Sunday, January 2, 2011


Check this recent article in the DC Examiner by Wendy Coakley-Thompson highlighting the ongoing discussion about how mainstream publishers market books by and about Black people.

Seg-book-gation - with a new twist
By Wendy Coakely-Thompson
DC Publishing Industry Examiner

December 31, 2010

African American authors have long complained about the disparity between them and their White counterparts. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the works of authors of color in general and of African American authors in particular are remunerated differently (i.e., through advance differentials), and marketed differently, and positioned and sold differently than those of White authors. Authors like Martha Southgate
(The Fall of Rome; Third Girl from the Left) have lamented this industry trend, which African American authors have called seg-book-gation.

Lest one be tempted to think seg-book-gation is some paranoid fantasy of overwrought African American authors with hyperactive imaginations, the Wall Street Journal, one of the nation’s most mainstream organs, explored race-based publishing practices. In a piece from 2006, Jeffrey Trachtenberg, the WSJ reporter who covers the publishing industry, addressed this disparity in a piece called Why book industry sees the world split still by race. At the time, the most glaring manifestation of seg-book-gation was the African American section in chain bookstores. Briefly, Trachtenberg pointed out that, as African Americans were only a small percentage of the population, African American authors would be dueling for the same targeted audience, and, as a result, had less of a chance of achieving widespread success. Moreover, Whites were less likely to patronize a section of the bookstore segregated by race. Some African American authors have tried to counter this aspect of seg-book-gation with humor. Carleen Brice (Children of the Waters; Orange Mint and Honey) writes the blog White Readers Meet Black Authors, her “sometimes serious, sometimes light-hearted plea for EVERYBODY to give a black writer a try.” She bills her blog as the White reader’s "official invitation into the African American section of the bookstore!” Humor would be valuable in confronting seg-book-gation’s most recent incarnation.

Enter White authors Kathryn Stockett and Sue Monk Kidd. African American author Bernice L. McFadden discusses their impact at length in her Washington Post opinion piece Black writers in a ghetto of the publishing industry’s making. It starts this way:

Kathryn Stockett's novel "The Help," published by a Penguin Books imprint, sold 1 million books within a year of publication. Her novel has gained accolades and awards, including the prestigious South African Boeke Prize. "The Help" is being adapted for the screen; at the helm of production is the Academy Award-winning director and producer Steven Spielberg. Sue Monk Kidd's best-selling novel "The Secret Life of Bees," also published by Penguin Books, is another story set in the South with African American characters. Kidd's novel garnered similar fame, fortune and recognition... Stockett's and Kidd's novels tackle racism and celebrate the power of friendship and acceptance. Both novels were given beautiful covers that did not reveal the race of the characters. Both books were marketed to black and white audiences.

The difference between them and McFadden is that, though McFadden’s novel Sugar, like The Help and The Secret Life of Bees, is set in the segregated South and explores similar themes, Sugar was marketed exclusively to an African American audience – that same overfished pond of African American readers. Though Stockett and Kidd are not the first White authors to write about African American characters, they, through the access White authors are granted, appear to be positioned as better than the real thing. The slippery slope of this trend would be that African American authors would be entirely Photoshopped out of their own experiences, replaced a more palatable Caucasian facsimile or by other essentialist notions of those experiences. McFadden, in her blog Naki, discusses how her latest novel, Glorious, remained relegated to the Black Expressions book club, while Stockett’s The Help is accessible in Black Expressions and in other mainstream book clubs.

But what do the staggering successes of Stockett and Monk Kidd mean to that old chestnut that Whites would not read fiction about African Americans? Who better to ask than Millenia Black…?

Link to article:

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