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?


Anonymous said...

Christian fiction is what it is. (Brilliant, huh?) I think it should have its own location. Word of mouth and questions asked to clerks will help anyone find "inspirational" fiction, and all authors regardless of color, culture, etc. should be alphabetically displayed.

I cannot see any reason whatsoever to segregate secular fiction written by black authors. That seems ridiculous at best and smacks of racism at worst. I had no idea this was being done in stores.

I'd really like to hear the opinions and wisdom of our black authors.

Anonymous said...

IMHO, I'd like to see Black fiction and Christian fiction in with all the other fiction. I felt that way long before I started writing fiction.

There are a lot of great CBA books that people are missing because they'tr in the "religious" section.

Frankly, I'd like to see Brandilyn or Ted Dekker or Charles Martin, etc. make the NYT bestseller list. It would be a refreshing change.

While traveling recently I visited a small bookstore and right up front, facing the door, was a Charles Martin (CBA) book right in with the other "new arrivals." He's a great author, and I was glad that he was up front where people who normally wouldn't look in the "religious" section could check out his book.

Just my opinion.

Kristy Dykes said...

I love All Things Publishing, hence my comments! Thanks for the great info on your blog, B, and for this "forum."

You said, "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.'"

K, here: I think that statement could be tweaked concerning the Christian fiction market and separate shelving: "The practice appeals to a universal proclivity to think in terms of Christian/nonChristian. In that sense, publishing is merely a reflection of how the world works."

You said, "I draw no conclusions here, other than to point out the interesting parallels...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."

K, here: I'm of that persuasion too. I kinda' scratch my head at the whole situation. But let's go back to when Catherine Marshall wrote Christy. There WAS no Christian fiction market. Fiction, or a lot of it, was fairly "decent," and so there wasn't a need for a separate market or shelving. There WAS no Britney kissing Madonna, and you can go up or down from there; I'm talking about our culture today. BECAUSE our culture today is like it is, the Christian fiction market has sprung up to give Christians alternative reading, at least in my opinion.

Gotta' get back to work. Thanks again, B, for a thought-provoking post.

Eden said...

I knew they separated African American authors from the rest of fiction, but I figured it was to help the African Americans find books written by their own race. You know, like to support them. I've read books by African American authors, I enjoyed them. Their sense of humor and how direct they are is very refreshing.

I do think it would be awesome if all books were mixed together, though. I tend to stick to regular fiction, only because when I was younger all the CFB I was given were boring and I always knew how it would end. I could almost just switch the names around and republish someone else's work as a brand new book written by myself.

However, since coming to F&F, I have found a refreshing change in CFB. I now have a favorite author in CF and I've started reading more CF, for which I'm glad.

I hope I didn't hurt anyone's feelings; but this is how I feel/felt about CF books for about the last 10 years. I'm seeing a change and it's a good one. I do apologize though, if I did hurt someone's feelings.

Stuart said...

Back before I got involved in the writing community of CBA I never even thought that there might be Christian fiction found in the religious section of ABA stores.

If I wanted to see what was available in Christian fiction I'd go to the local CBA bookseller. For the rest I'd browse the local ABA store (or more specifically the ginormous aba sci-fi/fantasy section).

I doubt I'm alone in that. So I wish all fiction would just be stocked together and let them compete directly with the rest in the genre for that valuable customer's attention.

Anonymous said...

I guess I see both views. I like that I can go into a B&N and not have to weed out books I wouldn't consider reading. On the other hand, yes, it would be cool to see Christian fiction stocked with other books and see some our our premier authors get recognition for writing excellent fiction--fiction that is also Christian! I think this is where word of mouth kicks in. If we tell people about suspense authors like Brandilyn & Ted D., then in time readers who would never go to the Christian shelves might do that. Actually, this has happened with my mom-in-law & bro-in-law.

Brandilyn, have to let you know that I'm finally back to reading your blog and so enjoying it! I've had computer trouble the past 2 months, but I've spent yesterday and today getting caught up. Love your blog and missed it much.

J. Mark Bertrand said...

To my mind, the tragedy isn't that books are categorized in an effort to cater to market niches, it's that authors have so little influence on where their books end up. If an author is writing for a narrowly defined audience and the categorization helps that audience find his books, so be it. But if he's attempting to reach a broader audience, it is a shame to see the system working against those ambitions.

