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Troy Johnson started a website on black books — and that’s when his real lessons began

Kam Williams | 11/8/2011, 6:04 p.m.
Troy Johnson is the founder of the African American Literature Book Club.

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.