Why Isn’t Reading Color Blind? By Brian W. Smith

“Brian, I could probably get your mystery series picked up if you made Sleepy Carter a white man. That’s the harsh truth.”

The words of the successful literary agent left me speechless. I couldn’t believe she’d said that. Did she realize how racist her comment was? Did she care?

The muscles in my stomach tensed. My bottom lip quivered. The fingers I’d used to type the sixty thousand words of my first mystery novel, The Audubon Park Murder (A Sleepy Carter Mystery), strummed the desktop of the antique wooden desk I’d recently purchased.

As I sat there trying to decide how to respond, I couldn’t help recalling the feedback I’d received from a literary agent based in California, a few days earlier. The California-based agent apologetically said to me, “Brian, the concept is great. Your writing is very polished and your literary resume is impressive. However, I’m going to pass on the Sleepy Carter Mystery series.”

When I respectfully asked her why she wasn’t interested she said, “Honestly Brian, I don’t think there is a market for it. Your current fan base is predominantly black. It’s going to be a struggle getting your black readers to support the Sleepy Carter series because black readers aren’t big buyers of mystery novels. White readers love the mystery genre, but traditionally, they don’t support mystery series centered on black sleuths. When was the last time you read a mystery series about a black detective or seen a television show with a black detective as the lead character?”

I blurted out, “Walter Mosley. He writes the Easy Rawlins series.” To which she quickly replied, “That’s one, but he’s an outlier. Can you name another?”

I thought for a moment and then said, “The television show, Luther, starring Idris Elba is good.” She calmly replied, “That show has struggled to find an audience.”

I thought for a second and then reminded her of the successful Alex Cross series. The agent said, “Yes, the Alex Cross character is black. But, the series is written by James Patterson—a white man.”

My trip down memory lane was ended abruptly when the New York agent that I was talking to called out, “Brian, are you still there?”

I was still there, but I wasn’t in a good mood.

Anger swirled in my mid-section and slowly moved toward my mouth. I adjusted my posture and cleared my throat, preparing to let the vitriol spew from my slightly parted lips. And then something happened—the phrase, don’t shoot the messenger, popped in my head. After all, these agents know what publishing companies are looking to buy; therefore, they don’t waste their time pitching manuscripts that they know won’t be picked up. On top of that, the agents I spoke to (like more than 90% of the literary agents out there) were white. They know the buying patterns of their race better than I do. So who was I to argue with them?

I took a deep breath to regain my composure, thanked her for the honest feedback, and hung up the phone. Still, my emotions breakdanced in my chest while I stared at a printed copy of my rejected manuscript. I made the decision that day to self-publish the Sleepy Carter Mysteries. The first two books in the series have 5 star ratings on Amazon and became Amazon Bestsellers in the Mystery genre, but the bad taste left in my mouth from the remarks of both agents still remains.

The aforementioned discussions with those agents took place in 2012, but the issue that fueled their comments is still very real—white people are reluctant to read books (regardless of genre) written by black authors. How do I know? Because as recent as the summer of 2015, when I contemplated writing a new mystery series, my current agent and I discussed the “pros” and “cons” of making the protagonist of my new series a white man. We even tossed around the idea of me using a “white sounding” pseudonym to improve the crossover appeal of the new series…that series idea has been shelved indefinitely.

Now, I know there will be white people reading this who will say, ‘that’s not true, I’ve read books written by black authors.’ To those of you who have—I applaud you. However, based on what I’ve witnessed during my ten year literary career, you “inclusive” white readers are outliers. In fact, I don’t believe it’s hyperbolic when I say, the odds of seeing a white person sitting in a coffee shop or in the airport reading a novel written by a black author (that wasn’t endorsed by Oprah) are comparable to seeing a unicorn racing in the Kentucky Derby.

Some of the black people reading this may be wondering why I’m making this an “issue.” I’ll tell you why. It’s because I routinely see black readers in coffee shops, libraries, book stores, and in airports, reading books written by white authors, but I don’t see the practice being reciprocated.

