Pub Rants

Publishing Is Not Color Blind

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STATUS: Ready to head home. It’s after 7 o’clock.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? RESPECT by Aretha Franklin
(I’ll admit I did pop her on just to write this entry.)

In order to celebrate Martin Luther King Day, I blogged about three terrific African-American authors and suggested that folks might want to check them out and even potentially buy an African-American author to honor the day.

One commentator admonished me with “there’s an unspoken implication that readers only need to think about books by black authors on a particular day, kind of like Black History Month.”

I actually don’t disagree; however, I still would have recommended some great AA authors on MLK day regardless of the unspoken implication that they might “need” the extra help by highlighting them on a special day.

Why? Because publishing, sadly, is not color-blind and despite some big AA break-out authors, books by people of color are not published equally.

It’s the truth.

And now I’ll explain.

First off, I want to point to yet another recent controversy spawned by the Publisher Bloomsbury Children’s. They didn’t quite learn their lesson the first time around with the cover fiasco involving the novel LIAR. They had to do it again with a debut novel called MAGIC UNDER GLASS.

Maybe I should assume that in this case they thought any publicity was good publicity because really, are they this inept?

Notwithstanding this recent issue, in general when you browse the bookstore fiction shelves and there are people depicted on the cover, how often are they non-white?

Perhaps iconic images for all books are the way to go….

But here’s another case in point. Let’s go back to my author, Kim Reid, and her debut memoir NO PLACE SAFE—which is an amazing read by the way.

This is a memoir. Logically speaking, where do you think this book ought to be shelved in bookstores?

Gee, I don’t know. Maybe it should be shelved in memoir—say next to Mr. Frey who might have been better represented in fiction? Or, how about in the same section that houses THE GLASS CASTLE or EAT PRAY LOVE—both of which are memoir books.

Nope. Barnes & Noble shelved this book in African-American studies.

Yes, you read this correctly.

And go find the AA Studies section in your local BN store. See what other titles are there. That’s like shelving A MILLION LITTLE PIECES under drug addiction and nowhere else.

Yep. This despite the fact that Booklist called it a gripping memoir, “Part mystery thriller, part coming-of-age story, and part civil-rights history.”

Shelving like that can kill a book.

So I don’t care what my suggestion implies on MLK day, I’m darn well going to highlight Kim’s fantastic memoir and I’m going to do it again here by giving you the opening pages–especially since we’ve been talking about opening pages that grabbed an agent’s attention. If this doesn’t compel you to buy it, well, I’m not sure what will.


The summer before I started high school, two boys went missing and a few days later, turned up dead. They were found by a mother and son looking for aluminum cans alongside a quiet wooded road. It was already ninety degrees at noon, even with an overcast sky, because it was the end of July in Atlanta, Georgia, which I imagine is similar to the heat in hell, except with humidity. The mother thought she saw an animal at the bottom of a steep embankment that started its descent just a couple of feet from the road. The combination of heat and damp created a smell that frightened her. Something about the odor must have told her it wasn’t an animal at all, must have made her call her young child to her lest he discover the source. They left off the search for discarded cans and walked to a gas station where the mother called her husband, and he called the police.

The boys were friends, one about to celebrate his fifteenth birthday, the other had just turned thirteen, same age as I at the time. One went missing four days after the first, but they were both found on the same day, not two hundred feet apart in a ravine just off Niskey Lake Road. The two detectives first on the scene, responding to a signal forty-eight (person dead), noted in their report that either side of the road was bordered by trees, like most streets were in Atlanta at the time. Loblolly pine, white oaks and the occasional stray dogwood that played unwitting hosts for the creeping kudzu vines that threatened to take them over completely. The officers also noted that the woods and ravines lining both sides of the road were “used as a dumping ground for trash.” This was where they found the first body. A vine growing from a nearby tree had already wrapped itself around the boy’s neck, unaware that his last breath had been stolen from him days ago.

While making notes of how the child’s body lay among other thrown-away items littering the road’s shoulder, the detectives caught an odor on a small hot breeze coming from the north. Being detectives, they knew the smell immediately and it led them to the second boy’s body. At the time, no one knew the boys were friends because the police didn’t know who they were. By the time school started, only one boy had been positively identified. More than a year would pass before a name could be given to his friend.


