Friday, July 13, 2007

Statistics gathered by the CCBC: My thoughts

According to the Cooperative Children's Book Center, in 2006, 87 children's books were written by African American authors. If you're not in the children's book business, you might be impressed. You might think: "Wow! This is great! Eighty-seven African American children's book authors got published in just one year?"

I am in the children's book business. Think again. More than five thousand children's books were published last year, according to CCBC estimates. Less than 2% of those books were written by African Americans.

At first, the numbers made me angry. History whispered racism loudly in my ears. I considered the people who make it possible for books to get published — agents, editors, marketing people, publishers. Most of these people are white. Where's a black author to fit in this picture?

I thought about this awhile. I came to the conclusion that charging racism is too simple. The condition is disheartening, yes, but it can't be blamed solely on white people. Not today anyway. Years ago, no doubt, racism was the culprit. I mean, if black folk weren't welcome at lunch counters, public toilets or swimming pools, it's not a stretch to think they, or their literary works, weren't welcome in children's publishing houses either. Today, I think, the issue is less about black vs white. It's about green — cash money green.

It would be nice if more books were published by and about African Americans. It would be nice to have more children's books with characters that look like my children. But publishers don't publish books to be nice, they publish them to make money. Publishing is a business, and the market sets the tone.

Before I started working on this post, I wrote a list of ideas that I thought would lead to more children's books getting published by and about African Americans. The list included things like more African Americans actually writing stories and shopping them around to publishers. Do you know how many black folk I counted at last summer's SCBWI national conference? Less than I could count on one hand. My list also included more African Americans pursuing careers within children's publishing houses. But nothing else really mattered compared to item #1 on my list: More African Americans supporting the books that are already being published. I really think it's that simple. If literature that features black children is truly important to the black community, then those few books written by black authors, those that did get published, should have flown out of book stores faster than a tick in a flea collar factory. Right? Does that happen? I don't know.

I've been told that multicultural books take longer to earn back money invested by publishers, as compared to other books. I'm sure there are many reasons for this; I won't attempt to tackle the reasons. But let me pose a question to you: You're a publisher. You have a fabulous manuscript in your hot little hands, one that will likely return a profit over the next 10 years, or so. In your other hand, you have another, equally fabulous, manuscript, one that you believe will return a bigger profit in two, possibly three years, maybe sooner. Which one you wanna publish?

I know it may rumple a few feathers, that I've thrown the responsibility of fixing this dilemma mainly at the feet of African Americans, and less with publishers. But the only way to entice publishers to publish more books by and about African Americans, in my opinion, is thorough the promise of bigger profits. Like they used to say in the '70s: Money talks and bulls---t walks.

All that said, 87 black children's book authors published in a year that produced more than 5000 books is sad no matter how you try to rationalize it. And sometimes it does make you wonder. A couple weeks ago, I sent an email note to my aunt, an acclaimed children's book author, venting about how frustrated I was trying to snag a literary agent. I asked her if she felt literary agents were less likely to want to work with a black author, or if I was copping out. I asked her if she knew of any black literary agents who would look beyond my skin color and take me on.

She said I was copping out. She was probably right.

*Thanks, Kyra, for sharing this link.


Writer, Rejected said...

Great blog entry. It does become a question of how to frame the mind around the reality of publishing's shortcomings, doesn't it? My blog is all about copping out, I think, or at least trying to find some funny, entertaining, thought-provoking way of dealing with frustration. Maybe you'll stop over and send me one of your anonymous rejection letter. Or post on the the topic of one of your own rants and raves. Or maybe you'll not like the joke I'm extending; it appears people are a teensy mad about my approach. Either way, I'm glad I found your blog and that there is a thoughtful discussion about how to deal with the onslaught.

Paula said...

Don I'll throw in my .02.

Rumpled feathers or not, you're right - African American consumers MUST buy these books if they indeed are actually craving them like us writers seem to think they are.

But let me throw another monkey wrench into the mix...what if they can't find the books that are already out there?

My YA was among about 15 or 20 YA books revolved around contemporary Af-Am teens (all traditionally published) released in '07. So these books exist. Yet, when I go to most bookstores I can only find a few of them.

Everytime I hear someone say, "Yeah we need more books like this for our young readers" I not only tell them about mine but as many of the other titles I can remember. This is something we must all actively do to spread the word that the books exist.

