Guest Post: Alaya Johnson: “What My Dad Said”

Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much for awhile. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.

Alaya Dawn Johnson is a wonderful writer, whose short story in Zombies v Unicorns, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is jaw-droppingly good. Her next novel, Moonshine, out in May is my fave New York City vampire novel. I love it so much that it’s been killing me waiting for it to come out because I’ve been dying to rave about Moonshine to youse lot. Trust me, you want this book.

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Alaya Dawn Johnson
dated a zombie once in high school, but it didn’t stick. Her first novel was Racing the Dark, the first in a trilogy she decided to call The Spirit Binders once her publisher told her trilogies needed names. The second book, The Burning City, is due out in June. She is also looking forward to the May 11 publication of Moonshine, her 1920s vampire novel set in the Lower East Side of New York City.

Alaya says:

What My Dad Said

When I first showed my dad the new paperback cover of Racing the Dark, I was pretty proud of it. I thought that it evoked the book and was fairly striking. I won’t lie, I pretty much expected him to pat me on the head and say, “Looks great, honey.”

Instead, he picked it up and turned it over a few times. His face took on that serious, thinking expression I recognized meant he was considering how to phrase something important.

“Alaya,” he said, “the art is lovely. The image and everything is great. But are you sure you want to limit yourself like that with this cover?”

“Limit myself?” I asked.

“White people are going to be way less likely to pick up a book with a cover featuring a brown person. That’s just the way the world works.”

I told my dad (with some annoyance) that I didn’t think that was true, and anyway, my book is about a brown person, so these hypothetical white people would just have to suck it up.

Cut to this past Christmas, when my Dad, my sister, my brother and I were all last-minute shopping at the local mall. Like we do every Christmas, we all tromped through the local Borders, looking for presents. This time I was especially excited, because the store claimed to have a copy of my book.

My dad and I searched all through the fantasy section, just so I could experience hasn’t-gotten-old-yet zing of seeing my own work in a bookstore. But Racing the Dark wasn’t there. Finally, we went back to the computers to look for it again.

And we saw what we had missed the first time: though Racing the Dark is clearly labeled “fantasy” on its spine, the powers that be at Borders, in their infinite wisdom, had decided to shelve me in the “African American” section.

At least I was in good company. On the shelves surrounding my book were works by Octavia Butler, Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison. I’ve looked through this peculiar hybrid section before, and I’ve always been bewildered by the mish-mash of genres and writers all sandwiched together on two narrow shelves. Would someone like to tell me what on earth Zane and Toni Morrison have to do with each other?

Dad and I stared at the book in dismay. “I can’t believe they did this,” I said.

“Honey, I told you,” he said. “You should have had a more generic cover.”

I couldn’t really disagree with him, at that point.

So Dad picked up the book and we physically marched it over to the Fantasy section, where we left it, cover side out.

“Alaya,” my Dad said, later that day, over dinner, “you have to understand that you live in the world. You can’t mess around with the way you wish things would be. You have to deal with the way that they are. A black woman writing a book with a cover like that is going to get shoved in a category you might not want to be in.”

Considering that we had just seen the physical evidence of my being shoved into that category, I just nodded and went back to my food.

It stuck with me, though. And I realized that my dad’s point of view hasn’t really been in much of the ongoing discussion about cover art and whitewashing.

In a lot of discussions about race, my Dad and I suffer from a pretty profound generational gap. My dad is of the Old School, which we could call “determined pragmatism.” As far as my dad is concerned, he grew up in a world where he couldn’t sit down at half the lunch counters in Richmond, where he had to sit in the balcony of the theater, drink from labeled water fountains and sit on the black side of the court house.

Now, in his sixties, my dad owns a business that actually works with the same governments that supported Jim Crow laws. He’s moved into that small percentage of the black upper-middle class, and as far as he’s concerned, race is something you deal with and move on. If you have to change something because white people don’t like overt blackness, then you do that. It’s not that my dad doesn’t understand my points about how frustrating and degrading it can be to always have non-whiteness relegated to this unwanted subcategory (or, even worse, an exoticized one). He does. He just feels that if the world works this way and if I’m just a writer struggling to make a living, then I ought to find a way to help myself within that existing power structure.

Now, I still don’t think he’s right. I still like my cover and I’m still very happy that it very clearly features my non-white main character.

But I will say that it felt like a gut punch to see Racing the Dark shelved—with such a contemptuous lack of care for its content or its audience—in the African American section of Borders.

55 comments

  1. cindy on #

    thank you for sharing this post.
    it’s a case of “in the ideal world” right?
    adding your novel to my goodreads queue. =D
    am big fantasy fan!

  2. Colleen on #

    Nice post – and honestly none of this surprises me. There’s been a lot of discussion about the segregation of Af Amer titles in bookstores and how idiotic and outdated it is. Also what’s weird is that it is so inconsistent. Walter Dean Myers is found in YA, Toni Morrison is in lit, Colson Whitehead is in lit, Walter Mosley is in Mys, etc etc. So how bookstores decide what specific authors go in the Af Amer section is beyond me (and cover images do not matter to any of these authors either).

    Justine tweeted this post as the “other side of the whitewashing debate” but I don’t think that description quite works. The recent discussion about whitewashing covers was about putting a Caucasian model on the cover of a book about a dark skinned protagonist – so misrepresenting the character.(In other words an outright lie.) In your case the cover is 100% true, there is just a fear that it limits your potential readership. In one of the many discussions about all this I’ve been part of the big unknown that came up is whether or not a publisher puts the same amount of marketing/promotion $ into a book by a POC and/or with a POC on the cover. There is no way any of us outside the industry could know that however and I think it plays much more into the success of your book then anything else.

    I hope it does really well and more than anything I hope that this physical separation of books by an author or protagonist’s race will end.

  3. Heather on #

    Thank you so much for sharing your story. I can’t believe they did this, either, and I’m 100% white (well, Italian and Irish, which I guess is as white as they come.) If I were ever browsing in a section called “African American,” I would assume it held “issues” books, like Invisible Man. I wouldn’t think a fantasy book would be housed there, so I would probably have assumed your book wasn’t what I was looking for (even though I’m a fantasy fan).

