Black and White Fiction

Before I say another word, let me tell you how hard it is for me to write this blog. I am a white fiction author, discussing a possible concern that involves black fiction authors. This is about as far out a person can stick their neck.

I am going to use the word “White,” rather than Caucasian, and “Black,” rather than African American.

At Books-A-Million one day, I had been looking over the fiction novel section when I saw a novel by Eric Jerome Dickey. As always, I read what the book was about and read the first page. I thought it was terrific. Then, I turned the book over to learn more about the author.

To my surprise, he was black.

I was not surprised that a black author could write a great novel. 65% of my friends on Facebook are black and have terrific novels, stories, and poems. I was shocked to see a black fiction author amongst King, Kootnz, Grisham, Patterson, Roberts, Grafton, and the other white novelist.

My next thought was, “I wonder why more black fiction writers are not in this section?”

The answer to my question was at first, disturbing. The black authors who write in all different genre’s were in the Black American or Urban Fiction areas. Why would a bookstore not want these black fiction authors on the shelf up front with all other fiction authors?

The unbiased answer is that bookstores must feel that black authors do not have success selling fiction in areas such as thrillers, mystery, romance, western, horror, etc… Booksellers believe that black fiction authors sell better in Black American sections of the store.

About $300,000 million dollars spent in the publishing industry, are from black readers who purchase books written by black authors. This must mean that bookstores are placing all black fiction authors in a section for convenience, so customers can easily find that author or genre.

If that is the case, then what is Eric Jerome Dickey doing in the general fiction area? Wouldn’t all of his books be in the Black American or Urban Fiction section?

There is a perception in the publishing world that white authors use characters of all nationalities. For the most part, black fiction authors stick with black characters.

Publishers expect white authors to go beyond their own culture. Publishers expect black fiction authors to defend their culture, race, and communities. This puts a lot of pressure on black writers, who feel obligated to tell stories in a way that may limit their creativity.

I have a few questions:

1. Are black fiction authors writing books that appeal to a target audience, other than African Americans? 25% of the publishing industry is made up of black authors. But how many are writing westerns? Horror? Science fiction? Thrillers? Romance? How many black fiction authors write characters and plots that relate to all nationalities? If the number is low, that would mean most black fiction authors are marketing to an African American audience. Which leads me to believe why the books are placed in that section of stores. I suppose it’s simple marketing 101.

2. Do black fiction authors want to be in a section with Stephen King, Dean Koontz, James Patterson, John Grisham, and Nora Roberts? Or do black fiction writers have better marketing opportunities in the Black American sections of the store? Think about it another way. If a white fiction writer wanted to be in the African American section, even if that writer has a book that appeals to the black culture, would the author have success?

3. Does the author photo and the illustrations on the cover, dictate the sale of that book? For example, if the author is black, does that automatically mean the author would not be marketable in the suspense section? If there is a black illustration of a character on the cover, does that automatically mean the book should be in the Black American section, so it will have the best opportunity to sell?

 Frank Yerby published a book without his picture on the cover. For many years, people thought he was white and he was successful because of that decision. What does that prove? That if given the opportunity, black readers can enjoy white authors and white readers can enjoy black authors.

However, viewing this from a marketing perspective, it seems that an illustration of a black character or photo of a black author, limits sales in the general fiction sections of stores. (As will a white illustration of a character or photo of a white author, being sold in the Black American section.)

4. What if a black fiction author wrote a suspense/thriller that appealed to all races and the main character was black? Doesn’t that author deserve to be placed in the suspense/thriller section, with any other author? I think the answer to that should be, “Yes.”

The novel I’m working on right now, has more black characters than white. Shouldn’t I have an opportunity to market my book in the African American sections of bookstores and libraries? I hope the answer is “Yes.”

Nevertheless, whether authors are black or white, the choice is up to publishers, marketing departments, public relation firms, distribution companies, and booksellers.

Justine Larbalestier wrote a young adult book called Liar. It is about a black girl who is having problems telling the truth and is determined to change her ways. A publisher named Bloomsbury loved the book and signed Justine.

The marketing department at Bloomsbury decided that they could not put a picture of a young black girl on the cover, so they used a picture of a white girl instead. Justine complained, but was told, “Bookstores will not accept a novel with a black girl on the cover. It will not sell.”

Justine continued to battle, begging them to change the picture. Bloomsbury did not back down and the book was published.

Justine never stopped pleading her case. She said that black teens will feel slighted if all the books have white’s on the cover. Also, this will make the young adults who are black, insecure.

