Literary Lockout: Black Authors Bemoan Lack Of Diversity & Deals In Publishing Industry

7 comments
January 16, 2013 ‐ By Ann Brown
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A recent article in The Grio discussed the hurdles that writers of color face trying to get deals from mainstream publishing’s Big Six: Hachette Book Group, Harper Collins, Macmillan, Penguin Group, Random House and Simon & Schuster. Best-selling writing duo Virginia DeBerry and Donna Grant declared that their writing careers are on hold due to a variety of issues, including the lack of deals.

So we asked a a couple of writers their opinion on the situation.

“There is the lack of pipeline of people, the absence of a backbench in publishing, because there are not enough new editors from varied backgrounds entering the business. There is a generational problem in publishing; editorial committees green light most projects, but young editors are often outvoted,” notes writer and novelist Pearl Duncan, author of Water Dancing.

She says she has been affected by this directly. “Twice, I had two different young editors at two major book publishers get so excited about a query for my book about African American DNA and ancestry, from the perspective of my ancestors in colonial American and the Caribbean, in medieval Africa and Europe, they responded in 24 hours. But when they took the proposal to the editorial committee, they were overruled by more senior editors. Both were white,” she reveals.

Due to the absence of diversity within the publishing firms many editors don’t understand or appreciate books that focus on the African-American experience. In fact, Duncan was once asked to change the angle of her book about her ancestors because American readers think of African-American ancestors as “victims and will not accept [a] portrayal of them as heroes.” The ancestors Duncan had written about where Maroons who rebelled against slavery on ships and on land, as well as a Scottish ancestor who was an abolitionist.

Because of this attitude in the industry, Duncan has changed her own strategy, hiring a new agent who deals with the editors, leaving Duncan free to concentrate on research and writing.

D Hunter, author of The Game Of Life, feels that if African Americans supported black writers by buying their books, the publishing houses would take note. “Black people need to pull together and start supporting one another more. I feel the big publishers are looking for money, regardless of your color or creed. And if we do not help one another, how can we expect anybody else to? We as black people have had to pave our own way for years against our oppressors and against all odds, so this is not a new hurdle for us,” says Hunter.

Hunter also thinks more blacks should enter the industry and start their own publishing companies. “It is all about presentation and unity. Without that, we are lost to our own devices, complaining when we should be applying ourselves to start our own and move forward,” he points out. “We [should] not look at what others do, but what we can do. There are big names in urban lit, but it was the route they took, the decisions they made along the way, hard efforts, and their writing abilities that put them there.”

Book publishing still relays on in some part who you know. Some literary agents will only take on new writers if they were referred by a current client.  This too can be a major obstacle for African-American writers. Says Duncan, “There is no American Idol,  The Voice, or X Factor for writers.”

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  • Candacey Doris

    I try to support black writers, but finding them isn’t easy, especially finding the ones i like. I don’t read hood fiction. Look, i know a lot of people identify with that sort of writing, i don’t. And that’s all i can get for AA people out here in FL. I think they should publish their books in ebook form, where editors have less say and advertise a lot online. I have friends that are publishing via Amazon to cut out the publishing companies and the middlemen. You make more money and get your stuff put out your way.

  • DAMON KELLY

    The problem may be the venue.

    In my house, my sister and mother populated square yards of wall shelf space with “urban literature.” They all approach the same subject, for the most part (drugs, thugs, ‘hos, etc.). A lot of the material was self-published, so it didn’t take much effort to find examples of poor writing and editing. For me it was outright painful to read such books, and often I couldn’t read beyond a few pages of the first chapter.

    When my sister moved, she could not take most of her books because of space limits. Instead of recycling or throwing the books in the trash, she managed to sell every book that she wished (even the bad ones!).

    HarperCollins, Penguin, etc. have a stranglehold on a rapidly shrinking physical book market where a chunk of their output must be best sellers so that the integrated publishing houses can continue to operate. Such businesses are so focused on the big hits that they’re leaving a wide swath of the market open for writers who hire an editing service, quality printers in a light industrial district, and freelance salespeople willing to knock on doors, who all team up to sell books to whomever they want. And people, at least prior to the current recession, can and do find what they want to read.

    I believe that the era of the big publishing house whose management wallows in a self-built castle of myopia is slowly dying of cancer. The answer lies in niche publishers, or assembling a small group of individuals and/or businesses to create and sell books.

  • Marguerite

    Such a shame that in 2013, we still have to push down the doors and struggle to be accepted by others who still view us and our views as flawed and inferior. Whether blacks start their own publishing companies or not, this should not be an issue! Please keep on pushing and pushing until something happens.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Pearl-Duncan/500298344 Pearl Duncan

      Thanks for your encouragement Marguerite and others. One of the best ways to keep pushing is to keep writing, and that is something that all writers and filmmakers can do. Editors publish what they know, and our history and experiences are not well-known, so we need to research and write as best we can. And keep pushing, as you say.

      Another situation we face is some gatekeepers in art, media and culture change slowly or refuse to change at all. I remember reading that one of the editors who had rejected the Harry Potter manuscript gave an interview after Harry Potter became a billion-dollar project in books and film. He said he would still reject the Harry Potter manuscript if it were presented to him today, because he does not believe in it as art project. So we see that some gatekeepers are in the business to greenlight only a tiny number of projects they are already familiar with. They do not want to see any new ideas, new people or new projects. We need more creative new gatekeepers and greenlighters in the culture.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Pearl-Duncan/500298344 Pearl Duncan

    Ann, Thanks for a very insightful article and a great interview. I agree with what author D. Hunter said, becauseI believe more people in MBA and marketing programs should consider publishing as a viable business choice. Editors work with the people in marketing, so even when editors are interested, their marketing departments may not know the market. I did presentations and spoke to diverse genealogical groups and college audiences about DNA and ancestry, to some audiences as large as 900, so I was always surprised when someone in publishing said, We do not know the market. There are many cultural outlets and markets and publishers need representatives in all of these markets. Thanks for highlighting this need. All the best.

  • Terri J. Haynes

    I am a Christian fiction author who had an editor tell me that marking to African Americans was too hard so they weren’t interested in my novel. I’ve also been told by other industry professionals that my writing wasn’t black enough (all were white). There is definitely a diversity publishing across the board. It saddens me to thing that publishing professionals don’t thing the AA literary community isn’t a good place to invest their time and money.

  • SunshineBlossom

    That’s really bad, since some of the best writing comes from AA authors. A while ago they were also in trouble for charging a premium on kindle books (some were specifically AA authors)… It’s a shame that we are held back. Perhaps we should create our own publishing company?