    This is a huge error on Borders’ part. I also wonder if it’s like that in every Borders, or what made them decide that your book, specifically, should get put into the African American section. It makes me sad to think that something like this might discourage publishers from putting people of color on their covers in the future.

    This is so interesting, because usually we only hear authors talk about the potential positives of not white-washing covers, with an attitude of sticking it to the man when profits aren’t affected (despite predictions that they will be). It’s fascinating to hear that there are other things to consider, too. What a complicated subject.

  4. MissAttitude on #

    I recently participated in a LitChat about this. People did bring up this point, saying that as authors they didn’t want to be regulated to only the African American section. I propsed that the AA section be gotten rid of, it’s too jumbled and confuisng to navigate anyway (erotic with some YA, some fantasy, some historical fiction, etc.) and it severly limits the audience. But then the point was brought up by Tayari Jones that getting rid of the AA section would hurt AA authors because some authors can only get their books shelved in that section and if it’s gone, they won’t see their books displayed. It’s a real dilemma and one that people don’t seem to think about that much (and I always hear about Borders having this problem, so I’m curious if it’s just them). Ugh why can’t bookstores just shelve books by genre?

    My hope is that if a book receives enough publicity, people will actively seek it out. But then again, if it’s in a section that not as many people go to, how will it ever gain that popularity/publicity? There’s no easy answer to this question. I’ve learned so much about the problems of the publishing industry/bookstores/consumers since reading this blog and others (well I always knew that consumers had some issues. haha).

    Thank you for bringing in a different perspective of whitewashing covers, I understand why some authors would want a whitewashed cover, but I think at the end of the day, it’s better to have a cover that is true to the book. Good for you for moving your book to the fantasy section!

  5. April (Good Books & Wine) on #

    What an absolutely thought provoking post. I hate that people are like that still, won’t buy a book with a PoC face on it. I’m so glad you are proud of your cover. I hate that it has to get relegated to a section which has basically nothing to do with your genre — fantasy. However, I feel like the only way things will change with whitewashing is if us readers put our money where our mouths are and buy books with PoC covers. I know I’ve been making conscious effort to read and review and purchase more PoC books and I would hope those who are against whitewashing would do the same.

  6. Pam Adams on #

    I just put in an order with my university library for Racing the Dark. Sadly, Moonshine isn’t yet available for inter-library loan.

  7. Mitali Perkins on #

    My mom has been saying the same thing your Dad said for almost every one of my books. She’s convinced the covers with brown faces have hindered sales and wants me to fight for generic covers. It’s a tight squeeze between the rock of publishing realities and the hard place of wanting to represent for brown and black readers wandering the aisles of the bookstores.

  8. Sara A. on #

    I get what you’re saying, and I know you’re not an educational charity. At the same time, I was thinking, “Hey, maybe some people browsing in the Af-Am section will discover that they like fantasy!”

    From the purely pragmatic end of it, is it necessarily true that a book in the Af-Am lit section would have a smaller potential audience than one in the fantasy section? I tend to suspect that Margaret Atwood’s vehement insistence that she does NOT write science fiction is that she doesn’t want to be shelved there. What are the actual buying patterns underlying all this?

  9. Jo Treggiari on #

    Great post. It really made me think so thanks for sharing your experience. The irony is pretty bitter alright. I had no idea that bookstores shelve indiscriminately even when the genre is clearly noted. Having worked in indie bookstores, I’d like to think that more care would be taken than in the big chain stores but who knows?
    I think that until things change in the world, all of us readers should try to make a conscious effort to check out the African-American section of the big chains. Is there an Asian-american section too? I can only imagine the wonderful reading we are missing out on.
    Your upcoming book sounds great- combining two of my loves- vampires and 1920′s NYC. What a great idea! And I’ll check out Racing the Dark also.

  10. Kristan on #

    I’m not sure what exactly what I want to say (loooong day, very tired) except this: Thank you. This post has given me a lot to think about. Because on the one hand I’m an idealist like you, and would like to change things with my writing. But on the other hand I’m a realist like your dad, and would like to succeed in this world and lifetime.

    So. Mulling…

  11. KayAnna Kirby on #

    In everything we should strive to our ideals. I think the African American section in bookstore come from the Jim crow era that has made it to today. I think characters should be who they are on the cover without whitewashing. If there is concern that some people won’t read a book solely because the character is brown or not white that should be the least of it. Publishers and bookstore have taken the choice out of consumers hands. I saw do away with the African American section and categorize books by genre. Only bookstore and publishers need to make sure books by people of color aren’t regulated to the storeroom shelf.

  12. Alaya Dawn Johnson on #

    Sara A:

    I like the idea of getting people to read outside of their genre comfort zone, but my problem with a separate African American section of the book store is that it shelves titles together with essentially nothing in common except the race of their authors. Now, since black people can read and enjoy a very wide variety of books (like, you know, white people) you end up with hard-core erotica being shelved next to highbrow literary next to (apparently) fantasy.

    I understand that some readers like to just be able to go find books by black writers. But I don’t think that represents a great many readers, and it *certainly* doesn’t represent even a small fraction of the fantasy audience. So in Zane’s case, maybe she isn’t being hurt too much by being shelved in the African American section. But Octavia Butler is.

    I’ve said in the past that I might not mind the African American section if bookstores who used it were required to purchase two copies of every book in it– one for the special section, and one to be shelved in the book’s actual genre (romance, literature, sf/f, whatever).

  13. DontBoxSarah on #

    I work in a bookstore that has a Black Studies section, a Black Fiction section, an LGBT Studies section, a Lesbian Fiction section, and a Gay Fiction section. I am constantly going back and forth about how I feel about these sections. On one hand, I completely agree with what was said in this post and in the comment threads about authors getting relegated to Black Fiction just because the author or the protagonist is black. On the other hand, I can see the appeal of being able to come into a bookstore and easily find a whole section of books that (in an ideal world) reflect your culture and experiences.

