• West Cork Literary Festival 2021

Black Lives Matter: How Publishing became a Little Less White by Sharon Maas

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Sharon Maas

Sharon Maas

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The year was 2000. I’d signed with HarperCollins for a second novel, and I’d started writing with great enthusiasm. After a few weeks I sent the first 30,000 words to my editor. ‘Stop!’ she said. ‘We can’t publish this.’

The problem: the novel was set in my home country, Guyana, and all the characters were black or brown. That was a big no-no. ‘Publishing is Xenophobic,’ my agent later explained. ‘You’ll have to play the game to make it.’ And that was the final word.

Toni Morrison once famously said, “if there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” That’s what I’d done; my first novel, Of Marriageable Age, was that book. Snapped up by a well-known agent and a major publisher, a dream seemed to be coming true: great advances, foreign book deals, media interviews, the works.

But it all went downhill from there. Banned from writing that second novel, I shelved it, wrote a different story to please my editor. Several more followed. I played the game; all the time waiting for my day to dawn; the day when I’d be allowed to write all the stories I was meant to write, about the people and places most familiar to me. The timing was wrong, back then in 2000. The industry was far too white.

Until recently, it’s a problem most authors of colour have faced in their quest to be published and enjoy similar sales to their white counterparts. It’s publishing’s dirty secret; we’ve said it out loud, again and again, to deaf ears. It starts with agents, moves on to acquisition editors, and ends with sales and marketing staff. They just don’t want black books.

Literary agents, as the first gatekeepers to the industry, often tell authors of colour that “they can’t connect with ‘Black’ stories, they don’t understand ‘Black’ voices, the story isn’t teaching them anything,” said the best-selling Black British author Dorothy Koomson in a 2020 open letter to the publishing industry.

No wonder: publishing’s work force, including acquisition staff, is more than 75 percent white, according to a survey released earlier this year by the children’s book publisher Lee & Low Books. And so the industry became incestuous, shutting out those unfamiliar voices telling unfamiliar stories about unfamiliar characters. We authors of colour, with a few prominent exceptions, were virtually shut out of the building.

‘Every place I submitted the manuscript to, the response was: ‘no one was going to read a book that didn’t have white people as a protagonist, and who was going to read a book about a Black man that nobody had ever heard about?’ said Kerri K. Greenidge, author of  ‘Black Radical: The Life and Times of William Monroe Trotter,’ in the New York Times.

Erroll McDonald, meanwhile, vice president and executive editor of Knopf and Pantheon, imprints of Penguin Random House, confirms in the same article: ‘When I first started in publishing, the mantra was, “Black books don’t sell. Black people don’t read.”

But then, in 2020, everything changed. It took the brutal killing of a black man to wake the First World up to the fact that yes: Black Lives Matter. And Black books matter. That authors of colour have stories to tell, and white readers should listen, just as we have listened to, and read, their stories all our lives. The effect of the Black Lives Matter movement on the publishing industry has been nothing short of revolutionary.

It all began with  the hashtag #PublishingPaidMe, which swept Twitter in June  2020,  highlighting the gulf between author advances paid to Black authors and those paid to their white counterparts: a shocking disparity that revealed just how endemic the problem is. The Twitter storm brought results. Many publishing houses took part in a day of solidarity, with more than 1,300 employees pausing their work to highlight the industry’s diversity problem, including signing a letter of solidarity with authors of colour, and donating to organizations committed to the Black Lives Matter movement. And publishers vowed to change.

Penguin Random House agreed to share statistics on the racial makeup of the company, require antiracist training among its workers; it pledged to publish more books by people of colour. Hachette Book Group and other publishers large and small made similar statements — including my own, Bookouture, an imprint of Hachette.

Janifer Wilson, meanwhile, the owner of Sisters Uptown Bookstore in New York City which sells books by authors of colour, said that for the first time since launching her business she actually made enough money to pay bills and to be in the position to order a lot more books. ‘We saw thousands of dollars paid into our bank account,’ she said. ‘To have our business surge in a matter of weeks as the result of an unfortunate incident with a man losing his life and the whole world getting to see it has just impacted my spirit and soul.’

Erroll McDonald of Knopf and Pantheon notes, in the above-mentioned NYT article, that nowadays, because of the outrage at the murder of George Floyd, the majority of books on the nonfiction best-seller list are books about race, or by Black writers: ‘Publishers are now in the ironic position of making money off books by authors that they once held in disfavor’.

For me, Black Lives Matter brought the dawn I’d been waiting for since the year 2000. The moment Bookouture issued its public statement committing to more diversity in its acquisitions, I leapt into action. I put forward that long-ago novel once rejected by HarperCollins. Bookouture said yes.  I finished that book. And now, in March 2021, The Far Away Girl will see the light of day. And yes, two decades was a long wait, but worth it.

I just wish a black man didn’t have to lose his life to get us here.

(c) Sharon Maas

Website: www.sharonmaas.com

About The Far Away Girl:

She dreamed of finding a new life…

Georgetown, Guyana 1970. Seven-year-old Rita is running wild in her ramshackle white wooden house by the sea, under the indulgent eye of her absent-minded father. Surrounded by her army of stray pets, free to play where she likes and climb the oleander trees, she couldn’t feel more alive.

But then her new stepmother Chandra arrives and the house empties of love and laughter. Rita’s pets are removed, her freedom curtailed, and before long, there’s a new baby sister on the way. There’s no room for Rita anymore.

With her father distracted by his new family, Rita spends more time alone in her bedroom. Desperate to fill up the hollow inside her, she begins to talk to the only photo she has of her mother Cassie, a woman she cannot remember.

Rita has never known what happened to Cassie, a poor farmer’s daughter from the remote Guyanese rainforest. Determined to find the truth, Rita travels to find her mother’s family in an unfamiliar land of shimmering creeks and towering vines. She finds comfort in the loving arms of her grandmother among the flowering shrubs and trees groaning with fruit. But when she discovers the terrible bruising secret that her father kept hidden from her, will she ever be able to feel happiness again?

A beautiful and inspiring story that will steal your heart and open your eyes. Fans of The Secret Life of Bees, The Vanishing Half and The Other Half of Augusta Hope will be captivated by The Far Away Girl.

Order your copy online here.

 

About the author

Sharon Maas was born into a prominent political family in Georgetown, Guyana, in 1951. She was educated in England, Guyana, and, later, Germany. After leaving school, she worked as a trainee reporter with the Guyana Graphic in Georgetown and later wrote feature articles for the Sunday Chronicle as a staff journalist.

Her first novel, Of Marriageable Age, is set in Guyana and India and was published by HarperCollins in 1999. In 2014 she moved to Bookouture, and now has ten novels under her belt. Her books span continents, cultures, and eras. From the sugar plantations of colonial British Guiana in South America, to the French battlefields of World War Two, to the present-day brothels of Mumbai and the rice-fields and villages of South India, Sharon never runs out of stories for the armchair traveller.

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