Are Black Authors Getting “Nigger Treatment?” Is “Niche” a Dirty Word? Is Millenia Black Really Suing Penguin Group Over White v. Black Characters?

“Greetings, my name is [--] and I’m the director of [--], you are slated to do a book signing with us…. I want to know if you are a black/African American person.”

The above is an email message posted by author Millenia Black on her blog Millenia Black—Taking Care of Business. Click on the link above and scroll down to March 13th to see the entire posting.

This blunt email message sent Black into paroxisms of indignation. She felt her race was nobody’s business when it came to book promotion and she was incensed that the director of the bookstore would even dare ask such a question. So insulted was Black that she canceled her appearance and left the director in the lurch, forced to locate an alternative author to make an appearance. And 25 out of 26 commentors joined the rage-in:

“The frickin’ nerve of some people! I’d make sure this idiot looks like the dumb shit he is.” – Lynn Ray Harris

“I think I would call the store and ask to speak to the manager. I would try to get the person who did that FIRED!!!” —Anonymous

The 26th commenter, an anonymous former publicist, silenced the comments when she wrote:

“Actually, there could be a logical explanation. The bookseller’s question might have to do with media coverage. A number of publications and TV talk shows cater specifically to the African American community, so it’s possible that he/she was just trying to figure out whether it was worth sending a press release to those media outlets.

When I was a publicist, I used to do this all the time.

If someone was of Irish descent, I tried to get The Irish Voice to write about it. If she was black, I wanted Essence to do a feature story. If she was Hispanic, I wanted Telemundo to interview her.

It wasn’t racism—it was marketing.” —Anonymous [Former Publicist]

I think the very smart, articulate and prolific Millenia Black (The Great Pretender in 2002, The Great Betrayal in 2005 and The Great Mastermind (TBA ) got her knickers in a big ‘ol twist over a tactlessly worded inquiry that was designed to make sure the store attracted as many potential buyers for Black’s books as possible.

Yep, sorry, Millenia, but you really should have attended that book signing. I’m confident that you were not being stigmatized; far more likely, you were being promoted and someone was showing some initiative in trying to bring in not just anybody off the street, but specifically those white and black book buyers who support people who happen to be black writers. Putting your fingers in your ears and singing so loudly you can’t hear what is being said about marketing, marketing, marketing, doesn’t mean it isn’t marketing. (Hold all ad hominem attacks, please.)

Nigger Treatment:

“Many people say the “nigger treatment” is virtually the only way an author’s allowed to participate in the industry if they’re not white.”
–Millenia Black, October 6, 2006

(I can barely type that phrase, it is so offensive, but I am quoting her.) She’s unhappy about the shelving of her books under African American Fiction because, again, the characters are white and the plot has nothing to do with black culture. Sure, her books would get shelved under African American Fiction (to make it easy for those who are keenly interested in black writers and/or black culture to locate her books). However, cross-genre shelving sells books. I’d be shelving her books in at least four different places or, if I had ordered only one or two copies, moving them around New Fiction, Literary Fiction—Female Authors, General Fiction, and African American Fiction to see where they’d sell.

Niche is NOT a dirty word: Let’s pretend I’ve renewed my contract at B&N Books in New York City, have taken back the title of Director of Marketing, Special Sales, and the mix of books coming down the assembly line from new non-white authors are The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai (which will go on to win the 2006 Man Booker Prize for Fiction), The Great Betrayal by Millenia Black, and Saving Fish from Drowning by Amy Tan. You know why I’m hopping happy when I see these authors bios!

In the real world of in-the-trenches publishing, it’s simply not smart marketing to ignore a niche just because acknowledging that it exists might strike someone as being politically incorrect. Fact of the matter is, niches can form the foundation for blockbuster sales—and in mainstream publishing, sales are the name of the game.

Let’s sue those racist, Jim Crow bastards: Yet, Millenia Black is on a tear again in her latest posting, The Great Lawsuit, and there is a commenter slugfest going on, not unlike the one that took place in March.

The legal basis of her lawsuit is sketchy on her blog, and there is not much information on the Internet, but it seems that an editor wanted Black to change her “race neutral” or white characters to black before signing a book deal.

From the comment section:

“My understanding is that Millenia’s challenge is to stop publishers from classifying authors work by their skin color regardless of content. That they treat all authors work (both blacks and whites alike) in the same way. —Ancient Reader

“This is the ultimate in biting the hand that feeds you. It’s racism, racism, racism at every turn. That’s why you can’t get anywhere.Outraged Insider

“The problem with you person is that you’re so damned racist and you can’t look anything in the eye, much less the mouth because you’re too blind to see that far.” —Monica Jackson

Fun, huh?

Is a lawsuit ill-advised? Black said “No thanks.” to the offer, didn’t she? Will suing get her what she wants? No photos on the book jackets. No bios indicating race. Better yet, how about the elimination of author’s names that might be Jewish, Catholic, Indian, Eskimo, Russian. Let’s do it! Dump all books into the mainstream without emphasizing any distinquishing characteristics of the author, just the plot. Wrap all books in a brown jacket while you are at it! Standardize typeface! Sink or swim!

That said, in my clicking around the Internet to find out how many black authors there were out there whose characters in novels were white, I found only a reference to Mills & Boon, Co. UK, international publishers of romance fiction. The book titles are on online, and there are hundreds of authors listed, some with photos, most without. I also contacted a blogger friend who owns a bookstore and asked the same question. ZERO black authors with all white characters came to mind. Millenia Black is boldly going where few black writers have gone before.

So it sounds like the prodigious writer-turned-warrior, Millenia Black, has strapped on armour, mounted her trusty steed, and, brandishing a Complaint instead of a sword, is charging uphill to destroy African American racism in the publishing industry.

My advice to Millenia Black is: “Look behind you.” Is there anybody there?

61 Responses to “Are Black Authors Getting “Nigger Treatment?” Is “Niche” a Dirty Word? Is Millenia Black Really Suing Penguin Group Over White v. Black Characters?”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    What if the niche were the Aryan Brotherhood?

  2. Katy Gurley Says:

    It sounds like nobody was out to get anybody. Ms. Black is simply showing a lack of confidence in herself as a black woman. My question is, would she rather be right (that the marketing world is conspiring against her race) and be stressed by all the controversy, or be happy with a well-marketed, well-shelved book on the market?

