Feb 9 2012 2:51pm

Where to Shelve African-American Authors?

Afterburn by ZaneIt’s a topic that brings compelling arguments for both sides:

Should African-American authors be shelved in the African-American section at the bookstore?

Erotica author Zane, in an interview with MediaBistro published yesterday, says absolutely:

“They sell better. That’s been documented. There’s no question about that. When someone goes into a bookstore and they’re looking for African-American books, they’re going to look for the African-American section. If they dig mystery books, they’re going to look at the mystery section. I’ve done my research and seen the figures; I’ve met with the owners and heads of bookstore chains.”

Our blogger, Robin Bradford, who is also a librarian, takes a different view. She explains on a post titled “The Black Shelves are Over There” on her CDStacked blog:

“There are so many African American authors in the world now, and the only thing they have in common is the color of their skin. The color of their skin tells you absolutely nothing about what lies between the covers of their books. Yet, we’ll let a fan of mystery novels see every book we have except for the ones written by people with brown skin. If you want books by those people, you have to go over to the other section, and sort through the space ships, wizards, unicorns, vampires, and romance novels by brown skinned people until you find a mystery you might want to read.”

In her post, Robin interviews author Farrah Rochon, who disagrees with Zane about where her books should be shelved:

“By limiting African American authors to the ’black section’ of the store or library, you limit their exposure to a huge swath of the reading population, especially in the romance genre...[W]hite readers feel a bit awkward venturing into the ’black section’ of the store, and honestly, they have no reason to. There is ample reading material available in the romance section. [But] I have to believe that non-African American readers would give black books a try if the books were shelved by genre and not by the author’s skin color.”

On the one hand, Zane’s argument says, readers can easily find the authors they want to read within the African-American section of the bookstore. And those readers who want to read African-American authors will purchase more books by Af-Am authors. On the other hand, readers who are not African-American themselves feel intimidated by going into that section to get books, and those books are only defined by the color of the skin of the person writing them—there’s no delineation to genre, or skin of the characters, or any of that.

If we separate authors by skin color, should we also separate them by gender? Or have an ’old dead white guy’ section? The reality of the shelving comes into direct opposition with what we all wish would happen—that readers would be color-blind in their choice of reading material. But from what Zane says, that ideal is a long way off. Meanwhile, African-American authors want to sell books.

What do you think?

For more on the topic, read the entire Rochon interview at CDStacked.


Not only does Megan Frampton think authors should all be shelved according to genre, not skin color, she alphabetizes all of her CDs by artist, not by genre at all, so Buck Owens is right up close to Owl City.

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1. ds9girl
Personally, I think the books should be sorted into both the genres and into African-American sections. I think this is a good compromise because the books can then draw even more readers. Put 2 copies of the book in the genre and 2 copies in the African-American section.
2. Diane DF
I love Brenda Jackson and "found" her because she was just another romance writer for Harlequin. Totally irrelevant to my enjoyment of her craft is that I am white and her characters are predominantly African-American. I read genres; romance, sci-fi, urban fantasy. That's how I shop. I prefer authors to be shelved that way.
3. K. B.
I'll probably get kicked for saying this, but it's like the bookstores
are behind the rest of the country and still participating in
segregation. As a former bookseller, it's not always feasible to have
books in multiple sections of the store. It makes for a wild goose
chase. However, I think a positive compromise would be to have a section for Featured African American Writers that is rotated often.
4. wsl0612
If there are people who want the AA authors put in a separate section then I presume they want it that way so they can specifically locate and read AA authors. Which seems rather sad because it sounds as if they are not going to investigate any other author works. I'm generally more interested in the specifics of the characters in the books than the character of the author (race is a characteristic to me) and skin color isn't a relevant characteristic in determining my reading choices.
K.M. Jackson
5. kwanawrites
Bookstores are so terribly behind the times with the whole segregation thing and to me it comes off as bit (a lot) racist. There is health, beauty, sports, romance, mystery, nonfiction, fiction and then African-American. What's with that? So we have been all trained Black, White, whatever to black writers are "other" a whole genre onto themselves and it is inexcusable. There is no (that I know of) Asian-American section or , Greek-American, Polish-American etc section so why this? This annoying African-American or worse yet "Urban" Section. Now I probably would not have such a problem with the so called "Urban" section if you could find all works there that were Urban and not just Black authors. Hey how about any book set in the city. Sex And The City? Go to the urban section. I'd get with that, though come to think of it. That sounds just as dumb.

