The downside of suing your publisher (Race and publishing, redux)

I’m not just a little hesitant, I’m also a little nervous about wading into this particular subject.  Although I write about conflict, in reality I avoid it in my personal life like the plague.  It must be the Asian side of me — we hate getting into arguments of any kind.  And boy, is this a story about conflict — specifically, a painful and increasingly nasty conflict between an author and her publisher.  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 Black against her publisher, Penguin. 

Other blog sites have also been discussing it.  See what Monica Jackson and Author of Color have to say about it.

In summary, here are the facts as I understand them.  I don’t claim to have all the facts; this is just what I’ve been able to garner from public sources.

Author Millenia Black (pen name) wrote a book called THE GREAT PRETENDER.  The characters in the book were not African American.  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.  Translation rights were sold to Turkey and Poland.  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.  This was done against the author’s wishes. 

Now the author has sued.  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, of bookstores, . 

Some time ago, Millenia wrote to ask my opinion of her situation.  I told her that suing any publisher could be fatally damaging to her career, and I thought it was a bad idea.  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.  So she proceeded with the lawsuit.  The result has been, not surprisingly, industry backlash and what is perhaps fatal damage to her writing career.  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.  First, I do not believe that the publisher acted with consciously racist intentions.  New York publishing is one of the most liberal industries in the nation, and the vast majority of editors would be appalled at the very idea that they had any racist thoughts whatsoever.  But they are business people. They make decisions based on what they think the market demands.  The bottom line is profits.  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.  Or maybe they suddenly had a hole in their AA publishing schedule, discovered that Millenia Black was an AA author, and thought, “Hey!  We can stick that book into our AA program and take care of the gap in the release schedule.”  I don’t know what their thinking was, or why they decided to market it as an AA novel.  The real problem is this:

They did it against the wishes of the author.  The author protested.  They ignored her.  And that was a big mistake. 

Did it hurt the sales of the book?  I don’t know.  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 figures that top-tier non-ethnic novels do.  Would John Grisham sell as many books if he wrote AA novels?  Would I sell as many books if my books were classified as “Asian American fiction?”

I doubt it.

I do think this started off as merely a marketing decision on the publisher’s part — perhaps a bad one, perhaps a reasonable one.  But from the author’s point of view,  it felt like a move designed to marginalize her as an ethnic writer.  It placed her in a restricted category that has a thick glass ceiling over her sales.  But the worst part was that it completely ignored her vociferous protests.  This was her book, her creation, and to change the race of the characters purely because of marketing forces showed disrespect toward an author. 

And in the end, when it’s time to take a stand, I must support a sister author. 


43 replies
  1. SandraRuttan
    SandraRuttan says:

    Well, at the risk of getting a bloody nose by bringing someone else into this… (because the minute I cite the example, people would know anyway) I received an e-mail earlier this week that said:

    “I listened to an interview with Christa Faust recently in which she said some people were making too much of a big deal about the fact she’s the first female author on the Hard Case Crime list. Now, since Hard Case have been pushing this angle in their marketing, might that not be the reason why people are making such a big deal? Doesn’t this imply she either disagrees with Hard Case’s marketing strategy or doesn’t understand the contradiction in her position?”

    I’m honestly not interested in calling anyone out, nor do I feel the need to get an answer to that question. Someone asked my opinion, as a female author, and I certainly couldn’t speak for anyone else. The only reason I even mention it is, either by nature of conscious decision of because of how the buzz about the book was spread externally, Christa’s book has been pushed as the first HCC book by a female author. Should she (assuming she was unhappy with the decision to market her work this way) sue her publisher?

    As authors, we often have little to no say in the marketing decisions our publishers make. When issues such as gender, sexual orientation or race become involved, suddenly the waters are muddied but the question is, are we overreacting to a common situation the overwhelming majority of authors face on some level? By nature of how my publisher classifies books my books will end up in the fiction/literature section in Canadian bookstores, not in mystery. I have mixed feelings about it, because I’m proud of my genre, but I’m certainly not going to sue them because I’m grouped with thrillers.

