After last week’s rant, I’d thought it be a good idea to talk about why I chose publishing as my post-teaching career. That’s not to say this post will be any less critical of the industry than the previous one. But, there is a valid reason why I’m here, why I’m working my ass off to learn as much as possible, why I will continue to do what it takes to break into this business.
I give you excerpts from my Master’s thesis…
My father is nearly eighty years old, born in pre-Civil Rights Georgia. His grandparents were more than likely slaves. My mother was born in the late 50s, in a Miami that is nothing like the multicultural city it is today. Even in the early to mid-70s, she was forced to attend a segregated high school; they still hold separate class reunions to this day. When I was born in 1979, this was my inheritance. Growing up, jobs like publishing weren’t meant for ‘us.’ Black women were destined to be either teachers, nurses, or hair stylists. But publishing? Might as well have been Fairy Tale Princess for how real the idea was to me. I had books, of course. My mother taught me to read at age 3. Where those books came from was a mystery, intangible to me and probably most black people.
You notice things when you’re in an industry that’s as intimate in size as book publishing. In my classes, you could count the number of black students on one hand, and 3 of those were magazine students. I’m in my final semester and I am the only black person in my desktop publishing course. During my internship when I went to AAR (Association of Authors Representatives) meetings with the agency I worked for, I was usually the only black person in the room. I noticed similar happenings when I attended other book related functions, the notable exception being BookExpo America. None of the guest lecturers during the semester were black. Only a few members of the faculty are, but again, on the magazine side.
In 1996, blacks working in publishing in New York City made up only 3% of all employees. I would provide an updated statistic, but finding one is proving harder than I hoped. That alone should say something about the state of diversity in the industry. Despite the low number of blacks working in the industry, many of the major publishing houses have imprints dedicated to books featuring African-American and other minority characters. Usually when separate entities exist, it is because of a historical precedence to exclude people of color from the mainstream. Such is the case with NAACP, black magazines such as Ebony and Essence, scholarships for minorities, and Historical Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU). Black imprints gained in popularity, according to Lathea Williams, a publicist at Harlequin, in response to the success of authors such as Terry McMillian in the 1990s, when publishers realized that this could be an untapped market for profit. Random House has One World and Strivers Row. Kensington has Dafina. Simon and Schuster’s Atria imprint has both Strebor and Cash Money Content. HarperCollins has Amistad. With such a small representation of people of African descent, you start to question who’s running things, especially at the black imprints? Where are the black editors to go to bat for books by black authors? Where are the black publicists with the right media connections so these books get the exposure they need? Where are the black marketing managers who will fight for prominent displays in bookstores and the right prepublication reviews? Where are the designers who will make sure that book jackets do not limit the audience by displaying the stereotypical, lowest common denominator of black people? Although the current state of African-American publishing is headed in a positive direction, the moves have been slow in coming. The lack of diversity in the industry is still having a tremendous effect on the black book market, involving everything from acquisitions, marketing, production, and promotion. Williams, however, states that black imprints are required to have at least one African-American editor to fill their quota. That would be an editor at any level, not necessarily an Executive or Managing Editor. There is no evidence of whether that quota extends to other departments, such as marketing, production, and publicity. Even with only one editor on staff, the number of blacks working for black imprints in highly underrepresented.
The publishing industry’s contentious relationship with writers of color extends as far back as the industry itself. I recall something I read concerning the poet Phillis Wheatley, in which no one (meaning the white men that were in charge of such things) believed that a slave girl could’ve written such great verse; it was her master’s word (another white man) that was believed. It was through her master and mistress that she received recognition. The trickle-down effect of this attitude is that the industry can still sometimes only see the value in works by black authors through the lenses of how whites would view them. Pulitzer Prize winning author Toni Morrison addressed this issue during a 1998 interview with Charlie Rose, in reference to a review of her novel Sula. Morrison states, “I remember a review of Sula in which the reviewer said, ‘this is all well and good, but one day she,’ meaning me, ‘will have to face up to the real responsibilities and get mature and write about the real confrontation for black people, which is white people.’ As though our lives have no meaning and no depth without the white gaze (Morrison).” That quote has profound meaning when you consider how books by blacks featuring black characters are treated by the industry. Marginalized, really. Street Lit. Sister Friends Lit, but not Chick Lit. Urban Lit. African-American Lit. Never is it just literature or literary fiction. Even romance novels are separated, as if the way blacks fall in love is somehow fundamentally different. When examining back cover copy and synopses, notice that quantifier thrown in – “an African-American…” – which to me reads as a warning to the mainstream: Beware, there be black people here. It is this expectation and assumption behind these choices that are the problem; the attitude that everyone will of course want to read books with white characters, but not so with people of color. I find that logic questionable at best and offensive at worst. Did only British boys who attended boarding school enjoy Harry Potter? Four-hundred and fifty million copies sold say otherwise. Was the audience for Twilight only teenage girls? The existence of Twilight Moms sinks that theory. Did Nabokov write Lolita for the enjoyment of only pedophiles? How have we not moved past this idea that the general audience of book readers needs that identifier? It becomes easy to draw the conclusion that the handling of “black” books by the traditional publishing industry is less about literary merit and more a sociological issue, and the need for more diversity in the industry becomes paramount.
Until next time…