It wasn’t much more than a blip in the news – two black boys being killed in Atlanta in 1979 didn’t get much news coverage. The only reason I knew what I did was because my mother, an investigator with the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office at the time, told me to be a little more careful. She said it was probably just a coincidence, but just as likely not, that the boys were close in age, black and found in the same wooded area.

Warning me to be a little more careful because those boys were killed was a waste of words. By my thirteenth summer, I’d learned to be nothing but careful, whether I wanted to or not. I couldn’t help but think like a cop. Even though they were my favorite, I rarely drank frozen Cokes because I avoided going into the convenience stores where they were sold (an off-duty cop still in uniform is a sitting duck if she walks in during a robbery). At restaurants, I never sat with my back to the door (you need to be aware of everyone who comes in and out, and know your entry and exit points). I always tried to carry myself like I wasn’t scared of shit (even if you are, don’t let them know or they have you). My friends called me Narc.

Ma told me about the boys while we got ready for work, sharing her bathroom mirror. I combed my hair while I studied her use of blush – the sucking in of cheeks to find the bones, the blowing of the brush to prevent over-application. This girly part of her never seemed to go with the other part, the other woman – the one who, as a uniformed officer, carried a .38-caliber service revolver in her thick leather holster, along with other things difficult to associate with a woman, especially a mother: handcuffs, nightstick, and the now illegal blackjack – solid metal covered in leather for handling an uncooperative perpetrator, or bad guy as I called them. Perpetrator filled my mouth in an uncomfortable way.

My use of cosmetics was limited to tinted lip-gloss and a brush to tame my thick and unruly eyebrows. But I watched her anyway, filing away the technique for the time she’d let me use real make-up to turn my face into something that resembled hers.

39 Responses

  1. Suzan Harden said:

    Basically, you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t.

    I found out years ago both whites and blacks looked at me funny if I read Eric Jerome Dickey or Terry McMillan while standing in line at the post office.

  2. Anonymous said:

    For another example of the segregation practiced by book retailers, it’s instructive to visit Walmart. You’ll have to visit two, one in an urban area and one in a white suburb or rural town. The first will have a selection of popular books by AA authors, mostly segregated into their own small section. The second will have few, if any, of the same books.

  3. Stephanie L. McGee said:

    Sadly it’s not just color.

    Pretty much anything by a Native American, regardless of genre, gets shelved in “Native American Studies” at Barnes and Noble and at Borders. And, at least at Borders, it’s a shelf and a half to two shelves for this “genre.” It’s pitiful.

  4. Dara said:

    You’d think that in the 21st century, color wouldn’t be an issue any more.

    But it is. Racism is still there and probably always will be unfortunately. And it’s on all sides; every race unfortunately discriminates against another.

    I got curious about the book and went to reserve it at my local library. They fall into the same pitfall as B&N–all but one local branch shelved it in “African American Fiction.” I mean it’s a memoir, right? Shouldn’t it be shelved in the non-fiction? Sigh.

    Only one library shelved it moderately correctly in biography and even then I think it’s still a little off the mark.

    I just wish we got rid of the “ethnic” sections and just shelved everything together, but I suppose that won’t happen any time soon.

  5. Jolly said:

    I’m an African American YA writer and nearly all of my young protagonists are black, but I’m always careful not to identify them as such in my manuscripts. For example, I never refer to any of my characters by race, not even the Caucasian ones. I use physical descriptions alone to identify their heritage, and allow the readers to ‘see’ whatever race their minds presents to them. Yesterday I entered Amazon’s breakthrough novel contest. The two leads in my YA novel are black, but there are only two instances in the novel where their races are identifiable, and even then it’s easy to miss. One character was described as having a brown face. The other uses her “brown hand” to massage her grumbling stomach. And that’s it.

    I hate using this approach, but I see no other choice. Even now, as I did as girl, when I browse the children’s section of the bookstores and libraries looking for something good to read, I see no one on the covers that looks like me. It saddens me to the point that I’m tearing up even as I write this. The pain never goes away. When I was a child I use to imagine the heroes in my favorite books with dark skin, because I wanted to see black children save the world too. Sadly, at 27-years-old, I’m still waiting for the book that will show me this. I’m even reluctant to use my real name when I submit anywhere, too afraid that my ethnic name will turn someone off. It might be a little paranoid on my part, but what am I to think when I hear about instances of whitewashing book covers. I might never become a published author. This I can learn to accept. But I would prefer to fail believing I got rejected because of the quality of my writing and not due to the color of me or my characters skins. Rejection is hard enough without putting race into the mix.