Justine went on to say that she now favors self-publishing. If an author wants to write about a “Black Harry Potter,” then that’s what they can have. 

By the way, Justine is a white author…

Look around the stores. Check out the CD’s, DVD’s, and non-fiction books. It seems blacks and whites, along with other nationalities, have a marketability that does not come into question. However, blacks on a fiction novel? That is a different story. A white author writing a novel that appeals to African Americans, is pre-determinded to fail.

A female black author named, Terry McMillan, self-published a book you may know…Waiting to Exhale. It was on the New York Times Bestsellers list for many months and became a movie. McMillan followed that up with her next book called, How Stella Got Her Groove Back. This tells me that all authors in fiction can be bestsellers and race does not matter.

Or does it matter in terms of marketing?

Eric Jerome Dickey worked his way up by marketing the black culture first. He wrote a screenplay that ended up being a moving at the Pan African Film Festival. He also belongs to Alpha Phi Alpha, which was founded by African Americans. Eric Jerome Dickey was smart to use the market that was available to him.

The bottom line question, sent to me by Barbara Grovner, author of Even Numbers, is this: “Do bookstores allow black mystery writers to be in the fiction section, or are all black writers placed in Urban Fiction and Black American sections, no matter what?”

I joined a group called, “Milwaukee’s Hottest Urban Authors.” Right off the bat, the group has limited its members. It should be called, “Milwaukee’s Hottest Authors.” However, it’s my impression that this group feels it will be more successful if it markets to black authors. The point is, I’m wondering how many black authors really have a problem with being labeled as Black American Writers? 

Let me just stick my neck all the way out and say what’s really on my mind:

* There is a perception in the publishing industry and in bookstores, that black authors cannot sell to white readers.

* White authors cannot sell to black readers.

Is that perception accurate? I have to think that publishers and bookstores want to make a profit each quarter. In other words, they really believe that putting a black girl on a cover of a book, will not sell to a white audience and that book will fail.

When I purchased Eric Jerome Dickey’s novel, there were plenty of other choices. To be honest, based on what else I was looking at, Eric’s book was the one I wanted to read.

If his book was in the Black American section of the store, I never would have saw it, or spent the money to purchase it. In fact, I would not have bought anything that day, because nothing else appealed to me at the time.

John Grisham’s, A Time to Kill, is written by a white author with powerful characters that appeal to both black and white readers. However, according to bookstores, this novel can only be sold to a white audience. If John Grisham was black, this book could easily sell to a black audience.

Don’t get me wrong, I am part of the problem, as well as many other customers in bookstores. I never walk over to the African American section. What am I missing out on? Many great works of fiction. I’m sure most black customers in bookstores, bypass the general fiction section, romance, horror, and head to the African American section.

This is why bookstores are setup this way. If we want to change perception, authors and readers of all races, need to write and read all genre’s of fiction.

Let’s make decisions on what we read and write, based on words…rather than color. 

 

 

Ron Knight

Author of “2-10”

ww.upauthors.com/authors/ronknight

 

 

 

 

Literary Manager: Melissa Link

Contact: melissa@scbranding.com

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  1. Barbara Grovner says:

    Ron this is a very informative blog. I hope lots of people will stop by to leave their comments.

    I would love to see the work of AA authors on the same shelves of other authors based solely on genre.

    Of course we should broaden our horizons and read books from all races!

    Thanks Ron

  2. This should make for an interesting conversation. I am a filmmaker so there are some similarities that I will compare based on things said in this blog.

    I find it easier to buy books when several of the black authors are in one area. In my early 20’s I was against it because at my local bookstore the AA section is at the very back of the store and whereas other areas had seating this section didn’t and I thought it was just an easy way for security to monitor us in one area of the store. I also felt by putting it in an area that was not as easy to find that the hope was no one would buy the books and then books by black authors wouldn’t have to be published due to lack of sales. Same thing happens in the movie industry. Its hard to get a deal especially distribution if other blacks filmmakers have not been successful but they may not have been given the same advertising and promotion so dvd covers are important just like book covers. With so many choices and so little time other than knowing authors names the book title and cover are enough to make someone like me pick it up to see if I want to flip it over to read more about it.

    I don’t only buy books from black authors but I do make sure to support them. I love seeing that I have so many choices by people who are willing to write about someone who looks like me and may have had some of my experiences. Someone not afraid to put a black face on the cover. Someone who can write about blacks loving each other (not in all cases). I like to be able to really get into a book when I read and insert myself as a character.

