Publishing’s Race Problem

You’re familiar with the statistics:

  • 95% of 7,124 books published by the big 5 in 2020 were by white authors
  • 85% of acquisition editors in 2019 were white folks
  • 5% of books published between 1950-2018 were by non-white writers

The issue is persistent—also known as tired+boring.

Translation? We BEEN here before. See Random House publishing a mere two books by black authors from 1984-1990! And one of those writers being Toni Morrison 😲.

The issue is also ironically well documented within publishing circles. See for example Zakiya Dalila Harris’ breakout 2021 novel The Other Black Girl, about the persistence (and dangers) of whiteness in publishing.

What’s all this to you, as a storyteller?

You have to do with these facts what makes most sense to you. Being a writer is hard enough, writing from the margins adds a heightened tension that everyone wrestles on their own terms.

That said, here’s what I’ve learned.

Here’s what I find critical and a life-blood to protecting my own writing practice:

Stake Your Margin As The Center: learned early and often that the stories I most cherish—and the people whose lives those stories honor—would often be overlooked by gatekeepers. Instead of trying to fit my writing into what those gatekeepers define as worthy, I write with my othered world as the center of the literary universe.

As an immigrant publishing in the US and writing about black South Africans, I’ve resisted (mostly white) editors’ suggestions to bend a story to make it more palatable to the everyday (translation: white) American reader. Sometimes I point out the discrepancy between how much black/African storytellers are asked to translate ourselves and our world vs. Russian novelists for example, who assume every reader understands their Russian world as the center of the universe. White American readers seem to have zero trouble seeing their humanity in these Russians’ decidedly unAmerican lives; why not assume the same when the story centers an African life?

I’m reminded here of Toni Morrison and her entire oeuvre. Her insistence on writing about black Americans, even when she was challenged by critics as a fine writer quibbling with side show characters. Her Nobel Prize acceptance speech brilliantly reminds any storyteller working at the margins to understand how and why your own place in the literary cosmos as to be the center of literature if you are going to write a worthy story.

Write With 💯 Liberation: Yup. You gotta be aware of the business of publishing and the daunting statistics black, brown, queer and women writers face. But you can’t write with that loaded into your ink. It’s not just crippling, it can also throttle your creativity by putting your imagination in defense mode rather than play. You have to create beyond the boundaries imagined for you.

Consider Phyllis Wheatley, the first black African woman who published her poetry in 1773 London. Here’s a woman working as American slavery rages at its height, as Boston publishers refuse to put her words in print and as a very white reading public casts doubt on her full citizenship, much less her equal humanity. And yet. Wheatley insists that her ideas and poetry is bigger than any boundary set for her—as a woman, an black African and a formerly enslaved person.

Slavery as Wheatley knew it is in the rearview. But when you’re writing from the margins, as you and I are, there are so many boundaries people try to place on you. How can you write beyond these boundaries?

How can you make the page your most radical, even dangerously liberated space?

Carve Community: Find kindred writing folk to share all your publishing drama, joys and shenanigans with. This can be the homies in your writing accountability circle. Or a formal group you seek out through residencies for women, for queer or black and brown folk.

That’s a huge part of why this newsletter even exists. I wanna build community for storytellers writing at the margins. Our voices become powerful when we create transparency (hello, #whatpublishingpaidme), when we can share our vulnerabilities and def all the hacks and shortcuts we learned along the way.

So if you got a writing homie, help me serve by sharing this newsletter with them.



p.s. stats: on publishing, on Harris’ Atria novel here

p.s.s. The literary big 5: Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House, Doubleday, HarperCollins, and Macmillan