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.