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Monica Jackson reacts to my latest blog about race and publishing:

“But Tess misses the point that only because she’s Asian, she has the choice to write white characters and to be marketed as mainstream to whites.”

Black authors, she points out, don’t always have the option.

And she’s absolutely right. I count myself as one of those peculiar cases where, although “ethnic”, I’ve always gone by my married (Dutch) name. All through my medical training, I would often turn up on the ward to see a patient, and the nurses would be surprised to see me because they thought “Dr. Gerritsen” would be a blonde or something. Because of that name confusion, even readers who look at my author photo on the back of the book aren’t quite sure WHAT I am. The name is so confusing to them, they don’t always trust their eyes.

In this way, I’ve been able to slip into mainstream publishing, without the barriers that black novelists, who are often confined to “black niche publishing” have to face. The exception that’s been pointed out on other blogsites is Stephen Carter, whose debut novel hit the bestseller lists. But as others have also pointed out, his novel was NOT marketed as a “black” novel, but as a mainstream mystery. The author’s race was simply incidental to the larger marketing plan. His race did not hurt him.

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.

That said, what’s a black author to do? How hard can she push to stay out of the niche box, yet still not turn off her publisher? I don’t know the answer to that. I can tell you that when my first thriller HARVEST came out, I strongly suggested to my agent and editor that my photo NOT appear on the book. There was discussion about it, and they decided it wouldn’t hurt the sales. And I don’t think it has. Black authors shouldn’t have to hide their photos from the public. Stephen Carter didn’t, and he hit the lists. But what they should be pushing for is marketing that breaks through niche barriers, and gives them the same chance every white author’s book gets in the marketkplace.

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