Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Presumed Power of Publishers and Getting Published

Above All,
Happy Writing,

Diversity Is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing

“The publishing industry looks a lot like these best-selling teenage dystopias: white and full of people destroying each other to survive.”

Click link: Read article here before my discussion:

I agree that this is apparently so.  

Also, I do think the conversation requires more finesse and maturity if we are to break the vicious cycles that enforce limitations. Everything is subject to change including any glass ceiling, especially if we loosen our mass belief in it.

Let's narrow this discussion down. It is in being specific that we may be most likely to access universally accurate assessments and solutions. And I will quote the article itself in fact to underscore my point:

"By blaming an intangible force, the (publishing industry) absolves itself of any responsibility…" brackets are mine

Exchange the words in  brackets and it is easy to see that this sentence points to a truth which means it must be objectively applied. It's  import to move from generalisations and look at case studies. 

I offer my story as one,  since I have a direct experience of breaking into print by an established publisher in the old days - as far back as 1998! smiles.

This came about due to a query letter and a submission package which I learned to do many years prior, at a picture book workshop hosted for local educators of all ethnicities, by the British Council here in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad. 

My choice of publisher (Macmillan) was common sense - they were the most prolific publishers of anything that came close to Caribbean authenticity; and intuitive - I overheard a colleague speaking about a local  artist hopefully, maybe, fingers crossed, getting a gig to  illustrate a cover of a book for Macmillan Caribbean, and something or rather "Someone" in me,  stepped forward. 

For this Someone in me to take charge and act, was not  pure gumption. I see the momentum of  the present moment (opportunity) was met and fuelled by a life time desire and belief that I could and would contribute to the field of Caribbean children's literature. I was prepared too  because I had in my possession and had already  been shopping around town,  the mock ups  which were then rendered by an artist friend, Vanessa Soodeen. 

All of that was was a continuation of what I had always been doing - just following the creative urge of my life time vision. Each effort had not met with successful results.

Reaching out, I knew,  would require an investment of courage and cash - phone calls across the pond were expensive in those days, and snail mail quite uncertain.  I had just suffered a tremendous professional loss and wanted nothing more than to pave a new way forward. 

I recall, just printing full colour mock-ups was quite a to-do back then. A mix of colleagues, friends and family with colour ink jet printers, but no understanding or belief in the success of the venture, must have thought they were indulging a whim. (I am trying to remember the model of computer I had back then. I think soon after this,  the beautiful blue bubble of the eye-candy iMac made it home. This was definitely was  before the idea of lap tops ever came into our householders' minds.)

This is the state of a wounded creative soul: a mix of arrogant ambition and low self-esteem. Over time, with practice at risk taking we heal somewhat into a strengthened formula of courageous self-esteem  and humility.

In truth, I  never met anyone from Macmillan Caribbean until 2000, when that first book, an illustrated reader Go Barefoot, would make it into print. The acquisition letter however, I had received in 1998 in my mail box, not my inbox. 

Publishing is a long, slow, unsure business. I learned that up front. Now that everything is a click away, I see many of my peers with unrealistic expectations about success; how it comes and what it means, or not.

The way I think about the world, and my place in it, I realise has contributed to every step I have ever taken. I had set my true north compass in this way so it always resets itself,  even when the outcome is not seemingly favourable. ( I had shopped that same Go Barefoot manuscript mock up in Trinidad in vain for two years to a range of ethnically diverse executives, including those who 'look and sound like me',  before deciding to strike out globally! Since then I had a vision of what local publishing could be or become.)

Lucky for me, I  never gave any thought to the race of Macmillan's representative, nor to my own ethnicity, so when we did meet  this simply was not a factor into our exchange. His whiteness gave way to his kindness, respect  and genuine interest in following all the leads and referrals I could give him.

To this day, I have never met in person the actual editor who liked my work enough to give it the nod again and again so that I now have several published books and stories. With the advent of the Internet, we were eventually able to email from time to time and as far as I know, she is always looking for opportunities for Caribbean stories and their authors and is finding it difficult still as well. I never  spent time thinking whether she is white or not, to be honest. And when she had published an historical book for her county  in England and emailed me a clipping,  I got to see that the champion of so many West Indian authors was "a white lady".

