PUBLISHERS WEEKLY article featuring Pam Perry
By Angie Kiesling — Publishers Weekly, 9/1/2008
Within religion publishing, it’s hard to miss the surge in growth over the last several years of the African-American market. Industry professionals of all stripes—agents, authors, editors, PR gurus—will tell you the market demand is there, the desire to reach the market is there, and strong sales records of heavy-hitting backlist authors and new literary voices promise to keep demand high. But if ever a market required targeting the right way or finding the heart and soul of its people and communities, it’s this one.
“I went to school with Dick and Jane and Beatrix Potter, whom I loved, but when did I ever see my picture? Never,” says Joyce Dinkins, managing editor of New Hope Publishers, who is African-American herself and passionate about bringing relevant titles to the African-American Christian market (AACM), such as the New Hope September title Spiritual Leadership in the Global City by Mac Pier. “Say you had a taste for blueberry lemonade, and you waited years and years for someone to make it, and then finally somebody did and you tasted it. You wouldn’t be able to get enough of it, and you’d tell all your friends. It’s pentup demand.”
For her and other book industry professionals (not to mention readers), what is happening in the AACM is the “blueberry lemonade” effect. After years of seeing a handful of titles by only the most prominent African-American authors, such as T.D. Jakes, those passionate industry gatekeepers can barely contain their enthusiasm at the rising crop of new authors. Books-a-Million now has an African-American book club, and Borders has begun its own initiative tying in book titles and music selections, themed around the anthem “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” In 2004, BEA held its first African-American Pavilion, which has grown from 20 exhibitors that first year to 87 exhibitors in 2008, boosting show attendance of African-Americans from a reported 2% to more than 20%.
The market didn’t appear overnight, however. Like a slow-boiling stew on a back burner, it just took some houses a while to recognize just how viable a market it was—and tap into it correctly. One such publisher who has made a strong and authentic reach into the AACM is Baker Publishing Group. “Back around 2005, we were visiting a couple of independent [African-American] bookstore accounts in Chicago, and we saw that a lot of our books were selling very well there,” says Nathan Henrion, Baker national accounts manager. “That started us thinking we should be more focused and come up with resources targeting this market.”
From there, it was a natural step for Baker to exhibit at the BEA African-American Pavilion, where Henrion’s sales team saw the market demand firsthand. “They were buying a lot of books,” says Henrion. “One of the biggest life lessons I learned from this investigation is that people are people and have the same needs.” In this case, it turned out to be a need for good reading material—and Baker responded.
With its focused attention, Baker has become a major player in quality religion titles for the African-American religion market, including the market’s fastest-growing category: women’s fiction (see sidebar, page S4). Its bestselling fiction authors include Marilynn Griffith, Sharon Ewell Foster and Stacy Hawkins Adams. The house also now produces an Urban Inspiration catalogue once a year with a distribution of 10,000, split between the library market, church bookstores and retail stores.
Recent and upcoming African-American titles are a DVD version of the book Life Overflowing: 6 Pillars for Abundant Living by T.D. Jakes in October; Heroes in Black History by Dave Jackson and Neta Jackson (Bethany House, Feb. 2008); and Rhythms of Grace (Revell, Sept. 2008), a novel by Marilynn Griffith, who just finished the Black Expressions book tour of Wal-Mart stores in the Midwest. “The cover for Rhythms of Grace is a great example of the new direction we’ve taken with our books for this market,” says Baker publicity manager Deonne Beron. “So far, early responses from retailers and readers have indicated it’s a great step in the right direction.”
A Missional Outreach
Another house that has found the heart and soul of the African-American market is Judson Press, which “got into the market for the right reasons,” says editor Rebecca Irwin-Diehl and will debut Profiles in Black by Marvin McMickle in November in time for Black History Month in February. The publishing arm of the American Baptist Churches, Judson Press published its first African-American title in 1973, a compilation of sermons by African-American preachers titled Best Black Volumes. “One-third of our constituents in churches are African-American pastors, and that was a need we wanted to address,” says Irwin-Diehl. “Since that first title, we’ve never had a list that didn’t include at least one African-American book.”