    Now, the review copies also went out stating this was the first book in a series of police procedurals featuring Vancouver police officers. I did cringe, because my book does not feature VPD officers. My book features RCMP officers and is set in the Greater Vancouver Area, not Vancouver, and there is a difference. A mistake? Yes. An irritation to some Canadians? Sure. But it would never occur to me to sue over it, and that would be ludicrous.

    So I feel very conflicted about this story, because while I certainly have an issue with racism, there doesn’t seem to be evidence to support the publisher made this choice because of any racist leanings. They made a marketing choice, the same way publishers make choices about book titles and book covers, and at the end of the day those things are out of our hands too.

    Consider me conflicted. I want to support a fellow author, but I’m sort of leaning with the publisher on this one.

  2. Tess
    Tess says:

    Sandra, I see your point. But as I understand it, the characters themselves were changed to African-American (against the author’s wishes) which drastically altered the author’s creative decisions. Labeling a novel inaccurately happens all the time in publishing — but then placing that novel in a market niche where it’s guaranteed not to be picked up by the majority of book buyers would, quite understandably, make an author unhappy.

  3. knaster
    knaster says:

    Hi Tess,

    I agree with Millenia. That was HER book. Those were HER characters, and that was HER storyline. Despite Peguin being HER publisher, they had no right to change her book cover and market it as an AA novel. The same way that you told me that some in the UK have changed the titles of some of your books without your consent. I have emailed you and wondered when that particular book came out, and you told me it was just a reprint with a different title and/or cover.
    My advice to Millenia, cut your ties with Penguin and find someone else. I know I am not talking from experience, and this may be a lengthy and possible expensive venue, but they did you an injustice. You have my support here in New York. We may not be of the same race, but….you go, my sister!

  4. Roberto Nogueira
    Roberto Nogueira says:

    This post is really very interesting, because we first must establish the point here:
    is it about racism at all, or about authors losing control over details of their publishing process?
    When I decided to read TG’s books I knew she was Asian American and it didn’t matter to me.
    Also mostly of her paperback editions depictes a naked dead woman on the cover, what should I make of it?
    Hollywood turned James West and Lincoln Rhyme into black characters – did the creators ever sued the Cinema Industry?
    The problem in USA is that everything is turned into something different, and that’s why terms like ‘politicaly correct’ and ‘sexual harassment’ and ‘African American’ and ‘Asian American’ were invented, to cover for hypocrisy – North American society is full of hypocrisy.
    And althought I would like to agree with Tess about the protests, I wont because I think what we have here is more about money than about racism.

  5. BernardL
    BernardL says:

    The most amazing fact in this is Penguin picked up a self-published book. You gave her great advice, Tess. She should have used the publishing credentials her hit with Penguin gave her, and kept writing. Breaking into legitimate publishing was what she should have focused on, and used it to take the next step with another book.

  6. JDK
    JDK says:

    Tess, you say that the characters were CHANGED to African American. Do you mean that the publisher actually changed some of the TEXT in the book?

    Or are you referring to the picture on the cover?

  7. PJ Parrish
    PJ Parrish says:

    I heard about Millenia’s case a while back but had not, until now, been able to get the correct details. (Lots of stuff floating around out there that is not to be trusted). But if you go to the Author of Color link Tess provides, you can read the legal complaint itself. It is very illuminating. My bottom line: I write about a biracial man and I am white. I can only imagine what my response would be if my publisher had changed the perception of my character without my permission.

  8. Tess
    Tess says:

    JDK, thanks for asking for that clarification. I was incorrect in assuming the text itself was changed to make the characters AA. While the text does not mention their race, the cover design depicts them as AA, and the cover would pretty much cement that fact in the reader’s mind.

