the coloreds only bookshelf – madness in the publishing industry

August 14, 2012

The publishing industry has decided, on our behalf, that there is only one Black experience. We all come from one place and have one ambition. And unfortunately, we haven’t done much to prove we disagree. Growing up, I experienced this first hand. People wouldn’t accept the fact that I liked to read, worked in a library or listened to music other than hip-hop or R&B. White people were shocked and Black people were offended (or humored). Me? I was confused. Why shouldn’t I be myself? Why did I have to pretend to be what I wasn’t to satisfy a stereotype?

Words by Kelbian Noel

As a teenager, I worked in a library and no matter what the book was about, as long as it was written by a Black author or focused on Black characters it was shelved in the “Black” section. They called it Black Literature and adorned each book with a tiny orange sticker, so they’d be easier to find (or re-shelve if they ended up in the wrong section). They did it with every group of color. Around the perimeter of the library were color-coded shelves. In the middle was the mainstream section and, according to them, mainstream was White.
It all started with the publishing industry. Once they decided to let people of color into the writers’ club, they found it only fitting to separate them from the mainstream. If you were a writer of color, you had to come up with a unique way to tell your story. It had to be from your experience. Not the “White Experience”. But as any person of color knows the White experience, isn’t all that unique. Experience may be separated by a lot of things, but color isn’t always one of them.
Now that the world is slowly coming to terms with this reality, readers are up in arms about the lack of color in mainstream fiction. But thanks to their clever idea to separate literature by color in order to include everyone, there’s not much the publishing industry can do to change. At least not very quickly.
Since they’ve used one perspective to tell an array of stories, the White perspective, they’re finding it difficult. Now the entertainment world is diversifying faster than they can keep up. So they’re telling the world (but mostly themselves) books with people of color on the front don’t sell! If we put a book with a Black girl on the cover in the mainstream section, no one (translation: the White people who we believe are the only ones padding our pockets) is going to pick it up. We can’t support authors who write that stuff. We’ll only be digging a hole for ourselves. We need to stay as far away from that mess (the mess they created) as possible. You see, they’re afraid to take the risk because publishing is a business. And while, in business, it’s important to take some risks, it’d be pretty stupid to contradict yourself.

Now, as a writer, the same thing is happening. I’m expected to write about a Black experience I’ve never experienced, or not be taken seriously at all. I could try to write about the White experience, as many Black authors have, but the result isn’t usually desirable. There is no in between.
I have a colleague who wrote a book with a main character that was White. The book was scooped up by an agent and she was on the fast track to being published. Or so she thought. But publishers weren’t so enthused. They questioned how a Black woman writing about a White girl would be perceived by a White audience. They didn’t think anyone would buy it, so neither did they.
Do people really want to see more main characters of color or are we just turning this into another race issue? Yes.
In the comments of an article about the state of diversity in young adult fiction, a White woman said she was offended that she should be expected to add diversity to her work. In another article, a Black girl said Black people need to stop being lazy and stop expecting White people to do the work for them. I agree with both of them—somewhat.
Should White writers include more people of color in their work? It’d be nice if they did, but let’s be real. Writers write what they know. And Black writers should do just that. But that doesn’t mean they can’t get creative and step away from the stereotype. We don’t all have to be Terri McMillan or L. Devine.
What stereotype you ask? Before I continue, let me just point out a few things about Black people that, for some reason or another, aren’t obvious in today’s society:
There is another world outside of über rich athletes and entertainers or the so-called urban life. And shock of all shocks, it’s a Black world. Black people live in the suburbs too. We don’t all live in Atlanta or or whatever big city is commonly associated with a large black population. And the alternative to that is not always the African or Caribbean experience. Some of us, like me, even grew up in the country surrounded by White folks. We’re not all Christians, and we’re not all fluent in ebonics either. Some of us even have two parents, White mothers, Asian fathers and Hispanic grandmothers. Just like White people, we all have different experiences that have nothing to do with the color of our skin.
End rant here.

Blame for the state of diversity in popular fiction lies on the publishing industry, but responsibility lies on readers and writers.
Change is never just given. You can’t sit around and wait for libraries and bookstores to be integrated. You can demand it, send a strong message, but you can’t expect it to just be given to you. You have to take it.
Just because you want it doesn’t mean the Black Katniss Everdeen is going to pop up in the window of your nearest book store anytime soon. All the picketing and complaining in the world won’t help. You need to do the work yourself. Go out and find what you’re looking for. Don’t be lazy about it. If you want to read about a Black character, find books about a Black character. Make the industry sit up and take notice. Stop waiting for them to cater directly to you, because unless you’re making them a ton of money, they’re not going to.
If you prefer books stores, and you’re looking for the hero, heart-throb creature of the night of the Black persuasion, then walk on over to the Black section. You’ll probably find it there. It’s not right, but it is what it is right now. If you don’t find it there, then check out the latest e-book list. Most e-reader companies (Kindle, Kobo, Nook) provide free apps for your mobile phone or computer. And trust me when I say there are hundreds of new books being published every month. They’re not all good, but that’s no different from some of the crap we find in the mainstream now. Is it? Need help sorting through the good and the bad? Checkout, Amazon’s Listmania! or Diverse Pages. They list, review and feature books about people of color every day.
And, let me just say, to the girl who claimed Black people are being lazy. Check yourself. Because unless you’ve been in the thick of things, you really don’t know how it is. Let me be the first to tell you, life as a writer is tough, life as Black writer? Shit just got real. Why is it that people (even Black people) are so quick to throw the “Black people are lazy” excuse out there? The fact that people think racial discrimination doesn’t exist anymore, just because there’s a thin veil hiding it, makes me want to laugh and cry at the same time.
But don’t get me wrong, writers. You’re not off the hook either. Stop waiting around for the industry to find out just how brilliant you are. Because here’s the thing, just like television, movies and commercials, the publishing industry relies on tokens to keep us happy. One study showed diversity in the publishing industry only changed by 1% in one year.
Hey, we can’t all be the token.
You can find a small publisher, or better yet, get yourself a really good editor and self-publish. The publishing industry isn’t planning on changing overnight. If at all. Want your book out there? Put it out there. Join the Kindle DP phenomenon. The time for another renaissance has never been better. If you’ve got talent you should be putting it out there, by any means necessary.
The reason the publishing industry hasn’t changed their tune in the past, is because they didn’t have to. Black people always bought books, despite who was on the cover and White people continued to buy books with themselves on the cover, because that’s the way it always was. That was mainstream fiction.
For every other person of color, it’s exactly the same. They buy what they see, because they want to read. The fact that they don’t see themselves in the pages might bother them, but they feel powerless to do anything about it. In this day and age, though, we’re anything but powerless.
Does black sell? According to the industry. No. But from our perspective, and my experience, of course. When it really comes down to it, once you get into that story and can’t put it down, you’ll find it’s not about the color of the characters, it’s about the experience. It’s not about the backstory, it’s about the story. Why else have people of color been reading White fiction for centuries? They just want to read.
Still, the color of a character may not impact a good story that much, but it doesn’t mean color should be ignored. The bottom line is, the only way change in the publishing industry will come is if sales for those types of books go up, the only way that’s going to happen is if readers who are demanding more diversity buy those books, and the only way that is going to happen is if they look for them. But they can’t find them if they’re not there (writers, that’s your cue).
The mainstream publishing industry sucks for what they’ve done to literature. But while they are to blame for the state of diversity in fiction, we (the authors and the readers) are to blame for not really doing much about it.