Friday, September 28, 2012

The "Autopsy" Series - Pt. 3

The third in my Autopsy Without Blame series to find out what has happened to the effort to ensure that there are more brown books available to readers. A brown book is simply a book that features a Main Character of color.

Note: The key words here are "without blame."  I have too much love for readers of YA and respect for the publishing business to be malicious. And finger pointing is a waste of energy.

My only goals are to make sure that YA remains open to diversity and that every book find its proper home with a reader that will love it. Pollyanna? Maybe. But if just one editor, publicist or bookstore owner thinks just a second over what I'm covering and it changes their tactics just slightly to ensure brown books are given an equal share of shelf time...mission accomplished!

The third issue, I believe contributed to the struggle of this effort:

Placement Uncertainty

Back once again to the "confusion" on where brown books should be shelved or categorized.

First, it's a book. Second, it's a YA book. Third, it falls into some sort of genre. Last, it's a book featuring a brown character.  See where the race of the character fell in that spectrum? LAST. The race, in no way, should play a part in where it's shelved in the bookstore or how it's "categorized."

Yes, I risk contradicting myself since I categorize these as Brown books. But I do so because our current structure forces categorization. What I'm saying is, when placing these books they need to be shelved with other books of its kind based on genre.

I never understood why my series was never shelved with other series books at the bricks and mortar store. When I questioned this, I was told it was the publisher's call how it was categorized. And my publisher's answer was, it was the book store's call.  To this day, I have no idea who makes that call. But it hardly takes a genius to know that a series book should be with other series books. That way, readers who LOVE series books will find their way to it. Marketing 101A.

See how marketing sort of takes care of itself when simple things are done?

For those who wonder why I don't support the "Black" book section, go back to Part Two in this series. My books were meant to appeal to readers who wanted to explore a few basic high school themes - didn't matter what race they were. Placing the book in the "Black" section went against the whole point of my series' ensemble cast.

Ironically, since my book wasn't among the Teen Street-Lit pool, most African American bookstores didn't bother to carry it because they figured the book didn't cater to their customers. So the series ended up a mutt unable to find a home on either side of the fence. A simple fix using the formula: First, it's a book. Second, it's a YA book. Third, it falls into some sort of genre. Last, it's a book featuring a brown character.

Proposed Solution: Use the formula.

Last in the series: Coroner's report

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The "Autopsy" Series- Pt 2

The second in my Autopsy Without Blame series to find out what has happened to the effort to ensure that there are more brown books available to readers. A brown book is simply a book that features a Main Character of color.
The second issue, I believe contributed to the struggle of this effort:

Schizophrenic Marketing Efforts

So it's a book featuring a Black or Latino you market it only to readers of the same racial make-up or do you market wider? Don't know? Neither did most people in the industry.

Using my own series as an example, I wrote the book with an African American protag and an ensemble cast of varying racial backgrounds. The whole point was that the themes within the book - friendship, popularity and pressure to find your place in high school - touched nearly any kid in or about to enter high school. The original marketing strategy was to primarily focus on those themes and play up the fact that the MC was African American so African American teen readers knew they were playing a featured role. It's a savvy strategy because it doesn't exclude anyone.

My library visits and book signings attracted a diverse pool of readers, proving the strategy worked. But by my third book, the strategy was altered to reach a primarily Black readership. Problem there was, by that time my series was competing with teen street-lit. So some African American teens picked up the book and were turned off because it wasn't street enough. We confused the readership by changing strategy. And quite a few other books, like mine, experienced a similar switcheroo.

Marketing is dynamic. It has to change. But readers look to marketing to help them understand if a book will please their palate. Changing the strategy for a series is a delicate matter because pick the wrong plan - you risk losing the original reader and turning off the potential new reader. Sound the death bells.

Proposed Solution: A book is a book is a book. No matter the race or ethnic background of a character, 99.9% of books are about the journey of the character. The marketing needs to revolve around that journey, period. Extract the themes, promote them and the readers will find their way to the book. Race is too tiny a tether to keep a consumer doing anything - reading a book, watching a TV show or movie or listening to a certain song. Marketing 101.

Next in the series: Placement uncertainty

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The "Autopsy" series

A few weeks ago, I was in a strategic planning session for my FTJ and the facilitator used a term that resonated with me: autopsy without blame.

I'm a crime procedural fan, so the phrase brought up vivid imagery of the coroner delicately probing a body searching for cause of death. But maybe that's just me. Obviously the facilitator didn't have my wacky imagery in mind. She meant every organization should embrace a process of dissecting organizational issues/problems to get at the root of those problems without pointing fingers at who was to blame for the "death," of a project or initiative.

The truth is, too many organizations don't do that. Everyone's so quick to cover their own ass that it can be near impossible, in many cases, to do a tried and true autopsy without blame.

But it's never too late.

I hesitate to say that the publishing industry's efforts to offer a wider variety of brown YA books is dead, but my recent search to locate the players that initiated that venture back in 2007 turned up disheartening evidence. So hesitant or not, it's time for an autopsy. And if we're able to fix the issue before the effort flat lines, all the better.
The first issue I think contributed to the struggle to get more brown books out there among YA readers:  

YA authors vs. Authors writing for YA readers
Pee, what the hell are you talking about, you're asking. What's the difference?

When the YA boom exploded all over the place, quite a few authors who traditionally swam in the adult fiction pool saw an opportunity. I mean, who wouldn't? If mom is an avid reader and likes my work, why wouldn't I try and write something for the kiddies? Keep it in the family.

Problem is, YA authors are pretty...err...special. We don't write YA because we're cutting our teeth on the market. We're obsessed with that period in a young person's life and we want to put a mirror up to it and make sure that the voice of a young character is heard. But from a marketing perspective, having an author with an existing base is too attractive to refuse.

 In the brown market, in particular, more and more publishers began courting their big name adult fic authors to jump into the fray. Unfortunately, I ran across one too many of those authors who quickly grew disenchanted with the YA market for a myriad reasons, but chief among them - it's nothing short of a challenge to reach the readers. For some the juice wasn't worth the squeeze. While for authors focused exclusively on YA, it was the only juice we drank.

 By then, the damage was done. It was already a challenge for YA featuring African American protags to see the light of day. Some YA author voices got lost in the chorus as it became clear we weren't all really singing from the same hymnal.  

Proposed solution: Let the YA authors write YA. There are more than enough good YA authors and a slew of good aspiring YA authors out there to keep readers happy. It's about the reader and readers know when an author is talking for them versus at them.

You can debate me, if you like, but good YA authors write for lovers of YA organically. When an author writes out of their element because they're courted to, it's a challenge. It would be like me writing paranormal simply because it's whats selling. Sure, I can write well enough and given enough background to get basic paranormal elements down, I could probably produce something. But it doesn't mean I should.

Next in the series: Schizophrenic Marketing