    I have an analogy I want to make here but I don’t want to conflate the experiences of black people and LGBT people. Obviously it’s different and white people do that way to much anyway. However, I’m not black and so I don’t want to assume I know how black people feel about Black Fiction sections just because I’m gay and I know how I feel about gay fiction sections. However, I do think there’s similarities in the way that LGBT and Black Fiction is often shelved only in their identity based sections instead of in “Regular” Fiction. (Or, when the “quality” books are shelved in “Regular” Fiction and the “crap” is shelved in LGBT or Black Fiction). Justine, if you think I’m moving the conversation too far away from race please delete me.

    Anyway, my point is that as a queer women I appreciate being able to find a whole section of books that will at least feature a person who shares my culture and experiences, instead of having to hunt through the fiction section for a few stray LGBT books (not b/c the bookstore doesn’t stock them, incidentally, but because there’s just not much published in comparison to staright lit). So I could see the reasoning for having an African-American Fiction section. I think the problems come in when a). books featuring LGBT and black protagonists aren’t shelved in both LGBT/Black Fiction AND “Regular” Fiction, or b). When people like Jeannette Winterson and Toni Morrison are shelved in “regular” fiction but people like Zane and Radclyffe are shelved only in Black/LGBT sections. That pisses me off. But I’m not sure that the complete elimination of Black or LGBT Fiction sections is the answer.

    Thoughts? Am I way off-base with my analogy here? I feel like, at least at the (indie) bookstore I work at, we have these identity-based sections because we’re trying to respond to our community and express our dedication to carrying books that reflect the experiences of people who aren’t just white and straight. Borders is probably another story however…

  14. London on #

    This is *so* frustrating! I’m so sorry that it has happened to you. I wish I could be more coherent right now, but… Grr! So angry!
    I want to fix things, but I don’t know how. :(

  15. Julia Rios on #

    Thanks for this troubling and thought-provoking post, Alaya. I Don’t quite know what to say. I’ve heard some African Americans argue that they like having an African American section in bookstores because they know they can go there to find books about people who resemble them. That seems like a good thing, but this shows that such sections can take away opportunities for other browsing customers to find good books. I would much rather see something like your book in the fantasy section mixed together with other fantasy books. Of course, I’d also love to see more fantasy books with PoC on the covers. Unfortunately, that’s not happening as fast as it should. I can really see where both you and your father are coming from on this, and my own feelings are all in a muddle. Thanks for making me think more about it.

  16. Malinda Lo on #

    Really enjoyed this post.

    @Jo – Yes, there is sometimes an Asian American section but typically it consists of Asian American Studies; I don’t think it’s quite the same as African American sections. Also there are often Latino/Hispanic, Native American, and LGBT sections. The LGBT sections tend to contain erotica and critical theory (two entirely different things, LOL!), though sometimes I find some gay/lesbian romance or mystery in there (usually from small LGBT presses).

    It’s such a dilemma. I know that in the past, having these sections was often the only way to get these kinds of diverse books into a mainstream bookstore. That’s also why we had LGBT bookstores, women’s bookstores, etc. Now many of those bookstores have folded because of chain bookstores who started stocking these books, yet these special shelving sections remain, sort of ghettoizing diversity. I totally understand where Alaya Johnson’s dad is coming from — my parents are of that mind, too.

  17. Ted Lemon on #

    Yet another reason why physical bookstores, pleasant though they may be, are not ideal. This is really frustrating – I wonder how many times I’ve gone looking for a book on the wrong shelf because of this.

  18. Sarah Rees Brennan on #

    This is just to say… thank you, Alaya, for sharing a painful story.

    And that, like Justine, I have been waiting impatiently for months to tell people how awesome Moonshine is! (Seriously guys. MAY. Camp out in the bookshops. And I will tell you the True Love Story of the book.)

  19. Tamar on #

    I’m frothing mad hearing that. Racing the Dark is a lovely epic fantasy set in an unusual world, and to think of all the fantasy readers out there who will never browse past it and pick it up because of some idiot at Borders shoving it into this bizarrely conceived book ghetto makes steam come out of my ears. I guess it’s just as well Moonshine has a white protagonist, huh?

    Okay, also? Very interesting to hear your dad’s perspective on this. Thank you for sharing that.

    Also? (I can’t seem to shut up.) Does this same Borders shelve Dreams from My Father in the “African American” section? Or is Obama exempt, in that “Oh, I know him, so he’s not black” way?

    (And finally, I’ll echo Justine and Sarah — Moonshine is a complete delight. Wish I had a book-related blog so I could talk it up too.)

  20. Tricia Sullivan on #

    Reading this I cringed when you were in that bookshop with your dad. I’m angry for your dad, to have had to adopt a set of views that always ‘moves over for white people.’
    And I’m hurt on your behalf, that as a new author going into a store to find your FIRST BOOK on the shelves, the very first thing you had to deal with was racism.

    I’m angry, and I doubt my imagination extends to encompass how angry you must be, but the tough question is what to do? There is the obvious: buy books from underrepresented writers, read them, talk about them. Talk about THIS. What else can we do? I think about it a lot.

    If the store has an African American section that they use to promote African American writers (without debating the validity of this) then shouln’t they have bought twice as many copies and shelved you in both places?

    I was looking at your book recently online and it looks from your photo like you are pretty young. Things have changed a lot since I was your age and they are going to change more as the new generation calls out the old on its hypocrisies. I have to believe that. Please keep going, keep talking about it. The overculture needs to hear it. We all need you.

    There are a lot of people reading these guest posts. I’m learning so much, and picking up a huge amount of new reading material. I really appreciate your talking about something so personal and painful. I am frustrated because I don’t know what to do. I try to make noise in my own little personal sphere, and I hope that if enough people open their eyes and ears and talk to each other about this, we can make a change. But it doesn’t feel like this is enough.

    Sorry for rambling so much. There has been a lot of ‘racism in the genre’ talk in the air lately and I’m upset but my thoughts aren’t really formed.

  21. Lyn on #

    I’m so sorry that your book was so grossly miscategorized by Borders, Alaya. At least Amazon has it in the right categories: SF/Fantasy and Literature & Fiction.

    Maybe it was just that particular Borders that you went into that shoved your book on the wrong shelf. Are there guidelines for all Borders regarding where a book is shelved or is it up to that store’s staff? I don’t know how that process works.

