Sunday, February 12, 2006

Storm Brewing - The Motive for Racism in Publishing

You know, God bless Tess Gerritsen.

It appears she got a very important ball rolling on what is one of the most important subjects in America today.

Here's some of what Tess had to say:

In this way, I've been able to slip into mainstream publishing, without the barriers that black novelists, who are often confined to "black niche publishing" have to face. The exception that's been pointed out on other blogsites is Stephen Carter, whose debut novel hit the bestseller lists. But as others have also pointed out, his novel was NOT marketed as a "black" novel, but as a mainstream mystery. The author's race was simply incidental to the larger marketing plan. His race did not hurt him.

Another case in point is James Patterson, whose megaselling thrillers feature a black detective (even though the author himself is white.) The character's race doesn't hurt sales, which shows that, yes, white readers ARE happy to cross racial lines and read about black characters. Patterson's photo is frequently missing from the books, so you'd have no idea what race he is. The important point: his books are marketed as MAINSTREAM fiction. You look at a Patterson book, and the main impression you get is that it's going to be a scary ride. Not that this is a book about black characters.

And the storm has brewed into an excellent discourse. This is the kind of exchange and awareness that's been lacking. More than lacking - avoided. Which reminds me of a recent exchange I had with a very well-known, writing advice presence in the blogosphere. I asked him what his thoughts were on the subject and he replied that "minorities" were not discriminated against in publishing anymore than he was. And he's white.

Now - he seems to be a fairly intelligent guy - is that just plain ignorance on his part? Or is it a conscious choice to remain blissfully unconcerned with that which does not directly affect him, but still corrupts the industry within which he takes part? One has to wonder.

I'll quote a few of the brave commentators.

Patrick from Willoughby says:

We all would likely assume that if a publisher didn't think the book would be a success, the deal would never be made. That is to say, a publisher is unlikely to buy a book that it thinks won't find an audience.

So the question that comes to my mind is this: if a publisher thought that it could get more sales by going mainstream rather than reducing a potential audience to 15% or so of the total reading universe, why would it still cram the book into the niche?

Again, I'm not trying to justify their behavior; I'm just wondering what information they have that so completely convinces them that this is the right way to do things. It would be illogical for them to intentionally limit their own profits, so logically, they must be certain that the only way to make a profit is going the niche route. If they were trying to "hide" black fiction, why would they publish it at all? So how on earth could they believe that non-racial fiction that happens to be written by a black writer can't be a mainstream success?

Could it be flawed marketing research? Could that play any part in it? If so, then that's another thing that needs to be corrected, right?

Millenia's response:

Now - on the surface - it would seem logical to arrive at the above question. But, this question is irrelevant. I'll tell you why.

Publishers never think the works they acquire from white authors are better suited for cramming into an ethnic niche.

Therefore - to ask why they would do this if the odds could easily be in favor of mainstream success, is irrelevant. It's a given that publishers are not in the business of creating and operating under self-defeating business models.

If the practice imposed upon authors of color was equitable, we would see them carving out niches such as:

Irish-American Fiction
Danish-American Fiction
Scandinavian-American Fiction
Jewish-American Fiction
British-American Fiction

The relevant question is not why they would do something to hinder their own profit.

The actual question is this - how do publishers justify reserving this ethnicity-based, market-suppressive business practice, exclusively for the work they acquire from authors of color?

This seems to run counter to the civil rights laws. Does it not?

Monica Jackson chimes in saying:

If you are black aspiring author or a black published author, you will be treated and regarded differently than a white author regardless of the content of your work, based on your race.

When James Patterson or any other white author writes black characters, they are not relegated to the [AA] Niche.

But if you were black, your work wouldn’t be considered suitable for the greater white market, no matter what you wrote, with the possible rare exception of literary fiction–unless you concealed the fact of your blackness.

That is the outrage. There are no excuses, no stuttering rationalizations, no worrying about who or who not makes the NYT list that can adequately excuse that ugly fact.

It is institutional racism and if it’s not decried and condemned, we of all races including fellow blacks, are guilty of condoning the practice.

Bestselling Author, Pontif. says:

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.

What's it to you?
Contribute to the discussion. Contribute to the pursuit of a remedy. Open it up on your own blog, journal, or website. Remember - a threat to justice anywhere, is a threat to justice everywhere.

