Life

Race and Publishing

Millenia Black weighs in on dissention among black authors that’s being caused by publishers she describes as being insistant that the writing of black authors should be relegated to African-American niche markets rather than mainstream fiction.

She makes this interesting comment in her post, “Publishing Suppression ~ Suffer in Silence?:”

“I still maintain that most white authors don’t realize the advantage they have simply because they’re white. Many are too busy yapping about supporting their fellow authors….But how often does that support extend to fellow authors who happen to be of color? I wonder. Maybe many white authors choose not to notice their unjust advantage. I wonder.”

There are three important points in that single paragraph that I’ll take one at a time.

First, the advantage issue. Okay, I admit it: I don’t realize the advantage I have just because I’m white. I can honestly report that I never even thought about it. When I eventually come to the table with finished manuscript in hand, if my race is an advantage, there’s not a lot that I can do about that, even though it’s unquestionably wrong. Frankly, I don’t want my work accepted for publication because I’m white; I want to know that my work is being bought because of the quality of my writing, and I hope that when a potential publisher has my manuscript in hand, that publisher is able to find quality within it.

We live in a world where white people are treated differently, and very often a lot better, than black people. But I’ve never felt singled out because of my race for anything. That’s not to say that I haven’t been, but if it did happen, there was nothing to indicate to me, before or after the fact, that it had happened. I therefore don’t think about the fact that I’m white. To me, being white is the same thing as having hazel eyes…it just is.

But then, it’s easy for me to say that.

Years ago, my best friend and I were visiting the home of his girlfriend at the time. She happened to be of another race, and the subject of race came up during a casual conversation on her backyard patio, and her cousin said something I’ve never forgotten:

“You’re lucky you’re white. You feel like America is your country, right? I was born in this country just like you, but I don’t feel like I have a country.”

He didn’t go into great detail about specific incidents in which he was certain he had been a target of discrimination. Instead, he said that black people in America are victims of it in subtle ways that to them are about as subtle as that proverbial runaway locomotive. I can’t imagine it if I haven’t lived it, he told me, and I’m sure to some degree he’s right about that. Even if he read more into certain situations than was ever intended or warranted, there’s no better conditioner to make people begin looking for examples of discrimination than to make them a repeated target of it.

Recently, I read about a television personality who was moving from somewhere in the midwest to somewhere in the southwest. With the move apparently came a change in his last name, from something more Anglo-Saxon to something more ethnic. The assumption the account tried to put forth was that either this person changed his name before going to his old market, fearful that an ethnic-sounding name would hurt his chances of getting the job or establishing an audience, or that he was now changing it because he thought in a different market, an ethnic-sounding name would be all-the-more helpful.

Since I’ve never felt the need to worry about such things, it’s easy for me to be out of touch with any “advantages” that come to me just because I am of one race, or more specifically, because I am not of another.

There’s a big difference, however, between being unaware of any such advantage because of my own experience and being a participant in any discrimination that results from it. More on that later.

Second, the support issue. A lot of people have written about supporting fellow writers lately. I don’t have a problem with that. When I choose to support a fellow author, I make no effort to first scan for white authors to support. In other words, if you’re a writer, you’re a writer. If you can tell a good story that keeps me turning pages, I don’t care if you’re violet, vermillion or chartreuse.

I’ve read plenty of books that don’t have author photos. So it’s entirely possible that I’ve read the work of black authors in mainstream fiction without realizing it. I don’t mean that as a cop-out: If black authors are being intentionally shut out of most genres, then it’s certainly likely that I haven’t read something in those genres written by a black writer, but I give every book on the shelves of that section the same chance to wow me.

The majority of what I read tends to be suspense and horror, and, admittedly, I don’t recall noticing an author of color among any of the horror/suspense title’s I’ve read recently; that’s not because I avoid such books.

If I pick up a book that looks interesting, has an interesting title, interesting tease copy and interesting first pages, I’ll buy the book based on those things alone. I rarely, if ever, look for the author photo, anyway. When I do, the main thing that I look for is some estimation as to the author’s age: I particularly enjoy seeing that younger authors have finally gotten their book in print: that gives me a boost in the hope department. If I saw that a book I was considering had been penned by a black person, I wouldn’t put the book back on the shelf and walk away in disgust.

Why would anyone??

Third, the “choice” point. I’m not sure about this one. The suggestion that some authors “choose” not to notice implies that they’re part of the discrimination, and that leaves me with a very important question:

How would one tell the difference?