  3. Anonymous Says:

    I’m not sure all the facts are straight here, but it’s easy to say Black is making a fuss about nothing. (Why complain about being treated like an African American when you are an African American? Clearly she must lack confidence in herself as a non-white) The reality is (whether we like admitting it or not) that black writers ARE treated differently than whites, no matter what they write. The only African American writers that are lucky enough to be cross-shelved are ALREADY bestsellers. Non-literary African American debut books do not have a prayer of such, nor will they be ordered in the same quantity. The reality is, you cannot expect as many sales if tagged and styled for a smaller market as opposed to a larger one. A general fiction debut by a white author is more likely to yield far greater bookstore orders across the country (not to mention print, radio, TV) than an African American fiction debut by a black author. That’s an undeniable fact of racial niching.

    Why aren’t James Patterson’s Alex Cross novels labled African American fiction and shelved there all over the country? Why wasn’t Sue Monk Kidd’s Bees book? What if these two authors were African Americans? Where would those books be?

    I’d say Black has a good point.

    Note from the Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): What about that Street Lit genre? That sells, doesn’t it?  See Mel’s comment below.

  4. David Says:

    Lynne said: “My advice to Millenia Black is: “Look behind you.” Is there anybody there?”

    I like the arguments being made here. It opens up angles on racial issues.

    If Ms. Black is to look behind her in this sense, she will likely only see what she herself has left behind her. And at this point, the only thing to be seen behind her must be the law of the land upholding her position and not what any opinion supposes.

    The nuts and bolts of her issue is whether or not the law is behind her claims in jurisprudence. I would like to see the complaint. The strength of her case lies within the claims therein. All being said now is pure speculation at this point.

    Note from the Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): Where’s the complaint? (Millenia?) I’ve had several people suggest there is no complaint. 

  5. Lynne Says:

    Has anyone seen the Complaint?

  6. Bernita Says:

    Think you’ve been very fair.
    It’s certainly not an easy topic

  7. Kevin Watson Says:

    In a time when so many authors/entertainers seek to draw attention to themselves by making sure everyone is aware of his or her ethnic origins, this issue seems a bit like using the same principle for the same reason. If Ms. Black doesn’t fall into this category, perhaps she should have responded not by canceling her reading, but with a question as to why her ethnicity mattered at all. Maybe she would have learned the true nature of the question, which could have saved everyone involved from the inconvenience of so much press and attention. But then…

    Note from the Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): Kevin Watson is an editor at Press 53. Press 53 is a “small independent publisher committed to literary quality.” They are located in Lewisville, North Carolina and “publish full-length books by both new and established writers.” 

  8. Sandra Colmenares Says:

    Hi, Dear People

    This is an over an over again issue that I found since I moved to US. I am Latin American, from Venezuela. What kind of race define us? Most of us are Mestizos, that means we are blacks, indians, white, and any any combination of them. Indeed, there are people who has the three in their blood – that is my case.

    If I would had children, like 5 or 6 of them, none would be same “race” even being from the same father. That is the case with my brothers and sisters, we belong to the same parents -a sample of eight kids. We have in common our smile, temperament, and last names, and sometimes not even that. I won’t say we don’t deal with racist problems, yes we have them, usually they are solved either with some beers or in the bed, or both. I don’t mean that could work with you, but who knows. The most serious problem as I see it, is ignorance.

    I would like someone could clarify my ignorance about this subject:

    When one says I am African-American, it implies I am still African even though I born in United States and have no idea if there still any survivor in what country of Africa I can call family?

    Why we don’t just classify bookshops shelves under subject matter, and those books which refers to race subject go under Anthropology or Social Sciences? Then under them we can have fiction and non-fiction.

    I don’t know, it just an idea.

  9. Doris Mays Says:

    So marketing justifies racial discrimination? I disagree using the ethnicity of a person to trap them in their own racial market is a good thing. The African American niche never provided a foundation for any first time national bestseller, and that is a fact. Books with black model cover art never turn into bestsellers unless the author is one already. Only black people are expected to spend money on them. As MJ Rose said, they aren’t read by anyone outside the market. It doesn’t work like the other niches.

    Note from the Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): See my comment about Willard Motley (below). He was a very successful American writer (1902-1965) whose enthnicity was African American, AND the characters in his most successful book were white. 

  10. Monica Jackson Says:

    Niche publishing isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But how would you like to have the work you produce not classified as to its content but by your race?

    Many nonblacks can look at the manner in a objective manner only if they imagine their response to an ethnicity they don’t denigrate being treated the same way as blacks.

    What if a Jewish author’s books had to be prominently marked Jewish and could only be marketed to Jewish people in a special Jewish niche with the exception of the occasional bestseller? Jews might be loyal readers and it might be a valid marketing niche, but would this treatment be right?

    What would it say about Jewish authors? What if a Jewish author got tired of being solelyCover Image categorized by his Jewishness and like Millenia Black stepped up and sued?

    Would you be writing the same thing about that person–that treating Jewish people differently from other people is justified because it’s good marketing?

    Get it?

    I don’t appreciate being quoted without the context of the comment I was responding to being quoted also. I wasn’t randomly calling people racist, but responding to a blatant and easily recognizable racist personal attack. 

     

    Note from the Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): Monica’s compilation of three stories was published in August 2006 by BET, a division of Harlequin. Harlequin acquired BET from Black Entertainment Network in December 2005. Monica has also contributed to Dark Thirst, published by Pocket Books, a division of Simon & Schuster in 2004. Dark Thirst ”features stories from some of today’s most popular African American writers” (Jacket copy.)

  11. Lynne Says:

    Here’s the exchange between Outraged Insider and Monica Jackson:

    Outaged insider wrote:

    Tell me this…if publishing houses were so bigoted and racist, why would they bother publishing blacks in the first place? Why bother?

    The only reason they bother is that they realized there’s money to be made for their stockholder’s pockets when they figured out a decade or so ago that black folks read books.

    That’s the problem with you people, you have a knack for looking a gift horse in the mouth.

    The problem with you person is that you’re so damned racist and you can’t look anything in the eye, much less the mouth because you’re too blind to see that far.

