Essence Connects With Book Readers

Quick. Name some classic African-American novels. Invisible Man is a given. If you’re stuck after that, regardless of your ethnicity, the Essence magazine book club will be an education for you. The newly started club is not a new strategy in the post-Oprah Book Club world. But it is an example of how a magazine is using a book club to deepen its connection with readers.

Essence has a circulation north of one million readers per month. All but 100,000 of those are African-American, according to book editor Patrik Henry Bass. While The Today Show, USA Today, GMA, Regis and Kelly and several other media outlets have formed book clubs to step in after Oprah shut hers down, Bass says the Essence book club was in motion early this year, before Oprah’s was closed.

“I always had strong feelings about what Oprah would pick,” says Bass. “Then we finally decided that we would pick our own books for our own readers. Our readers trust us. This is a perfect way to build a better relationship with our readers and provide them with a service. They’re going to tell us what they want.”

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The Essence club is structured for reader involvement. It will be promoted through a publicity campaign beginning with the October 2002 issue. Bass selects four books each quarter that will fit within a theme. For example, the October issue focuses on classics. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, Browngirls, Brownstone by Paule Marshall, Daddy Was A Numbers Runner by Louise Meriwether and Mama’s Day by Gloria Naylor will be the nominated books. Readers can chat about them online and then vote for their favorite. Bass says the selections will focus on African-American Culture but not necessarily African-American writers.

Essence has a rich literary history. In 1972 a then unknown Terry McMillian won the magazine’s fiction contest. Gloria Naylor published the first installment of what would become The Women Of Brewster Place in Essence. The magazine also publishes its own best-seller list culled from 60 bookstores nationwide that specialize in African-American literature.

“Readers will benefit from our approach because the power is in their hands,” says Bass.

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