If I sell a book and I feel that they like the book for the writing, not for my appearance, (which isn’t likely to win me a contract, anyway!), what must I do before signing on the dotted line so that I’m not accused of “choosing” to ignore my advantage? And what to what test can I subject a would-be publisher in order to make sure they’re not publishing me just because I’m white, regardless of what I’ve put on paper?

Must I stipulate in my contract that for every dollar the publisher spends on promotion of my book, it must spend an equal amount in promoting or recruiting mainstream black authors? How can one know my motivation anyway?

As the saying goes, I didn’t start the fire. So if I sell a book one day, am I any more to blame than a black author is who signs a contract and puts them in the AA section? I’m not trying to be facetious here: it seems a fair question. Where is the line that, once crossed, takes a white author from being unaware of his advantage to “choosing” to be unaware?

What can a white writer do about the problem? Maybe, as Millenia suggests in a response to the comment I left after reading her post for the first time, it’s about dialog:

“Discussion on this issue is long overdue and lacking…and far too taboo.”

What about consumers? Let’s say the consumer is looking for a story in a specific genre, and finds no title that he suspects is written by a black author? If he buys the first book that catches his eye in the genre he likes, and that book’s author happens to be white, is he confirming the publisher’s suspicion that black writers don’t — or shouldn’t — belong in that category?

What if he decides, for whatever reason, that he only wants a book written by a black author? If he buys one from the AA section, isn’t that confirming for the booksellers (and possibly the publishers as well) that the way to get sales for black authors is to keep them segregated in that one section?

In fairness, I’m not sure that the majority of publishers set out to discriminate when they place a title into a race-based genre. I don’t think that’s their motivation, although it seems to be one of the end results.

I think that there are many publishers who are trying to do their best to make sure that they will get the most return on their investment, and have decided over time that the best way to sell the work of certain writers is to group them into specific categories. Because my preferred genre is horror, I know that there are limitations with this: Dean Koontz has complained for years that he had been pigeonholed in the horror section when he felt that he belonged in more mainstream circles as a suspense writer. More recently, I’ve seen Koontz’s titles appear in the mainstream fiction section, even if some of his titles are double-stocked in the horror section, too. But Koontz has been on the best-selling charts for a long time. Less familiar horror authors often end up only in the horror section.

When it comes to genre labelling, I think it’s done more to help potential readers who are looking for a work more quickly identify what they’re looking for, not as an effort to discriminate. Everything is about marketing and targeting your audience these days. Just look at cable television: the old days of three major networks, either watch what’s there or go read a book, are long gone. Now there are hundreds of cable channels designed to reach people with specific interests.

When race itself becomes a genre, that can mean something very different, particularly those who have experienced race discrimination and are therefore more sensitive to it than I’ll likely ever be. If AA authors need their own category because it is assumed that some readers only want to read the work of black authors, isn’t there an implication that books in other categories are either written by white authors or contains subject matter that is “whites only?”

The same applies to the women’s section: are books outside of this category “safe” for those who don’t want to read about anything that affects women or that is told from a woman’s point of view? And is it true that if you’re browsing outside of the gay/lesbian section, you’ll never find a novel that features homosexual characters or storylines?

Of course not. So then what does it take for publishers to stop putting certain books only in niche markets? And where is the real leverage — for a consumer or a non-ethnic writer — to give them the motivation to do so? Other than discussion, I don’t have anything in the way of a reasonable answer as yet.

Anyone?

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9 Comments

  1. Good! I think we’re finally getting somewhere. Pat, lets clarify a couple more points. I never meant your intent was to dance away from core issues, but by virtue of what was being said.

    I agree all relevant factors should be analyzed in drawing conclusions.
    I believe reference made to NYT Best Seller’s list didn’t attribute disproportion of minorities to spmply demographics, but rather one where a fault lies. And that I would embrace.
    …….

    “Based on my knowledge of the facts, I assume that publishers do not classify white author’s non-racial fiction with race classification.

    But with all respect, there is no “White Authors” section of a bookstore. Yes, mainstream is predominately white, but there are writers of different races within those shelves. A disproportionate number, but they’re still there.

    I can walk into any major retailer and find an “African American” section, a “Women’s” section, and a “Gay/Lesbian” section. I’m sure there are other sections that also subject writers to segregation dependant solely on criteria that would otherwise be considered blatant discrimination by the general public.”
    …….

    There’s much in what you’ve said here that’s subject to clarification.

    “But with all respect, there is no “White Authors” section of a bookstore.”

    Because there’s no “White Authors” section there’s justification to clasify “Black Authors” with non-racial fiction as AA? Is that what you mean to imply?

    This point needs some cleanup distinction.

