I’m not just a little hesitant, I’m also a little nervous about wading into this particular subject.Â Although I write about conflict, in reality I avoid it in my personal life like the plague.Â It must be the Asian side of meÂ — we hate getting into arguments of any kind. Â And boy, is this a story about conflict — specifically, a painful and increasingly nasty conflict between an author and her publisher.Â But it’s a tale that’s been watched very closely by authors of color, and since I place myself squarely in that category, and since I’ve corresponded from time to time with the author involved, I feel it’s time I said a few words about the lawsuit by Millenia BlackÂ against her publisher, Penguin.Â
In summary, here are the facts as I understand them.Â I don’t claim to have all the facts; this is just what I’ve been able to garner fromÂ public sources.
Author Millenia Black (pen name) wrote a book called THE GREAT PRETENDER.Â TheÂ characters in the book were not African American.Â The book first appeared as a self-published novel, with a cover depicting two wedding rings in flames, and it sold well enough to attract the attention of a mainstream publisher (Penguin) as well as foreign publishers.Â Translation rights were sold to Turkey and Poland.Â Â Penguin soon learned that the author was African American and decided to market THE GREAT PRETENDER as an African-American novel, with a cover design depicting two non-white women.Â This was done against the author’s wishes.Â
Now the author has sued.Â She feels that being categorized as an African-American author has limited her sales and has banished her books to the “African American literature” section, rather than the general fiction area,Â of bookstores, .Â
Some time ago, Millenia wrote to ask my opinion of her situation.Â I told her that suing any publisher could be fatally damaging to her career, and I thought it was a bad idea.Â But she felt this issue was about more than just her particular case; she felt it was about the more universal problem of racism in publishing, and she considered herself as not just a test case but also a crusader for other authors.Â So she proceeded with the lawsuit.Â The result has been, not surprisingly,Â industry backlash andÂ what is perhaps fatal damage to her writing career.Â And yet the author forges ahead, convinced that she cannot back down now.
And that’s where the situation now stands.
There are several issues worth discussing here.Â First, I do notÂ believe that the publisher acted with consciouslyÂ racist intentions.Â New York publishing is one of the most liberal industries in the nation, andÂ the vast majority of editors would be appalled at the very idea that they had any racist thoughts whatsoever.Â Â But they are business people.Â They make decisions based on what they think the market demands.Â The bottom line is profits.Â Obviously, someone at Penguin thought they’d sell more copies of THE GREAT BETRAYAL if it were marketed as AA fiction as opposed to mainstream fiction.Â Or maybeÂ they suddenly had a hole in their AA publishing schedule, discovered that Millenia Black was an AA author, and thought, “Hey!Â We can stick that book into our AA program and take care of the gap in the release schedule.”Â IÂ don’t know what their thinking was, or why they decided to market it as an AA novel.Â The real problem is this:
They did it against the wishes of the author.Â The author protested.Â They ignored her.Â And that was a big mistake.Â
Did it hurt the sales of the book?Â I don’t know.Â I’ve heard from industry sources that AA fiction is booming, that it’s an ever-growing segment of book sales, but I still have the gut feeling that AA novels can’t really reach the sales figuresÂ that top-tier non-ethnic novels do. Â Would John Grisham sell as many books if he wrote AA novels?Â Would I sell as many books if my books were classified as “Asian American fiction?”
I doubt it.
I do think thisÂ started off asÂ merely a marketing decision on the publisher’s part — perhaps a bad one, perhaps a reasonable one.Â But from the author’s point of view,Â itÂ felt like a move designed to marginalize her as an ethnic writer.Â It placed her in a restricted category that hasÂ a thick glass ceilingÂ over her sales.Â But the worst part was that it completely ignored her vociferous protests.Â This was her book,Â her creation, andÂ to change the race of the charactersÂ purely because of marketing forcesÂ showed disrespectÂ toward an author.Â
And in the end, when it’s time to take a stand, I must support a sister author.Â