That's my 2 cents. We need to stop this color thing. I'm so over it.
6. CourtneyMilan
Should African-American authors be shelved in the African-American section at the bookstore?

This question presumes that African-American authors are, and must be, writing about African-American matters and characters. I don't think that's a fair assumption or a correct one. I know you don't mean your question to come off in this particular way, but I think the question you intend to ask is this one:

"Should books that contain African-American characters be shelved in the African-American section at the bookstore?"

I know that you didn't mean to imply that books should be shelved according to the identity of the author without regard to the content of the book.
7. Beverley Kendall
As a Black author who writes historical romances with White heroes and heroines (predominantly), I would like to see the books grouped solely by genre.

It's 2012 and we're still segrating books with regards to race. Not surprising but I would have we'd come farther than that by now.
8. Isobel Carr
The AA sections where I live (Oakland, which is nearly half AA) are devoted to urban/hip hop lit. It’s really a genre section. They don’t put LA Banks, Beverley Jenkins, or Wayne Jordan in it (nor should they). I also don’t see AA sections in every store. I only see them in stores with large AA customer bases and they are there because the customers want them. Oh, and if you go to City Lights (famous independent store in San Francisco), you’ll find Asian American, Native American, and Latino American book sections too.
9. iferlohmann
I am not a fan of seperating out the African-American authors, for all the reasons listed above. However, we get lots of people in the library looking for AA authors specifically. Our solution has been to make a list of our AA authors. The list is quite long and seperated into genres, for those genre specific readers. For "general fiction," we note if the book is inspirational or urban fiction (maybe there should be a better name for the genre, but that's what the patrons call it, so that's what we call it--maybe they call it that because we call it that, who knows?).

We also have lists of Asian/Asian-American authors, Jewish authors, Hispanic authors and LBGT authors, should someone want one. These other lists are not nearly as popular. Should someone want a list of Catholic or Polish or Russian or Afghani or . . . authors, I would be game to try and get them one. If an author identifies with more than one background, I think we would put them on both lists, though I've not looked to see if we have authors on more than one list.

As a library, we are trying to balance the joy of discovery with serving readers who want the library to be organized around their taste preferences. My location also doesn't seperate out books by genre, which may (and has) upset many a reader.
Robin Bradford
10. RobinBradford
"I know that you didn't mean to imply that books should be shelved
according to the identity of the author without regard to the content of
the book."

@courtneymilan but that is exactly HOW they are shelved. Black (on the cover or the author photo) means you go over here in this section. Alice Walker? Noire? Walter Mosley? Over here, please.
Robin Bradford
11. RobinBradford
@iferlohmann When I first started here, I made a list featuring Af-Am main characters and included the Alex Cross series and Pelecanos' Derek Strange books. WOW. You'd have thought I killed a puppy AND a kitten. Several people were VERY unhappy that I'd put White authors on an Af-Am characters list, even though it wasn't an Af-Am authors list. Even though the characters in question were, in fact, African the list suggested......
Natasha Carty
12. WickedLilPixie
Kwana- AMEN!

We don't have those sections in Canadian bookstores that I have ever seen. It really disturbs me to think someone actually thought seperating them by race not genre or whats INSIDE the damn book was a good idea.
13. Mo
@ Courtney Milan (#6): I'm pretty sure the question was posed as she meant it. I know in the local bookstore here, that is the way they are shelved. The only time an African-American romance author was shelved differently was because Brenda Jackson writes some category books. Those were always with the other Harlequins. I'm also pretty sure that she wasn't implying that books should be shelved this way.

This phenomenon is, for me, the biggest gripe I have with bookstores. I think books should be shelved by catgory or genre, period. I could not care less about the color of the skin of the author. All I care about is if I enjoyed the book. Other people, however, as Zane and iferlohmann (#9) point out, like being able to pinpoint those authors immediately and have them all together.