If a Christian writes a mystery, he has a real dilemma. There is already a segregated space in the bookstore for mysteries, but depending on his publisher he may not be in it. By being in the inspirational section, he risks missing his intended audience entirely -- unless he sees himself as a writer of "inspirational mystery." These are complex matters, and it seems to me that authors should have a greater say in how things shake out than they do.

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Thanks for your thoughts.

Sally, welcome back! Nice to see your name again.

Eden, you haven't hurt anyone's feelings. It's good to see your opinions as a reader--not a writer within CBA. And I think we writers would agree with you. Christian fiction has improved greatly in the last ten years. "Improved" means many things--more authors, more genres, deeper writing, more flexibility in the topics we can tackle, etc.

Mark, yes. The author has so little say. And I've heard stories that even houses who fight for mainstream shelving have little say. That is, they may be granted it corporately, but again, at so-and-so store, the buyer sees the book and sticks it in the Christian section anyway.

LaShaunda said...

As a writer we have no say where our books go. I write Christian fiction and I’m African-American. So does that mean I get two slots?

I doubt it, I’ll probably be lumped in either one, depends on whose shelving the book.

As reader, I use to hate to have to travel all over the bookstore looking for a particular author. When I read romance, I wanted that book in the romance section. Sometimes it was and sometimes it wasn’t.

I believe if you’re going to separate the books by genre or race. It should go in both sections, Christian Fiction and African American Fiction. However, I know that’s wishful thinking, might sell too many books that way.

Rebecca LuElla Miller said...

Personally, I think where a book is shelved matters less and less. I've read that most book buyers go to a store with a particular title or author in mind. And with the availablity of computers to search the location of the books ... undoubtedly a trend that will only grow ... I think readers will find the books wherever they are placed.

Now if I'm browsing--bookstoring, as it were--I'll hit up all the sections I'm interested in. So again, I can find a book I'd be prone to buy in any section of my interest.

What I would like to see is "Inspirational Fiction" shelved with the rest of fiction. I'm guessing "African-American Fiction" should be there too, rather than in the non-fiction section.


Anonymous said...


I'm Rhonda, although I've been reading this blog almost daily since ACFW, I've never commented.

As an aspiring African American Christian author I have to say I agree with LaShunda. My first thought is I need the book in both sections. When I'm shopping for books with ethnic characters for my children I can never find anything because they're all mixed together. I've walked out of the store on many occassions dissatified because I couldn't find anything.

I look forward to the day when people are more willing to read books about characters and the race doesn't matter. As an African American it can be difficult to read books where the author describes all the characters and they are all blonde hair or blue eyes and everyone is gripping the steering wheel with white knuckles. That's why I like Brandilyn's writing, description is minimal and I just enjoy the characters without the intrusion of race. I write that way myself. My critique group once asked me if my characters were black, because I had never described anyone.

I've gotten off the subject, but want to add as a final point that I believe the seperate sections in the stores help sales. It's just easier to find what you're looking for if it's in one section instead of general fiction.


jel said...

Thank you very much, Brandilyn, for stopping by my place ,and the comment,


Anonymous said...

Oh, segregation. Thought it went out years ago!

Kristin Billerbeck said...

I want to be segregated by that BESTSELLING BOOKS in the front of the store. I have to say though, as a reader, I like things where I can find them. I like knowing how to "shop my shelves" so I'm not complaining. I also think books that have widespread appeal will find their audience. Harry Potter was found at a little school publisher. Word of mouth and name recognition sells books. I've heard some stores are doing "gentle read" sections which appeals to all readers -- but let's be serious, when a book is OUT there and people are surprised by the faith message, they're ticked, so I think we have to be careful what we wish for. : )

Bonnie S. Calhoun said...

I fall out on both sides of the coin here!

I think that the public actually drives where the books are placed. For example, other than going to the Christian book store to find what I want, when I go into a store I don't really have the time to look through several thousand fiction books looking for ones that I recognize as Christian.

And in larger cities, I think many people of color feel the same way. They don't want to search through several thousand books to find ones they can identify with.

