Black & White Fiction

(I wrote this blog a year ago and had seen some changes with how authors are being placed in the bookstores. Read the blog from July of 2010 and then read the changes that have occurred over the last eleven months.)

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 genres 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 $300,000,000 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 the a black author or Black American 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.”

I just released a book for Tweens. When doing an event at a school, I autographed books for both white and black students. 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 by her publisher, “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 would feel slighted if all the books have whites on the cover. In addition, 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-determined 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?”

Let me just stick my neck all the way out and say what is 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 were in the Black American section of the store, I never would have seen 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.

Do not 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 genres of fiction.

I pray that all of us can make decisions on what we read and write based on words…rather than color.

Ron Knight

I recently walked through a Books-A-Million and saw more than fifteen black authors in the fiction section with white authors. That is a huge step forward!

However, we still have a long way to go. I browsed the African American section and did not find one white author. Maybe next year, things will change…

Ron Knight  

For branding your name, I suggest Brand Eleven Eleven:

Ron Knight

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