I think the point to this discussion is that bookstores do shelve books, as you put it, "according to the identity of the author without regard to the content of the book."
Megan Frampton
14. MFrampton
Oops, I weighed in on Twitter before seeing all the comments here--yes, Courtney, I did mean the question that way, with all the ludicrous results we can imagine. There are AA-specific sections in bookstores that shelve regardless of genre, which according to Zane, works for her as an AA author writing erotica because her books sell more. And personally, I find the section "urban fiction" off-putting too, because "urban" appears to be code for "black," but I presume that there are authors of other races writing fiction in an urban setting.
I think the reality of casual readers shopping for books is far behind the ideal of what avid readers would like it to be. Hence the black section that Zane lauds, and that so many of us take issue with.
Rachel Hyland
15. RachelHyland
Well, we're in trouble if the Young Adult section starts stocking only books written by young adults. Though I guess that's good news for Christopher Paolini. (Or it was five years ago.)
Nicole Leapheart
16. BoxyFrown
This is a great discussion, and I don't think I actually have that much to add that hasn't been said. Obviously the AA section serves a purpose, but I wish it didn't, in that I wish the authors would just be integrated into general genre population. However, I agree with someone who posted upthread, that most of the books in the AA section in a lot of books stores I go into are more "hood-lit" and don't have several of the authors I look for anyway.

Every once in a while I find myself bored reading about someone's alabaster skin and pink nipples in the romance genre and feel the need to read about someone closer to my own complexion, even if they aren't black. This is why I adore authors like Nalini Singh who have such a multicultural list of characters that I don't get burned out with the same old thing over and over. This is probably a different argument, however. lol
17. Rose In RoseBear
@BoxyFrown: Do you think the current politically-correct atmosphere would allow for a "hood-lit" section? That way, we're not categorizing based on the color of the author's or character's skin, but the content between the covers ...

Can't they have brown nipples? Just once ...?
18. BrooklynShoeBabe
There's an old dead white guy section in my library. It's called "assignments and classics." *sniff*

As an African-American, librarian, and romance reader, I can see both sides of the coin. The sub-genre of most paperback romance novels are printed on the spine, perhaps that could also be done for AA romances.
19. Rose In RoseBear
@BrooklynShoeBabe: Yeah, I could get behind that. No separate sections based on skin color ... I mean, if you want to read "urban reality" fiction, and the author is white, where does that book get filed?

Better, and more accurate, to have all "urban reality" fiction in one place, regardless of the skin tone of the characters or the author.

And yet ... and yet ... the lines are blurring every day. When I, a black author, write an interracial romance with SF elements, based in West Texas just before the Civil War, how does shelving it alongside contemporary urban fiction help me?
Nicole Leapheart
20. BoxyFrown
Im playing catch up:)
I think that books should be filed according to content, but I see Zane's point - her fan base knows where she is filed and it's working for her. I'm not looking for Zane (she's great, just not my go-to read.) As a result I end up doing a lot of research online before I go to a bookstore or order on Amazon (or even look in my local second hand store.)

And brown nipples are awesome. I will also accept: mocha, coffee, chocolate, burnt sienne, chestnut, cinnamon, sepia, mohogany, you see where I'm coming from. lol
Shandrinika McKinney
21. sam1slim1
I have long thought that all books no matter the author should be shelved by genre. I have to agree with Robin on this. Skin color should play no role in where the books are shelved.
Like BoxyFrown, I too go online and do research before I actually go to a bookstore or I just purchase the books online.
I don't buy my books based on the color of the author skin, so when I go to shop they should definitely not be shelved that way. I go to the store (when I feel like browsing) and check the genres that I like and go from there.
romance reader
22. bookstorecat
Our Barnes & Noble in Virginia had a permanent "African American Interest" display of new and popular titles--mostly fiction, I believe. It was a huge table right in front of the Fiction section, and it introduced me to authors I probably never would have encountered if someone hadn't made an effort to put them in the spotlight. That kind of promotion, based on helping people find what they're looking for AND introducing readers to stuff they might like if they ever had a chance to see it, worked very well and certainly didn't feel as problematic as having a separate section of the bookstore for authors based on their ethnicity or the ethnicity of their characters.
23. dkansas
Megan, That's an interesting question. I'm AA and an avid reader and I've never thought about the shelving. I think BookStoreCat's idea of special displays and then shelved by genre is the perfect soloution. Believe it or not BoxFrown and RoseinRoseBear I had those same alabaster skin and pink nipple thoughts today while reading. One of the things I liked about L A Banks Vampire Huntress series was that it's characters were all inclusive and would have , I'm sure been of interest to more of the general reading population. as well as African American readers.
24. Alexandria Infante
It's funny, but not; but this post and post like this seem to be running rampet lately; and I'm like finally. It's not just me. My name is Alexandria Infante', and I'm an author for EternalPress. I write paranormal fiction. I happened to be on another site and saw this posted where a bloger was asking this question;
Over the past decade or so, many people of color found that the heavily marketed romance novels contained stories and situations that did not reflect their personal experiences. With Fabio on the cover clutching a willowy blonde in his arms, served as a reflection that the contents of the book were directed towards a market that didn't include them.

