Much is written about the publishing industry’s woes, from diminishing margins and accusations of price fixing, to the ceding of territory to self-publishing in both print and digital form. But for writers of color, the concerns are more personal. All over the Internet and the blogosphere, writers of color lament the difficulty in getting a deal from mainstream publishing’s Big Six–Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Group, Random House, and Simon and Schuster. All of this has led many to speculate that maybe big publishing is just “not into” writers of color anymore.
For example, in a November 15th missive reprinted widely, authors Virginia DeBerry and Donna Grant got straight to the point. The best-selling duo, after assurances that neither of them was ill or that they had fallen out as friends, dropped the bombshell: “However, our writing career is officially on ‘HOLD.’” Here’s more:
We are stepping back, down, out-for now. We’ve been in the publishing business for more than twenty years and we’ve had a great ride, but the business has changed…in ways not necessarily to our liking. And we have changed. For more than half of those twenty years, we were lucky enough to write full time and support ourselves (TWO OF US) from our novels!! This is something we know not many authors get to say-and we are hugely grateful to all of you who have supported our work -and those who will continue to buy and read our books, because they aren’t going anywhere. But we now find that is no longer the case, nor is it likely to be that way again. Back when we started this journey we were 20 years younger and working full time and writing full time seemed doable-because it was. It isn’t any more. Period. As any of you who’ve ever written or attempted to write a novel know, it is so much more than a notion. It is an all consuming [sic] undertaking.”
DeBerry and Grant went on to lament how the industry has changed, requiring an omnipresent cyber presence through social media, as well the pressures to crank out a book a year to meet an industry’s unrealistic expectations for them. Before poignantly closing, they share that “So we said all this to say-there are no more DeBerry and Grant novels in the pipeline. Whew…that was hard, but also a relief.”
Say what you will about DeBerry and Grant, they engineered their own exit from publishing. Other writers of color have not been as lucky.
Raul Ramos y Sanchez is the award-winning Neo-Latino Renaissance author of America Libre and House Divided. He is a marketing professional, part partner in an advertising agency. He’s connected to Latino Hollywood, most notably to the actor Edward James Olmos. In this age of restrictive laws like Arizona’s SB1070, Ramos adds to the marketplace of ideas by hosting My Immigration Story.com, a portal that puts a human face on the contentious immigration debate. Still, Ramos’ considerably sized platform was not enough when it came time for Grand Central, his publisher, to decide whether to renew his contract. Grand Central dropped him from their roster, citing anemic sales.
Take Carleen Brice. In 2010, Brice’s debut novel, Orange, Mint and Honey became Sins of the Mother, a Lifetime television movie starring Jill Scott. Sins of the Mother and its star Scott won NAACP Image Awards for Outstanding Television Movie and Outstanding Actress in a TV Movie respectively. Today, Brice is without a mainstream fiction book deal.
Best-selling author Bernice L. McFadden was so respected that she routinely wrote industry commentary for venerable organs like the Washington Post. She had even published chic lit fare under the pseudonym Geneva Holliday. But in 2009, two agents were unable to persuade a publisher to pick up her latest offering Glorious.
These tales are, unfortunately, not unique amongst writers of color. You get to know enough writers, you’ll see that many have lost their books deals have moved onto other ventures in order to survive. A sampling of the LinkedIn profiles of several authors bears this out. Authors who’d once topped best-seller lists now tout the work they do for others. One novelist famous for a memorable photo of him spinning with his open coat flailing in the wind now says he is a claims representative with a national insurance company, his former occupation—novelist—now bearing an asterisk, like post-season records achieved in baseball. Another author whose work had been made into plays now primarily plies her trade as an organizational psychology professional. Many authors have taken refuge in academe. Others have taken to lucrative ghostwriting.
After two decades that saw an explosion of works published by writers of color, things have cooled considerably. What happened?
To answer this question, two editors from big publishing’s past and present, weigh in. Latoya C. Smith is an Associate Editor at the Hachette imprint Grand Central Publishing. She acquires short and long form mainstream romance and erotica, as well as African American fiction and non-fiction. Until being laid off in January of 2009, Rakia Clark was an editor at Dafina, Kensington Book’s African American imprint. Both insist that big publishing has no animus against writers of color. “I don’t think there is an “attitude” per se,” Smith says.
Clark doubles down. “I think mainstream publishers are interested in any writer whose work the public wants to read,” she says. “For a short spell in the 1990s, that was black women writers writing about relationships. Within the past three years, it’s been vampires and zombies. This year it’s erotica for moms. Next year it may be something else entirely. Writers of color are welcome by publishers.”
Clark adds, though, that “the big disadvantage writers of color have is that there are few people of color working for the publishers who are often more likely to receive submissions from minority authors. But believe me, publishers want writers with talent and the potential for a strong sales record. They’ll accept it in whatever form it comes.”
Says Smith, “Everyone recognizes that we need more editors of color to help acquire some of the projects that others may not know about or have an interest in that sell.”
However, both Smith and Clark concede that non-editorial forces exert their pressures on the acquisitions process—a process that Smith describes the process this way: “Once the editor has read and loved the project, he/she must research the marketplace to be able to let the sales force know how to position the book. Then the editor brings up the project to acquisitions board. If all agree it is a viable project, the editor runs a profit and loss statement (P&L) to determine how much of an advance to offer.”
Per Clark, “The sales team has become crucial to the acquisitions process because they are the intermediary between the editor and booksellers. The sales team is charged with getting vendors excited enough about a project to order copies that can then be sold to the public. So the sell-ability of a book is what the sales team focuses on. If they don’t think a project is sound enough or timely enough or juicy enough or whatever enough, they will anticipate struggles in getting the book sold. If the book has incredible literary merit, the sales team will sometimes bend. But that happens less and less now, as it’s become harder and harder for new authors — and new fiction especially — to break out.”
Says Smith, about the influence an editor has in the acquisitions process today. “I think it’s a cross between the editor’s love for the project and how many books can be sold. Sometimes if the writing is good, even if the numbers aren’t huge, the editor can persuade the acquisitions board to take a chance on a project. Unfortunately, despite an editor’s enthusiasm, this doesn’t always get a project through.”
Clark agrees: “An editor’s influence remains huge in the acquisitions process. After all, each book is submitted to the editor; the editor is the person pitching the book to the rest of the publishing house; and the editor is the in-house advocate for the book once it’s acquired. Other factors may influence a publisher’s ultimate interest in a book: similarity to other titles on the list; not enough time to capitalize on current events that would help promote the book; among tons of others. But the acquisitions process still begins with the editor.”
Next. Authors of color and big publishing: Then and now
*An abridged version of this article appeared at Postscript’d and the Grio on January 7, 2013