  22. Diana Peterfreund on #

    Lyn, Borders, particularly, does the Af-Am thing where a lot of other bookstores don’t. In my local Borders, the Af-Am section is one of the biggest sections in the shop, and it’s right up front, and all the books have lovely face-out placement.

    Which is not to say it’s a good idea. I don’t browse that section if I’m looking for romance or SF or whatever, but I have bought books from it because the face out placement has made a cover jump out at me and it’s clearly urban fantasy or romance or another genre that I like. But I’m sure I also miss a lot of great titles because I’m going, Oh, I want a fantasy, and there’s a great book that isn’t shelved in the SFF section, but in the Af-Am section, and I miss it.

    (However, I just bought a copy of THE HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS in Borders the other day, and it was shelved in SFF, despite having an obviously brown girl on the cover. So I don’t know who makes the call or how.)

    At the same time, one of the things i really like about the YA section is how they put all the books together, regardless of topic. A fantasy could be right next to a historical or an issue book, or a chick lit. It really broadens your reading experience because you could come across anything while you’re browsing. So while I think the “separate it out by race” thing is problematic, I don’t htink the “these books have nothing to do with each other, why are they shelved together” thing is not.

    Though I imagine that’s a lot harder to say in the much wider field of adult fiction than it is with YA.

  23. wandering-dreamer on #

    Wow, I never had any idea that there was a separate African American fiction section (or LCBT fiction, Asian American fiction, ect) sections in bookstores. Or, if I had thought about it, I would have assumed they would have copies of the respective books in both the AA and correct genera section to try and appeal to as many people as possible (because you know, more people see it=more people buy it=more money for bookstores that aren’t doing so well). On the one hand, I can see how people may seek out a specific sub-set of a genera to read, but having different sections still feels like some remnant of the old days that hid out in the back shelves and never got addressed.

  24. Nat on #

    Wow. First of all: Ouch. That’s an incredibly painful story, and I’m so sorry it happened to you. What an awful thing to deal with, at the holidays, about your first novel. But thank you so much for sharing, and for widening my understanding of what goes into cover choices, and the politics surrounding writing while being/writing about POC.

    Second: I’m seeing some people talk about the mixed blessing of group-specific sections, and it got me thinking. I guess I’ve never properly understood what defines any of these sections, what it is that brings them together. From looking at this post, I’d say I’m not the only one who is confused. Is it defined by the race of the author? Or of the character? Or is it that each of these books deal with issues that are relevant to race? ‘Cause those are three potentially-linked-but-not-interchangeable things.

    Third: I think the second horror of this story, after the personal/racial slight, is the business failure on the part of a major bookstore. As a young woman and sometime fantasy fan I think I might just be in the target audience for Ms. Johnson’s book. But I would not have ever found it, simply because I am not a part of the ‘African American’ section target buyers, and like an unfortunate number of people, I don’t venture very far in my bookstore explorations. So: Not only way this a horrible thing to do personally/politically, it was a horrible thing to do *from a business perspective*, because, if I am correct, the book was missing its target audience, or part of its target audience. Which, of course, hurts Ms. Johnson as well as the bookstore.

    Obviously, if there is some purchasing information/a good essay on this subject that says my last paragraph is full of BS, I’d love to hear it. I’m just making this up; actual information is always more valuable than blathering.

    Fourth: I’m a fan of ‘buy the book from under-represented writers’ theory, and this one looks particularly neat. I’ll be ordering it soon! (And I really hope Moonshine hits my local bookstore.)

    And, Lyn: Borders’ website suggests: “Find it in: Literature/ Fiction – African American – African American Fiction” So, I don’t think it was just that Borders location, I think it is chain-wide.

  25. Amy Dawson Robertson on #

    I’ve been thinking about this issue of shelving a lot lately since I have a new book out and it is shelved only in the LGBT section which in the big box stores is actually in non-fiction. AA fiction is treated this way too — as a matter of fact, we’re neighbors. I agree with another poster that it is good that people who are looking for characters who have cultural similarities to them can find them. But then books consigned to those sections have little chance of capturing the attention of the “mainstream” reader which is the only way to develop a decent sized audience. And the bookstores don’t have the space to double shelve. It’s a conundrum. I wish I had an answer for it.

  26. Cy on #

    Wow… oh my god… *I* feel like I’ve been punched in the gut reading this account! @_@ As a fellow POC writer who writes YA Fantasy instead of the hyphenised stuff that I’m told all POCs are supposed to write, this is really shocking and demoralizing. What’s wrong with a black protagonist in a Fantasy novel? True, it’s not seen as often as white protagonists, but especially if the book is marked “FANTASY” how could Borders do such a thing? I am mortally offended for you (and me, and every other author from a minority group who writes outside the pre-carved-out minority genre sections). Seriously, I hope you wrote to the managers and gave them a piece of your mind, b/c they were SO in the wrong! >.<

    Anyway, aside from their stupid mistake (I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt that some underpaid book lackey somehow missed the “fantasy” label and made one of those horrible “a$$-of-you-and-me” assumptions in this case), I’m really glad you didn’t let the publisher whitewash your cover. Why should they?? It’s true that uninformed people will make these kinds of dumb mistakes and assumptions in the beginning, but unless we get more covers out there that do have POC characters on them, how can the general public ever catch up? So even though I’m really saddened that you had to have that heart-stabbing experience, I want to say thank you for sticking with the cover, and cheer you on to keep persevering!! The concept of POC heroes in YA and Fantasy genre books will hit critical mass yet and you’re definitely doing your part! XD

  27. Doret on #

    I am really surprised this was in the African American section since its cleary fantasy. Most bookstores that still have an African American sub section place the genre books in section.

    Like most of Butler’s books are in fantasy, Mosley in mystery, Due in horror, etc.

    I told myself I wasn’t going to buy any books for awhile. But now I plan on buying Racing the Dark

  28. KatG on #

    What was very likely about this particular case is that your publisher was the problem, because the main sorting process for booksellers is the publisher. Your publisher is not a fantasy imprint (which go in the fantasy section,) or a YA publisher (which go in the YA section,) but is Agate Bolden, Bolden being the imprint of Agate that deals with the African-American experience, according to their own description. So the African-American section is where Agate Bolden books go and that’s where you went.

