What is the Essence Book Project?
The Essence Book Project is a computational database of Essence Magazine’s bestsellers’ list for fiction, which was published monthly from 1994-2010 and includes nearly 500 discreet works of fiction, most of which were written by and about Black people. The bestsellers’ list was based on sales data collected from independently owned Black bookstores across the United States, making it one of the most economically accurate archival sources for contemporary African American literature.
This project is an intentionally data driven digital collection that catalogues and computationally conceptualizes the Black literary landscape at the turn of the twenty-first century. Working from a database of the full run of Essence Magazine’s Best Sellers’ list for fiction and a subset of the Black Book Interactive Project’s corpus of the optical character recognition (OCR) versions of each title on the list, The Essence Book Project helps illuminate how robust Black reading communities helped ensure that Black culture remained ahead of the digital turn.
This project specifically addresses the many and complicated silences around African American literature published in the last thirty years. The Essence Book Project also points to new approaches to engaging twentieth and twenty-first century popular African American Studies archival sources; chief among them are Essence, Ebony, and Jet magazines.