PW asked 11 editors and agents involved in publishing books by and about people of African descent what they’re publishing, how they find authors and manuscripts, how they market their lists, and what difficulties they face in a book market that is changing for every category.

From the impact of self-publishing and the importance of social media and author platforms to e-book originals, new reader interests, and the elusive search for discoverability, book professionals servicing the African-American publishing market face the same problems as any other category. Indeed most professionals we contacted acknowledged that, with all the old rules crumbling, authors and publishers alike need to be brave, innovative, and to freely ignore former “set-in-stone” publishing conventions, categories, and strategies.

Among those interviewed are Ibrahim Ahmad, senior editor, Akashic Books; Stacey Barney, editor, G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers; Regina Brooks, president, Serendipity Literary Agency; Dawn Davis, publisher, Amistad; Todd Hunter, assistant editor, Atria; Chris Jackson, executive editor, Spiegel & Grau; Selena James, executive editor, Dafina; Monique Patterson, executive editor, St. Martin’s Press; Victoria Sanders, literary agent, Victoria Sanders & Associates; Tracy Sherrod, senior editor, Harlequin Kimani; and Latoya C. Smith, associate editor, Grand Central.

What’s Being Published

Chris Jackson: I publish fiction, memoir, journalistic nonfiction, pop culture, idea- or issue-driven books. I do not have a tightly defined specialty, and I don’t feel like there’s any barrier based on race. I love the fact that I’m a generalist. I’ve been lucky to publish Victor LaValle and Mat Johnson—it’s exciting to see black writers who are biting off big ideas. Mat’s next novel, Loving (2014), is about race and biraciality, and is satirical, like everything he does. Next fall we’re pubbing Molefi Asante’s son MK Asante, who’s written Buck (Sept. 2013), a compact memoir which is so stylistically interesting, and I love that confidence—“I can write this!”

Dawn Davis: We publish books that relate in some way to the black diaspora. They come mostly from agents, though I develop some myself, like Steve Harvey’s bestseller Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man—I went to his agent and proposed it. I get those ideas just by seeing what the community is responding to. When I had a feeling that Barack Obama was going to win the 2008 election, I commissioned Obama: The Historic Campaign in Photographs by calling journalists in my Rolodex. Once every other year or so I get a chance to do this on my own, and would do it more if I had more time! I just published Yvvette Edwards’s Cupboard Full of Coats, which was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize.

Ibrahim Ahmad: We are looking to publish the writer who doesn’t necessarily get a platform in other companies. I’ve been working hard to sign authors from the Middle East, the African diaspora, and the Caribbean. My family is from Iran, so I read Persian novelists; in college I studied Middle Eastern civilization and the Arabic language. You find the same human stories in Tehran; Kingston, Jamaica; and Brooklyn. That’s my own interest, trying to better understand the world, and I hope to bring this to bear at Akashic. Our next Open Lens title is a debut novel, The Roving Tree (May 2013) by Haitian author Elsie Augustave; how many publishers are chomping at the bit to publish debut Haitian authors?

I’m also excited about the U.S. debut of Courttia Newland, a British author of Jamaican and Barbadian descent, with The Gospel According to Cane (Feb. 2013). Our award-winning Noir series provides an outlet for gritty, up-and-coming writers from around the world; we launched in 2004 with Brooklyn Noir and have now published more than 60 volumes of new short fiction by authors from the respective city, each one exploring the dark underside of a different neighborhood within it. Currently in production are Tel Aviv Noir, Jerusalem Noir, Beirut Noir, and Baghdad Noir—and I think the series has an imperative to expand farther into the Middle East and North Africa.

Latoya Smith: I work on mainly African-American fiction; all romance; and erotica. I get projects from agents or authors, and we definitely look at self-published authors. Rather than looking to another house or looking for a book like a certain book, editors can go to Amazon and find them directly, although the ones that are hitting the New York Times and USA Today lists are represented by agents. At one point the celebrity book was big. But now, there’s not as much interest in celebrity memoir, especially with the influx of reality TV. Not all erotica contains romance, but readers want to see those people come together so we have “romantica,” very steamy romance with erotica.

