ReShonda Tate Billingsley is a former television newscaster who now writes fulltime. She has spent her entire publishing career, which began in 2003, with Simon and Schuster. “I love my publisher and am so blessed to have been with them (and the same editor) from the beginning,” she declares. “I think that we have such a mutual and longstanding relationship because they believe in me and they know that I’m going to work just as hard, if not harder, to ensure a successful literary career. When a publisher knows you’re giving your all, they don’t mind getting behind you.”
Billingsley is 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. The film will be released sometime 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. Though she had been with a mainstream publisher since 2000, 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.”
Murray, too, has expanded the outreach of her work into various media. “This feels like an exciting time,” she gushes. “Several of my books have been optioned to become movies and there’s a lot more interest. I think before the end of the year, I’ll be able to announce a couple of big projects.”
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.”
Murray also points out the impact of digital publishing as a game changer. “Now, there are thousands of authors out there selling their books for ninety-nine cents, bringing down the value of writing. The big book deals that we were signing are gone, and publishers don’t have the budgets they used to have to market out books. I used to go on 30 city tours. Now, that’s been cut in half.”
Shifts aside, though, Billingsley and Murray have managed to remain au courant in a time when many authors of color either cannot get access to big publishing or have lost their book deals. Billingsley attributes her longevity to staying hungry and taking initiative where her publisher didn’t. “I initially self-published and I maintained a self-published mentality in my mainstream career,” she says.
Murray credits a higher power for her endurance. “Truly by the grace of God. I do work very hard though. And there are two things that I learned early: one, I’m an entertainer and to stay relevant, I have to publish at least one book a year, and two, I have to work as if I’m self-published. My publisher does a lot for me, but I’ve always seen them as my partner. I work just as hard as they do to promote my novels.”
Not surprisingly, successful authors would have a different take on publishing’s attitude towards authors of color. Says Billingsley, “ I believe at the end of the day, the color publishers care about is green. I don’t think there’s some effort to keep writers of color down, but it’s a Catch 22 situation. We fall victim to a mainstream mindset that won’t automatically pick up books from writers of color, that means our books don’t move as much, which means publishers won’t keep giving us book deals. So I think the problem with the lack of writers of color is bigger than the publishers themselves. It’s about changing attitudes in general.”
Murray concurs. “I haven’t felt like I’m treated differently. I think the publisher knows that they can’t market our books the same way they market other books. S&S [Simon and Schuster] is always trying to figure out the best way to reach my core market which is African American women. It’s tough, but I think they try.”
Latino author Raul Ramos y Sanchez, author of America Libre and House Divided, finds this typical, likening big publishing to a mother turtle having laid her eggs on the beach. “Baby turtles rush to the sea. Which of you survive the seagulls and crabs and make it to the sea, then you’re my baby,” he explains.
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*An abridged version of this article appeared at Postscript’d and the Grio on January 7, 2013