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My comments on white people writing People of Colour in these two posts has created a wee bit of consternation. This post is to clarify my position.
First of all: I am not the boss of who writes what. This is what I have decided for myself after much trial and error and listening and thinking and like that. Do what works for you.
I have decided to stick to white povs when I write a book from a single point of view. This does not mean will I no longer write PoC characters. There are people of different races and ethnicities in all my books. I have never written an all-white book. I doubt I ever will.
I didn’t make this decision because I was called out for writing PoC. Before Razorhurst all my main characters were PoC. The response has been overwhelmingly positive.
The decision has more to do with the way the debate about diversity in Young Adult literature plays out. Almost every time the overwhelming whiteness of YA is discussed a well-meaning white authors says, “I shall fix this. My next book will have a PoC protagonist!”
I cringe. All too often the white folks saying that don’t know many people who aren’t white. They rarely socialise with them. There’s a reason for that. As many as 75% of white people in the USA have entirely white social networks. I’m sure the numbers are similar in Australia.
That’s why I now largely recommend that white people with little experience of PoC don’t write from the point of view of PoC characters. Research will only take you so far.
Writing about PoC when none of your friends are PoC is not the same as writing about an historical period you weren’t alive for. If you perpetuate stereotypes you hurt living people. When you don’t know any PoC, even with the best research in the world, you’ll get things wrong. Stereotypes are harmful. Especially when you don’t realise you have written a stereotype.
Who are you going to get to read and critique your work if everyone in your social circle is white? Are you going to ask someone you don’t know very well? It’s a huge thing asking someone to critique your work. It takes a lot of work and if they don’t know you well how do they know that you’ll be receptive to them pointing out racism in your work?
We whites are notorious for freaking out when PoC so much as hint that something we did or said is racist. Many of us seem to think it’s worse to be called on our racism than it is for a PoC to experience racism. Even though being called racist can not kill us.
On top of all that I’m increasingly unconvinced that white people writing more people of colour solves anything. According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center this year whites wrote most of the YA books with African-Americans, American Indian, Asian Pacifics/Asian Pacific Americans and Latino main characters.
Representation is improving but it’s mostly whites doing the representing, which is part of the problem. We need more writers and editors and publicists and publishers and booksellers of colour. We need publishing to be more representative of the countries we live in. Right now US publishing is 89% white. Australian publishing is at least that white.
We white writers could do more to increase diversity in our industry by drawing attention to the work of writers of colour. By mentoring, introducing them to our agents, by blurbing their books, by making space for them at conventions and conferences, by listening. Check out Diversity in YA. Malinda Lo and Cindy Pon and the others involved with that organisation have lost of concrete ideas of how we can make YA more diverse and inclusive.
The other reason I’ve shifted to predominately white points of view is in response to all the critics who’ve pointed out for many, many years that too many white writers think they can only tackle race through the pov of a person of colour. The implication is that race is something white people don’t have. We just are. We’re colourless neutrals.
No, we’re not.
Expectations about our race—our whiteness—shapes our lives as much as our gender or our sexuality or our class. Yet all too many whites are unaware of it.
I wanted to write about how whiteness obscures our understandings of how we are who we are and of how the world operates. For the next few books, including Razorhurst, I’ve been pushing myself to examine whiteness in my fiction.
A recent book that does this well is All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely. The character written by Kiely has to confront the ways in which his whiteness makes him complicit in the racist violence inflicted on Jason Reynolds’ character and what he can do about it.
Overt racist violence is not at the centre of Razorhurst or My Sister Rosa or of the book I’m currently writing. I’m looking at the less overt ways in which whiteness shapes lives.
I fully expect many of the people who read these books won’t notice. That’s okay. Many readers didn’t notice that everyone in How To Ditch Your Fairy is a person of colour. Books do many different things. No one reader is going to notice them all and many readers are going to see things the writer didn’t intend. It’s how it goes.
In all my books I try to tell a story that engrosses readers and lets them forget the real world for a few hours. That my books do that for even a handful of readers is glorious.
TL;DR: I’m writing predominately white pov characters because of reasons listed above. You do as works best for you.
In 2006 when Twilight was published in the UK it looked like this. What were they thinking? This cover conveys nothing about Twilight. You’d never think it was an angsty romance between cranky teen girl, Bella, and perennial teenage virgin vampire, Edward.
This would be a great cover if it was about a terrifying three-metre tall alien takeover of a high school. Or as Jennifer Laughran suggested a tale of about an elven princess who joins the military. I would totally read either one of those books. But it does not match Twilight. Especially when you compare this cover to the US stark black with red apple in hands one, which perfectly captures the book.
You will be unsurprised to learn that Twilight tanked when it first came out in the UK. It only took off after rejacketing with the original US cover.
Jackets matter. OMG do they matter. They have to convey what the book is about, they have to make you want to pick up the book. If you read the book and it doesn’t resemble the cover—in a way that makes you feel lied to—you are likely to be cross.
A few years ago the wonderful Bennett Madison had a book out called September Girls, which is a gorgeous and weird poetic meditation on masculinity, femininity and misogyny. Yet look at the cover.
To me it screams summer romance. Possibly one that will tug at your heart strings, be a bit melancholy and wry. But definitely a romance. September Girls is not a romance. This is entirely the wrong cover.
A book that is published as a romance—as opposed to a book that is romantic or a love story—has to have a happy ever after ending and the romance has to be the A plot. The very centre of the novel. September Girls is not remotely a romance. It’s almost the opposite of a romance.
Some of the book’s first readers reacted badly to it. I’m convinced that part of that was because of the misleading jacket. (Though it didn’t put off the leading review journals who gave September Girls many much-deserved starred reviews.)
I am sympathetic to this reaction. I have read books that were billed as romances that did not have happy endings and I was most displeased. I read romances at least partly because of the surety of that happy ending. I often read them when I really need a happy ending. It feels like a punch in the stomach if I don’t get one. The cover lied to me! Unacceptable!
But there are other books where the cover doesn’t match the story and I’m not angry because it feels more surprising than a lie. For example, I find both Jenny Han and Sarah Dessen’s books to be more complicated and interesting than their breezy, summery covers led me to believe. But it felt like a bonus not a minus.
Why does this happen? Many people have input into the final jacket of a book. Not just the editor, but also sales and marketing, as well as the major accounts they’re trying to sell to. Some of those people won’t have read the book. That means they’re only looking at what they think will sell. It’s harder for them to judge whether the cover is a good match for the book.
The other factor is that many readers don’t seem to care. Publishers have seen books with misleading covers do really well. And as with Han and Dessen sometimes misleading is not a bad thing.
It’s incredibly hard to get the right cover. I celebrate every time my books get a cover that doesn’t make me cry. Which, I hasten to add, has been for most of my career. I’ve been very lucky. What covers do you think most successfully convey the book within?
By: Sharon Ledwith,
Honestly, if I knew that it would take over fifteen years to become a published author I would have thought long and hard about whether I should go down that road less traveled. But I did. And the truth is that you can’t buy this experience. You digest it. You absorb it. You bleed it. What I’ve learned in those fifteen plus years is worth more to me than any university degree I could ever earn. The skill of actually writing and crafting a book is such a process that it takes years to glean, and once completed no one can take that feeling of accomplishment away from you. NO. ONE. I’ve also learned that a writer must wear three different hats if he or she wants to succeed in this crazy writing business. Hat #1: Asks what I am skilled at doing? I imagine this hat like a hard hat you’d wear at a construction site. This is information that you and you alone must discern. Use your natural abilities or skills that will serve you in your writing business. Good at blogging? Do it! Great at sharing information to help others achieve their dreams as well as your own dreams? Go for it! We can’t be good at everything. We just can’t! Understanding where your skills lie will help you tremendously when you seek publication or if you decide to go it alone. Hat #2: Asks what do I enjoy doing? Yay! This is a fun hat! I imagine this hat looks like a jester’s cap with bells. Do what you love, love what you do. These are the tasks that you find rewarding. Plan a novel. Plan a whole book series. Write that first draft. Only you know what makes your heart beat faster and brings you joy, and once you figure that out then as cliché as this sounds, the world is your oyster.
Hat #3: Asks what can I uniquely contribute? This is a more serious hat for me—a fedora perhaps—business-like and serious. Do you want to write something of value to share with the world? Or just with family and friends? Will your books be useful (read: sell) in the marketplace? Do you have a business plan mapped out and ready to go to take your readers on fantastic journeys? In the end, it’s all up to you to determine what you can give, and how you want to go about doing it.
In dreams, hats represent the attitudes you show others most, your mental outlook, your various jobs, talents, personalities, and aspects of yourself. Hats reveal how you cover up or display what you really think or how you protect your ideas. So what kind of hats do you think you’d wear to succeed in the publishing business? Love to read your comments! Cheers!
Now, where did I put my jester’s cap…
. . . I finish a whole manuscript.
. . . I learn how to rewrite that whole manuscript.
. . . I get five/ten/fifteen/one hundred/etc rejection letters from real-life agents.
. . . I knuckle down and rewrite the book again. And again. And again. Etc.
. . . I get a request for the whole manuscript from a real-life agent.
. . . I get an agent.
. . . I get five rejections from publishers.
. . . I get ten rejections from publishers. (Would you believe twenty rejections? How about thirty? One hundred? One thousand? One million?)
. . . I start writing my second/third/fourth/fifth/etc book despite the fact that the first/second/third/fourth etc book hasn’t sold yet.
. . . I get an offer from a publisher.
. . . the deal is announced in Publishers Lunch.
. . . I get my first real editorial letter.
. . . I have my first hissy fit about my first editorial letter.
. . . I knuckle down and rewrite the book.
. . . I get my second real editorial letter.
. . . I have my second hissy fit about my second editorial letter.
. . . I knuckle down and rewrite the book. Again.
. . . (And repeat. Or not. Depending.)
. . . I get my first copyedit.
. . . I have my first hissy hit about my first copyedit. (Only robots speak without contractions! “Me and LJ” is how my character would say it NOT “LJ and I” because my character is not the FREAKING QUEEN OF FREAKING ENGLAND!)
. . . I get my first ARC (Advanced Readers Copy) of my very own book with my name on the front and EVERYTHING. Oh my Elvis! It’s real, people. Book by me! *faints*
. . . I get my first page proofs and am overwhelmed by the urge to completely rewrite everything and make the book, you know, ACTUALLY GOOD!! (Also notice that I use the word “actually” way too much and that is BY NO MEANS the only word I use WAY TOO MUCH. Wonder if I have also overused CAPS and italics and exclamation marks!!! Consider getting publisher to cancel book. Actually.)
. . . I get my first good review.
. . . I get my first bad review.
. . . I get my first meh review.
. . . I am enraged by an eleven year old who enjoyed my book but wished it was as good as [redacted]‘s bestselling piece of [redacted] about [redacted].
. . . I get my first box full of my own finished actually TRULY REALLY book what I have written MYSELF!!!
