In October of 2000, as I sat on the white sands of Cancun with other fellow literary entrepreneurs, it occurred to me: Things would be different if I hadn’t broken the rules. Instead of sitting there, looking out at the aqua blue waters, I’d still be waiting by the phone for a call from my then agent.
Instead, here I was, surrounded by 13 book clubs representing 25 states, on a Caribbean cruise. It was literary nirvana for me. I thought of how I might have been locked out of seeing my work in print because someone else arbitrarily decided no one is interested in African American historical fiction right now.
Well, I found out directly from my book club readers, who had already bought my books, that my novels spurred a lot of conversation about Southern traditions. Some of the readers thought that I had been born in the South. (No, my parents migrated from the South, though.) From what I gathered, both of my books, THE EBONY TREE and NO POCKETS IN A SHROUD, evoked memories of growing up black in America. So I got to thinking…
For years, my writing role models were mainly white males. Out of that group, the most memorable for me were the ones who went against the rules that were conventional at that time. What if Faulkner hadn’t broken the rules by writing in such long, convoluted sentences? Or James Joyce hadn’t broken the rules by writing stream-of-consciousness? Or D. H. Lawrence hadn’t written the first literary erotica? And what about the original prose of Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison? Without these experimenters the literary world would be at a loss.
Or, for a more modern example, what if the authors of the Chicken Soup series, which is reported to have sold 65 million books in my most recent 2000 issue of Publisher’s Marketing Association magazine, had listened to the 30 publishers who rejected the first title? The publishers felt the market was “not interested” in short, tender stories that make people feel good. Mark Victor Hansen and Jack Canfield were successful because they read the needs of the market more precisely than did the publishers.
As for my black female role model writers, what if Alice Walker hadn’t written THE COLOR PURPLE, which brought “ebonics” to the level of high art? Or Toni Morrison hadn’t penned BELOVED? Or Gloria Naylor hadn’t written MAMA DAY? A reader on the cruise who read my novel NO POCKETS IN A SHROUD told me that she now often goes to my site to pick new writers to read. She and other book club members like the type of subjects the new writers are tackling, such as Teenage Parenthood, Black Men in Big Business, and Family Secrets, to cite a few examples.
The point is, it’s a new day in publishing. Readers and writers are the ones calling the shots as to what they want to read now. Instead of letting someo ne decide what the market is, create your own market. For instance, I’m told there’s no market for African American historical fiction. I don’t buy that. If we, as African Americans or any ethnic group, don’t know our past, we’ll keep repeating it. Also, writers have told me their works were rejected because they write about young adults.
Until this day, I still reread LITTLE WOMEN, THE YEARLING, and the precious few books that I got my hands on about young people while I was growing up. I encourage writers of young adult fiction to write what they write best. Just as Christian Fiction was not popular 2 years ago, now it is coming of age among mainstream readers. Often times, someone has to self-publish the work first, then create the market. When I get e-mail from readers and students saying they are doing book reports on my books, or from librarians asking for the mythical and spiritual history of THE EBONY TREE, I know I did the right thing.
Instead of waiting for someone to make an opportunity for me, I’ve learned that you have to make your opportunities for yourself. Then, if someone comes to you from mainstream publishing — which is becoming a growing trend, as witnessed by black writers Tracy Thompson, Parry Brown, and Karen Quinones, who have been picked up by New York publishers — you will be in a better position to market, negotiate and navigate the publishing waters. After all, it is still up to the writer to get their books sold.