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The Rise of Urban Fiction

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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 <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Beloved
, Terry McMillan’s <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>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.

 

Cooling Down?

 

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.

 

Still Cool?

 

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 thing 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.”

 

Jenny McCune, a business
writer based in Bozeman, MT, began her career in book publishing and reports
regularly on publishing and publishers for <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>PMA Independent
. You can reach her at
jennymccune@imt.net.

 

 

 

Inside Urban Fiction

 

With titles like <span
class=95StoneSansIt>Gangsta
, <span
class=95StoneSansIt>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.

 

With the popularity and
marketability of urban fiction soaring, Wayne Dawkins notes, an urban fiction
writer found her self-published book retitled when a publisher of black urban
fiction picked up the rights. Originally called <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>I Saw Your Profile
, the book became <span
class=95StoneSansIt>Busted: Never Underestimate
a Sister’s Revenge
.

 

 

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