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.”


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.


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

Stop Being Niggardly! (And Other Advice We Still Aren’t Paying Attention To)

Around Christmastime last year, I had a great hour-long chat with Pulitzer-prize winning author and journalist, Karen Hunter of Karen Hunter Publishing. If you watch the video below, the same way she’s talking there is the same way she talked to me: straight up.

She didn’t know me from Adam but was not hesitant to take the time to answer my questions about getting started as a freelance writer, the business of writing and publishing for Blacks in particular. She shared her background and wisdom with me, and many of the things she imparted to me then were also mentioned in this book (which was then unreleased), Stop Being Niggardly: And Nine Other Things Black People Need to Stop Doing. In this post I’ll give you some of the highlights, but in short, this book is a must-read, and more importantly, a must-DO.

If You Can’t Get In Their Door, Start Your Own

When Karen started her own publishing house, she reached out to her contacts for support, but didn’t get it. I was surprised when she mentioned

Earl G. Graves, Sr. (Image courtesy of

Earl Graves as one of those people (he is the founder and publisher of Black Enterprise magazine). She talked about how Blacks can be so niggardly (definition: stingy—watch the video above or look it up) and try to hold each other back from progress and success.

Divide and Conquer—It’s the American Way

Karen gives us a brief history lesson in explaining the racial categories we give ourselves here in America. The perceived origins of Latinos, Dominicans, Haitians, Blacks, and Jews have more in common than you might think (certainly more than I knew).

Digging Out of Debt

I can relate all too well to Karen’s story about going broke and having to downsize (for her she had to move back home; for me it was moving from a house to an apartment).  The key is the recognize when you’re going too deep in debt and to Stop Digging.

People First, Then Money

How many of you are familiar with Suze Orman’s mantra, “People first, then money, then things”? It’s not just a saying that she closes her show with, it should be a way of life.

In the book, Karen says, “ How you handle your money indicates how your life is going. If you have chaos on your job and in your life, your money is guaranteed to be a mess…. Money is an outward display of the discipline and standards of your life.”

Unfortunately personal finance is not taught in school. The only examples we have to go on as children are what we learn at home and see in our neighborhoods. We have to learn to respect our money if we’re going to be successful in life. Continue reading “Stop Being Niggardly! (And Other Advice We Still Aren’t Paying Attention To)”