My Comments;

Most of the post was on African-American writers, and how what was early on the scene like Terry McMillan only reflected mostly Black middle class, that didn't reflect the true lives of African-Americans. There we went our separate ways, because every African-American did not grow up in a violence fill neighborhood. I was surprised at some of the answers that she got to this post, but I wanted to join in at the same time; because she did raise some good questions.

I feel some of the stuff that she said I could agree with, but at the same time, why should I be defined by my race? Being a writer is who I am and my race Should Not matter. For those of you who don't know me, my book Teaching Between Midnight and Dawn was published on Aug 7th of 2011 for Eternal Press, and it was a hard row to hoe. I write interracial romance, and it took me forever to get this book published.

I love the Paranormal, but I didn’t see myself reflected in the works that I read (where I agree with the blogger); and if I did it was a side character, a supporting character, or a villain; so I thought I’d write my own. Being multi-racial (Puerto Rican, Cuban, Native American, Irish and African-American) I wanted to see a character like me, and the fact that this is rare spurred me on. Authors like me tend to get pigeon holed into one specific genre like Minority literature, Latina, African-American, or Ethnic, who hardly ever move out of that to become main stream; and I think that this is completely unfair.

I hoped by writing what I believe the genre should encompass, people would see the book for the story and negate the race of the character; that being, anyone could place themselves in the shoes of the character, not just someone of a minority background.

However, I find the fact that we have to be billed as African American, Native American, Latina, or Asian almost contemptible. When I walk into a book store seeking a book on Milton or Shakespeare, it isn't billed as old ass British White dude, ( and don't get me wrong, I love my classics. I teach British/ American Literature and Art History), but I think that its sad that we as minorities must be displayed that way. Love is love, and color shouldn't matter when it comes to affairs of the heart.

I write paranormal romance, and the fact that my characters are Scottish wolves and British vamps who have a thang for color, shouldn't matter one way or the other when dealing with love and romance. Having a multiracial character who speaks Spanglish, and has a ghetto side, if that's what you want to call it, has gotten me a few harsh reviews for the book.

My entire series, 13 books so far in the paranormal, 4 in the fae realm, three historical, and one contemporary, each have a main male character that is of a different race; from Japanese, to African and white, to Romanian, to Native American and so on; because true love is color blind, even if people still don't accept that.

It is in my opinion, that many times white America will look at a book and say "Oh, that's a black writer, or a Latin writer" and they believe that they have nothing in common with the character, so they can't see themselves reading the book. This is completely biased, because we as minorities do it everyday. As far as publishing is concerned 90% of their business comes from white America, which is the reason that minority authors have such a hard time getting their works published, and if they do its almost stagnate in its movements.

Unfortunately, many Publishing companies continue to hold onto that bullshite antiquated idea that the average soccer mom, (mostly who romance novels are aimed at) won't want to read a book like that, unless its Jorge the pool boy, or Malik the thug that happens to be very articulate to her surprise, and tutors her daughter (but it is acceptable for her to have some secret fantasy about either one, because that is not openly interracial. It's just a lil nookie on the side).

It all goes back to that taboo system, and even in the 21st century, people are still too terrified to touch it. But I notice that when it comes to books, only minorities have their race put out before their name even appears. I shouldn't have to be billed by Latina author, Native American author, or black author. I am a writer, and that is all that should matter.

