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 Judith van Praag on July 23, 2010 at 10:58am
PS I'd like to have a shelf at Elliott Bay Book Company for translated or bilingual female writers. Oh, how easy it will be for you all to find me when my book comes out!
Comment by Judith van Praag on July 23, 2010 at 10:51am
Although some mentioned this post was humorous I didn't get that out of the text. So in order to be more objective I imagined Wanda Sykes presenting this post. The first paragraph got some laughs from an imaginary audience, but that seemed to be it, for the text got to heavy-handed even for Sykes (who can joke about white babies).
Then I imagined my friend Jeffery Renard Allen doing a cold reading of the text. Now Jeff's one of those old fashioned authors who writes and sends out his work and gets it published and then he pretty much leaves it up to the publisher and booksellers to sell his book. When he goes on tour he calls his friends and says I'm going to be there and then he leaves it up to us what to do about that. And I'm not saying that's the best way for an author in today's world, but even if he'd take a more active role in selling his books, I'm quite sure that he wouldn't address his fellow writers as White People as a matter of fact, I know he doesn't. In his world it's a writer's merit, his work, his relationship with other people, no matter what color their skin is, that matters.

As a reviewer of books written by for a large part people of color, I know that there are hurdles to take, doors that close (think of Sonya Chung whose interview with the Parade was bumped because the book of the already known male Korean American writer came out around the same time as her book) et cetera.

But as Anastasia Ashman wrote, it's the publishing world that needs to be addressed and we can work on that. This here SW community can be used to tell more about the experience of the writer. As an old editor of mine told me, you draw people in and win them over by giving them the good news, "I'm published" not the bad. You tell them about your experience writing, finding an agent, having your work sold, working with the publisher, getting a cover for your book, looking forward to the book tour, whether IRL or virtual and you seduce them with a bit of story, they'll want to continue reading. You can share the hard times too, but only after you've won their hearts.

Anybody read the fictive letter editor Erin Hosier posted last week?
Comment by Lori L. Tharps on July 23, 2010 at 10:10am
...dipping toe into discussion one more time...

I don't want to go tit for tat on all of my detractors here, but whenever I feel I have been misunderstood, I take responsibility for trying to make my intentions clear. So...

The reason I wrote this post was not to convince anyone that they should read and/or support my book because I'm Black. I agree with the sentiment voiced by a few of you, that that doesn't give anyone much to work with. Why would you pick up a book based on the skin color of the author?

There is a HUGE difference, however, between choosing to read my book because you don't like the subject matter and not knowing my book exists b/c it's not in your local bookstore, library, on the list on Amazon with the other women's fiction titles, or in the popular women's magazines etc. And the reason it's not in those places is because it is assumed that it is a book meant only for Black people. I just want the book to have a chance. A chance to be loved or hated. A chance to be ignored even. But a chance nonetheless to be read by whomever wants to read a book about the fragile relationship between mother and nanny.

When I send out press releases, plan my blog tours, record my book trailer, draft my newsletters and plan my readings, I have no intention of making my platform about my skin color. I don't promote my book with the tagline, 'oh and you should buy it because I'm Black.' Puh-lease. I have far more creative methods of hooking people in. For my last book, Kinky Gazpacho, I brought Spanish candies to all of my readings and sometimes made my cute Spanish husband pass them out in a tight t-shirt. I'm kidding. About the tight shirt part.

What I need from White Ambassadors is simply a venue to reach the readers that the publishing industry and booksellers seem to believe don't exist. I am fairly confident that people of all colors will enjoy my book because it's a good story. Oh, and they might like it b/c they'll enjoy fighting over whether or not I should have ended it differently. Hmmmm....

I'm thrilled because a fellow SheWriter read about my book in this column, realized we live close to one another, has a book coming out around the same time as Substitute Me and asked if we might do some readings together. Her response, "I'd love to have more Black readers!" So that's what I'm talking about. That's what I was hoping for... some creative suggestions on how to reach the people who the "industry" seems to think wouldn't be interested.

Unlike some of you believe, Af.-Am authors are not shelved in both the Af-Am section of bookstores and the regular fiction shelves. Usually, we're just in one place. If we were also on the fiction shelves, many of us would be content. I heard Colson Whitehead, who would be considered a "cross-over" success story, make this very same point. I mean hello, why is Sag Harbor not sitting next to The Great Gatsby? Until booksellers stop segregating authors, we authors have to do the extra work to make sure our books are out there for all the world to see and read.

And thank you to all of those who understood that this whole post was trying to be a little bit funny. I guess my humor doesn't work well in print. Thank God I didn't try to write a comedy!
Comment by Olyvia S. Taylor on July 23, 2010 at 9:17am
Lori, I fully support you in your desire to call it out like it is and not what we all wish it ideally could be. You are working within the framework that currently exists in the United States not the expat world out there. I am white, caucasian, pink whatever. As I read your post all I could think was "amen". Finding it unsavory to bring up such discussions really only demonstrates how uncomfortable we are with the reality of the topic. Get over it. Race exists, pigeonholing exists, unfairness exists. It is difficult for Af Am writers to cross over and even though a few have managed to do so in a big way does does not diminish the efforts that are required to do so. I found the tone of your post to be funny and provoking. And putting out the request to cross polinate your work to other women writers and readers in this forum completely appropriate. I am aware of you and your book because of the post, I am curious and open to looking at it because of the post. Mission accomplished. I will read it if the subject intrigues me. I will recommend your book based on its merit.
Comment by Sherrice Thomas on July 23, 2010 at 8:17am
Wow! What an intriguing post. Most of my readers are Caucasian since my book, The Balance Finder, is about life balance. I also have heard that my web presence, was on such a professional level that it helped me in that arena. I pray that it carries over when I write my fiction novel, Hot, Like Fire, that this audience carries over. I am definitely buying your book. The plot sounds intriguing. Be blessed!
Comment by Dasaya Cates on July 23, 2010 at 5:47am
@ Anastasia Ashman ... I totally get what you mean. In fact, that's the marketing angle I'm taking--I'm trying to "normalize" my work. I do understand the perspective that I'm going to be labeled as Af Am fiction by booksellers, publishers, etc., but for me, it's important that my own personal brand reflect a more macro strategy. It's a Catch-22.
Comment by Sezin Koehler on July 23, 2010 at 5:44am
I absolutely agree with Anastasia and I think it was very well said. Why does race need to play a part in this discussion at all? Why was it not an option to just tell us about your book, give us excerpts and encourage us to tell all our friends? Ultimately people will buy a book or tell their friends about it based on the story and its merit, not because of the author's race or because of their friend's races. I agree that the publishing world is still stuck in the segregated 1950s in many ways, however posts like this only encourage people to reproduce the same stereotypes. As a woman of color myself, I feel we should be challenging the publishers on these issues, not soliciting supporters based on their race.
Comment by Tracy Slater on July 22, 2010 at 4:17pm
Just a note to say that I admire your post, too, (and frankly it made me giggle, at least in the beginning: "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"--great use of tone, here!), and will tweet your book. Actually, I'll tweet this whole discussion b/c I think it's important. Anyway, good luck!
Comment by Carleen on July 22, 2010 at 3:08pm
I believe I understand the tongue in cheek you were going for Lori. But then, I would, wouldn't I? :)
Comment by Amy Wise on July 22, 2010 at 12:26pm

You sparked such a feeling in me yesterday that this is what today's post is on my blog...I hope you don't mind!



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