I recently received an email from an African-American novelist who was troubled that her latest book was going to be marketed solely to the AA niche market — even though the story itself did not specify the race of its characters, and could just as easily have been marketed as mainstream fiction. When she objected, she said the response from the publisher was:
“They didn’t want to risk “missing out” on the AA market, which was booming and had far less competition. They did this despite my assertion that the characters were not black, and that the African American market also had far less consumers.”
Smart move or dumb move on the publisher’s part? Let’s think about it.
I know that the conventional publishing wisdom is that African American publishing is “booming.” Last week’s PUBLISHERS WEEKLY had this to say about it:
“Even in a flat overall market and in a black market overloaded with self-published fiction … publishers still cite continued growth in the category.”
The PW article quotes Steve Zacharius of Kensington Publishing, who says that the AA category represents “11% of our revenues, and it’s still growing,” and that AA titles were up 10% over last year.
Which sounds terrific for AA writers, doesn’t it? Look at the success of Terry McMillan and Zane — doesn’t it just prove that being marketed in the AA niche is a smart move?
It depends. And here’s my take on it. As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog, even though I’m Asian American, I write my books with a much wider audience in mind. Logically speaking, if your books are aimed at only 4% of the American population, your sales are screwed. To make the bestseller list requires that your sales penetration of that 4% slice of the market must be huge. You’d have to sell to every single Chinese auntie and cousin and every member of every Mah-jong club in America to even register a blip on the national lists. Sure, you might be a huge success in the Asian American market.
But unless the sales cross over to the rest of American readers, you’re still trapped in the Asian American ghetto. You’re pegged as a nice “ethnic” writer, a little exotic shot of spice in an America that devours meat-and-potatoes fiction.
I didn’t want to be a shot of spice. I wanted to sell like meat and potatoes, and be paid accordingly. Which is why I have primarily written about white characters, and why my books are marketed as mainstream fiction. Had I been marketed as an ethnic writer, maybe I might have sold very well in the Asian American niche. But hitting the New York Times bestseller list would have been far, far harder.
Part of the problem, I’ve always felt, is that many white readers seem reluctant to read ethnic fiction. It’s an echo of my observation that many men won’t read books written by women. Readers want characters they can identify with, and many can’t seem to make the leap across racial lines.
But there may be another explanation, says the writer who emailed me. She proposes another explanation for why white readers don’t buy much ethnic fiction, saying:
“I’ve spoken to several reading friends who are white and they basically say that it’s because of the marketing. It’s not essentially being “offered” to them, so the assumption is that it’s not written for them. Which makes a lot of sense. So, I don’t believe that the issue is white people not wanting to read books that happen to be about black characters (Terry McMillan is proof of that). I think it’s more a matter of the fact that the market distinction is there, from the bookseller and publisher presentation.”
So maybe the racial barrier doesn’t lie with the readers themselves, but with the MARKETING to those readers.
And booksellers don’t help bridge the divide, either. When this writer asked bookstores about possibly doing a signing, she was told, again and again, that “African American books don’t sell well in our store.” Even though this author was ready and willing to go on the road to promote her book, she was cut off at the pass by balky booksellers. When I think back to where most of my own booksignings have been held, over the years, the vast majority have been in bookstores in the suburbs where the population is overwhelmingly — yep, you guessed it — white. I can well imagine that an events coordinator at one of these stores might hesitate about scheduling an event for an author who’s being marketed exclusively to an ethnic niche.
So what’s an African American or Asian American or Martian American to do? I guess it comes down to the book you are burning to write. If you have something unique to say about your ethnic background, if you MUST write about it, then you have no choice. You simply have to write about it. Should your story strongly resonate with all readers everywhere, your book will escape the hobbling label of “ethnic fiction”. It will then be marketed — and sell to — a far wider audience. It might even make The List.
Still, it seems to me that to start off labeling yourself as a “niche” writer whose books will be marketed to a “niche” audience, is resigning yourself to limited sales.
But let’s put it in perspective. The truth is, all writers, niche or otherwise, face enormous odds against them in this marketplace. Very few will ever hit the Times list. Very few will make a decent living in this business. Heck, very few aspiring writers will even get published at all.
Given those odds, it may be that a niche writer, surprisingly enough, has a better chance of getting a first foot in the door. As Steve Zacharius said in PW, the biggest problem in Black book publishing is “(we’re) running out of talent.”
So here’s the paradox. The number of AA titles is burgeoning. Publishers are actively seeking ethnic books. This market offers an opportunity for the first-time AA novelist to get published.
But by going this route, you may well see your sales hit a glass ceiling which few ethnic novels manage to crack through.