Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Empty African American Fiction Shelves

This past weekend, I had a marvelous time during my first visit to Phoenix, AZ. I was there along with others of my Anointed Authors on Tour sisters, on the last stop of our 2008 tour. Almost everything about this tour stop was perfect. The weather was ideal (low 80's during the day, high 50's during the night). The hosting book clubs (see group photo) rolled out the red carpet, showered us with wonderful Arizona souvenirs, fed us well and provided us with limo escorts (two thumbs up to Girlfriend 2 Girlfriend Book Club and Shades of the Desert Book Club). I reconnected with two wonderful fans-turned-friends that I met three years ago in Baltimore, MD who have now moved to Phoenix (big shout out to Yulanda and Cooky). The community of readers came out and supported our appearances (not just in attendance, but they bought books).

So, there was very little that didn't go wonderfully under the Arizona sun. However, there was one thing that I found unnerving. Saturday afternoon, Yulanda and Cooky, came and picked me up from my hotel between functions and took me on a brief tour of the city. I'd been told earlier that AA books were difficult to find on bookshelves in Phoenix, but I wasn't prepared for what I saw. We stopped by a very busy area mall and strode inside the Borders Bookstore there. After browsing for quite some time, we finally located the African American section of the store. There was only one bookcase to embody that section and that bookcase only contained about four shelves. And on those shelves, there was one AA fiction title. One. O-N-E (big congrats to Jacquelin Thomas for being our sole representation).

Of course, with my sister-girls being the avid readers that they are, and me, being the avid writer that I am, we couldn't dare leave without confronting the store workers about their empty African American section. When asked why they didn't have more of our books, the worker replied, "Oh, we had some, but they just sell so quickly." My challenging response was, "So, if they sell so quickly, that means the demand is there. Why didn't you restock when you sold out?" His answer, "Because the publishers and distributors won't send us any more."

One of my sister-girls asked whether or not he'd placed an order for more books and he responded by saying, "We don't order books. The companies just send them to us. All the other companies for all the other books you see just sent us these books for the shelves, but none of the publishers for the African American titles will send us any." At that point, all the three of us could do was look at him. Apparently, we looked a whole lot dumber than we were for him to think we'd buy that. The publishers and distributors won't send any more? Are you kidding me? The publishers and distributors make their money by sending out the books and having them sold. Why would they not restock the shelves?

"Are you disappointed?" That was the question he asked with an almost sneering smile as we stared at him. At that point, leaving just seemed like the right thing to do.

What does it mean for African American writers when there are stores who won't stock our books? When the buying public has no option other than to go to the counter and order our books any time they want to get one, how many book sells do we lose? The thought is disheartening.

Barack Obama is president-elect, yes. He smashed a barrier that just a few years ago...just a few months ago...maybe even just a few weeks ago, seemed unbendable, let alone unbreakable. The bar has been raised and a new standard has been set. Somehow, as creators and supporters of African American literature, we have to find a way to overcome the obstacles that are set in place to limit our achievements as well.

We've come a long way, baby.....but the battle ain't over yet.


Anonymous said...

This was a very necessary and eye opening post. I'm not surprised though. I actually had someone in Florida tell me that they went to four different bookstores trying to order my book, Divorcing the Devil, and they were sold out at every store. That seemed great until I realized that they weren't going to order any more copies. People would have to request it to get it. At first I wasn't sure I believed it until I went to a local Atlanta bookstore which I knew stocked the title. At least they did until they sold out and I, too, had to order it. Talk about frustrating.

rhonda mcknight said...

Some of this may have to do with it being Borders. A writer friend of mine who's published through her own small press received a letter from her distributor advising her that they would not be sending books to Borders, without her accepting financial liability for them, because of the strong probility that the company will File a Chapter 7 petition early in 2009. They (the distributor) would be out of all that inventory. So, she opted not to have books sent to Borders.

The word on the street is that lots of houses are opting not to sell to them, so soon it won't just be out section, but many others.

As for other stores, it's true in the large chains that the stores don't order. They can only do it by special request from a customer. They can however make a request to the buyers if they see a trend, but look at the staff in bookstores. College kids mostly, they're not likely to care about making a special request, so if the store manager is not aware of a trend, it ain't happening. The old B Daltons used to be able to order but of course they've been swallowed up by B&N.

It's sad, because a reader is not likely to find you if someone doesn't pass your name along by word of mouth or you don't adverstise or get publicity in some way.

Anonymous said...

Are you (or your publisher) planning to contact the book store owner? I'm bothered by the fact that the store employee took great pride in being condescending. He's supposed to be a professional dealing with another professional.

Cecelia Dowdy said...

I'd write a letter to their corporate headquarters, referencing the store address, and what was said by whom. This way, you MAY get the 411 about everything. I'd heard some of the things that Rhonda said in her comment, so, that MAY shed some light as to why this happened?

