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.

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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

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

 

 

Comments

  1. Shannan says:

    Unfortunately a lot of what is said in this article is true. Me personally, I’ll support one of my own first.

  2. I almost cried as I read this thought provoking, oh so true article. I did in fact have to stop reading and walk away for a few minutes to gather myself. There isn’t one point Brian made that I don’t co-sign and how I wish I could share this with each and every person of color who has told me “they don’t read black”. There is no substitute for a well-written book that holds the reader’s interest no matter the color of the writer.

  3. This is a great blog post. It is so true…which is very sad. I myself will always support African American authors. Many readers refuse to explore different genres. I really wish they would at least give authors in other genres a chance.

  4. Diane Dorce says:

    This is so true! I have struggled getting support for my mystery/suspense novels…well basically I get a lot of ‘not interested’ and yet this is my favorite genre. I fell in love with Walter Mosley and James Patterson novels.I read novels by many white authors, like Stuart Woods, Stephen King, Laura ‘Lipton and more just because I love of the genre. But, unfortunately it is the truth that many African-American readers are not swept up by mystery/suspense unless you make it urban. I intend, like you to go ahead and self publish, believe it or not, it’s a good read and I wouldn’t want to see it go to waste. But I will also focus on writing some romance, some urban stuff, some women’s fiction that may appeal to a broader audience. Good luck on your writing. I support you! Great article!

  5. Sadly, I agree with Brian. I have a very eclectic taste in literature and do not prefer one race over the other. I have read many of Brian’s books, and on my short list of favorite authors, many are African-American – Trice Hickman, Victoria Christopher Murray, JD Mason, etc. But, I would say that when compared to other readers in my demographics (Caucasian, female, 30 – 40 y.o.) I am in the minority. I wish this weren’t the case, and I wish I had a good answer for the divide, but I do not. I will continue to spread recommendations of all the great books that I read and hope that eventually the barrier will be broken.

  6. Harper Miller says:

    I appreciate this post and I shared it on Twitter and Facebook. I’m a self-published romance author with a very diverse fan base. Like you, I am a member of many Facebook reader groups. I’ve witnessed exactly what you speak of when you say that members of color will quickly recommend a book they loved by authors of varying races/ethnicities however, when it comes to book recs rarely, if ever, are the authors who are featured or discussed in these groups authors of color. There is minimal reciprocity. This is a problem for a variety of reasons. Mainstream contemporary romance tends to feature very monochromatic characters. This isn’t a huge problem in romance subgenres but contemporary romance? HUGE ISSUE. If it’s about the story, then why are more authors of color not featured? They’re out there. They’re writing the same types of stories but they hardly receive the accolades unless of course they don’t write characters of color. I don’t understand why it’s so difficult to depict the world as it is. Isn’t everyone deserving of a happily ever after?

  7. Roxanne Rogers says:

    After reading this article twice, as an avid reader of all authors I would be remiss if I didn’t comment.
    Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin just to name a few are embraced as African American authors and have a wide range of followers that include white readers. I find the literacy agents statement to be irresponsible and unfounded given that a number of black authors (regardless of genre) do appeal to all readers if their work is of quality and substance. Race is not and should not be a factor as she has intimated.

  8. Great think piece. It’s on point. That’s my experience with my Gideon series. If I were a white writer… and that is the key… because even if you create a white character, it’s going to go unsold and be ignored. A long time ago I was talking about Mosley and Patterson and said that it was a damn shame a white man writing about a black detective can sell more books than a black man writing about a black detective. A black man’s POV about a black man is authentic, to the bone. Same goes for sci-fi. I don’t think your editor was being racist, just speaking on how the business is and being honest. And I rarely see whit reader in public, in an airport, at a coffeeshop. reading anything written by blacks, unless it was O approved, but I see many blacks reading novels by white authors all day long. In the islands, from what I have seen, they sell more novels by white authors than black. Also, white novels reach abroad, and are translated into dozens of languages. Which black novels have had the same treatment? I’m talking in two dozen languages… Da Vinci Code is in at least 44 languages. When they sell a white novel, it’s like selling a white movie, they have a revenue stream, a fan base that black novels will never achieve. So it goes; so it goes.

  9. Excellent article. After being on this earth for 70 years, people will always find an excuse not to do something that is beneficial to all, and if they refuse to see the light then that is on them. Readers come in all colors so there is no need to just try and reach one group to read one’s work. When it comes to writing fiction, I am a late bloomer. I wrote my fist book at age 62, and it was always my intentions to self-publish my own stories, my way and not give in to someone else’s way of thinking. When I write stories, I don’t make direct references to the characters’ color or ethnicity. I leave that to the readers because the narratives I write are universal. On that note, you are to be commended for taking matters into your own hands. Keep doing what you are doing, and continued success in your endeavors.