Yet, for every "yeah we need more of these" I've still had just as many pass by my book during signings. I had an extensive conversation with a patron at my last signing about this. He was gung-ho about the issue and yet did not purchase my book for the two young readers in his life that he'd mentioned twice.

It's a multi layered issue that requires many strategies.

Disco Mermaids said...

The reverse is true, as well, Don. White parents need to consciously support books that feature characters of other races...especially with picture books (the age when children would be the most positively affected).

I think parents are more concerned with their children not being able to relate to a story due to race than the children are actually capable of.

Thanks for you consistently well thought out and inspiring arguments.

- Jay

Varian Johnson said...


Thanks for taking the time to post on this. I think you and Paula hit this right on the head. WE have to do a better job of suporting our own books.

cloudscome said...

Very thoughtful post. I think more should be done to market books with African American characters (and all people of color) to the main stream market. I agree with disco mermaids - white parents and teachers need to buy these books for all kids. Schools are usually interested in multicultural titles - maybe publishers ought to start there.I'd like to see more white kids reading books with characters of color where the plot isn't about race; it's just a great book. I think more white parents would buy more diverse books if they were front and center on the shelves.

Paula said...

one more thought re: finding an agent.

I think your aunt is right. If you think about your argument about publishers wanting to make green - an agent is the same. They want to make sure they can sell your work so both of you make money.

You'll find the right fit. You're talented, your work is awesome - someone will be captured by it and want to be in your corner. Keep pushing!

rindawriter said...

A very nicely done, thoughtful, sensitive post, Don! I thought so anyway, and it gave me a lot to think about that I hadn't quite considered before.

I hope you find an agent very soon. I notice that about half allow e-queries, and then about another half hate e-queries and e-submissions....?????????

Best to you!

Kelly said...


I'm so glad you wrote about this topic. I'm a children's book author and faciliatator of a book club for African-American girls. (Your aunt is my mentor ;).

I agree that we need to do a better job supporting books that celebrate our children. But Paula raises an important issue too. Each month, I choose two picture books for the club to read. Often, parents can't find them in Borders or Barnes & Noble. They have better luck in independents, but they even come up dry there.

We need to reach out to book buyers and encourage our friends to do the same. Let's tell them that we're disappointed with the current selection of African-American children's books and leave them with some recommended titles. Then, we have to make sure folks go in and buy those books. You're right when you say it's about green. That goes for acquisitions, marketing and sales.

As black authors and illustrators, we have to find ways to let our community know about our books too. One way is to reach out to black children's book clubs. Some are connected to local libraries. We can send flyers to Jack & Jill and fraternities and sororities saying we're available to do workshops and signings. We can make friends with librarians and booksellers so they will recommend and stock our titles.

It's a lot of work. But our kids are worth it. Our work is worth it. Thanks again for your great post.

Rita said...

Stunning post. Really lovely comments, too. :)


Ctb said...

You're right - we in the community need to buy more books. But having been in the business for a while there's another side. I have a good friend with an ALA recognized book that was originally buried by her editor. You couldn't get the book unless you knew it was out, then went to the store and asked them to order it. Bookstores are convinced "we" don't buy books and don't order them which then prompts the publishing house to drop their marketing plans. The book is now recognized because of a grass roots efforts of p-o'd people like me and a handy band of offended librarians who want more diverse books. It's won several awards. And still the publisher won't promote the book.

Lastly, the author was invited to a major national conference to talk about her book to librarians and teachers and the publisher didn't send that particular book (with an AA main character). They used the opportunity to push her new book featuring a white middle class boy.

Welcome to the real world of dollars and cents. We aren't considered relevant unless our characters are crack-addicted, basketball playing, ebonics laden escapees from juvie hall. Or knocked up. And certainly, we don't live in intact families or on streets with trees.

When I looked to a book by L.A. Bank, Borders showed 9 copies in the store. It took the clerk 30 minutes to find them. He was just about to give up when he found them in the African American section.

I just completed two multi-author book signings this last week. My books were found on a cart in one store and a bottom shelf in the other at the author displays. People kept asking me where my books were.

It's a double edged sword and I put Kyra's link out to some interested editors as a call to action. Stay tuned. I've got a head of steam worked up!