Monday, October 01, 2012

The "Autopsy" Series - Coroner's Report

My findings aren't scientific. Hell, they aren't even findings so much as they're a realization from my own experience as an author of a series of Brown books.

I wrote the Del Rio Bay books back in 2006. From 2007 - 2009 the books graced the shelves. I remember being frustrated at how few stores I saw the books in. I'd have writer friends from all over the nation report DRB sightings at their local stores. I was always uplifted when I'd get one. But in my own home state of Maryland, I rarely found the books. And I did my fair share of book fairs, library visits and conferences - so let me be clear - I hit the road and internet promoting these books. So much so, it killed my creative mojo a little. To stump so much for the books and then hear from readers that they couldn't find the damned things

Still, my eye has always been on the health of the industry overall - not just on how well my books sold. It was the reason I co-founded, The Brown Bookshelf.  So what's the verdict?

I find the industry is still not quite clear what to do when it comes to marketing Brown books. On one hand, they want to fill the void. On the other, the racial aspect frightens people into analysis paralysis. The marketing of the books are either over thought or over simplified.

Back in 2007 Dafina, Kimani-Tru, Jump at the Sun, Amistad and Lee and Low were at the forefront of putting these books on the shelves. Where are they now?

Dafina was Kensington's African American imprint. At the time there was no effort to keep the YA line separate and there should have been. They've figured that out now so, K-Teen was born. The line features a wide variety of books, which  means the focus on Brown books has taken a backseat. Good strategy for Kensington...jury's still out on if it's a good move for their Brown books.

Kimani-Tru had the most promise in the arena. They were putting out a good number of very diverse books each year and the Kimani-Tru label on the spine signaled it was a YA book (great branding technique). So I'm sad to see that it seems to have been absorbed into Kimani-Press (primarily adult fiction by and for African Americans). From a marketing perspective, that's a step backward. I believe they're still producing YA but nowhere near 2007 levels.

Jump at the Sun published more "traditional" books featuring Brown characters i.e. historical fiction and stories revolved around urban protags. I always hoped they'd go outside of that specialty and embrace more diverse contemporary stories and some popular fiction. They didn't and from what I can tell, they're no longer around.

Amistad remains in the game and continues to produce high-end literary books. A plus, of course. But leaves little room for any Brown book outside of the literary niche.

Lee and Low produces a wide variety of children's book, targeting Brown readers. It's Tu Books imprint focuses specifically on sci-fi, mystery and fantasy books featuring diverse characters. It fills a much-needed void, for sure. They remain a key character in the Brown books game. The key being they've stuck to the original strategy - producing Brown books but marketing beyond that readership.

I think Brown books are spread far and wide across the industry. So they're still out there. That means the effort itself is far from dead.  However, there remains an underlying struggle to get these books noticed. But I stand by the solutions I've proposed throughout the series.They're a more simple fix than you'd expect.

  • Let the YA authors write YA
  • 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.
  •  Use 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.

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

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Pee's YA Boot Camp - Day 1

My penance for taking such a long hiatus from reading (YA at least) is to put myself through a grueling boot camp. Between now and early December, I will read as many of the YA novels nominated for the Cybils as possible AND...wait for it:

Provide a mini-review. Mini because boot camp is all about intense workout bursts, not marathon training. So my reviews will be true to the boot camp mentality - my bare thoughts on the book and what sort of reader I think they'll appeal to.

Why yes, I am a little crazy. But I'm also way behind on reading YA. I believe the last I read was the Hunger Games trilogy.

How much has the landscape changed since my last book hit shelves in 2009? I can tell you I'm still not seeing a boat load of brown YA - which may explain why they're also missing from Cybils noms.

I know you're out there, books!!!

So here we go. Day 1 reads...

