By Jean Ho
Novelist Angela Flournoy recently said, “I think it’s an undue burden for the writer of color that’s just trying to get people to care about their book as much as other people’s books, to then also be the one to have the answers.”
Flournoy, writer of the acclaimed novel The Turner House, was speaking on the extent to which writers of color are asked in interviews about publishing’s diversity gap, and challenging the notion that they hold the key to solving the industry’s historic and systemic whiteness.
In the world of books and literature, “diversity” has recently become hotly debated, along with other cultural and media spheres. Though a few writers of color, like Flournoy, seem to be getting more shine, the demographics of those working behind the scenes in publishing remain almost entirely white.
In 2015, Lee & Low Books, an independent publisher of multicultural children’s and young adult literature, launched the first major study of staff diversity in publishing. Over 40 publishers and review journals participated. The findings revealed that across the board, nearly 80 percent of those surveyed who worked in publishing self-identified as white.
The Lee & Low survey also reported on staff demographics by departments. In Marketing and Publicity, 77 percent were white. These are people who make decisions on how to position books to the press and to consumers, and if and where to send authors on tour — critical considerations in the successful launching of any publication. For writers of color, the lack of diversity in book publicity departments can feel like a death knell.
Kima Jones, who owns the publicity company Jack Jones Literary Arts, says, “There needs to be more women of color in publishing, in positions of power, period. As I see other book clubs and speaking series, reading series, organizations pop up that are dedicated to writers of color, queer writers, disabled writers, other marginalized writers, I’m like: yeah, do that! This is what we need.”
As a publicist, Jones is an expert in culturally specific marketing. The agency partners exclusively with writers who have been historically underrepresented in publishing; her client roster includes the New York Times bestselling novelist Dolen Perkins-Valdez, contemporary young-adult author Lilliam Rivera, and the writer and activist Sarah Schulman, among others. She also represents Kimbilio, an organization that supports and develops fiction writers from the African diaspora.
“I want to affirm the work of writers that have the burden of feeling like a publisher doesn’t know how to market them, how to talk about them, how to ‘find their audience,'” she says. “That’s the writer I’m interested in.”
Jones founded her publicity company in 2015. In a little over a year, Jack Jones Literary Arts has grown from two clients to 17. “Ninety-five percent of my clients are writers of color,” Jones says, and this is a point of pride for her. A self-described “queer black girl from Harlem,” Jones says, “I grew up reading everything from Daddy Was a Number Runner to the work of Gayl Jones, Sandra Cisneros, Toni Morrison, Toni Cade Bambara, June Jordan.”
A native of New York City, Jones now makes her home in Los Angeles, where she’s lived ever since being awarded the PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellowship a few years ago. (Besides her publicity work, Jones is also a published poet, fiction writer and essayist who is currently pursuing her MFA in fiction at Warren Wilson College.)
Publicists like Jones, with proven experience connecting clients with a multicultural readership and who are adept at new methods for generating online buzz for writers, feel especially important at a time when the literary world seems to be exploding with voices from the margins. The 2016 shortlist for the prestigious PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for debut fiction, which comes with a covetable $25,000 award, was filled entirely by writers of color, including Flournoy. One nominee on that list, Viet Thanh Nguyen, went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for his novel, The Sympathizer. (The PEN/Bingham was claimed by Mia Alvar, for her story collection In the Country.) Read Rest of Article Here