  12. Maralyn Rittenour Says:

    Very interesting, and feisty as always. Your blog is so lively. I agree about the marketing angles, Essence, The Irish Echo, or whatever draws. One mixed metaphor, Lynne. Ye olde English phrase was “knickers in a twist”.

    Note from the Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): Thanks, Maralyn, I fixed the mixed metaphor!

  13. Mel Says:

    Ms. Scanlon,

    You probably can’t understand how difficult a matter this actually is, and be thankful that you don’t have to know. By the way, I’m happy that you have the forethought even to consider stocking books where everyone who might want to read it, can actually find it. Most booksellers don’t even give it much thought.

    Case-in-point, I was in Borders Express, the other day to purchase “Genevieve”. I thought the Eric Jerome Dickey book would be in the romance section, but it wasn’t there. After looking it up on the in-store computer, I learned the book was in stock and in the African-American section. When I finally found the AA section, I was saddened. “Girl you betta reco-nized” was stocked, next to “Oh No She did-ent” which was alongside W.E.B Dubois “Souls of Black Folks”, a Penguin Literary Classic.

    Now the last time I checked, African-American was NOT a literary genre but rather a social construct, called race.

    Therefore, in order to MARKET a book properly one would shelve books in sections where its audience would have access to them. i.e., trashy romance novels in the Romance section, cooks books in the cuisine section and literary classics, well you get the idea.

    I’m Black and I don’t read Street Lit, so that type of “spray and pray” marketing is lost on me. I read to expand my knowledge of the world not limit it to what I’ve experienced. In a perfect world, I suspect others would do the same, when presented with an opportunity.

    This is what I believe is actually at the root of Ms. Black’s proposed lawsuit; equal access to the largest audience possible- those who read commercial fiction. I imagine she hoped to accomplish that feat by writing about those of European descent so she would be able to distance herself from the AA Street-Lit genre. I guess Penguin isn’t ready to do the heavy lifting.

    Now in Penguin’s defense, I have to say this wasn’t always the case. I worked in both Penguin’s Academic Marketing & Sales and in Putnam’s Special Sales department in the late ‘80s early 90′s. Back then, Marketing and Publicity promoted books based on the content, not the color of its author’s skin.

    Marketing should never promote bigotry and ignorance.

    Note from the Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): Mel, thanks for dropping by. I can tell you were offended that a book you consider above Street Lit was on the same shelf. Is it possible that a Street Lit reader might buy and enjoy “Genevieve” because it was shelved there? Is it possible that this book was also stacked with romances in other bookstores?  Sometimes books have to find their niches themselves! If enough people tell a handseller that  the buyer looked in “Romances” first, that book might well gravitate there.

  14. Terry Says:

    Maybe the fuss is intentional to fuel sales. After all, a little negative publicity doesn’t seem to hurt, these days.

  15. Andrew O'Hara Says:

    “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

    –Martin Luther King,
    (forty three years ago)

  16. Maxine Says:

    What would those niche people do with To Kill a Mockingbird? Would they niche it as AA fiction? I don’t get this “niching” as surely it puts people off reading things they might otherwise read. Eg., I would never read something “niched” as a romantic novel, but I love Jane Austen.Maxine

    My main reading material is crime ficiton, which is always niched in bookshops away from the general fiction. (Science fiction is a similar niched genre).

    But of course, the people who work in bookshops these days don’t seem to be very well read as you often find books that are supposed to have been filed in a niche in the general lists.

    Oh well, don’t know what I am saying really, except that i don’t think niching is that useful. I think a better system is the one used by some boostores (even chains) where the staff, and even customers in some cases (by invitation) stick up labels by the books they’ve enjoyed reading and write briefly why. Yes I know this is often a marketing ploy and not a “real person” writing, but to my mind it is better for the browser in a bookshop to stumble on these little notes, than to have to “navigate the niches” or what the bookseller’s idea of the niches is, anyway. (An imperfect system)

    Note from the Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): But Maxine, look what you are saying: you love crime fiction and those books are consolidated into one section. Do you not go straight for that section when you go to the bookstore? If the crime story were just thrown onto a table in the mix of multi-genre books, you’d have a harder time finding it. Yes, you MIGHT stumble upon a non-crime fiction book at that table and buy it, but is that what non-generic shelving is about? List by author’s last name only or stack randomly on a table? Is that evening the odds that someone else might get your money? 

  17. Lynne Says:

    From my friend Richard Koeppel, MD:

    Encyclopedia of World Biography

    Name: Willard Motley

    Born: July 14, 1902
    Died: March 4, 1965
    Nationality: American
    Enthnicity: African American

    An African American author who wrote predominantly about white characters, Willard Motley (1909-1965) gained recognition with the 1947 release of his critically acclaimed first novel Knock Down Any Door. His realistic, detailed depictions of life in slums, prisons, and reform schools earned him comparisons to other naturalist authors such as Theodore Dreiser. Despite the fact that two of his novels were made into films, Motley never surpassed the success of his first novel.

    Thanks, Richard!

  18. Lynne Says:

    Even the library categorizes by Dewey Decimal System or Library of Congress.

    How do libraries handle African American authors?

    Lynne (WW of P)

  19. Monica Jackson Says:

    How does differientiating books by content, such as crime, have anything to do with differientiating books merely by the race of the author, despite the content?

    Seems like apples and oranges to me.

    Also hyping a book using ethnicity, such as an Australian Aboriginal author for example may well use his background to promote his book with Aboriginal characters. A woman raised in foster care could use her background. A street lit author may use their prison stint. This doesn’t mean an entire category should be created for them to be separated from other books written by people of other races and backgrounds. It’s taking the niche to ridiculous limits.

    There’s nothing wrong with niching Street Lit, because that’s a certain sort of content, but when you’re throwing Toni Morrison beside That’s My Babydaddy just because the authors are the same race–that’s as wrong as throwing all white authors together in a section because they’re white.

    As far as the libraries I’ve visited, they do not discriminate on the basis of color, race, creed, etc. They may pull out various displays for the various holidays, some ethnicity based, such as black history month, St. Patrick’s Day or Cinco de Mayo.

    I’ve never observed any institutionalized segregation of books in libraries based on the race of the author rather than the content of the book as in publishing.

