I’ve been thinking a bit lately about “audience.” By which I mean, who buys what, and why do they buy it? Where do they buy it, and what gives them the idea to buy? I thought about this a few years ago when my book HUNG came out: it got a good amount of placement in bookstores, my publisher bought an ad in the New York Times, I got a great review in the New York Times Book Review a coupla Sundays after it came out. And though it sold decently, it wasn’t the “HUGE” seller (no pun intended!) that my publisher expected. AND I got emails from people–mainly guys–saying that even though they found the subject matter interesting, they’d never buy my book because there was a naked guy’s torso on the cover. Wow. I was also fascinated by the fact that on Amazon, for instance, HUNG always came up in searches for gay literature. Even though there wasn’t a ton of “gay” stuff in the book. Rarely did I find it coming up in searches I did for African-American lit. Was this because of the naked guy’s torso on the cover? Who knows. All that said, I’ve been curious then, not only about “audience,” but also about marketing in general: why do certain books (or movies or TV shows or records) get funneled toward certain audiences and not others? When do—HOW do—the decisions get made to point interest in certain pop culture projects in certain directions? When does race or sexuality become the be-all and end-all of how companies decide to promote a book or movie or CD? Maybe HUNG didn’t sell as well as expected because of the cover? Because some perceived it as a “gay” book? Because white audiences weren’t interested in a book “about” the cultural ramifications of the black penis? Because it wasn’t written all that well? Because it was “too intelligent,” as one of my Amazon reviewers commented? Who can say?
Of course I’d like to think we live in a world where everything’s culturally equal—of course we do: I recall how “crossover” became a touchstone word back in the 80s, particularly around music. I’ve seen plays with black themes succeed wonderfully on Broadway, and Toni Morrison sell well AND win both the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes (and, saleswise, I remember a week in the 90s, I think, when Morrison, Alice Walker, and Terry McMillan were all on the NY Times bestseller list in the same week). I’ve seen Will Smith become the biggest movie star in the world, and hiphop become the soundtrack of suburbia. Yet for all this cultural “equality” there’s still a process of “ghettoization” that goes on in the pop culture sphere (just like in real life, one supposes), and I can’t help but think some of it has to do with who’s getting hired (still) to do the marketing for some projects. I remember when HUNG came out and I had my first meeting at Doubleday, the only black folks in the room were my editor, me, and my agent. But there’s also apparently this sense out there that black folk like a certain kind of cultural project—and I guess, when Tyler Perry sells the tickets he sells and the street lit sells the books it sells on street corner tables everywhere, that attitude is re-confirmed. Not that there’s anything wrong with Tyler Perry or street-lit; if that’s your thing, roll on. But it’s not everyone’s thing—definitely not every black person’s thing…Aaron McGruder definitely made that point clear a coupla weeks ago…
I don’t know what the answer is. Some black work breaks on through to the other side, finding a wide audience; some black work does well catering solely to black folks; a lot of black work languishes when similar “white” work goes on to wide success. Then there’s the age-old debate as to, not only, whether black folks read or not, but also whether white folks will read a book or see a movie or play with a specifically “black” theme. I was fascinated to find that two articles in major dailies are grappling with this issue in different ways. Author Bernice McFadden wrote a stirring editorial in the Washington Post this weekend about the “ghettoization” of black literature by publishers and in bookstores, and the New York Times pubbed a piece today about how Broadway plays with black themes get marketed to black audiences. It’s interesting how the concepts overlap, yet diverge in very telling ways.
Bernice McFadden’s essay, click here.
New York Times piece, click here.