Countdown to Publication: Wanted: White Ambassadors to Help Me Cross Over

Hi SheWriters,

Let me just start out by saying, I love White people. Many of my closest friends are White. I have a favorite auntie who is White and my Uncle Harry is White too. And people, even my husband is White. Actually, he’s Spanish, but if you saw him walking down the street, you’d definitely peg him for a White guy. So, believe me when I say, I love White people.

But I’m still in a bind. I am in the unique position of being a Black author who is about to launch her first novel and I want White (and Asian, and Hispanic, etc) women to read it. Many of you here at SheWrites, who happen to be White, have already expressed interest in Substitute Me, and in fact, some of you have already pre-ordered it on Amazon. And I truly thank you for that, but in the grand scheme of things, that isn’t enough.

If this whole discussion is already making you feel uncomfortable and kind of dirty, I apologize. I hate it too. I hate that I have to categorize my friends by skin color as I plan the promotional campaign for my book. But I’m going to do it anyway because I’m a realist. Despite the fact that my diverse, inner-circle of friends reads across the rainbow, the rest of the world doesn’t work like that apparently. Readers tend to stick to what they know. And if my book ends up in the African-American section of the bookstore or library, the majority of non-Black America isn’t browsing there, unless somebody tells them to. That’s where my special White friends would come in.

Since I’m sure many of you listened in to the SheWrites radio discussion on ‘seg-book-gation’ with Carleen Brice and maybe read the follow-up article posted the day after, then you know that Black authors are most often only marketed to Black people. Even when I try to understand this practice I can’t, so I’m not going to bother rehashing the asinine thinking behind it. Instead, I’d like to explain where I’m coming from.

Substitute Me is the story of two women whose lives are drastically changed by their meeting. Kate Carter is a White woman who hires Zora Anderson, a Black woman, to be her nanny. Once Zora begins working for the Carters, life will never be the same. The story is set in contemporary Brooklyn, and examines issues of modern-day motherhood that I believe all women can relate to. The story is told in alternating chapters from Zora’s perspective and then Kate’s perspective. It’s neither a Black story nor a White story, but rather, it is a woman’s story.

Of course it’s not the book for everyone, but I’d say women who enjoy Jodi Picoult or Jacqueline Mitchard novels might like it. And for anyone who found themselves completely engaged with the subject matter of Kathryn Stockett’s, The Help or Ayelet Waldman’s, Love and Other Impossible Pursuits, Substitute Me will probably be right up their alley. Suffice it to say, I want the book to be a bestseller, but more importantly, I just want a lot of women to read it and discuss it and pass it on to their friends and say, “you’ve got to read this book.” I want this book to start conversations and perhaps even push us all a little bit to change our thinking. My writing mantra has always been, “I write to change the world.”

And the sad fact is, I can’t change anything without some White friends. It is a statistical impossibility that Substitute Me will have a chance to shine, if only my Black friends spread the word. Even my editor at Atria knows that. When I was creating my list of writer friends to blurb the book, she implored me to find a White author/friend. “It doesn’t even matter what genre she writes in,” she told me. “Just make sure she’s White.” Are you surprised that my White author/friend’s quote made the front cover of the book?


So, I need a bunch of White friends, to tell their White friends (Facebook friends count too) and all of the other White people they know about my book. Just to give it a chance. Maybe suggest it for their book club. Ask their local library and bookstores to stock it. And then maybe, just maybe, it will have a chance at being a success. And please be clear. I'm not trying to drum up any White man's guilt here. I don't want anyone to feel like they need to support a Black author because it's the right thing to do, like paying your taxes on time. Basically it comes down to the fact that since we still live in a segregated society when it comes to book buying, I just need ambassadors to introduce my work -- not shove it down people's throats -- to the other side.

Okay. I’m done. Awkward race conversation is over. I’m thinking my next book is going to feature a romance between a Latina doctor and an Iraqi translator living in Budapest. Then we won’t have to have these Black -White book discussions. Or will we?

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Comment by Catherine Yigit on July 26, 2010 at 3:22am
Who is interfering with free speech here? I see lots of it. Surely that's what a blog is all about?

Everyone has the right to disagree. Everyone has the right to their opinion. Everyone has the right on a public blog to express their opinion (once civility is respected).