When I selected novellas for Island Fiction, 4 of the 6 manuscripts turned out to be from people 'of colour', both men and women. As it turned out, none were Indo-Caribbean. I can only trust that no one  today will take this as a personal offence. Also, I refused manuscripts from authors in countries as far as Germany and Australia. I've no idea of their ethnicity. It wasn't a part of my listed criteria. Having received good to great critical reviews, I know that Island Fiction titles and all the amazing Caribbean titles and series in print today would be selling better for a number of real reasons.

Having  kind of  a marketing budget, of course,  helps. And that's not something I,  or many W.I. children's book authors that I know of,  have enjoyed.

There are in addition to any concern of racial/ cultural bias, so many real issues and only some of which are in fact changeable. My intention is to prompt discussion, which may over time, bear more productive fruit for us all.

Some of issues of concern to consider:

+  Geographically based here in a small market, we can't drive to the next state or county to promote our  books and increase publishers sales which excites publishers about doing business with us. 

+ Also, in reading cultures which tend to be in "First World" cities, when an author reads, or shows up people buy their books. One US children's book author I spoke to, who has almost 100 published titles says confidently, " Whatever books I take to a school, I know they will sell." This is because of the market, and because his books are good.

+ Islands safe guard their markets. If they promote Caribbean work at all, it tends to be their own books. We need to link the markets and support each other to expand our  $-worth.

+ Because so many booksellers are either directly publishing for schools or are financially linked to local text book publishers there is no need, other than mere conscience, or genuine interest in championing quality and creativity, for  them to care. 

+ Changes in markets are driven by need and consumers demand - of which there is little to none in terms of the paying consumer. The demand for publishing is coming from our authors. How many actually spend their own money on local/ Caribbean books may be a worthwhile survey.

+  Our own people don't read for pleasure and the tendency in global markets is to see 'Third World' or 'Developing' as in need of  literacy aid. This model for injecting revenue in the industry has its own culture and depends on grants of some sort, UNESCO, CODE, corporate CSO agendas etc. etc. 

+ Meanwhile retail merchants are importing for public consumption, more sophisticated content than we can now generate in print/ film/ music etc Local sellers rely on the mass media marketing of these import brands to make sales in our domestic marketplace. 

+  Even if the US or Australia say diversifies, and  I have been noticing there has been a tremendous increase over the last six years, we will have "people of colour" yes, but not necessarily West Indian people of any or all colors. We will still be consuming the dream media of others - their life styles, values, accents, points of view. 

And Caribbean people - of every creed and race - will remain invisible to themselves.

+ Most publishers prefer to invest in competing for the sure-thing business of our territories  -  Ministries of Education  nod on a title, book, author or series   guarantees a big print run. Local, regional and international publishers for the Caribbean tap into this lucrative market and have become somewhat lazy. There is little or no interest in marketing an individual author or series of books unless it gets 'picked up'. 

+ Retail merchants in small markets have been moving away from manufacturing and production. Observe the market place, chat with your elders who remember T&T 20+ years ago  and together, you will see the trends for yourself. Why? It's headache. It's hard to do. It's sustainability is not guaranteed like a 'foreign' imported brand. The risk is greater. 

+ Creatives have to stop crying victim and start talking business if we are to ever solve our publishing and media dilemmas. If we are to ever move from broadcasting and reselling imports we have to understand our markets, and find retailers who value the same things that we do.

+ Or reinvent the models - which new technologies make possible but the hard work is still laid out for you to do. No help at all now it becomes a real do-it-yourself model. You outlay capital, risk errors in production, and have to pay to shop and market your own work. 

+ It can easily be reasoned that in our  islands, that our own people at every level of consumption, are the greatest restrictors  of Creative growth. With our growing self awareness and increasing self esteem we have come to expect more. We have begun to recognise the contributions which we feel entitled make,  but we cannot speak the language of the industry's business yet and we must begin. This is especially true for children's books, if not wholly true for great works of contemporary adult literature, poetry and academia.