    Thank-you for bringing this issue up.

  6. The Zuccini said:

    I don’t know what it’s like in the states(because I live in Korea) but I know since Obma has become president, I’ve seen black dolls and action figures everywhere. I didn’t realize how white everything was even here, until I saw that. (And I wonder world over how many kids play with white dolls?)

    Anyway. I think we can change this, or at least force the bookstores to rethink the book shelving process.
    Let’s start an email campaign asking book stores to stop segregating books-well worded, polite, but firm.

  7. Alyssia Kirkhart said:

    Kristin, I’m SO glad you wrote this. Recently I’ve become very good friends with an African American author, and she lent me a book: Zora and Nicky: A Novel in Black & White by Claudia Mair Burney.

    I loved it, but guess what? I probably would’ve never noticed it on my own because–wonder of wonders–it was in the African American section. Why do they do this? It’s just another form of prejudice, in my opinion, and me, a bona fide white girl with pasty skin and red hair, would’ve missed out on a fantastic author because of 1)their insistance on categorizing Christian romance in such a manner and 2)my own ignorance.

    Needless to say, I don’t care how they look at me; I won’t be passing up that section any longer.

  8. Anonymous said:

    I really respect you for standing up for your all your authors and for believing in them enough to promote their work in a world where prejudice makes the climb to success that much harder.

    Anyone who thinks you shouldn’t take advantage of a day like MLK day to market AA novels, is living in a glass bubble. People have always taken advantage of holidays to promote their cause…be it Thanksgiving for food drives or veterans day for donations. There’s nothing wrong with what you did. I commend you for it.

  9. Sharon Mayhew said:

    Thank you for sharing part of NO SAFE PLACE. It was wonderful. I will be either ordering it or picking it up at B & N when our current blizzard blows over. Again, thanks for sharing.

  10. L. R. Giles said:

    Kristin, thank you for speaking up about this. I just blogged about how everybody I’ve ever asked about color being an issue in publishing has told me, “No, writing is key.” It’s kind of refreshing to see someone in the industry who isn’t a “disgruntled author” say what I, and many others, have known to be true for a long time (in particularly the segregationist practice of shelving books by AA authors in a separate-but-equal AA Interest/Studies section…how many times have you seen that section crammed with browsers?)Anyhow, love the blog and thanks again.

  11. Suze said:

    Isn’t even having an AA section a little redundant now? Why do AA authors languish in a different section from ‘Fiction’ or ‘Biography’. That’s segregation isn’t it?

    This is a terrific opening that will ensure I buy the book, yet I would never have found it in a book store.

    Do book stores really think that white writers or subjects should be front and center, while all other ethnicities should be tucked away out of view?

    Do we need to start a ‘civil rights for books’ movement?

    I’ll stop now, I’m making myself mad.

  12. Carrie N. said:

    I should have (and meant to) buy his years ago when I met Kim at a Backspace Conference. I’m going to Amazon to buy it. This also reinforces the fact that those first pages need to make an impact. These sure do. Kim rocks!
    Carrie Neely

  13. Abby Stevens said:

    I’ve only recently gotten into memoir when I read THE GLASS CASTLE. There are several books coming out Feb. 1 that I want, and I think I will have to pick this up as well.

    It is so unfortunate the way this book is being shelved, because a good book is a good book is a good book, and so many people who would love to read this will never know about it, so kudos to you Kristin for giving it a little more coverage.

    It would never occur to me to visit the African American Studies section, not because it’s AA, but because it’s AA STUDIES. That makes me think text books, not gripping memoir.

  14. Anonymous said:

    Amazing is right. I don’t even like memoirs, and I’m writing this one down for the next time I head to the bookstore.

  15. Jessica said:

    I loved the first two pages. I will admit I love memoirs and biographies, but here lately I’ve been caught in the fatasy world. I will have to pick this one up for sure.

