Friday, July 24, 2009

Publishing and the Privileging of White Expression

As a primarily self-published author, I take on a lot of the responsibilities of a more mainstream publishing conglomerate. I have to, obviously, do my own writing; do my own editing (with some pitfalls, admittedly, because I cannot catch everything myself despite my best efforts); my own book covers; my own book pricing; and, most importantly, my own promotion. The actual formation of the book is the easy part, funnily enough; the promoting my book is a smidge harder. There’s the belief self-published books are by authors who “can’t hack it” or aren’t good/talented enough, so they’re immediately regarded as, if not outright trash, “less than” those who could get through those “pearly” mainstream publishing gates. Let it be known that yes, I would love to have the same reach as books with mainstream publishers can achieve, but I don’t necessarily need the mainstream publisher to go with it. If not for the other perks I could get by being a more mainstream-published author (access to more distribution channels, access to writing associations that provide healthcare), I’d consider that route as less than a necessity and more of a “do it if you want.” Then again, I am probably already there more than I realize. I like the freedom I have from total control over my product, even if that means I shoulder all the responsibility, and I’m a little frustrated I can’t get my product into as many hands as I would like or people dismiss it solely because I put it out myself and not because they disliked the story. And then I realized people would be dismissing it even if it were in every Barnes and Noble and Borders and Books-a-Million this country had to offer.

I’m a black author who writes about black women; and not only that, many of these black women 1.) don’t hate the fact they’re black, 2.) are involved with nonblack men, 3.) don’t hate black men.

And, of course, the only people who care to read about black women are other black women, obviously; and since only about five black women in the whole country read (if you go by mainstream publishers’ insinuations), then why put any money behind those stories, anyway? If you’re not writing something that’s salacious, overly heavy and deep ala Toni Morrison, or minimizes the “Negro Factor”, then your book will not enjoy the same amount of support as your white counterparts. Not only that, if a white author can write a similar story, his/her account will be “more authentic” than yours, because stories by white authors, no matter what the color of the characters, are always more universal than stories by Authors of Color (AoC), no matter what color the characters (and goodness help the AoC who writes about white characters)…especially if these stories are love stories.

Which are what I write.

When my first book came out, I was on a plane returning to Boston after having my very first book signing in my hometown. I was sitting beside a very happy white man (he’d been imbibing a bit), but he was chatty and friendly, and I told him I was an author. Never mind that being the first time I ever uttered those words out loud and actually meant them, but his eyes had perked up and he asked to see the book. I gave him the only copy I had on me, knowing I would get it back. He flipped through to the middle and began to read. After a few moments, he then pulled out a fifty, gave to me, and demanded I autograph “his” book. And then for the rest of the plane ride we started talking about race relations and how things have changed or haven’t, and it wasn’t those conversations where he was “challenging the authenticity of my experiences”, but an honest-to-goodness dialogue. It was the first time I realized my stories really could be universal, because I can admit this white man’s face was not among the ones I saw in the audience for whom I’d been writing. By this point, my novel had been rejected several times, one letter even going so far as to say I mentioned race too much, even though the potential agent knew the story was about a black girl and white boy who were former childhood friends reunited on a newly integrated college in 1960s Georgia.

Good luck trying to avoid mentioning race often in that story!

But it wasn’t just the white man who surprised me. It was the white women who’ve e-mailed me and said how much they just loved this book and asked to put it in their libraries; it was my white teachers from high school in South Carolina who just looked at me in amazement and couldn’t stop raving about this story. It was the black men at the book fairs who would talk me to death about the book and its relevant themes while holding it in a ninja grip. It was the black boys who saw their mama/sister/aunt in Coralee and really liked the book. It’s the white boy who, after hearing discussions about it, said he was going to buy it because the story sounded interesting.