    I hope that when you marched the book over to fantasy, your family just didn’t do it yourselves. That’s not going to help because then the book is mis-shelved according to the store’s computer, and will probably be moved back to the African-American section. If so, next time you run into this problem, ask to talk to whatever manager or assistant manager is available. Explain that while you have an African-American publisher, the book is also or mainly being marketed to the fantasy audience. If the store has more than one copy, you can ask that the copies be split between the two sections. If they have only one, you can ask that it be reshelved to fantasy. Since you are New School, making friends or at least connections with the booksellers, getting them to know you and getting the word out where it is you want to go, can be effective. Also, offer to sign their copies of the book.

    That is not to say that there is not racism going on in book-selling. I think at this point we can say pretty clearly that there is, and that unfortunately sometimes publishers are catering to that. If Bloomsbury wasn’t lying to Justine about the bookseller saying black faces don’t sell — and I don’t see why they would — then we are dealing with systemic racism that has become an ingrained habit that will only be broken by pointing it out and complaining about it.

    But SFF authors who are not published by a specialty SFF publisher like Tor or Del Rey or Orbit or Baen, including those published by YA/children’s publishers, need to be aware that it is only the SFF specialty publishers whose wares are automatically dumped into the SFF section of bookstores. Octavia Butler, for instance, is an icon of SFF, but her last novel, Kindred, was published by Beacon Press, not a SFF arm, but an independent general fiction press. Her work is regularly studied in womens studies and African-American studies, and Beacon has Kindred listed in its African-American Studies division. So if the book comes in that way from that publisher, over to the African-American section it goes. Because fantasy and SF titles are common in general fiction publishers too, booksellers may not be paying attention to what type of story it is and just file it according to the publisher’s regular category.

  29. Justine on #

    KatG: Kindred was not Octavia Butler’s last novel, Fledgling was. Kindred was first published in 1979.

  30. Alaya Dawn Johnson on #

    KatG: I’m not sure that arguing that bookstores don’t pay attention to the actual content of the book they are purchasing from a publisher makes a great deal of sense, honestly. Plenty of publishers publish multiple genres, and they have the reasonable expectation that their books won’t all be shelved in the same place.

    And as Justine said, Fledgling was Octavia Butler’s last book. It was published in hardcover by Seven Stories Press. I’m honestly not sure where Borders would have shelved it, but considering that Seven Stories publishes both fiction and non-fiction, one would also hope they would have bothered to look at the label in that case.

  31. KatG on #

    “KatG: Kindred was not Octavia Butler’s last novel, Fledgling was. Kindred was first published in 1979.”

    Oh man, I mixed titles up. Sorry about that. Teach me to do posts very late at night. Fledgling was put out currently by Grand Central, which is a general fiction imprint of Hatchette, along with some of her back-list in editions that are geared for course adoption. So again, those titles are more likely to be in general fiction, or African-American or women’s studies sections of the bookstore if Grand Central puts it in their catalog that way, not the SFF section which is largely the domain of the SFF specialty houses and imprints.

    It may be that the situation can be improved by Alaya talking to her publisher about making sure her particular title is placed in the fantasy section, or if she prefers, the YA section, though I don’t think she was writing specifically for YA. Yes, authors don’t get the say on this stuff — as you found yourself — but I’m sure her publisher would like to get her as many audiences as possible. But when a box of ordered books comes in to a store from a publisher, that publisher’s whole list usually directs where the books go, and her publisher is not a fantasy press. Their mission statement is that they are putting out titles about African-Americans. The same thing goes if a publisher is a specialty house for gay/lesbian works, Asian works, children’s works, etc.

    This has been a particular problem for non-category speculative fiction, which, like category SFF, is made up of many kinds of stories. While the publisher may try to cross-market to multiple audiences, the bookstores don’t always get the message. The books in the SFF section come from the SFF publishers while other SFF books from other publishers may go numerous places in the store and usually do get lumped with the publisher’s other titles. For instance, Christopher Moore, a white satiric SFF author who is currently published by William Morrow, always published out of category and so you’d usually find his titles in the general fiction section of the store, not SFF, and still do.

    Which is not to say that Alaya is not going to run into problems concerning race, even if she doesn’t have a black person’s face on her covers. Starting in the late 1980′s, what they awkwardly termed “ethnic” fiction got extremely successful with hit authors like Amy Tan, Terry McMillan, etc., and much sought after, but it also meant that non-white authors tended to get pigeon-holed, and that’s the way a lot of the market tends to think, in the same way that Margaret Atwood is still confused that she’s written science fiction. And now we have to deal with the wide evidence of this undercurrent, this idiotic belief about white readers and non-white readers, (I’m so thrilled that Liar is doing well.)

    But bookstores are Alaya’s business partners. And in this case it may have been more of a misunderstanding based on publisher than a deliberate effort to squeeze her out of fantasy because of her cover. As you found, a dialogue can create change, and if this is a chain store local to her, it’s a good idea for her to politely make herself known to them as a local author. They might even do a signing with her, and if she can publicize it to local SFF fans as well, they may come out and spread the word.

    (Sorry for the double long posts.)

  32. Justine on #

    KatG: It sounds like you think this is a problem that only Alaya has accounted. I’m sure that’s not what you mean but that’s how it’s coming across. I have found Coe Booth’s, Varian Johnson’s and Paula Chase’s books, which are all published as YA by big mainstream presses (like Scholastic), in the African-American section and not in YA even though these books are all clearly published as YA.

    Alaya is not the only person this has happened to. I’ve also found Samuel R. Delany, Octavia Butler, Tananarive Due, Steve Barnes, and Nalo Hopkinson (who isn’t even African-American! She’s Canadian/Carribean) etc etc all shelved in that section from time to time even when the publisher is an sf/fantasy/horror imprint.

    My last book, Liar, has more African-American characters than Alaya’s fantasy trilogy. In fact the three leads, Micah, Tayshawn & Sarah are all African-American. Liar never gets shelved in the African-American section. I have never seen a book about African-Americans by a non-African-American in that section of the store.