    Why such an effort to defend something so simply and essentially morally wrong?

    Note from the Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): Dewey Decimal System — 809.8 = Literature For and By Specific Ethnic Groups.

  20. Monica Jackson Says:

    Thank goodness I haven’t visited a library that throws all black-authored fiction and non-fiction at 809.8.

    This would have to go back to the question of who made the rule that black authors can only write books for other black people to read?

    And who made the rule that only white authors write books for everybody to read?

    Would everybody but white Anglo Americans be considered an ethnic group? Would white supremist literature go at 809.8?

    Hmmmm.

  21. Alice Says:

    Can Ms. Black have it both ways? I am assuming she would NEVER submit her books for this type of award?

    Open Book Awards 2006
    Walter Mosley, Other Black Authors Honored

    “Scores of black literati and bibliophiles converged on an unassuming Harlem ballroom for the Second Annual Open Book Awards, the only African-American Literary Awards Show to acknowledge black authors in all genres — from self-help and mystery to cookbooks and street fiction.

    With over two hundred noted individuals from the worlds of literature, acting and business, the Open Book Awards gives a nod to not only a field which is exploding but to a rich African-American literary tradition.

    “The African American Literary Award Show is a company created to give recognition to African Americans in the literary sector,” explained Yvette Hayward, founder of AALAS, which presents the Open Book Awards. “It helps to honor, recognize and celebrate the outstanding achievements of African American authors and writers have made to the publishing world.”

  22. Shameless Words Says:

    In fact, I suspect that Ms Black simply has a cunning grip on how to market herself: kick up a stink and you get noticed. Get controversial and you get headlines. She is probably laughing to herself about how much mileage she is getting out of this. Look at what happened to Jonathan Franzen when he turned down Oprah. I wonder if I should consider doing this. And I do know an author whose publisher told her that she needed to “plant a controversial marketing bomb” if she wanted to get ahead. Kill someone?

    Note from the Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): Hi, Shameless! Welcome back. (Shameless lives in Lyon, Rhone-Alpes, France. He is a journalist.)

    I don’t think that Black is making up her rage. It rings pretty true on her blog. She’s “spittin’ bullets!” The problem she faces is that if and when she sues a publishing company—and I am not convinced she has actually plunked down a retainer and fired the first legal volley—she is also wounding herself, probably mortally, as an author.

  23. Doris Mays Says:

    I fail to see how Willard Motley relates to this. Obviously his work was not labeled African American and fed to that market alone. I’m also sure that particularly in those days, black people weren’t the primary buyers of his work, hence the unusual success of a non-white author, who even died way back in 1965.

    and, Lynn, you didn’t answer my question: Marketing justifies racial discrimination?

    You seem to be implying that since street lit is a successful niche, all black writers should write street lit and be merry. As Monica asked, why such an effort to support racial discrimination?

    I also think it’s ridiculous to think Black would slit her own throat for publicity. That would be classic cut off your nose to spite your face. Intelligence can see that this not a publicity stunt. How stupid would that be.

    Aren’t complaints public record? Why doesn’t anybody find out if it’s been filed instead of trying to dilute the racism at play with what sounds like nothing but pompous speculation? Sounds like folks are working overtime to discredit Black. I wonder why……………..

  24. Lynne Says:

    A little more on Willard Motley from Encyclopedia of World Biography:

    “Critics hailed Motley’s first novel as a superior “naturalist” novel and compared it favorably to Richard Wright’s Native Son. Black critics recognized its success as a “raceless novel” and applauded it for showcasing the talents of an African American novelist at telling a nonracial story. This praise came despite Motley’s outward refusal to identify with the struggles unique to African Americans. He was fond of saying, ‘My race is the human race.’”

  25. Gina Burgess Says:

    I have read all 24 comments. It didn’t read like anyone was trying to discredit Black, just questioning if her outrage was well placed.

    Frankly, I think she acted like an idiot to pass up the book signing. She wasn’t hurting the bookstore so much as telling her fans that had planned to come there that she didn’t care about them enough to overlook her hurt feelings. In other words, she was telling the world that her feelings are more important than anything else. Rage and poison never heals wounds.

    For what it’s worth, since I’m at the bottom of the comments, taking umbrage at the first perceived sign of prejudice only exacerbates a tense situation. Ask questions, get the full picture… the whole story before pitching tantrums. It is a huge waste of energy if the simple answer pours oil on troubled waters.

    Besides, I’m still not clear on one thing…

    Did she get angry because the answer to the question, “Are you black?” was “Yes.” Or did she get angry because the question was asked in such a tactless way?

  26. Lynne Says:

    I just posed this on Millenia Black’s blog in the comment section under THE GREAT LAWSUIT:

    “I cannot find any indication in the Florida or New York courts (State or Federal) that Millenia Black has filed anything.

    Millenia, please post your complaint. You are losing credibility.”

    My attorney friends are searching for court records…

    I’ll give the Penguin Group legal department a call in the morning.

  27. anonymous commenter Says:

    Also posted at Millenia’s blog:

    Did she state that the lawsuit had already been filed yet or is that an assumption? Afterall her post doesn’t say that outright after a quick read over.

    Also…is “Millenia Black” even her real name?? Let’s not be so quick to attack credibility on mere assumptions.

     

  28. Gina Burgess Says:

    “She didn’t get angry because the bookseller was tactless, she got angry because a white author wouldn’t be treated the same way. She didn’t want to be singled out because of her race and be marketed to only blacks just because she was black.”

    Yes, well, that is not how it came across. See what beautiful insights appear when one asks questions? But… she made a huge assumption. She assumed that the answer to the question, “Are you black?” would be the “wrong answer.”

    I have a lot of friends who are authors… quite a few of them are black women. Here’s the crux of the whole situation. Most people can tell the cultural background of any author. Background bleeds into the prose. No matter how hard a person tries, that accent always creeps in. So why fight it? I’m a Southern Magnolia and that comes across in almost every thing I write. So? Southern women buy books, too. Most authors are delighted to use whatever hook that sells more books. I think she made a mistake.

    Assumptions are killers.

