This is not what I was planning to spend my weekend writing, but this popped up in my Facebook feed and I knew it needed a response.
Several separate responses occurred to me, none of them polite, but the simplest counter to this absurd argument is this – I’ve been submitting my work, on and off, since 2005 and I have never been asked my race. Never. They certainly never asked for a photograph! The only things I was regularly asked for were my contact details, for obvious reasons. Tell me – if the editors have no way to know if a writer happens to be black, how are they meant to reject their work on racist grounds? It’s a little hard to discriminate when there’s no way to know who or what you’re discriminating against.
Name, perhaps? Most of the black people I know (or have heard of) have names that are indistinguishable from white names. Will Smith? Noel Clarke? Samuel Jackson? (I had a teacher called Noel who was white (and from Australia). Background details? Someone who grew up in London could be white or black – there would be no way to tell. Sheer random chance? Sounds a little random to me.
Hell, one might as well assume that black authors are being rejected because editors – in their pointless search for diversity – are rejecting authors with white-sounding names, which would include all the black men I mentioned. But frankly, I think that’s a little absurd.
I have said this before, but it’s worth saying again. Very few readers take a book off the shelves and turn to the back cover, just to check the sex and race of the author. Readers are drawn in by the blurb, perhaps by the first couple of chapters; the average reader doesn’t care about who wrote the book, provided that they are entertained. People do not look for ‘great black author,’ they look for ‘great MIL-SF author’ or ‘great romance author’ or ‘great detective author.’ Writing skill is not dependent on one’s race or gender.
A publicity campaign that tells everyone that the author is a ‘great black author’ raises red flags – it suggests that the author only got published for being black. And this is poisonous, for the same reason that affirmative action is always poisonous. It is literally impossible to prove that an author was not pushed forward because of something that had nothing to do with his or her writing skill. Readers are turned off, sometimes unfairly.
The blunt truth is that the vast majority of first-time submissions are rejected. I know, from experience, that a certain percentage will be submitted by writers who didn’t bother to read or follow the submission guidelines. They are normally rejected automatically. Past that, there will be a number of submissions that simply don’t come up to scratch. They get rejected too, often without explanation. Even a relatively small publisher often has too many submissions to go through them and write a detailed response to each and every submission. At the very least, you need to be just below the ‘publishable’ level to get detailed responses from an editor – and the editor may not have the time to offer them.
Furthermore, each publisher has only a limited number of slots, some of which are reserved for established writers. Baen, for example, would be foolish to reject a manuscript from David Weber, a writer with a massive fan base. Even if you are a good writer – after years of hard work – it is unlikely a publisher will take you in place of one of their established authors – you will be far more of a gamble. You could be good – great, perhaps – and yet you might still be rejected, simply because there is no room for a new author.
The odds of getting published – whatever your skin colour – are very low. I would bet good money that, for every black author who gets rejected, there are at least ten white authors who are also rejected.
So, what do you do?
You keep going. If you have the writing bug, you write the next story and the next; you keep going, even though your books are being rejected. Writing is a learned skill. You’ll need to churn out hundreds of thousands of words before you get to the level where you will be published. A true writer is not deterred by rejection. I’ve had more rejections than I care to think about.
And there are other options these days. Put your work on Amazon Kindle. See what the public makes of it. There are no shortage of self-published success stories these days – including me – because the writers stepped around the publishing gatekeepers and took their work to the masses. If you think your work is great – if you think you were rejected unfairly – why not see what the public thinks?
What you don’t do is engage in self-destructive whining and give up.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing you were rejected because of something you can’t help – and no one can choose their skin colour. It’s easy to feel helpless because of it. But if the editors and publishers have no way to know your skin colour, how can they discriminate against you?
Much of the advice given in the article is dangerously naive, at best. To deliberately choose stories written by black authors would require the publishers to ask a person’s race – is that even legal? Even if it is, it falls straight into the affirmative action trap – you are rejecting a number of authors based on skin colour, rather than writing skill. Readers want writing skill, they want to be entertained – they don’t want social justice. They certainly don’t want to be told that anyone who doesn’t read a particular author is a racist.
But people want heroes who look like them, right?
Well, no. The hero of Rivers of London is a mixed-race policeman – and his series is very popular. The hero of Starship Troopers is Filipino (forget the wretched movie) and the book is staggeringly popular. And I can say from personal experience that Vanguard has done as well as most of the other Ark Royal books, despite having a mixed-race female commanding officer as lead character. My … one might almost think that having a non-white main character doesn’t have any effect on the book’s popularity at all.
What people want is to be entertained. And if your work is not entertaining, it will sink without trace. And your race – or gender or whatever – will have nothing to do with it.