  16. Anonymous said:

    Readers of Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea works are well aware that most characters are dark-skinned. Yet in the 2004 Sci-Fi Channel production the ratios are reversed, three light and one dark, when it should be three dark and one light.

    I suppose the producers were playing to what they perceive as a racist market, that light-skinned people wouldn’t tolerate watching dark-skinned actors, which is utter garbage.

  17. Carolyn said:

    I LOVED this book. I read it shortly after it came out and to this day I think about the story from time to time. It’s a really wonderful book.

  18. Susan at Stony River said:

    Amen to the shelving dilemma. I used to supervise library shelvers and every day at least one of them would come to me with a book they thought was catalogued wrongly, because its place on the shelves was just weird. Sometimes, but sometimes not — but then I never thought of the effect on the poor author.

    Kim’s opening is compelling stuff; it’s full of the promise of something big about to happen. Curse you for ending there LOL I’m going to have to hunt this book down.

  19. Sarah Tormey said:

    I would like to point out that sometimes the sales reps determine which category a book is sold into based on which buyer they feel they can get a better buy from. Perhaps the AA Studies buyer would be more excited by the memoir than a buyer looking a very crowded memoir section. Just a thought.

  20. Anonymous said:

    >>>This is why Frank Yerby lived in Spain…<<< So very true. Along with James Baldwin, who lived in France. But the saddest part, is that both these authors were born (and lived) way back in the early to late 1900s. And yet, this kind of thing is *still* alive and well. Truly, a very sad commentary, indeed.

  21. Kim Reid said:

    Seeing Kristin’s post and these comments was a great start to my day — thank you!

    I like to use my book as an example when agent-seeking writers ask why the agent needs to love the book to sell it. Kristin championed this book from the beginning. We had lots of editor interest and came close several times, but it took a while to find the editor and publisher who believed in this book as much as we did.

    You really want your agent to care that much. They’ll stand by you and your book when the going is most difficult.

  22. Sarah Laurenson said:

    I like having separate sections so that I can find a book that is AA, gay/lesbian, women’s studies, native american when I’m loooking for that in particular. What’s missing for me is the cross reference shelving in sections where these books belong by genre.

    I think someone had a good idea and it’s been implemented badly.

    Since bookstores carry so few books these days, there’s no issue with space limitations – unfortunately.

    I applaud you for promoting AA authors on any day.

  23. RCWriterGirl said:

    I know it’s already been said. But, thanks for posting on this topic. Very few people are willing to openly discuss race issues. So, it’s nice to see it at the forefront.

    What’s frustrating is that this categorization is discriminatory, yet bookstores get away with it. The categorizations are almost always done by author, not necessarily the subject matter. James Patterson’s Alex Cross books don’t get tossed in that section.

    It’s unfortunate. And it hurts African American authors and makes it less likely their stories will get published because they have low numbers (you’re always going to get low numbers when you advertise to a small audience).

    I am curious, Kristin, if you know: is there evidence to bear out the concern that drove Liar’s original cover: that white people won’t buy books with blacks on the cover or about black people? Have there been any studies that compare the sales of “black” books that are shelved with “nonblack” books in bookstores (in the section they’re supposed to be shevled in: thriller/mystery/romance) as opposed to when they’re segregated to the “Africann American” section? I’m just wondering if this is a publisher/bookstore myth or if there is some evidence to back up this decision to shelve books separately?

    Thanks again for covering this topic.

  24. Anonymous said:

    Shelving is always an issue whether or not it has to do with race. I had to ask someone to help me find Soulless. I checked every section of the store I could think of. It ended up being in Science Fiction. It didn’t look very Science Fictionie to me, but I guess that’s what happens when a book is a mix of different genres. Categorizing books is often a challenge.

  25. Sandrine Thomas said:

    I am so thankful for this post Kristen. The practice of segregating and marginalizing books written by authors of color only continues with the blanket of silence. I write AA historical romance and contemporary romance, and despite current practices, I will fight tooth and nail to be counted as an author, and not my ethnicity.

  26. Sustenance Scout said:

    Terrific post, Kristin! Kim’s book offers such insights into race relations not only during that awful summer but throughout that difficult decade. It should be required reading for students…and their parents, teachers, school administrators….