  29. J. Hanks Says:

    FYI—-According to the Palm Beach Post, the infamous book signing was scheduled at Pyramid Books, an African American bookstore in Boynton Beach, Florida…..did anybody know that? From reading this post and comments, presumptions have been made left and right with little interest for knowing the facts before spewing negative judgment at this poor author. It is evident everyone assumed this was a “white” bookstore that sent out that e-mail.

    My question after reading about that fact is, why this store or any bookstore, is allowed to ask and use Millenia Black’s race to determine how they handle her signing? Isn’t that shaky ground to be on? “Oh, we just need to know what color you are for marketing purposes!! We promise we’re not handling you any different than we would if you were white!”

    Plus, why would Millenia Black assume she would be giving the “wrong answer” to a black bookstore?? To the contrary—Wouldn’t that be the right answer??

    The reporter contacted Pyramid and also got a response from the author on the matter. Obviously MB thought the question was inappropriate no matter who it was coming from. Let’s not forget that not so long ago racial segregation and injustice was the law in this nation. Not so long ago——So why’re people so quick to believe this author is lying or being disingenuous by taking this position against racist publishing practices?

    (Forgiveness if my attempts at linking fail miserably!)

  30. Lynne Says:

    Hi, J. Thanks for giving us some additional details, all of which were lacking in Millenia Black’s diatribes on her blog. Was there some special reason she chose not to supply the name of the bookstore or tell us that it supported African American literature? Here’s what Pyramid Books says about its relationship to South Florida African American authors—like Millenia Black:

    “South Florida hosts a wealth of literary talent in the African American community. Once a local author has planted a seed (a book) in the publishing world’s field, Pyramid Books is here to cultivate its growth.”

    J, it is mind boggling to me that Black would snub any bookstore, let alone one supportive of Americans whose ethnicity is African American.

    Lynne

  31. J. Hanks Says:

    Lynne, you are missing the point because your reasoning allows for mitigating the use of race in determining the way you regard and treat someone. In light of the issues concerning race and discrimination, why does it matter who the bookstore caters to? Seems like Millenia’s point was made even greater by not pointing out the store happened to be an African American establishment. You believe the inquiry is okay for all stores for the purposes of marketing, but the whole point is that it is not.

    I agree with Millenia Black. No bookstore should make such inquiries. What if she was white? What would Pyramid Books have done? The fact they asked such a question implies discriminatory intent, and that’s wrong to do against any race. How can you berate someone for taking a position that denounces race discrimination? No offense but, I think it says far more negative about you than about this author.

  32. Bort Says:

    And at this point, the only thing to be seen behind her must be the law of the land upholding her position and not what any opinion supposes.

    Uh… you think the law of the land says you have a right to never be asked your race?

    Hardly.

    It would be one thing if Black said she didn’t want to give her race and then the bookstore refused to have the event, but merely ASKING for someone’s race is not illegal. You get asked your race on government forms all the damn time.

  33. Claudia Says:

    Lynne,

    I’m disappointed that you did not discuss the Tess Gerritsen post Millenia linked to. Did you exclude it because it didn’t support your own diatribe?

    Tess has a few postings about race, marketing and her career decisions. I’d enocurage anyone to search her site to read all those postings. This isn’t just a literal or figurative black thing. What is so hard to understand about wanting the opportunity to sell to an enitire book buying market instead of being limited to a mere 10% or 15% of it?

    Note from the Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): Well, if I include Gerritsen’s comments, I’ll also include M.J. Rose’s comments, too. Thanks for mentioning this oversight.

  34. Anonymous Says:

    Wait a minute…!!! What are we talking about? Is Black really taking the Bookstore to court because they ask what race she was or publisher’s racist act?

    Note from the Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): Not the bookstore, Penguin Group–the publisher, evidently, though I still have been unable to turn up any legal documents.

  35. Lynne Says:

    I’ve been criticized for not including a link to a posting titled “Back to a Delicate Subject: Race & Publishing” and written on December 17, 2005 on Tess Gerritsen blog. Tess Gerritsen is a bestselling author of novels including The Surgeon.

    http://tessgerritsen.com/blog/2005/12/17/back-to-a-delicate-subject-race-and-publishing/

    In addition to Tess Gerritsen’s comments on her blog, there is also is a posting titled “Is It Marginalizing?” at M. J. Rose’s blog, dated February 20, 2006. M.J. Rose is also a prolific author with eight novels to her credit and two nonfiction books, including How to Publish and Promote Online and Buzz Your Book.” Black interpreted Rose’s comments to be telling Black: “It’s time for you to shut-up, Millenia.”

    http://mjroseblog.typepad.com/buzz_balls_hype/2006/02/is_it_marginali.html

  36. Lynne Says:

    Here’s a smart blogger with some great comments:

    http://franswhatever.blogspot.com/

  37. Shay Says:

    “Here’s the crux of the whole situation. Most people can tell the cultural background of any author. Background bleeds into the prose. No matter how hard a person tries, that accent always creeps in.”

    Isn’t that marginalizing?

    I’m a young black female, yet my writing voice can be complex because I love to read everything: from the dictionary, to literature to newspapers–and I also speak French. So should I, with my variety of influences, be forced to write “black” because it’s my ethnicity, when my writing style is “colorless”?

    I’m actually appalled by the subject of this blog and the accusations that Black is only out for publicity, that she’s making a fuss over something inconsequential, and that she’s lying about taking her case to court. I understand the appeal of this post–you’re attempting to make sense of her situation, but the manner of presentation comes across as ignorant, and worse, bigoted. As Monica said, who made the rule that authors of non-white American ethnicity are only able to write ethnic characters and “ethnic topics” that are to be read by only ethnic readers?

    It’s a travesty that all books written by African-American authors, both fiction and non-fiction are shelved in one section when books written by non-African-American authors are spread amongst the different shelves by the genre on their spines. Niche marketing is a publishing/bookseller tool, but why should a black author(who by writing colorless characters in mainstream situations wishes to recieve an equal starting point in this tough market as a white author) be forced back into the ethnic niche because she is black? Penguin was content to release her first novel into the mainstream market, so why did they attempt to force her to write black characters and be shelved exclusively in the African-American section of a bookstore with her second novel?