    I think what bothers me about this situation is that it’s the AUTHOR’S race that determined how the book was marketed. Not the book’s content. Should writers’ works be segregated in bookstores according to their race, regardless of the kind of books they’ve written? If an AA man wrote a fabulous Tom Clancy-type military thriller, should his book be marketed as mainstream fiction … or AA fiction? Should his race determine where the book goes?

  9. BernardL
    BernardL says:

    With legitimate publishing credits from her Penguin experience, she could have shopped her next book to anyone in any manner she chose.

  10. JDK
    JDK says:

    All versions of the book being sold at Amazon have the two rings in flames on their covers. Wonder why, since the publisher changed the cover?

  11. SandraRuttan
    SandraRuttan says:

    “But as I understand it, the characters themselves were changed to African-American (against the author’s wishes) which drastically altered the author’s creative decisions.”

    Hey Tess… I missed that in the post. I must be really brain-fried, because I still don’t see that in the post – just the marketing talk.

    But… even my agent – a Canadian – told me to rewrite my book set in the US to sell it. I refused. We’re under pressure about this all the time. Bottom line, such things are to be negotiated in our deals. When I had an offer it had the list of conditions. That’s there from the outset. I knew if I wanted this deal, I had to do x,y,z. That’s the business.

    Ultimately, this is one side of the story. I’m reluctant to form any firm opinion.

  12. JMH
    JMH says:

    As a lawyer with 25 years experience, I think I can safely say that anyone who resorts to litigation to resolve matters with respect to the people they do business with, instead of using diplomacy, has committed career suicide. Even if that person wins the immediate battle, the war itself is lost. No one wants to be around someone who will sue them. That’s just the way the world works.

  13. Monica
    Monica says:

    Race, specifically black race, is always an explosive issue.

    Yes, the AA niche has its advantages. But what bothers me to the core about the niche is when people who aren’t black only focus on the potential sales to the loyal, voracious AA niche audience, rather than the Golden Rule!

    How would you want to be treated like black authors are treated? Black commercial fiction authors are often pushed into the AA niche because of the color of our skin, our race. Publish in the niche or don’t publish at all.

    How would you like to be treated a certain way just because of your race and having limited control over it?

    What if you wrote a mystery or a romance and your book was marketed to people of your own race and you were a minority? What if you had to stay in a box and your potential, hopes, dreams were capped because of your race?

    There is a ready and willing black book market, but, but, but it’s not right to be treated a certain way because of one’s race.

    Shouldn’t authors have the choice whether to participate in the AA niche or not? Millenia’s point is she wasn’t given the choice.

    In certain genres, such as romance, there is no choice whatsoever–there is a totally segregated market. Black romance simply isn’t carried in stores with white demographics. Distribution is completely different (as are print runs).

    Yep, it burns me when authors who will never have to deal with this smugly toss off platitudes about marketing and write that it isn’t about racism.

    Sure, as long as it doesn’t affect you, it isn’t about racism. But take my word for it, even with certain niche advantages, being treated a certain way because of your race feels like racism, whatever you call it.

  14. Tess
    Tess says:

    Monica, I completely understand your point. It’s almost as if a non-white author has to adopt a fake white persona in order to sell a mainstream book.

    I saw an interesting comment on another blogsite that suggested just that — and compared this to the old days when women had to hide behind men’s names just to get their books published at all.

  15. Craig
    Craig says:

    Well I don’t think the old days were all that long ago actually. This reminded me of why JK Rowling decided to use her initials instead of revealing her gender–she thought it would be a turn off to teenage boys or at least that’s the story I’ve heard. Now I am not an author but if I were I would have to weigh having my own way with this book very carefully against the consequences of filing a lawsuit. I’m not in her shoes so I’m not about to second guess her but I am afraid she’s going to find that JMH is right.

  16. struggler
    struggler says:

    Be it by accident or design, this issue seems to have attracted a lot of publicity as a result of the decisions made by the publisher, and the author’s ‘stance’ is only fuelling the fire. Isn’t it true that there’s no such thing as bad publicity in this business?