If you post something controversial (and sometimes even something uncontroversial) you have to expect objections. If objections and comments are not welcome, commenting should be disallowed. Though keeping any disagreements open in the comments is better than a poster getting privately criticised by complete strangers, in my opinion.

I wish Lori well with her book, but her approach put me off commenting until now.
Comment by Tayari Jones on July 25, 2010 at 8:46pm
I must be honest and say that as an African-American writers, I sort of get your point that you want white readers because you want better numbers, right? Or is it because you think you have something to say that will be helpful to that audience? Or something like that. You want a bigger career. I get that and it's something that pretty much everyone can relate to on some level.

But as an African-American READER I found this very alienating. It made me feel as if I belong to a group to small, too powerless to matter. I really appreciated Donna and Virgnia's shout-out to the black female readership that has supported them through the years-- I am part of that readership and it felt good to know that my support counts to them.

When I published my first novel, Nikki Giovanni invited me out to her home for a two day visit. As you know, she has had a wonderful career that has spanned decades. She can still pack a house. When she gave me advice she said, "Take care of your audience and they will take care of you." She then gave me several examples of how to do this. But one of the things she told me is that you should be grateful to every single person who comes out to your events or buys your books. Let them know that you understand it to be a gift.
Comment by Jaime Herndon on July 25, 2010 at 12:17pm
Lori - you brought up a really important discussion, and I'm so glad that you did. It's uncomfortable to talk about for many people, but necessary. I mean, when you think about it, what makes a book end up in the "African-America" section? Is it only stories that focus on "Black" issues (whatever that may mean), or is it just because the author is African-American? And why does it matter either way?
I, for one, am very interested in reading your book. And thank you for starting discourse on this topic.
Comment by Katherine Harms on July 24, 2010 at 10:00am
Hmmm. You do have a really irritating point. I am not irritated at you; I am irritated that we have to make this point. Just like you.
I am hearing of your book for the first time here, so I am going to take a preview look at it for starters. If I like it, I will be glad to tell my friends.
By the way, I never knew until now that you could get stuck in the "black" section of a bookstore, just because you happen to be a black author. Why is there even such a section? Is there a yellow one, or a light brown, or a dark brown??? I'm still waiting for the colorblind society we were all promised so many times.
I'm very glad we have a group like She Writes where we can speak honestly about the real problem facing Lori. I agree that working for the real solution is beyond the scope of this group, so I hope that a realistic marketing plan takes Lori to success.
I wish you the best, Lori.
Comment by Sezin Koehler on July 24, 2010 at 7:42am
I find it extremely inappropriate that those of us who have presented alternative models to how the author could have framed this blog are now being called "detractors". I was under the impression that She Writes is a space for professionalism and sensitivity, two qualities I really do not see above in the blog post, nor in the majority of the responses.

We have all agreed that the publishing industry in the USA has its problems. Those of us who have challenged the author have objected to the awkward method in which she has chosen to express these very sensitive issues.

Trained in cultural anthropology, I have not even gone into the socially and culturally problematic assumptions that are being made left, right and centre in the blog and the comments. At the risk of further "detractor" comments I will reserve those analyses for private discussion.
Comment by Lisa Martinez on July 23, 2010 at 10:38pm
Lori, I think you are certainly on to something. I look forward to reading your book.
Comment by Randy Susan Meyers on July 23, 2010 at 3:39pm
Funny, hadn't even seen this post when I put up my post here a bit ago (cross-posted from my blog) Reading Across the Racial Divide. Lori, I think you wrote something true, true, true. I look forward to reading your book.
Comment by JoAnne Braley on July 23, 2010 at 2:53pm
How do I get something printer on here. I wrote a very short piece called "Publisher or Pusher," about marketing a book. I know about sales, but in other fields. This piece would be considered "crude," by many lady writers who use the correct words, but sometimes the correct words don't sell. I'm an avid reader and used to do TV. Now, retired, and I simply do not like the new stories on TV, so I'm going back to reading.
Comment by Virginia DeBerry & Donna Grant on July 23, 2010 at 1:26pm
I completely agree with Jenne'--no need for mean spiritedness, and don't really think any of the comments are intended as such. I just believe that everyone who has spoken on the topic is passionate. And we have to be careful, as women, not to confuse honest passionate discussion with being mean or at the very least not being "nice," and allow the conversation to take us, collectively and individually, where it takes us. The whole being "nice" thing was part of a wonderful discussion we had about heroines at KGB Bar back in April. (BTW-full disclosre: this is the Virginia half of the duo--pretty much always me here on Shewrites and elsewhere online.)
Comment by Virginia DeBerry & Donna Grant on July 23, 2010 at 11:20am
Lori--I appreciate your dipping your toe in one more time. You've said what I wanted to say.