Thank goodness I’d started self-publishing, or else I doubt I would’ve gotten to see all of this for myself. I would’ve been shuttled off into the “black sections of the bookstores”, the sections that are as far from the entrance and tucked around a corner so that nobody but those who know what they’re looking for will ever find it. I actually talked to someone from Borders Corporate about that, and she…couldn’t give me an answer. Not that it surprised me. There are arguments for and against having an African-American section and having books integrated into the bookstore as a whole. But the convenience of the section aside, I, as an author, don’t want my books separated like that. It’s like a big ole “blacks only” sign that apparently doubles as a force field to prevent those who don’t meet the melanin threshold barrier from entering the section or something. I don’t think I’ve ever in my life seen a white person come to that section whenever I’ve gone into bookstores unless they’re getting Zora Neale Hurston or Richard Wright for their kids’ English classes. And then this whole business about being “tricked” into reading black books because the cover wasn’t clear? I know all books I see have at least dust-jacket or back-cover blurbs, and if the blurb was good enough to pull you in…I don’t understand why the actual color of the characters can make a reader flip the script. Was it because these white readers really could relate to stories about black characters—especially romances? Did you know black women liked to be held tenderly? That black women liked to be courted and wooed? That black women do have jobs other than wearing a polyester uniform and taking someone’s order? That black men really do run companies they created from the ground up and then don’t run after the first white/nonblack woman they meet once they’ve made it? That black men still are attracted love black women? That black people can have healthy, loving relationships? That white/Asian/Native/Hispanic men of all races can be attracted to love a black woman without fetishizing her? That this same premise applies when the couples are same sex as well?

But there are some major “politics of respectability” going on in “black imprints” for mainstream publishers. Some of the guidelines include “heroine must not be involved with anyone but the hero; couples must use condoms; heroine isn’t allowed to get pregnant without being married or engaged”, and I’m thinking, not even white women in novels have to adhere to such strict rules! I don’t know how many “Secret Baby” stories Harlequin publishes in a month. But if the black characters don’t, it’s suddenly “street lit”, which has its own problematic connotations about suspected quality of the writers and its readers (i.e., mostly and unfairly negative, even if I don’t read street lit myself). But this either/or dichotomy over what kind of stories black authors at mainstream publishers are allowed to tell are exactly why many of us aren’t accepting any old contract we get from them. That we’re putting our books out ourselves. Because after four hundred years of not being able to say a damn thing, like hell I’m not going to say what I want and how I want now. But the publishing industry/media at large continues to have its “Time to Kill” moments and put white faces on black stories or insert white people in stories not about them, as if “White folks, or it didn’t/doesn’t happen/matter!” is the appropriate business model in a world that is certainly not majority white and, in the case of the United States, in a country that is headed by a nonwhite family and will increasingly not be nonwhite in the next few decades. The default universal experience has not been, nor will it ever be, “white”. And, sure, people have the right to write whatever they want, which includes white people writing nonwhite characters (though there doesn’t seem to be the same regard for nonwhite authors writing white characters); but when those white authors get a larger share of the market telling my stories, I just have to echo Ms. Mahalia Jackson: “How come, mister, you think you can tell me about that old song, when it was born in my mouth?”

I can carry a tune. I can sing just fine.


thebluestpurple said...

a black female author who wants to write about characters who look like herself. what a rash and crazy idea.

it can't be said enough, i really commend you for going ahead and self publishing your work, bc it really is a missing piece in today's book world. i don't think i've ever heard the story about your flight fan; that's pretty awesome. i honestly think that there are tons of ppl out there who would love your books, if only they read them, or knew about them. but most ppl are too lazy to do research themselves, they just go with whatever's being touted and blaring at them from the net and tv. it's such a stupid catch-22. i think you're going a great job as is, word of mouth marketing is very underrated, but it's the oldest marketing there is, and it still exists. it's already been proven that you gain from do your own promoting, and think it's just going to keep being more and more lucrative for you.

the offer always stands for me to work on book cover art for you ;) just let me know. i will say that "i'll be your somebody" is my fave cover of yours so far.

i'm loving this mahalia quote thanks for sharing.

Bana said...


Thank you so much. And I'm glad you like the cover! Yeah, that one is probably one of my better ones, no doubt! And one of these days, I'mma poke you about a book cover, just know that for real! There's only so much I can do with my limited graphic capabilities! lol

But seriously, word of mouth is something else. One of those white ladies e-mailed me was from Vermont who was sitting on a plane next to someone who used to work with our family. CRAZINESS. Just proof that people want a good story; the problem is, there is a belief that the only "good" stories out there for the mainstream audience are from those/about those of European descent, and that's certainly not true.

Danielle said...

Thank you so much for posting this blog which addresses many of the issues I have as a Black woman who is an avid reader, and an inspiring author myself. Keep up the fight. We're fighting along with you.

Bana said...

Hi, Danielle,

Thank you for stopping by and please don't be discouraged! I wish you good luck as you transition from being an aspiring author to a published one!