Racism In Publishing? Mystery Author Has Her Say...
What genre do you write in?
Romance/ Women’s Fiction
What race/colour are the majority of your characters?
How is your work marketed?
I believe my work is primarily marketed to African-American romance readers. But the publisher purchases ads in Romantic Times magazine. I’ve wondered how effective these ads are.
I’ve heard only a small fraction of RT’s readership is interested in A-A fiction. I have no idea if this is true, but that’s the perception.
Where are your books generally shelved?
My first few novels were shelved in the romance section. The latest releases were shelved in the A-A section if the store has such a section.
Where would you prefer your books to be shelved?
This is a tough question. If books are going to be separated, make copies available in the general fiction or romance sections, too. Something about the segregation feels wrong, but as a reader I must admit I like the convenience of the African-American section for browsing.
I have discovered many new authors of color that I would have missed if they were shelved among the thousands of non-black or mainstream books. As an author trying to build a brand or following, that accessibility to readers most likely to buy my books is attractive.
If black books were only shelved among the mainstream books it would make it harder for black readers to find me. A few white readers might sample black books shelved in the mainstream sections, but I’m not so sure there would be enough to make up the lost sales.
If stores were to do away with all A-A book sections I believe more new black authors or black authors who have yet to make a name for themselves would ultimately suffer.
Have you been subjected to direct/indirect racism from editors, publishers etc in your publishing career?
I haven’t experienced anything blatant. It’s not as if the publisher is going to say, “Hey, we’re getting behind Sally Sue because she’s white and we’re not getting behind you because you’re not white.”
Sally Sue is probably getting certain things because her sales numbers are better and warrant an extra push. Is Sally Sue selling better because she’s white and her potential audience is larger? That’s probably true. But that can’t explain why Sally Sue is also selling better than another white author who has the same potential audience and publisher support.
Who really knows why one author catches on and another doesn’t? I think it’s common knowledge that it’s not all about writing talent or even promotion. Publishers have thrown money behind lots of books that have flopped.
Promotion helps, of course, but it’s not a guarantee of anything. A lot of luck is involved. But with all that said, it’s still much harder for a black author to hitch a ride on the luck-mobile.
How do you feel about Oprah Winfrey’s book club- Do you think she could do more to promote AA authors?
Oprah has done her part by selecting books written by black authors. It would be nice if she selected more, but it’s not as if she’s completely ignored writers of color.
Do you believe that publishers are more ambivalent when it comes to marketing AA books?
Publishers are into making money. There’s a trend toward more niche marketing to do this. If publishers believed they could make lots and lots of money pushing more A-A books to the mainstream audience they would.
But in the romance genre in particular, I don’t think the average white romance reader is interested in reading love stories featuring African-American characters. However, I’m not sure it’s always about racism.
Maybe it’s just about familiarity or comfort zone. Blacks might do better crossing over in mystery, suspense/thrillers, non-fiction/memoir etc. Romance and relationship novels are too intimate and personal-fantasy driven.
There are so many white romances from which to choose. They can’t whittle down their towering TBR piles. Why would a white reader meander out of her comfort zone if she doesn’t have to?
It would take thousands of white readers regularly and steadily supporting black authors for any substantial spike in black authors’ numbers to show.
Which race groups would you say bought the majority of your books?
I believe 99.9 percent of my readers are African-American females.
What do you think needs to change in order for more white people to read African American books?
Oprah would have to recommend a new African-American novel every chance she got and even that wouldn’t be enough. Crossover magic happens in the literary fiction world (ex. Zadie Smith, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Colson Whitehead, Edward P. Jones) but not so much with commercial fiction.
That’s why I finally stopped caring about luring white readers to my novels with black characters. Hoping and wishing for things to change is akin to hoping and wishing to win the lottery. It’s a cool dream, but then you wake up.
When I’m ready to target white readers I’ll try to write and sell a book featuring white characters, then hope I can get away with it. I hear even that’s not so simple. (Note: See stories about Millennia Black.)
Have you ever been snubbed by white readers/white authors during a signing?
Yes, I have been snubbed by white readers. Some white readers will get the book, then let me know it’s for their black friend or co-worker, as if the book couldn’t possibly be something they would enjoy themselves. I’ve been snubbed by black readers, too.
Have you ever been overlooked by an editor in favour of a white author?
I’m not sure if anything like this has happened.
Have you ever been asked to tone down, or increase the ethnicity within your books?
Are you familiar with Millennia Black’s lawsuit against Penguin? If so, what do you think her chances of winning are?
I’m not sure what her chances are, but I hope she wins. I think she should have the opportunity write any type of characters she chooses. The only way a black commercial author has a prayer of breaking out of the “Negro niche” is to write for the mainstream.
And if you want to a better shot at hooking the mainstream reader, you have to write mainstream or white characters. (See Tess Gerritsen as an example.) It also can’t hurt for the black author to use a pen name and wait a book or two before slapping his or her photo on the cover.
How do you think her victory will affect the way AA authors are treated within the industry?
Millennia’s case is about the freedom to write the type of characters she chooses. I would like to have the opportunity to write white characters, too, at some point. But most black authors I know are perfectly happy writing about other blacks. However, those black authors writing about black people would like the same opportunity for big success that white authors enjoy.
What are your thoughts on niche marketing? What do you think the limitations are if any?
It’s a way to zoom in on the people most likely to buy a particular product. The niche is a much smaller slice of the pie.
The limitation is obvious for the black authors fighting for a bite of that same sliver of pie. The potential rewards are greater if you can go for the rest of the pie.
Have you been personally involved in trying to bring about changes within the publishing industry, with regards to how African American authors are treated? If so can you tell me about your efforts?
No. I see it as pointless. Why? Because the whole race thing is too deeply ingrained. Who has the time and energy when most people have day jobs, families and a zillion other responsibilities?
Writing is something most of us squeeze in on the side. Most of us are not even close to making a living at it. So who has the energy to wage a fruitless campaign against publishers? Who has the time to try to enlighten white people in their bubble? It takes all our “book time” writing the book and promoting it to the people who are most likely to embrace what we’re selling.
If you whine and rant too much in this business it’s easy for publishers to get rid of you, particularly if you’re not a big money-making star.
There’s always someone eager to step in and take your place to maintain the status quo. Also, I’ve seen how people who are vocal on this issue are treated and often attacked for trying to raise awareness. I just don’t need the headaches that come along with trying to “raise awareness.”
Do you think this will still be a controversial subject in five years time, or do you think major changes would have been made by then?
That’s an easy one. It’s a big ol’ fat NOPE.
Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.
I know many of my answers sound negative. I did not enter the business feeling this way. This is what experience has taught me.
That’s ok, it was honest, which is the important thing.
Coming up next, Mystery Author Number 2!
Labels: Racism in romance