  17. spyscribbler
    spyscribbler says:

    It probably does her career no good, but hopefully a publisher will think twice about doing that again. It’s a very brave move she made. Even if it harms her career, it will probably help a bunch of other writers.

    I admire her.

    I think that the move does marginalize her work. I don’t buy my books with the consideration of race or gender of the characters, but I also don’t shop in the African-American section. I just feel like I don’t belong. I haven’t been invited to that party.

    It’s just like Brokeback Mountain. If they had put that story in the gay/lesbian section, do you think it would have been as popular? Ever been made into a movie?

    True, he was already an established author. I’m not saying I have much experience in the industry, except for my tiny little niche market, but my opinion is that the niche market can do quite well to a certain point, but then it’s an impenetrable ceiling.

    And to change the race of her characters without her consent? Yikes!

  18. chaoscat60
    chaoscat60 says:

    Thanks Tess for your views on this matter. Millenia is a good friend of mine and I’ve tried to support her venture every step of the way! I truly admire Millenia for her bravery and standing up for her beliefs. I was so surprised to see how publishers just do what they want with no regard to the author. I believe that the authors visions should be kept intact and allow the readers to expierence within their own interpertations. I truly get more enjoyment with covers that are plain and doesn’t influence my attaraction to them. I think by putting african-americans on the cover definatly changes your view of a book before you even pick it up. The publisher definatly hurt Millenia’s vision and voice!!

  19. Craig
    Craig says:

    My bookstore doesn’t categorize authors by nationality. Tess’s next book will be featured in “New Arrivals” unitl it makes it onto the NY Times Bestseller list. After that, IF there are any remaining copies they will be placed in General Fiction–Hardcover “G”. The soft covers are ind “Mystery/Detective Fiction” “G”. They do have a SW section because we are in Oklahoma but that’s as close they get to categorizing an author. There’s a History section, a Biography, etc but if you want to determine the nationality of an author there will have to be a photo of the author on the jacket. I don’t recall what title got me hooked on Tess’s books but I recall reading the blurb on the dj flap and then took a look at her picture and found her appearance very intriguing and have never looked back. I was hooked. 🙂

  20. writer wannabe
    writer wannabe says:

    I’ve gotta tell you as an African-American trying to sell her first novel, this chills me to the core. I would like my work to be recognized for its artistic quality not for the color of my skin. It’s 2008. I thought we were well past this by now! I guess I’ll be cancelling that photo session for my book jacket cover.

  21. JA Konrath
    JA Konrath says:

    The publishers put up the money, so they get to decide how the book is marketed. The author has never had any say so in title, cover, and distribution.

    If I buy a cow, I can decide to milk it, eat it, turn it into gloves, or let it stand in a corner and do nothing at all.

    Some of these decisions may be wiser than others, but the fact remains: my cow, my decision.

    It’s not fair. Neither are earthquakes. And I’m not sure suing God for an earthquake would work. But it sure would be cool to try.

  22. Tess
    Tess says:

    to echelon press,
    if you’d like to email me your comment, I’ll post it for you — as there seems to be a glitch when you try to post them yourself!

  23. Tess
    Tess says:

    you make absolutely true and practical points about the publisher’s absolute power to choose packaging, titles, marketing, etc. But it still sucks to be forced into a niche because of who you are, as opposed to what you write.

    Let’s say a guy writes a terrific funny/scary thriller series featuring a female detective. (Sound familiar?) But then his publisher discovers he’s a guy, not a gal, and tells him that they can’t successfully market any book about a woman that’s written by a guy. So the publisher forces the writer to change his lead character to a guy. That would never happen, would it?
    Because it’s just too outrageous and the author would holler and scream about it. Or the author could get around it by changing his first name to initials. Either way, he would be able to find a way to have his gender not get in the way.

    But it doesn’t seem to be true for an African American author. Even if that author writes a book set in the white world, with white characters, if the publisher finds out the author’s race, that book will somehow end up in AA fiction.