    Personally, if this change was instituted because Penguin felt that Black unveiling herself as a black woman would turn mainstream readers off her work–while it is a business decision by a publisher hoping to make a profit–it would still be a business decision grounded in bigotry. Someone quoted Dr King, a quote which may be relevant to this case: are Black’s books being judged by their contents or by the color of her skin?

    Note from the Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): Hi, Shay. Thanks for the thought-provoking comments. Millenia Black’s first book was self-published (Infinity Publishing Company) in 2002. Her second book was published as a trade paperback by New American Library (a division of Penguin Group) in 2005. I think it is fine for a writer to craft a novel around any characters of any ethnicity. It’s her story. That’s not the problem. Reread my posting.

  38. Anon Says:

    “Background bleeds into the prose.”

    In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Tom and Daisy represented characters in a world with which Fitzgerald was very familiar–old money. In This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald’s main character, Amory Blaine, was a student at Princeton. Fitzgerald attended Princeton.

    I am not upper crust, nor did I attend a prep school or Princeton, still I enjoyed both these books. That said, I defy anyone to write with the kind of insider knowledge and cultural nuancing that Fitzgerald included in his books without actually being from that culture.

    You are on the outside looking in, but that doesn’t mean you can’t write a damn good story about anyone and anything. There may be some sociological aspects that will not ring true, but who cares? Only Tom, Daisy and Amory will know.

  39. Lynne Says:

    One more time:

    If an author is African American and a fabulous golfer like Tiger Woods, I would promote that author to African Americans AND golfers (ALL golfers) as well as the general public. If the author writes mysteries and is the daughter of President Harry Truman, like Margaret Truman, author of “Murder at Ford’s Theater,” I would promote her to the Senate and to murder mystery book clubs. I would also heavily promote these writers in their hometown locales as well.

    Whatever the author has going for him or her (that will separate the book from the pack of books just dumped without any fanfare–99%?–on the market in a given year), I would try to highlight and promote in the excruciatingly limited time any in-house marketer has to devote to a book. That fanfare for most books is the jacket in which the book is wrapped and the 1-page author bio and plot description accompanying the ARC to reviewers. Period.

    No, I am not happily braiding a noose, as has been suggested on other blogs where the bloggers are of African American ethnicity.

    Lynne

  40. Gretchen Says:

    Wicked Witch….you added the book jackets to your posting and now I see that there are two black women on the cover of one of Black’s books. I thought she was a black writer whose characters were white. 

    Note from the Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): ???? That’s her self-published book, I believe. [Correction: The first edition of The Great Pretender was self-published by Infinity Pub. Co. in 2002. Additional editions were published by NAL. The cover with the two black women is NAL's. I could not find a version of the Infinity jacket online. LWS] 

  41. Ali MacDonald Says:

    I have been bothered to be labeled a “woman” writer instead of simply “writer.” It is always a pain to be in any category except “literature,” but there it is. There’s no category for “female veteran” even though that is what I published. I think all labels unfortunate, from “romance” to “mystery,” but people feel they need some guide to what’s inside. God forbid they should open a book and just get into the story. They don’t often seek surprises, which is sad.

    In this case, I tend to see the point of those who wondered if the author is not really seeking negative publicity. When I read “The Wind Done Gone” I thought, that book would never have made it past the first printing if the Mitchell heirs hadn’t sued so big. Just as the false memoirs of Navahos and street pimps were not canned when the truth was learned about their authors, but climbed the bestseller lists, so a lawsuit may give unwarranted advertisement to a book maybe not selling so well. Go figure. America loves a good scandal.

  42. Minx Says:

    I think the plot (that we have obviously lost) might be hiding somewhere over the horizon until it is safe to come out.

  43. Lynne Says:

    Self-Published Version:
    Great Pretender
    Millenia Black
    Paperback / 303 Pages / Infinity Pub / September 2002 / 0741412780
    List Price $16.95 /

    NAL Version:
    Great Pretender
    Millenia Black
    Paperback / 287 Pages / New Amer Library / September 2005 / 0451216482
    List Price $13.95 /

  44. Gretchen Says:

    The point is the photos on the jacket, is it not? Not the specific edition. The photos contradict Black’s position regarding her books been non-ethnic-specific.

  45. Lynne Says:

    I went to Monica Jackson’s Web site this morning. I’m a little surprised that she’s so against niche marketing of African American authors when, in fact, with the exception of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, she is selling nothing but books by African American authors. That’s niching product and the same as putting all African American authors on the same shelf. Smart marketing I’d say!

  46. Monica Jackson Says:

    F. Scott Fitzgerald? I gotta give him props and all, but are you kidding?

    Note from the Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): Hi Monica. Welcome back! Yep, F. Scott Fitzgerald rotated through in the “Similar Items” section on your blog! He’s gone now, but will probably rotate back soon!

  47. Monica Jackson Says:

    Well, Lynne, I think you should get your facts straight, they’re as leaky as Ann Coulter’s. I’m not responsible for who Amazon rotates.

    And sure, I recommend black books. Visit a dozen lit blogs by white bloggers. and I betcha they recommend all white-authored books. If I recommended the white ones too, who’d recommend us? Seriously?

  48. Edward Champion’s Return of the Reluctant » Roundup Says:

    [...] Housekeeping #1: For those who have emailed me on the Millenia Black story this past week, after several conversations calling into question the veracity of what has been claimed, I have decided to stop pursuing it. I have neither the time nor the inclination to proceed further — unless, of course, a reputable publication pays me to write an investigative article. But if you remain curious as to the why, Lynne Scanlon comes the closest in her speculations. [...]

    Note from the Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): I’m pretty exhausted from all the hairsplitting and doubletalk myself. Thanks for linking to me, Ed.

  49. An author Says:

    The wicked witch said: “Is it possible that a Street Lit reader might buy and enjoy “Genevieve” because it was shelved there?”

    Sure, just as it’s possible that someone looking for a video about ancient druid mating rituals might enjoy “Beavis and Butt-head Do America.”

    But I digress….

    Regarding Ms. Black’s situation, her trouble started with her publishers asking her to change the white characters in her women’s fiction/mainstream novel into African Americans. Why? Because Ms. Black is black.

