September 25, 2006 - Issue #239

From the Desk of LinnieGayl:

Revisiting the Marketing of African American Romance

Until a year ago, I primarily lurked at AAR (other than obsessively submitting my vote in the annual poll and periodic top 100 polls). Then, I read the October 15, 2005 ATBF. The column began with the headline question, “Racism in Romance?” In that ATBF, Laurie, various African American authors, and AAR readers and staff offered thoughts on a range of topics including separate AA lines in romance, the shelving of AA romances in AA literature rather than with romance novels, and the assumptions made by some publishers that white readers would not read AA romance novels.

That ATBF pulled me out of my lurker-status, probably forever. The column drew me in, made me think about my reading habits. Why had I, a person who took numerous AA history and literature courses in college, who regularly read “mainstream” AA authors such as Alice Walker, Terry McMillan, and Toni Morrison, never read any AA romance novels? Were the publishers right? Despite everything, would I, as a white reader, not read AA romance novels? I actually posted several times on the ATBF mailbox (and this was really a step outside the box for me), indicating that I would give AA romances a try.

Okay, several months went by, and I still hadn’t read any AA romance. Then, I volunteered to help with last winter’s Favorite Books by Favorite Authors polling at AAR, and lo and behold, we decided to add AA romance authors to the polls. Time to stop procrastinating; I was going to try out some AA romances.

Once I finally decided to get started reading, I pulled out the names of some of the authors we were polling for in the FAVES ballots, as well as authors mentioned in last year’s ATBF. Then, research geek that I am, I checked reviews on AAR and other websites, to find the highest rated books by each of these authors….I would start with the best. And if I started with the best, surely the books would be easy to find. After all, I lived in Chicago, a major, metropolitan city, with an ethnically diverse population. With approximately 37% of the population classified as African American (according to the 2000 U.S. Census), AA romance novels should be readily available. Hah!

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Armed with my list, I walked over at lunch first to the Borders by my office, and then to the Barnes and Noble, only to discover that I couldn’t find a single book on my list in the romance section at either bookstore. Okay, no problem. A city the size of Chicago has lots and lots of bookstores. That night, I got on the web and did searches of bookstores in the city for books on my list. I did find a few of the books, but they were in stores far from where I lived. Suddenly, a light went off, and I remembered the original ATBF discussion about the shelving of AA romances in the African American literature section. I would find those books.

The next day, I headed back to my local Borders and Barnes and Noble, and found two (yes, just two) of the books on my list of 20 books in the African American literature section. Luckily, one of the two was The Edge of Dawn, a romantic suspense by Beverly Jenkins. I began reading the book in a local café over lunch. The book hooked me right from the beginning, so much so, that I was about thirty minutes late getting back to my office. By the time I finished the book – late that evening, or should I say early the next morning – I was ready to read the other two books in the series – books not originally on my list. I picked them up the next day, read them over the next few days, and then continued on with my search for the books on my original list.

I would not be stopped. I began to order books online. Finally, the books started coming in, and over the course of the next few weeks and months, I went on a major AA romance novel glom, reading books by Donna Hill, Brenda Jackson, Monica Jackson, Beverly Jenkins, and Kayla Perrin. I also traveled a fair amount over that time period, and carried the novels with me, leaving them in restaurants, bars, airplanes, and buses as I finished them in Dublin, Montreal, Austin, Dallas, Washington, DC, and San Francisco (hopefully inducing other readers to give these authors a try).

What did I find in my foray into AA romance novels? I found an incredible amount of variety, spanning many romance genres, and some truly excellent books. If you like romantic suspense, there are AA authors writing romantic suspense. If you like vampire romances, there are AA authors writing vampire romances….and the same holds for historicals, contemporaries, category romances, romances featuring sports heroes, funnies, etc., etc., etc.

Before you read any further, I should probably warn you that there’s a reason I don’t write reviews for AAR….I’m pretty lousy at describing my reactions to books. I used to belong to a book club, and while everyone else discussed symbolism and other things that reminded me way too much of college literature classes, I would mumble, “I didn’t like the book,” or “I really liked the book.” With that warning, here are some of my favorite AA romance novel discoveries over the past year.

Beverly Jenkins’ trilogy (The Edge of Dawn, The Edge of Midnight, and Black Lace), set largely in Detroit, Michigan, offered some of the best romantic suspense I have read in years, with intelligent heroines, and sexy, strong heroes. In fact, if I had read several of these books during the year they were published, they definitely would have received my vote at AAR for best romantic suspense novel of the year. I realize that many of Ms. Jenkins’ historical novels have been highly praised, but I just don’t care for historical novels set in the United States (probably a byproduct of too many U.S. history courses in college), so I didn’t try any of those novels.

Although I don’t normally read paranormals, Monica Jackson’s, Mr. Right Now, which Laurie indicated was one of her favorite books of 2005, was lots of fun, and I am hoping it was just the first in a series. I would definitely like to read more about Luby and Jake, and there were clearly some secondary characters demanding books of their own. An early book I read by Monica Jackson, Midnight Blue, had almost an old-fashioned gothic romance feel, taking me back to some of the gothic romances I used to read while growing up, and making me nostalgic for some of those old books. A third book, and probably my personal favorite from Jackson's backlist, was A Magical Moment (now available in the recently released three-in-one backlist book, Perfect Passion), a book that also had a gothic feel, but with a paranormal touch thrown in as well.

