Thursday, December 07, 2006
Black Fiction/Christian Fiction Shelving
Yesterday the Wall Street Journal ran an interesting article about how books by black authors are shelved separately in bookstores. Is this a “convenience or disservice?” the subtitle asked.
Quite the parallel to our own industry, isn’t it? Christian novels are always shelved separately—in the “Christian” section of the store, rather than mixed in with other fiction.
More parallels can be found in the article. The Journal says black fiction has seen an “explosion” while “book sales as a whole are in decline.” Hm. Haven’t we been hearing the same for Christian fiction? “It’s a hot area, and everyone is rushing in,” said Judith Curr, publisher of CBS Corp.’s Atria imprint, which is composed of about 25% African-American authors.
The difference is that books by black authors aren’t separately shelved at all stores, as our fiction is. Sister stores Waldenbooks and Borders do segregate, for example, while the bigger Barnes and Noble chain does not. Borders executive Joe Gable says that separate shelving of books by black authors “makes sense because race continues to be a defining issue.”
The article mentioned Romantic Times Book Reviews, which separates books into many categories, “ranging from inspirational to paranormal.” (The inspirational, of course, is us.) However, says the article, “black writers of all genres” are lumped into “one African-American category.” True. But so is our “inspirational.” It’s all Christian fiction, regardless of genre. So actually, this is another direct parallel between the two categories.
The question remains—for black writers as well as for Christian fiction writers—is this a good thing? Carol Stacy, publisher of Romantic Times Book Reviews, says the separation in the magazine is right. “We know we’re walking a fine line, but the reader wants to know if a book has African-American characters,” she says.
Bennett Johnson, vice president of Chicago’s Third World Press said, (article’s paraphrase), “the practice appeals to a universal proclivity to think in terms of race. In that sense, publishing is merely a reflection of how the world works.”
As a “practical matter,” says the article, “segregating books by race and culture makes it less likely that black writers will hit the national best-seller lists,” which limits their earnings.
Barnes and Noble shelves black fiction alphabetically with the various genres. A spokeswoman for B&N said the stores want to expose “all titles to all customers.”
IHm. They don’t “expose” Christian fiction in the same way.
Horror novelist Brandon Massey worries he’s being shortchanged by the segregated shelving in some stores. “Most nonblack readers aren’t going to the African-American section,” he says. That’s hard for him, since his goal is to compete with Dean Koontz and Stephen King.
I draw no conclusions here, other than to point out the interesting parallels. I’ve never been too bent out of shape about the segregated Christian fiction shelving in secular stores, because I tend to agree that people wanting our kinds of books will know where to find them. Although I can see the downside as well. I know some authors/publishers are working to have their books mainstream-shelved. Key word here is work. Apparently the booksellers fight it. They look at the publisher, think Christian, and in that section the book goes. Although I do see that the books who are working to be mainstreamed are often those with less Christian content. So maybe general shelving would be better for them. I don't know. I don't think the general practice of shelved segregation for Christian fiction is going to change anytime soon, however.
What say you?