African-American fiction is exploding. Christian fiction is exploding. Believe me, the market will follow the money.

And as for making it to the New York Times best seller list...Tony Morrison did it...cream always rises to the top, no matter the color!

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Rhonda, welcome (although you've been here for a few months). I'm so glad you've spoken up.

Jel, thanks for stopping by!

Anonymous said...

In my local area the B&N's have a very small section of Christian Fiction, while the Borders has a large one. Of course, both are housed in the "Religious" book section. I never thought about it before, but I do appreciate being able to go to the specific area of the store to find the Christian fiction books I'm interested in. But, I also spend time looking over the ABA books. Until a few months ago my neighborhood had no Christian book store and Border's was my only bricks and morter store to go to. Now a Family Christian Store has moved into the area, so I have two choices.

In spite of the convenience the current system offers, I do think that Christian fiction and AA fiction should be housed in the same section as ABA fiction. I always thought it funny they would put fiction in the religious section when I first became aware of Christian Fiction a loooong time ago. To my thinking back then only non-fiction books belonged in the religious section.

Just my two cents.

Anonymous said...

I think books should be in their genre sections, not isolated b/c they are "Christian". If you don't want to browse through hundreds of titles, go to a CBA store. Books will reach a broader audience this way. The whole "Inspriational" section in the big stores has always bugged me. I want my book on the YA shelf with all the rest. Teens won't go to the "Inspriational" section. It's not cool.
That section also seems to be tucked into the nether regions of stores too--- not near the coffee shops and comfy couches...

Anonymous said...

I hate, loathe and despise the ghettoization (is that even a word? it is now. oh Mister Webster...) we see in bookstores. If our writing really is on par with the best of the world (which, sadly, sometimes ain't that great), then by golly we should neither be ashamed nor reticent to have our works shelved with them side by side.

Anonymous said...

I'm a multi-ethnic aspiring fiction author and I wonder where booksellers are going to place my work when I get published. I write stuff in several genres: science fiction, romance and cultural centric stories. But they're all inspirational even though they deal with some heavy and relevant stuff (i.e. AIDS, the sex industry, etc.) When people ask me "what am I?" I tell them I'm a Christian first because that's who I am at my core. Then I'll answer their ethnicity questions.

Americans are so stuck on the "you can only pick one" type of thinking. The churches in this country are still some of the most segrated places to be. I wonder how many Christian Caucasian people make an effort to read and support authors of various ethnic backgrounds. My guess is probably not hardly enough.

Ideally, I'd like to see my books featured in all the sections I belong to inspirational, general fiction, African-American, sci-fi, etc. I'd go for having one or two books in each section than ten books in just one section.

owlhaven said...

Rhonda made a great point about convenience of finding things. I am a white mom of 8, including 2 Korean and 2 Ethiopian kids. I have spend hours digging through the shelves at B&N to find good kids books that feature kids of every color.

However I am also in the process of writing a parenting book that most likely will be shuffled off to the Christian section and my feelings about that are not all positive...

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Karen and Mary, thanks for leaving your comments.

It's particularly hard when you fall into more than one "niche," isn't it. Enough to be "Christian," but to also be writing, say, multiculturally, and sci-fi. Egad! Where will your books be? Wish they could be everywhere, but that's not the way it works. They'll be fit into one category. If they're published by a Christian publisher, most likely that's where they'll go.

Karen--on a side note. The church I attend in the Bay Area of California--Abundant Life (Pastor Paul Sheppard) is a wonderful multicultural church. We once had a visiting speaker who went up to the platform, looked around with wide eyes and said, "Wow. It looks like the United Nations from here!" It is absolutely terrific to see people of different backgrounds worshipping together.

Anonymous said...

As an author of Black Christian Fiction, I can give a unique perspective on this subject. I wish there was a way for my books to be in both sections in ALL stores. Since my book was a category romance, it was shelved with the category romances. I would go to stores and take one of my titles away from category and shelf it with the AA fiction section. Reason being, over the years I've met TONS of African-Americans who will only read books by Black exceptions. It's closed-minded, I agree, but I would just like to make sure I reach that audience, in addition to the category and WF audience.