Troy Johnson is the founder of the African American Literature Book Club. (Photo courtesy of aalbc.com/troy)
|Photo courtesy of aalbc.com/troy
Troy Johnson is the founder, president and webmaster of the African American Literature Book Club (AALBC). Officially launched in March of 1998, AALBC.com has grown to become the largest and most frequently visited website dedicated to books and film by or about African Americans.
In 1984 Johnson earned a degree in electrical engineering from Syracuse University and spent the next seven years working for defense contractors like United Technologies in Florida and General Electric in Pennsylvania. During this period, he earned a master’s degree in engineering, while working full time.
In 1991, Johnson went back to school and received an MBA from New York University’s Stern School of Business. Over the next 16 years he was employed in financial services and consulting by such Wall Street firms as Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank and PricewaterhouseCoopers.
It was during his tenure on Wall Street that Johnson discovered and began to pursue his passion for sharing the full breadth of black culture through the words and stories contained in books. As a regular contributor to AALBC, I’ve not only been lucky enough to work with him for years, but have also enjoyed just hanging out with him as well.
Married for over 21 years with two daughters now in college, Johnson divides his time between East Harlem, where he was raised, and Tampa, Fla. Here, he talks about both the challenges and rewards of running AALBC.com.
Q. What interested you in starting AALBC.com?
During the mid- to late-Nineties, I had a sideline business building websites for other businesses. I wanted to learn more about using websites to generate sales and earn money, so that I could better advise my clients. I actually offered to help someone else rebuild their book business’ website, for free, as a part of that effort. Amazingly, they declined the offer. So instead, I decided to create AALBC.com. I immediately discovered I would prefer building a website for myself, rather than for others, and I focused solely on AALBC.com. That was back in 1997.
Q. How long had the website been in existence before you decided to quit your job on Wall Street to work on the site full time?
I had been running AALBC.com for about 11 years before I left Wall Street. That was three years ago.
Q. Do you see the recent closing of Borders bookstores as a sign of the demise of brick-and-mortar operations and hard copy books? How does this development affect your business?
Those changes are really reflective of more profound and fundamental shifts that are greatly impacting the entire book industry. But I don’t think the closing of Borders or the rise of eBooks is [a] sign that the days of brick-and-mortar stores, and physical books, are numbered.
This may sound counter-intuitive, but the closing of Borders actually hurts my business, in much the same way that the closing of independent black bookstores did. Sure, on a superficial level, one can say there are less competitors in the marketplace and that will drive more people online to learn about new books and that that helps sites like AALBC.com.
However, on a deeper level, Borders was actually a big seller of black books. They helped generate excitement and sales for our books across the nation. The better-run stores established relationships with the community and local businesses. They purchased advertising in our publications. This benefits the entire industry, publishers, authors, readers and even other booksellers. When these groups thrive, so does AALBC.com.
Q. How else has the business changed over the years?
Keeping AALBC.com a viable business, in an environment where major technological changes are a constant is my single biggest challenge. I’ve been active on the World Wide Web since it became available to the general public in the early-Nineties. It really is remarkable how much and how quickly things have changed since then.
When I first started, one had to code an entire page in HTML by hand. Everything was very labor intensive. If I wanted to create a page with a photo on it, I had to take a photo with my camera, take the film to a business that developed and printed photographs, wait a few days and hope that the photo came out OK.
Then, I would need to scan the image, usually at work, because scanners were expensive, open up the photo in an image editing program, save the image in a compressed format so that it would not take too long to download over a 1200-baud modem, and FTP it to my web server. Finally I would create an HTML document and write a line of code that would position the photo on a webpage. Do you see where I’m going?
Q. Yeah, it was much less user-friendly back then.
All of this for one image on a single page. Imagine the difficulty in creating an entire website! I learned to build websites by looking at the underlying code of a page, copying it and modifying it to suit my needs. Today, given how complex websites are, it is really not possible to learn how to build websites this way anymore. When I first started building web pages, most people did not have a PC at home, and almost no one had Internet access. Today most homes have PCs, a smart phone or a cable box with Internet access. A grade-school kid can create a terrific looking website with 100 photos in a fraction of the time, with virtually no technical skill.
Despite websites being infinitely easier to create, the challenge of launching a viable web-based business is even more difficult than ever before.
Q. How are African American-oriented websites faring nowadays?
It is a challenging time for the vast majority of our websites. I think we should make a distinction between different types of African American oriented websites. First, there are the large corporate entities like AOL’s Huffington Post/Black Voices whose primary mandate is to maximize shareholder’s wealth. Then there are the mostly independent entities who also have a profit motive, but are driven by a more conscious mission. Sites like AALBC.com, The Network Journal, Black Star News and the other entities who regularly publish your content are part of this mix.