    I don’t think that the publisher is the biggest deciding factor in what books go into the African-American section of a bookstore.

  33. Mardel S on #

    I posted about just finding out that there was a separate section for AA writers in bookstores. I never thought about it before. It bothers me that I and many others are missing out on good fantasy fiction becaused it’s shelved in a segregated section of the store. No matter what spin is put on it, it’s still a separate sections. It doesn’t make sense to me. Because i really don’t care about the race of the writer, I’m looking for books. When I’m looking for Urban Fantasy, I’m looking in the fantasy/scifi area – not realizing (until recently) that theres is another place to look. Same with mysteries. It shouldn’t matter what the cover looks like or the race of the writer (it’s 2010 for god’s sake), I think all books should be shelved by genre. The only reason that I finally found out about the African American literature, is because I was looking for books for the POC writing challenge.

    I also think that the big time publishers, and the bookstores need to catch up to the thinking of the average person. I really feel that most people (expecially people who are big readers) are more interested in the story than the race of the storywriter. They need to stop insulting the intelligence and morals of us readers and just shelve by genre and quite being so afraid of putting brown skin on the covers of books. Just take a look at all the people you see walking around in groups, or just in general. I see so many “mixed” groups of people having fun together, that I can’t believe that the majority of people are going to NOT buy a book because of the cover color.

  34. dontboxsarah on #

    When we’re talking about the ways that books are shelved in the comments here, could we maybe make a distinction between chain stores and independent stores? Let’s not make bookstores the fallguy here. Just because Borders shelves a book in a certain place doesn’t mean that everyone does. And just because Borders is a big corporate store that doesn’t put much political thought into where they put their books doesn’t mean that that’s true of all bookstores. Most indie stores think seriously about where they’re shelving a book and how it fits into the overall category-system of their store. They don’t just categorize a book based on how the publisher has coded it. Many indie stores have pretty specialized sections and idiosyncratic ways of shelving that reflect their customer-base. And it’s not just always “where will this book sell?” but “if we’re going to have an Af-Am or LGBT fiction section (which our customers seems to want), how important is it that we stock it with not just mediocre fiction but also quality titles that aren’t about someone’s identity being a ‘problem’?” (Answer being, very important).

    Many people seem to be coming at this from the point of view of the author — being concerned about sales, finding a wide readership, etc. Which I totally get — authors need to sell their books and want as many people as possible to love their books. Absolutely that is important. But bookstores (especially indies) tend to think of shelving based on the customers’ viewpoint, because that’s who they’re interacting with the most. If an indie bookstore has a lot of African American customers and they have an African-American fiction section, it’s going to be pretty important to them that they’re not just relegating the “crap” or “issue-novels” to that section while the “quality” gets elevated to the level of “real fiction.”

    I know it’s problematic, but I’m going to make my analogy again between LGBT fiction and Af-Am fiction: I would LOVE to read an amazing scifi queer novel, but as a queer woman I don’t want to have to sift through the entire (mostly straight) scifi section to find it. If I were a customer that would be way too overwhelming and I would probably just assume that there aren’t any if I don’t see any in the LGBT section. From a customer point of view, those books should be shelved in the LGBT section to serve the needs of the people who are browsing that section, not shelved in the “regular” fiction section to serve the needs of straight customers who need that book less. I could be wrong, but I could imagine that there might be African American customers who feel similarly.

    I don’t think it’s necessarily an act of racism to shelve a scifi book featuring a black protagonist in the African American fiction section. I think it certainly CAN be, and perhaps in Borders case it was (since they’re not a particularly politically-minded bookstore), but I think there’s something to be said for a politically-minded bookstores having well-stocked African-American and LGBT Fiction sections that hold a wide-variety of fiction genres. Personally, I would be beyond stoked to wander into a bookstore and find such a section. Yes, certainly there would be some white/straight people who wouldn’t browse that section and wouldn’t find those books, but (from a customer point of view) it’s not always about the browsing needs of white/straight people. If bookstores are going to have identity-based sections then they should be sections that are for the needs of the customers who have that identity — not for the needs of white/straight customers who don’t want to have to go out of their way to find Alice Walker/Ali Smith.

  35. Justine on #

    Dontboxsarah: No one here is making indies the fallguy. Alaya’s post above is very explicitly about Borders. The only bookstores that have been mentioned have been the chains. It seems pretty clear that the majority of these comments are referring to the chains. You made your point about the utility of African-American/GLBT sections much more generously in your first comment above.

    One of the things many indies do that chains don’t is doubleshelve. In which case the books get exposure to more than one audience which is fantastic.

    When a genre book is shelved only in the Af-Am section it loses the majority of its audience. Because the number of those who browse the Af-Am section looking for YA fantasy is much smaller than those looking through the YA shelves for same. This is bad for not just the author but for the reader. There have been very few bestselling African-American YA writers. I believe the way their books are shelved is part of why.

    This is very explicitly a conversation about how shelving genre books such as Alaya’s in the Af-Am section reduces the sales of those books.

    I find this assumption of yours troubling: “Yes, certainly there would be some white/straight people who wouldn’t browse that section and wouldn’t find those books, but (from a customer point of view) it’s not always about the browsing needs of white/straight people.”

    I’ve spent a lot of time in the YA sections of bookstores all over the US and I can tell you that the teens browsing there are not all white and probably not all straight either. They are the ones who are being kept from books like Alaya’s when it’s not shelved in YA. Almost no one, black or white, thinks to look for a YA fantasy book in the African-American section.

  36. Mac on #

    The “African American Fiction” section, especially as Borders arranges things, pretty much guarantees books by black authors a shorter shelf life by clipping their market share in comparison to books covering the same topics and/or featuring the same people as a book by a white author. There was a long debate about this in “Smart Bitches” a while back — interracial romance by white authors shelved in general romance, while the same subject matter by a black author got shelved in Af-Am Lit. I’ve been to various Borders and seen L.A. Banks (Vampire Hunter), Zane (“urban” lit, erotica), Octavia Butler (sci-fi), James Baldwin (some fiction, but some ESSAYS) and Barack Obama’s memoir (memoir! not lit!) shelved in the same space, which is random and ridiculous (although this changes, sometimes depending on the branch. For example, I bought Alaya D. Johnson’s book in the SFF section of my local Borders in hardcover, but the trade paperback was shelved in Af-Am. By contrast, the trade paper was a featured item in a shelf right by the front door in my local indie. She is also in SFF in Barnes and Noble, where she belongs.)