. . . I open said book on a page with a typo of “actualy” and the CAPS and italics in the wrong places.
. . . I realise that it is the last book in the entire world I wish to read.
. . . I go to my local bookshop and there is my book in a real actual book shop.
. . . I get a query from my publisher wondering where my next book is.
. . . I miss a deadline.
. . . I miss two/three/four/five/etc deadlines.
. . . I get my first query from Hollywood which goes nowhere.
. . . I am sent on tour to promote my book.
. . . I bitch and moan about being sent on tour to promote my book.
. . . I am not sent on tour.
. . . I bitch and moan about not being sent on tour to promote my book.
. . . I get my very first fan letter. Someone read and enjoyed my book enough to write to me! Best. Day. Ever.
. . . the fan letters I get make me cry because they are so moving.
. . . the fan letters I get make me cry because they are so illiterate.
. . . I get more fan letters than I could ever possibly answer.
. . . I become a New York Times bestseller.
. . . I am disappointed when my next book only reaches no. 8 on the New York Times bestseller list.
. . . I am not a New York Times bestseller.
. . . I think about killing those entitled bastards who whinge about their books only getting to no. 8 on the New York Times bestseller list.
. . . I quit my dayjob.
Last week I very much meant to respond to Sam X’s comment on my post about becoming a brand versus writing what you want to write but last week was crazy busy. Plus I soon realised my thoughts were many and it was going to have to be its own post.
Here’s part of what Sam X said:
Still, I think there is a bit of a complication in what you wrote. “…whether you’re writing for yourself or writing as your job: write the books you want to write.” Writing as your job does require at least a token thought to the story’s marketability, and perhaps some changes to the overall story you’re telling so as to buttress that marketability–in which case it’s not purely the invention of your imagination, but a combination of that and market concessions.
I don’t think that’s a bad thing, simply a factor that needs to be understood when critiquing stories. Yet it does take a little away from the romantic notion of simply writing what you want. But you’re a working writer: Maybe you can illuminate this for us?
What I didn’t make clear in that post was that I was largely addressing people who aren’t published yet. As it’s mostly amongst aspiring-to-be-published writers that I see these conversations taking place. I truly think it’s a total waste of time for any writer—published or not—to be worrying about whether they should concentrate on “being a brand” but it’s especially pointless for those who haven’t found their own voice and writing style. Before you’re published is the time to be experimenting and exploring and honing your craft and figuring out what kind of writer you are.
Once you’re published, yes, there are ways in which you do have to think about the market and whether what you’re writing is commercial or not. If you write a romance with an ending in which the hero and heroine do not get together no romance imprint is going to buy it. But maybe a non-genre fiction imprint will. There could still be an editor out there who adores your book. It’s just that what you’ve written is not a romance.
Which is to say that once you’ve written your book or proposal and it’s as good as it can be is when you and your agent should start thinking about who will be a good fit for it. If it goes out and no one bites then you start thinking about whether you can change it to make it more commercial. Maybe you can engineer it so heroine and hero get together at the end and thus find a home for it at a romance house.
When I say “commercial” I simply mean “will sell”. What is or isn’t commercial is not a static thing. When I was writing Liar, which has a deeply unreliable narrator, who keeps changing her story, and is, um, prickly and is a book that does not have a clear-cut ending I was convinced it was deeply uncommercial. I worried that my publishers were going to hate it and would end the contract and demand the advance back. To date it’s my bestselling novel. So what do I know?
Zombies versus Unicorns was done as a lark. I never thought it would sell as well as it did. Anthologies notoriously don’t sell well and are more a prestige kind of publishing project. I suspect the draw of Holly Black’s name had a lot to do with ZvU‘s success. Not to
In the much-discussed, so-called resurgence of contemporary realism there are several recurring themes. One of them is how wonderful it is that teens are finally being provided with books they can truly relate to, books that are “real.”
The mostly unstated corollary is that fantasy and science fiction and all those non-realism genres aren’t real and can’t be related to in that soul-searing, I-recognise-my-life way that contemporary realism provides. They are merely escapism.
I call bullshit on several different fronts:
Firstly, many readers do, in fact, relate to fantasy, science fiction etc.
They recognise themselves in the characters. They recognise the experiences and the emotions. Because no matter what genre, or where a book is set, or whether the characters are talking animals or alien creatures from a different planet, the stories are all about people, about us. If they weren’t we wouldn’t be able to make sense of them and we certainly wouldn’t enjoy them.
The most vivid, “real” depictions of my high school years I’ve ever read were in Holly Black’s Modern Faery Tale books, Tithe, Valiant and Ironside. Yes, as I read them I recognised my own teenage life. Holly captured the angst and depression and love and friendship I experienced back then more closely than any other books I’ve read, realist or fantasy. Those books feels so emotionally real that when I read them my teen years come flooding back and along with them tears, buckets of tears.
Secondly, what exactly is wrong with escapism?
I don’t know about you but I have zero interest in reading any novel, no matter it’s genre, that isn’t going to open a window onto a different world; a book that doesn’t give me a few hours away from my own life. Because even if a book is set where I live, with a character my race, class, and roughly my age—they’re still not me. Their life is still not my life. Reading about them is still an escape.
Thirdly, how exactly does contemporary realism not provide escapism?
I mean, come on, you can call it “realism” till the cows come home but most people’s lives do not fit into the arc of a novel with all the right beats, with no boring bits, and a climax that leads to the neat ending.
Novels have a structure; life doesn’t. Reading contemporary realism, or a memoir for that matter, is a total escape from most of our lives. When I was a teen books were a wonderful escape even when they were contemporary realism written by the likes of S. E. Hinton.
Fourthly, whose reality are we talking about?
Many of these acclaimed YA contemporary realist novels are set in all-white worlds, where everyone is heterosexual, and speaks English. My world is not all-white, not all-straight, and every day I hear languages other than English spoken.
In most of these YA contemporary realist novels people rarely have discussions about politics, or their favourite tv shows, or who to follow on twitter, or any of the things that most of the people living in my particular contemporary reality talk about every day. How is not writing about any of that realistic?
Way back when I was reading S. E. Hinton in Sydney, Australia, her books might as well have been science fiction. Nobody I knew talked like those teens or acted much like them either. It was a whole other world she was describing. I had no idea what a “greaser” or a “soc” was except from the context of the book. Yet I still loved those books. I still related. Much as I related to Pride and Prejudice, Go Tell it on the Mountain and The Nargun and the Stars. Three books that had almost nothing in common with my everyday life as a white teenager in Sydney, Australia.
I have nothing against contemporary realism. Why, I even wrote one and am currently writing another. But give me a break. They are no more “real” than any other genre. They’re fiction. They’re definitionally full of stuff we writers made up. That’s our job! It’s pretty insulting to writers of realist novels to imply that they’re just holding up a mirror and writing down what they see, that they have no imagination unlike those crazy writers of fantasy and science fiction. We’re all in the story telling business no matter what modes and genres we choose to tell particular stories.
Besides which sometimes dragons and vampires and zombies are as emotionally real as the supposed reality of those books that are classified as realism.
Trust me, readers can relate to dragons and vampires and zombies every bit as much as they can to teens with dysfunctional families. Shockingly such teens appear in both fantastical and realistic novels.
TL;DR: Your reality may not be other people’s reality. All stories, no matter their genre, are about people. People relate to other people even when they’re disguised as dragons. Contemporary realism does not have a monopoly on what is real. Nor do fantasy or science fiction or any other genre have a monopoly on imagination.
A few weeks back @bysshefields was being really smart on twitter about being a young adult excluded from conversations about Young Adult literature. This is something that has often annoyed me, that the go-to “experts” on the genre for the mainstream media are almost never young adults themselves, that we only rarely hear from the people at whom the category is purportedly aimed. I asked Bysshe if she would write a guest post on the subject for my blog and happily she said yes.
All the words below are hers:
My name is Bysshe and I’m a 19 year old aspiring author who lives in Brooklyn, NYC. I spend most of my time reading and writing.
Two different conversations led to my tweeting about the way YA voices are being ignored. I was talking to a friend (who is also a writer) about how no agent will want to take on my manuscript because it deviates too far from “the norm” (aka straight white girl protagonist being a badass and defeating the government). Both of us know that the audience for our stories is out there; if we and our group of friends, and THEIR groups of friends, and so on and so forth want to read about queer girls of color, then someone out there is lying about what’s actually popular in YA (particularly speculative fiction).
The second conversation occurred when my friend and I were discussing high school trauma, and how we felt that we couldn’t turn to YA because there weren’t representations of kids in our situations. Instead, we were reading books like The Godfather and Fight Club and who knows what other adult-marketed books because there was nothing heavy enough in YA to match how heavy we felt.
In what I’ve written below, I know there are misconceptions about how YA publishing works but I’ve left them in because I think they represent how little communication there is between those who market YA books and their audience. That also ties into what the idea that it’s harder to sell books about non-white/non-middle class/non-straight characters.
I truly, deeply don’t think it’s that they’re harder to sell, so much as people aren’t working as hard to sell them. Social media has taught me that the market is there. My own existence has taught me that the market is there. In my experience, the only people who truly think that diverse books might be harder to sell are people who wouldn’t buy them.
I’m certain that if Sherri L. Smith‘s Orleans got the same explosive blockbuster treatment as, say, Divergent, it would sell. Thinking that it wouldn’t is another example of young adults being underestimated because it suggests that we’re incapable of handling differences, which just isn’t true. I think that if publishers, or whoever’s in charge of properly exposing books, put the same effort into exposing diverse books, we would see a change in how they sell.
Young Adult is defined as the ages of 15 to 25. By this definition, I’m about four-ish years into young adulthood. So far, it feels like a lot of things. It’s stifling, frustrating, exhausting. Sometimes I feel like I won’t make it out of these years alive. As a young adult, a lot of my decisions have already been made for me (if not by an adult, then by circumstances that were generated under adult influences). What little freedom I have has been cut down almost to the point of nonexistence (again, if not directly by adults, then by systems that adults put in place long before I was born).
In spite of the release that reading is supposed to give me, I’ve noticed a trend in mainstream YA literature: it’s exactly the same as reality, in that I have close-to-no input with regards to what happens in it.
There are a lot of teams on the playing field of the YA lit scene. Out of everyone, I feel a lot like Frodo at the Council of Elrond as I struggle to assert my voice over the Big Folk who seem to think that only they know what’s best for Middle-earth.
Just like Middle-earth, the world has become an increasingly toxic place for people my age to navigate. And basically, the parameters for the books we turn to for empathy and escape are shaped and defined by people who have little to no idea what we’re going through; people who make laundry lists of what YA is/is not, or what YA does/does not need. People telling us what we can/can’t handle, what we are/are not ready for despite the amount of things we’ve already been through. As we write our own stories and seek publication, I’ve had my own friends go over YA parameters they disagreed with but feel the need to adhere to. They’re always something like this:
- No blatant sex, drugs, violence, or cursing.