The house next broke into African-American women’s issues, leading the way with Those Preachin’ Women in 1985. That series, now in its fifth volume (May 2008), has had a significant impact on women in ministry—and not just women of color. “The African-American market has become so established we no longer refer to it as developing,” says Irwin-Diehl, who notes that one-third to one-half of the press’s titles are African-American. “Whenever I’m out and about at publishing events, I’m often cornered by my colleagues who are wanting to break into the African-American market. In large part I think our success has been because we were doing it for ecumenical purposes rather than economical reasons. It was one of those things where you step out in faith for the right reasons and you see it pay off. Now we’re expanding into the ABA market leading with our African-American titles.”
The Pilgrim Press also takes a missional approach to publishing for the African-American market and boasts the claim of being the first publisher of The Measure of a Man by Martin Luther King Jr. (in 1959). In the early 1990s, the house hired Kim Martin Sadler as the acquisitions editor for United Church Press, Pilgrim’s sister imprint. Sadler later became editorial director for Pilgrim and brought her calling with her. “As the first black acquisitions editor in a mainline denomination, I intensified publishing titles in this area because I knew that African-Americans were eager to write Christian nonfiction books,” says Sadler. “The critically acclaimed Atonement: The Million Man March showed my colleagues that we needed to reach back to our past and renew publishing in this area.
Women are the leading authors among African-American books for Pilgrim, including the recent titles Beloved, You Can Win! by Linda H. Hollies and Can a Sistah Get a Little Help? by Teresa L. Fry Brown. Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie, Sheron C. Patterson and Rev. Barbara Essex round out the list of bestselling women authors.
While the Pilgrim Press does not publish fiction—the hottest commodity in African-American religion publishing right now—it has found its own niche publishing titles on critical issues and social justice topics. Two such titles Sadler pointed out are Their Own Receive Them Not: African-American Lesbians and Gays in Black Churches by Horace Griffin (from its backlist) and A Time to Speak: How Black Pastors Can Respond to the HIV/AIDS Pandemic by Marvin McMickle (Sept.). Sadler says she would like to see the bookselling industry consider more nonfiction titles by African-American clergy and religious scholars. “Booksellers must remember that black pastors can reach hundreds of people each Sunday,” says Sadler. “Forging relationships with these pastors—some who are authors—can be very beneficial.”
Several other recent African-American nonfiction titles covering social and religious issues include The Talking Book: African Americans and the Bible by Allen Dwight Callahan (Yale Univ.) and Freedom’s Prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, the AME Church, and the Black Founding Fathers by Richard Newman (NYU, Mar.). Yet another university press, Fordham, is coming out with Let It Shine! The Emergence of African-American Catholic Worship by Mary E. McGann et al, in September.
Wiley published the YA nonfiction title Black Stars: African American Religious Leaders by Jim Haskins and Kathleen Benson last February, and Destiny Image followed with What Is Wrong with Being Black? Celebrating Our Heritage, Confronting Our Challenges by Matthew Ashimolowo in April. Rounding out the list of recent titles are Certain Women Called by Christ by Dr. Paige Lanier Chargois (New Hope, Feb.), The Fatherhood Principle by Dr. Myles Munroe (Whitaker, Apr.), Secret Sex Wars: A Battle Cry for Purity, edited by Robert S. Scott (Moody, May) and Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical’s Inside Look at White Christianity by Edward Gilbreath (IVP, May).