    Because genre of women, Gay/Lesbian etc., carry a total different criteria making sections valuable, and in no way creates negative discrimination.

    If you agree with that lets weed it out, and stick to common genre written by Whites, Blacks, Asians, Chinese or any other race.

    Why single out Black Authors of colorless genre equal to that of Whites, for target marketing when its based on racial skin color?
    Why, is there one scintilla of reason for that?
    ……

    “Are we better off removing such genres labels from stores and putting everything that implies race, gender or orientation into the main shelves without any further classification?

    Is that the first step in ending this problem?”

    Equity would say nothing is wrong with those sections, readers and sections are fine, we’re talking about conduct of Publishers.

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  2. No, that is not the first step. That would be inappropriate. There are many authors who do write books that should be in the AA niche. The genre is valid for books that pertain to AA culture and therefore an AA audience or AA interested audience. This is true for any genre.

    The first step to ending this problem is that publishers and booksellers have to start judging books based on content, NOT AUTHOR SKIN COLOR.

    What’s so hard to get about that? Would you disagree that a publisher should NOT use an authors skin color when deciding how to classify a book?

    Was Amy Tan classified as Asian/Oriental fiction and marketed to people who look like her? Is Tess Gerritsen?

    Did they take James Patterson’s Alex Cross novels and label them AA fiction and market them exclusively to AA people? NO.

    I am more than a little frustrated when people try their damndest to tell you that your gripe isn’t well justified and valid. Or say that it is, but try their damndest to find reasons why you’re putting too much blame on the main perpetrator of it all. In this case, publishers. Stop talking about other factors. Save that for a panel disucssion about other factors. This discussion began because someone pointed out whe PUBLISHERS are doing to black authors. Why must you try to take the heat off of them and say, what they’re doing may be wrong, but it’s not that bad because look at these other factors.

    Should publishers stop racial discrimination when marketing and classifying books? Yes or no?

    Please forgive me, not attacking you, but writing while black makes you extremely sensitive to the slightest of dismissive arguements.

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  3. For diolog to work though, we must use it properly. Lets stay away from the diolog that dances away from core of issues and resolves nothing.

    Let’s take a step back for a moment. I rather resent the implication that I’m trying to “dance around” anything.

    I’m asking questions.

    The presumption I’m seeing here is that because the NYT Best-Seller list is predominately white, the cause MUST be that publishers aren’t treating black authors the same way.

    That presumption may be correct; but to ignore any question that looks for factors that may contribute to such behavior seems to me to be avoidance of a real solution.

    I questioned whether all publishers receive an EQUAL number of manuscripts from White and Black authors, and make purchasing decisions based solely on race. No one has provided such information.

    I questioned whether the NYT list’s failure to mirror demographics data is PROOF that the publishing industry ALONE is the problem. What SHOULD the list look like if all things are equal?

    But there is never, in either question, the suggestion that publishers aren’t making decisions about marketing books based on race.

    If I am supposed to look solely at one piece of data, like the NYT list, and conclude without asking ANY further questions that the publishing industry is discriminating, then I don’t see any place for dialog there, either.

    There is a big difference between wishing to look DEEPER at a problem and see who else may ALSO be to blame and “dancing around core issues.”

    Based on your knowledge of facts; “Do publishers classify White author’s non-racial fiction with race classification as they do black authors with AA classification?

    If no, then the dialog must go in a different direction and be more conclusive. What say you?

    Based on my knowledge of the facts, I assume that publishers do not classify white author’s non-racial fiction with race classification.

    But with all respect, there is no “White Authors” section of a bookstore. Yes, mainstream is predominately white, but there are writers of different races within those shelves. A disproportionate number, but they’re still there.

    I can walk into any major retailer and find an “African American” section, a “Women’s” section, and a “Gay/Lesbian” section. I’m sure there are other sections that also subject writers to segregation dependant solely on criteria that would otherwise be considered blatant discrimination by the general public.

    Are we better off removing such genres labels from stores and putting everything that implies race, gender or orientation into the main shelves without any further classification?

    Is that the first step in ending this problem?

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  4. Pat:

    You’re right, dialog is the right medium to lightens the dark path and bring people together.

    For diolog to work though, we must use it properly. Lets stay away from the diolog that dances away from core of issues and resolves nothing.

    In an attempt to do so, let me ask you this:

    Based on your knowledge of facts; “Do publishers classify White author’s non-racial fiction with race classification as they do black authors with AA classification?

    If no, then the dialog must go in a different direction and be more conclusive. What say you?

