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

January 16, 2013  |  

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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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