Monique Patterson: I acquire hardcovers, mass market, paperbacks, and e-originals for St. Martin’s Press, and trade paperbacks for Griffin. African-American publishing has changed a lot—what used to work is not working any more. “African-American fiction” was once a hot category: you had family dramas, chick lit/sisterfriends, urban, and sexy stuff. But if you stepped outside those categories, it was hard. There were a lot of African-American authors you could publish, but it wasn’t easy to do in every genre, e.g., sci-fi. L.A. Banks’s Vampire Huntress series [that I acquired] was new; I had nothing to compare it to! We had to make our own way. But now those tried and true categories are not working the way they used to. Any trend that’s hot eventually levels out. It’s not publishers who make that decision, it’s the readers; they can be pretty swift in deciding what they want. They want different things, and we have to figure it out. It affects how I buy African-American books. It makes it a little easier because everybody has to experiment, instead of just saying, “Well, if it’s not like [novelist] Eric Jerome Dickey, then I’m not interested.” We don’t need 50 people trying to be Eric Jerome Dickey. So there’s more opportunities, and that’s what I’m trying to explore. I think there’s a lot of opportunity for authors to just be authors, and not “oh, you’re a black author.” It’s a very exciting time now.

Regina Brooks: I represent a broad base of titles in fiction and nonfiction. In the public schools there are a lot of kids who are not making it, and educators feel they need more materials to work with. As an agent, I have access to a wealth of wonderful content that sometimes publishers don’t have a vision for or don’t understand how to position. My goal is to be poised to fill that need with outstanding authors and illustrators who’ve been groomed to produce quality books

I believe this is a time like the Wild, Wild West in publishing—the person willing to take risks and strategize and pull together talent can make all kinds of things happen.

Selena James: We publish African-American fiction and teen lit. I know there’s gloom and doom out there, but it just depends on the books you choose to publish. I look forward to acquiring what we can sell well: commercial women’s fiction, street lit, and romance. I tell authors, “We don’t publish Toni Morrison here; this is entertainment. If you’re off the radar for more than a year, readers will find something to replace you.” Dafina has 80 books a year and a growing teen imprint, Dafina K-Teen. I’m seeing that readers are drawn to stories with a lot of conflict and excitement, even in teen lit and romance. One of our teen fiction rising stars is Ni-Ni Simone; in romance, it’s Zuri Day. Love on the Run, the first book in her Morgan Men series, received a starred PW review. Readers like continuing characters, so a lot of our authors are writing series. In our adult category, we have the Diva series by De’nesha Diamond, whose latest book is Gangsta Divas (Jan. 2013). Another is the Misadventures of Mink LaRue series by Noire; the second book in the series is Sexy Little Liar (Nov. 2012).

I see mass market is more popular now, so I’m scouting for independently published books we can do in mass market. I’ve acquired the mass market rights to books by Tu-Shonda L. Whitaker, Geneva Holliday, and Cydney Rax (all from Random House) and Kiki Swinson (from Melodrama Publishing), who’s our bestseller so far. I handle it as a sub rights sale and I pitch it as such, exploiting as many publishing possibilities for authors as I can. Another idea I had was to create novella duos: two novellas, by two authors, in one book. It introduces one author’s audience to the other, so I do them every year. The authors love working on it because it’s an additional book for them if they’re a one-book-a-year author. We’ve had Kiki Swinson and Noire, and this year Kiki Swinson and De’nesha Diamond. I’ve done five so far, and they’ve done very well.

Stacey Barney: I acquire primarily commercial and literary YA and literary middle-grade fiction, and occasionally picture books. As an African-American person, I like to publish African-Americans and other people of color, and I do, but it’s not the focus of what I do. If you are a reader within the YA market—whether you are an adult or a young adult—you are reading dystopian, fantasy, urban fantasy, and romance across the board, regardless of race. In middle-grade, personal stories resonate well; my author Kelly Starling Lyons has three books this year: Hope’s Gift and Tea Cakes for Tosh (both Dec. 2012) and the picture book Ellen’s Broom (Jan. 2013), a personal family story set during Reconstruction—which is a rare period for a book to be set in.