Wanza Leftwich, The Gospel Writer said...

Sadly, I am not surprised by the empty shelves. I usually order my titles online. In fact, that is exactly what I do.

I live in NY and I haven't found a Christian bookstore that carries many of the titles I'd like to read. It's disheartening to think that Christian stores will not carry AA Christian fiction.

Bernard said...

When I moved to this city two years ago the mall bookstore had no black fiction period. I ordered several titles from them and within a month they had a whole section of black fiction in a central part of the store. To my dismay none of the titles were christian. I mention that to the manger and I saw a few titles later, all of them were your books Kendra. After several conversations I saw they weren't interested in Christian fiction, most of their titles come from that street/gangsta publishing house in Columbus and from QBORO, I think that's the name of it. I stop buying from them.
I was in the store tonight and I noticed that you are still the sole Christian author in that store Kendra, but you should see the stuff that you are surrounding by, it'll make you blush.

Linda Beed said...

Kendra you are right; we have come a long way. Unfortunately people of non-color still have a very long way to go. What you faced in Phoenix was rude, disrespectful and a call to corporate is definitely in order.

I live in the Pacific Northwest. Building a presence here has been hard, but I have persevered. Book placement on the store shelf is definitely a coup. However, for most, it is easier said than done outside of your local demographics. I've learned to pick my battles. For now I've determined to make sure my book is available for order. With the exception of Borders and one local landmark bookstore in the area, I haven’t had a problem.


PatriciaW said...

I too think that part of what you experienced had to do with it being Borders and the current financial crisis. Given their near bankrupt status, vendors will hold back product because they don't want to have to deal with the company in receivership.

That's what happened to Circuit City, forcing them to close 155 stores before Thanksgiving, the biggest shopping weekend of the year. Still unable to get vendor credit, they then filed bankruptcy. Don't be surprised to see more of this with a wide range of products.

On the other hand, outside of my local Wal-mart, I think bookstores buy a certain number of copies of AA titles and are happy when those sell out. They've made their money and are happy to order to meet any additional sales demand because there's less risk. They still don't think we read and they don't really know how to pick which titles to buy so they're risk averse to re-ordering and getting stuck with the books or dealing with returns.

At my local Wal-mart, I'll see large quantities of some AA titles shelved prominently months after they've released and were gone from the shelf. Either they bought too much initially or they are actually responding to market demand. Not sure.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, it's always easier for the "majority" to represent us in a negative light (Or as in this case, not at all.) regardless of the remarkable path we're on. Look at Denzel, he was nominated for his role in Training Day but not his phenomenal role in Malcolm X. As my son said quoting rapper JadaKiss, "Why he half ta be crooked before he took it?" Angela Bassett & Laurence Fishburne received nothing for their portrayals in What's Love Got To Do With It, and the list goes on.
As Bernard said, his local bookstore wasn't even interested in Christian fiction, but had a sizeable supply of street/gangsta.

I think it really boils down to the owner/manager of the bookstores... Do they want to peak in their sells from every genre of every race or do they want to be mediocre?

This was a very necessary post and extremely well written. Kendra, I believe you should consider submitting this to your friends at Essence for all of our readers to be aware.
Yes, we have come a very long way. But our success terrifies them and so, we still have a very long way to go. And they (The majority) seem to want to hold us back By Any Means Necessary.

Yulanda said...

I would also like to add to Kendra's post regarding our trip to the book store...Cooky and I also went to BN the day before, called three Christian stores, and still no luck. I was looking for any book written by Kendra, mind you I currently have 12 titles to choose from!! They all asked me "oh well which title are you looking for?" I stated, any of them. Then I proceeded to give them names. They looked and said "oh, I'm sorry we don't have that one. I can order it for you." Amazing, so can I :-). It was just really amazing for me and disappointing to me being an avid reader of all types of AA books.

I was talking to a few of the ladies in bookclubs about where they purchase their books from and they told me amazon.com and sometimes they can find them at Wal-Mart in certain neighborhoods. It just saddens me that we have to go to that extreme to get certain books.

Kendra, I agree with the others. I think that you and other authors should get together and take this further up the ladder.


Anonymous said...

My husband and I just raised alot of dust at our local Borders. The AA fiction section was one double sided case, and it was MOSTLY urban/street fiction mixed in with some of the most popular AA authors.

When I didn't see Kendra or ReShonda Billingsley on the shelves, I wondered the chance my third release had for any shelf space!

Of course, I complained and left a long list of authors that should be stocked. The manager was very sweet, but I'm 100% sure she was placating me.

We actually went around the store noting the sections that were larger than the AA fiction section. Arts & Crafts, Maps, and the Alternative Religion section all bigger than AA fiction.

This is why AA bookstores are SOOO important. But I suspect that I'm preaching to a choir here :)