Blink & Caution by Tim Wynne-Jones
I love a good suspense novel. Among the adult fic I read, it's my go-to genre. So, I was looking forward to reading a story revolved around young characters. The premise of Blink & Caution sets the reader up well - two "street" kids find themselves in over their heads. Blink is the only witness to a crime that involves corporate intrigue and Caution has stolen a guap (i.e. a lot of money) from her drug dealing manfriend. No not boy. He's a grown man.

What I thought right away is - wow how will they get out of this? Suspense novels are all about that ride you take as you see how the characters emerge (or not) from the mess they stumble upon.

That's where I walked away unsatisfied. I overlooked the revolving POVs even though Blink's chapters - told in second person - distracted me. Caution's chapters, in third, flowed more organically. I cared about the characters, but can't help but wonder if Blink would have been more rounded out had his chapters not been in second. That lack of well-roundedness played a part in why I felt the story was wrapped up too neatly and there were some character trait inconsistencies (Caution vacillated between tough girl and innocent) that stilted my believability.

I'll admit, as a hard core suspense fan my expectations were pretty high. It kept me turning the pages - and for sure that counts for something, but in the end I walked away less satisfied then I'm used to when I read that genre.

The Absolute Value of Mike by Kathryn Erskine
I'm not one of those adults who thinks all kids are totally naive. I know that mature characters such as fourteen-year-old Mike not only exist but may be more the norm than the not-so-worldly characters often portrayed in fiction. Problem is, there's maturity because of circumstance...which exists in Absolute Value:

* Mike's mom has died.

*His father is an engineer and genius who processes facts only, never emotion. My first thought was, how did this man ever got married and sire a child?

*Because of his father's total lack of connection, Mike has pretty much raised himself and taken care of his father.

So it's ripe for this kid to be mature. But then there's maturity because every adult around you is so loopy and over the top, that the character is forced to be the most reasonable person in the room. The difference is, the latter comes off contrived. Had it been left at the above facts, the reader would have understood why Mike is such a fixer/problem solver.

Instead, added to the mix, nearly every adult Mike comes into contact with is portrayed as half off their rocker or rocked by some past tragedy.

The Absolute Value of Mike is a warming story. Kid goes to live with distant relatives and finds himself needing to help an entire rural town get its act together. Nice, right? Yes. Pee isn't heartless, after all.

But the story is more MG than YA. It's all about how something is presented. And had I read it in the vein of MG, I wouldn't be so tough on it. I often forgive MG books that are so sweet they're syrupy or whose "lesson" is worn proudly on its sleeve. Though I must say, MG is getting edgier and my views on that may have to change with the genre. Still, traditionally you can get away with that vibe in an MG. Not so much in YA.

The Absolute Value of Mike came off as one of those books that adults want kids to read. I'd recommend this for an avid 9 or 10 year old reader. But the average YA reader may find it too tame.

Flirt Club by Cathleen Daly

Flirt Club is cute.

I almost ended that review there, then thought - wait, that's not fair. Used the wrong way, cute comes off as a total back-hand compliment. And I don't mean it that way.

Flirt Club's story is told through letters and emails passed between the characters and journal entries. I think the story's structure will really appeal to eleven year old readers. I'd say ten but these young ladies are dealing in matters of the heart, so for parents who don't want their ten-year-old discussing the art of may not be for them. Eleven year olds are either most definitely dealing with that in middle school or know a friend who is.

The note passing and journal entries are ultra girly and I think most tween readers will relate to the characters' silly, yet edged with growing maturity, outlook on school, friends and flirting. But its structure would likely turn off older readers. If this were an MG book, this mini-review would be all positive no neg. It's however, competing against traditional YA for the Cybils so that's how I approached it.

I think MG and Tween novels can get away with either being deeply character driven or totally driven by devices such as an entire novel in Instant Messages. However, when we're talking competition, story and character development have to be expertly melded in YA novels. And because of the book's style it took about 50 pages before the actual story emerged. Once it did, I found myself wanting to know the outcome. But 50 pages is a long time to wait for the "real" story to begin.