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African-American romance writers come into their own

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by Patrick Hueguen, NY Daily News

Brenda Jackson author photoAnother beach-read season is upon us, but this summer’s book list reflects changes in the publishing industry. Over the past year, new efforts have been made to identify and promote the most popular – and steamiest – page-turners by African-American authors.

Until recently, mass-market books with romantic or sexual content by black writers have been lumped together under the label “African-American romance.” A look at the titles under that heading on Amazon.com reveals everything from suspense to erotica to family drama.

But as works under the “black romance” umbrella gain popularity, the book world has become more interested in collecting accurate sales data by subgenre, and promoting the works and writers that can bring in the bucks.

For the most popular authors of traditional romance, such as Brenda Jackson and Rochelle Alers, this means lucrative new book deals. For others, such as Mary B. Morrison and Carl Weber, it’s about taking their tales to Hollywood.

Perhaps most important, though least visible, the new attention means taking pains to specify the types of books within a category that still seems like a jumble to some publishers and book sellers.

The changes are easiest to see within the realm of the genre accurately called romance – the one comprised of love stories that lead to a happy, monogamous ending.

Jackson reigns as the top-selling black romance author, according to Nielsen Bookscan. She was the first African-American writer to make the New York Times best-seller list with a romance.

Over a three-decade career, she has published 67 books while maintaining a career in management at State Farm Insurance. It is not unusual for romance authors – of any race – to continue to work what some might call “day jobs.” What is unusual is the exclusive offer from Harlequin that convinced Jackson to write full time.

“Harlequin offered me a five-year book deal that was phenomenal,” she says of the contract that convinced her to leave State Farm last June. “I mean, when I say ‘phenomenal,’ it made me blink and say, ‘Hmm.'”

She’s not alone. Long Island-based Alers, who has 55 books in print, signed a contract for another 12 with Harlequin this year.

“It’s not a new move within the romance industry,” Alers says of the exclusive agreements, “but it is a new move for us.”

The deals have propelled production into overdrive. Already prolific, Jackson and Alers will publish books at a rate of almost one-per-month this summer.

Meanwhile, at Kensington, another major publisher of African-American romance and pop fiction, groundwork is being laid to take the biggest sellers to Hollywood.

Adam Zacharius, the head of the company’s media branch, said recently that he intends to pursue collaborations with both Weber and Morrison.

While they are often lumped into the category, neither author accepts the label “romance” for their works. Morrison’s super-steamy books lack monogamous happy endings (she also writes erotica under the pen name HoneyB). Weber’s can more properly be classified as the brand of commercial fiction sometimes called “street lit.”

That said, they have been able to ride the wave of black best sellers that has traditional romances at its crest.

“The publishers are looking at what African-American authors are topping the list, making more money, have higher numbers,” says Morrison, “and it appears that they are focusing their energy in that direction and putting more money behind those authors.”

Considering the box-office success of Tyler Perry’s moral romances and of the sex-tinged thriller “Obsessed,” that money can’t be spent fast enough. Kensington Media is slated to release its first film, “The Company We Keep,” in the fall. It’s a love story that plays out in the boardroom (and bedrooms) of a hot L.A. record company.

One of the label’s star authors, Mary Monroe, used the screenplay as the basis for a novel version of the tale, of the same title, which Kensington released in March. It still ranks in the top 25 “African-American romance” best sellers on Amazon.

Finally, in the last six months, major leaps have been made to define the variety that exists within black pop fiction.

Just before Christmas, the Book Industry Study Group, the organization that assigns genre codes used by publishers and book sellers, approved specific codes for African-American erotica, mystery, contemporary women’s writing, faith-based writing and “urban life.”

This summer, Nielsen Bookscan, which monitors 70% of the sales data in the book world, will begin tracking African-American-authored romances as a specific sub-segment of the romance genre.

The behind-the-scenes changes are a sign that the book business has caught on to the popularity of African-American writing, and wants to keep up.

“The success of Terry McMillan in the late ’80s kind of opened the door for commercial African-American writers,” says Kensington editor Selena James, “and in the years that followed, authors began to publish into subgenres that are just beginning to be recognized. … Nobody is writing exactly the same thing where the formula is sex and suspense. Everyone puts their own spin on it.”

The ultimate goal, say the authors, is to broaden the audience. The most stunning sales numbers will roll in only when the books once listed under “African-American romance” lose their niche connotations. The writers hope that when it comes to love – and lust – readers will soon be color-blind.

“We’re not just writing for an African-American audience,” says Alers. “I go to the movie theater and see Brad Pitt and say, ‘He’s luscious.’ You read what the character looks like and then it’s no longer their color and their ethnicity, it’s the person.” u

BEACH READ BONANZA

Brenda Jackson’s “Temperatures Rising” and a collection of her previous works entitled “Some Like It Hot” are in stores now. “Intimate Seduction” comes out July 1.

Rochelle Alers’ “Secret Agenda” is on sale now. The three books in her “Best Men” trilogy appear on June 1, July 1 and August 1.

Mary B. Morrison’s “Maneater,” which pairs one of her novellas with a novella by Noire, comes out tomorrow. “Unconditionally Single” goes on sale July 28. “Single Husbands,” by HoneyB, is out now.

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Written by Symphony

May 25, 2009 at 10:27 am

Posted in Books

Tagged with , ,

One Response

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    Loren Deanne

    October 21, 2010 at 12:37 am


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