I've been stewing about how to respond to your detractors (who are therefore the detractors for all of us who are in this boat with you) and found myself becoming annoyed at the assumption that this is all about merit. Like talent is all it takes for success. This is not an Andy Hardy movie and most of us writers don't have a Dad or grandma who has a barn where we can put on our show and be discovered by the big talent agent who's passing through town. They also don't own a publishing company,advertising agency, TV network or have friends who do. But the assumption that publishing & media, like the rest of America is now basking in a post-racial glory that negates the need to point out any erroneously presumed marginalization and stereotypes is, unfortunately, fantasy. And the assumption that all SheWriters are aware of this is just plain nuts.

I've had an inquiry from a SheWriter for a suggestion of "a contemporary novel that will teach me about the black American experience." After I picked up my jaw from the floor, I asked her if she could suggest one novel that would summarize the white American experience. She told me there were so many...it was hard to name only one. But this bright, talented, educated, aware woman never presumed the same could be true for black people.

Just as there remains a glass ceiling--no matter how good we are--there is also the glass shelf at your local bookstore and/or library, no matter how good we are. Yes, I know we have our "literary" lions and lionesses but there are not "so many hugely successful" black women writers--what 6 or 8 or 10? Is that really "so many?" And I know that women writers in general get short shrift. This is usually pretty evident in the end of the year "best" lists that rarely include more than one woman, if any at all. I personally took issue with Library Journal (LJ for goodness sakes!) because in their "best of" lists last year, the only list for African American (which is NOT a genre but a label) was devoted solely to urban/street titles--as if we wrote nothing else noteworthy during those 12 months. I'm happy to say they published my letter to the editor and that I've heard from several librarians who admitted they too were guilty of being oblivious.

Donna and I have been writing fiction together, as a team for 20 years- our first novel, Exposures, was about a fashion photographer with family issues, and featured no black characters. Our next book had all black characters, and was about friendship, family and coming of age. It was published just post Terry McMillan and prior to "us" having our "own category." We had articles in Glamour and Womans Day--in addition to Essence about that book. It has sold hundreds of thousands of copies because it was in the store with all the other books of a similar type. Not on the "black" table or shelf. It had a chance to find "word of mouth" and success--based on it's merits. A Hollywood studio, (which shall remain nameless) wanted to option the book back in '97... "It's such a universal story of growing up and women's friendships." So universal that they wanted to make it with two white actresses. "So people will get it." We said no thank you. And now, 13 years later, press releases (which we re-write) for and articles (which we can't re-write) about our novels begin by identifying our characters as African American, as if that makes their story what it is. Our 2009 novel, What Doesn't Kill You, was an amusing look at a woman who loses the only job she ever had after 25 years with the same company and has to discover who she might have been, who she is and what she really wants. Clearly a situation that many people (black, white, man, woman--whatever) could identify with. But every piece of info referred to WDKY being the story of an "African American single mother who loses her job." She was divorced (by her choice). Her daughter was grown and married. It was not a story about a woman trying to find affordable day care, a man and a job. We recently had an article published about us in a magazine and even though there was a full page photograph the article captioned us as "black writers." Duh?!

As Tayari stated--we are grateful for our loyal readers, many of whom have been following us, if not for our entire careers, at least the last six books. And until we found ourselves in the margin about five years ago, we were earning a living, for two people, doing what we love. The market is broader than it ever was and our place in it is narrower than it ever was. On Amazon the "if you liked you might also like" referral only categorizes our novels with other black novels. So if you enjoy Jen Weiner, or Anita Shreve or Adriana Trigiani the chances of you finding a recommendation for a book by a black author of similar ilk is slim to none.
Sad.
True.
It's not about merit. It's about marketing. And black writers need white readers.
Period.

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