Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Why We Are Where We Are--And How to Get Out

The following is from a post that I submitted to another online group, but I thought that it was worthy of sharing as it talks about the powerlessness of the black writer--no matter how many books we put out there.

I don't chime in much. Mainly because every other time that I do, I am politely informed by Yahoo that I am not a member of this group...sigh... :-( and when I do post I don't get much response. The only reason why I chimed in today was there was all this yipping about folks not making comments etc. and what was this list for beside finding outabout checks and sending out congratulations. I, for one, never thought that's what this list was for. I'm pretty sure that the majority of folks on this list don't have the luxury of all day access to the internet and email, which is the only reason I didn't get too undone when I posed the very question that is being raised here today... and got NO ANSWER from ANYONE AT ALL .

A little over a week ago, I let the group know that I would be speaking with librarians from across the country. The decision makers, the ones who BUY OUR BOOKS... and I wanted to know what are some of the issues that they should be made aware of, things we want, etc. Not a peep from a soul. And ultimately I spoke to them about this very same issue. A room full of white folks on the topic of ... the marginalization of black books. And do you know what the general consensus is? They think that WE want to be separated in libraries and in bookstores. Their customers come in looking for "the black section," and it makes it easier, just like in the bookstores. They were surprised but enlightened to hear that we want to be where everyone else is. (Wow what a novel idea--pun intended) The deal is, the consumer has been programmed over the years, intentionally, to find black books in the black section of the store. Why? Because the publishing industry is of the belief that the only ones truly interested in our books is US. Period. And if you get that crossover, you are just lucky but they have no intention of facilitating that effort. And unfortunately the few black editors that are in these houses taut the same mantra.

It's very true what someone said earlier, it's not that they wouldn't read us, for the most part we never cross their minds. We are invisible, until someone brings us to their attention either through conversation, sharing a book, meeting one of us in person etc. And we will continue to remain invisible to them if we are forever relegated to a "designated" section of the store and library and we don't enter contests and we don't join organizations.

The answer is not necessarilyto spin off and form "the Black Romance Writers." Truth be told, we'd still be in the same position, with the same folks, doing the samething. Cause we cannot attain a position of power if we are continually outside that circle of power. And again, the white folks(who seem to be the target market) will think "see they want to be by themselves."

No, we do not have enough readers to absorb the number of books that are being published. And yes, you will have black readers who won't pick up a black romance but read a white one. Those are the same folks who only shop in white stores, believe the white doctor and feels they will be treated better by white folks. Just like back on the plantation. Same story, different day.

So what can we do? First and foremost you must continue to write quality work. You need to make concrete decisions about your career and the house you are with. Establish a solid relationship with your editor. That is the one who will push you. Go to the conferences, join groups, make yourself visible in some kind of way. What we do is a job. We can get all flowery and say it's something else, but it's a job and it's business. And like it or not, businesses are about making money.Yes, getting paid, a check, where is it? You could be the nicest person in the world but if you are not making money for your business (the publisher), they will find another nice person who can.

Networking is key as well, with each other and others. Sharing information, marketing strategies etc. But at some point we have to move out of the comfort zone of each other and out into the world and beseen. And as quiet as it's kept 90% of writers have a day job, or aloving husband. So don't despair. :-)


Demetairs said...

Hello Donna! I think this is an excellent blog. I have mixed emotions about it though. Weather people want to accept it or not, segregation is alive and strong. I think mega stores purposely separate books by black authors just so they can be aware where the black consumer is at all times. Also, I really don't have a problem with that because I can cut to the chase and get what I want at the mega store. I think the bigger problem is marketing and using the necessary resources availible to sell books because that is the bottom line, selling books. As you stated, this is a business. I think publish companies have to look at all avenues to get the word out about these wonderful authors that we have like, advertising in all of the top black magazines, black radio, and some how, get BET's attention. I know they had the show "Buy The Book", but I don't think they gave it a realistic chance to succeed. Some how, some way, we have to get the attention of adults to let them that these authors exist. Maybe try starting a campaign to get people to turn off the television and radio for one night a week and read a book by a black author? Also, readers have to willing to step out of their comfort zone and support other black authors. I'm in an online reading group and all of the participants seem to read the same authors: Zane, Eric Jerome Dickey, Omar Tyree, ect. We have to face the fact that there are a lot of white folks that simply are not interested in black literature and that's cool. But the flip side is to inform our brothers and sisters and those who are interested in good literature no matter what the author skin color is, that you all exist. I think it can be done with some creative effort.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand why it is a bad thing to have an African American section in the bookstore. When I wanted to collect stories about A.A., it was easier to find them in one section. I was frustrated at a bookstore that mingled them in with the rest. Couldn't find what I was looking for, so I gave up. I stopped going to this bookstore for that reason. How are A.A. authors recognized by new readers if they are lost in the mainstream?

