Reverse-Gentrification of the Literary World

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News & Features » August 2013 » Johnny Temple interviews Troy D. Johnson, President, Founder, and Webmaster of AALBC.com

Johnny Temple interviews Troy D. Johnson, President, Founder, and Webmaster of AALBC.com

troy_high_res_bluesuit_smile_chestupTroy D. Johnson is the President, founder, and webmaster of AALBC.com, LLC. Launched in March of 1998, AALBC.com has grown to become the largest and most frequently visited website dedicated to books and film by and about people of African descent. In addition to AALBC.com, Mr. Johnson has founded several other Internet-based businesses, including Edit1st.com, Huria.org, and PowerList.info

Johnny Temple: Why did you initially start The African American Literature Book Club?

Troy Johnson: In the mid-to-late 1990s, I had a sideline business building websites for other small businesses. One of my clients liked the website I built for her, but over time became disappointed she was not generating business with her site. I decided to build a website to learn how to generate revenue from it so that I could better advise my clients. Ultimately, I decided to build a book website, and began working on what would later become AALBC.com.

JT: Is your primary motivation with AALBC different now than it was when you started?

TJ: Sure, almost immediately my motivation changed: I found I was much more motivated by discovering the richness of Black literature and culture, and I got a thrill out of sharing those discoveries with others. As I said, I started out trying to learn how to make money with a website, but given the rapid and constant changes on the world wide web, I will be in a permanent mode of learning how to make money. I suspect that will never change.

Over the last fifteen years, I also realize I’ve compiled a pretty substantial archive of content, essentially creating a historical archive of people, events, and ideas which would never have been covered in the mass media. Finally, AALBC.com is my livelihood, so I have a financial motive as well—though if one were to look at the sacrifices I’ve made over the years, one might question my financial motive.

JT: After running Akashic Books for about ten years, I found that we needed to reinvent ourselves a bit to stay fresh; we couldn’t keep taking the exact same approach to book publishing year after year. After having run AALBC for fifteen years, what do you do to keep a creative edge?

TJ: On my end, I have to keep abreast of technology—identify trends and how they can impact me in the longer term. As you know, things change very rapidly. For example, I started out with a business model based upon earning commission on book sales from Barnes & Noble. I would have been out of business ten years ago if I tried to keep that strategy going.

Also, I’ve always worked hard at figuring out ways to work with other entities. I think in today’s world, where large corporations can exert virtual, monopolistic control, it is virtually impossible for an individual to run an online business (perhaps any business) without collaborating with other businesses. Over the last couple of years, I’ve doubled my effort to strategize on ways to work with other indie companies.

JT: Have the changes in the book business since you started fundamentally affected the work that you do, or not so much?

TJ: The support provided from big publishers has essentially dried up. I have not generated a single penny in revenue from a major publisher in 2013. I don’t think I could have made a statement like this since 1998 or 1999. Authors themselves purchase advertising directly, but this situation is very inefficient from the publishing house’s perspective.

JT: What sets AALBC apart from other book clubs?

TJ: Well, we are no longer a book club in the way that you might be thinking. For about a decade we ran an online book club where we had a reading list and scheduled online chats and discussion, often with the authors. But that ended a few years ago.

My goal now is to help readers discover important writers, books, events, films, and publishers. I try to focus on a variety of genres and more obscure writers. This is probably why I spend time sharing information about the writers Akashic publishes.

JT: What role, if any, does the personality of an author play in your work? Is it irrelevant since you focus mostly on books, not authors? Or is relationship building with authors integral to your mission?

TJ: Relationship building is part of what makes my job fun and interesting. There really is nothing better than promoting the work of a talented author who you actually like as a person. However, I will not hesitate to promote an author who I don’t care for personally if I believe their work warrants it.

But I’m human, and I have limited resources and time. So if I’m staring at two books and only have time to hype one, where one is by an author who has been supportive of AALBC.com and the other is by an author who has never done anything for AALBC.com, the supportive author will have a distinct advantage in my decision on which book I will use to generate content to share with others.

JT: Do you think the mainstream book business is doing a good job of reaching out to African American readers?

TJ: No, publishers generally leave that task up to the individual authors which, as I mentioned earlier, is terribly inefficient. With the individual author promoting his or her own books, the author often reinvents the wheel by trying to determine the right platforms and manners of promotion. The publishers lose economies of scale they could achieve by advertising multiple books and securing rates an individual author could not obtain. Publishers also forgo the tremendous amount of data they could collect by advertising on various platforms for multiple authors.

JT: If you had a magic wand, what would you change about the book industry?

TJ: Readers will able to easily discover books they would most enjoy. This also means that many writers who are not being published in this space-time continuum would be published in the alternate universe created by my magic wand.

JT: You went through the New York City public school system, and I believe your wife works in the City’s public schools. I am graduate of the Washington, DC public school system, and both my kids are in NYC public schools. Do you feel public schools in this city do a good job of creating avid book readers?

TJ: Given the outcomes—graduation rates and reading levels—the answer is obviously no.

JT: I have heard you talk a lot about family. Does your own family play any role in AALBC? Is your wife a sounding board?

TJ: Yes, I’m redesigning AALBC.com as we speak. I’m upgrading the underlying code and streamlining the design. I’m also making some cosmetic changes to the homepage and the main pages of each of the website’s main sections. This morning, my wife shot down some preliminary changes I made. Her comments were on point, as she is looking at the site from the perspective of a reader. But she is just as busy as I am, and does not really have a lot of time to contribute.

Maintaining AALBC.com, or any content-heavy site, is a lot of work—especially for one person—and requires a wide range of skills. Sometimes I step back and marvel at what I’ve accomplished over the years, but I can’t rest on my laurels because they mean very little. The net has a very short memory and is unforgiving.

JT: Can you name two deceased authors who you feel never really got their due, whose work never really broke through to the general public on the level that it should have?

TJ: In my circles, the historian and educator Dr. John Henrik Clarke, who passed fifteen years ago, is very well known. However, it is not clear to me if the general public is as familiar with his work as they should be. He is not mentioned much in the mainstream media nowadays; I’m sure if he was discussed, we’d see things very differently.

I think Jean Toomer is worth more consideration. His book Cane was sublime. Cane was the first book on our Book Club’s reading list over fifteen years ago, in 1998. I’d never read anything like it before. My book club moderator selected the book—otherwise, I’m not sure I would have ever discovered it.

JT: Can you name two authors under age forty that you are particularly excited about right now?

TJ: There are many, but I’ll pick two authors that are new to me. I don’t know how old they are, but they are probably young enough to make your age cutoff. Also, I have not read these author’s books, but I’m anxious to read their work as they are strongly recommended by people whose opinions I respect. First we have Stephanie Powell Watts, whose debut, We Are Taking Only What We Need, was nominated for a boatload of awards—but again, there was very little coverage in the mainstream media.

Next up we have Edward Kelsey Moore. Again I don’t know how old this author is but his book The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat is selling well on AALBC.com, and made the Summer Power List as well.

Posted: Aug 28, 2013

Category: Akashic in Good Company | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,