Todd Hunter: Atria is not a black imprint, but we do a sizable number of books for a black audience, about 25% of the list between our list and imprints Strebor and Cash Money Content. We seek books that appeal to a large commercial audience, and authors with large personality and appeal to people who are thought leaders and go-to figures in their own fields. Much of what I work with is black, though I haven’t looked at the international market as much. What’s important is to keep an eye out for who’s making noise internationally, but you need to gauge how they’ll translate to an American audience and American buyer. My forthcoming titles are Waiting for Jules (Aug. 2013), debut fiction by Tamara N. Houston, and in 2014 She That Findeth, Christian fiction by Kimberley Brooks, formerly with Kimani.

Tracy Sherrod: Our specialty is multicultural romance and commercial women’s fiction. Multicultural romance is thriving. I’ve been combing through everybody’s catalogue to see what they’re publishing. This is a huge time to publish a lot more variety. But in order to do that effectively, you have to know the history: what has been published, the books that live and what elements they contain that offer them a long life. And yes, that’s still true in the 21st century. Good fiction has to inform and enrich your life. I think that’s universal.

Victoria Sanders: When I started agenting I wanted to specialize in fiction. I was tired of reading fiction by and about old white men, so I actively have looked for different stories. I do a lot of debut fiction, and my subspecialties are African-American, Latin American, and Asian writers. I grew up in the ’60s, in a household in which there was a certain level of interest in activism. We are Sephardic Turks. My grandma’s first language was Ladino (15th-century Spanish), my stepmother was Argentine, and my aunt was Chinese-American. My grandmother’s parents were immigrants, and she always felt like an “other” in this white world, so she felt more comfortable with people who were artists and politically active. Recently, I sold The Wedding Gift by Marlen Bodden, a Legal Aid attorney whose expertise includes human trafficking, to Monique Patterson at St. Martin’s Press; it’s pubbing in spring 2013. And since 1996, I’ve represented the Zora Neale Hurston Trust as literary agent, seeking out opportunities for the trust and managing its literary properties.

Finding Authors and Manuscripts

Jackson: Unlike in the past, where I’ve seen things come in waves and trends, I haven’t been seeing so much that is easily characterizable, possibly because of the idiosyncrasy of my list. Manuscripts get to me through smart agents who are smart enough to send them to me. I’d love to see more writers [whose richness of stories and ideas play with tradition] come across my desk. Ambitious books are rewarded. I’ve brainstormed with Mat Johnson, Ta-Nehesi Coates, and Victor LaValle to develop their careers and think about what they’re going to do next. I’ve done multiple books with them. Writers need that kind of support.

I think the self-publishing market is a great way for interesting things to find an audience. But there’s not many breakout self-published books in the areas I work in, probably because many of my authors are working journalists who are plugged into traditional publishing. If my main focus was on fiction, maybe I’d be more plugged in to self-published authors.

Davis: Authors send work to me, I get it from agents, or I see it online. But that’s not the sole way. I’d like to see more literary fiction come in, from people in M.F.A. programs or people who are intuitive writers.

Ahmad: The most common method is getting recommendations from other writers I know and trust. The “extended family” of Akashic authors all understand Akashic’s mission and the scope of our list, along with our idiosyncratic tastes as readers. Chris Abani directs authors to us all the time. We meet with authors at conferences, through doing manuscript consultations, and at literary festivals such as the Calabash Festival in Jamaica. We came across Amiri Baraka there and published three books with him. We accept queries; every query gets read and if something catches our eye, we’ll request it.

Smith: I’m still pretty new, but when I started with [editors] Teri Woods and Karen Thomas, there were way more bestselling African-American authors. Now there’s still a lot of authors, but not with major publishers, and it’s harder to find literary African-American fiction and literary women’s fiction. I use agents and go to conferences and put the word out. My colleagues are putting the word out, too. In 2010 and 2011, I noticed the marketplace was not reading as many African-American titles so I said, let me poll the fans––maybe they want a Jodi Picoult, or a Stephen King, or an L.A. Banks? I did a five-month survey of African-American book club readers; we were able to get almost 800 respondents. And I was right: they wanted thrillers, mystery, paranormal—more serious, complex, emotional stories written by and/or featuring black characters. We used [our survey results] to try to find acquisitions that readers love. I made my first one with Rochelle Alers and another African-American writer who uses pseudonyms and writes about interracial romance.

