For six years, writer Walter Mosley has enjoyed a successful relationship with his publisher, W.W. Norton. All of the author’s Easy Rawlins detective novels have been bestsellers. But in January, Mosley did something that surprised many: he published Gone Fishin’, a coming- of-age novel that chronicles the youth of Easy Rawlins and his sidekick, Mouse, with Black Classics Press (BCP), a small black-owned publisher out of Baltimore.
“I want to prove I can publish with a black press and make the same amount of money,” says Mosley. The writer chose BCP because he was encouraged by publisher Paul Coates’ belief that successful black authors can help to financially strengthen black presses by publishing with them. “When you have [a writer like Mosley] you’re able to move the rest of your list and promote other writers,” says Coates. Even in an age when major presses have begun to address their neglect of the African American market, most black writers are still published through black presses, he notes.
In recent weeks, news stories about Mosley’s decision to work with BCP have appeared in publications as diverse as the New York Times and Publishers Weekly. The existence of these articles not only highlights the unusualness of Coates and Mosley’s deal, it also calls attention to the power and cachet that a select group of black authors has gained over the past five years.
Ever since the dawning of what some call the new black literary renaissance, writers such as Terry McMillan, Cornel West, Iyanla Vanzant and Mosley have become household names. But while the number of recognizable black authors has increased, and book purchases by blacks grew from $181 million in 1990 to $296 million in 1995, the black literary boom has not necessarily translated into greater opportunities for new writers.
WHO’S REALLY GETTING PUBLISHED?
The major publishers’ increased offering of black-authored books has expanded the public’s awareness and purchase of these titles, and created the belief that getting published has become easier for black writers. But it’s important that we look at who is being published, according to literary agent Marie Dutton Brown, who represents authors Susan Taylor (Lessons in Living, Doubleday) and Herb Boyd and Robert Allen (Brotherman, One World/Ballantine Books). “There is an illusion that black writers are being published in great numbers,” says Brown. “What we have to do is distinguish between authors and writers. A lot of people are under the impression that every author is a writer; it’s not necessarily so.”
Brown notes that many major publishers are offering books authored by black celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and Dennis Rodman, but ghostwritten by nonblacks. These books, she points out, do little to add to the development of black literary voices. While celebrity authors and select writers such as Mosley are able to pick and choose among publishers, the vast majority of black writers still find that getting their work published is a long, challenging process.
It’s unlikely that a new writer will be in a position to pick and choose a publisher.