A long time ago, I once posed the issue to the genre whether or not we, as black writers, would be better off trying to break into the largely ignored black (audience) market rather than concentrate on being well known in the horror community. Maybe the debate isn’t limited to whether or not black writers, as opposed to all of us horror writers, should pigeon-hole ourselves into the relatively small horror buying market that barely seems to keep the small presses afloat. After all, isn’t the point to reach as large an audience as possible? What is a black thing is the issue may be more important for us since we as black writers, we as a black audience, and our stories are largely ignored in the genre.

It seems that this discussion is being had all over the net and I’m still playing catch up on the recent furor. The recent iteration of this issue seems to be whether or not black writers should be automatically relegated to the black interest section of a bookstore, niche marketed to black people. As opposed to being marketed as a “mainstream” writer. [Actually, a variation of this argument rears its head within genre writing all the time – whether there should be a horror section or if horror works should simply be placed within general fiction.] Of course this is of special interest to me. Should one of my novels see print, should it be consigned solely to the horror section? The black interest section? Or marketed as a mainstream novel?

Here’s the question: If a publisher regards and treats an author differently simply because they’re black, not based on the content of the work they’ve created, is that publisher practicing racial discrimination or not?

The debate centers around the “African American Niche Market” or as it appears in praxis at my local Waldenbooks, the “black interest” section. That’s where you will typically find most of your black authors and books related to black culture or fiction revolving around black characters (“baby momma dramas”). The rub: when you are an author that could just as easily be marketed mainstream, do you want to be relegated to the niche? The thinking, by the marketing execs, is that there is a boom in the African-American market right now (similar to the seeming boom seen in the horror market right now).

Best-selling author, Tess Gerritsen has her take on it: As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog, even though I’m Asian American, I write my books with a much wider audience in mind. Logically speaking, if your books are aimed at only 4% of the American population, your sales are screwed. To make the bestseller list requires that your sales penetration of that 4% slice of the market must be huge. You’d have to sell to every single Chinese auntie and cousin and every member of every Mah-jong club in America to even register a blip on the national lists. Sure, you might be a huge success in the Asian American market.

The bottom line: the niche market equals, pardon the pun, being ghetto-ized. I know that a lot of folks don’t mind this. Better to be a big fish in a small pond. I know that is the mentality of a lot of small press/self-publishing folks. I ain’t mad at you, that’s a choice that you’ve made. However, it is about having that choice. The boom might make it easier for first time black writers to get published, just like black only horror anthologies might make it easier for first time black horror writers to get published. Some folks might see that as some sort of affirmative action for writers (I always saw that as savvy marketing, growing the pie and bringing in new readers). Others, like Millenia Black, point out that publishing is a pro-white industry, with an inherent benefit given to white writers:

And to anyone who’s spitting at their screen in disagreement, let me direct you to the New York Times Best Seller’s List. Take a gander at that. Hell, go ahead and bookmark it. Every week, white authors command this list. It’s the Mecca of the publishing industry. 71 years and counting, and every single week, white authors dominate it.

I don’t think Caucasian authors fully appreciate the advantage they have simply because they’re white.

Despite the arguments made about how the Times list is compiled, the fact is, it reports on sales made in bookstores that have large “Fiction & Literature” & “New Release” sections—access to which black authors are denied because publishers have decided that what they write is automatically “African-American” fiction. Not commercial fiction. Not general fiction. Not marketable to 85% of the book-buying public. Not likely to make the New York Times Best Seller List.

[An interesting counterpoint to this argument can be read here]

Tess Gerritsen goes on to make the point that Another case in point is James Patterson, whose megaselling thrillers feature a black detective (even though the author himself is white.) The character’s race doesn’t hurt sales, which shows that, yes, white readers ARE happy to cross racial lines and read about black characters. Patterson’s photo is frequently missing from the books, so you’d have no idea what race he is. The important point: his books are marketed as MAINSTREAM fiction. You look at a Patterson book, and the main impression you get is that it’s going to be a scary ride. Not that this is a book about black characters.

I tried my best to sum up the salient points in this debate. However, I couldn’t leave out the fact that this isn’t just whining by black folks playing the race card.

What I don’t want to see is my stories relegated to a niche, no matter how much I love the niche and want to succeed in that niche (be it horror or “black interest”) simply based on my skin color. More on point, I don’t like the message, whether intentional or not, that my stories can only be related to by my people.

I’m going to write my stories, they will be specific to me, and I will trust that by making them personal from me, they will strike a universal chord in others. I’ll let folks know up front: I plan on having my picture on my book, not planning on hiding from readers, and my race won’t hurt my sales. I want to follow the Stephen Carter model: not marketed as a “black” book, but as a mainstream literary/thriller. Well, at the very least, it never hurts to be thinking ahead.

Since I don’t know where you are reading this, the best way to guarantee me seeing your comment is to post on my message board. Or simply drop by to say hi.