    Which is not to say I think this lawsuit was a good idea.  As I mentioned earlier, I tried to discourage Millenia from filing it because of the damage it would do to her career.  But I can understand her frustration.

  24. Tess
    Tess says:

    Karen Syed from Echelon Press wanted to post this comment, but was having trouble getting it onto this site. So I’m posting it on her behalf:

    First let me start by arguing one thing:

    >> >>I was so surprised to see how publishers just do what they want with no regard to the
    author.<< This is not the case for all publishers. It is mostly true for the large NY houses that are ONLY looking at the bottom line. There are those of us who firmly hold to the notion that the integrity of the story can only be attained by leaving it as the author has created it, and that this integrity is of value to the readers. That said. I have not followed this story very carefully, but it interests me in a variety of regards. One, I am biracial and this topic is a not one for me. Most people don't even recognize my mixed race unless they can use it against me in some negative manner. Two, I am a publisher and I don't want anyone out there thinking this is standard practice among publishers. I assure you it is not! Three, I am an author (see #1). Nuff said. Do I think that Penguin went at this from a racial standpoint? Of course they did. Side note: I was "reminded" the other day by an aspiring author that AA fiction is "Urban Fiction." What does that mean? Where does this garbage come from? Beverly Jenkins? Gwynne Forrester? What a load of hooey! This is how stuff like this happens. There is a group of AA authors out there, and you know who you are, who demand to be "recognized" as AA authors. This makes it difficult for everyone, and it makes it even more difficult for the (take this next one tongue in cheek) Yuppie white pencil pushing marketing departments in NY to see anything else. They hear a catch phrase, and immediately they see $$ in their eyes and jump on the "money train" to ride that trend. Those of you making every effort to achieve success on your talent and not your skin color get caught in the backlash. Do I think they went at this from a "Racist" view? No. Just the bottom line view. They can't see past the potential $$ and that is sad for them. My experience as a consumer and as a former bookseller is that the marketing departments have no real clue as to what is going on in the actual market. Take our local Wal-Marts for example. I live in Laurel, MD just outside of Baltimore. When I go into Wally world and look at their bookshelves I am disturbed to see the following. AA Books take up at least 85% of the shelf space, everything else shares the other 15% and this includes bestsellers and Harlequins. We don't even get a full Top Ten showing. When going to one of the store managers to ask why, he indicated that the corporate office regulates what they get and that is determined by the "demographic." He also indicated that he is concerned because his books sales are down. Well, duh! The majority of people I see in our Wally Worlds are white and Hispanic, they have little to nothing to choose from for their "demographic" and therefore don't buy books at Wal-Mart. What about the AA demo, you ask? They are supporting our local Indy AA stores and shopping online to get better discounts. Unfortunately, until the insecure members of the various races stop demanding to be recognized as "different" the rest of us will pay the price. We need to come together as one people and let all the other crap go. I respect Millenia for what she did, and I feel for her in the fact that she has become and will probably long remain an outcast in the industry she so dearly loves. Shame on the industry! I think she has the strength to overcome it, but it will be so very hard.

  25. JMH
    JMH says:

    What publishers can or cannot due with a book is set by the contract. Any author doesn’t get to sell a book to a publisher and still own it. You sell it, it’s gone. That’s what you got paid for.

    That said, of course the author still has the copywright to the book. That means the publisher can’t go in and tinker with the text. The text must be left alone. So I doubt that the publisher changed the characters, or for that matter changed even a single word of the text.

    When you sell the book, you don’t own it anymore. If you don’t like what the purchaser did with it, find a new purchaser for your next book.

  26. drosdelnoch
    drosdelnoch says:

    The only thing I can say is that I hope that she read the contract with the publisher thoroughly. Some of the clauses are going to be doozies. Whilst I dont know much about writing contracts, film contracts (offered to authors for thier books) do state that the company can change elements of the books and characters and that it becomes thier copyright. To use David Gemmell in my example here they could make Legend 8 – Druss the Zimmerframe years, whereas in the books he dies in the fight in Legend. Very poignantly I might add.

