Much is written about the publishing industry’s woes, from diminishing margins and accusations of price fixing, to the ceding of territory to self-publishing in both print and digital formats. But for writers of color, the concerns are more personal. All over the Internet and the blogosphere, writers of color lament the difficulty in getting a deal from mainstream publishing’s Big Six: Hachette Book Group, Harper Collins, Macmillan, Penguin Group, Random House and Simon & Schuster. All of this has led many to speculate that maybe big publishing is just “not into” writers of color anymore.
In a November 15th missive reprinted widely, authors Virginia DeBerry and Donna Grant got straight to the point. The best-selling duo, after assurances that neither of them was ill nor had a fallen out as friends, dropped this bombshell: “…our writing career is officially on ‘HOLD.’ ”
DeBerry and Grant (pictured above) went on to lament how the industry has changed, requiring an omnipresent cyber presence through social media, as well the pressures to crank out a book a year to meet an industry’s unrealistic expectations for them. Before poignantly closing, they share that “there are no more DeBerry and Grant novels in the pipeline. Whew…that was hard, but also a relief.”
Say what you will about DeBerry and Grant, they engineered their own exit from publishing. Other writers of color have not been as lucky.
Raul Ramos y Sanchez, the award-winning Neo-Latino Renaissance author of America Libre and House Divided, was told by his publisher Grand Central that his considerable platform (in addition to his marketing and PR background, he hosts MyImigrationStory.com) wasn’t enough. They dropped him from their roster, citing anemic sales.
Take Carleen Brice, who in 2010 released her debut novel, Orange, Mint and Honey, which became Sins of the Mother, a Lifetime television movie starring Jill Scott. Sins of the Mother and its star Scott won NAACP Image Awards for Outstanding Television Movie and Outstanding Actress in a TV Movie respectively. Today, Brice is without a mainstream fiction book deal.
Best-selling author Bernice L. McFadden was so respected that she routinely wrote industry commentary for venerable organs like the Washington Post. She had even published chick lit under the pseudonym Geneva Holliday. But in 2009, two agents were unable to persuade any publisher to pick up her latest offering Glorious.
These tales are, unfortunately, not unique among writers of color. You get to know enough writers, and you’ll see that many have lost their books deals or have moved onto other ventures in order to survive. A sampling of the LinkedIn profiles of several authors bears this out. Authors who’d once topped bestsellers lists now tout the work they do for others. One novelist famous for a memorable photo of him spinning with his open coat flailing in the wind now says he is a claims representative with a national insurance company. His former occupation—novelist—now bearing an asterisk, like post-season records achieved in baseball. Another author whose work had been made into plays now primarily plies her trade as an organizational psychology professional. Many authors have taken refuge in academia. Others have taken to lucrative ghostwriting.
After two decades that saw an explosion of works published by writers of color, things have cooled considerably. What happened?
“I think mainstream publishers are interested in any writer whose work the public wants to read,” said Rakia Clark, who until she was laid off in 2009, was an editor for Kensington’s Dafina imprint. “For a short spell in the 1990s, that was black women writers writing about relationships. Within the past three years, it’s been vampires and zombies. This year it’s erotica for moms. Next year it may be something else entirely.”
Clark adds, though, that “the big disadvantage writers of color have is that there are few people of color working for the publishers who are often more likely to receive submissions from minority authors. But believe me, publishers want writers with talent and the potential for a strong sales record. They’ll accept it in whatever form it comes.”
Best-selling author Connie Briscoe appeared on the scene in the early 1990s, an era which she called a “sort of a dawn of this new flowering of black books and authors.” Terry McMillan had apparently single-handedly led the rediscovery of authors of color in general and black authors in particular with the 1992 breakout novel Waiting to Exhale. When Briscoe’s debut novel Sisters and Lovers came out in 1994, it sold 750,000 copies. She draws parallels between the publishing industry then and now.
“A lot has changed in so very little time, mainly because of technology and the Internet,” she says. “The publishing industry is in a period of upheaval which I liken to the dawn of the printing press. We’re still trying to sort all the changes out. It will take a while, but I think when things settle down we will be better for it.”
