The Changing Publishing Landscape for African American Writers (Part 1)

I recently announced that I was one of the top 100 winners of the Magazine Feature Writing category of the 79th Annual Writer’s Digest Competition. The entire competition consists of 10 categories and had over 12,300 entrants this year! Check out this post if you want to know a little more of the story behind the story.

I love to read, and I love to write, but because of the length of this winning article, I’m dividing it into two posts. Enjoy the first half, and come back tomorrow for the conclusion.

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It’s been said that when White America sneezes, Black America catches a cold. It’s no different for the publishing world. Many writers of color are finding it difficult to publish their work the traditional way. The Multicultural Literature Advocacy Group (MLAG) created their annual Multicultural Literary Conference for this very reason. Dyahnne Alston, writer and founder of Sweetie’s Books/Sensations Publishing Company, says educators find it difficult to locate books for their classrooms written by writers of color and featuring children of color. Not to mention, writers of color that opted to self-publish could not get their self-published books into schools, libraries, and major bookstores.

What’s an African American writer to do in the seemingly racist world of publishing?

The Publishing Landscape for Writers of Color

According to Regina Brooks, President of Serendipity LLC Literary Agency, African American national publications are not suffering more than mainstream-it’s just a shift in consciousness across the board. “Transition is happening and all of publishing is in trouble. The tangible feeling of books is shifting to online outlets.”

Author and journalist Mitzi Miller agrees. “Publishing as we know it is dying. People’s willingness to pay money for content that they can get online for free is waning. I love tangible work and being able to hold books, but the same information is available online instantly. If new issues of magazines could be put out every day, it might be a different story. Magazines like Clutch, Vain, and Honey are now only published online.“

Karen Hunter, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and CEO of Karen Hunter Media adds that many mainstream magazines, not just the Black ones, are going strictly online or going out of business. “Circulation is down because people are going online or using their Blackberry. Printed magazines can be a month or more behind breaking news. It’s not a racism thing.”

African American YA Market Considerations

Denene Millner is the author and co-author of 18 books including the bestselling Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man (with Steve Harvey). She is very proud of her new, first children’s book, Miss You Mina (part of Scholastic’s Candy Apple series for tweens). Millner is the first to write about Mena, an African American girl, and “infuse our culture and history into a story for thousands of girls [of all colors] to see.”

“My dream is to become a really big children’s writer. I’m so over writing for

adults. I want to inspire kids to love reading. When you read, it opens your world, and allows you to daydream, to imagine, to see outside your corner of the world. It also teaches you how to write. My goal is to get kids to fall in love with the written word.”

Brooks’ latest book, Writing Great Books for Young Adults, helps writers target the YA market.

“Memoirs aren’t selling. Relationship books are hard to sell without a platform. YA is the strongest market right now—it has increased 80% over the last two years, and publishing houses are hungry for new voices in the African American YA market, hoping that they can find new and innovative ways to market to African American youth,” she says.

Brooks’ first book, Never Finished, Never Done is part of a Scholastic’s “Just for You” series of 24 books featuring African American children. “We would have a lot more titles available for Black youth if there was more marketing and publicity for these projects,” she says. “If books don’t sell aggressively in the first few weeks, bookstores swap them out. But it’s different in the South. They have very few Waldenbooks, Barnes and Noble, or Borders stores. The Black community in the South buys books at Wal-Mart. For a YA title to sell, it has to have a celebrity drive behind it, or the publisher has to aggressively promote and market it.” She also echoes Alston’s sentiments about the scarcity of Black books for children and youth: “Access to Black titles is limited, and it takes more work to find those titles. Parents have to be more aggressive about book fairs, going online and other places where Black authors are promoting their work.”

Miller also shares concerns about the quality of YA books for African Americans. “We have more Black fiction available for our youth now, but the quality and range is lacking. We should have more opportunities to showcase different experiences that we currently have, which are mostly ghetto tales. I was proud of Hotlanta (co-authored with Millner) because it’s a story about twin teenage sisters who are well off, and positive. Whites AND Blacks are in the ‘hood. And there are many Black teens today who are privileged and know nothing about the ‘hood. I wish there was a greater representation of a wide array of experiences, like people with two-parent homes, and not on the streets.”

Support for Black Books

In mainstream publishing, every genre has titles available by Black authors. But what most often sells, according to Brooks, are history-themed books such as slave narratives. She also touts the library market as a strong market for children’s and YA books, as they use some of these books as part of the school curriculum. “But when it comes to Octavia Butler-style books such as mysteries,” she says, “people have to support the book when it first comes out, just like a movie. Bookstores will keep a title on the shelf if you support it.”

Brooks says another important factor that affects sales for Black books is the lack of Black bookstores. “10 years ago we had more Black bookstores. They would keep books on shelf longer and give us access to titles that weren’t readily available in mainstream stores. We’re a word of mouth community so it takes a little longer to promote a title, but mainstream booksellers don’t have that much patience.”

To Be Continued

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3 thoughts on “The Changing Publishing Landscape for African American Writers (Part 1)

  1. Great post! As a writer of color who eventually wants to author books, I think about this very thing daily. I agree on the one hand with the woman who said Publishing altogether is suffering right now. But we all know very well, if the industry is suffering as a whole, it’s 10 times worse for black people. However, for the first time I am excited about the burgeoning of young black female writers right now: Helena Andrews, Aliya S. King, Erica Kennedy, Demetria Lucas and others. I think Michelle Obama has created a space for black women right now where people are interested in the black experience outside of the poverty stricken, from the ghetto, single parent, drug addicted horror tale that is always told. I’m hoping more women like the above mentioned continue to break the glass ceiling for the other stories such as middle class upbringing, educated, two-parent households, etc. I think supporting one another is key. Even having a ton of black bookstores will not solve the issue if people don’t patron those bookstores in lieu of the Barnes and Noble. Also, besides books being removed off of shelves if they’re not selling, I am really concerned that our books have a section of its own. Why can’t our books be considered literature just like Edith Wharton is? It really limits our audience and sales. So going forward, we know these problems exist for people of color in the publishing world. But what do we do to change its noninclusive structure?

    P.S. This book title-“Stop Being Niggardly”…ummm no comment. SMH

    1. I feel you, Bene. Karen hit on that point (about categorization) as well. I think there’s room for all kinds. For me starting out, I believe that networking is the key. The very fact that these ladies gave “lil ole me” me the time to interview them when I reached out, no doubt having their own deadlines and projects to attend to, says volumes about networking and mentoring. With every accepted new colleague, including yourself, and every successful pitch, I kinda feel like Diana Ross (“I’m Coming Out”), lol. Thanks for reading and sharing your perspective.

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