March 22, 2016

Out of Pocket? Let's Hope Not

I feel like Olivia didn't need special marketing.
I feel like Olivia didn’t need special marketing.

By Alexa Day

I’m having what the sports folks call a rebuilding year. Basically, I’m enjoying the opportunity to reconstruct my brand, revise some work, and get some new work out to new markets. Part of this means that I’m on the lookout for publishers who might be on the lookout for me.

That’s not an easy job — for me or for any author, really — under the best of conditions. But you know, there’s always someone out there who wants to make a tough job tougher.

Want an example? Look back with me at last year’s RWA National Conference. I wasn’t there myself. I’m looking back courtesy of RWA’s blog post. You can head over there for more detail if you like; I’m going to keep this recap brief.

At the Spotlight on Pocket Books, someone asked Pocket’s representative, an executive editor named Lauren McKenna, what Pocket was doing to diversify its author list, which included very few, if any, authors of color. McKenna responded, in essence, that while Pocket did not have “an African-American line,” its sister imprint, Atria, had two. Atria “really does focus on publicizing those titles, marketing those titles, getting placement in stores,” McKenna said. Over at Pocket, such a book “really doesn’t get the attention and time it deserves, so it also requires a different marketing and publicity plan.”

Then to remove all doubt, McKenna said “we do do it [acquire diverse books], just not within Pocket and Gallery.”

I have, from time to time, complained about empty lip service promising the acquisition of diverse books and not delivering on the promise. And here I must praise McKenna. Her response contains no empty lip service.

According to her, books with “a multicultural topic or author” [emphasis mine] don’t stay with Pocket. They go to a separate imprint for special handling. I want to be clear about why this bothers me so much.

I certainly don’t mean to sneeze at Atria. A quick glance at their holdings turned up Karen Robards and Jude Deveraux and Jamie McGuire. That’s not the problem I’m having.

The trouble at this point is the idea that books by authors of color need some sort of special marketing plan that can only be executed away from Pocket and Gallery. I will not suggest that authors of color have it easy when it comes to marketing, but if the first step of your plan is “get it away from here,” I think I have cause for concern.

But there’s more.

RWA responded to McKenna, saying that “we are very disturbed that you indicated that Pocket does not acquire books by multicultural authors.”

Pocket’s response was measured. It said it didn’t have a policy against publishing multicultural authors.

You guys know I’m an attorney, and that sounds like attorney speak. Of course, Pocket doesn’t have a policy that says, “hey, don’t pick up any authors of color.” If anyone in this day and age is that crazy, they know better than to codify their position in a policy. But the powers that be at Pocket said McKenna misrepresented the company and offered to meet with RWA at this year’s National Conference.

Still unsatisfied, RWA decried Pocket’s Spotlight statements as “insulting and unacceptable” and its response as “insufficient.” Pocket sent an open letter. You can and probably ought to read the whole thing, but it essentially says that Pocket is committed to acquiring and publishing diverse authors and always has been.

That’s not really the problem anymore, though. Pocket has admitted, through McKenna, that they acquire and publish diverse authors. The problem is that McKenna has said — and Pocket has not specifically refuted — that these authors are redirected to a separate imprint because Pocket at large doesn’t know what to do with them.

I challenge all of you reading this post to ask the next few questions with me.

Why does any publisher need to do something different with authors of color?

Why does a book that treats topics of race need to be marketed differently if it was written by an author of color?

Why should any book be treated in any specific way because of its author’s racial or ethnic identity?

I can only speak to my own experience in the world of publishing as a relatively new author, but I think it’s important to tell you my tiny part of this story.

I do not now, I have not in the past, and I will never restrict my readership on racial grounds. My books are for all people who like the sexy, thought-provoking stuff. If you like to think kink (which is my shiny new tagline), I’m pointing my work at you.

So if you can market work to readers who love to wrap their brains around the hot sexiness, you can market my book. Right? I don’t think you have to approach that differently because I’m black, and you shouldn’t have to approach the reader differently because my work is for all readers. You know, if they’re old enough.

