What’s Selling

Will Sleaze Dominate Black Publishing?

Latisha James had no idea who Bebe Moore Campbell was when she stopped by the Waldenbooks in Los Angeles’s Fox Hills Mall on Tuesday. She and some friends had come to pick up the most recent celeb tell-all book by Carmen Bryan. (“It’s No Secret’’ recounts the most intimate details of Bryan’s sexual relationships with the likes of Nas, Jay-Z and Allen Iverson.) James, a 14-year-old high-school sophomore, says she’d love to become a writer when she graduates from college, but admits her bookshelves don’t contain the work of such celebrated African-Americans as Terry McMillan or the sci-fi novelist Octavia Butler, both of whom flourished in the 1990s. Or Campbell, who died last week of brain cancer, at 56. Waldenbooks was putting a memorial display in the window as James walked in. She “felt bad” that she hadn’t read Campbell before.

That’s the reality of today’s black publishing world: Bryan and her literary predecessor, Karrine Steffans (who wrote last year’s best-selling “Confessions of a Video Vixen”), have more impact on young readers than serious-minded writers such as Campbell. (The same trend, of course, is also the plight of the mainstream publishing world.) Campbell’s eight novels, including “Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine’’ and “Brothers and Sisters,’’ used a down-home narrative voice to take on both familiar and inevitable issues—racism, poverty—and themes less frequently explored in African-American literature, such as mental illness. Her children’s book, “Sometimes My Mommy Gets Angry,’’ won the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill’s Outstanding Literature award in 2003.

Campbell’s death, along with the death of Butler last February, leaves a hole in African-American literature. “Both of those women were phenomenal writers with amazing talent and that is never in huge supply,’’ says Gilda Squire, director of publicity at Amistad/HarperCollins. “Their loss makes it even more imperative that we reach out to the younger writers and encourage them to write about the world as they see it. They shouldn’t get caught up in writing the same stuff as everyone else, or begin to believe that one type of book sells.”

Squire takes this issue personally. Two years ago, she signed Steffans to a book deal after reading a story of hers in Vibe magazine. Steffans, an ex-video performer, had spent years suffering from abuse and low self-esteem. Her tell-all “Video Vixen’’ rocked the hip-hop world and the entertainment industry with tales of sexual escapades, drug use and suggestions of homosexuality. It sold nearly 400,000—huge by mainstream standards, and titanic for a first-time African-American author. “We intended the book to be a cautionary tale to young girls about that lifestyle,’’ says Squire. ‘In the end—I’m not sure that’s what everyone took away from it, and I’m sorry about that.’’ Steffans’s next book, due next fall, is rumored to have even bigger names and naughtier details. It won’t be published by HarperCollins.

Of course this shift in sensibility is oddly reminiscent of the days when Toni Morrison and Alice Walker worried that the “round-the-way girl” (think “hip inner-city chick”) style of Terry McMillan’s “How Stella Got Her Groove Back” would damage the cause of more serious black literature. They might have been right: just walk into any inner-city bookstore and see the rows of McMillan knockoffs. But no one expected round-the-way-girl lit to turn into “groupie lit”—as many in the publishing world call today’s hot books. “Everyone’s story is important,’’ says Squire. “But the fear is that one story will be seen as the only story to be told about young black women today. We don’t want that.’’ But publishers do want the money that keeps them in business. If groupie lit gets knocked off the best-seller lists, it’s not apt to be replaced by something more high-minded.

Our story has a sort-of-happy ending. Latisha James came out of Waldenbooks last Tuesday with “It’s No Secret” and Campbell’s “Brothers and Sisters,” a novel set right there in Los Angeles, during the aftermath of the Rodney King beating in 1991. (“I didn’t know she wrote about people in L.A., too,” James says.) But if it takes an author’s untimely death to get readers interested in books like Campbell’s—serious, relevant and approachable—publishing is in worse shape than even the pessimists thought.