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Dawn Davis: Launching Inkwell Book Club

Aditi Sriram talks with the founder of Inkwell, an online national black book club that launched yesterday, about supporting black writers and influencing the marketplace.

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Image courtesy of Naina Williams.

As of yesterday, you can join Inkwell, the only online national black book club here: www.inkwellbookclub.com. Clicking on the URL takes browsers to a Simon & Schuster webpage where Vice President and Publisher Dawn Davis has written a letter inviting readers to join: “The Inkwell Book Club aims to bring a community of readers together so they can connect over good books, wield influence in the marketplace, and support our legacy of writers, so many of whom are finding it hard to make a living wage from their gifts.”

Davis, herself African-American, and a veteran in the industry, is tackling the many dilemmas of publishing—declining sales, limited media interest—from a wholly practical perspective. She intends to combat the recurring and stereotypical reviews of African-American “street-lit” in mainstream publications by offering sophisticated, popular literature from those same streets. A book club that is large and informed enough to “make some noise” will influence bookstores, increase the quantity of books they buy, and more meaningfully support African-American authors. “The ultimate goal is to have us all work together—book sellers, authors, publishers—to say that this is a group that has purchasing power, and is savvy.”

How to build this savvy community? Davis has answers. We spoke over the phone yesterday, as she finished writing her introductory Inkwell letter to readers, and it was difficult to miss the excitement in her voice.

Aditi Sriram for Guernica

Guernica: Where did your idea for Inkwell come from?

Dawn Davis: The initial idea started when I saw another article about street lit in some mainstream newspaper—there’s always a story every 18 months or so—and meanwhile all of these terrific literary books were being nominated and shortlisted for things like the Booker prize, the National Book Award, and the Center for Fiction Award, but they were just not being written about en masse. I thought, there’s another narrative that they’re just missing. We can either complain or we can try to show people that we exist with our buying power. I brainstormed the idea for a book club out loud to different people and everyone loved it.

College-educated black women are the highest readers among any group. They read widely: cross-genre, fiction, non-fiction. They don’t want to be pigeon holed.

I started doing some research. People are in one, sometimes two, book clubs. Sometimes they meet eight times a year, sometimes they meet four times a year. I was getting specifics and I found out what we already know, which is that, we’re out there, and we’re reading, and we’re purchasing books, and we’re supporting our authors, but we don’t know that timing is critical.

Guernica: When you say, “we’re out there,” you’re talking about black women readers?

Dawn Davis: Yes, after reading that article about street fiction, and saying, “here we go again,” the first thing I did was express it out loud at a Book Lunch that I throw in Martha’s Vineyard, which is attended mostly by African-American women. But it’s not exclusive, and nor is the Inkwell Book Club; we welcome all readers!

Guernica: How long have you been conducting these lunches in Martha’s Vineyard? What kind of books do you discuss in this group?

Dawn Davis: We’ve been running it for the past four years, and read a whole range of authors: Isabel Wilkerson, Nikki Giovanni, Edward P. Jones, Junot Diaz, Bill Cheng, Rachel Swarns, Dolen Perkins-Valdez, Elizabeth Alexander, and Caroline Clarke. We launched our first one in Harlem this past November with the poet A. Van Jordan and the novelists Lalita Tademy and Ayana Mathis.

Guernica: That’s an impressive list.

Dawn Davis: There is a recent Pew statistic that says that college-educated black women are the highest readers among any group. They read widely: cross-genre, fiction, non-fiction. They don’t want to be pigeon holed. They read everything. But if you contrast these figures with how many books a book chain buys, there’s a mismatch. A book chain will buy 1200 copies of a book and place them in 400 stores, which means each store gets three copies. They don’t get a big display, they’re not necessarily front of store. Our goal is to give the reader agency in the stories that are told, at how authors are treated on a retail level.

The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, by Issa Rae, came along and it’s fun, it lends itself to social media, and the response has been fantastic.

