Urban novels aren't often reviewed in major publications like the New York Times, and writers who work in the genre can have trouble interesting big publishing houses in their work. But many authors are gaining exposure by self-publishing instead, with some selling millions of copies and hitting bestseller lists. And as e-books take off, they may be poised to take full advantage — perhaps more so than authors who have relied on more traditional publishing models.
Urban fiction has been variously defined, but the term most often applies to books set in cities, with some element of criminal activity, and featuring characters of color. "What sets urban fiction apart from other genres is the authenticity, the rawness, and the realness of it," says Takerra Allen, author of many urban fiction novels including 2009's Thicker Than Water. She calls the genre "the hip-hop music of books."
Thicker Than Water has some elements in common with chick lit — Allen's characters are young city-dwelling women who love to shop and are looking, in various ways, for love. But unlike, say, Luke in Confessions of a Shopaholic, many of the men in their lives turn out to be drug dealers.
Most of the male characters in her novels have had some "street experience," says Allen, though some eventually leave crime behind. Unfortunately, she says, such experiences are "a reality" for her and her readers. "I’m sure there are books out there where all of the men are doctors and lawyers," she explains, but "that is not something I witness very often and I consider myself a voice for the reality of the urban communities."
Like many authors of urban fiction, Allen self-publishes her work. She started a company, Angelic Script Publishing, with a business partner about three years ago. She started her own company, she explains, because she "didn’t want to take a crummy deal just so someone could put up a few dollars and have control over the work." The upside is creative control of everything from subject matter to cover art — and " getting all of the profit in the end doesn’t hurt either." Allen says her work has been quite lucrative. The downside: "people take you less seriously and you have to fight to be recognized amongst the many. And you don’t get to be in Wal-Mart."
Teri Woods, who says her novel True to the Game kicked off the urban fiction genre (it was written in 1992 and published in 1998), has self-published for her entire career. She says couldn't find a publisher initially, and started out selling books out of the trunk of her car. Now she estimates she's sold 1.2 million books, to everyone from older white women to gang members who have never read a book in their lives. But she says mainstream media and publishing houses still look down on urban fiction — even the term itself, she says, essentially pigeonholes the work of black authors. Woods says the literary establishment would like urban fiction to simply go away, because, as a genre dominated by black writers who can self-publish and build an audience organically, "it's a market that they can't control."
She says that's caused problems for urban fiction authors when it comes to store placement and distribution, but she's "very excited about the next five years in publishing," when authors can offer their books directly to readers in electronic format, without a middleman (i.e., publishing house). She says the black community still isn't downloading books as much as other groups — inner-city readers, in particular, are less likely to have computers in their homes, let alone e-readers. But as prices for Kindles and other devices come down and they become more ubiquitous, she thinks black readers will start using them: "in the next year or two, I think everybody will be on board."
This would be a big change for a genre that in the past has been sold by street vendors, by the authors themselves (like Woods in the early days), or at small local bookstores. As those stores close, says Woods, urban fiction authors will have to evolve. But she believes that evolution will bring benefits: "I won't have to worry about shelf space, I won't have to fight with major [publishers], I won't have to worry about printing or shipping, I won't have to worry about people bootlegging my books because I won't be printing them."
Urban fiction authors who self-publish are part of a long tradition. "Self-publishing is definitely a trend within African American letters" stretching back to at least the nineteenth century, said Venetria Patton, Director of African American Studies at Purdue University. The advantage is "getting one's voice out on one's own terms" — but "the material is not as widely accessible, particularly to a broader audience." Readers who don't know to look for urban fiction may not come across it.
But many readers are looking. Thicker Than Water's Amazon sales rank for paperback is currently higher than those of some chick lit novels, including some published by major houses, like Harper Perennial title Remind Me Again Why I Need a Man, and Accidental It Girl, published by a division of Simon & Schuster. And while self-publishing in general still has its uncertainties, self-published authors continue to rack up success stories as sales of mainstream chick lit (and fiction in general) appear to decline.
Patton believes urban fiction will soon get more attention from media outlets like the New York Times "because as the years go by our assessment of what is good fiction will continue to expand. Many of the books that are reviewed now certainly would not have been reviewed twenty or thirty years ago."
For now, Allen said she has readers "of different sexes, nationalities, and ages." But when she pictures an ideal reader of her work, she sees a "strong, beautiful, independent woman. I envision the women I know and I envision myself, because I was a reader before anything."