+ Many people quite simply, earn their livings off our picture books/ illustrated readers/ novellas.    Many, if not all who look like us, (whatever that means for such a diverse people), will care about our work for that reason alone. How likely is this or that book  to sell? Would you put your money and time where your ache is to support your own work?

+ Some markets, like ours, sadly to say, are notoriously stingy. Not just now, it's a cultural thing we will need to shake in order to make any real progress. I remember overhearing a conversation with our late, great Boscoe Holder and my brother. He said that when the foreigners came to see his paintings or hear him play the piano and they were impressed, they paid you for your art, your talent. But locally you will live, work and die and the most you may get is a pat on your back.

+ An established publisher is a business with larger sums of capital than an individual, but they are also on a budget - they publish x number of books and they hope  y % of those are big enough successes to make all the other risks they took worthwhile. This is at least one of the reasons why some books are marketed more heavily by traditional publishers.

+ Self-Publishers today will be getting a taste already of how difficult it is to find a market, sustain a fan base and build up sales conversions. Direct experience of this 'work' will increase an understanding. We are moving back into a time of 'trusted curators'. This is what an editor and an established publisher represented and will again.

+ The clamour of those who want to be seen and heard and feel deserving and find themselves disgruntled because of repeated rejections, are simply writers beginning the work of writing and getting published. The query letter, the slush pile, rejection letter, editor's notes - repeat. This is the editor's mill that we should risk and….

We're in the best of company:

Too different from other juveniles on the market to warrant its selling.” A rejection letter sent to Dr Seuss. 300 million sales and the 9th best-selling fiction author of all time.

After two years of rejections stating that her fiction would have no readership, Reilly and Lee agree to publish The One in the Middle Is the Green Kangaroo, launching the career of the best-selling author Judy Blume. Combined sales: 80 million.

140 rejections stating Anthologies don’t sell” until the Chicken Soup for the Soul series by Jack Canfield & Mark Victor Hansen sells 125 million copies.

Louis L’Amour received 200 rejections before Bantam took a chance on him. He is now their best ever selling author with 330 million sales.

It is so badly written. The author tries Doubleday instead and his little book makes an impression. The Da Vinci Code sells 80 million.

These great case studies, with success far, far greater than mine, had only one real advantage that I can admit to wholly: 

They did not buy into the BELIEF  that these rejections were because of something, someone or anything they couldn't change.

Click here for more: Best Sellers that Got Rejected

Of all the island populations, T&T, one of the more literate, sophisticated and affluent Caribbean groups, reads significantly less for pleasure. Until we get over the race card we won't solve the issues that when confronted, will go a long way in making positive changes for us as authors, illustrators, publishers. Our antidotes have been in academia, import culture. We must be willing to buy what we write only as long as we like it and learn to be honest about that both ways i.e. not withhold out of petty competitiveness and not support out of disingenuous tactics. We can begin to create an actual market with paying- and staying - power which we will require an open-ended number of excellent tomes to serve each generation. 

Support, from a stance of self respect.

2 comments: said...

Congratulations on your continuing work of encouraging the West Indian author to be true to himself/herself in writing. It is not easy to reject the strong influence of the foreign culture with which we are bombarded relentlessly. First, writing from true West Indian experiences is vital. Second, publishing is the next very important step.

Our islands' society, culture, mixed ethnicity and personality are unique, quite different from the strict separation of white and "other" in the US. This was illustrated in your disinterest in the ethnicity of your publisher at McMillan, when you later found out that she was a "white lady". In the US, the first question would be "Is he/she black or white" to establish the type of reception the work would get.

So, keep up the good work of promoting high quality, unique West Indian literature, and keep encouraging and advising writers on the reality of staying determined, positive and tenatious in the long pocess of being accepted by a publisher.

As far as how we get Trinis to read more for pleasure, that is another topic for a later discussion!

Joanne Gail Johnson said...

Above All,
Happy Writing,

Thank you for taking the time to share your feedback on Island Fiction Series Editor!