I read several lovely, friendship/romance novels by Brenda Jackson (The Savvy Sistahs and A Family Reunion). I realize that these two novels are probably classified as women’s fiction or “mainstream” fiction, but I found them populated with intelligent, interesting heroines, leading lives filled with work, friends, family, and romance.

I have a fondness for books featuring athletes as heroes, and discovered two such books by Kayla Perrin (Gimme an O! and The Sweet Spot), featuring football players. These books were a great deal of fun. I also really liked two of her romantic suspense novels. Tell Me You Love Me is set in Miami, Florida, with a heroine who is a personal trainer. The other is probably my favorite by Perrin. If You Want Me features a formerly overweight teenager now Hollywood star (don’t let that aspect of the book mislead you, it is absolutely not a Hollywood-glitter type of book), who returns to her home town of Chicago - and I have to love a book set in my home town - to deal with family issues and her past.

I read one of Donna Hill’s category romances – Chances Are – and found it to be one of the best series romances I’ve read in years. A second book by Ms. Hill, A Scandalous Affair, features the Montgomery sisters – one a civil right’s worker, the other a city councilwoman, living in Washington, DC among the rich and powerful. I will definitely seek out more of Ms. Hill’s backlist.

So where do I go from here? Two AA authors - Beverly Jenkins (please, please keep writing romantic suspense, Ms. Jenkins) and Kayla Perrin - are now on my auto-buy list. And I will definitely look for new releases by Donna Hill, Brenda Jackson, and Monica Jackson. I am also in search of other AA authors to try out…..any recommendations?

I have learned to regularly search through the African American literature section of bookstores for AA romance novels, as they clearly do not pop up on a regular basis in the romance section. Nevertheless, I remain frustrated. I wish that I could more reliably find AA romance novels in the romance section of bookstores. I also wish I would see them placed more regularly in the featured new books sections in the front of bookstores. And if I had so much trouble finding AA romance novels in a large city like Chicago, how will I ever hope to find them in the small city in Michigan I now live in?

But these are just my own personal experiences over the past year. Laurie thought it would also be interesting to hear from some of the participants in the original column.

Anthony Langford, former AAR reviewer, admitted in the initial column back in 2005 to having been skeptical about AA romance, has experienced a major change in attitude:

Have things changed over the past year in regards to African American romances?  I would say yes, things have changed a lot.  I didn't know what to expect when AA romances came onto the market, but I would've never expected the explosion that has taken place in just a year’s time.  Clearly there is a growing market for these.  Not only have the lines that started it all expanded, but there are new lines popping up everyday. Plus, they are going into all sorts of sub-genres, mystery, paranormal, fantasy, erotica, chick-lit, so on and so forth, just like every other romance, which is as it should be.  No longer are there one or two books to pick from, but more than anyone could possibly read.  We're also seeing inter-racial romances become a regularity, which shows just how much AA romances have become a part of the romance genre.

However, while there are certainly more AA romances to be found, for the most part, they are still segregated to one area, the AA Literature section, in the bookstore.   I know this bothers a lot of people and I can see why.  Many people see it as racism, but I'm not sure if I do.  I think bookstores are simply making it easier for readers to find the book they want.  On the other hand, I do understand the idea of integrating it in with all the other romances widens the chances of exposing them to a wider audience.  But would it?  Even though there are more AA romances out there are non-minorities reading these books?  Has that changed?  Or are they still, for the most part, avoiding them?  That, I don't know or have the answer to.  I know that there are more AA romances out there, and they are getting more exposure than ever before. That can only be a good thing.

Monica Jackson indicates that while most of her readers are African American, she doesn't "write with race in mind" when considering relationships and emotions. Her work "...could appeal to anybody" although "black authors are segmented into a different genre, the African-American commercial fiction niche, no matter what we write." Currently Jackson is editing a paranormal erotica anthology which also includes authors L.A. Banks (author of the enormously popular Vampire Huntress series), Donna Hill, J.M. Jeffries and Janice Sims.  According to Jackson, marketing will focus on " urban areas and areas with significant black demographics because we are black women".  But, she adds, "The stories are wonderful, hot and edgy that anyone can relate too.  The title is Creepin', and the theme is gettin' even in extraordinary and magical ways.  Most non-black readers will have to order it online to read it."

Over the past few months, as I’ve reflected back on the original ATBF and my experiences with AA romance novels, I’ve wondered what experiences other AAR readers have had since the original October 15, 2005 ATBF, so I’d really like to hear from you………

Have you tried any AA romance novels as a result of last year’s ATBF? If yes, what have been your experiences looking for AA romance novels in your community?

Do you think you’ll try out any AA romance novels over the next year? Why or why not?

Do you have any other AA authors (and titles please) to recommend?

LinnieGayl

 

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