    Suzanne Brockmann (one of my favorite writers) is a white romance author who has written three romantic suspense/straight romance books with black protagonists. Harvard’s Education (black hero and heroine), Gone Too Far (interracial romance), and Hearttrob (interracial romance subplot). Did Suz’s publisher ask her to change any of her character’s skin to white because she was white? Well, I wasn’t a fly on the wall in the board room, but I can say with quite a bit of certainty that they probably didn’t.

    Were Suz’s romantic suspense/straight romance books placed in the AA section?

    No.

    Tess Gerritsen (another favorite author) is Asian, but writes white characters. She’s very candid on her blog about why she writes white characters, and how its affected her personal life, but I doubt she was asked to change her white characters to Asian.

    Were Tess’s romantic suspense books placed in an Asian section?

    No.

    If you were a writer who’d written a story from your heart, nursed your characters and plot for months, and poured your soul into every word, wouldn’t it be devastating to be told to change your story, not because of its content, but because of YOUR skin color???

    Put yourself in Ms. Black’s shoes. Put yourself in any author’s shoes who has to even THINK that this may happen to them. It’s ridiculous. Then there’s the niche thing. That an author may be placed in the AA section not because of his/her book’s content, but because they’re an AA is a travesty.

    If you write a book about African American culture, history, food, whatever—the AA section is the place for it. But if your book has nothing to do with African American issues/culture/history and what have you, why the book dumping? Do most books by Asian authors get tossed together? Or how about Jews? Do most books written by Jews get thrown in the same bunch? Or Italians? Or Poles? Or Mexicans? Or Germans and Russians? NO. This only happens to African Americans.

    This is wrong.

    The old “this is what the customers want” is just an excuse for book dumping. Niche’s are great, but when they hobble an author, they become prisons. Dumping all AA authors (regardless of the content of their books) in an AA section smacks of racial segregation. And it’s just as wrong for a publisher to ask a black author to change her white character’s skin color just because SHE’S black.

    Fiction is the one place where the sky should be the limit. You should be able to create the characters that sing to you without fear that an editor (after discovering your ethnicity) will ask you to toss a bit more melanin into your character’s skintone. This is so immoral and racist it’s sickening.

    It’s hard to believe this is 2006. But sadly, this society is still living in the stone age. That we even have to have a discussion like this, that I even have to try to make you or anyone else understand how hurtful and discouraging this can be for an author is painful. VERY painful. That anyone should have to go through even half of what Ms. Black has gone through disturbs me to no end. I’ve followed Black’s saga for months and the saddest part of all is when I read clueless statements by people who haven’t a sympathetic, much less empathetic, bone in their body. They refuse to put themselves in another person’s shoes. Refuse to see the incalcuable (and often deep seated) damage this does to a writer’s soul and psyche. It’s downright evil.

    A wise man once said a person should not be judged by their skin color, but by the content of their character. The same is true for a book. It should be judged not by the author’s skin, but by the content within its cover.

  50. Shay Says:

    I’m just too through with this!! I’ve grown increasingly angry with the bull-headed responses to this issue by white people who refuse to acknowledge the fact that white people are never hemmed in by their race in the publishing industry. I’m certain that Arthur Golden’s idea to write about a Japanese geisha wasn’t nixed by his agent or editor, just as Sue Monk Kidd wasn’t given the kibosh on her mega-selling debut novel. Hell, Amy Tan and Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez recieve major exposure despite their ethnic and cultural backgrounds shaping their works, and despite Tess Gerritson’s experience with Asian readers, I’m sure she’s never been told to write Asian characters exclusively because of her ethnicity. The ignorant explanation given for niche marketing is lame: if a black person wrote a book on golfing, their book would probably be placed in the “African-American Interest” section unless it was written by Tiger Woods–just as political books written by black writers are shelved in “African-American Interest” instead of the Politics section with white authors! You can walk into B&N or Borders and see that in the History section, you’ll see many books on American History, European History, Asian History, etc, but you’ll find African-American History shoved in one section with other non-fiction books written by African-Americans–as though the african-american experience is only of interest to other african-americans, while EVERYONE can enjoy the experience of other ethnicities. That is the source of anger behind this topic: why are black authors shoved into one category or niche that writers of other ethnicities ARE NOT?

    This has nothing to do with African-Americans wanting a section of “our own”, because most African-Americans read all over the spectrum of fiction and non-fiction, but an issue of segregation that is rarely, inforced on other ethnicities. I think it’s an issue of white guilt rather than racism. It’s easier to read about the culture of a non-white person (that isn’t of African descent) because there’s none of those pesky reminders of slavery and degredation. Hey, I’m black, and I’m regretful about slavery, but I’d like this white guilt to stop–discussing slavery and racism is nothing to be ashamed of or to feel guilty about: it happened, feel regrets and move on. But by white people refusing to acknowledge what happened, by white people continuing to occasionally reach out in the wrongful emotion of guilt instead of with TRUE COMPASSION AND UNDERSTANDING, bigotry will continue to run rampant through the hearts of man regardless of how many times it’s denied.

    It’s sad that Millenia Black’s situation has been trivialized by rumors of her supposed deceit or it being fueled by ulterior motives when the issue behind the lawsuit is quite simple: she is a HUMAN BEING who should be extended the same opportunities as her non-black counterparts. Period.

  51. Lynne Says:

    In a contract an author can negotiate final approval of many aspects of her book, including marketing and production (which would include cover design), such approval not to be unreasonably withheld. Editors welcome input from authors about jacket copy, special sales, etc. During that negotiation, an author can state and lock-in legally that the book should not be niched based on ethnicity. The key is to have a dialog and clear understanding of expectations–of both author and editor.

    During negotiation, either party has the right to walk away.

  52. Lynne Says:

    From Edward Champion’s Return of the Reluctant blog…

    The Last Word on Millenia Black 

    So Who is Millenia Black? 

  53. Lynne Says:

    With a little luck, I will have the complaint on hand Monday or Tuesday. It helps to have attorney friends in lower Manhattan who are in and out of the court house.

  54. Maxine Says:

    In response to your niche question, Lynne — I think I am pretty boring and probably too old. I would be quite happy with a bookshop that started its fiction at A and ends it at Z. Don’t we all love browsing in bookstores? Don’t we all like to pick up and look at a book that catches our interest?
    There are books in my “niche” that I’d never read, and books in other “niches” that I might. And then there is the question of mis-niching, or “grey area” books or, gasp, this A-A fiction problem that we are all debating here.

