The Changing Publishing Landscape for African American Writers (Part 2)

(For part 1 of this article, refer to this post.)


Racism in Publishing

Denene Millner has shifted from writing for adults to focusing on children’s books, citing her disgust with the publishing marketplace: “The industry for Black writers is so dead. We’re not being invited to write for the mainstream audience like those that write for The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and Vogue.” Millner also thinks options for Black writers are limited in the industry. “Writing about the streets, people that crawled their way out of the ‘hood, dealing drugs, degradation, killing, and explicit sex? That’s not me. I don’t do street fiction. We’re being put in a box to just stick to writing about Black people and Black life. There are only a few exceptions—like Zadie Smith and Colton Whitehead—that are privileged to be able to write about other things.”

Karen Hunter readily admits the double standard that is pervasive in the publishing industry. “Publishing is racist,” Hunter says. “All books and authors are not treated the same. [Publishers] could lose money on Stephen King and still put their money behind him. [On the other hand, the late] E. Lynn Harris lost a deal with Random House even though he had 10 New York Times bestsellers! They made so much money off him. They don’t drop White people with a track record like that. They don’t even know they’re racist. It’s more insidious because it’s not even willful. It’s part of the fabric. It’s just the way it is.”

According to Hunter, most, if not all of the resistance boils down to the dominance of White executives at the publishing houses, not just the way it’s always been done. “Who’s sitting at the top and saying what’s good? Who are the editors? I don’t like when Black editors can only sign Black authors. Why? If you’re good, why does it matter? I’m one of the best in the business, and if you need a get a book done, you wanna talk to me.”

It’s Not A Black Or White Thing—It’s A Book Thing

Hunter also has frustrations with African American literary works being categorized into the ethnic genre instead of genres closer to a book’s topic, such as Self-help, Graphic novels, Relationships, or Fantasy. She says readers just want to read good books, and Black authors’ works should not be excluded or relegated to the African American section of a bookstore per se.  “It’s not a Black thing. We don’t have to cater to a Black market. I want to deal with broader subjects. My books are for a mainstream audience.”

Hunter says the publishing industry is focusing on the wrong thing when they are marketing to the book-buying public. “It’s all about the story as a novel and a publisher and author. Books are books. A lot of kids are reading adult as well as YA books, whether they’re written by Anne Rice, Stephen King, or Judy Blume. Some adults read Harry Potter. There’s no such thing as a Black book. When you categorize a book that way, you miss the mark—people just want to read. If the content and the story are tight, the book will sell.”

Another issue when it comes to Black authors is that publishers tend to place the author’s work in a category based on their color, rather than the content of their book.  “One author I know does vampire books, but she doesn’t just write Black books,” Hunter says. Her work should have been placed in the Sci-fi section because of its content, not because of her race. And when I did Why Men Fear Marriage, I argued [with he publisher] about getting it in the Self-help section, but they wanted it in the Black section because the author is Black.” Looking at a the smash success of Steve Harvey’s Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, she says that his book “was number 1 in Australia because they care about content of book, not that he’s Black.”


Final Words

Here are some tips for writers and aspiring authors:

Start small.
Mitzi Miller: “Don’t wait to pitch the publications you want to write for. Take small assignments while you pitch where you want to publish. Stay in motion. The online boom helps because it makes it easier to land gigs and bigger pieces than a printed magazine, which has to pay for pages. Publishing your work online also makes it easier to quantify your popularity by page hits/views.”

Take pride in your work.
Millner: “When your copy sparkles and shines, it stands out, and that means there’s less fussing an editor has to do with it. Editors appreciate that, and it makes that freelancer worth their weight in gold. That person will get more work. But when you hand in crappy copy, that means more work for the editor, and the editor will think twice about assigning you more work.”

Build a platform and stand on it.
Millner: “You’re an idiot if you are a writer and don’t have a platform. You have to have a way for people to reach out to you.  I blog on several sites, and each one exposes me to a new audience. You have to extend your brand if you want to make money as a writer. My Brown Baby [her blog] has over 1,000 subscribers, and it has become viral. You can use internet radio and blogs to gain email subscribers and amass a following. A platform is just smart business. If you don’t have a platform, people will not find you, and will not be able to show your reach.”

Stay the course.

Hunter: “You just want to write? [Getting to the] “Promised Land” of becoming an author takes time. It takes time to build an audience.”

Miller: “When you stop pitching, you become disinterested and doubt yourself, and you could walk away from your own dream. Just do a little bit every day, every week. Those small accomplishments create a momentum in your mind.”

Brooks: “I tell my authors to have faith and be focused. If you do those two things, your project will come through in terms of your writing and the deal.”

One thought on “The Changing Publishing Landscape for African American Writers (Part 2)

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