    Borders does not seem to do this with any other ethnicity when it comes to literature. When it comes to sociology, yes — “Native American Studies,” “Asian Studies,” “Middle Eastern Studies,” and so on, but not fiction. Af-Am fiction is, for who knows why, relegated to its own little ghetto, topic and genre notwithstanding. (Fascinatingly enough, I’ve found British writers of African descent and Afro-Caribbean writers shelved in with general literature.)

    I brought this to the attention of a floor worker, who was rather upset as she told me, “I know, I know, we’ve tried.” The only way to get change is to go to the top.

    A while back, author Monica Jackson posted this address:
    Borders
    100 Phoenix Drive
    Ann Arbor, MI 48108

    It’s a place to start.

  37. dontboxsarah on #

    Justine, I apologize for moving the thread off-topic, but I think perhaps you misunderstood what I was saying. My second comment was in response to some of the comments which merely spoke of bookstores generally & called for an end to identity-base sections, not in response to Alaya’s post. I know her experience happened at Borders but, just speaking from my experience with customers, the distinction between how indies and chains operate isn’t always clear to everyone and I just wanted to say — “hey, not everyone does it that way, a lot of us are trying to be socially just in the way we sell books, and can we just be clear that we’re talking about chains for the most part.” Because for a lot of people who aren’t in the publishing industry, the difference between chains and indies is not clear. I know a lot of people read this blog and I just wanted to explain why some bookstores might have identity-based sections, and that just because they do doesn’t automatically mean that they are being racist about the way they shelve their books. Sometimes it because they’re trying to create welcoming sections for their communities.

    I certainly didn’t mean to imply that all YA readers are white or straight (or even only teens). I know from my personal experience that this is not the case, and I’m not sure how I managed to so completely mess up what I was trying to say. (eep!) I should have been more clear. I was actually thinking of fiction broadly, not YA, and just trying to say that there’s a lot of POC and queer people who really want to read more books about people like them and that (especially with publishers whitewashing books) it can be hard to find those books in the general fiction section. What I was trying to say was that if it’s a choice between a white or straight person finding such a book, and a POC or a queer person finding it, I want it to be easiest for the POC or queer person to find it because they need it more. To me, when I shelve books in the African-American fiction or queer fiction sections it’s because I’m trying to say to our customers “I value your need for this book and I want you to have a place you can come where you can easily find books that reflect your identity & culture and not be placated with only the “mediocre,” the erotica, or “issue” books that feature people like you.” Just to clarify, I would not shelve YA books in these sections, and I agree that double coding would be ideal.

    I apologize if my tone was unclear at all, I certainly didn’t mean to attack anyone and I won’t post again on this thread because I don’t want to derail anymore than I already have.

  38. V. Vega on #

    Speaking from personal experience, it’s completely worthless to point out these sorts of shelving mistakes to the staff at Borders. Those decisions are made by someone much higher up than whoever happened to be shelving that book; my manager told me it’s usually determined based on the publisher, especially when it’s a small or specialty press that tends to focus on certain genres.

    If the computer says a book is supposed to be in the AfAm section of Borders and you move it to fantasy, it will most likely NOT be moved back to AfAm. It will sit on the fantasy shelf until someone discovers it’s not “supposed” to be there. Meanwhile, if someone comes in and tries to buy it but it’s not on the “right” shelf, it will not be found or sold.

  39. Tim Keating on #

    Hmm. I thought about expressing some outrage here, as well. Instead I just went and bought and downloaded the Kindle edition of Racing the Dark.

  40. Cy on #

    @Mac Thanks for the address to Borders. I’m gonna write them and tell them their shelving policy for Af-Am authors who are writing YA and other genres, is totally unfair.

    @Alaya I went to my local Borders this weekend, moved “Racing the Dark” from the Af-Am section to the Fantasy section and left a post-it note on one copy telling them (politely) that they’ve misshelved this book and the author herself wants to be in the SFF section. Hope they’ll take that to heart in that store, at least, but yeah–the change has to be made at the top.

  41. Emma Bull on #

    Yep, based on this essay, you are still awesome. And smart. And awesomely smart.

    Thank you–and your dad–for providing another piece of the publishing puzzle.

  42. Alaya Dawn Johnson on #

    Cy: I love the idea of leaving a post-it note when you re-shelve it. I know some people don’t like the idea of guerrilla re-shelving, but I just want to say thank you.

    Emma: I think I’m blushing. :)

  43. Angela Korra'ti on #

    Hi Alaya (and Justine),

    I came in from John Scalzi’s post on Whatever that linked over here, and I just wanted to say that I’ll be showing my support for fantasy novels with covers that correctly portray their non-white protagonists by buying a copy of this book.

    Thanks for sharing your experience with this, Alaya, and thanks Justine for hosting the post.

  44. Kimathy on #

    Our local indie bookseller, Tattered Cover, lists Racing the Dark in the Fantasy section. Unfortunately, the book is a special order, but at least they got the genre right. The local library system puts it in the general fiction section. Weird. I’ll have to go ask one of the librarians what criteria led to it being put there.

  45. Jon on #

    Great post.

    Your Father may have a bit of a point, but hell, change has to start somewhere, right?

  46. Lyle Blake Smythers on #

    I want to jump in to reiterate a point that a couple of people made before me, a point which I fear is being overlooked or ignored by some because of their (extremely well justified) indignation. I speak as a librarian who used to work for both Borders and Barnes & Noble stores.

    In the case of both these monolithic chains, the decision of where a particular title is shelved is made on the national level, at corporate headquarters. (B&N, New York; Borders, Ann Arbor, Mich.) Every copy of every book gets a computer-generated label with a barcode and a printed legend telling you where it has to be shelved. Yes, I said HAS to be shelved.
    If a customer wants a particular title, the bookseller has to know where to find it and should not be encouraged to guess or rely on personal opinion. It’s a matter of cold hard fact and does not yield to argument, no matter how well-founded. (“This really isn’t romance, it’s more gothic suspense.” “Sorry, that’s where we have to put it. The computer says so.”)

