Welcome to The Black Experience, a month long blog series through February, in honour of Black History Month, which features Black bloggers, booktubers and authors. This project aims at highlighting Black stories and experiences both in real life and in publishing, as well as showing our individual and collective struggles.
Today’s post is by Celeste Harte, author of Conquest (Dragon Bones Series #1). Celeste talks about one of the issues facing Black people in publishing, the seeing of race as a trend by major names in the publishing industry.
I’m fortunate to have found an open-minded indie publisher for the DRAGON BONES series, an afro-futurism mixed with fantasy elements which came out yesterday, but even that I feel like was because I went with a publisher that wasn’t mainstream. Social media pitching events also helped with visibility both for agents and writers, which helped narrow the search to people specifically looking for diversity. Another thing that is fairly recent, and therefore not mainstream.
I think the indie industry is a bit easier to work with because of the fact that they’re more open to niche genres, which unfortunately, writing anything other than white straight characters usually is. That still doesn’t mean the indie industry is perfect, though. The indie industry can only go as far as budgets allow, which usually isn’t a lot. So editing, book covers, and marketing are all essentials that might be lacking because of that. Which is why indie gets a bad name.
But bigger publishers don’t know what to do with a book that’s Black and not about … being Black. And they’re the bigger influencers in the industry, and thus even influence the trends of the indie market.
It’s bad enough that Black people being published is a rarity, but whenever the main publishing industry does publish us, it’s usually highlighting our hardships.
That isn’t to say hardships aren’t usually part of our reality, but it’s not our whole story. And the publishing industry doesn’t reflect that yet. I’ve seen plenty of Black associates talking about being rejected because their book didn’t include enough Black issues.
I want you to think about that for a moment. That book couldn’t get representation because the industry didn’t see enough of our pain in it.
It happens too often to dismiss it as just being “some agents”, “certain editors”, or “a few people”. It’s a problem.
At the end of the day, stories where characters are simply Black, (or any minority group) and there’s no overarching storyline about them being Black (or any minority group), seems to short-circuit publishers and agents. They just don’t know what to do with them.
Even if you look at the movie industry right now, we have tons of titles like The Help, The Color Purple, Driving Miss Daisy, 12 Years a Slave, all representing our struggle. When we did get titles like Black Panther, Jumping the Broom, or Bad Boys, we CAME OUT. Those movies are classics now, and they didn’t have anything to do with our ugly reality. Do those movies still deal with it? Yes! But it’s not what the movies were about.
But I feel like this has to do with the audience the industry is reaching for. I’ve seen white people come to see The Help, and talk about The Color Purple in their book club meetings.
I feel like we assume they don’t want to see these movies because it’s painful for us to watch, but I don’t think that’s the truth. We don’t need movies to tell us where we come from. We already know. We live it every day. So who are they directed towards?
The ones that need to be reminded.
All this tells me is that the industry thinks race is a trend. They think with enough movies that highlight some white people as heroes in our adversity that makes them happy and enough suffering Black characters to make us happy enough, it’ll all blow over in a few years.
Race is not a trend. But the industry will make it one if we let it. We’ve been annoyingly persistent lately about seeing ourselves in media. We’ve even stopped seeing and reading things that regurgitate the same thing we’ve seen for years, so now they have a problem.
They’ll placate us for a while with a few titles to make us happy, but if we relax they’ll take it back in other ways, and then it’ll be gone before you can say tokenism.
That’s why I feel like it’s so important for POC readers to never stop demanding what they want, and never lower their standards. We’ve only come as far as we have because we refused to take no for an answer, and that’s what has to keep happening if we want anything different. We’ve forced the industry to move as much as it has, and to make us its audience. And it didn’t go willingly. But now we have agent wishlists asking for diversity, and I think it’s because we, as writers and readers that remained determined, helped them hack and fight their way to being able to do so.
If we don’t stop pushing, the industry won’t have the chance to let go of the “trend”. As long as we keep pushing each other forward, we remind the big publishers that their money and power can only go as far as we’re willing to support it.
It’s also why it’s important that while you celebrate Blackness this February, don’t let it stop with the tragedy stories about our past. Push for, not only stories to be told about us, but by us and for us. Read and write stories that make us more than just the tragic place we come from.
So we can have a future.