If there is a marketing secret here, I think someone should disclose it. I think someone should explain why my work is being treated differently because I’m black. I think someone should share with us why a romance with a black character should be treated differently.

I don’t think that will happen because sharing those answers means disclosing an uglier truth.

Whether or not publishing has a diversity problem, some publishers think the reader has a diversity problem. You and I know that some readers have a problem reading outside their race, but should that vocal minority be driving decisions for the rest?

I’m not sure Pocket’s leadership understands exactly why McKenna’s position at the Spotlight and its own position in the open letter are problematic. I’m really not sure that message is being received. I look forward to hearing more at the National Conference this year. We could all benefit from a good conversation.

In the meantime, are you following Lady Smut?

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  • Post authorbarbaramikula

    My publisher, Siren-Bookstrand, has numerous subdivisions or imprints of works for every taste — not to segregate the authors but to make it easier for the reader to find specifically what they are looking for, from mainstream to the most extreme. I write BDSM erotic romance/suspense, both Male/female and Male/male.

    When I was contemplating starting my Male/male BDSM series, The Wilton Park Grand Hotel series, the publisher advised against it because they thought I might alienate my base of Male/female readers. I do not believe that has happened (six Male/male books later). However, although I was told this by other Male/male authors and didn’t believe it, those books have sold twice as many as my Male/female books. I don’t know why. I am not sure who the readers of the M/m’s are. I am told they are mostly straight females, although I know I have male readers.

    Venturing into an unfamiliar venue has been a fun adventure. I love my M/m characters as much as I love my M/f characters. After all, love is love, sex is sex, and relationships are relationships — LOL — except for a few mechanical differences. I think this might apply to the racial aspects as well. Best of luck finding a new publisher. – Skye Michaels (www.skyemichaelsbooks.com)

    Reply to barbaramikula
  • Post authorKiersten Hallie Krum

    This sitch is so crazy. I spoke to a board member on Saturday about it because, and I can’t believe I’m surprised by this, but I am, the RWA board is getting flack from some authors/members for taking this stance and calling Pocket to account for these statements/actions. The board member I spoke was happy to take on all comers, so to speak, but still, the fact that the board should *have* to defend their actions when Pocket is clearly at fault is ludicrous. Sigh. People be cray cray.

    Reply to Kiersten Hallie Krum
    • Post authorAlexa Day

      I think I saw something about that on Twitter. I’m like you — I was surprised and then kind of disappointed in myself for being surprised. Honestly, I think this viewpoint (opposition to the RWA response) stems from the idea that we authors are in competition with each other, which really is a little crazy. We would only really be in competition with each other if readers read one author — and one author only — to the exclusion of all others. In our current marketplace, any one of us could be any reader’s go-to author. As our consumers get acquainted with one author, it’s easy to find others who provide the same rush, right?

      Of course, it’s possible that this is good old garden-variety racism. The Twitter exchange I saw, if I remember correctly, suggested that the pushback was racially charged.

      In any event, yeah, it’s disappointing. I’m glad the Board is taking such a vocal position.

      Reply to Alexa Day
  • Post authorTracey Livesay

    I remember listening to this spotlight while driving… it should’ve come with a warning. I could not believe what I was hearing, what this woman was saying. Was she aware that she was shining a spotlight on an issue that authors of color KNEW was happening, but was unable to prove: that certain books were tagged and re-directed the moment they were submitted, based on the race of the author and hero and/or heroine?

    I was outraged as an author and a reader, but I’m surprised that more white readers aren’t insulted. Pocket & Gallery Books, through their representatives, has shared that they believe you are narrow-minded. That your imagination is lacking. That you don’t have the capacity to a read a love story if all the major players do not look like you. So they curate, so your delicate sensibilities won’t be harmed. Disturbing.

    Reply to Tracey Livesay
    • Post authorAlexa Day

      You make an excellent point! What is Pocket saying about its existing customer base?

      I really can’t wait to see what transpires in San Diego. These folks seem remarkably ill prepared and ill equipped to face the intense inquiry they’re about to get from us.