    There are district managers whose primary job is to travel around from store to store, making sure that their managers are in compliance with corporate policy. In my experience, a lot of their scrutiny was devoted to the timeliness and accuracy of displays (did the Halloween display go up on the appointed day? Were the required titles placed on it?), but if the manager of a local store goes rogue and decides to shelve an “Afro-American” title in fantasy, she could get penalized. I’m not making this up.

    This is why arguing with your local employees is not effective. It’s like going into your local Safeway / Giant / Kroger supermarket, tracking down the high school kid who is stocking shelves and arguing that the Wheat Thins really should not be in the same aisle as the cookies because, you know, they have a lot more nutritional value.

    It doesn’t matter whether you’re right. You’re talking to the wrong person. Is this corporate dominance over local needs business maddening? Bone-headed? Frustrating? Just plain wrong? You bet. How to fix it or make a difference? I don’t know. Just pointing out some reality here, which tends to get lost in the shuffle when we start getting passionate.

  47. Roger E. on #

    From the “For What It’s Worth Department”:

    I’m a geeky white guy who almost exclusively reads science fiction and fantasy. When I go to a bookstore, I gravitate to the section that contains the books I like to read. While there, I browse, read flap descriptions and look at the covers. Sometimes cool art will tip the scale in favor of a purchase, but in reality I could care less who (or what) is on the cover. I’ll buy the book if the flap describes the type of story I like (there are usually aliens and explosions or dragons involved).

    I don’t look for my sf/f fix in the “African American” section because 1)I am not African American and assume the books there are primarily of interest to African Americans and 2)those shelves are not on my radar as the place where I can find aliens or dragons.

    I suspect every author’s goal is to get their books into the hands of as many people as possible. I also suspect that, unfortunately, a large part of the potential audience is lost when a sf/f book is placed (exclusively) outside of that section. As a reader of those genres, what matters to me most is story and, ultimately, whether or not I can find the book on “my shelves”.

  48. atsiko on #

    Coming to this a bit late, directed here by John Scalzi via Justine.

    I found this post almost shocking. I don’t browse the AA section at my local bookstore, and I really didn’t even know there was such a section until recently. I would certainly not look for a book like Racing the Dark in that section.

    While I understand the point as mentioned about PoC having priority on finding the book, I also think that sort of attitude will slow down acceptance of work written by PoC and about PoC. I know no white genre readers who regularly or even ocassionally browse the AA section of Borders, and that means they aren’t being exposed to this material. And I would respond the same way about having to dig through a bunch of other material to find such books. I would love to read more of this kind of book, but if it’s not shelved where I browse, I have only the internet to learn about it from, and there’s only so many recs I can keep up with at one time.

    If we want these books to reach a larger readership, then they need to be shelved where that readership can find them. I think double shelving would be a great compromise, perhaps with a note to check the other section if the section the reader is in is out of that particular book. Perhaps a cover brochure featuring the cover blurb and book info would also be appropriate. Wishful thinking, I know, but one can dream.

  49. Ann Lemay on #

    I did a quick search at the website of the Chapters/Indigo bookstore, because I had to know how they had classified your novels there.

    “You’ve searched Books > Keyword: “Alaya Dawn Johnson” > Science Fiction and Fantasy.”

    That is the breadcrumb trail above “Racing the Dark” and “The Burning City” when I search for your name. I thought you might like to know this.

    I will be ordering your books from the website soon, as well. Thank you so much for sharing this with us.

  50. B. Durbin on #

    To follow up on what Lyle Blake Smythers says above, shelving decisions are made at the corporate level and are extremely difficult to change. As a former Borders employee, I submitted wrongly shelved items multiple times and never got a correction on any of them. I also submitted “do you really think this is wise?” shelving issues and never got an answer back on those either. (For example, they shelved James Lileks’ Gallery of Regrettable Food— a humorous look at horrible food photos from the first half of the 20th century— in the cooking section. In with books of recipes. They’ve also shelved his other books in various categories around the store, so unless you know to look, you’d never know the man has half a dozen books out, all over…)

    The decisions on where to shelve are theoretically to make the most sales. Or other weird reasons. Anne Rice isn’t shelved in Horror but in Literature— not because of any judgement on her books (good or bad), but because her fans like hardback. Seriously. That’s the reason.

    That being said, a good store can keep on top of these things and have employees that recommend good books. The store I worked at used to be phenomenal at this kind of thing. Alas, I have heard since then that compliance regulations from the corporate level have sucked the soul out of many a store, and that the general manager whose style had built such a wonderful group ended up quitting and going to work for the Chamber of Commerce. Remember this, if you ever end up high in a corporate chain— if a store is doing really well by being individual, it may not be wise to force them to be just another chain store.

  51. Mel on #

    I think this explains why I’ve spent the last year fruitlessly looking for “Racing the Dark” in YA and adult SFF at Borders.

    Bleh.

  52. Justine on #

    Roger E.: There’s nothing wrong with the existence of an African-American section in bookstores in the USA. Originally such a section was a very powrful political statement because so few books were published by or for African-Americans. There are many book buyers who have found that section immensely useful for many years. (As several commenters have pointed out upstream.) There are also many authors who’ve built their careers on the African-American section, whose books likely wouldn’t sell as well shelved elsewhere.

    The problem is when a book like Alaya’s, which is a YA fantasy, is shelved away from YA fantasy and its primary audience, and thus loses many sales.

  53. Roger E. on #

    Justine –

    I agree there’s nothing wrong with the existence of an African American book section in a bookstore — or any specialty grouping for that matter. It helps people of like interests and backgrounds find what they like to read and I’m all for that. Didn’t know about the political statement of having such a section, but that makes sense, too.

    As a sf/f reader, I was just lamenting that Alaya’s book was *only* found there and not where all the other sf/f books are located — where geeks like me browse. So, as far as I can tell, we are in complete agreement. It is indeed a problem of placement. –Roger

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