- Nothing too complex.
- No adults.
- Stick to characters and themes that are easy to understand.
Otherwise, the book “won’t sell”. Won’t sell to whom?
I’d sure as hell buy something that went against each and every one of those points. You know how that list translates to me?
- Sex, violence, and so forth are not a part of adolescence.
- Young adults are unintelligent.
- Young adults have no adults in their lives.
- Young adults don’t have real problems—never mind the harsh and diverse realities of abuse, rape, deportation, international terrorism, identity crises, mental health, the trauma of high school, etc. Let’s dumb this down, then turn it into a blockbuster film series. The end.
Have the majority of editors in YA publishing houses ever actually spoken to a young adult? If you have, have you asked them what they needed to read? What they needed empathy for? Have you, as an adult, tried to think back on what you needed to hear when you were my age or younger? Because if yes to any of those, then it isn’t showing. None of the Big Folk seem to have ANY idea what I needed to read at the age of 16, and what I still need to read now at the age of 19.
When I was an even younger young adult than I am now, I needed to read about sex. I can already visualize a bunch of mainstream authors pulling on puppy faces and gesturing to copies of their novels: “But what about my—?”
Stop right there. As a young, queer girl of color, I needed—no, NEED to read about sex. Heroines of my race having sex in a way that isn’t hyper-sexualized. Heroines having sex that isn’t just romanticized rape. Heroines having sex with multiple partners over the course of a series, because the first-boyfriend-only-boyfriend model is a dangerous misconstruction of reality.
I wanted heroines who know that it’s okay to fall in love multiple times. Heroines who know that it’s okay to leave relationships. I wanted to read about queer kids having sex. Period. None of those fade-to-black sex scenes between straight characters have ever taught me anything about safe, healthy sexual relationships. Sure, I could go to Planned Parenthood for that, but that’s embarrassing and terrifying for a kid to have to do and I’d rather just access my bookshelf like I do for everything else.
You know what? Sixteen-year-old me wanted to read about sex because she wanted to read about sex. Period. Good portrayals of sex are something that sixteen-year-old me desperately needed, and that nineteen-year-old me desperately needs now. Good portrayals of sex help kids to learn the signs of abusive, coercive relationships. “But that’s too explicit” my ass. The virgin, white-girl heroine never taught me anything except that my version of adolescence was dirty and needed to be kept off the shelves.
I needed to see violence—not some sick gore fest or anything, but something that subverted the violence happening around me. I grew up in Detroit—America’s capital of violent crime and murder. If you know anything about Detroit, then you know it’s closer than any city in America to becoming a modern urban dystopia. And yet the only message I’ve managed to pull from half the dystopias on shelves is that “the government” is “after me”.
How is the government after me? Is it the devastating impact of capitalism on the working class? Is it the fucked up education system? The school-to-prison pipeline? The military industrial complex? The ever present hetero-patriarchy that many, YA writers, editors, and publishers included, are complicit in? Because after taking a long list of classes and reading a long list of essays, I’ve finally figured out that, yes, those are the problems. But somehow my books couldn’t tell me that. Interesting.
Surprisingly, I need to see adults. I’m really curious about this one. Why do adult writers of young adult books tend to write adults out of the picture? Or else portray them as flat, villainous characters?
Throughout high school, I had a very tumultuous relationship with my mother, and definitely needed to see people my age communicating effectively with their parents. After having endured many mentally and verbally abusive teachers, I learned to neither trust nor respect adults, but to fear them. Even though I was going to be an adult soon, I hated all of them and had no idea how to approach them.
Reading about abusive adults in YA lit hasn’t done anything to heal me from that. I definitely needed to see that it was possible for someone my age to have a connection with an adult that wasn’t full of miscommunications and didn’t border on abusive. At this point, I’d say that stereotyping adults as vapid villains does more harm than good.
More than anything, I need a spectrum of issues—a whole rainbow of characters and themes to match my identity, and the identities of the many people I know. This is probably more important to me than any of the above.
Adults in the publishing industry are currently responsible for the devastating and, frankly, embarrassing lack of diversity in the YA canon. Publishers and edits and basically everyone else who’s not writing what they see for a living, don’t seem to think we’re capable of handling a catalog of diverse narratives—which is complete and utter bullshit.
Don’t project your racist, sexist, transphobic, queerphobic, xenophobic, and otherwise marginalizing overview of reality onto my generation. Our realities encompass racial identity, gender identity, sexuality, religion, mental illness, disability, abusive relationships, poverty, immigration. The list goes on and on, and we need to see people with complex identities and narratives in our fiction.
We need to see people coping with racism. We need to see queer and trans people coming out of the closet. We need to see queer and trans people doing things OTHER than coming out of the closet. Seriously. There’s always been more to my life than queer angst. There is more to my queer life than the closet, than simply telling people that I’m queer.
We need to see queer kids breaking out of the established set of queer tropes. We need to see people ending unhealthy relationships and forming newer, healthy ones. We need to see all the issues that the Big Folk think they’re hiding from us because these issues are not exclusive to adults. These things are happening to us, too, and censoring in our fiction only makes us feel more alone. We need to see these things happening to people like us in the books that we’re supposed to be able to turn to. Even if the character’s problems aren’t solved, just knowing that someone with the same issues means the world to people who feel trapped in their lives.
I don’t think this is an issue with authorship. I don’t think this is an issue of editorship, either. To be honest, I’m not sure what type of issue it is. All I know is that I am very, very frustrated with the lack of complexity and diversity in the mainstream catalog of books for my age range. I think that there are plenty of authors I haven’t heard about writing just for me, but for one reason or another, I can’t access them.
Justine provided an excellent insight, which is that it isn’t that things aren’t being published, but because they’re not being promoted as heavily as the big books like Divergent. Or they’re being published by smaller publishers with a smaller reach. Or they’re not being published at all.
Is it that adult-operated publishing houses are telling adult writers what they should/shouldn’t be writing for the YA audience, without first consulting the audience itself? If so, this is blatantly disrespectful not only to authors, but to me, because a large portion of the industry that wants my support doesn’t respect my identity or my intelligence. I don’t know. All I know is that I’ve given wide berth to the young adult bookshelves while I sit back to write the series I’ve always wanted to read. If it weren’t for the fact that I eventually want to be published, I might’ve quit altogether.
But I don’t want to quit.
The books I’ve needed to read are out there. They’re just few and far in between. Orleans by Sherri L. Smith follows a young, black rape survivor navigating a hostile post-deluge New Orleans, where people are hunted for their blood. Coda by Emma Trevayne follows a diverse group of teens operating within a dystopia fuelled by music. Pointe by Brandy Colbert features a black girl protagonist with an eating disorder and deals with a multitude of heavy issues that teens in her situation might normally face. Last year’s If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan is a f/f love story set in Iran. The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf by Ambelin Kwaymullina features an Aboriginal Australian protagonist in a supernatural dystopian future. These books are all immensely important, but they’re under-marketed, and even then, they’re not enough.
YA lit is too important to be given up on, and instead needs to be worked on. Many of the criticisms of YA are baseless and frivolous, such as the notion that adults should be embarrassed to read YA because, according to Slate, it’s all “written for children.” Bullshit.
If after the age of 25, I can only read the Adult Literary Canon™ for the rest of my life, I may as well just sign out now. It’s easy enough to address all these problems: cut down on the Big Folk vs. Hobbit mentality. Publishers need to start treating their young adult audiences like growing, developing human beings, or else the industry runs the risk of ending up as dystopic as half the books on the shelves. Stop telling us what we need and ask us instead.
We are more than just a market. This should be a partnership.
By: Justine Larbalestier
Blog: Justine Larbalestier
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The year is practically over so here I am again with my annual recap of the year that was as well as a squiz at what’s gunna happen in 2015.
Books Out in 2014
This was my first year with a new solo novel since 2009. Five years in between solo novels! I was nervous but it seems to have gone quite well.
Razorhurst was published in July by Allen and Unwin in Australia and New Zealand. The reviews have been blush-making. Including being named a book of the week by the Sydney Morning Herald, of the month from Readings Books and making Readings’ top ten YA books of the year and top 50 books by Australian women in 2014 lists, as well being the Australian Independent Bookseller’s No. 1 Children’s Pick for July. Although Razorhurst isn’t out in the US until March it’s already received starred reviews from the School Library Journal as well as Kirkus.
Then, best of all, earlier this month I learned that Razorhurst has made the shortlist of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award (Young Adult), which is one of the biggest YA prizes in Australia.
So, yeah, I’m more than happy with how Razorhurst has been received. Pinching myself, in fact.
Books Out in 2015 and 2016
I will have three books out in 2015. Two novels and a short story in a wonderful new anthology.
In India this month my story, “Little Red Suit,” was published in Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean edited by Kirsty Murray, Payal Dhar and Anita Roy, but I’m going to pretend that’s 2015, as it will be published in Australia and New Zealand by Allen and Unwin in February. Isn’t that cover divine?
The anthology is an Indian-Australian collaboration with half the contributors from each country. Some of them worked in collaboration with each other to produce comics as well as short stories. I was partnered with Anita Roy and we critiqued each other’s stories. Hers is a corker. I can’t wait to see the finished book.
“Little Red Suit,” is a post-apocalyptic retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood.” Fairy tales were the first stories I ever told so it was lovely to return to the form. As I’ve mentioned, once or twice, I am not a natural short story writer. They are much more of a challenge for me than writing novels. So much so that I kind of want to turn this story into a novel. (Almost all of my short stories are secretly novels.) I hope you enjoy it.
In March Soho Teen will publish the US edition of Razorhurst. I am very excited and will be over there in the US doing events in California and New York and Texas and possibly some other states. I will keep you posted. Yes, the Soho Teen edition will be available in Canada too.
Then in October I’ll have a brand new novel out with Allen and Unwin.
Let’s pause for a moment to digest that: in October there will be a brand new Justine Larbalestier novel, only a year later than my last one.
I know, brand new novels two years in a row! I’ve become a writing machine!
The new novel hasn’t been formally announced yet so I can’t tell you much about it other than it’s realism set in New York City, told from the point of view of a seventeen-year old Australian boy named Che.
The new novel will be published in the USA by Soho Press in March 2016.
What I wrote in 2014
I spent this year writing and rewriting the new novel. As well as rewrites, copyedits and etc. of Razorhurst. My novels, they go through many drafts.
And, me being me, I started a brand new novel out of nowhere, inspired by . . . you know what, it’s still a tiny whisper of a novel. I’ll wait until there’s a bit more before I start talking about it in public.
Then just a week or so ago I got the idea for yet another novel. So who knows which of those I’ll wind up finishing this year.
I continued blogging and managed to blog roughly once a week for most of the year. The most fun I had blogging this year was doing the Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club with Kate Elliott. I was very bummed when deadlines and travel forced us to call it quits. Here’s hoping we can get it started again some time in 2015.