  10. Brian I shared this post with my community in hope to start a discussion with my White FB followers. Of course mostly my AA followers responded. Three white friends responded. I’d hope for more but this a touchy subject because it’s easier to say the books are not up to their standards than say they don’t want to publish the books.

    Thanks for this article. We still have a long way to go.

  11. Brian, great article! You stepped on a few toes with this one, but it’s a glaring reality and I don’t really see it getting any better, especially when we can’t even work together to support one another. We talk about support from our counterparts, but oftentimes, we don’t show the same for our own. It’s like every man/woman for him/herself from fear that someone else will make it to the top before another. I’ve only been in the literary industry for a short time, but that’s what I’ve come to detest about it. I’ve never had a problem supporting another because I feel that their success is mine. When one of us makes it, it can open up a door for another. That’s just my two cents.

  12. Barbara says:

    Great point. I think this issue stems from the lack of diversity in school curriculum. The majority of books read in school are by white authors so we allare being conditioned to think thst is the norm and subconsciously gravitate to it. Ive been really trying to push my students (grad student who are current rookie teachers) to explore books written by various ethnicities. I would recommend you trying to reach out to schools and get your books in the hands of the kids.

  13. Mona Grant-Holmes says:

    I agree with what was stated in the article. I read different genres and different authors. It is a shame that African American authors are not given the same platforms as white authors. I agree that black readers will recommend a good book because it is a good book. The author’s race is not an issue. It really shouldn’t matter who wrote a good story, if it is a good story. Easy and Alex….Easy wins hands down because there are those nuances that come from being black. To my African American authors keep writing.

  14. I shared this also with my on-line book club.. this is a response I received from author Patricia Sargeant: ( she agreed to let me share)

    there are too many gatekeepers in publishing who pretend to know “what sells.”

    The Deciders are so far removed from the ultimate customers – Readers – that I’m led to believe their decisions are for their satisfaction, not ours.

    Follow me a moment:
    * The agent to whom Mr. Smith’s speaking is in fact a gatekeeper to the editors he’s trying to reach.
    * The editors to whom the agent will ultimately pitch Mr. Smith’s story are gatekeepers to the distributors to whom the editors will pitch his story.
    * The distributors are gatekeepers to the stores that will or will not buy Mr. Smith’s books.
    * The stores are gatekeepers to the readers Mr. Smith’s trying/needs to reach.

    In summary, there are at least four layers of gatekeepers between Mr. Smith and his readers.

    • Brian Smith says:

      With all due respect Chilla, that view sidesteps (and to some degree deflects) the “real” focus of the article – white readers RARELY support books by black authors although black readers ROUTINELY support books written by white authors. Yes, agents are gatekeepers – there is no denying that. But, they are also “agents” who earn 15% off of every manuscript they sell to an Aquisition Editor. No agent, in any industry, is going to waste time on trying to sell anything that their experience has taught them will not sell…their time is their money. I gave an example of the opinions of agents from New York, California, and my current agent who lives in Texas. None of them are acquaintances, they are all non-black, and they’ve all been in the business over 15 years…are they all making up their experiences with the buying patterns of white america? I doubt it.

  15. Anita Dawson says:

    Brian, once again my friend, you are on point. As an avid reader, I read all genres, authors and eras. Mosley made me love the black detective, but I didn’t have anyone else to read, until I discovered Patterson. I was limited to two black detectives, Rawlins and Cross, until you revealed the next one for me. The agent was doing her job, selling scripts, by telling you the stone cold truth, however unfortunate it was. As your loyal readers, it is our job to promote your books so that other readers become interested. I spend so many hours in airports and I see the trend, not many black authors being read, but whether I am reading or sleeping, I always have a copy of your book in case someone is watching from afar. As a matter of fact, I have given a few away to introduce them to you. I am guilty of buying a book that I see someone else read so I never say never. Thanks again for sharing…

  16. Just had the opportunity to read this article and I’ve been saying the same things long before I published my first book with Harlequin. The part of your blog that stood out for me was the comparison of the reading habits of black readers and white readers. Like you, I see lots of black readers with the books of white authors, but rarely is the other way round. It’s even more prominent in the romance genre.

  17. Well said, Brian! I believe you are the voice of the majority of AA authors. The struggle is real.
    But be encouraged. It might take us longer to get there, but we will.

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