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Archive for October 15th, 2009

I’m a bibliophile. I read lots of different kinds of books, both fiction and nonfiction, on a variety of subjects. But this year I’ve been thinking more about the books that I read, and I find that my bookshelf doesn’t yet include very many authors of color.

Like Lisa Kenney, “It wasn’t that I was consciously reading only white American authors, but … I was missing out on a lot of great work I hadn’t heard of.”

There are many contributing factors in play, and one of them is marketing. Justine Larbalestier, a white Australian author who writes young adult novels in which most of the protagonists are people of color, has been told by editors, sales reps, and booksellers that “black covers don’t sell.” (You can read about the controversy over her most recent book at Racialicious.) Can all the blame be laid at the feet of consumers? Larbalestier does not think so.

The notion that “black books” don’t sell is pervasive at every level of publishing. Yet I have found few examples of books with a person of colour on the cover that have had the full weight of a publishing house behind them. Until that happens more often we can’t know if it’s true that white people won’t buy books about people of colour. All we can say is that poorly publicised books with “black covers” don’t sell. The same is usually true of poorly publicised books with “white covers”.… Perhaps the whole “black books don’t sell” thing is a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Malaika Adero, a senior editor at Atria Books, suggests the same:

Literary African-American writers have difficulty getting publicity. The retailers then don’t order great quantities of the books. Readers don’t know what books are available and therefore don’t ask for them. It’s a vicious cycle.

So part of the reason “I was missing out on a lot of great work I hadn’t heard of” is that publishers and booksellers are doing very little to tell me about these books they claim “don’t sell.”

Consider also the way bookstores and libraries shelve books. For example, if you go into a bookstore just to browse mysteries or Christian fiction, you may not find books by the African American authors writing those genres. Some bookstores put books by African American authors in an “African American fiction” section. This means I may need to visit the African American section to find a book by Claudia Mair Burney.

So another reason “I was missing out on a lot of great work I hadn’t heard of” is that I didn’t know where to look for a book I might want.

One of the editorials at the Inkwell Bookstore blog laments, “More often than not, White customers buy books by White authors. While this in no way makes them racist, their unwillingness to explore something outside their comfort zone does make them dull.”

Yes, another reason “I was missing out on a lot of great work I hadn’t heard of” is that I need to make the effort to throw off that dullness and broaden my reading horizons. The publishers and bookstores may not be helping me, but that’s no excuse. “It wasn’t that I was consciously reading only white American authors,” but neither was I taking off the blinders of whiteness.  Larbalestier asks:

Consumers need to do what they can. When was the last time you bought a book with a person of colour on the front cover or asked your library to order one for you?

Good question. I need to examine my choices.

Novelist Tayari Jones shares an insight: “The ugly truth is that stories by writers of color are thought to be of interest only to readers of that community.” I think this is a factor in all the points mentioned above:

  • publishers tend to think writers (and characters) of color will only interest readers of color,
  • booksellers tend to think writers (and characters) of color will only interest readers of color,
  • we white consumers tend to think writers (and characters) of color will only interest readers of color.

The good news is that if we discover that we’re not reading enough books by writers of color, we can change our reading habits!

Author Carleen Brice is inviting white (and other) readers to read black authors at White Readers Meet Black Authors. I love her video proposing that December should be celebrated as “National Buy a Book by a Black Author and Give It to Somebody Not Black Month”:

But don’t stop there. Look for Latino authors, Asian American authors, and Native American authors, too. If your bookshelf, like mine, is wanting in diversity, please start making an extra effort to seek out authors of color.

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