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A good read: with a Pulitzer in tow, ethnic publishing imprints are on the rise. What will that mean for books by and about people of color?

I couldn't quite believe it when I got the call that HarperCollins was interested in the book I was developing with my friend, Robyn Moreno--before we'd even written a proposal. We had been working on a collection of essays on the modern Latina experience for about seven months. We had hoped for essays told from a brutally honest and sometimes humorous perspective, but we were having trouble getting the sample essays together. We hadn't even attempted a marketing plan when Rene Alegria, the editor of HarperCollins's Hispanic imprint Rayo, called Robyn to ask about our progress. They had met at a conference the previous summer, where Robyn described our embryonic idea to him over drinks. He called to tell her he had two other anthology proposals on his desk but wanted to see ours before he made a decision. We had two weeks to get something together.


After about a month of wrangling and stalling, we presented him with our 90-page proposal. He swept it off the table, buying our baby before we even had a chance to worry if anyone would want it.

If HarperCollins had not in 2001 launched Rayo, the country's first English/Spanish-language Latino imprint, or division, at a major publishing house, I'm not sure it would have been so easy. Anthologies are notoriously hard to sell, both to publishers and readers. In the post-Sept. 11 recession, no one wanted to buy books that were difficult, and I knew that having a Latino editor who related to our project had everything to do with getting our deal.

A Ticket in, or a Ghetto?

Over the years, authors of color have argued that their communities would never be fully represented until publishing houses were as diverse as the country, until they had editors to champion their stories. And in the last 10 years or so, a lot has changed. So much so that this year's Pulitzer Prize in fiction went to The Known World by Edward P. Jones, a novel published by Amistad, an African American imprint of HarperCollins. The rise of black and Latino imprints have meant, at the least, a lot more opportunity for people of color to get their books out there, with the bonus of a modest to sometimes large advance.

"Having imprints out there means that more people of color are going to get published, period," says Adriana Lopez, editor of Criticas, a publishing industry magazine on Spanish-language books.

Charles Harris, a black editor, started Amistad in 1986 "to specialize in the works of African American authors and books on African American themes." HarperCollins bought the company in 1999, and the imprint went from publishing an average of four to five books a year to now releasing almost 20 new titles annually.

Since 1994, about seven other black imprints have popped up, including Random House's Harlem Moon and Striver's Row; Time Warner's Walk Worthy; Simon & Schuster's Atria Books; Kensington's Dafina Books; and Viacom's BET Books. In the late '90s, Latino imprints joined the fray with Kensington's Encanto and Random House's Vintage Espanol. With companies like Viacom's BET Books putting out more than 250 books since 1998, it seems that in a flat book market, the only room for growth may be in ethnic publishing.

"More and more African American books are coming out, on and off ethnic imprints," says Calvin Reid, a black news editor at Publisher's Weekly. "It's fair to say that this is one of the only sectors of publishing that has had continued growth."

Despite the good news, some authors worry about the message they are sending by publishing under imprints aimed at specific communities. If Alice Walker, Amy Tan and Sandra Cisneros reached audiences with mainstream publishers, why the increase now in ethnic imprints?

"There's the conspiratorial part of me that thinks these imprints are just a way of ghettoizing black books and--when the market dips, as all markets must--to eliminate them," says Chris Jackson, a black editor at Random House. "I also think that the imprints allow white publishers to remain blissfully ignorant of the black and Latino markets, which seems to reinforce the general cultural myopia in publishing, which is one of its most stunning and frustrating aspects."

But he added that imprints are stocked with great editors like Janet Hill at Harlem Moon and Rene Alegria at Rayo. These imprint editors don't necessarily see themselves as just part of an ethnic enclave.

Stacey Barney, assistant editor at Amistad, says, "When we select our authors, we ask ourselves how this will speak to a mainstream audience. What's universal or unique about the story? We're not just looking for books that will speak to black people. How will this appeal to a cross-over audience? We want the whole package."