I plan to blog even more next year. Er, tomorrow. Blogging, I love you no matter out of fashion you are. *hugs blogging*
Writing Plans for 2015
Well, obviously, there’ll be more rewrites and copyedits and etc for the new novel.
Then I plan to finish one of the novels that came out of nowhere. After that, well, who knows? Will I finally get back to the New York Depression-era novel(s)? The snow-boarding werewolves? The fairy godmother middle grade? Or one of the many other novels I’ve been working on for ages? Or something else that comes out of nowhere? Given that my last three novels came out of nowhere that would be the safest bet.
All of this writing is possible because I’m still managing my RSI as I described here. I’m continuing to be able to write as much as six hours a day. The few times I’ve written longer than that I have paid for it. It’s good to know my limits.
Travel in 2014
I was in the US briefly in June and then again in Sept-Nov, accompanying Scott on his Afterworlds tour. It felt like we went everywhere. Both coasts! Or all three if you count Texas as the third coast. Also Canada. It went fabulously well. Scott’s fans turned out in great numbers and many book sold and I met heaps of wonderful librarians and booksellers and readers and writers and some of them had already read Razorhurst thanks to my wonderful publicist at Soho Press, Meredith Barnes. It will be fun to go out on the road again in March.
Reading and Watching in 2014
My favourite new writers are Brandy Colbert and Courtney Summers, who both write realist contemporary YA, which I’ve gotta be honest is not my thing. That’s why I read a tonne of it this year: to learn and to grow. Both Colbert and Summers are dark and uncompromising almost bleak writers. Their books made me weep buckets. But there’s heart and hope in their novels too. I’m really looking forward to more from both of them. Courtney’s next book, All the Rage, will be out in early 2015.
I also read heaps of non-fiction this year. A Chosen Exile by Allyson Hobbs is a wonderful history of passing in the USA, which centres those who chose not to pass as much as those who did, and looks closely at the reason for deciding either way and how they changed over time. African-American family life is at the centre of this excellent history.
One of my fave new TV shows is Faking It because it’s silly and funny and kind of reminds me of my high school days at an alternative school though, you know, more scripted. I also love Cara Fi created and written by a dear friend, Sarah Dollard, who is a mighty talent. It’s set in Wales and is sweet and funny and feminist and touching and you should all watch it.
2014 was awful but there’s always hope
Although 2014 was a wonderful year for me professionally it was an awful year in both of my home countries, Australia and the USA, and in way too many other parts of the world. I would love to say that I’m full of hope for change in the future. I try to be. The movement that has grown out of the protests in Ferguson is inspiring and should fill us all with optimism. But then it happens all over again.
In Australia we have a government actively undoing what little progress had been made on climate change and stripping money from all the important institutions such as the ABC, CSIRO and SBS. This is the most anti-science, anti-culture and, well, anti-people government we’ve ever had. The already disgraceful policy on asylum seekers has gotten even worse and Aboriginal Australians continue to die in custody.
Argh. Make it stop!
May you have a wonderful 2014 full of whatever you love best and may the world become less unjust. Speaking out and creating art that truly reflects the world we live in goes part of the way to doing that. At least that’s what I hope.
If you’re a man and you write a realist YA novel you’re more likely to win an award for it than a woman is.
Big claim I know.
Here’s some evidence about the awards side of the equation, an examination of most of the big awards in the Young Adult genre since 2000, compiled by Lady Business. They looked at not only US awards but the big Australian, Canadian and New Zealand awards too.
Here’s where I’m going by my own experience, i.e., yes, it’s anecdotal evidence. I believe the majority of authors published by mainstream YA publishers are women. Despite some—admittedly slapdash googling—What? I’m on a deadline—I don’t have the numbers to back that up. If you do have them please let me know and I’ll amend this paragraph. But I am pretty confident in asserting that YA is one of the most women-dominated genres there is.
Here’s why: I’ve been told by many organisers of YA conferences and conventions that they struggle to get enough male authors to take part. Every time I’m at one of those conferences there are way more women than men. When I look through catalogues and lists of forthcoming titles from publishers they seem to run around 75% female authors. Yes, that’s a guestimate.
So let’s say that more than 70% of YA is written by women that means men are way overrepresented when it comes to award time winning 42% of the time rather than the 30% which would line up with their actual representation.
We women writers of YA talk about this. We speculate about why it keeps happening. One of the reasons I’ve heard is that the givers of these awards are largely heterosexual women and they have crushes on the male authors and thus are more inclined to reward them. I think that’s total bullshit. Worse, it’s sexist bullshit.
Here’s what I think is going on. You’ll have to bear with me because it’s complicated.
First of all, we live in a sexist, misogynist world. Alas, awards are not given in a special sexism-free bubble. We have been taught from an early age that men are more important than women. There have been a tonne of studies—and if I wasn’t on a deadline and aware that I shouldn’t be writing this right now I’d link to some of them—that show that both men and women listen to men more than to women, that we value men more. That’s the culture we live in.
This permeates how we learn to read. Think back to picture books and those early primers. Now they’ve gotten a better over the years. But I have a two-year-old niece and, frankly, I’m shocked at how sexist many of these books are. Women are still predominately shown as parents and housewives and nurses and teachers and, well, you get the picture. I have to hunt to find books with girls and women shown as active and powerful as boys and men. Those books are out there, but wow are they lost in a sea of boys are everything. It correlates closely to what Geena Davis’s institute has found about movies and TVs. The majority of talking animals are still male.
From an early age we’re learning boys are more important and boys have adventures. Then when we start reading proper novels we learn over and over, up through high school and then into college/university, that books by men are considered to be better than books by women. Look at the reading lists for most high schools and universities. Pretty much anywhere in the English-speaking world. Boy book after boy book after boy book. Plus some Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf.
We’ve been taught that good books, on the whole, are written by men and that good books, on the whole, are about men. Is it any wonder that we carry those unconscious views with us into our reading lives? Into our award-giving lives?
I’ve been on juried awards and I know many people who’ve been on juried awards. I guarantee you we are not going onto them deciding to give awards to men, deciding that women don’t deserve awards. Everyone on a jury wants to give the award to the best book. But unconsciously we’re valuing stories about boys, stories by men, more than those about girls or women. Even when we’re damned sure we’re not doing that. Yes, I have done this. Yes, it’s insidious.
But that is not the whole story.
There’s more to what stories are valued than who the protag is. Most romances are told from the point of a woman, but also of a man. That’s right in the majority of mainstream romances the man is telling fifty per cent of the story. Yet romance is rarely valued. Both fantasy and science fiction frequently have male protags. But they’re not valued highly either. That’s born out in these awards. Look through the winners of any YA award—other than the ones specifically for fantasy/science fiction/romance—the majority are realist. The majority of the nominees are too. In my cursory glance through I couldn’t find a single winner that could even at a stretch be called a romance and only a handful that fit the bill of being a crime novel.
The only literary genre we are consistently taught to value during our formal education is realism i.e. Literature, which historically is a recent genre. Fantasy has been with us since we started telling stories. It’s by far the oldest kind of story we tell. But two centuries of realism dominating has left us consistently undervaluing fantasy and not considering it to be Literature.
Learning to read is hard. I’m watching my niece take her first steps in letter recognition. She’s able to recognise her written name about half the time. It’s tough. But that’s just the beginning. We’re also taught how to read stories and novels. As I’ve noted, what we’re overwhelmingly taught to read, once we leave children’s books behind, is realism. So that’s what most of us are best at reading.
I’ve heard reports from frustrated genre loving friends on juried awards where the other jurors literally did not know how to read the fantasy, science fiction, romances etc. The non-genre reader jurors saw a book with a dragon in it and instantly decided it was derivative rubbish. Read a book where someone’s learning magic and said “Well, isn’t that just Harry Potter all over again?” They wondered why books were marred by “inserting” vampires/ghosts/werewolves/etc into the story.
They did not have the reading skills to recognise the ways in which this particular dragon book, and this particular learning magic book, this particular vampire/ghost/werewolf book was doing something that had never been done in that genre before because they’d never read that genre before. They had no idea. All these book read the same to them. Ditto with romance. They could not see how that particular romance was basically reinventing the genre because they’d never read a romance before.
Pity the poor genre-literate juror. They do not struggle to grapple with realism. They know how to read it. Everyone knows how to read it. But they have to sit and watch every single genre book be discounted simply because the other jurors don’t have the skills to read them. It’s mightily frustrating.
Romance, of course, cops it worst of all. Love stories are silly girls’ business. YA romances by women do not make it on to award shortlists. I suspect the publishers don’t even bother submitting them for awards. What’s the point? They’re discounted before they’re even read.
There are other factors to do with reputation and who is perceived to write the same kinds of books over and over again and who isn’t. Not to mention how a woman writing a traumatic story from a girl’s point of view is perceived to not be stretching themselves as much as a man doing ditto. How funny books are not valued as much as serious books. Domestic stories are less important than stories about war and so on and so forth. How certain writing styles are closer to the styles of writing we were taught in university/college were good writing: no adverbs! “said” as the verb of utterance! Blah blah blah! Basically a funny, romantic, fantasy book by a woman has close to zero chance of winning an award.
There are, of course, many other things going on—I did say it was complicated, didn’t I?—but that’s all I’ve got time for now.
Disclaimer: I want to point out that I felt free to write this post as a women who writes YA precisely because my books have not been overlooked. They’ve been shortlisted for and won awards. I have no sour grapes. I’ve been very lucky. If I didn’t feel that way I would not have written this.
I don’t believe anyone’s story is more important than anyone else’s. I don’t believe any genre is more valuable than any other genre.
I keep seeing new writers in search of an agent get hung up on the fact that many agents don’t have much of an online presence.
Newsflash: an agent’s website is irrelevant to how good an agent they are. Some of the top agents in the business barely have an online presence at all.
Think about it for just a second: what is an agent’s website for exactly? It’s not for editors, i.e. the people agents sell to. Good agents already have relationships with editors at all the big houses and many of the little ones too. Editors don’t need to look up agents’ websites. The people who most frequently visit an agent’s site are writers looking for representation. And the good agents do not need to advertise for clients. Thus they do not need a good website.
My agent, Jill Grinberg, doesn’t blog and has a website that’s been under construction since 2006. Yet somehow she manages to be an extraordinarily good agent. I am very very happy and grateful to be with her. Trust me, Jill does not lack for clients.
Time and time again I see newbies comment about how if an agent doesn’t have an uptodate website they must be a crap agent who’s clearly still using messenger pigeons to communicate. So not true. The vast majority of my communication with Jill is done via email. I send her all my manuscripts as attachments. She is entirely in the 21st century. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t communicate with their agent in the same way.
When I see newbies saying they’re not going to submit to Jill because of her luddite ways I have to laugh. The only person they’re punishing is themselves.
