Monday, May 27, 2013

A Good Example Of A “Colorless”—And Therefore Successful—Fiction-Writing Career

I’ve recently come across several online conversations in which African-American (AA) women are talking about getting started on their novels, screenplays, etc. Which is a wonderful thing. We need to produce our own content.

However, I would strongly urge any AA woman who’s entering the entertainment biz via writing to position her work as colorless (meaning, directed toward White consumers) FIRST.

After you get established, then you’ll be in a position to disseminate positive portrayals of AA women and girls. If you start off your career by writing AA/Black-oriented works, the odds are that your career will crash and burn and be over before it even begins.

As I said during a post at the other blog:
For the reasons I explained in great detail during this post, Black business owners who are serious about success need to stop structuring their businesses around hopes of appealing to African-American consumers. The masses of African-American consumers are emotionally incapable of responding appropriately to any visibly Black-owned business, regardless of its quality.
African-American business owners need to position their businesses as “colorless” in order to tap into the larger pool of nonblack consumers. Unless they find out otherwise, many (if not most) American consumers will assume that a business is White-owned. Making your business “colorless” means to preserve this assumption of White ownership for as long as possible.
It takes emotional discipline to have a colorless business and to maintain secrecy about it being Black-owned. This means that you don’t get to puff your chest out and brag about how you’re a business owner. This often means that you don’t get the emotional payoff of visibly looking like The Boss.
But if you’re in tune with reality, then you know that life is not fair and that you can’t afford to behave the same way as nonblack business owners. That is, if your priority is to make the sale while providing excellent goods and service. The reality is that you won’t even get the opportunity to provide excellent products and service to most potential customers (of any race, including Blacks) if they know your business is Black-owned. As I mentioned to a reader during an earlier conversation,
For AA business owners, it’s a difficult, hostile business environment all-around. I agree with you that things are not much better with nonblack consumers. I never said it was Paradise with them. But here’s what I feel is the (meaningful) difference:
If you can position yourself in such a way that maintains “colorlessness”—let’s be blunt, in a way that maintains the illusion of White ownership—then your business has the chance to survive long enough to maybe, perhaps . . . be judged on its actual merits. There’s NO realistic hope of that when dealing with AA consumers as a visibly Black-owned business. AA consumers won’t patronize the business, AND they’ll be more prone to rob and/or steal you blind if they know it’s Black-owned.
If your business can survive long enough, you might be able to develop a professional reputation that’s well-known enough to get you over that “racism from nonblack consumers” hump.
It’s not a direct comparison (after all, she’s a WW dealing with other White people), but this is what the Men With Pens blogger was able to accomplish with her online business. She “passed” as a WM-owned business long enough to more or less get over the sexism hump.
She came up with a decidedly MALE pseudonym, and named her blog the manly-sounding “MEN With Pens.” Her problem was that at a certain point, she had to make business phone calls. And then customers would hear her (woman’s) voice.
She talked about all of this in her post entitled Why James Chartrand Wears Women’s Underpants.
I’ve heard tales of Black business owners who do like the AA plumbing company owner who pretends to be an employee of his own company when he goes out on service calls.

Sensible nonwhite writers already know all of this. There are successful African-American women writers who have “colorless” writing careers that I could mention. But I won’t mention them, because I don’t want to “out” them and risk damaging their careers (by bringing attention to the fact that they're Black). I want them to continue being successful.

But I don’t mind mentioning the example of an Asian woman writer who has found success by writing for White consumers: Tess Gerritsen, who writes the very popular Rizzoli & Isles series of novels.

Note that she does NOT write under her Chinese maiden name. And for the most part, she does not write about Asian characters as starring characters. I would guess that most of her WW readers have no idea that Ms. Gerritsen is Chinese-American. I would further guess that if they had been aware of this in the beginning, then her career never would've taken off. As she stated in her post, Non-white heroes: the kiss of death in the marketplace?