According to Briscoe, the current climate is conducive to a writer of color attaining such heights. However, says Briscoe, “I think it’s harder for a few reasons. One of them is simply that there is much more competition among writers. When Sisters and Lovers was published, there were one or two handfuls of black authors writing such novels, and as we found out back then black women were hungry for novels with characters who looked like them and lived as they did. Now there are dozens of black authors and one book is less likely to be such a sensation.”
Adds Briscoe, “We are also competing with technology and the Internet now. When Sisters and Lovers was first published there was no Internet, at least not as it is today. There was no 24-hour, gazillion-channel TV, no On Demand Movies, no caller ID or email. All of these things compete with the time spent reading novels. I also think our brains are being rewired to high speed and needing instant gratification…This isn’t conducive to lounging on the couch with a 500-page novel for a few hours on a Saturday afternoon. In fact, publishers often don’t even want 500-page novels anymore for that reason.”
If perception is reality, then what do the authors think is big publishing’s attitude towards authors of color? Ramos, who insists his work is more James Patterson or David Baldacci than Oscar Hijuelos or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, says “We’re still seen as part of that whole literary ghetto.” Authors whose work does not fit a particular mold have a hard time finding an audience. It is, says Ramos, a “self-perpetuating thing.”
There are, however, a few authors of color who are doing well. Kimberla Lawson Rby, Eric Jerome Dickey and Toni Morrison frequently make the bestsellers list. And Junot Diaz has not just topped the charts but has garnered a Pulitzer as well as other awards for his works.
ReShonda Tate Billingsley, a former television newscaster who now writes full time, is also no stranger to various best-seller lists and awards. The film adaptation of her novel, Let the Church Say Amen, directed by Regina King and produced by Queen Latifah’s Company, Flava Unit, Royal Ties and Bobbcat Films, just wrapped and will be released in 2013 as part of BET’s new original programming line-up. BET also will make three of her other books into films.
Victoria Christopher Murray is also a successful author of Christian fiction. Simon and Schuster’s Touchstone and Gallery Books imprints have published her latest nineteen novels.
“I’ve been really blessed,” she says. “When I came to Simon and Schuster, I was with a team who really wanted me there. From the publisher, all the way to the people in marketing. They also knew that I would work very, very hard. While they did a lot for my career, I was always willing to go the extra step.”
Both Billingsley and Murray have seen the publishing industry shift over their long publishing careers. For one thing, says Billingsley, “the market is saturated. And a lot of it is not quality material. That makes it hard for readers to want to invest in new material. On the flip side, it allows voices that might not otherwise be heard a chance to shine. And of course, the whole digital era.”
Digital publishing has been the most popular choice for authors. Its egalitarian nature, along with the ubiquity of the technology has put it in the reach of any author. Mashable.com reports that eBook sales will reach almost $10 billion by 2016, this while, according to per industry heavyweight Publishers Weekly, print numbers decline. These developments happen as the numbers of Americans with eReaders has doubled since July of 2011, according to eBookReader.com.
This past November, Ramos digitally published Pancho Land, the third book in his Class H trilogy (after America Libre and House Divided) though Kindle. He sees it as a way keep his audience and build on it. It’s another incarnation, he says, a “second life.”
Other authors forsaken by big publishing have found refuge with small independent publishers. McFadden, who describes parting with big publishing as “the best thing that could have happened to me” has flourished at Brooklyn indie publisher Akashic. She has received numerous accolades and accomplished much since Akashic published Glorious in 2010. The Gathering of the Waters and a reissue of her 2001 novel The Warmest December followed. “Publishing with Akashic Books is a collaborative experience.”
Brice has found a home with Agate Publishing, an independent press in Chicago, which has acquired her next nonfiction work, The Not So Fearless Writer.
Like DeBerry and Grant, and hundreds of others, Connie Briscoe has opted out and left what she calls “the writing scene” behind. But she’s happy for the mark she and others have left.
“I think that I and others blew the door wide open for black authors. It had been cracked open by the literary giants who were too good for the industry to ignore,” said Briscoe. “We all know who they were–Baldwin, Hurston, Morrison, Walker to name a few. Then a dozen or so more of us, led mainly by Terry McMillan, who kicked it wide open. A lot of books and authors have come through since then, some of them maybe more desirable than others. But at least the door is open.”
(Wendy Coakley-Thompson is an award-winning author and columnist. She published her latest book, Writing While Black, digitally).