    Now if the publisher has had some sway in the content of thier contract, they might have a similar clause saying that the author will allow them to market the book in whichever way they think is right. In which case the suit will just be binned.

    I can understand the authors frustration at what theyve done to her work but rather than concentrate on just one book look to the future, gain more fans, then when you have some power, you have more control over your work and a chance for the book to be recatagorised.

  27. JA Konrath
    JA Konrath says:

    I think it’s disgustingly unfair.

    But is it illegal?

    Is it possible to prove potential loss of sales when so many books flop anyway?

    Is it possible to prove that your name is being devalued when this is your first book and you’re using a pseudonym to begin with?

    Let’s play word swap. Instead of “AA author” let’s use “gay author.”

    If a publisher bought a book by a gay author, then wanted to market it as a gay book even though the book had nothing to do with homosexuality, it would be preposterous.

    But let’s switch “AA author” for “Christian author.”

    If a publisher bought a book by a Christian author, and wanted to market it as a Christian book, even though it had nothing to do with Christianity, it doesn’t seem as preposterous. The publisher sees a niche market, perhaps with a higher rate of return than mainstream, and decides to pursue the road with less risk even though it could result in less overall potential sales.

    Would I mind being marketed as a Christian author, even though I’m not a Christian? I dunno. When I was first trying to get published, I would have changed my name, sex, religion, race, and anything else in order to get into print.

    But it isn’t up to me. It’s up to the publisher.

    Publishers buy books thinking they can sell them. They have methods that they believe will sell the most books. They’re wrong a lot, but it’s their dime, so it’s their call. If my publisher wanted to shelve my books in the Christian section, I wouldn’t be happy about it, but I don’t think I’d sue them.

    If my publisher bought my books soley because they wanted to shelve them in the Christian section, that begs an entirely different question.

  28. Dan Williams
    Dan Williams says:

    I am wondering if it’s true to say that Millenia is suing her publisher. Maybe what’s happening is that there are one or two decision-makers inside the Publishing House whom she is actually in conflict with.

    She may actually have the tacit support, say, of the CEO or of the Corporate VP’s. These exec’s may be appalled by the outcry against the decision and may wish to lose the decision-makers rather than the author, who they might secretly admire. Or not.

  29. struggler
    struggler says:

    All this makes me wonder – is a penguin a black bird with a white front, or a white bird with a black back…..

    I know of least one zebra that has faced a similar conundrum. He’s not around any more, sadly, but I know what he went through. You see, this zebra died and arrived at the Pearly Gates. As he entered, he asked St. Peter, ‘I have a question that’s haunted me all of my days on earth… Am I white with black stripes, or am I black with white stripes?’

    St. Peter said, ‘Hmmm…I think that’s a question only God can answer.’ So the zebra went off in search of God. When he found Him, the zebra asked, ‘Lord, please – I gotta know. Am I white with black stripes, or am I black with white stripes?’

    God calmly replied ‘My son – You are what you are.’

    The zebra returned to see St. Peter once more, who asked him, ‘Well, did God straighten out your query for you?’ The zebra looked puzzled.

    ‘Not really, he just said ‘”You are what you are”.’ St. Peter smiled and said to the zebra, ‘Well then, there you go. You’re white with black stripes.’

    The zebra asked St. Peter, ‘How do you figure that out?’
    ‘Because,’ said St. Peter, ‘otherwise He would have said, ‘You is what you is.’


    (sorry – just trying to lighten the mood!)

  30. RAB
    RAB says:

    As an artist, even if it not one of my own artworks, I care strongly about what kind of cover represents my writing too.

  31. Tess
    Tess says:

    I really like your gay author analogy. Actually, I think of all the analogies, it fits the AA author dilemma the best.