As a result of these two different goals, the content produced by the large corporate entities focuses more on scandal, celebrity and superficial pop-culture. That content is more popular and easier to produce and is therefore more profitable. The content produced by sites like AALBC.com is less sensational which makes keeping the associated sites profitable much more challenging. In fact, even Google favors the larger entities, making things even more difficult.
Q. Can you elaborate more about Google’s impact?
How much time do you have? Seriously, I could write a very long book about this topic. Consider this: For most sites, the largest source of new traffic comes in through people who discover the site through search engines. The lion’s share of this traffic comes from Google.
As a result, Google is effectively a gatekeeper who controls access to your website through their ranking of your website in their search results.
Over the past year, I observed Google start to do some really strange things with their search results that have not only adversely impacted my website’s traffic, but the very nature of the web itself. Google search results skew to very large corporate websites that are publishing less valuable, usually more scandalous content. This was not always the case with Google.
Here are two examples: If you were to do a search for Terry McMillan on Google, you will find in the top five search results a site containing two sentences talking about Terry accusing Will and Jada Smith of pimping their kids, and another site discussing the details of Terry’s divorce.
My site, which has published original book reviews, a video of Terry reading from a then-unpublished manuscript, a list of all of her published novels and more, only appears on the second page. I talk about her being a New York Times bestselling-author, not what she tweeted about the Smiths’ kids months ago. Which content do you think should rank higher?
Q. Your content of substance, obviously.
Here is the second example: I recently paid a writer for an article which I published on AALBC.com. Sometime later, the same article was published on the Huffington Post. The next day when I ran a Google search for that specific article, not only was the Huffington Post returned ahead of AALBC.com, but so were many other sites I call “autoblogs,” including a porn site. Yes, you heard me right, a pornography site that posted a very short excerpt of the original article and ended-up ranked ahead of the AALBC.com original publication.
All of these “autoblog” sites are created automatically on the fly and contribute nothing new. Their only apparent purpose is to serve advertising, mostly Google ads. For now, AALBC.com is in the mix, but Google can literarily throw a switch tomorrow and AALBC.com can be, effectively, erased from the Internet. Other black book sites have fared much worse. In fact we have fewer independent book sites focused on black authors than we did five years ago. And the ones that remain are even more difficult to find.
Q. What can people do to support sites like AALBC.com?
People simply need to visit the website, tell their friends about it, use social media to share the articles, reviews and author profiles. Folks can participate on our discussion boards, instead of having a conversation on Facebook. As an aside, we should be using Facebook to send people to our sites. I also encourage people to send us feedback, to suggest books for review and authors to cover.
I know I sound like I’m beating up on the Huff Post, but many writers contribute to that site for free. I suggest those writers consider contributing to independent sites like AALBC.com once in awhile. It really is in everyone’s best interest for independent voices to survive. We are not going to survive, over the long term, without the support of the people we try to serve.
Q. What do you think is in the future?
Of course, if I knew that I’d be a rich man. I fear the trends I see online are escalating offline as well. There are fewer independent, bookstores, magazines, newspapers and radio stations. Journalism is dying, sources for critical book and film reviews of black work are drying up, author advances are shrinking and writers are finding it more difficult to make a living.
Content generation across all platforms are coalescing into the hands a few very large multinational corporations that don’t have our interests in mind. At best, the content they spew does not truly represent what we, as black people, feel, care or think about. At worse, it is destroying us by perpetuating negative stereotypes and images for the sake of making money.
Q. Is it already too late in your estimation, or can something still be done?
Fortunately, we can absolutely do something about this — we must continuously support independent entities as best we can. With the continued support of my community, there is no reason an AALBC.com should not thrive. Ideally, the Google search result should be an unimportant detail. Indeed, maybe we should create our own Google.
Q. When was the last time you had a good laugh?
All the time. My wife and I were sharing a glass of wine. Out of nowhere she says, “I really do love you.” Touched, I replied, “Is that you or the wine talking?” She looked at me and said, “That’s me talking, baby … to the wine.” That is an old joke I told this past weekend and is always good for a laugh.
Q. What was the best business decision you ever made, and what was the worst?
Well certainly starting AALBC.com would rank up there as one of the best. As far the worst … you don’t have enough time.
Q. How did your first big heartbreak impact who you are as a person?
It forces me to try to be more empathetic to the feelings of others. My biggest life regrets have to do with others I may have hurt.
Q. How do you define success? And, what key quality do you believe all successful people share?
Striving for freedom is success. I believe all successful people know what they love to do and are actually doing it or working toward it.
Q. What advice do you have for anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
Don’t. Everyone needs to find their own path to happiness and success, because they will all be different. Again, determining what motivates you and makes you happy is the key to that.
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