I think what many many new writers searching for an agent don’t get is that new clients are not the majority of agents’ priority. Newbies are so focussed on the searching part that they sometimes don’t think about how what they want from agents will change when they actually get one.
When you have an agent you don’t care about their website or how clear their submission guidelines are or whether they take electronic submissions. You care about how fast they get back to you about your problems and how good the deals they make for you are. The stuff that was hugely important when you were looking for an agent disappears from view. You don’t think about it again.
The top priority of an agent is looking after their existing clients. When a new writer finds the perfect agent they’re going to be very grateful for that. They won’t be giving much thought to the state of their agent’s website.
Update: I am not saying agents should not have websites. Or that agents with websites are bad agents. Merely that the fact of having or not having a website is irrelevant to how good an agent they are.
I am also saying that what seems important when you’re looking for an agent won’t be once you have one.
In the last few weeks as people have started reading the US ARC of Liar they have also started asking why there is such a mismatch between how Micah describes herself and the cover image. Micah is black with nappy hair which she wears natural and short. As you can see that description does not match the US cover.
Many people have been asking me how I feel about the US cover, why I allowed such a cover to appear on a book of mine, and why I haven’t been speaking out about it.
Authors do not get final say on covers. Often they get no say at all.
As it happens I was consulted by Bloomsbury and let them know that I wanted a cover like the Australian cover, which I think is very true to the book.1 I was lucky that my Australian publisher, Allen & Unwin, agreed with my vision and that the wonderful Bruno Herfst came up with such a perfect cover image.
I never wanted a girl’s face on the cover. Micah’s identity is unstable. She spends the book telling different version of herself. I wanted readers to be free to imagine her as they wanted. I have always imagined her looking quite a bit like Alana Beard,2 which is why I was a bit offended by the reviewer, who in an otherwise lovely review, described Micah as ugly. She’s not!3
The US Liar cover went through many different versions. An early one, which I loved, had the word Liar written in human hair. Sales & Marketing did not think it would sell. Bloomsbury has had a lot of success with photos of girls on their covers and that’s what they wanted. Although not all of the early girl face covers were white, none showed girls who looked remotely like Micah.
I strongly objected to all of them. I lost.
I haven’t been speaking out publicly because to be the first person to do so would have been unprofessional. I have privately been campaigning for a different cover for the paperback. The response to the cover by those who haven’t read Liar has been overwhelmingly positive and I would have looked churlish if I started bagging it at every opportunity. I hoped that once people read Liar they would be as upset as I am with the cover. It would not have helped get the paperback changed if I was seen to be orchestrating that response. But now that this controversy has arisen I am much more optimistic about getting the cover changed. I am also starting to rethink what I want that cover to look like. I did want Bloomsbury to use the Australian cover, but I’m increasingly thinking that it’s important to have someone who looks like Micah on the front.
I want to make it clear that while I disagree with Bloomsbury about this cover I am otherwise very happy to be with them. They’ve given me space to write the books I want to write. My first book for them was a comic fairy book that crossed over into middle grade (How To Ditch Your Fairy). I followed that up with Liar, a dark psychological thriller that crosses over into adult. There are publishers who would freak. No one at Bloomsbury batted an eye. I have artistic freedom there, which is extraordinarily important to me. They are solidly behind my work and have promoted it at every level in ways I have never been promoted before.
Covers change how people read books
Liar is a book about a compulsive (possibly pathological) liar who is determined to stop lying but finds it much harder than she supposed. I worked very hard to make sure that the fundamentals of who Micah is were believable: that she’s a girl, that she’s a teenager, that she’s black, that she’s USian. One of the most upsetting impacts of the cover is that it’s led readers to question everything about Micah: If she doesn’t look anything like the girl on the cover maybe nothing she says is true. At which point the entire book, and all my hard work, crumbles.
No one in Australia has written to ask me if Micah is really black.
No one in Australia has said that they will not be buying Liar because “my teens would find the cover insulting.”
Both responses are heart breaking.
This cover did not happen in isolation.
Every year at every publishing house, intentionally and unintentionally, there are white-washed covers. Since I’ve told publishing friends how upset I am with my Liar cover, I have been hearing anecdotes from every single house about how hard it is to push through covers with people of colour on them. Editors have told me that their sales departments say black covers don’t sell. Sales reps have told me that many of their accounts won’t take books with black covers. Booksellers have told me that they can’t give away YAs with black covers. Authors have told me that their books with black covers are frequently not shelved in the same part of the library as other YA—they’re exiled to the Urban Fiction section—and many bookshops simply don’t stock them at all. How welcome is a black teen going to feel in the YA section when all the covers are white? Why would she pick up Liar when it has a cover that so explicitly excludes her?
The notion that “black books” don’t sell is pervasive at every level of publishing. Yet I have found few examples of books with a person of colour on the cover that have had the full weight of a publishing house behind them4 Until that happens more often we can’t know if it’s true that white people won’t buy books about people of colour. All we can say is that poorly publicised books with “black covers” don’t sell. The same is usually true of poorly publicised books with “white covers.”
Are the big publishing houses really only in the business of selling books to white people? That’s not a very sustainable model if true. Certainly the music industry has found that to be the case. Walk into a music store, online or offline, and compare the number of black faces you see on the covers there as opposed to what you see in most book stores. Doesn’t seem to effect white people buying music. The music industry stopped insisting on white washing decades ago. Talented artists like Fats Domino no longer needs Pat Boone to cover genius songs like “Ain’t That a Shame” in order to break into the white hit parade. (And ain’t that song title ironic?)
There is, in fact, a large audience for “black books” but they weren’t discovered until African American authors started self-publishing and selling their books on the subway and on the street and directly into schools. And, yet, the publishing industry still doesn’t seem to get it. Perhaps the whole “black books don’t sell” thing is a self-fulfilling prophecy?
I hope that the debate that’s arisen because of this cover will widen to encompass the whole industry. I hope it gets every publishing house thinking about how incredibly important representation is and that they are in a position to break down these assumptions. Publishing companies can make change. I really hope that the outrage the US cover of Liar has generated will go a long way to bringing an end to white washing covers. Maybe even to publishing and promoting more writers of color.
But never forget that publishers are in the business of making money. Consumers need to do what they can. When was the last time you bought a book with a person of colour on the front cover or asked your library to order one for you? If you were upset by the US cover of Liar go buy one right now. I’d like to recommend Coe Booth’s Kendra which is one of the best books I’ve read this year. Waiting on my to be read pile is Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger, which has been strongly recommended to me by many people.
Clearly we do not live in a post-racist society. But I’d like to think that the publishing world is better than those many anecdotes I’ve been hearing. But for that to happen, all of us—writers, editors, designers, sales reps, booksellers, reviewers, readers, and parents of readers—will have to do better.
Disclaimer: I am writing about YA publishing in the USA. Although I’m Australian I know much more about the publishing industry in the US than I do about Australia. Or anywhere else for that matter.
I know that the title of this post is going to lead to some comments insisting that it’s not true that white writers have any advantages and that many white people are just as oppressed as people of colour. I don’t want to have that conversation. So I’m going to oppress the white people who make those comments by deleting them. I don’t do it with any malice. I do it because I want to have a conversation about white privilege in publishing. We can have the discussion about class privilege and regional privilege and other kinds of privilege some other time. Those other privileges are very real. But I don’t want this discussion to turn into some kind of oppression Olympics.
Damned if You Do, Damned if You Don’t, Redux
There were some wonderful responses to my post attempting to debunk the “damned if you do/damned if you don’t” canard. But I got the impression that some people understood me as saying that it’s fine for white people to write about non-white people and that any criticism for doing so is no big deal. Writers get criticised for all sorts of different things. Whatcha gunna do?
I did not mean that at all. I’m very sorry that my sloppy writing led to such a misunderstanding. I think the criticism a white writer receives for writing characters who are a different race or ethnicity, especially by people of that race or ethnicity, is a very big deal. We white writers have to listen extremely carefully. Neesha Meminger wrote a whole post about why in which she talks about how hard it is for many non-white writers to get published:
I know how tiring it is to hear over and over from editors or agents (who are, in almost all cases, white) that they “just didn’t connect with,” or “just didn’t fall in love with” the characters of a mostly-multicultural book. And, while I know these can be standard industry responses to manuscripts, the fact of the matter is that white authors are getting published. White authors writing about PoC are getting published—sometimes to great acclaim—while authors of colour are still not (in any significant numbers).
Mayra Lazara Dole makes a similar point:
Many POC feel you are stealing their souls. We’ve never, ever had your same opportunities. As an africanam friend would say, “the times of white people painting their faces black in hollywood are over.” Why don’t you sit back and allow us to get our work published while you keep writing what you know until we catch up? Shouldn’t it be about equal opportunity? If so, please consider giving us a chance to make our mark (about 90 percent of all books are written by white authors).
Now before you get your back up and start spouting about how you have a right to write whatever you want. Neesha agrees:
So, to my white brothers and sisters: certainly, write your story. Populate it with a true reflection of the world you live in. Bring to life strong and powerful characters of all colours. Do so with the ferocity of an ally and the tenderness of family. But please don’t be so cavalier as to shrug and say, “I did my best, and frock you if you don’t like it—plenty of your people thought I did a great job.” Take the criticism in as well. After the urge to defend yourself has passed, pick through the feedback and see if there’s some learning there. Because the reality is that masses upon masses of “our people” have absorbed toxic levels of self-hatred from the images and messages (and *inaccurate representations*) that surround us. Many of us have learned to believe that we are less than, not worthy, undeserving—and are simply grateful to be allowed to exist among you without fear.
So does Mayra Lazara Dole:
On the other hand, having been born in a communist country with censorship, please, write what you want, but just know that even though you have every right to write whatever you wish, you’ll hurt some of us. Many POC’s won’t be as forgiving, but some will. To some POC’s it will feel as if you are stealing from them . . . Don’t you want POC to write our own books?
So do I. Hey, all my books so far have had non-white protags (follow the link for my reasons why). Neither Neesha nor Mayra want to censor white writers, they want us to be very careful of what we do, and they want us to own it.
That’s what I’ve tried to do, but I haven’t always succeeded. Writing, thinking beyond my privilege, these are things I struggle with every single day of my life. I was not standing here from on high saying, “Here’s how to do it.”1 I was saying, “Here’s what I’m wrestling with.”
What are the advantages that white writers writing about people of colour have that PoC writers don’t have?
First of all (assuming that you can actually write) your odds of getting published are better than theirs.2 No, I don’t have statistics to back me up, but I have a lot of anecdotal evidence. Of friends and acquaintances who were rejected by editors and agents who already had their one African or Asian author. If you’re the only brown writer on a list than you have to be a lot better than all the other brown writers competing for that one slot. The hurdles that many non-white writers have to jump to get published in the USA are higher than they are for white writers.3
Here’s another big advantage: If you, as a white writer, produce an excellent book about people who aren’t like you odds are high that your ability to do so will be seen as a sign of your virtuosity and writerly chops, which it is. However, non-white writers rarely get the same response, even though it’s just as hard for them. I say that not just because I think all good writing is hard to achieve, but because every time you write a nuanced character who isn’t white you’re writing against a long, long tradition of stereotyped characters in Western literature. That’s hard to do no matter what your skin colour. And if you’re a writer working within in a different writing tradition and trying to make it succeed within the English-language novel tradition you’re doing something even harder.
