November is National Novel Writing Month and to celebrate Black Girl Times wants to shine a light on hard-working Black authors and the book industry they have to navigate.
There’s plenty of stirring work out there, from Angie Thomas to Toni Morrison, to the trend-setting science fiction of Octavia E. Butler and Rivers Solomon’s smash hit An Unkindness of Ghosts. Black creativity is unbridled, and it fits no easy mold. That’s a problem when it comes to the publishing industry, because the modern publishing industry is notorious for seeking the same five books over and over again. For the last 15 years, you couldn’t throw a book in the Young Adult section of a bookstore without hitting a Harry Potter knock-off. And then, with the onset of Amazon and other online retailers, you couldn’t find a book store in which to throw a book.
This means money problems for an industry that seemingly has less and less capital to invest every year. When a publishing house fails to sell a book that catches fire it costs them dearly in terms of capital and investment. For that reason, agents—who are the gate-keepers for the industry—take care to limit books submissions to tight, stylized standards with a history of nabbing audiences. Black authors don’t often color inside those strict lines, and it helps create an industry that is overwhelmingly white.
The New York Times determined that out of a sample of 7,124 books published between 1950 and 2018, 95 percent were written by white people. The paper acknowledged that author diversity at major publishing houses “has increased in recent years,” but white writers still dominate the industry.
A 2019 survey similarly revealed that 85 percent of the people who acquire and edit authors’ books are white, and that the heads of the largest publishing houses were white in 2020. According to the NY Times, “of the 512 books published by Random House between 1984 and 1990, just two were written by Black authors,” in the years after renowned Black editor Toni Morrison left the company in 1983.
Terri Hamm is the owner of Kindred Stories bookstore, in Houston, Texas, and she is one of only a few Black bookstore owners in the nation. Hamm says the traditional book industry has plenty of Black authors producing stories of personal struggle, like The Hate You Give, but her customers are demanding more variety.
“(We promote and sell books by Black authors at Kindred) but I had a customer ask me the other day for a book about cars, and it wasn’t easy to find a book about cars from a Black author. … I want books about butterflies, and books about science and life written by Black writers,” Hamm told The Lighthouse. “I want to be able to say, ‘hey, look at this beautiful book on butterflies, and, look, it’s written by a Black author.”
Hamm said she was inspired to open Kindred Bookstore by the absence of Black presence in the book industry. The realization hit home, she said, when she discovered a popular “Black” book was penned by a white author.
“I remember reading The Nutcracker in Harlem, and then learning that it wasn’t written by a Black author,” said Hamm. “I want more books written by Black authors and my customers want more books by Black authors. Why can’t we have that?”
To be clear, agents—who are primarily white women—are claiming to give minority or “underrepresented” authors extra attention and preferential treatment when accepting writers’ book submissions. This does not mean they’re willing to look outside the industry’s tight-assed little box of requirements and standards to risk investing time or money in them, however.
Gary Swaby is a Black U.K. author who’s penned three books, including Descendant of the Elders, a science fiction adventure about a soldier who must reckon with the daily pain of sickle cell anemia, even in the future. Swaby, who suffers from sickle cell himself, says there aren’t enough Black agents and publishers to bend the system right now.
“What tends to happen is there are so few of these positions open to Black people that our people begin fearing that their position isn’t secure. And that leads to them inheriting (and adhering to) the same standards as their employers, and then nothing really changes,” said Swaby.
Publishing houses now very rarely accept unagented submissions, so many Black authors who write outside strict platform standards (which is most) instead turn to independent publishing at small, bespoke publishing houses, or they self-publish their work through online distributors like Amazon. Ironically, the recent self-publishing trend floods the market with books and further erodes the resources of the traditional publishing industry. But for many Black writers, there simply is no other option.
“I prefer the term independently published over self-published,” says Swaby. “I just don’t think any agents are ready to take on (my) project because the publishing industry is very dependent on trends and buyer habits. I made the decision that no one could sell this book better than I can.”
Side-stepping the militaristic standards of the agenting process and the publishing industry means finally getting your book into the light, but it also means no in-house advertisement and distribution. Without talent, connections and a big online presence, the writer’s family and Twitter connections could wind up being the only people to read their work. Skipping past agents and a publishing house also means losing the benefit of the horde of editors necessary to make your book readable.
And don’t think for a second your book is ready for public viewing without intense editing. No matter how good it sounds to you, you will need an honest editor to scour every page of your book for mindless boredom, pointless ego-strokes and assorted dross. And, no, your spouse or Mom can’t do it, because they can’t be trusted to tell you when your dialogue triggers menstrual cramps. They will lie to you to make you feel good. Every time. If a Black writer isn’t publishing through a company like Penguin Random House, they’ll need to nab a harsh editor with true editorial experience, but it won’t be cheap. Professional freelance editors on websites like Reedsy, for example, cost between $1,500 and $3,000 for help on an 84,000-word book.
The high cost of nontraditional publishing, coupled with poor distribution and one-person promotion means Black writers are not reaching readers, and that’s a problem for distributers like Hamm who desperately want more POC voice on their shelves.
Black presence in the industry is so limited that Black books often become the kind of oddity that bookstores stick into the store’s “Diverse Section,” rather than on shelves that correspond with the books’ genre. Swaby says this is yet another problem facing Black authors.
“Instead of having a section just for diverse books, why can’t our books be on the shelves next to all of the other books? Separating us sometimes hurts us more,” said Swaby. “All we’ve ever wanted is to be given the same respect as authors like John Grisham, Sarah J. Maas, and Stephen King. Those are all authors I adore, and I’d love for Black author brands to see similar success without being placed on a shelf where everyday readers aren’t looking for books.”
The publishing industry can change things by investing more time and consideration in Black book submissions, but buyers can also do their part by shopping at local bookstores, or—even better—Black-owned bookstores. Amazon has its convenience, but Hamm says her store can order any book that Amazon can, and her company gets a financial boost when you buy through her.