Coming off the Rodney G. King-inspired uprising of 1992, L.A. was, for a time, a pretty dismal place. But for African Americans, a bright spot emerged on, of all places, the local bestseller list of July 5 that year, where three novels written by black women jostled for position -- Terry McMillan's "Waiting to Exhale" landed the top spot, Alice Walker's "Possessing the Secret of Joy" hit No. 6 and Toni Morrison's "Jazz" No. 8.
It would not be the last time multiple titles from black women (or men) graced national bestseller lists in a single week, but given the timing and circumstances, it was arguably the sweetest. Now, more than a decade later, history might just repeat itself. By next week, six contemporary African American women novelists will have new titles in stores this year: L.A.-based Bebe Moore Campbell, whose "72 Hour Hold" was published last week, Pearl Cleage, Valerie Wilson Wesley, Benilde Little, Connie Briscoe and McMillan, whose sixth novel, "The Interruption of Everything," is due Tuesday.
Although it's too soon to assign any meaning to this confluence of releases, to declare a sea change in the current state of black-themed publishing or even to put it all down to coincidence, the timing does offer the opportunity for the authors to consider their own successes, their readership and the state of writing on African American interests.
McMillan, more than anyone, is aware that the success of her book made black contemporary novelists the flavor du jour for some time with the New York publishing establishment. Although the current titles all have distinct voices, touching on such varied topics as mental illness, AIDS and midlife crises, McMillan has had concerns over the years that the industry's ongoing race to acquire the next "Waiting to Exhale" could cause a backlash.
"Publishers are no different than movie studios -- they'll try to cash in on whatever the latest trends are," she says. Of the novels released shortly after "Waiting to Exhale's" triumph, McMillan says, "No way could all of those books be successful, and the writers were the ones blamed. It's unfortunate because a lot of young writers tried to emulate the four-girlfriends formula without bringing anything unique to their stories."
McMillan doesn't think black readers were that naive, ensuring that publishers' strategies would fail over the long run. They "ended up saturating the market with the same book."
Calvin Reid, news editor at the industry journal Publishers Weekly, points out that the market is still saturated but with a little more variety now. "For a while there, it was the 'sister-girl' novel, about various classes of black women, what they had to do to get a man and how all men were dogs. That was a real staple," he says.
Now, 13 years later, that market has changed. There are more voices and choices in black novels than there were in 1992, though African American titles have not kept pace with the growth in general fiction overall, according to a May report from New Jersey-based R.R. Bowker, a database service for publishers.
The company found that the proportion of novels being released in the United States with African American themes has declined from 1992. That year, 2.9% of 7,357 adult fiction titles published had stories considered of interest to African Americans; by 2004, preliminary data show that percentage dropping to 1.8% of the more than 25,000 titles released, says Andrew Grabois, senior director of publisher relations at the firm.
"Despite what looks like a full landscape [this summer], a lot of black writers have been weeded out," says Campbell. "I know several who have lost their contracts and are struggling. Publishing has changed; it's a brutal business."
Reid agrees to a certain extent. "Publishers are dissatisfied in general with the numbers that at another time would've seemed acceptable. The author that sells 20,000, 30,000 copies at another time would've seemed terrific, but now publishers aren't impressed. If one author is not being published, it's because publishers have turned to another author. Publishers are looking harder at urban fiction. We're seeing more quality titles, and you'll see that various publishing imprints focus directly on books for the black reader."
Indeed, Campbell and others who spoke with The Times remain upbeat about the appearance of so many African American fiction choices this year, citing wide-based reader support, aggressive author-driven marketing and the lingering afterglow of the achievements of McMillan and others as important success factors.
Voices all their own
Cleage is quick to acknowledge the commercial space McMillan's work created for black writers but emphasizes each has a voice of her own. "We are not Terry's clones. We are her peers, her community. Her work made it possible for us to identify our primary black, female audience as one who could support the work of an author who reflected their reality."