Trinidad-born scholar Elizabeth Nunez is the author of eight literary fiction novels. Since her first novel was published in 1986, her work has won a myriad of awards. In her 2011 novel, Boundaries, Nunez takes on, among many issues, race and ethnicity in a shifting publishing industry.
Nunez provides an historical perspective to the publishing twists and turns, particularly in the literary fiction realm. Nunez had a publishing deal with Random House imprint Ballantine in the 1990s when publishing houses began to merge. Before the mergers, there were people who were concerned with the bottom line but understood that they were not selling widgets, but a different kind of product—a medium that can pass on images, values, affecting the minds of readers. Single digit profit was enough. Then, people that Nunez calls “the suits” took charge. The Suits, according to Nunez, wanted double digit growth.
Best-selling author Connie Briscoe appeared on the scene in the early 1990s as The Suits arrived, an era which she’d previously 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 1992’s 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? Latino author Raul Ramos y Sanchez, 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.”
Glorious author Bernice L. McFadden adds, “I also believe that authors of color receive less marketing dollars than their white counterparts and are less likely to be marketed to readers of ALL colors.”
Niche marketing of their work is not a new cri de coeur for authors. As early as 2006, Wall Street Journal reporter Jeffrey Trachtenberg, who covers the publishing industry, wrote the article Dividing Lines: Why Book Industry Sees the World Split Still by Race, in which he examined whether such segregation limited the upward trajectory of writers of color. USA QuickFacts from the US Census Bureau estimates that, as of 2011, Latinos made up 16.7% of the United States’ population; Blacks, 13.1%. Simple math would illustrate that such niche marketing relegates authors of color to overfished ponds of potential readers, shutting them out from access to a greater audience and thus stunting their potential.
Nunez concurs, declaring that publishers can promote what they choose. Both Nunez and Ramos point to Katherine Stockett’s The Help and the marketing force that made the book a runaway bestseller as an example of publishers finding a way where there was a will—a will which they doubt would have existed had Stockett been a writer of color. McFadden has written extensively about this practice, which she calls seg-book-gation.
The niche marketing ghetto—the ethnic sections in chain bookstores that Trachtenberg wrote about in his article—has gone cyber. Ramos points to the categorizations on sites like Amazon.com, tags which beget ranks, for example #x in Books, #x in Fiction, and the like—tags that Ramos suspects come primarily from publishers. Even having made it to the Top 10 in Hispanic fiction is cold comfort when it indicates limited outreach to a wider audience. These sections, says Ramos, are not an easy question to resolve. Says Ramos, “We all have individual experiences. The sooner we can express our individuality, the labels will go away.”
On the subject of such labels, McFadden is blunt. “I think mainstream publishing expects writers of color to stay in their place – or at least the place that colonialism and slavery created for us,” she declares. “They seem to wholeheartedly embrace books that support stereotypes.” Authors who “write books that don’t adhere to those stereotypes are often told that there isn’t an audience for their work.”
“Publishers say, ‘Don’t blame me. I’m just giving people what they want,’” says Nunez.
However, Nunez insists, publishing is a business that deals with the selling of art. If publishers insist that there are no buyers for an artist’s work, the question to ask is why aren’t there buyers?
For now, says Nunez, publishing feeds America’s need to perpetuate the inferiority of others, particularly the myth of intellectual inferiority of people of color. This, Nunez insists, is why racism can continue…because we refuse to see ourselves in others. “If I read a book about a person…it forces me to see myself in that person.”
In the face of the examination of the conundrum that is the role of writers of color in the big publishing paradigm, Carleen Brice, the author of Orange, Mint and Honey, takes a hopeful tack. “There are still writers of color getting deals with big publishers,” she says. “Look at Attica Locke’s book The Cutting Season. That’s the first in a new imprint from Dennis Lehane, and it’s one of the big books for this fall. A really good one too, by the way.”
And Brice is correct; there are authors of color who are doing well.
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*An abridged version of this article appeared at Postscript’d and the Grio on January, 2013