    I think blacks are more likely to buy books by white authors and whites are to buy books by black authors unless they have reached a certain status. The same is true with movies. I see a variety of movies but often times there are no other people of color in the movie or only an appearance. Its been that way my whole life so thats normal. I don’t make a big deal and I’d rather not have a black person in the movie than to have them play a stereotype or just be comic relief. I think the misconception is that books by black authors are full of drugs and violence because in television and movies that is often how we are portrayed.

    Other than Precious, how many other movies with an black cast was supported outside of the African American community? I wrote a screenplay was received great reviews. I never said that the characters were black even though it was obvious to me. I didn’t realize I had to. These characters couldn’t be seen as black because it didn’t fall into what someone else’s idea of what has to be in a black movie. The reviewers loved the story and had a complete white cast in mind until I told them that I intended for the cast to be black. The assumption was that I was white as well as all of the characters and then they had the nerve to tell me that black people wouldn’t support this..really? I’m black and all of the other blacks who read it loved it. I was asked to sell the story and allow them to make the characters white. I refused and kept my story. Thankfully I was able to get private funding from others to be able to make my film. We are still in preproduction. My lead financial supporter is a white man who really believes in the story regardless of the race of the people (even though he initially thought they were white).

  3. Barbara Grovner says:

    With my first book EVEN NUMBERS I think it would have been more wide spread had it been put with the mainstream section in the bookstore instead of the AA section.
    The AA section is small and books get overlooked.

    I think all fiction novels should be placed in alphabetical order with ALL other fiction in order of genre instead of race. Any thoughts on this?

  4. BRAVO RON! This was a balled up fist of honesty! Socked it to me! I agree with you 100%. I started out reading Judy Blume…then gradually moved into Donald Goines…Iceberg Slim…Claude Brown and was trapped in the world of black folx and black living…I said wow as a preteen that black people lived like that? I was raised in a upper middle class white neighborhood…but played with all enthic background kids hough…even if it took stepping into the ghetto…I was fascinated by the lifestyle I was not accustomed to. My reading gradually expanded into other genres…but at that time who knew what a genre was…I didn’t. I picked up a book read it the back and either it hooked me or it got placed back on the shelf. Back then Rainbow Jordan and A Hero Aint Nothing But a Sandwhich was on the shelves of the young adults section. Hmmmmm? SMH (Scratching my head)…When did this black book section start…I know now that there are black authors by the masses so why is it that when I walk into Barnes and Noble is there a section no bigger than 8×4…wow!
    The saddest thing is that when they seperate black author’s from other author’s; white green and blue…and they create a section for just us it send kids to a certain genre…it limits their reading if there is no one to say here take this..it was a great read. Ex: The Color of Water. It took an old professor to hand that one to me…she was black. this book had black characters and Jewish/white characters.
    It would be great to get a bunch of black authors to donate their books 3 or so have a white older male go into Barnes and No0ble and say I want to donate these books but would like them shelved in the fiction section. I am doing a study. This will answer your question/s Ron. We will be able to see what sells. Then do another study same store same white man and cover the front of make a book cover with just the book’s synopsis or a picture of a home town..neighborhood…nothing that directly says hey a black person wrote this…
    I am curious to myself. I will also claim as a black woman and published author that I rush to the black section…and only if someone I know says you should read this…and its a white author will I got to the fiction section.
    My old publishing company refused to put black characters on the cover or anything that said BLACK/STREET/HOOD. And to be honest it is street…it is hood!…even GANGSTA if you will…LOL…and the cover spoke of nothing that reflected the writing. But she had no problem saying it was street savvy and written by a lesbian no doubt. Hummph! Some nerve….she never asked if I wanted that known… here is the first cover:
    imikimi – sharing creativity

    Sales were low but people who took the book to work said the cover was a plus because they could read it without gawking from thier peers. Then my publishing company said what is your concept for your cover…its outagain as a reprint. I told them and this is the cover now:

    imikimi – sharing creativity

    The cover now attracts a ot of attention…white black hispanic….But I market it online everywhere; through cute gimmicks…whatever is appealing to the eye on author sites to book clubs…who cres if they are black…white…all I see is readers.