Roots—of a Market
To find the true beginnings of the AACM, you have to dig back in history, according to Tony Rose, publisher of Amber Communications Group and executive director/cofounder of the BEA African-American Pavilion. “What most people don’t know is that we’re dealing with a 200-year-old tradition, with the writing and publishing of religious materials within the African-American church,” says Rose. “Frederick Douglass and other writers used the church as a vehicle to sell their books and pamphlets, and they self-published through their churches. African-Americans always wrote, always read—we had to write about our plight, whether it was slavery or Jim Crow or some demeaning situation. What we’re seeing now is an extraordinary re-emergence of this self-publishing movement, whether it’s urban literature, Christian literature, fiction—and religion is leading the pack.”
Although African-Americans always published, the wave turned into a groundswell in the late 1990s, around the same time that former literary agent Denise Stinson started Walk Worthy Press (see fiction sidebar, p xx), and Rose started his publishing company. In 1998 Rose and his wife, a former model, published their first title—Is Modeling for You?—that went on to sell 80,000 copies. On the strength of that one title, Rose landed a copublishing deal with Wiley for eight more targeted African-American titles. “We got tons of press, and the press is probably what did it,” says Rose. “All of a sudden we were at BEA one year , and all these African-American authors came up to us and said they were publishing on their own, too.” Through its self-publishing imprint, Quality Press, Amber publishes 250–300 books a year for the African-American market, in addition to its acquired titles.
Rose and others in the industry, such as public relations guru Pam Perry of Ministry Marketing Solutions, believe the surge in growth for the African-American market happened because publishers finally saw that the market was “white unto harvest,” and largely untapped. “There’s nothing more lucrative than the African-American church if it has a strong base,” says Perry. “You’ve got a built-in audience of millions of people who are religious, who love the Lord and want to live a moral life.”
A New Underground Railroad
Indeed, the “connectedness” of the African-American market is staggering when compared to other markets, which often are splintered into various subgenres. That tight solidarity provides an opportunity for grassroots marketing at its best—it simply happens because of the “blueberry lemonade” effect.
“I call it our new underground railroad,” says Pam Perry, whose PR firm, Ministry Marketing Solutions, promotes exclusively AACM titles to the industry, utilizing grassroots venues such as African-American churches and conferences, along with targeted media: Gospel Today and Precious Times magazines, African-American talk radio stations, music radio stations, e-blasts and blogs. “I can target well over 500,000 people with an e-blast,” says Perry.
“One in particular, BlackGospelPromo.com, reached about 100,000 people. The majority of their topics are conferences and music, but it’s been successful for us with books as well.” Perry’s own mailing list at Ministry Marketing Solutions includes 25,000 subscribers, she notes.
Like Rose, she points to the explosion of growth in the “quieter” niche of self-publishing among African-American authors, many of whom sell their own titles vigorously before landing a traditional publishing deal. One example she gives is Ty Adams, whose self-published novel Single, Saved and Having Sex sold about 40,000 via the underground railroad before getting picked up by Walk Worthy Press.
One of the most effective means of reaching African-American readers is through church bookstores—something that makes sense once you grasp just how central the church is to the African-American community. “Some [religion] houses are promoting authors who are trying to reach the urban lit genre of readers, with gritty story lines and ‘real’ characters, but without all the trash, and they have a dilemma,” says Perry, who places Revell’s Rhythms of Grace by Marilyn Griffith in this category. “It looks like a very urban street-lit novel, [intentionally], but they’re between a rock and a hard place. It’s too Christian for some of the basic bookstores and too gritty for the CBA bookstores. Where they’re finding the biggest jolt in book sales is through African-American Christian conferences and in our church bookstores.” The bookstores probably represent the biggest chunk of those sales, Perry asserts, and they are nothing to sneeze at—an after-service “author’s fair” typically draws church members by the thousands.
So with all this momentum building in the African-American religion market, what are the “hottest” categories right now? Undoubtedly, fiction takes the top position, and most publishers who haven’t dabbled in this direction are ready to wade into the water. After fiction, Perry lists books for singles, or what she calls sex/singles/dating books, as one of the biggest growth categories. Author Michelle McKinney Hammond, published by both Harvest House and WaterBrook Press, has made a name for herself as a specialist for single women, dealing with everything from men and how to heal a broken heart to getting your career game on point. Although primarily a nonfiction writer, her second novel, Playing God, debuted from Harvest House in June. Meanwhile, Charisma House released Inside Out by Kimberly Daniels, a popular women’s conference speaker, in June.