I want to make it clear that I’m not saying that we white writers should feel guilty about any of this. Guilt is a pointless emotion. White writers who’ve written about people of colour and won acclaim and awards don’t have to hand their prizes back. That would change nothing.
What I am saying is that we need to be aware of our privilege and listen to criticism and act upon it. We need to do what we can to change things. The more novels with a diversity of characters that are published and succeed in the marketplace the more space there will be. The more people who can find themselves in books, the more readers we’ll all have, and the more opportunities there’ll be for writers from every background. Of course, it’s not just the writers who need to be more diverse, but everyone in publishing, from the interns to agents to the folks in sales, marketing, publicity, and editorial, to the distributors and booksellers.
There are many wonderful books by writers of colour. Read them, talk about them, buy them for your friends. Point them out to your editors and agents. Be part of changing the culture and making space for lots of different voices. The problem is not so much what white people write; it’s that so few other voices are heard. If the publishing industry were representative of the population at large we wouldn’t need to have this conversation.
When I was a brand new about-to-have-my-first-book-published baby author I freaked out entirely about blurbs. I was sure I needed them. Or rather my brand new baby book needed them. I panicked and decided I needed to ask every single published writer friend I knew. But then when it came to actually asking them I froze. It was so icky and embarrassing.
“Hello, oh lovely writer friend of mine, so, um, I know we’ve known each other for years and, um, gotten drunk together, even though getting drunk is wrong and neither of us plans to ever do it again, and, um, where was I? Did you hear about them Sparks? Suck, don’t they? Er, why did I phone you? No reason. I was just thinking about you . . . ”
So after several conversations like that I finally screwed up the courage to ask Karen Joy Fowler, who I knew had actually read and liked Magic or Madness and she blurbed it. At the time her wonderful novel, Jane Austen Book Club, was everywhere. Also Karen is not only a dear friend but one of my favourite writers so I was over the moon. The book was published with her blurb on the back.
To this day I’ve never heard anyone tell me they picked up my book because of Karen’s blurb. The paperback went out with a quote from Holly Black on the front. And ditto. No one has ever told me they picked up one of my books because of a blurb.
Here are the reasons people have given for picking up one of my books:
Their sibling or best friend told them they had to read it.
Their librarian or teacher recommended it.
- They liked the cover.
- They read about it on Boing Boing or Whatever.
- It was the only book around.
- It was on their course list so they had to read it.
The only time blurbs have been mentioned to me was when a sweet girl wrote to thank me for blurbing Cassandra Clare’s City of Bones. She told me it’s now her favourite book on the planet and she only picked it up because of my blurb.1
There are some blurbs that make a difference. If Stephenie Meyer or Stephen King or J. K. Rowling loves your book and wants to tell the world about it that is a Very Good Thing. But I’m unconvinced that there are many other writers who have that kind of clout. Not in book blurb form though there are plenty who have the ability to move a book when they mention it on their blog.
If you’re a brand new writer and you’re freaking out about blurbs, and you don’t know any published writers, or you do and are too embarrassed to ask, I think you can relax. Scott’s biggest selling book, Uglies, went out into the world unadorned with blurbs and several gazillion copies sold later it continues to sell.
Plenty of books sell great without blurbs.
If you have the time, energy, or inclination, go after blurbs from famous authors but it truly won’t make much difference if you don’t get them. Don’t sweat it. I really wish someone had sat me down way back then and told me to calm down. Would have been a big weight off. I honestly thought blurbs were one of the most important aspects of getting people to pick up a book. Even though I had pretty much never bought a book because of a blurb myself.
My latest book, Liar is my first book without any blurbs on it. And I gotta tell you it was a huge relief not having to ask people to blurb it. Even after five books I still find doing so excruciating. I really hope I never have to do so again.
Blurbs schlurbs! Worry about your next book. It’s far more important to your writing career than any blurb is.
Hmmm, best I can back to doing that myself . . .
This year I’ve been getting more and more people asking about ebook editions of my novels. This is my general response to that query.
First of all: you’re asking the wrong person. My publishers are in charge of the electronic rights to my novels. If you’re curious John Scalzi has more to say on this question. If you’re desperate for ebooks of my stuff bug my publishers, not me. That will be much more effective.
But here’s what I know: Penguin has made electronic editions of Magic Lessons and Magic’s Child available. But for some reason not the first book in that trilogy, Magic or Madness. Apparently they’re working on it. That’s all I know.
Bloomsbury, who publish How To Ditch Your Fairy and Liar, are also working on making them available as ebooks. Possibly it will happen by the end of this year. Again that’s all I know.
I suspect one of the big reasons that my books are not available is that very few teens are reading ebooks and they are the biggest part of my audience. (Bless you all!)
There’s also the fact that those who have converted to ebooks are still a very small part of the market. Tiny even. So there’s no great urgency for my publishers to make my books available. It’s a very new thing for them. Many of the big publishers are still figuring out their approach to ebooks, especially YA and children’s publishers. I’m sure in the next few years, as the ebook market expands, all of my books, and everyone else’s, will be available as a matter of course. But we are just at the beginning of the ebook revolution.
And there you have it: bug them, not me.
The most discussed aspect of a book, other than whether it’s any good, is its cover. But looking around online and off- at gazillions of different cover discussions the cover’s main function is sometimes forgotten. Thus I’ve decided to devote today’s post to talking about what a cover is and how they’re made.
When a publisher buys a book one of the first things they start thinking about is how to sell it. Who is its ideal audience? How can they position the book so those readers will find it? How can they position it so they expand beyond those readers? These discussions quickly wind up with ideas for the cover. That’s because the most important function of a book cover is
To sell the book.
That’s right, folks, a book cover is an advertisement. Typically, ads don’t go after the existing customers, they go after new ones. A cover that’s totally true to the book might make the author’s heart go pitter pat and please mad-keen fans, but if it works only for author and hard-core fans, it is not a successful cover.1 A successful cover calls out to people who’ve never heard of the book or the author and says, “Pick me up! Read me! Buy me!”
A successful cover expands your audience. Other than word of mouth, the cover is the most important factor in selling a book. Often it is the biggest and best, or even, only advertisement for the book.
Uglies is Scott’s most successful series. The first book in the series, Uglies, was an original paperback that went out into the world with little fanfare. But, wow, did that cover attract a lot of attention. Scott has had countless letters from fans telling him that they picked the book up because of the cover. That it called to them from across many aisles. That cover is a huge part of why Uglies did so well.2
How is a cover made at the big publishing houses?
Typically3 the first step is for editorial to put together a cover brief and send it to the art department. A cover brief is a description of what they’d like the cover to look like and/or the element of the book they’d like to see reflected in the cover.
The artists who design the covers tend not to read the books they’re working on because they don’t have time. They’re working on so many books in a year and their deadlines are so tight they barely have time to read the cover brief. On top of that sometimes the book they’re working on hasn’t been written yet. (Or, at least, not finished.)
Next a series of rough ideas are sent back to editorial. There is discussion and one or more direction is pursued. Then editorial okays one and the art department completes it. Sometimes editorial changes its mind and sends art in another direction. Once editorial likes the cover it’s sent to sales and marketing to be approved. Sometimes it isn’t and the process has to start over. The next important approval comes from the big accounts, the stores that order the books. Sometimes if they don’t like a cover it gets redesigned.
Something else to remember: all of this starts a long time before the book comes out because—have I mentioned this already?—the cover is the single most important part of advertising the book. Sometimes the book isn’t even finished and the cover is. The cover of Magic’s Child was completed before the first draft of the book was, which was weird, though it gave me time to add more butterflies to the text.
Another important consideration that you can’t actually do anything about is how the book will look when it’s in the bookstores. I.e. will the cover pop. You can design the most gorgeous eye-catching cover in the world in luscious golds and browns and rusts and then have it disappear on the new releases table because guess what? Every book that season is a
There’s a wonderful project out in the blogosphere to sing the praises of YA that has flown below the radar and not gotten the attention of, say, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Books, Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, or my own Scott’s Uglies books. I think it’s a wonderful idea. All hail Kelly for coming up with it.
I was unfamiliar with about half of the books recommended on these unsung lists, which to me means the lists are doing their job.1 Many of the book descriptions sound irresistable. So my list of books to read just expanded. Again. To which I can only say, excellent!
Some of the comments about these lists, however, got me thinking on the differences between how authors and readers think about success. Some folks wondered if such & such a book counted as unsung because it had won an award or because the author’s other books are so popular. We authors tend to measure our books’ popularity in terms of sales. We know what our sales are because once every six months (typically) we get royalty statements. Thus we know all too well how little impact most awards have on sales. This makes us painfully aware of which of our books has sold the least. So, yes, we think books can be unsung even if they’ve won awards, been critically acclaimed, and all our other books are the bestsellingest books in the universe.2
Those outside the industry don’t have access to sales figures, so they’re mostly judging popularity by how often they hear about a book, by how big the piles of it are in a bookshop, and in this case by how many people have it on LibraryThing. Before I became part of this crazy industry, I paid zero attention to bestseller lists. The only way I knew if a book was bestselling was if that fact was trumpeted on the front of the book. I guess I would have assumed that Stephen King and Colleen McCullough were bestsellers, but I didn’t really know for sure.
It’s amazing how different my relationship to books is now that I’m an author. These days I keep an eye on the big bestseller lists, which is why I was suprised to see Lisa McMann’s Wake listed as unsung. It’s a NYT bestseller. But I suspect the only people who consciously track whether a book is a bestseller or not are the authors and the people in publishing.
The other thing I noticed were comments about how hyped a book was. One book I’ve seen talked about as overhyped I happen to know has been selling poorly. The correlation between being talked about online and sales is not one to one. Not even close. Some bestsellers seem to barely get a mention online, some poor sellers are talked about all over the internets. I’ve seen Liar described as a bestseller because of all the online talk. It’s not. Trust me, if Liar were a bestseller or even close to being one, I would know.
We authors have a very different relationship to our books than readers do. Which is why some of us have had odd reactions to being called unsung or sung. For example, when I saw that How To Ditch Your Fairy was on an unsung YA list my first reaction went pretty much like this: “Unsung! HTDYF’s my bestselling book so far!3 It sold more in six months than Magic or Madness sold in hardcover in almost five years!” I know that compared to actual bestselling books HTDYF’s sales are as a grain of sand, but for me they’re large and happy making.
