Black urban fiction has been around for the last three or four years, as W. Paul Coates observes. But lately it’s started to hit the mainstream. Coates, who is the director of Black Classic Press and a PMA board member, has watched as self-published fiction marketed solely by word of mouth and sold on street corners in minority neighborhoods began selling enough copies to attract the attention of big book publishers, which are now busily signing on urban fiction writers and picking up rights from smaller publishers of books in the genre.
The label black urban fiction—also known as street, hip-hop, ghetto lit, or ghetto fiction—is ascribed to the subset of black fiction associated with the streets. Don’t think Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale, or Alice Walker’s Color
Purple. Instead, think of the literary equivalent of rap or hip-hop.
Last year, Simon & Schuster reportedly signed two prominent writers of the genre—Vickie Stringer and Shannon Holmes—to “six-figure” deals, according to an article posted on Stringer and Shannon’s Triple Crown Publishing site. In August of this year, St. Martin’s published Hoodlum by K’wan Foye under its Griffin imprint. And at this writing, Barnes & Noble has reported that sales of black fiction, and particularly black urban fiction, are up.
Interestingly, though, black publishers, market watchers, and independent booksellers specializing in black fiction say that sales are essentially flat and may even be declining. “Two weeks ago, I was talking to a black book distributor who said the market for black urban fiction was starting to cool down,” Coates of Black Classic Press recalls.
The different conclusions about sales may be explained by where the reseller is on the selling curve. For booksellers that started stocking black urban fiction years ago, sales may have peaked. For mainstream newcomers like Barnes & Noble, black urban fiction titles may be selling like the proverbial hotcakes because they are a relatively new offering.
“We have seen an increase in sales of African-American fiction in general and particularly in the more urban markets like Philadelphia, Atlanta, DC, Oakland and New York,” says Bob Wietrak, a B&N vice president of merchandising. “The increase in sales is mostly in ‘street’ or ‘urban’ fiction.” Wietrak adds that many of these titles have come through B&N’s small press department, from companies such as Teri Woods Publishing, Triple Crown, and Black Pearl Books, among others.
Where will it lead?
Some observers think that the “noise” of urban fiction is drowning out the voices of many better black writers. With its characteristic glorification of gritty street life—including drugs, murder, and mayhem—and its disregard for polished writing, “it’s celebrating black writing, but not the good stuff,” says Wayne Dawkins, president of August Press LLC, an independent black publisher in Newport News, VA. Bookseller Marva Allen of Hue-man Books & Cafe adds, “Nobody minds the success of black urban fiction as long as it doesn’t overshadow the writers who should be getting those contracts” from the major houses.
Other observers predict that black urban fiction will be done in by its own success, in much the same way as a fashion trend like baggy jeans loses steam when suburban white boys adopt it. Hitting the mainstream, these observers say, may actually be hurting the category because the essential hipness of urban fiction vanishes when it is stocked in chain stores.
“Part of the whole ting of this industry is that it wants to be cool,” says Allen, one of three partners who own Hue-man Bookstore & Cafe, a three-year-old community bookstore in New York City’s Harlem. “Once Barnes & Noble starts carrying urban fiction it’s no longer cool, and people will go on to the next trend.”
Inside Urban Fiction
With titles like Gangsta, A Hustler’s Life, and Dirty Girlz, books published in the genre known as black urban fiction are not your grandmother’s Harlequin romance novels.
These books glorify street life and revel in being politically and grammatically incorrect. What they lack in copyediting they make up for in sensational plots that rely heavily on drugs, sex, and violence. Very often the authors have done time in jail. Vicki Stringer and Shannon Holmes, the co-owners of Triple Crown Publications, both started writing while they were in prison.
In the beginning, when street vendors sold black urban fiction, people found out about the books by walking past a vendor, or through word of mouth from friends or others who had read them. Even now, with more upscale sales channels involved, copies can still be found and purchased on street corners in the Fulton Mall area of Brooklyn, along 125th Street in Harlem, and in black neighborhoods in other large cities.