A Good Read: With a Pulitzer in Tow, Ethnic Publishing Imprints Are on the Rise. What Will That Mean for Books by and about People of Color?
Mulligan, Michelle Herrera, Colorlines Magazine
I couldn't quite believe it when I got the call that HarperCollins was interested in the book I was developing with my friend, Robyn Moreno--before we'd even written a proposal. We had been working on a collection of essays on the modern Latina experience for about seven months. We had hoped for essays told from a brutally honest and sometimes humorous perspective, but we were having trouble getting the sample essays together. We hadn't even attempted a marketing plan when Rene Alegria, the editor of HarperCollins's Hispanic imprint Rayo, called Robyn to ask about our progress. They had met at a conference the previous summer, where Robyn described our embryonic idea to him over drinks. He called to tell her he had two other anthology proposals on his desk but wanted to see ours before he made a decision. We had two weeks to get something together.
After about a month of wrangling and stalling, we presented him with our 90-page proposal. He swept it off the table, buying our baby before we even had a chance to worry if anyone would want it.
If HarperCollins had not in 2001 launched Rayo, the country's first English/Spanish-language Latino imprint, or division, at a major publishing house, I'm not sure it would have been so easy. Anthologies are notoriously hard to sell, both to publishers and readers. In the post-Sept. 11 recession, no one wanted to buy books that were difficult, and I knew that having a Latino editor who related to our project had everything to do with getting our deal.
A Ticket in, or a Ghetto?
Over the years, authors of color have argued that their communities would never be fully represented until publishing houses were as diverse as the country, until they had editors to champion their stories. And in the last 10 years or so, a lot has changed. So much so that this year's Pulitzer Prize in fiction went to The Known World by Edward P. Jones, a novel published by Amistad, an African American imprint of HarperCollins. The rise of black and Latino imprints have meant, at the least, a lot more opportunity for people of color to get their books out there, with the bonus of a modest to sometimes large advance.
"Having imprints out there means that more people of color are going to get published, period," says Adriana Lopez, editor of Criticas, a publishing industry magazine on Spanish-language books.
Charles Harris, a black editor, started Amistad in 1986 "to specialize in the works of African American authors and books on African American themes." HarperCollins bought the company in 1999, and the imprint went from publishing an average of four to five books a year to now releasing almost 20 new titles annually.
Since 1994, about seven other black imprints have popped up, including Random House's Harlem Moon and Striver's Row; Time Warner's Walk Worthy; Simon & Schuster's Atria Books; Kensington's Dafina Books; and Viacom's BET Books. In the late '90s, Latino imprints joined the fray with Kensington's Encanto and Random House's Vintage Espanol. With companies like Viacom's BET Books putting out more than 250 books since 1998, it seems that in a flat book market, the only room for growth may be in ethnic publishing.
"More and more African American books are coming out, on and off ethnic imprints," says Calvin Reid, a black news editor at Publisher's Weekly. "It's fair to say that this is one of the only sectors of publishing that has had continued growth."
Despite the good news, some authors worry about the message they are sending by publishing under imprints aimed at specific communities. If Alice Walker, Amy Tan and Sandra Cisneros reached audiences with mainstream publishers, why the increase now in ethnic imprints?
"There's the conspiratorial part of me that thinks these imprints are just a way of ghettoizing black books and--when the market dips, as all markets must--to eliminate them," says Chris Jackson, a black editor at Random House. …