And there are lots and lots of novels about middle-aged white men having affairs and mid-life crises.  But rarely do you see a novel, much less a bestselling novel, that explores the Asian American experience.
So why have I never written one?  My three-word answer: fear of failure.  
That's not just my own lack of confidence speaking; it's something that a very canny (and honest) publishing executive told me two decades ago.  It was back while I was writing romance novels for Harlequin Intrigue, and I had a chat with one of Harlequin's top brass.  She loved my writing and she wanted to discuss my upcoming book projects.  I asked her if she'd be interested in a romance featuring an Asian American heroine.
She wasn't afraid to tell me the truth, and I will always be grateful for her honesty.  Harlequin had done extensive market research, she said.  They knew which titles were hits and which were flops.  And whenever they published a book with an Asian hero or heroine, no one bought those books.  They might be the best stories in the line, but they invariably failed in the marketplace.
"I want your books to be bestsellers," she said.  "And this will hurt your sales."
I took that advice, so generously given, and all my novels have featured white heroes and heroines.  I've slipped in Asian Americans as secondary characters: Maura's morgue assistant Yoshima, for example, or Vivian Chao, the fearless surgeon in HARVEST.  But in none of my books have I featured an Asian or touched on those painful memories from my childhood -- until now.
In THE SILENT GIRL, I've finally written the story I've been burning to tell, a story with bits and pieces of my own Chinese-American childhood. Not the painful memories, but the quirky bits, imbued with my mother's lore about ghosts and monsters.  One of her stories in particular has always stayed with me, the much-beloved Chinese legend of the Monkey King, a wild and unpredictable creature who was born from a stone and becomes a warrior.  When Jane Rizzoli finds monkey hairs on the body of a butchered woman in Boston's Chinatown, the legend of the Monkey King becomes key to understanding the crime.  Monkeys both fascinate and frighten me, and I get chills thinking of such a creature roaming Chinatown's dark alleys.
For the first time, I introduce not just one, but two major Asian American characters.

Ms. Gerritsen can afford to do this (without killing her career) because she’s already built a fan base of White consumers. She built this base by orienting her earlier novels toward White consumers. Without letting them know (in the beginning) that she's Asian. And her sales are great. I know this because I’m an indie fiction writer and publisher who keeps up with my industry. I have market analysis software that tracks and estimates monthly sales on Amazon based on ranking numbers.* Here’s a screen capture of the search I performed a few minutes ago on Ms. Gerritsen’s Kindle books (using this software)(click to see a larger image):

African-American women writers who are serious about financial success need to stop structuring their art around hopes of appealing to African-American consumers. When you write for African-American consumers, all you’re doing is throwing away a larger pool of customers to chase after a smaller pool of customers. You’re leaving money on the table—and damaging your writing career—when you start your career by writing for Black consumers.

 The better way (with much higher odds of success) is to get your money first by writing for White consumers, and then—after you have a mainstream fan base—start inserting positive, attractive BW characters as starring characters in your art.

[*As an aside, if you're looking to make a living from your writing, you'll keep track of market trends. You'll use the tools that are available to keep track of what types of books consumers are looking for. I'm not saying to chase after fads with your writing. I'm saying to see if the sort of material you're inclined to write can fit into a niche that already has a large fan base looking for that sort of material. This applies to both fiction and nonfiction.]