Other bestselling categories include dramatic testimony books, single parenting books and the ubiquitous financial prosperity genre, sometimes with a twist (wealth management rather than name-it, claim-it prosperity). African-American charismatic authors in general—most of whom are either megachurch pastors or lead powerful ministries—have become virtual cottage industries. The list includes such names as T.D. Jakes, Myles Munroe, Creflo Dollar, Juanita Bynum, Bishop Eddie Long, Bill Winston. FaithWords is positioning Munroe to move into the megaselling business/leadership category with the release of In Charge: Finding the Leader Within You in November, and associate publisher Harry Helm confirmed that the house plans to publish fiction, including African-American titles, by 2010.
But beyond doubt, it’s Jakes who has become the Harry Potter of the African-American religion market. “When Simon & Schuster brought out Reposition Yourself: Living Life without Limits [May 2007], it was just explosive,” says one industry professional. “It doesn’t get any bigger than T.D. Jakes.”
As the African-American market expands beyond its adolescence into full-fledged maturity, publishers and booksellers alike will find new and inventive ways to better target the audience, and therein lies the “heart and soul” challenge Joyce Dinkins of New Hope is so passionate about. “Publishers may court the African-American book buyers, but that does not mean they are in the communities and reaching the real needs,” she says. “There’s a need to empower the authors and leaders who really know this community and how to meet the needs of readers. Otherwise, you end up with packaging and marketing, but not the heart and soul of the market.”
There’s Nothing Like a Story
African-American Christian fiction exploded onto the publishing scene in 1997 when former literary agent Denise Stinson launched Walk Worthy Press based on her own desire to read stories she couldn’t find anywhere else—namely, fiction featuring African-American characters who encountered real-world struggles and triumphs, with a righteous twist. Several years earlier, Terry McMillan, author of Waiting to Exhale and How Stella Got Her Groove Back (both of which later became movies), had proved to the publishing world that there was a market for African-American fiction. But with the concurrent rise in erotica and gritty “street lit,” Stinson realized that women wanting a cleaner read were faced with empty shelves.
“When I began, there was no such thing as African-American Christian fiction,” says Stinson, whose house will publish only four titles this year as she delves deeper into mission work—her true calling. “My vision hasn’t changed. There’s still a need for scripturally correct, relevant and entertaining stories.” She partnered with Warner Books to release her first title, Temptation, at the same time launching author Victoria Christopher Murray into a lucrative writing career.
And from those modest beginnings, a publishing phenomenon was born. Today, the biggest-selling names in African-American Christian fiction are Murray, Vanessa Davis Griggs, Mable John (Albertina Merci series), Pat G’Orge-Walker, Marilynn Griffith, Stacy Hawkins Adams, ReShonda Tate Billingsley, Jacquelin Thomas, Kim Brooks, and relative newcomer Claudia Mair Burney. Houses and imprints such as Walk Worthy Press, Kensington (Dafina, Urban Christian!), Simon & Schuster (Pocket, Howard Publishing), and Baker (Revell) are the undisputed torchbearers in the field of African-American faith-based fiction, but others are following. FaithWords plans to have a fiction list by 2010, including titles geared toward the African-American market.
Carol Mackey, who heads the Black Expressions book club, said the club now has more than 350,000 members, 95% of whom are African-American women—“and they really do love fiction,” says Mackey. “I started small with African-American Christian fiction, featuring maybe one book a month, but when something was hot and new, members responded so well that it opened the door for many other authors and titles. For a long time we featured two to three books [in this category] every few months. Now we do two to three every month. Readers have really responded to this genre.”