      And what do you think this will mean for other publishers who are sliding authors of color (because honestly, I see this happening more uniformly with authors than with characters) into a “separate but equal” line/imprint?

      Reply to Alexa Day
  • Post authorXio Axelrod (@XioAxelrod)

    It’s an industry-wide problem. At my first RWA (Atlanta, 2013), the on-site bookstore placed most (if not all) of the books written by authors of colour on a table in the back. Shocking, though no different than many bookstores across the country. I just didn’t expect to see it *there*.

    At my second RWA conference (San Antonio, 2014), I went to my first editor/agent appointments and was immediately directed toward certain editors, even though I had appointments with others. The person handling me even went so far as to say “I’ll get to you someone that handles African-American romance.” Forget the huge assumption about what I write, the idea that AA romance needed special gloves for handling really threw me for a loop. I was stunned, dismayed, and seriously thought about walking out. Thankfully, someone overheard the exchange and stepped in.

    I’ve seen reviews where readers felt duped because the hero or heroine were POC and they “couldn’t relate”. And I’ve encountered authors, new to diversity, who feel like they need to approach writing diverse books with extreme caution; as if the stories they’d tell would have to be drastically different because of the ethnicity of their characters.

    I’m not sure what it will take to change this way of thinking, but I have seen some progress in my short time in the industry. I hope it continues. I, too, am curious to hear more about some of these new policies in San Diego. It’s time to open some minds.

    Reply to Xio Axelrod (@XioAxelrod)
    • Post authorAlexa Day

      That is a really disturbing pair of stories. Seriously, that has me shaking my head out here.

      FWIW, I think we’re making strides here. For one thing, I’m encouraged to see Pocket called out on its inadequate responses to all questions put to it about this subject. I’m not sure we will get to a satisfactory place anytime soon, but I do think we’re moving in the right direction. More importantly, I think the whole romance and publishing community, fragmented though it is, recognizes that we’re not going to be silent about this anymore.

      See you in San Diego. 🙂

      Reply to Alexa Day
  • Post authorAuthor of Color

    Most white authors will never be outraged by segregation in publishing because they fear it means less room for their books. That old “Affirmative Action” boogeyman.

    Tis why many white authors are viewing the calls for diversity as a new angle for them to get published, which is why they are livid over POC calling out problematic portrayals of POC in white-authored books.

    RWA making a stand against the practice after decades of silence brings their fear and crabs-in-a-barrel mentality to the fore. If the genre’s professional organization is now swinging the bat instead of it being a few “nobody” authors of color, they are DOOMED!

    Reply to Author of Color
    • Post authorAlexa Day

      With attention on this issue, I think we’re going to start seeing some pretty interesting changes. Hopefully it’ll mean higher quality of product for all parties involved!

      Reply to Alexa Day
  • Post authorLynn Carmer

    Thank-you so much for writing this article. I am a multi-cultural gal myself, and my characters reflect the diversity of the real world. I am indie pubbing now, but I have also written for traditional publishers that never quite understood where to “place” my books or how to market them.
    In fact, I was in a big discussion with another author who said that diversity is the buzz word in RWA right now, and I should be marketing my books as such
    It’s a struggle. I want my stories to speak for themselves. I want my beautiful, multicultural characters to just be one more layer of detail rather than a qualifier that places them in a tiny box in order to make a minority of readers feel more comfortable.

    Reply to Lynn Carmer
    • Post authorAlexa Day

      That’s what I want for myself, too — I want the marketplace to view my book as a “thinky” erotic romance, to use the term my first editor used for it. My characters are of different races, sure. But I don’t think they need any “special” marketing, or worse, isolated shelving because of that. That just doesn’t serve anybody.

      Reply to Alexa Day
  • Post authorMadeline Iva

    I appreciate this blog post from all angles. Let’s hope that instead of just one pro-diversity in romance panel at one RWA there is a clear and vocal presence at all future RWA conferences as well. Like Author of Color says — if RWA is backing up the POC authors, heads will role! 😉

    Reply to Madeline Iva
    • Post authorAlexa Day

      Oh, yeah. I can’t wait to see what happens next!

      Reply to Alexa Day

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