There is a feeling among writers of color in America that the publishing industry is not giving them a fair shake.
Many of them say that they are being marginalised by a publishing establishment that is predominantly white.
To further complicate matters, Black-owned bookstores have been steadily closing down over the past decade, depriving those very same writers of important outlets for promoting and selling their books.
In 2015 Lee & Low Books, America’s largest multicultural children’s and young adult book publisher, launched the first major study of employee diversity in publishing that has since confirmed the African American literary community’s worst fears.
Based on a survey of more than 40 publishers and review journals, and research done by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, the Lee & Low study confirmed what many had long suspected; the people working behind the scenes in America’s publishing industry are overwhelmingly white and female.
The findings showed, among other things, that board members and those in executive positions in publishing are 86 percent white and 59 percent women. It also revealed that the editorial staff are 82 percent white and 84 percent women, while the marketing and publicity departments are 77 percent white and 84 percent women, The sales people are 83 percent white and 77 percent women.
The study also provided statistics from 1994 to 2012 indicating that while 37% of the U.S. population are people of color, only 10% of the books published focus on multicultural content.
For decades, many in literary circles have been complaining about the racial homogeneity of most of America’s corporate publishers, including the ‘Big Five‘ and how this affects their book-acquisition and promotional decisions.
Commenting on the Lee & Low report, NPR noted, “For writers of color, the lack of diversity in book publicity departments can feel like a death knell.”
At the very least, the Lee & Low study findings have given credence to the growing perception that the diversity gap in publishing is a perennial malaise that’s not likely to go away anytime soon.
There is little incentive to seriously address the issue within a Publishing Establishment whose commercial decisions are driven by the bottom line and their fiduciary obligations to their shareholders. Under pressure from their accountants and the demands of the marketplace where corporate acquisitions, mergers and profit maximization have become the order of the day, the major publishers are often reluctant to place their bets on books that they feel don’t have the potential to become instant bestsellers.
And since their primary target audience (in terms of size and numbers) is Caucasian, their rationale, presumably, is that those readers aren’t too hot on books with storylines and characters that don’t resemble what they’re used to.
Writers who are determined to tell their stories on their own terms are more likely to be published by smaller independent presses, many of which have a tough time trying to get mainstream bookstore chains to stock their titles. Those who opt for self-publishing find it even more of a hassle to get shelf space for their books.
This is all the more reason why independent ‘mom and pop’ community bookstores are so vital. They are more likely to stock books published by small indie presses and self published titles, and assist the authors with book launches.
However, over the years indie bookstores in America have been struggling for market share due to financial constraints and stiff competition, mainly from the online behemoth, Amazon and other online booksellers. Black-owned bookstores have been particularly hard hit.
Troy Johnson, founder of the African-American Literature Book Club (AALBC), has been compiling data and statistics on Black-owned bookstores from as far back as 1999. He discovered that between 2002 and 2012 the United States had lost 66 percent of its Black-owned brick-and-mortar bookstores. Astonishingly, two years later almost half of the stores that were still open in 2012 went out of business. By the AALBC’s count, as of May 2016 there are only 71 Black-owned brick-and-mortar bookstores operating in America – a tiny fraction of the approximately 12, 700 currently operating.
But it gets worse.
As the AALBC noted, “It is not just bookstores that are suffering. Websites that focus on Black books are suffering. Attendance at book fairs, conferences and festivals are down as well. Some events have even been cancelled due to low registration.”
In a blog post on the AALBC website, Gwen Richardson, co-founder of Cushcity.com, the world’s largest African-American Internet retailer, and a bestselling author, listed the top 10 reasons why African American bookstores have been closing down. Among them, she cited the migration of book sales to the Internet and the failure of most of the proprietors to take advantage of this trend, coupled with the advent of deep discounts on books sold online.
Some other factors she cited are competition from the major bookstore chains that have African American book sections, plus the fact that many Black-owned bookstores are situated in unprofitable locations and, in many cases, have been poorly managed.
In addition, she noted, “African American consumers do not have a tradition of loyalty to Black-owned establishments. If they can purchase the same products at a white-owned (Asian-owned, or any non-black owned) establishment, they will do so FIRST. The vast majority will only shop at a black-owned establishment if they have no choice – if they are unable to obtain a much-desired item elsewhere. This is the primary reason why dollars leave our community so rapidly, while other ethnic groups have loyalty to their merchants and turn dollars multiple times.”
AALBC founder, Troy Johnson believes that in order to surmount these obstacles, there must be a strong commitment among African American bookstore owners, organizers of book fairs, conferences and festivals, and publishers and authors to collaborate and support one another.
“Collaboration is critical. What I refer to as the ‘Black Book Ecosystem,’ cannot survive without it. Currently the Black Book Ecosystem is in terrible shape. We do not exploit our collective resources and we exert no influence on what books or authors are important to our community,” says Johnson.
Johnson also believes it is necessary for all the stakeholders to have a clear and comprehensive picture of the ‘Black Book Ecosystem’ so that they can have a more informed understanding of the various components and interact better with each other. To this end, the AALBC has meticulously compiled a treasure trove of data, including lists of Black-owned web-based and brick-and-mortar bookstores, Black-owned newspapers and websites and a host of other related information, all of which is freely accessible on the AALBC website. AALBC is also a widely recognized and avid promoter of authors, book and film reviews, book recommendations, event information, discussion forums, writer resources, interviews, articles and videos.
It hasn’t been easy trying to get the various industry stakeholders to work together.
“For years I emailed the owners of all these entities, looking for ways in which we could collaborate. The vast majority of the time my emails were ignored. They were ignored to such an extent, I’ve given up trying to seek partnerships with [some of] these businesses.
“I fully appreciate many of the entities have not responded to my call for collaboration for a wide variety of reasons. Many are struggling and don’t have the resources, others are simply not sophisticated enough to recognize why collaboration is necessary, and others simply might not trust me.
“Worse is that the number of entities with the resources and ability to collaborate are quickly disappearing. Black book websites are not immune. I noticed the number of them disappearing back in 2010.”
By 2015 the number of those websites had decreased from 55 to 42 – a drop of 25 percent.
“Recently, I started reaching out to other types of entities outside those listed,” said Johnson. “I’ve recently reached out to book clubs and the response has been much more positive. I’m working with Go On Girl Book Club, which has about 300 chapters here in the United States.
“I’ve also been working with book publishers. Black Classic Press and Brown Girls Books are two of them, and there are others. I’m also working with entities outside the US. Recently the organizer of the Kingston Book Festival in Jamaica invited me to speak. The opportunities for collaboration outside the US are actually quite exciting. Speaking of bookstores, I visited a store in Kingston – Bookophila. They rival any Black-owned bookstore I’ve visited in the United States!
“I’m actually upgrading and expanding the scope of my website to be more inclusive of entities outside the US. I think this is where the greatest opportunities for collaboration are,” says Johnson.
There is a growing realization within the African American literary community that if there’s to be any hope of solving the problems confronting the Black book market, the solutions must come from among those who are being adversely affected. This will require a lot of soul searching, including on the part of consumers.
And as for overcoming the ‘diversity gap’ in publishing, it should be obvious by now that there is almost no chance that a lasting solution will be found within the walls of the very Publishing Establishment that created the problem in the first place, and continues to perpetuate it.
Failure to acknowledge those realities could ultimately lead to Black America’s literary griots being relegated to a state of obscurity and irrelevance.