It's generally thought that ethnic imprints can help with marketing books aimed at people of color. So, for example, if you're writing a romance novel about black couples, it might work in your favor to sell the book to Dafina, an imprint of Kensington that publishes the bestsellers of romance novelist Mary B. Morrison. Publishing with them puts your book--or at least the title--on brochures and emails that reach readers who are searching for the new black romance novel.

Some authors, however, have reservations about the quality of books published with ethnic imprints. With commercial titles like Border Heat (Encanto, 2001) and The Pleasure Principle (Arabesque, 2004) dominating the imprint inventory, and (one presumes) the sales figures, many writers fear that we're perpetuating our own stereotypes.

Taigi Smith wanted to publish an anthology of thoughtful essays about romantic relationships between black men and women, but it was hard to imagine doing that with some of the imprints. "So many of those black imprints are just publishing bad fiction," Smith says. "I wanted to do a smart book, an intellectual book. I'm going to get in trouble for this, but I didn't want to do cheap literature."

So Smith took her book to Seal Press, a feminist imprint of Avalon Publishing Group, where it found a home alongside books by and about women. Her book, Sometimes Rhythm Sometimes Blues, was published this year.


Smith quickly adds that she thinks ethnic imprints can be a great "in" for writers of color who have historically been locked out of major publishing houses. And she voices a concern that others share: because ethnic imprints are targeted to writers and readers of color, they have been stigmatized as an easy ticket into publishing, which is not true.

"You can't just walk in and say, 'Hey, I'm black, here's my manuscript, give me a deal'," Smith says. "You still have to have a proposal. You still have to have an original story. You still have to have something that Simon & Schuster wants to put their money behind."

Selling Ethnicity and Literature

The biggest argument for ethnic imprints is that it can work in the author's favor to have a publisher who knows the market, what magazines to advertise the book in and what local bookstores to tap. That doesn't happen easily with publishers who don't focus on people of color.

"It's known in the industry that when a black book comes out on a mainstream publisher, it's like Publishing 101--the author's got to go back and explain how to sell these books," says Reid.

Even writers who avoid ethnic imprints often find that they have to think about ethnicity and race when marketing their books. Vickie Nam took her anthology, YELL-Oh Girls!, a collection of essays by Asian teenagers, to Quill, an imprint at HarperCollins that focuses on self-help and pop culture books. It released her anthology in 2001.

"I was hoping to write a book that would speak to teenage girls, and that could be found on the teenage nonfiction shelf," says Nam. But that's not where she found it. "I saw my book only in Women's Studies and Asian Studies sections. I started to wonder: Are Barnes and Noble and libraries going to be divided into Chinatowns and Little Italys? What happened to just reading a good book?"

Nam acknowledges that she had to teach her publisher how to reach her audience. "They knew how to get to mainstream audiences, but they had no idea how to reach my community."

Many say marketing is at the heart of why ethnic imprints are needed and on the rise.

"The idea is that for books targeted to a core African American audience, the black imprint will have a different media plan than a white imprint," says Jackson of Random House. "The black imprint will know to get the book to the black print, radio contacts who can get it to that core audience, as opposed to following the general publishing model that pushes NPR and the New York Times."

Reaching our communities, for many of us, remains our deepest motive for joining this industry in the first place. In my case, I wanted to participate in creating a more nuanced picture of the American Latino experience, one that I had personally lived and could relate to. And as an author, I can only hope there will be an audience out there to hear that message.

In the end, Lopez believes that imprints will have almost no impact on that process for either my or any other book.

"As a reader, you're looking for a good story when you go to the bookstore, and not the publisher who delivered that story," she says. "As a writer, you are looking to get published. Your agent is out there looking for publishers, hoping to sell to the highest bidder. But in a competitive publishing market, it all comes down to who says yes."

Michelle Herrera Mulligan is the co-editor of Border-Line Personalities: A New Generation of Latinas Dish on Sex, Sass, and Cultural Shifting (Rayo, 2004).
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Title Annotation:Culture
Author:Mulligan, Michelle Herrera
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Date:Sep 22, 2004
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