I often visit Facebook reading groups and see avid black readers discussing (and in some cases boasting) about the books they’ve read that are written by white authors. Black readers in many of these groups urge other black readers to expand their reading taste by reading books written by non-blacks…but, I don’t see that practice being reciprocated by white readers either. How do I know? Because, I am a member of a few Facebook reading groups that are predominantly white, and I have NEVER seen white readers issuing any “expand your reading taste” pep talks or “read a book by a black author” literary challenges to each other.

So, with all of that hands-on experience and non-scientific market research in my back pocket, I still find myself stumped by a very challenging question…why don’t white readers routinely—or even occasionally—read books written by black authors?

White people, that’s not a rhetorical question. I really want to know because I’m confused. I know y’all enjoy listening to music by black performers—I don’t hear country music being played during timeouts at professional basketball and football games. What I hear is hip-hop music—the most “urban” of all music forms—blaring through arena speakers.

I know white people enjoy the entertainment provided by their favorite black athletes—LeBron James and Stephen Curry jerseys sell faster than water bottles in the desert. Denzel Washington and Will Smith are two of the highest paid actors in Hollywood, so I know exceptional thespians are getting the crossover love.

Hell, if it weren’t for the support of white people, Barack Obama wouldn’t have become the first African-American President of the United States—proof that even politicians can have crossover appeal.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the common thread between singers, athletes, and actors is that they are all entertainers in some form or fashion. So, I’m left wondering if white people are only comfortable supporting blacks when the service provided is some form of entertainment. Do white people realize that writing is a form of entertainment? In fact, I can make a cogent argument that writing is the most cerebral form of entertainment. Yet, white readers avoid books written by black authors like the pages were laced with cyanide. Why?

The only thing I’ve seen in my forty-six years on this earth that rivals this phenomenon is the scarcity of little white girls playing with black baby dolls. Meanwhile, black folk have routinely purchased blonde hair, blue-eyed, Barbie dolls for decades. When was the last time you saw a white parent buying or encouraging their child to play with a black baby doll? Don’t spend too much time thinking about that right now…that question was rhetorical.

Let me be clear, it’s not my intent to cause some type of race war with this article. It’s also not my intent to try to beg white readers to read my books (if that was the case then I would have changed the Sleepy Carter character to a white man and inked a lucrative publishing deal for the series four years ago). Readers who have followed my career can attest that sitting around waiting for a “break” has never been my style. I take great pride in my work ethic and “hustle” skills. I take even more pride in my faith. Even without crossover success, God has sustained me to the point that after being laid off from a six-figure job in 2009 during the recession, I haven’t had to return to Corporate America. But, don’t get it twisted, just because I believe God will always “have my back” that doesn’t mean my willingness to address things that others ignore has dissipated.

My primary objective with this piece is to evoke thought and facilitate constructive dialogue between readers of all races. And the diverse audience of the Reading in Black and White blog seems to be the perfect forum to cast a spotlight on this literary pink elephant.

While those who read this piece may debate its merits, I will deal with my own ignorance. After all, I’m the one who foolishly entered the literary world assuming that good literature, regardless of the race of the author, was the one thing that was immune to society’s racial hang-ups. Boy, was I wrong. And as a result of my own naiveté, any damage done to my confidence during this literary journey is a self-inflicted wound.

img_0018.jpg

bws

Brian W. Smith is the bestselling author of fifteen novels. His novels have appeared on several bestsellers list to include: Dallas Morning News, Amazon, Black Expressions, and others. Brian has owned a publishing company and is currently signed to an imprint of Simon and Schuster. He is also the host of the popular literary internet radio show, The Scribe Spot.

Brian holds multiple college degrees to include an MBA. When he is not writing novels and touring he serves as an Adjunct Professor of Creative Writing at Collin College and Dallas Community College in the Dallas, TX, area.

Website:    www.authorbrianwsmith.com

Facebook:  www.facebook/HollygrovePublishing

Instagram:  @authorbwsmith

gh bws

Brian’s next novel, Glass Houses will be released on July 28, 2016.