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Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Publishing in Black and White

This morning I happened to look down at the stack of Wall Street Journals lying near the bank of elevators in my office building. I saw the pic of a young black man on the cover and wondered to myself why the face looked so familiar. Then I saw Brandon Massey's name and I whooped. I didn't even give myself time to read what the article was about, but I immediately assumed it was Brandon's story of going from a self-published writer to a successful NY-published writer with thousands of readers. Brandon is a guru at self-marketing and had been mentioned before in a magazine. I've known Brandon for several years now and he even contributed articles to my now-defunct ezine, ELAN.

When I read the title of the article, Dividing Lines: Why Book Industry Sees the World Split by Race, I whooped again. Finally, finally, the travails of the black author have made the front page. Seeing the article, I immediately checked out Monica Jackson's blog and saw that she had beaten me to the punch. Monica, along with several other authors, have been blogging for some time about book market segregation and how it adversely affects black writers.

The article quotes not only Brandon, but Terry McMillan, Gwynne Forster, Tananarive Due, Millenia Black (whose real name is Nadine Aldred), Marva Allen (one of the owners of Hue-Man Bookstore in Harlem), and Leticia Peoples. Ms. Peoples talked about her frustration in trying to get published in the late 80's. "I called a couple of romance companies to find out why they weren't accepting black manuscripts and I heard things like, 'We don't have to do it because black women will read what's on the market' or 'black women can't write, so where would be get our writers." Refusing to be deterred, Ms. Peoples launched her own book line, Odyssey Books, in 1989.

The article also mentions Millenia's law suit against Penguin Books, the publisher of her second novel, THE GREAT BETRAYAL. As has been posted before in this blog and many others, Millenia turned in a book that her publishers loved except for one little matter: she had written all white characters and they weren't having it. After all, black folks can't write about white folks - or as they believe, white folks won't read any romance written by a black person no matter the color of the characters. Better to be safe and revise the characters to an all-black cast. Millenia told them to fuck off and has filed suit, for which I give her a hearty hurrah. If Suzanne Brockmann can write black romance characters and James Patterson and P. J. ___ can feature black men as protagonists in mysteries, why the double standard when it comes to blacks writing white protagonists? Now I remember a black author from a few years ago who did what Millenia is attempting to do and it was published. And there was the same hoopla from both whites and blacks: why are you writing white characters when you are black?

A few bookstore spokespeople were quoted, some defending the practice of segregating books by race and not specifically genre as a matter of convenience for black buyers. Some may see it as a practical matter. Bennett J. Johnson, vice president of Chicago's Third World Press, sees it differently. He says its the same ole thing: the reinforcement of the idea that the U.S. is a nation of "two separate societies." At least one retailer though, Barnes & Noble, have ceased the practice of categorizing by race, except in key locations where there is a predominantly African-American populace.

What seems to be the underlying statement in the segregating for only a black audience is that no one but blacks will want to read a black-authored book unless it has been deemed "acceptable" by white reviewers and the great Oprah herself. Where would Walter Mosely's sales be today if Clinton hadn't lauded him as a fav author? He'd probably be languishing with the rest of the mystery writers in the African American section of Borders.

Now, at least one black author, Tananarive Due (a favorite author of mine), doesn't see anything wrong with how her books are marketed. Most of her book tours have been exclusively among black-owned bookstores. "The African-American readership has been my rock and given me the opportunity to expand."

The quandary remains for authors who want to expand beyond the publisher-set boundaries. As the article notes, it is almost impossible for black authors to make the best-seller lists without white readers.

It's ironic that this article came out today because I had already planned to blog about race and publishing based on another one of Monica's posts. She recounted something she learned recently during a chat: that publishers are almost forced to tag black books with black covers because the return rate of race-neutral covers by black authors is extraordinarily high (I'm assuming this refers to romance books). In other words, white folks do not want to read about black folks doing it. Or for those readers who need to identify with either the hero or heroine, whites moreso than any other race, seem to have a problem stepping into the "other's" shoes. Suspense writer Tess Gerritsen writes white protagonists because her agent informed her an Asian protagonist wouldn't go over well with a white readership and would limit her sales. Ain't that some shit? Not that the agent said it, but that the statement is unfortunately true.

I can point to my own personal experience. I know for a fact that even though Brava took a chance in marketing AGAIN to a mainstream audience, my basic audience have been black women and I'm grateful to that because sales would be next to nil. Now here's the quandary: my second book THE OBJECT OF LOVE features a very hunky white guy on the cover. It's an interracial story and my heroine is black and much older than said hunky white guy. Will this become a wallbanger because of this? Who know. And when did the race of a character become a reason for wallbanging or returning the book? I have read books where the race of the protagonist or romantic interest was different than I first supposed. All I did was blink. No hurling books, no demanding my money back.

Things are going to have to change in societal as a whole before we see a change in publishing. Because as Mr. Johnson noted, "publishing is merely a reflection of how the world works.

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