Tuesday, August 13, 2019

What's Wrong with This Picture? Does It Increase or Decrease Book Sales?

Click Photo for Expanded View

We live in the most politically correct/sensitive times in the history of the world. And that's not nearly the bold statement it may at first appear to be. I find myself almost every day hesitating to say something in public because I fear using a racially insensitive (as in, out of date) term that may offend someone within listening distance. After all, a word that was totally acceptable a day earlier could have been replaced by a whole new term almost overnight. That's how quickly social mores seem to change these days - and, in my opinion, it's stressful and it doesn't really do much to bring us all closer together the way we should be. Rather,  all too often it becomes just another source of division, and those of us who haven't received the latest memo are ridiculed, misunderstood, or worse. 

Well, that brings me to today's visit to the book section of Target this morning. I've noticed this there before, but this morning I decided to take a picture and raise a basic question about the way that Target markets books written by black (jeez, is "black" even still acceptable a term) authors. You will notice that the section of the book department pictured up above is made up of only minority authors - the shelves just to the right are being used for popular bestsellers.

My real question is this: why are minority readers not insulted by this little segregated area amongst all the books being sold by Target? Doing it this way, means that all, or just about all, black authors are going to be confined to this part of the store rather than being mixed into the other sections of the shelves their books would normally be placed if the author were not a black person. Is that not insulting both to the authors and to their readers? I read books by minority authors from all over the world on a regular basis, but I'm more inclined to search for them in the non-fiction, fiction, memoir, or cooking sections of the shelves where they belong.

I know that Barnes & Noble did the same thing for several years, actually labeling the section using a racial description (Black Literature, if I remember correctly) of the authors. I thought that was odd even way back then, and noted that two black authors of prominence were not happy about it, Thomas Sowell in a townhall.com column of May 2007 and Juan Williams in a Wall Street Journal editorial of November 2009. 

So why didn't Target get the memo?

Thomas Sowell
If Rachael Ray had been black, there are bookstores where her cookbook would not be displayed in the same section with all the other cookbooks. It would be displayed off in a special section for black authors.

This means that many people who were looking for cookbooks would not even see Rachael Ray's cookbook, much less buy it.

This is not rocket science but it seems to have escaped the notice of those publishers who supply racial information on their authors, thereby jeopardizing sales of their own books.
This is only one of many examples of how much this generation -- especially the "educated" part of it -- has let symbolism over-ride substance. With just a moment's thought, anyone whose IQ is not in single digits would see the absurdity of the idea of losing book sales for the sake of symbolism. But the real problem is that so many people today don't stop and think when they are being swept along by some fashionable notion. The notion of honoring black ("African American") writers with a special section in bookstores is just one of innumerable fashionable symbolic notions that ignore consequences.

Juan Williams

As the author of books on black history and black culture, I was disappointed but not surprised. To see a working-class 30-ish black woman with a book these days is almost always to find her reading a selection from the fastest-growing segment of African-American letters, a genre called "ghetto lit" or "gangster lit."

The best that can be said about these books is that they are an authentic literary product of 21st-century black America. Black women are much bigger readers than black men, and gangster lit dominates the best-seller list in Essence Magazine, which calculates rankings using sales at black-owned bookstores nationwide. Recent titles shout out to the hard, fast lifestyle: "Bad Girlz 4 Life," "Still Hood" and "From the Streets to the Sheets." 
The black imagination as revealed in gangster lit is centered on the world of drug dealers— "dough boys" who are heavy with drug money—and the get-rich-quick rappers and athletes who mimic the druggie lifestyle. And there are lots of "ghetto-fabulous" women, referring to themselves as bitches, carrying brand-name handbags and wearing big, gaudy jewelry. Attitude and anger are everything. The dispiriting word "nigger" is used freely by black characters talking about one another.
At least two black-owned publishing houses have been created as a result of the growing market for these books. Large established publishers, including Simon & Schuster, Kensington Books and St. Martin's, are on the bandwagon. They created "urban fiction" divisions after realizing that the grass-roots demand for these books was strong enough that authors were making money with vanity-press printing and hand-to-hand sales at black beauty salons, over the Internet and even from car trunks.
Not only the best but the worst that can be said about these books is they are an authentic literary product of 21st-century black America. They are poorly written, poorly edited and celebrate the worst of black life.
It is hard to believe, but legendary black writers telling stories about the full scope of the black experience, from Langston Hughes to Toni Morrison, are being pushed aside. Inspirational books on black history or the civil-rights struggle are now for the classroom only. Even libraries now stock gangster-lit novels, because they bring new readers in the door.
Links to my two original posts on this topic:

"Bookstore Ghettoes", May 10, 2007 

Ghetto Lit - Good, Bad, Embarrassing?, November 5, 2009


  1. To me, good authors are good authors whatever the color of their skin. I've never liked it when bookstores...or any other store... feel a need to categorize everything. It is a little insulting, both to the authors involved and to me, the reader.

    1. I feel the same way. On the one hand, I can see that this group of authors and their publishers are hoping that they will sell more books by grouping them together this way. On the other hand, if I were a minority-reader, I would feel insulted by the same grouping. Are the bookstores implying that blacks and other minorities only read work by black authors, etc.? It's particularly strange in today's political environment.