My second reaction was to be dead pleased that the blogger in question had such lovely things to say about HTDYF, which, while it has sold better than my other books has had the least positive critical attention.4 Poor lamb. *pets How to Ditch Your Fairy* Though, truly she’d rather h
Most of you will know that Amazon has stopped selling books by Macmillan authors. (If you don’t know about it read Scott’s take.) John Scalzi has just called for people to support the affected authors:1
So rather than focus on what should happen to Amazon or Macmillan, here’s an idea, and here’s my point: let’s us focus on the writers, who are getting kinda screwed here. None of this is their fault, it has nothing to do with them, and they don’t deserve to lose sales and their livelihood while this thing goes down. If you want to make a statement here, don’t make it against a corporation, who isn’t listening anyway. Make it for someone, and someone who will appreciate the support.
Support the authors affected. Buy their books.
What Scalzi said.
To find out which authors are affected go to the Macmillan site. They have several imprints publishing YA and childrens books, such as FSG, Feiwell & Friends, and Henry Holt.
It’s always a good time to buy a book, but maybe now’s an even better time than usual.2 I know I’m going to.
Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much in February. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.
Today we have an editor, Alvina Ling, who’s more than happy to take your questions about her job of editing. Remember, that she’s writing specifically about what it’s like to work in publishing in the USA. The job of editing is different in different countries. I’m hoping to be able to bring you a post by some Australian editors to give you a sense of some of those differences. Enjoy today’s wonderfully informative post.
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Alvina Ling is a Senior Editor at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers where she has worked for over ten years. She has also been a bookseller for Barnes and Noble, and interned at the Horn Book and in the children’s room of the New York Public Library. She edits children’s books for all ages, from picture books to young adult novels, with some nonfiction mixed in. Some of the books she has edited include Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin; Wabi Sabi by Mark Reibstein, illustrated by Ed Young; The Curious Garden by Peter Brown; Eggs by Jerry Spinelli, North of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headley, Geektastic by Holly Black and Cecil Castellucci, and the upcoming Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey (April). She can be found at her blogs bluerosegirls and bloomabilities as well as her twitter feed.
My job as a children’s book editor
Hi all! I’m honored to be a guest blogger here. Justine has asked me to give you folks an idea of what the job of a children’s book editor entails. Warning: this is not going to be a short post. But I do hope it will be an informative one.
I’d say the job of a children’s book editor consists mainly of:
Emailing, project management, acquisition of book projects, meetings, preparing for meetings, cheerleading, reading, selling, networking, juggling, negotiating, more emailing. Oh yeah—and editing.
Basically, the role of an editor in terms of the publishing process is that of a project manager, with books being the “project.” Publishers generally publish their books according to lists. Little, Brown has two lists a year: Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter. I generally handle five to eight titles per list, or ten to sixteen per year. As the editor, I’m involved every step of the way. I also think of the editor as being a juggler—we have to keep multiple projects moving at the same time. And if you imagine juggling objects that change each time they reach your hands, that’s kind of what the publishing process is like. For example, we review a first draft of a manuscript, and then a second, and then a third, and eventually a final draft. Then it goes to copyediting where it changes again. Then it goes to Design and Production and it changes again. I review each stage of the project until we end up with the final book, working closely with copyediting, design, and production. My duties also include things such as writing catalog and jacket copy, presenting my books at Sales meetings, coordinating with marketing and publicity, and in general just being the go-to person for my titles.
Right now, I’m working on editing the novels on my Spring/Summer 2011 list, while at the same time reviewing 1st-pass pages (this is when the book is designed and typeset so it looks like the finished book will look like) of novels on my Fall/Winter 2010 list. I’m also reviewing color proof of my Fall/Winter 2010 picture
Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much in February. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.
Today’s guest bloggers are two Allen & Unwin editors. Allen & Unwin publish me in my home country1 and I think they are absolutely wonderful. One of the two editors might even be my editor there. They are based in Melbourne2 and have generously said that they’re happy to take questions. You could ask them what a design brief is for instance. For contrast I recommend you also read USian editor, Alvina Ling’s post and the comments, to get a sense of the different approaches to editing childrens & YA books in the two countries. Keep in mind that Alvina works for a very big US publisher, Little, Brown. Allen & Unwin is a much smaller operation.3
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The Alien Onions say:
Every day is different at the House of Onion. Different, yet the same. Every day is all about the business of editing, publishing and championing fabulous books for children and teenagers. Books we are very proud to publish. Including the extremely funny How to Ditch Your Fairy and the incredibly brilliant Liar.
The process of taking a book from manuscript to wonderful shiny new book on the shelf has many stages. In order to demystify this process somewhat, we have been posting an occasional series on our blog Alien Onion entitled What do Editors Do All Day. We have tried to accommodate those who thrive on visual learning as well as those who have a preference for text-based information acquisition.
So far our series has covered copy-editing and structural editing. Stay tuned for future entries on design briefing, blurb writing, correction checking and cake eating.
Today for our guest post on Justine’s blog we are providing a different kind of insight into life at the House of Onion. A sneak peek into the days of two of the Alien Onions whose roles in the House are different, yet the same.
ANY GIVEN FRIDAY at the HOUSE OF ONION
7.45: Leave house, walk to tramstop reading excellent MS4 on iPhone.
7.47: Narrowly avoid lamppost.
7.50-8.00: Wait for tram. Spy on reading material of stylish lady waiting nearby. Spy on shoes of stylish lady waiting nearby.
8.01: Hop on tram, find seat (miracle!), continue reading MS.
8.20: Arrive at work. Discover work keys not in bag. Chastise self.
8.21-8.55: Sit on front step and read excellent MS on iPhone until colleague arrives with keys. Praise iPhone and colleague. Praise MS to colleague.
8.56-9.09: Read excellent MS on iPhone while waiting for computer to boot up.
9.10: Receive coffee delivery from tall designer. Praise tall designer.
9.11-11.00: Copyedit, Copyedit, copyedit.5
11.03: Congratulate self on being excellent and efficient copyeditor.
11.05: Ask for opinion from coll
There’s a lot of shockingly bad advice about how to get published online. Much of it comes from unpublished people who know nothing about the publishing industry and are bitter about their own inability to get published.1 But some of it is from actual published writers with careers, who have a bug up their arse about the evil of agents, or small presses, or big presses, or whatever, because of a particularly bad experience they’ve had. Or who are coming out of one genre and acting like their advice applies to all genres.2
Then I read this very sensible piece by Jay Lake, which solidified for me something I’ve been trying to say for awhile now, which basically goes like this: before you take someone’s advice pay careful attention to where that person is coming from. Are they qualified to be giving this particular advice?
Now, it’s pretty obvious that if you wish to be published taking advice from some who has never been published is usually not wise. But Jay’s bigger advice is that often taking the advice of someone with a thriving career is also not wise because too many times what they can tell you is how they broke into the field. Problem is that happened ten, fifteen, twenty, thirty, forty years ago and the field has changed since then.
So that when an established writer tells you that you don’t need an agent to get published they’re not lying. Back in the day when they were first published you didn’t. They’re also not lying when they say they continue to be published without an agent. But they’re neglecting to mention that that’s because they are known by those publishers. Someone looking to sell their first novel is not and given that so many of the big publishing houses are closed to submissions an agent is usually a first-time author’s best bet for getting published at a big house.
Any advice I give about getting published has to be taken with a large grain of salt by anyone who isn’t trying to break in to YA in the US. I have no idea how to get published in Australia—even though I’m Australian. I wasn’t published there until after I sold in the US. I still know far more about publishing in the US than I do about my own country. Nor do I know much about any market in the world except YA in the USA. If you’re trying to break into Romance or Crime or Literachure I’m useless to you.
That said, I’m probably not the most useful person to you for breaking into YA in the US either. I know about half a dozen agents well. There are way more reputable ones than that. I follow all the publishing news, far more than most YA writers, but I still don’t know that much about what goes on in those publishing houses and what all the editors are looking for. I know many editors, but I’ve only worked with a handful. You only really know an editor well when you’ve worked with them.
I know I said above that you shouldn’t be taking an unpublished person’s advice, but there are some great blogs by such writers detailing the process of trying to get published, which have very sensible things to say about query letters and the nuts and bolts of submitting to various different publishers when you don’t have an agent. All stuff that I know very little about. I have not written a query letter in a decade. Someone who’s actively trying to get published right now knows way more about query letters than I do.
I can talk about what it’s llike being a journeyman YA author. I can give you an author’s view on how you get published in more than one country and a variety of other topics that have to do with being a YA author with five novels under her belt. But take what I say about breaking into this field with a grain of salt. For that you’ll get better advice from agents and editors and bra
Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much for awhile. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.
I do not know Bernice McFadden, but when she wrote to me about possibly doing an exchange of blog posts, I decided to invite her to guest post here because I have been hearing wonderful things about Sugar for years, and because her story is both unique and very common. Many starry-eyed wannabe and debut authors seem to imagine that all you have to do is get your first novel published and then rose petals will descend from on high and you will llive the glorious life of an author forever. Sadly, not so much. Even if you manage to write and publish a second novel (which most first novelists don’t) there’s no guarantee of a career. Even if your books receive great critical acclaim and are bestsellers—nothing is guaranteed. Publishing is a fickle, cruel and deeply unfair business as the wonderful post below amply illustrates. Fortunately, this story has a happy ending.
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Bernice L. McFadden is the national bestselling author of six award wining, and critically acclaimed novels. The classic Sugar is celebrating its 10th anniversary in print. When it was first published in 2000, Sugar was hailed by Terry McMillan as “One of the most thought provoking novels I’ve read in years.” Nobel Laureate, Toni Morrison, called her sophomore release, The Warmest December, “Searing and expertly imagined.” Her sixth novel, Nowhere is a Place, was chosen by The Washington Post as one of The Best Books of 2006. McFadden has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, twice short-listed for the Hurston/Wright Literary Award and is a two-time recipient of the Fiction Honor Award from the BCALA. She lives in Brooklyn with her daughter R’yane Azsa where she is at work on her next novel.
This mystical, magical life of mine began on September 26th, 1965 in Brooklyn, New York and then it began again exactly two years later to the day on a stretch of highway between Michigan and Ohio. It was there in that I was involved in a near fatal car accident. I always cite the day as a turning point in my life. I was on the brink of death, teetering on that invisible line that separates the here and the hereafter, floating in that white light our ancestors inhabit. I believe that during that ethereal moment I was given an assignment, a purpose—a gift—and then sent back.
For me the process of writing is similar to channeling—I am not only of the story, but often find myself in the story experiencing it—even if only from the sidelines.
I won’t deny that some part of what I write comes from my own imagination, but I do feel that at least 80 percent of what I pen is being shared with me by people who have been dead and buried for years.
Many of my previous novels have historical references, but Glorious is the first, purely authentic historical novel I’ve written. I so enjoyed the feeling of fulfillment that I experienced creating a story that bore witness to history, that I have started another one, entitled Gathering of Waters.
For me, a great story provokes the heart of the reader, causing them to question what they thought they knew, and/or how they thought they felt about a certain place and/or people. I believe that Glorious does just that.