Darlene Johnson said...

Hello Ms. Hill,

As an African American writer I share your sentiment and frustration on this topic and its a topic of repeat conversations that I've had with other African-American writers. Now, the finger-pointing begins.

Even if we are not placed in the black section of the store, our covers will do it for us. Books by ethnic writers (namely black or hispanic) will have an ethnic cover unless it is marketed to the mainstream audience. This adds another level of frustration because even if your book is not in the black section, the cover is a tell-tale. James Patterson's Alex Cross novels had a black main character but his cover does not. In the novel, The Secret Life of Bees four of the five main characters were black, but the cover didn't have a black face on it. These books were written by white writers even though they had prominent black characters.

Also, most books that are dubbed, literary and written by African-American writers do not have a black faces on them either because literary books are not marketed to a broad African American audience. We must ask, why is that?

The cover of books, as the placement of African-American books within the bookstore make a huge difference in who buys these books. African-American writers, with little input regarding covers must pray that the cover is a good one. I got lucky. I had two excellent covers for my novels, both with distinctive ethnic artwork. However, most authors are not so lucky. Some covers are just plain awful.

Looking at the cover alone, white America knows a book is a 'black' book and the majority of white America have not given itself permission to read books by black writers (unless Oprah says it's okay). With the explosion of urban-lit, they may be right. However, just like hip-hop, when this urban-lit reaches mainstream and is no longer 'ours' then and only then will books by black writers, namely urban-lit have a crossover audience.

Also, as a black writer and avid reader I think we, as black writers need to raise the bar on how we write. Publishers are publishing books by writers that shouldn't see daylight because its a business and as with any business the eye is on the bottom line. The high drama books supports the bottom line but it does nothing for the credibility of black writers that are actually really good writers. This bad writing have created a sub-genre that is allowing some writers to be published that would never have been published five or ten years ago. It is good for those writers but not good for black writers that have taken the time to really learn the craft of writing. They are under-promoted and his or her books are simply printed and placed on the shelf in hope that someone will discover it. These writers would appeal to a mainstream audience, but no one knows about the book. Self-promotion for these authors must become a full-time job but chances are they all ready have a full time job and had received little advance money to promote themselves. It is a shameful situation.

Let's face it, publishers are not going to promote this bad writing to a mainstream audiences. They will put a black cover on it, stick it in the black section of the store, promote it to African-American audiences and we're buying them and hailing them as great books. If we are going to demand fair treatment in the way we are promoted and marketed then we must be ready to deal with the bar being raised on what is being published. It would probably result in less books published by black writers.

Anonymous said...

Maybe if we stopped the pigeon-holing and marketing ourselves as "black authors" "black books" people read our work. I am proud as heck to be black, but my writing isn't only limited to my blackness. I do not want to be marketed as a black author as Alice Munro or Margaret Atwood didn't have to be labeled "white writers". My writing is universal and it should be seen as such. I don't like labels and we are segregating ourselves by attaching those labels. If the writing is any good, it is my opinion that the color of the author does not matter. Oh, I am not saying that it is easy for a black writer to be published, but I don't like to be pigeoned-holed, and the labels such as "black romance", "black section" will get you put in the back of the store. I want to be up front. Now don't go thinking that I want to be with the white folks, no, I want to be where my work gets read. Dawn