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?