While all of my books hold a special place in my heart, I have a special relationship with this, my newest novel, for on reason in particular. The road Glorious
The discussion in the fanfic post got me thinking about the differences between writing to make a living, as I do, and writing solely for fun.
Many people in that thread talked about how writing fanfic was a learning experience that prepared them for becoming a professional writer. And there’s no doubt that that’s how fanfic has worked for many pros. However, the vast majority of writers of fanfic not only don’t become pros, they have no desire to do so. They write fanfic for a variety of reasons: fun, community, because writing is something they can’t not do and so on—they don’t do it as some kind of apprenticeship for becoming a “real” writer.
I know professional writers who also write fanfiction. So clearly it’s fulfilling a need that their paid writing isn’t. I also do a lot of unpaid writing. You’re reading some of it right now. Often I enjoy writing posts here more than writing novels.
Or, rather, I have a much less stressful relationship to this writing than I do to my novel writing because there’s not much riding on this blog, whereas my ability to pay my rent, buy food, stay in the profession that I love is tied up in the novels I write. Sometimes it takes awhile to push that stuff aside and just write. For me blogging is a relaxation; writing novels is an economic necessity.
Which is not to say that it can’t be fun. It can. I wouldn’t swap my job for any other job in the world. I love it. But it’s still my job and comes with all the stresses that any job has, including anxiety about losing said job.
Not everyone who spends a lot of time writing wants to be a professional writer. Frankly, I think that’s sensible. It’s very hard to make a living as a professional writer. Even if you do manage it’s just as hard to make it a sustainable career. I know lots of writers who’ve been able to support themselves for a year or two or four or ten but then demand for their work dwindle, fashion in the publishing world changes. In the 80s horror was huge, now not so much. YA’s big right now but who knows were it will be in ten years. Romance is pretty much always the biggest selling genre and yet it has the lowest advances. I know of romance writers with multiple bestselling books who only get around 20k per book.
The majority of pro novelists, who are making a living, write a book a year. Many write two or three or four a year. For many writers that’s an impossible pace to sustain and it can suck the fun right out of the writing. There are lots of reasons for not making writing your main profession. Most of the published writers I know are not full-time. Many of them claim to be happier that way.
When writing becomes your full time job it completely changes your relationship to writing. It becomes a business. You can’t wait for your muse to show up. You have to force it when you’re not in the mood. You have to meet deadlines. You have to think about whether there’s a market for what you want to write. You can’t just write whatever you feel like unless you happen to be lucky enough to have a market for what you feel like writing.
In which case you’re probably Nora Roberts. Lucky duck!
Recent events have gotten me thinking once again on why I feel so strongly that authors should never respond to bad reviews. I think I’ve previously talked about it in terms of politeness, and of not looking bad, stuff like that.
But what I think I really mean is that most authors have more power than the reviewer. Often reviewers aren’t as well known as the person they’re reviewing. So when the disgruntled writer says, “What about my rights? Why can’t I respond?” The answer is that you can. But what will it gain you? Besides you already have a reply to your critics: your books. Your last book, your current book, your future books.
Why does an established writer with an army of books feel the need to go after a critic who happens to not like their latest book? They have a much bigger audience than that critic does. Many more people will read the book in question than the bad review. It’s madness.
Even when the author is brand new and has only one book what will they achieve by going after a critic? They’ll make themselves look small and petty minded and incapable of taking criticism. If you’re irked by a bad review respond by making your next book even better.
I have yet to see anything good come out of an author turning on a specific critic.
My last post generated quite a bit of discussion. Some people seem to be under the impression that I was saying authors shouldn’t reply to any reviews at all. In my capacity as lord god of the internets1 I only forbid responding to negative reviews or reviews the author perceives as negative.2 I have yet to see an author respond to a bad review in any way that didn’t make them look like a petty loser. Responding to positive reviews is a whole other thing and as Diana Peterfreund points out can lead to very interesting discussions.
Though I have seen authors respond to positive reviews in comment threads and unintentionally shut the conversation down because everyone panicked on realising that the author was watching. That’s why I no longer drop in to thank a blogger for a positive review. But I definitely don’t think it’s a terrible thing.
Walter Jon Williams talkde about how annoying some online amateur reviewers can be:
Some of them are just bad readers. They miss major plot points and then complain that the plot makes no sense, or they say that something is impossible when it’s something I’ve actually done, or they complain that a plot twist is unmotivated when I’ve foreshadowed it sixteen dozen ways . . . these guys I’m sometimes tempted to respond to. Not in abusive way, of course, just by way of information. (”If you would do yourself the kindness to reread Page 173, you would realize that your chief complaint is without foundation.”) That sort of thing.
Sad fact: most readers are crap at it. We read too fast and carelessly. We judge books by what we expected to read so often don’t see what is actually there. We get mad at books for not being the book we wanted them to be. We read when in a bad mood and blame the bad mood on the book. Most of us suck at noticing all the carefully laid foreshadowing, backstory, clues that the hardworking authors wrote for us and then we have the gall to blame them for our own stupidity in not seeing them. Damned readers!
Sadly, there’s zero percentage in going after them and pointing out their stupidity no matter how much we writers ache to do so.3 Because this is the biggest power imbalance of all. Amateur reviewers on good reads or Amazon or Barnes & Noble or on their almost zero-trafficked blog are the least powerful criticism that can be made. Sometimes authors do attack them. I heard from a blogger who wrote a negative review of [redacted well-known author] and had said author set their fans on the blogger who was inundated with hate mail for months. Authors, DON’T DO THAT!
And reviewers please don’t do the opposite. Adrienne Vrettos said:
Once I had a reviewer who had written a not very nice review in a widely read trade magazine approach me at a crowded event to tell me - in detail - what exactly she didn’t like about my book.
I had *no* idea how to handle it. I stammered out a ‘thank you’ for reviewing the book, which now sounds suspiciously like ‘thank you sir, may I have another?’, and hurried away.
How extraordinarily rude. While I’ve never (thank, Elvis!) had anyone tell me in person about their hate for my books I’ve had reviewers write me with their lack of love. I have no idea what these people want from us authors. To make sure that we read their review? Why does that matter to them? Reviews of books are not for the authors, they’re for potential readers. So leave us authors alone! Thank you!
Robin Wasserman said:
I have to admit that I miss the era of loud, passionate, messy literary feuds, so have been pretty entertained by this whole mess. Norman Mailer vs Gore Vidal, Tom Wolfe vs Updike/Mailer/Irving, Dale Peck vs everyone…those were the good old days. (Authors — and it seems important to note that Hoffman’s reviewer is also an author in her own right — still have plenty of books and authors that we despise, we just do our despising behind closed doors.) And this morning I discovered that after Alice Hoffman published a horrible review of Richard Ford’s “The Sportswriter,” Ford got a gun and shot a bunch of holes through Hoffman’s latest opus. (http://s7y.us/uqr) So maybe she can be forgiven for her misunderstanding of “appropriate” behavior!
Sure. Feuds can be extraordinarily entertaining. I enjoyed those spats mightily. You’ll note that most of them were between equals with roughly the same reputation and access to media. Most of the flare ups in the past few years have been well-known author going after much less well-known reviewer and/or punters on Amazon. Which I happen to think it’s flat out awful.
And while I enjoy those stoushes between equals, I enjoy them in the same way I do seeing what hideous outfit Chloe Sevigny or Gwyneth Paltrow are wearing right now. Fun for me, sure, but embarrassing for them. I enjoy their sartorial mistakes mightily just as I enjoyed Mailer and Vidal etc posturing. But I still think they’re arrogant self-obsessed drop kicks. I will always advise other authors not to follow their lead.
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John Green’s been posting about what he sees as the broken way in which most writers of books get paid in the publishing industry. He’s proposing smaller advances and higher royalties.
Go over there and read what he has to say. Otherwise nothing I say in this post will make any sense.
Finished? Okay then.
First up, I agree with John that his model could be better for the industry. I would love to have higher royalties.
However, the only agents I’ve known who’ve asked for them have not had much success. I don’t have as much faith as John does that it’s a possibility for writers like me i.e. for solidly successful mid-list writers who have never had a six-figure advance. I’d love if he was right and that was about to change.
I have much less faith than John does in the rationality of publishers. (I’m not saying writers are particularly rational either. I happen to think that most people aren’t rational and that’s what’s wrong with most economic models.)
Here’s the only way I would agree to be paid under John’s proposal:
- There would have to be a minimum of four royalty payments per year. Though I’d prefer six. Under the current model authors get their royalties twice a year. That’s a very long waiting time. Hard to pay your bills without a decent advance when money’s only coming in twice a year.
- Publishers would have to guarantee up front that they’d put money into sales & marketing as well as publicity for my books. My getting a higher percentage of royalties means the publisher has given up some of its cut and thus has less invested in my books selling.
The problem with no. 1 is that royalties paid twice a year is a very convenient arrangement for the publisher. Pay outs to gazillions of authors twice a year is way less of a headache. I can hear the accountants screaming at the very idea of having to do that four or six times a year. Two payments also means they get to hang onto the money for much longer, accruing interest. I can’t imagine publishers being in a hurry to change that arrangement.
The problem with no. 2 is that publishers frequently make promises about publicity and sales and marketing when they’re bidding on a book but sometimes they do not do what they said they’d do. I’ve been extremely lucky on that front. Bloomsbury and Allen & Unwin have done every single thing they promised they’d do for my books. I trust them to do well by my books. But there are publishers who don’t stand by their promises. Sometimes that’s because the person who made those promises is gone. Sometimes it’s because there was a misunderstanding about what they were promising. And sometimes, well, sometimes it’s hard to come up with a charitable explanation for the behaviour. (Just as it can often be hard to come up with charitable explanations for some writers’ behaviours. People aren’t rational.)
I have seen many writers get huge advances and in almost all cases the publishing house put a lot of muscle behind those books to promote them. I have also seen publishing houses put a big push behind a low advance book but no where near as often. And usually the publisher doesn’t do that until they see external signs of enthusiasm for the book, such as a strong reaction from big accounts and big sell-in, great word of mouth and reviews etc. I have also seen publishers see all those strong signs of enthusiasm for a low-advance book and STILL not get behind it. Whatever John may say, big advances do concentrate the minds of publishers most powerfully.
Also many of the big advances I’ve seen have not been irrational. Paying a six-figure advance to a proven bestseller is not a huge risk. I’ve seen many six-figure advance earning out. I think publishers are being totally rational paying a known earner a big lump sum to write books. It works for the author; it works for them. And that big lump sum gives the author breathing space by taking financial stresses away thus allowing them to write more.
Where I think publishers are nuts is when they pay crazy money to unknowns or non-writers (think all those failed books “by” Hollywood stars). That so rarely works out that it bewilders me that they haven’t learnt their lesson.
But, hey, I keep sticking my fingers in electrical sockets. We’re not all rational.