James: Most authors come to me through recommendations from other authors or from agents. Since a lot of African-American authors don’t have agents, it’s not my primary source. I do scout for authors online, if there’s a buzz going and I’m seeing them everywhere. The self-publishing market is critical because that’s where the trends are starting, where authors can find their readership and prove their audience. Authors promoting themselves is what gets my attention.

Hunter: I use social media, and I like to put myself out there to authors and agents as someone who’s looking for black authors. I recently went to a blogging conference, and a book may come out of that. But it starts with good writing; that opens the door for further conversation. I do look at the self-publishing market; I’d be remiss if I didn’t. If you’re an author and you’ve been able to make a name for yourself and use Amazon as a way of building your brand, to me that’s impressive.

Sherrod: I find authors online and through agents. Whereas we used to acquire 99% from agents, now with digital publishing you can directly find talent, depending on how involved you get. It’s an excellent way for young editors to develop their list. I check who is being self-published on Amazon’s top 100 list of self-published authors, and sometimes I just pick up the phone and call them. They are always glad to hear from someone who works at a house. I ask about how they sell their books, and if they’re happy. I’ve found a lot of romance in that way, but not so much commercial fiction that’s to my taste.

Marketing Stories, Not Segmentation

Jackson: I have two publishers—Cindy Spiegel and Julie Grau—and I get their approval for everything I publish. As publishers, they have a broad sensibility and over the course of their careers have published Junot Díaz, James McBride, Tyler Perry. They have a sense that a specific racial experience can still be appreciated universally. Having that mental flexibility is important. I don’t feel I have to struggle and explain from 101 every time I want to publish a black book.

For a while, it was hard for Mat Johnson to find his place. He felt boxed in by the trends on one side and white literary indifference on the other. He is black, and there were expectations that he should write to this burgeoning black audience, when he’s an artist, not a purveyor of literary product. But that’s changing; there’s more opportunity for people whose voices are more freewheeling, plus the expiration of certain trends. Writers who think broadly can see an opening for themselves. The readers haven’t vanished, though some of the targeted ways of reaching them have. It’s not so much a problem as the evolution of the business.

Ahmad: “How do we speak to the black author’s black market?” is such an insular way of looking at a book. Not that it’s not helpful sometimes, but it’s more of a secondary support role. We think we publish great books, so why shouldn’t we get them into as many hands as possible? Depending on the book and all the themes it touches on, it could have eight or nine different markets. So we are not just going after one market.

Smith: I have a few African-American authors, and we no longer do the “We are just targeting the African-American market” thing. We’ve been looking at branding, marketing, and cover treatment to get it into everyone’s hands. For instance, we have three books now with Rochelle Alers, in the same vein as Debbie Macomber, Jill Shalvis, Robyn Carr, Kristin Higgins. In the past, no matter what subcategory a book was in, you’d get a stock photo of a black couple and slap it on the cover. This time, we said, “No! We are marketing it as a smalltown romance.” It’s doing phenomenally well; the accounts are eating this series up, and the book was reviewed by all the major publications. In January, we’re publishing Carl Weber’s The Man in 3B, but we are trying to target the markets that do not know who he is. We’ve learned that readers are interested in stories, not segmenting.

Patterson: There’s no one-off book; I do a lot of fiction so my role is about building an author’s career. How we market and how people read is changing, so we’re all in the same boat under the shifting landscape. So, now’s the time to be bold, brave, and try something new and see what happens.

[Street lit author] Nikki Turner is with me now; we did a Griffin reprint of one of her bestselling Triple Crown books. Now we’re doing three e-original novellas, pubbing back to back: Unique (Nov. 2012), Unique II: Betrayal (Dec.), and Unique III: Revenge (Jan. 2013). It was a risk because we hadn’t done e-original novellas with a black author; these work really well in romances, but we didn’t know if they would in urban fiction. But her books are doing what I hoped they would do, which is to build buzz for her. In March, her full-length novel Project Chick II: What’s Done in the Dark comes out in print.

