Private: Many African American authors still forced to self-publish before landing book deals

It’s Black History Month, and a number of newspapers are considering the current state of African American publishing. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, graphic novels depicting urban street life and sold on the streets of New York are:

“the hottest trend right now,” says Calvin Reed, a writer who covers the African-American market for Publishers Weekly magazine….

“It’s a category that recalls books like the classic blaxploitation fiction by authors Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim that was influential during the 1970s, when films such as ‘Superfly’ and ‘Coffy’ were popular,” Reed says.

The subject matter is the same — hustlers, pimps and drug dealers — but this new generation of books is influenced by “gangsta rap” and hip-hop music, Reed says.

But here’s the part that’s truly familiar:

Many of these books are self-published and sold by street vendors in New York.

“I know many an editor at New York’s big publishing houses who go from table to table to see what’s selling,” [Reed] says. “Authors like Zane started out publishing her own books and selling them on her Web site. Now she’s published by Atria Books.”

The self-publishing route has long been the only option available to many black authors looking for a book deal. The same article mentions that E. Lynn Harris, who self-published Invisible Life in the early 90’s and “sold copies of the novel out of the trunk of his car, has become one of Doubleday’s top-selling writers with his novels about beautiful and successful black people, many of whom are gay.”

Bookninja links to a related AP Wire article, which mentions still more African American writers who opted to self-publish because no one would pick up their books. According to the AP, some publishers are finally catching on:

Publishers have recognized the good thing they have with black authors. They’ve set up imprints for black authors to tap the $303 million that the “The Buying Power of Black America 2002” says blacks spend yearly on books.

There’s HarperCollins’ William Morrow , now Roby’s publisher, Kensington Publishing’s Dafina Books, Random House’s Harlem Moon, Ballantine’s One World, and Villard’s Strivers Row, among others.

One World and Strivers Row, which publish 24 books a year, started in response to growth in the market, said Melody Guy, senior editor for both.

“We took a look at the self-published books doing well and saw a need that we weren’t filling,” she said.