industry is in such a state of flux right now, it is always nice to hear some good news!

G said...

I always thought it was weird to see that Borders (which is where I predominately go) would segregate books.

I certainly felt a little uncomfortable whenever I went browsing that section looking for something to read (recent got interested in Erica Kennedy and Karen Siplin), as I would always feel that I somehow I was attracting attention simply because who I was (fat, bald white guy who is genuinely interested in expanding his reading horizons at the ripe old age of 45).

I know the Wal Mart in my area definitely segregates the Hispanic/Latino authors from everyone else.

Liane Spicer said...

What an intriguing idea, Farrah. I say more power to whatever helps to end this nefarious shelving practice.

Jewel Amethyst said...

I too am being bombarded with the bestsellers and recommended books when I browse the ebooks. When I purchase paper books from Amazon.com I get recommended books by same authors that I've read.

However, if I represent the average reader (and I make no claims here), I generally order books online and is oblivious to the racial segregation that exists in bookstores.

Therefore, if that is any indicator, maybe you're right, Farrah, and the digital age of book purchasing will usher in a new era of book integration.

SY said...

race debates are never pretty but I would like to see if this will actually help.

KeVin K. said...

Tom: The marketing philosophy, if you can call it that, is that only black black readers will buy books by black authors and all black readers base their purchase decisions solely on the color of the author.
Before the local Books-A-Million remodeled, the only time white folks saw AA books was on the way to the bathroom. Now they're no longer restricted to the back aisle, but "African American Books" are still segregated. (And, yes, Farrah, they are arraged by author with no consideration of genre; horror, romance, and police procedurals share the shelf.
Why don't publishers or booksellers think white readers are interested in books by writers of color? Perhaps they think that, unlike Barbara Billingsley, most white folk don't read jive. (And yes, in this day and age there are readers of non-color who think modern AA books are all written in street.)
Booksellers who separate books by authorial hue will tell you books by black authors are grouped together for the convenience of black readers. Some say an AA book section makes a statement; it's a show of solidarity and accomplishment. But in stores where books by black authors are segregated, white readers feel like they're trespassing if they wander into the AA section. Since the sad economic truth is white readers have the largest percentage of the book-buying money in their pockets, this convenience and solidarity hits authors of color in bottom line; limiting sales of books published and their chances of negotiating favorable contracts in the future.
Many years ago (Like 20? Geeze. where did the time go?) I was corresponding with J.J. Murray about writing interracial romances -- a career my wife was strongly advocating and one I'm still intrigued by. At that time he commented on the marketing oddity that interracial romances by white writers were in the contemporary romance section, while those by black writers were in the AA section. I don't know if this has changed since.