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  5. Understanding human persistent problems? How do we solve them one at a time, by being subjective or objective? Just think about that for a moment.

    I am trying my best to be as objective as possible here.

    When it comes to the subject of Racism only a tiny few have the mental light of understanding to address it in a fruitful way. May I say, any human with some portion of tolerance for racism in any form, lacks the qualification to speak about the issue.So leave it alone to those who know the heavens they’re talking about.

    A tiny few? I’m not sure about that. I think many more than a “tiny few” have been discriminated against because of their race. I think far more have been discriminated against based on other aspects of who they are, including religion, orientation or gender, and may therefore have some clear understanding about the subject matter.

    I don’t classify racism as being better or worse than other types of discrimination: discrimination, no matter on what it is based, is wrong.

    To say that a writer must truly experience racism to be able to address the topic is like saying a writer must actually kill someone to be able to effectively write a murder mystery.

    It seems to me that the dialog that could give us the chance to begin to understand each other’s unique experiences is more valuable than silence on the part of those who haven’t suffered such plights.

    Patrick

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  6. Understanding human persistent problems? How do we solve them one at a time, by being subjective or objective? Just think about that for a moment.

    We continue to have unnecessary problems mostly because we are failing to see and define issues objectively. You see, Undisciplined thinkers are always prone to improper use of subjectivity, which fuel individuals selfishness.

    When it comes to the subject of Racism only a tiny few have the mental light of understanding to address it in a fruitful way. May I say, any human with some portion of tolerance for racism in any form, lacks the qualification to speak about the issue.So leave it alone to those who know the heavens they’re talking about.

    Ms. Black does not seems to point a finger at readers or other individuals for the contextual problem she clearly points out. Its a publishers conduct. One must face the set of facts and determine whether its true. Not stray off course to defending person feelings that are called into judgement.

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  7. Statistics? Take a gander at the mecca of the publishing industry – THE NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER LIST.

    That’s all the statistics needed.

    It’s unfortunate you choose to write this issue off as “sour grapes”. I probably shouldn’t go here – but I can’t help it – I suppose you’d have said the same thing about Rosa Parks. Just sour grapes because she had to stand so the white person could sit.

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  8. I’m wondering if there are any statistics to back up these charges? One anecdote of personal experience, which sounds more like sour grapes, is hardly enough to merit mention.

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  9. Hi Patrick!

    I really want to thank you for contributing your thoughts on this discourse. Outstanding. You’re a novelty – I’ll have to blog about you!

    Now, to address your points:

    When I said I wondered if white authors chose not to notice their skin-based advantage, I meant it as a direct reflection of when the issue is brought to their attention – but they ignore it. They don’t step out as you have and engage in a progressive dialogue about it. It doesn’t affect them, so they have no comment.

    I posed the question about race in publishing to a famous-for-blogging and giving-writing-advice white author (who shall remane nameless), and his response was that “minorities” as he labled them, are not treated any different in publishing than anyone else.

    How can someone say such a thing? Is this just good old-fashioned ignorance? Or a conscious choice to avoid the issue since it doesn’t directly affect him?

    You mentioned being offered a contract as a white author. This is not where the discrimination occurs. It occurs in the subsequent classification and styling of a black author’s work – regardless of its content – verses the classification and styling of a white author’s work of the very same ilk.

    For example. Sue Monk Kidd’s THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES has a heavy racial plot line. But, they didn’t say, “Hey Sue, we don’t want to miss out on the AA market”, and proceed to slap black faces on her book cover and label it African-American fiction…did they?

    You’re right, most white authors don’t ever have cause to realize what black authors face in the industry because their black. I’ve spoken to a few author friends of mine that are white, and that was their reaction. Stunned. They’d never thought about that. Were completey unaware and dismayed it was even going on.

    On the issue of support. No, I don’t think white authors purposefully withhold support from black authors. But in the face of the undeniable and unjust imbalance….Who’s making an effort to bridge the gap? Who’s trying to set an example for others to follow?

    Niche marketing. Yes, most genre writers have issues with this. They’re valid issues – BUT – it’s a completely different issue when it’s done solely on the basis of the author’s skin color. That’s called racial discrimination. Not just misclassifying a book because they think it will increase its changes in the marketplace.

    As a great man once said, “A threat to justice anywhere, is a threat to justice everywhere.”

    Who feels it knows it. But, I’d like to see more white authors complaining about the treatment of some of their fellow authors. I’d like to see them empathize and do what they’d want others to do if the shoe were on the other foot. Make an honest effort to bridge the gap. It’s the least anyone can do in the face of any racial injustice.

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 29 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.