Regardless of race. Black, white, Asian, etc. What do you think?

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  1. Whoa, oh my. I have to give this some thought. Never thought about that and wasn't relly aware African American authors were plagued by this in the industry....great post.

  2. Yes, great post. I'm going to collect my thoughts and link to the thread at Willoughby's. I'm very happy about the way things played out there. Rare indeed.

  3. Just posted on this at my place. We'll see if anymore folks grow a conscience and stop turning a blind eye and a deaf ear.

    Monica Jackson pointed out at her blog that if this was something that were being done to white authors, MJ Rose's blog, Buzz Balls & Hype would be addressing this issue rather than crap like how to survive a book tour. I couldn't agree more. The problem is these people just don't seem to care because they aren't black. They aren't being discriminated against in the industry and suppressed.

  4. It's absolutely the ghettoization of black authors and it's bullshit.

    There are books which deal directly with the experience of being female, gay, white, black, asian, disabled etc, but that's not what this is.

    A mystery with a black protaganist is no different (no matter who writes it) than a mystery with a woman protaganist (although when a woman is the progatanist, the book is often labled "romantic suspense" patted on the head as not serious and sent off to the pink section).

    Still, it is an injustice. And as an author, regardless of my race, I find that this sort of labeling hurts us all. It marginalizes us and attempts to bind us tightly in boxes which are unnecessary (that or which? hmm).

  5. Listen, publishers aren't in the business of losing money. If they feel it's best served in a niche market, that's where it's going to go. Look at it this way, it's better than not being published at all, right?

  6. Yeah, sorta the same way that Jim Crow was better than slavery. Be grateful, nigga authors!

  7. I'm just happy to see more and more people willing to engage in the dialogue. It's a real issue. A real injustice. It needs to be talked about. Solutions aren't organic. They must be created. Acknowledgement and discourse are the first steps.

  8. I followed all the trails (I think) and read up on all the hoopla. My opinion is this, as a white reader, I just want to read something that will hold my attention and interest. Who cares what the author's race is?

  9. "If the practice imposed upon authors of color was equitable, we would see them carving out niches such as:

    Irish-American Fiction
    Danish-American Fiction
    Scandinavian-American Fiction
    Jewish-American Fiction
    British-American Fiction"

    The flaw in this logic is that there is not a market for Irish American fiction or any of the others. If there was we would also have IET (Irish Entertainment Television) and we would see a Mrs. Danish American Beauty Pageant and we would have award shows dedicated solely to British Americans. It is not prejudice that creates the niche, it is the African American community that creates the African American niche. Black America likes to but the blame for the racial divide solely in the laps of white America while simultaneously making every effort to maintain it's own unique and distinct racial identity. I am not making judgments, I am simply making observations. I do believe the author should have the final say on how the book should be marketed, but I think criticizing the fact that the niche exists in the first place falls into the category of having your cake and eating it too.

  10. The flaw in this logic is that there is not a market for Irish American fiction or any of the others.

    Anonymous - there is a distinction that must be made here. Please note.

    The practice imposed upon author's of color is inequitable precisely because publishers don't handle white authors as per their ethnicity. They handle them according to the work they've created.

    Publishing houses are not justified in throwing every black author into the AA niche simply because there is a market among blacks, as opposed to the other ethnic groups. Get the point?

    Now for the other portion of your comment - I agree that many blacks are misguided in their reasoning, as is evident in the obsession they have with their racial identity. I do not share this obsession. I am an author. Period. I do not place excessive pride in my skin color. I'm as proud of my skin as I am of my eyes.

    And to reiterate - the existence of the AA niche is NOT valid justification for relegating ALL people of color to it.

  11. Global Man has concurred.

    You know, something of large proportion will have to happen to let many people adopt acceptance of the other race.

    And its not impossible for that something to happen. Maybe a few good lawsuits on publishers and bookstores awarding millions of dollars to injured authors will just do the trick.

    I bet you any mony if that begins to happen, the improved conduct most considered impossible would suddenly appear like magic.

    More like segregated churches, who wouldn't felloship together. But after an hurricane (Their God)blew away their individual buildings it was time everybody get together in one place to praising the Lord. How about that?

  12. Hi Global Man - I've heard legal action is actually on the horizon. Stay tuned.

  13. I have to agree with Global man. Money talks and justice is quite expensive in these times of ours.


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