Anyway, just wanted to add my 3 cents lol, and hope I didn't ofend anyone, but hay truth is truth lol. You can find me at www. poisonedpin at webs, www.poisonedpin at blogspot, and a host of other places. Thanks for letting me be a part of your blog.

Alie out:)

I can't wait to see the reviews that I get for my new book A Lad's Trousers, because its set in the 1800s and the main male character is a White northern Aristocrat. :) I'm lovin that!
25. Leelia Mendoza
I totally agree with this, but think that it should include Latina authors too, because I'm blk/lat.

I wanted to know if you do fan based recommendation on stuff lol? One such author, and it's hysterically funny that I see that she posted something here ( I'm so excited, cuz I love her stuff!!!!)

I just wanted to let you know about this author I’ve been reading, Alexandria Infante, author of Teaching between Midnight and Dawn. I think she is a talented author (her book came out last year, but I just found it), and the fact that she is Latina/blk in this genre is awesome.

In the paranormal field you don’t see many Latinas, and the ones that you do see, don’t seem to get the reconiztion that they should either.

Her book is somewhere between Twilight, Underworld and Interview with the vampire; all based off of Egyptian myths. (I'm not trying to promote her...well I guess I am hahaha, but not in that spamtastic kinda way, its just that La Rasa, and black pride for when I see minority authors who are amazing, but don't generate the fan base because people don't know!)

I love the fresh new characters, and the fact that her main female character is Latina/ black. I would say to everyone out there, check out her books and her site. her work is amazing! she takes every race that you can think of and mixes it with african-american, and there you have her main female leads. She does Contemporary and Historical as well.

Happy reads peeps
leelia Mendoza
26. PatriciaW
The issues are not easy. African-American readers who are looking for an AA read need to be able to easily find them. At times, I am this reader. (It's no different than going into a drugstore or big box store and looking for hair products targeted to the AA audience, for which there is a separate section. There's a different niche with a different target audience. Hence, a different section.)

At the same time, I read many more books by white authors than by AA authors in a given year. I would love to bump up against my AA faves while I'm browsing by genre in the larger portion of the store. Moreover, I would love to think some white readers might bump up against and try them too. It would happen, no doubt about that. But the reality is that the proportion of white readers who would purchase the AA books, as Zane indicates, is small, based on historical sales. Think for a moment. Is there a large number of white readers purchasing e-books written by AA authors? I'm not sure, but I do know there's no segregated shelving online. In fact, not having the AA tag makes it difficult to find AA authors in online bookstores as our books are rarely featured reads. But that's a whole other can of worms.

I'm for splitting the shelving, with a few copies in the general section and the bulk of the copies in the AA section. In fact, why not call it a multicultural section and shelve books by Hispanic, Asian and other non-white races? This might draw more people of all races to the section, and we might not need dual shelving. And, would it be that difficult to have the section further delineated by genre? I think not. That way, I can separate the multicultural romance from fantasy from erotica and puruse only what I'm interested in.
27. Christine M
I think that is terrible that some authors feel that separating books based on color of the skin is appropriate in a modern society, unless they only want a certain population as their audience. I choose my reading material based on story, genre. And personally, I find that the new AA authors to be boring and the writing is on the level of a 8th grader, and the stories are monolithic. We definitely need more diversity in our circle of story writing. Just my two cents, BTW I'm black.
29. Nachelle Mable
I agree that a person should not have to sift through the African-American section to find a particular genre or subject. I propose shelving the af-am books with all the other books, depending on genre, just put a little cute sticker on the book, signifying its written by an af-am. This way, you have the labeling, and it will still be available for any ethnic group to read it.
30. LA Tut
I enjoyed being able to peruse the 4 or 5 shelves of African-American authors. From the point of view of the AA author, I'm sure it gives them better exposure. It doesn't mean I will not buy or explore other areas but books with language, culture and characters I identify with are more difficult to find in a typical large bookstore like Barnes. I think it should be split with the typical small AA section and a few scattered amongst the masses of other books. That is a minor compromise. Segregation? Those are laws passed to make AA feel inferior. This very credible and famous author (Zane) says it sells more books for them. Why would a white person feel intimidated by looking in the AA section? And who really cares if they are?
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