    Let’s say a gay author decides he wants to write a book that will garner the biggest sales, so he writes a mainstream novel with only straight characters. Then his publisher finds out the author’s gay, and sticks the book in gay literature. Maybe even forces the author into changing his characters into being gay. This pretty much thwarts the author’s best attempts at going mainstream — even though he wrote a mainstream book.

    Then we have the AA author who wants the widest possible audience so she writes a mainstream book with ony white characters. Same thing happens to her as happened to the gay author. This thwarts the author’s attempt at going mainstream, through no fault of her own. She wrote a mainstream white book, but it got stuck in AA fiction, with AA marketing.

    Don’t these seem comparable?

    Either way, it seems the authors can’t win, no matter what kind of book they write.

  32. Southern Writer
    Southern Writer says:

    I’d like to know what Millenia’s agent, Sara Camilli, has to say about all this.

  33. Kyle K.
    Kyle K. says:

    Holy Cow! I’m out of the loop for a few days and there’s a full scale debate going on!

    As an author, I can completely understand her frustration. You put so much of your heart and soul into your baby, only to have it taken away.

    Why is it so hard for publishers to work collaboratively with the authors about such things? Without the authors, the publishers wouldn’t be in business to begin with, so why bite the hand that feeds you?

    It’s the same with screenwriters. You create this masterpiece, only to have it taken away in the end so that other people can take over creative control and do with it what they will. It’s outrageous, really.

    I think that books should be completely dissociated from their author, in the sense that the work should be marketed for THE WORK. The demographics of the author shouldn’t make any difference. I have a friend who wants to write romance novels, but is male, so has to come up with a female pen name because he doesn’t think women would buy his books under his own name.

    If it’s a good book, it should be marketed as just that. If I want to write a book about women, I should be allowed to. If my story requires me to write about AA women (I’m a white male), I should be able to.

    It doesn’t make any sense to me. Nothing about this industry does.

  34. holly y
    holly y says:

    My biggest complaint about this problem is that of a reader. When a publisher puts pictures on the cover that have nothing to do with the content, I feel angry and cheated. I remember years ago hearing an author’s story about a romance she wrote. The publisher put a sailing ship on the cover. The story had nothing to do with the ocean or ships. The readers were “tricked”. I find this igregious.

    I am also thinking about the fellow who wrote “Memoirs of a Geisha”. I’m guilty of thinking that men don’t write very good romance. Yet this was a fabulous, first person story. Should it, however, be marketed in the Asian-American history section? What a loss!

    I resent that publishers think they can manipulate the readers. The readers are the market we are all trying to reach, and there’s ridiculous, make-it-up-as-you go marketing group in the way.

    I agree about the contracts and I’d like to see all authors, with their agents behind them, demanding consent to covers so that their READERS do not fell cheated.

  35. drosdelnoch
    drosdelnoch says:

    The whole concept that youve brought up though Holly is another debate as you could technically argue that its the reader who are “snobs” who would snub a book because of the author. As youve mentioned Memoirs of a Geisha being a prime example although there are a number of men writing romance and doing pretty well at it.

    It also works the other way with a number of female writers using initials to hide thier gender. Whether this is something due to the snobbiness of the reader as a chooser Im not sure or whether its down to the marketing of the publisher. Thats perhaps a more interesting question. Perhaps Tess or other published authors could enlighten us. (Just for the record Im writing a paranormal romance and have been toying with the idea of submitting it under a female nom de plume to avoid it getting ignored.)

  36. drosdelnoch
    drosdelnoch says:

    Damn forgot to comment on the cover issue. It does tend to happen quite a lot with books or a cover is used repeatedly for different novels, I recall one fantasy cover of a guy with a huge hawk behind him holding his sword aloft with a girl clutching his leg that has been used for three different magazines and two different books. Whether its a case of the publisher just buy stock images and use them as they see fit rather than commisioning I dont know. Although I too do get annoyed when the cover has absolutely nothing to do with content. (Luckily enough I read the book backs before buying. LOL)

  37. therese
    therese says:

    Thanks Tess for starting this topic!