  55. Maxine Says:

    Sorry, me again — hope you don’t mind me cluttering up these comments.

    I just read all these comments again. One point I think is a good one. “niching” makes logical sense if it is content-related, but not if it isn’t. (If you have a niche system at all, that is.)

    Lynne, I also think your initial point about marketing is a good one– where you write that if you were a bookseller you would be “seeding” various niche areas with a book that crosses several niches, to maximise the chances of selling it. But this does depend on the bookseller being intelligent (are there any as intelligent as you?), energetic, on the ball, committed, etc. I suspect a lot of the big chains don’t care all that much or don’t pay their staff enough to encourage this kind of initiative.

    So we are back to my boring suggestion of one A to Z run, then?

  56. Lynne Says:

    At http://www.misssnark.com

    Nitwit of the Day!

    “Here’s a big hunk of clue cake for everyone at the book buffet: don’t diss your publisher in public. Not now, not ever. Not even if you think you’re right, especially when I know you’re wrong.” 

    Very worth reading.

  57. Lynne Says:

    From The New York Times, Saturday, November 11th, 2006: “For Readers, a New Forum for Black Literature”

    http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/11/books/11blac.html?_r=1&oref=slogin&pagewanted=print

  58. Tana McDonald Says:

    My PhotoWow. I don’t know if I can wallow in these murky waters. Truth is, I started commenting after reading half of the  responses to M.Black’s allegations, but something told me to halt and go back and read this conversation again. Having done that (note my use of an absolute phrase, which is more representative of white academe than black vocational environments), I’m still completely baffled by this topic and how it’s escalated to total pointlessness. If M.Black wants to sue an independent bookseller for how he/she does business, let her do so. I, too, would be insulted to open a letter that said hello, are you black? That’s pretty crude, regardless of the race of the writer. But based on that sole letter, I can’t make a statement about the entire publishing industry.

    As a black woman who’s worked in publishing for nearly 3 decades–starting in the late 70s when there were few women not to mention black people–I’d advise M.Black to control her writing to the extent that she can and screw the rest. She doesn’t have to change her characters’ race if she doesn’t want to; she doesn’t have to approve a cover that depicts black people on the cover if she doesn’t want to; she doesn’t have to publish with NAL or any other company if she doesn’t care to. She has more control than she thinks over her own product–and I’ve worked in almost every area of publishing that you can name–from copyeditor to acquiring editor to marketing manager and even bookseller.

    These days it’s all about money and how to reach the author’s “targeted readership.” If I write a book about a fat female professor who falls in love with another fat female professor, no doubt it’ll be shelved in both chick lit and lesbian lit. Smart marketing also places it in the diet &health section, where some of my readers also might hang out, as well as in women’s studies. As the author, I’m going to suggest as many markets as possible to find the readers for whom I wrote that book.

    I want as much exposure as possible, ultimately. If those fat ladies were black, well, sure….

    Only the dumbest, most non-progressive publishers and booksellers on the planet don’t take advantage of cross-marketing to sell books. And you, the author, must educate them if they are indeed that dense (or quick! find another publisher).

    Black history month was the source of this marketing event in publishing that brings out as many black authors as possible in February. The black community fought hard for this month, given that our people and our work had been sadly ignored and/or marginalized for centuries. I still support black history month and the national celebration of the black intelligentsia during this time. But we’re no longer confined to exposure for just one month a year–it’s a bonus not the entire reward.

    All that said, I must remark that white publishing people were often clueless when it came to ethnic material and black authors. I found that this cluelessness was often a direct result of their not knowing any black people and therefore feeling awkward handling their work product. Most felt that black people simply lacked writing skills and the credentials for authorship. Publishing was, after all, a gentleman’s profession.

    An English major through high school, college, and graduate school, I won my master’s from NYU in 1978. During all those years, I only read 2 or 3 books by black authors: Richard Wright’s A Native Son; Jean Toomer’s Passing; and a slave narrative. But I had to read Huck Finn almost every year. And the teacher always asked me what I thought of Joe.

    Gee, did any of my blackness bleed through to my prose?

    Tana

    Note from the Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): Finally, the voice of reason!

  59. Lynne Says:

    Update: On Wednesday, December 6, 2006, The Wall Street Journal ran a front page article entilted “Dividing Lines—Why Book Industry Sees the World Split Still by Race” by Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg. Here are some quotes:

    “Black consumers spent more than $300 million on books last year, according to Ken Smikle, publisher of Black Issues Book Review….”

    “In October, Ms. Aldred [AKA Millenia Black] filed a lawsuit against her publisher…. She alleges that her editor asked her to change the characters in her newly published second novel… from white to black or race-neutral. In an attempt to lure black readers, the proposed cover art featured an African American couple, the suit adds.”

    “…Ms Aldred says the publisher eventually backed down—the final cover features an unmade bed—but she still sued, alleging racial discrimination.”

    “Penguin says it is contesting the allegations, saying…that “our commitment to writers from all backgrounds is evident in the quality and diversity of our [publishing] list.”

    The article is filled with quotes from other American authors whose enthnicity is African. Tananarive Due, who writes supernatural suspense tales, says, “Frankly, I am glad my books were launched as they were. The African-American readership has been my rock….” Another writer, Brandon Massey, has found the support of the African American reader “crucial,” though “worries he is being shortchanged by being shelved in African American departments.”

    **** 

    I’d link up to The Wall Street Journal article so you could read it yourself, but a link won’t work. You’d have to be a subscriber to read the paper online. Sorry.

    Lynne

  60. Karen Says:

    I have been struggling with a decision about my newest book. It is a YA story and the main character is African American. I feel unsure about whether it’s appropriate for me, as a white author, to write about another race. I read this post with great interest. My book is not about race or skin color; the subject matter is actually money. So I think I will keep my character just as I have written him after perusing the post and comments.

  61. Lynne Says:

    Millenia Black and Penquin settled the case and Millenia Black agreed to not speak of the lawsuit. By the way, one of the most virulent commenters defending Ms. Black (above) was Millenia Black’s father — hiding behind a pseudonym.

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