As I began writing this column, I thought about writing it as an appeal to publishers, literary agents, ghostwriters, and editors to dig deep into their humanity when considering opportunities to work with brown and Black authors. The reality is that the works of brown and Black authors are much more closely scrutinized than those of other authors. Greater emphasis is put on their ready-made follower base, celebrity, and social standing than on the quality of the writing itself. The lack of interest or consideration in building a brown and Black talent pipeline that does not fit preconceived formulas does a disservice to the publishing industry.
In the past year there has been quite a bit of discussion and activity around publishing companies creating imprints that focus on brown and Black authors. Doing that is a huge mistake. Creating such imprints furthers segregation within the industry. Brown and Black authors have been segmented, segregated, and compartmentalized far too often and in far too many ways. Publishing has done this, indirectly, and in many cases, directly. Adding siloed imprints for authors of color would, in effect, put publishers in the position of adopting a “separate but equal” approach. Brown and Black authors want one simple thing: equity. They want the same access and opportunity as other authors.
Creating equitable opportunity across all sectors of the industry is the responsibility of all those who hold positions of authority. We need more brown and Black editors, literary agents, ghostwriters, and representatives within publishing companies, not just in administrative roles but also in decision-making and leadership positions. We need a diverse pipeline, one that includes illustrators, web designers, typesetters, graphic designers, marketers, sales reps, retailers, printers, and distributors.
Aspiring Black and brown authors know full well the difficulties they face in breaking into traditional publishing. The industry’s antiquated structure has sent authors scrambling to figure out how to get their works published independently. They are flocking to self-publishing models and wearing the publisher hat just to get their books on the market. This does not serve many authors well.
I believe we have a duty in this industry to widen our doors, erase lines of biases, and seek ways to collaborate so that we may better incorporate aspiring authors and the talented pipeline of creatives who can add much-needed value to the overall publishing process. I understand that we have financial responsibilities within our companies; however, if we continue to allow those to be the primary drivers of our decisions, we will send a plethora of great stories to the graveyard. Agents, editors, writers, acquisition experts, and retailers need to cast their nets wider to find those writers and stories that envelop transformational narratives for the millions of readers who yearn for them.
Our agenda should also include educational and coaching opportunities. Drawing on my 20-plus years of business experience in both the private and public sector, I have taken steps to incorporate coaching into my publishing model. First-time authors need to understand what it takes to be a consistent, long-term, and successful author, and what it takes to sell books and reach their target audiences. Leaving this up to hours of Google searches is not a real option.
Closing racial divides and educating one another on our similarities and differences can be accomplished through books and stories written and told by diverse authors and featuring diverse characters, story lines, themes, and plots. This will improve publishers’ ability to reach more readers. Works that do not elevate one demographic over another are critical to building appreciation of different points of views, experiences, and perspectives—across all literary genres. The time has come for real change in publishing, and this includes actions that create a real opportunity for brown and Black employees to advance in the industry.
It is the responsibility of all publishing houses to publish books representing what our world looks like today. It’s not just a moral obligation; equitable publishing is imperative to end the racial divide in our industry. This will help us to secure our longevity and sustainability.
Kia Harris is the founder of KH Publishers.