Monday, December 01, 2008

Obama and Publishing

Lori L. Tharps over at the Root offers an article about President-elect Obama's impact on publishing, specifically for black writers. (Via her blog, she directs readers interested in the topic of "Black people in the publishing industry" to the blog WriteBlack, run by Anika, which I hadn't read before. Looks like a fun spot worth visiting.)

Tharps doesn't make any definitive point in the article but nicely opens up this conversation, which is about publishing and of course more, in terms of a national conversation. How do we all discuss race with a black president coming into office? Publishing gets pulled out from other media because it's slower, and Tharps (and many others, myself included) feels it's also slower to publish by and for black people:
In the past month, those of us who make our living from the written word have started to ponder the possibilities. We are imagining the different ways the incoming president might inspire the overwhelmingly white publishing industry to get a clue about our stories... In the world B.O. (before Obama), publishers seemed to operate under the impression that black authors appealed only to black readers. Even worse, that those black readers were interested only in books that involved a lot of sex and ghetto baby-mama drama. For the past decade, support for authors of color with literary ambitions, or even those who just wanted to tell a different kind of story, has been dismal.

Fair play. She gets into the ghettoization of black writing and how publishers only seem comfortable with black authors writing "street" or "gangsta" lit, but what she doesn't address is the problem with corporate booksellers and how they truly segregate black writing separate from other writing, even black fiction versus "literature." That's definitely a part of the equation. When does a writer get to the point where she's next to Toni Morrison rather than Lisa Lennox?

I do appreciate the point Malaika Adero of Atria Books makes: "Sometimes there's this notion that publishers introduce the hot new thing," she says, "but we don't lead, we follow." I don't know if this has to be the case, but I do know, especially in this point in time with the economy shrinking and publishers less willing to take risks, it's gonna be the case for awhile.

But here's another possibility: maybe when the dust settles on this recession, as our economy reorganizes itself, with banks and sellers restructuring credit and consumers shopping in more educated ways - locally, sustainably - maybe there will be an opportunity for a publisher or publishers to go out with a new direction and challenge the kind of thinking that says every new project brought to the editorial board as an acquisition has to have 2 or 3 or 200 precedents, that every new book has to fit the XXXX meets XXXX model. If national, independent publishers are not desperate to make enough to stay open, maybe they will be able to lead - like Soft Skull has done with fiction in recent times. And maybe this can bode well for black writers wanting to break out of the segregated publishing AND bookselling world.

I return to a phrase I find myself saying or thinking a lot these days: Here's hoping!

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