I’ll end by repeating a comment I made during a discussion at my other blog a few years ago:
I don’t expect to write any more AA/Black-oriented materials. My side business (and any future projects, such as writing a technothriller novel) are totally oriented toward the nonblack mainstream consumer. But thanks so much for your kind words; I truly appreciate it.
And since I mentioned business, let me repeat part of a real talk comment that I previously made over at Halima’s blog. It might provide some food for thought for aspiring AA entrepreneurs. I explained the reasons why I didn’t and don’t want payment in exchange for this blog’s premium content:
I deeply appreciate your call to action, but NO—I DON’T want anybody sending me money for my premium content—please DON’T do that!!!
Here’s the primary reason why:
As a Black business owner, I don’t believe in trying to do serious business with “typical” AAs/Blacks. It never works right for the reasons (I’ve outlined in depth at my blog). I refuse to do business with slaves in that direct fashion. A Black business owner who tries to do direct business with slaves is only setting themselves up to be sabotaged by those slaves.
A reader at my blog previously described the AA slaves’ behavior pattern regarding Black businesses: First the slaves pretend to be excited about the Black business endeavor. Then, they start backbiting it. Then, they work their fingers to the bone to pull it down.
I’m already an online business owner. My side business is totally oriented toward mainstream, NON-Black consumers. I don’t want hateration-type AA slaves to have any possible openings to do any sabotage that could potentially spill over onto my side business.
That’s the primary reason why I don’t mix any direct exchanges for money with my BWE activism. I know that there are legions of DBRBM, disgruntled colored girls, and other trolls who would looove to have an opening to file false complaints to the Better Business Bureau, etc. about me out of spite. If I accepted money for the BWE premium content, doing so would give bad-faith slaves a lever to use to potentially impact/sabotage what I’m doing with my side business.
Keeping the premium content free protects me from the disgruntled colored girls and other Black haters.
I know that I have to protect my side business from MOST of the people in the reading audience. As Halima noted, there’s an undercurrent of resentment toward many BWE bloggers. Even from audience members who aren’t full-blown trolls or haters. That’s why my name is not on my side business. So the haters in the audience will never be able to find it and connect it to me. They can’t sabotage what they can’t find.
For any Black business owner’s self-protection, AA slaves must be kept at arms’ length from one’s business, and only dealt with via 3rd parties like
That way, when the hateration-AA slaves falsely claim to have a problem or issue about their order, they have to take it up with the 3rd party such as And the Black business owner is removed from the main “line of fire” from hateration AA slave-consumers.
There are secondary reasons why I don’t want money in exchange for the premium blog posts:
(1) I don’t want folks to be able to dismiss the reciprocity lesson as actually being about “money-grubbing.” I know that this is how AA slaves think; and I want them to genuinely learn what reciprocity means. AND
(2) I’m already a business owner, and my online business is totally oriented toward majority, NON-Black consumers. I want the Sojourner’s Passport social activism blog to pay for its own upkeep (through book sales), but it’s not like I’m trying to use the blog to put food on my table.
Let me emphasize that I don’t feel that there would be anything wrong with accepting donations or making the blog paid-subscription only. Other folks—people who are not African-Americans—understand how it’s often necessary to pay for valuable, life-enhancing information. Sadly, most AAs are simply too primitive and slave-minded for that—they don’t want to pay any other Black person for anything sensible.
It’s an interesting paradox: Most African-Americans are cynical and yet gullible at the same time. We’re quick to interpret any other Black person seeking fair monetary compensation for their life-enhancing work as somehow inappropriate. Yet, we’re simultaneously delighted to throw piles of money to all sorts of useless Black (mostly male) hustlers who are peddling less than useless wares such as Steve Harvey, most AA male pastors/imams, etc.
So, even though it would be perfectly appropriate to charge for the information I provide, I don’t want to do that. In addition to the concerns I mentioned in Part 1 of this comment, I believe charging for premium content would actually work against the reciprocity lesson that I’m trying to teach.
It would make it too easy for indoctrinated AA slave-women to dismiss the reciprocity lesson as just an attempt to “get over.” Which is what they’re inclined to think, because they don’t understand the idea of reciprocity. All they understand is exploitation. Either from the perspective of the user or as the person being used. How very sad . . . and downright savage.
Aspiring AA entrepreneurs: Don’t be naive about the typical AA consumer and their behaviors.
Expect Success!
**Advanced Bonus Tips For Aspiring Storytellers** ONE—When I first started writing novels, I discovered that most of the existing books about fiction writing are filled with disinformation. Very few of them were useful in teaching the tricks of the trade. I found that screenwriting materials were much more useful in teaching one how to structure a compelling story.

 TWO—One of the best ways to learn the underlying structure of good, compelling stories is to read the screenplays of good, compelling movies and TV series. Lots of them. There are several sites where you can read and download free screenplays, including those listed on this page.
 [As a side note, please know that people in the movie industry (and wannabe screenwriters) are reading the various drafts of film scripts even before any particular movie finishes shooting, and long before the movie comes out.  So for all the confused slaves who felt that nobody— like, oh, let’s say Spike Lee—could fairly criticize Django Unchained or its content without seeing it: Folks like Spike Lee typically have access to movie scripts long before the movie comes out. So they’ve often read the shooting script to a movie long before that particular movie is playing in theaters.

In fact, there’s a very popular blogger who devotes a large chunk of his time to reading screenplays of movies that haven’t been produced, and/or haven’t come out yet. The ScriptShadow blog host also has an excellent book about the tricks of the screenwriting trade.
For those aspiring screenwriters who are really interested in keeping up with the "haps" in the industry, and want to know about the latest film and TV script sales, there's this site: Done Deal Professional]

THREE—In terms of novels, series sell much better than stand-alone books. To write a successful series, you need an underlying premise that can sustain readers' interest for more than one book. Here’s a good book (Writing The Pilot) that explains how to craft that type of premise. It's specifically for writers who want to write spec TV series pilot scripts, but many of the same considerations apply to coming up with ideas that can sustain more than one novel in a series.