    I love the clarity of this debate, the passion for each side of a potential issue and all the obvious examples to prove a point from opposing perspectives.

    Thanks JA Konrath for your post because that’s what I’m facing. An independent editor evaluated my memoir and strongly advocates the Catholic/Christian publishers as my target. I have ambivalent feelings about this but am willing to do what it takes to get the inspirational story of my parents into the hands of readers.

    For this target audience, I only have this one book to write. However, I do have two other books planned that shouldn’t offend these readers.

    I’ll probably use a variation on my name for the romance novels I have in process and will hopefully have an awesome agent to advocate for my ability to write about real ‘saints’ as well as fictional characters who have no intent to become so. 🙂

  38. NellGavin
    NellGavin says:

    Hey Millenia (I know you’re reading this). I’m so sorry this is happening to you.

    I know you have to do this, having fought the good fight with you against evil on other fronts. I just wish it hadn’t worked out this way for you.

    I’ve been feeling angry and twitchy about the Italian version of Threads, so on a really, really small scale I know what this means to you. I also know my feeling miffed is nothing compared to what they did to you and how you feel. But I didn’t tell you…they bought my Visionary Fiction, “inspirational” book, then marketed it as a “Romance” and turned the back cover all breathy and suspenseful, just short of bodice ripping. Italians will buy it (or more likely, not) and will briefly wonder what happened before they hurl it against the wall. My audience is NOT that audience. (My audience probably wouldn’t even have a conversation with that audience.)

    I warned Sara that the book was going to tank in Italy. I’m sure it’s tanking as we speak – I won’t look. But it’s that glee and delight, followed by a sense of helpless betrayal that really gets you. You wait so long, and it means so much to you. And you get stomped and they don’t care. And nobody cares that they don’t care because that’s just how it goes in the business.

    I think if it were me I would do this: self publish my next book, and use a different pen name. Do whatever it takes to keep going and win on a personal level. They can’t stop you, you know. Did you really sell all that many more books with Penguin? Because you were selling a ton on your own. And publishers yank titles anyway after only a year or so (and when they do, republish them yourself!). You’re better off holding all the cards. You were doing great before, you’ll do great again.

    Keep going, doing what you have to do. I’m rooting for you!

  39. naomi
    naomi says:

    There’s not much for me to add except this. I have a friend who is AA. She wrote a series of books that didn’t have an AA character in them. They didn’t sell. Anywhere. She wrote another book, the start of a trilogy, that just happened to have AA characters as the central characters. The first two books have sold and the first one is published. But she is now considered by her publisher as writing for the AA niche. She’s been told by those in the publishing community that she could sell her first series if she changed the characters to AA characters.

    She’s proud of what she’s written. And so am I. But I think it’s awfully short sighted of the publishing community to put such a narrow vision around her talent. I’ve read some of those first books. They are amazing and could sell as mainstream romance. But because she’s AA and has written for the AA market, she’s going to have an interesting journey ahead of her for those books.

    Marketing to niche markets is one thing. You can do that without limiting an author to one specific market or another. But making it so an author, because of his or her race, gender, sexual orientation, faith, etc. is preposterous. My friend could have sold even more copies of her first book if it was shelved with romance. Yes, the main characters were AA, but the story is full of universal experiences that appeal to a larger audience.

    Sometimes, I think publishers think too much about the bottom line and not enough about growing their talent to the fullest potential.

  40. Stephe
    Stephe says:

    Taking a character (who’s been carefully fleshed out and written one way) and doing something as HUGE as changing his/her race without revisiting all of that character’s motivations and actions in the story sounds incredibly irresponsible, if that’s what we’re talking about. Such a thing could even make parts of the plot not jive the way it should, along with the character’s personality. (And who will pay for that? Not the publisher. Readers will bad-mouth the author.)

    I can understand a publisher wanting to change characters for the best results. I cannot understand it being done in this manner. How disrespectful.

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