So I said to my Martha’s Vineyard group, I’m going to start a book club one day, and we’re going to do this virtually—we’re meeting together here to talk about a book, but we could do this online. People really liked the idea.

Guernica: Will Inkwell focus only on African-American authors? Who’s your first pick for the club?

Dawn Davis: We will nominate authors from the black diaspora primarily. Our first book is The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, by Issa Rae. Issa’s book came along and it’s fun, it lends itself to social media, which is a great way to launch the first book, and the response has been fantastic. We have a great media line up, so it seemed like the right book to launch with.

Guernica: Can you elaborate on your selection process?

Dawn Davis: As an editor, there are lots of beautiful but quieter novels that I was passing on with increasing frequency, because I didn’t see a way that they could be supported in the market. So I’ve tried to meld this idea of creating a club where people could buy a book the week that it is released, to create some agency around books that are selected and improve how books are supported in the bookstores.

On the one hand, I want to support authors in general, and on the other hand I want to support the books I’m publishing, and if people didn’t know that timing is important, it was incumbent on me to bring that to their attention. There’s a general knowledge that timing matters for movies, that opening box office is important. But it’s not as apparent for books. People kept saying, “thanks for bringing this to our attention, we just didn’t know.”

Increasingly, even pre-orders are important. So for instance, with Issa, we have a fantastic media line up, and it used to be that was what was important—but now we have to ask, what are the pre-orders. This is an effort to generate early sales, and consolidate it at the same time: to show that there’s interest, that there are people—black women in particular—who read en masse. We need a way to harness this group in a way that sends a signal. It makes an impact.

Guernica: What kind of numbers will it take to make an impact?

Dawn Davis: We want a minimum of 3500 members in the first year; the first hurdle is reaching that number. Right now, we are using Facebook and word of mouth, and literally asking people to forward the email—it’s like raising money door to door. We’ll also rely on our authors to spread the word and encourage people to sign up as well. And then we’re also hoping that we get some people who are interested—movers and shakers in the book publishing world who will be interested.

We just need people to put down their devices long enough to sign up and then to two to three times a year buy the same book in the same week!

Guernica: What other challenges do you anticipate?

Dawn Davis: To get that group of people to buy the pre-selected book in the same week. And to winnow down the books because there’s so many fantastic books that are being published every year. I would like to start with two books, possibly three a year. And in an ideal world, since my team has done so much work to create the structure around it, have two of those books be Simon & Schuster, and one be from a third publisher, so that we can bring other authors in as well.

Guernica: Has Simon & Schuster always had an interest in supporting African-American authors?

Dawn Davis: Simon & Schuster is one of the more diverse houses both in terms of staff and books, which is why it made sense to launch it here. There is a history of wonderful editors here acquiring good content long before I started here. We are working to make sure our books can find their audiences.

Guernica: Do you expect cooperation and interest from other publishers?

Dawn Davis: It’s a win-win for everyone. I’ve even heard from several bookstores that they love the idea and want it to succeed. The books and authors are willing; the bookstores want to see it succeed; we just need people to put down their devices long enough to sign up and then to two to three times a year buy the same book in the same week!

Guernica: How do you see Inkwell transforming the literary landscape for this kind of writing?

Dawn Davis: It’s an intent to support authors, and to have fun. Let’s say we find out that we have 100 members in a city, then we could say to publishers, can you do an “Inkwell stop” on your book tour. If there are 150 people in DC, and it’s an active club, could we do a meet-and-greet with the Inkwell Book Club members? And maybe it’s just at the regular store stop, but they have a little VIP meet and greet before or after. That’s a long-term goal.

Guernica: In the short-term, are you excited for Issa’s book? What’ll be your next pick?

Dawn Davis: Issa is definitely excited; here’s a youtube video of Issa announcing that her book has been selected as Inkwell’s first pick.

We’re going to start with adult books right now and I hope to cover fiction, nonfiction, memoir and history. On the homepage we’re asking our members what they read so we can keep their interests at heart.

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