It wouldn’t be Black History month without a major corporation missing the mark entirely in an effort to capitalize on the moment. Earlier this month, Barnes and Noble cancelled a Black History Month-themed initiative where they planned to showcase “classic” books with a twist ― the covers would illustrate the main characters as people of color. The obvious problem was these “classics” didn’t include any actual authors of color.
Aside from the (probable) absence of input from actual people of color, the initiative raises issues of Black inclusion in not only publishing but the American literary landscape. I, personally, was a junior in high school before I was assigned to read anything by an author of color. By the time I finished college, I was assigned only four books total for my educational career (Black Boy by Richard Wright, Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston, the slave narrative of Olaudah Equiano, and a Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry). Even in an area and school system that was predominantly Black we had a noticeable lack of Black perspectives.
In 2018, only 6% of children’s and young adult books published were written by Black authors. This is in contrast to the 11% of books published about, or containing, Black characters—by non-Black authors. Part of the challenge for authors of color is attributed to the traditional “gatekeeper” qualities of the publishing field. According to Lee & Low Books, which has been tracking the diversity issue in literature and publishing since 2015, 76% of decision-makers in the publishing industry are White compared to 5% for African Americans, 6% for LatinX, 7% for Asians, and 1% for Native Americans and Middle Eastern.
This lack of minority representation in decisions regarding which stories are published has been acknowledged as an impediment for diversity, but as an editorial and study published by the Los Angeles Review of Books, titled Comping White, points out—it’s only a part in a larger institutional system that is discriminatory by design. A key barrier in which is the concept of comp titles.
The idea behind a comp title is that when you submit your book to be published the company compares your title to a preexisting one to estimate how popular your book will be. They use this system to estimate how large your potential audience could be and whether your tone/style is similar to those they have previously seen. If there’s no existing comp or comparison, then your odds of being published are significantly lower. Analyzing the most frequently cited, and therefore high-value, comps produced a list of 225 titles—of which only 9 were written by people of color. Expanding out to the top 500 comps produced only 12 more titles by authors of color.
N.K. Jemisin, one of the few authors of color who appeared on those lists, referenced during her acceptance speech for the Hugo Award how her first book, The Killing Moon, was initially rejected on the assumption that only black people would ever possibly want to read the work of a black writer.
Over the years, industry professionals have held to the belief that with more representation in publishing the barriers for authors and titles of color could be resolved. But it’s not upon individual minorities to assume the responsibility and burden of correcting these systemic problems. And it’s highly unlikely that they could given the longevity and breadth of these issues. However, we can get right what Barnes and Noble got wrong. We can promote and generate appreciation for actual authors and artists of color to promote stories, themes, and lessons that resonate with a more inclusive community.
So for the rest of Black History Month, and the entirety of 2020, take some time to find and support authors and publishers who represent you. You can follow here for a list of African American owned publishers and titles.