So last week I wrote about Why Your Whining Behind Needs to Self-Publish, and hopefully, it reached the people it was intended for– talented writers who have been rejected by traditional publishers, not because they aren’t talented, but because of industry rigmarole, the inability of the planets and stars to align on days that end in “y,” and good ol’ fashioned crappy luck (“Oh? Your story is about kung fu squirrels who take over Manhattan? Well, wouldn’t you know! I just sold a story like that last week for a staggering 7 figures, so I can’t take yours on at the time. Sorry, toots!”).
I will say this again: just like spandex, self-publishing is not for everybody. I have friends who are, at this very moment, querying agents (and one friend with a novel so good that if he can’t get an agent this time around, I’ll think this whole darn thing is rigged). As I’ve said before: different strokes for different folk.
But I would also like to take this a step further. Some people assume that when a writer can’t get an agent/publisher, they are either not a good writer, or they are a good writer, but the story is just not where it needs to be. Is this true sometimes? Absolutely. Is this true all the time? Absolutely not. So why, if a writer is talented and the story is great, wouldn’t they get an agent or publisher?
Last year, I finished my fourth novel, The Perfect Find, about a 40-year-old former superstar fashion editor who, after losing it all, risks her big career comeback for a deliciously steamy romance with a coworker nearly half her age. When my agent shopped it around to publishing houses, the editors loved it. They told me so in their rejection letters, many of which included some variation of the following critique: “Witty, juicy, timely — but given that Jenna’s a black woman working in a white world, we wish this aspect of her were more deeply explored. Can you give more insight into her struggles as a black woman in fashion?”
How could these non-black women decide that I, a black woman, hadn’t adequately explored my character’s race? Jenna isn’t struggling with her blackness, in fashion or otherwise. She’s struggling with starting over and her ticking biological clock and hiding from her boss that she’d just had an orgasm in the fashion closet with the guy three cubicles down — all multilayered, real situations that white characters are allowed to experience, no apologies. You think anyone asked Lauren Weisberger to play up her protagonist’s Jewishness in The Devil Wears Prada? So often, in order to make sense to mainstream audiences, publishers need us to speak to some aspect of the understood “black experience.” Hence, the popularity of Big Issue books on slavery and civil rights and literary tomes theorizing race in America. Where’s the black Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train? Where’s the Sophie Kinsella-esque rom-com confection starring a cheeky Spelman alum? Just once, I’d love for the best-sellers’ lists to include a book about a black coed intrigued by a creepy-hot rich dude who introduces her to whips and chains in his Red Room of Pain (for better or worse).
The fact is, black commercial-fiction heroines aren’t afforded the luxury of nuance. That’s because most of the people making decisions about what Americans read aren’t personally intimate with everyday blackness.
And then this:
Many black female commercial-fiction writers are driven to self-publish — check out Amazon, Goodreads, and AALBC.com (African American Literature Book Club) to discover new voices.
Let’s keep it real: if black, brown, and purple writers are not exploring race, or talking about their experiences as a black, brown, or purple writer and what that experience means and how it relates to a deeper meaning of life and society, MANY publishers don’t want to hear our stories. Is there anything wrong with these kinds of stories? Nope. In fact, we need them (and if you haven’t read The Bluest Eye or Nervous Conditions, stop what you’re doing right now and go buy and read these novels).
We also need love stories. And comedies. And Christian fiction. And thrillers. And mysteries. And suspense. And horror. And paranormal. And science fiction. Because we come from all walks of life and have different experiences. And we are also not a monolith.
But there’s great news! Many readers are starved for stories featuring diverse protagonists (see the “We Need Diverse Books” or the “We Need Diverse Romance” initiatives for examples). The even greater news? With the advances in publishing technology, we can let our voices be heard–even if we’re writing about Kung Fu squirrels who take over Manhattan (or a zany rom com that takes place in Silicon Valley).
Should everybody self-publish? Probably not. There are many people who self-publish stories that probably should have never seen the light of day. They either need more practice, a damn good editor, a page one rewrite, or a handy-dandy blowtorch. But not everybody who self-publishes does so because their work is subpar. Don’t even get me started!