  5. From a 69y/o white guy! Right on Ron! What difference should it make? If it is a good book and you read it from cover to cover, why should we care what color the author might be? I wonder if there is a gender problem as well. Do women typically read female authors and men, male authors? I read Tom Clancy. Would I read it if it were written by a woman? Absolutely, because the story is what binds me to the book, not the gender, color, political affilication, religious preference, or anything else. I was very prejudiced at one time because I grew up in the 40’s and 50’s with a white police office father. When I joined the Navy in 1959, segregation was still a stigma. About 1968, the Navy had an epiphany. I went to a required class called “Upward seminar.” The first question the instrutors (black and white) posed was: If a group of white men were standing on the corner, what would we think as we passed by. Nothing! Same scenario, but a black group. We would automatically think they were planning something bad. Why? That turned the light on for me and changed my way of thinking forever. Keep on keeping on…

  6. Great blog! The questions/topics you raise are ones

  7. Thank you for writing about this and the many other interesting topics you cover on this blog.

    I think that bookstores, publishing companies, authors and readers have mutually programmed each other into thinking that black books should be segregated. This is not just literary media. It’s all forms of entertainment that suffer this self-imposed isolation.

    The path of least resistance would dictate to stay with your own kind when pressed. But that thought brings this to mind: there are plenty of black authors who cite both white and black authors as inspiration. That’s not so true with white authors.

    Bookstores are set up on what makes profit. I wonder if the black section is maintained by black readers constantly asking for a certain black author regardless of genre. I wonder if that, in turn, made it convenient for bookstore manager to simply lump all the black books together.

    People of all races ask for books by white mainstream authors, but I don’t think that’s so true for most black mainstream authors. That’s another thing that would lump black books together.

    It’s an age-old question of respect. It may never change unless we individually and collectively work to promote great books by great authors regardless of race…

  8. I would love to see authors who happen to be black or black authors, whatever you want to say, get their books blended in with those of white authors. A good story is a good story period. I am black and I do support black authors quite a bit, but I buy books written by white authors and others as well. I think black readers are more open to that in general. Walter Mosley, Terry McMillan, Pearl Cleage etc…have all been read by people of all races. I love those authors but I also love Amy Tan, Elizabeth Gilbert, Khalid Housseini, Billie Letts etc….It’s the same with movies. If I waited for films with predominantly black characters, I would miss out on all of the great films featuring white casts. The authors I listed above write stories with themes that are universal and far reaching. It’s too bad talented black authors often get overlooked. I recommend folks take a look at Victor LaValle, Tananrive Due, Gayl Jones, Octavia Butler and Jervey Tervalon among others.

  9. Wait, there’s an actual African American section in the bookstore! Where? Not here in Albany, NY there’s not. The African American books get combined with the white folks books in the section called Fiction. My complaint out here is that I wish there was an African American section so that when I want a new book or even an old one for that matter by an African American author I can easily get to it. I have to look through and scan thousands of books to find who and what I’m looking for. So here, in Albany, NY, the bookstores are doing exactly what you state as they are putting African American books in the genres they belong to and not just because of the color of their skin.
    I do understand your point and very much appreciate it. I can see where the African American books would get lost in the shuffle if they are in a section based on the color of their skin. There are just so many racist people out here in the world that black authors wouldn’t stand a chance most of the time. I happen to run across this blog by accident but I am definitely going to subscribe to it. I can appreciate your way of thinking as you have definitely started a conversation over here.

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  11. Ron, I can really appreciate the honesty displayed within this read. It was very informative and true. I wish there were an easy answer to this issue. I think it is a culmination of marketing, racism, ignorance, and human nature to attract to the like. I will be sure to follow this blog. Your thoughts are provoking.. Thanks!

  12. I find this so interesting! As a black woman it irritated me that everytime I went to a mainstream bookstore, I found a section specific to black authors. I felt it was demeaning from the standpoint of books not being appreciated based on their content. I read books based on my interests, only over the past few years have I held preference based on the author being of the same ethnicity as myself and the reason for that is because I myself became an author. I write for the genre of sci-fi and when my book was made available for purchase, amongst the first commendations I heard were, “You have just become a pioneer for the genre, UK’s first black female sci-fi author!” At the time I was shocked, but I did remember that as I wrote my first book, I wondered why I had never come across other black authors who wrote sci-fi. The reason was, I had never specifically looked for them. Nowadays, I still don’t look for books based on ethnicity, but out of curiousity, my attention is drawn to other black sci-fi authors.

    As for myself, ethnicity wasn’t an issue in fact, neither was my gender. I was happy enough that I had released a book period, but time and time again I was advised to use both as a selling point. My books predominantly feature black characters, though not exclusively and one of my biggest fans is a white woman in her late fifties, though many others feel that the target audience are blacks aged 25-45. Thus far, whether black or white, male or female, whenever I get the opportunity to speak directly to my fans each one of them say, “I felt as if you were writing about me!”

    Needless to sasy, I’d prefer if my books were not designated to the black fiction section.