James: We constantly pursue special promotions with retailers, getting support where the book has more than spine-out attention. We work with each retailer to find a unique sales opportunity that’s right for them. Authors tell me they’re always surprised when they see their book in an untraditional venue like a supermarket. Also, we’re working with one of our key accounts to enhance author collections in libraries.

Barney: We definitely rely on our authors to be active, in social media, attending conferences, building their brand, so the consumership knows that’s the book to read. Gone are the days when authors can be less active. Marketing your brand is very important. For authors of color to avoid being pigeonholed, they have to self-brand.

Hunter: You really have to take time to gauge what’s drawing people online, where they’re going online, keeping tabs on that, and putting books out to appeal.

Sanders: The problem with some publishers and editors is that they see color first and the story second. Sometimes they’ve asked me the race of the author, and I refuse to tell them. Because that tells me that if they can’t fit this writer into a box, they don’t know how to sell the book. The generation ahead of me is much more progressive today and more cheerful; editors in their mid-20s to early 30s would not ask that question.

The Challenges

Jackson: There’s fewer dedicated black media, although there are more opportunities with the proliferation of new media, blogs, etc. Also black bookstores are dramatically diminishing. I don’t see a visible influx of African-American editors, particularly in the areas of publishing I’m in. If I’m competing with a black editor for a new project, it would be Dawn [Davis] or Malaika [Adero]. When I started, it was great to have older editors—Carole Hall, Tracy Sherrod, Carol Taylor, Dawn, and others—and you were in touch with a literary, cultural, historical zeitgeist. Also, I think there are younger black people who are less focused on being racially specific in what they do.

Davis: I think there’s less patience, energy, and resources from publishers in establishing a debut author; now you are really discouraged from publishing people without a major platform and a built-in audience. I’m hoping that when we see some of the gems go to small presses and university presses, it will swing back the other way.

Ahmad: It’s so difficult to get books in people’s hands when there are so many ways they consume content. How do you promote novels when people’s time and attention span are limited? Especially when book review sections are shrinking and being axed, and bookstores are hanging on by a thread.

Brooks: I think there needs to be more mentorship in-house. I understand the industry is not poised to groom young editors anymore, because there’s too much else you have to do. Social media and technology are good, but it adds a layer of complexity so it’s 10 times what an average editor had to do in 1980. Adding the issues of being black in the [publishing] business just makes it more complicated.

James: The biggest issue we face is shrinking shelf space. I still fondly remember Borders because they had a special commitment to Af-Am fiction; there was a specific destination for it inside the store.

Smith: I don’t see many black editors. I run into them on LinkedIn and at events, and I’ve seen a lot more people interested in the profession, so I hope that translates. I feel like I lucked out in my process. I had a cousin who overheard Teri Woods say she needed an assistant.

Sherrod: There’s not as many multicultural mainstream titles annually being published now. The number now is the same as were published before Terry McMillan, Toni Morrison, and Gloria Naylor were on the bestseller list simultaneously.

The Support System

Jackson: Victor LaValle is the director of writing programs at the Columbia University M.F.A. Writing Program and was a National Book Awards judge. This allows him to mentor young writers. Junot Díaz works at Boston Review and has explicitly said his mission is to bring writers of color into that magazine.

Barney: I sit on the Children’s Book Council Diversity Committee; I’m a founding member. The committee has a group called Safe Havens, a safe forum where people can talk about issues they face in publishing a diverse children’s list.

Brooks: Everybody knows there’s a need for more black agents and editors. But for every black editor that leaves, they are still in the trenches grooming, editing, and coaching. Cherise Fisher [formerly editor-in-chief at Plume] is now editing through her book development company, the Scribe’s Window. Melody Guy [formerly senior editor, One World/Ballantine at Random House] has her own editing and consulting business, Guy Literary LLC. Christine Pride [former senior editor at Hyperion and editor at Crown] has her own company, where she is an editorial consultant. Karen Thomas [former executive editor at Grand Central Publishing and founding editor of Dafina Books] is agenting with me. So we’re all still here, referring people to each other and grooming authors behind the scenes. The product is the proof. While we may not be in-house, we have our own little cottage industry, and the publishing houses will get to see the result of quality content that has been developed our way.