There are literally hundreds of thousands of books published each year. For a new writer attempting to break in to the industry, that could sound pretty daunting. How do you get your voice heard? How do you make yourself stand out? Should you even try to submit your work to a traditional publishing house?
These issues can be particularly worrying for women writers of color. In the past, publishing industry gatekeepers considered their rosters to be diverse if they boasted one non-white writer. Much like racially diverse TV shows and films, books by writers of color have been presumed to be impossible to market to mainstream, white audiences. For these reasons self-publishing and e-books have been heralded as boons for lesser-heard voices. But how much can a self-published, Black woman writer truly accomplish in 2015?
Results from a January 2015 Author Earnings Report showed that over 30 percent of all paid Amazon.com ebook sales are for self-published works and self-published authors are making 40 percent of all money earned by ebook authors on the site.
According to a recent survey from FicShelf, an online publishing platform, “the authors doing the best in the medium tend to be women.” In fact, 67 percent the most read titles in self-publishing spaces like CreateSpace and Blurb are written by women authors. However, men wrote 61 percent of the traditionally published books on Amazon.
“Ebooks have lowered the barriers to entry to the literary world because the various services related to producing a book can be outsourced. Now, the author and reader can decide what they want to read or write, without relying on agents and publishers,” wrote indie author Mohana Rajakumar in her February article, “Opinion: “She Needs a Website of Her Own” – on Women, Writing and Self-Publishing.”
After sending out 20 queries and receiving only rejections and a “this is really well written but we don’t think it would be commercially successful” in response, speculative fiction writer Cerece Rennie Murphy decided to self-publish her first book, Order of the Seers in 2012. “After a while I thought, ‘Why am I waiting for permission to tell my story? I know I can do this myself,’” she said.
Murphy, who had run her own business in the past, knew what it was like to be “overwhelmed and wholly accountable.”
“I just finally decided that the only reason not to do it was that I was just scared and that’s not a good reason not to do something,” she said.
That seems to be the main takeaway from women of color writers who decide to delve into self-publishing. It allows them the freedom to tell their stories, their own way, without being second-guessed by mainstream publishers or being required to have an agent or a ready-made platform from which to propel their new book to the bestseller lists.
Years after author Takesha Powell published her 2000 book, The African-American Writers Guide to Successful Self-Publishing, she still believes that self-publishing and indie publishing are excellent options for Black writers. The traditional publishing houses have to be concerned with their bottom line. That can leave little room to take risks on unknown writers or to consider that Black writers might be interested in genres like paranormal romance or science fiction that aren’t normally associated with the demographic.
“With self-publishing and indies, I feel like there is no limit to where it can go for Black women. We can write about a variety of topics,” said Powell. “You can self-publish with little to nothing in your pocket and with strong marketing, you can skyrocket your own success based on how much you’re willing to promote your book. I don’t see that stopping,” she said.
There is also the frequent claim that writers of color simply do not produce work that is good enough to market to turn a profit. “One reason I self-publish is to provide a degree of transparency that is largely missing from the traditional publishing process, and to refute the claim that the low number of books by people of color is a question of ‘merit,’” writes author and educator Zetta Elliott in her March School Library Journal piece, “Black Authors and Self Publishing.”
Not only does self-publishing allow Black women writers the artistic freedom to express themselves without being second-guessed, but it can also serve as a crash course on the industry.
Murphy says that there is no better way to learn the business than to do it all yourself. From editing to the cover design and marketing, she was able to learn just what it took to put out a novel.
“Most importantly, now, you must find your audience and figure out how to do that and recognize that it’s not just one destination,” said Murphy, who attends sci-fi-friendly conventions such as Comic-Con and Dragoncon to raise awareness about her work in a room full of potential readers.
“It might be more challenging, but as long as I keep at it, there is an audience for my book and that audience is not the size of a head of a pin. It’s as large as I dare to go out and find,” she said.
As of late, it seems as though readers are thirsting for those diverse voices that were assumed to have no place in mainstream publishing, with groups like We Need Diverse Books and year-long challenges to only read books by writers of color, picking up e-steam and raising awareness about the lack of diversity in publishing.
“I think there have always been books that give this different perspective but I think now the media is actually taking notice of these books and talking about them,” said Simon & Schuster editor Etinosa Agbonlahor, comparing the recent media interest in racially diverse writing to the increased attention paid to African literature after Chinua Achebe’s work became internationally popular.
“Today, for example, people are asking each other ‘Have you read The Fishermen?” said Agbonlahor, referring to author Chigozie Obioma’s new book. Speaking specifically about what she calls “Afropolitan Literature,” Agbonlahor says that readers are looking for literature that is unapologetic. They are not looking for novels that are strictly about meaty topics like the Biafran War, but are open to reading “about regular people doing regular things.”
“It’s kind of like how Kevin Kwan had that book Crazy Rich Asians. I think people are tired of reading the same stories, by the same people, having the same argument,” she said. “It’s interesting to see people from other cultures go through the same things.”
Despite this increased interest in work by diverse writers, to break into traditional publishing, using a literary agent is still the most efficient way to get work read by an editor in a major publishing house. And the major benefit of working with an established publishing house in the big leagues is the financial and marketing support.
Marketing is one of the most difficult and important challenges for self-published and indie authors. Although publishing platforms like FicShelf and easy-to-use website builders like Weebly and Squarespace can help, it is still important to know how to capitalize on those tools.
Powell stresses the importance of having a marketing plan, a firm knowledge of things like SEO keywords and an editorial calendar for any blog you might run. Marketing is a full-time job and it is critically important for building an audience.
“It takes a lot of patience and is infuriating. That’s what the major publishing houses do, they come at promotion and marketing heavy to make a return on their investment and that’s how Black women writers need to regard our careers, too,” said Powell.
Self-publishing is tough and there is no guarantee that every new writer will be the next E.L. James, but it is not without its rewards. Murphy, for example, has been able to get readers who have never even heard of speculative fiction to be interested in her work, simply by speaking to them at events.
“I’m really happy that I did it. I’m a better writer than I was. I’m a better businesswoman. It’s really gratifying because at the end of the day the control is both frightening and exhilarating,” says Murphy.
At an event in North Carolina, she was asked if there were any details of her story that would not have been deemed acceptable by the traditional publishing industry. Her answer? “I have no idea because I never had anyone telling me what I couldn’t put in my book.”
“What a wonderful privilege that was — to be able to tell my story, my way,” she said.