Editor’s Note: Here at The Debutante Ball, we strive to give an insider look at our experiences with the publishing industry. But we also like to contribute to the dialogue on important topics in publishing, which is why this week we’ve decided to focus on diversity— and have each asked a guest author to discuss their experiences in the industry. We know we can’t solve the issues with a few blog posts, but we’re hoping we can add to the conversation and perhaps even spark some new ideas.
I first met the amazing Jacqueline Luckett about ten years ago on my first writing retreat. We bonded over a mutual love of jazz and books. She’s a joyful presence, and I feel lucky when I get to spend time with her (which isn’t as often as I would like). She’s the author of two gorgeous novels, SEARCHING FOR TINA TURNER and PASSING LOVE. I asked Jackie to share her thoughts on being an African American writer in publishing today. Here’s what she had to say.
Terry McMillan broke a glass ceiling. Though there were many established, superb writers before her, McMillan’s commercial success brought a new awareness to the publishing world. First, that black women not only bought books, but also read voraciously. Second, McMillan’s books appealed to all women. I read someplace that before she achieved her phenomenal success she sold her books out of the trunk of her car. True or urban legend, I’m sure McMillan has plenty of stories about the difficulties she had getting published. Most Black writers do.
In 2007, my writing group was featured in O Magazine. An agent contacted me. I sent her the manuscript for my first novel, SEARCHING FOR TINA TURNER. She loved it. But her comment was the kicker that sticks with me to this day: “I just don’t know how to sell it.” Bottom line, her words had nothing to do with my story, but rather they spoke to the only market she believed would be interested: African Americans. She argued that the flurry McMillan’s work created had died. She didn’t know where to sell my novel. Not because it wasn’t good, but because she didn’t have any African American publishing contacts. I can only believe she thought her white editor contacts wouldn’t buy a novel about a black character written by a black woman.
Once I found an agent, he developed a list of editors, the majority of whom were African American. In 2008, unlike today where, according to stats quoted in a 2014 Publisher’s Weekly survey, “1% of the publishing industry identified as African American”—there were more Black editors. I didn’t understand. My agent patiently explained, and I paraphrase here. Black women read everything, white women do not. Translation: there was no guarantee that a publisher’s predominantly white editors or readers would buy my novel; ergo, stick to Black editors whose advances might not be substantial, but “at least I’d get published.”
That little piece of information stung as badly as if he’d slammed a door in my face.
I could take off in many directions with these two anecdotes. Yes, it’s harder for Black writers to get published certainly because of these attitudes still pervasive in today’s tighter publishing market. Sadly, it sometimes seems to me that publishers are more interested in our stories filtered through the lens of the white writer.
I suspect that every African American writer has a story about the difficulties of getting published, about our stories being rewritten by whites that soar to the top of national bestseller lists and eventually become big screen hits, about the agent who says that she just wouldn’t know how to sell our books, or the assumption that our work doesn’t have a broad appeal.
What is most important for me to share is that I didn’t/haven’t/won’t/ let any of the BS stop me. And neither should any Black writer.
I’m not looking for sympathy. These are facts. Understand that after hours, days, years of writing, we African American writers start our search for publication facing barriers that have to be broken down just to get our work to the publisher’s door. Hence, a double whammy. Clearly, that barrier doesn’t apply to every African American writer. If Toni Morrison, for example, wanted to change publishers, they’d come running after her before she put a period on her declaration. Sadly, their enthusiasm doesn’t apply to all of our work.
This Black woman refuses to accept that crap. I’m a good writer. I tell great stories. I create believable, characters with a wide, borderless appeal. I intend to keep pushing for continued publication in every way I know how.
To Black women writers starting their careers, to Black women trying to make a mark in the publishing world, I offer this:
– Write the best story you know how, and if you need help, get it from sources that will make your writing soar.
– Don’t let anyone tell you what to write about or force you to turn your Black characters into white ones simply to sell your book.
– Find an agent who believes in your story and will sell it to a publisher who loves it equally, if not more.
– Seek out your sister-writers for support, for advice, for the shared bond of understanding. You are not alone. Seek the support of every writer you know or meet, regardless of color, for the same thing.
But, most of all, f@*k the statistics. Go write.
GIVEAWAY: Comment on this post by Noon (EST) on Friday, August 7th to win one a copy of PASSING LOVE (U.S. only). Follow The Debutante Ball on Facebook and Twitter for extra entries—just mention that you did so in your comments. We’ll choose and contact the winners on Tuesday. Good luck!
In 1999 Jacqueline Luckett left the corporate world to kickstart her writing career with classes she took on a dare—from herself.
Reinvention, self-awareness, and self-fulfillment are themes throughout Luckett’s novels. She strives to write compelling and interesting stories while addressing fear and what can be done to conquer it. “We can all afford to be fearful, but we can’t let fear keep us from doing what we want or need to do.”Jacqueline encourages her readers to avoid deferring their dreams: “The length of time it takes to get to the dream is not as important as fulfilling the dream.” Jacqueline, a native Californian, lives and writes in Oakland, but takes time out to indulge her love of traveling and to nurture her passion for photography and exotic foods.