Taking back control

Taking back control

Reedsy.com describes indie publishing as “…any form of publishing that doesn’t rely on the Big 5 publishing houses.” I have produced work with three such companies. I left them unsatisfied. I didn’t like the royalty payouts, or lack of. I didn’t like their “go to market” strategies. I didn’t like the deficiency of control.

Then, in 2020, I had the privilege of interviewing Beverly Jenkins, known to most as Ms. Bev. If you’re not familiar, she is a Black American romance author. Her first book, Night Song, was released in 1994. During our interview, she described the summer of 1994 as “the summer of Black love.”

This fascinated me. She explained this was a period in American history when publishers acknowledged that Black people actually read. In her words, “I don’t know what they thought we were doing in a bookstore.” This statement resonated with me. I’ve loved reading since I was a child; however, somewhere along the way I realised women who looked like me weren’t represented on the pages of books I preferred.

Fast forward to the early 2000s and I decided I had a book or two I wished to write. I joined Romance Writers of America. I attended workshops and seminars about writing and publishing. I made my wish list of agents and publishers and entered the legion of individuals who desired to become published authors.

After years of unsuccessful attempts, often receiving feedback that riffed on, “We don’t know how to advertise a book with a Black female heroine,” I became discouraged. I lost belief in my ability and doubted the possibility of a market for books about Black women written by Black women. In the documentary "Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am", Toni said, “The assumption is that the reader is a white person.” Rejection had built internalisation of this concept, something I didn’t originally consider. Savannah J. Frierson, author of Trolling Nights, voiced the same sentiment when she says, “…traditional agents and editors weren’t understanding or gelling with the story I wanted to tell.” This is echoed by several indie authors. Although my spirit was low, some unknown force drove me. I persisted.

Is the reader white? For many years, it was illegal to teach slaves to read and write in America. Well into the 1900s, public libraries denied access to Black Americans. I don’t believe the reader is white; however, the inequities in the American publishing industry support a white reader. However, this belief impacts the development of work by Black writers and the marketing of those projects. Sage Young, author of In Another Time, says, “…as an African-American I think it’s harder to get people to try your books.” However, Kim Smith, author of Disk of Death, says, “I think every indie whether they are white, Black or brown has definite hurdles to cross in the indie space.” Oddly, I agree with both statements. I know indie authors who have received negative reviews because a reader realized the heroine was a woman of color. Is it about the reader being white? Or is it simply a racist reaction?

Nevertheless, finally, I secured a “yes.” My first published book dropped in 2009. Since I’ve released over 15 books as an indie published author. Circling back to my earlier point, I chose indie publishing because I tired of hearing there was a lack of marketing knowledge to package and sell a book whose heroine was a Black woman. To me, it proved the mindset that existed in 1994 remained. This is something Sage Young confirms when she tells me, “I self-publish because initially it was my only option.”

I’ve unwillingly accepted that the chances are high that a Black woman will not be the love interest or heroine in many of the books I read. She will more than likely be the sidekick, funny one or friend unless I select a book by one of my heroes like Ms. Bev, one of the selected few who managed to breakthrough into mainstream publishing. The number of Black women authors signed with major publishers is growing, of course, but the wait list is long.

Therefore, when I entered the world of indie publishing, I didn’t consider the pitfalls. I rejoiced because my writing would be on the market. I chose indie publishing because they accepted my work; however, I soon realized some didn’t pay royalties timely, some were slow to release books, and some provided poor quality cover art and editing. So: there I was, stuck. I had contracts I couldn’t break because I didn’t know how and what was I going to do after they ended, and my rights reversed back to me? I asked Linda Rettstatt, author of Ladies in Waiting about pitfalls. She said, “…the pitfalls would be that it’s my dime to provide the cover art and editing, and I have to do the marketing.”

Marketing didn’t frighten me. Self-publishing became a natural choice after encountering dissatisfaction with indie publishers, and my Masters in marketing could be used to promote my work. Laura T. Johnson, author of Unbalanced, admits, “…one pitfall for me is definitely marketing.” Kim Smith, author of Disk of Death agrees, “…everyone in indie publishing struggles with marketing.” True. But 14 years ago I didn’t trust there were other viable options, and I was willing to learn. Occasionally, there is an outlier who has amazing success, but that is rare. I’m not a millionaire, but I have sold books without the power of a major publisher. I love what I do, and part of that is providing a missing voice.

Missing voices. Own voices. Black voices.

Regardless of how you look at it, voice matters. It matters because it helps to create a new normal. When people of color don’t see themselves, it is a subtle communication quietly telling us we don’t belong. A message that says Black voices don’t matter. That statement isn’t simply heard by people of color, it’s heard by the mainstream.

In America, over the past year, we’ve seen the country shift in the wake of Black Lives Matter movement. This cry to be seen and heard instead of ignored screams for own voices. Too often the story of Black Americans filtered through the lens of white America is misconstrued.

I think recent events in America and across the globe highlight the need for indie publishing, but I also believe they support the rally for change within traditional publishing. The authors and poets of the Harlem Renaissance voiced the anguish of Black Americans during the early 1900s. Indie authors of today follow in this tradition, introducing readers to vivid worlds inhabited by people of color. As a self-published author, I don’t see an end to the growth of indie publishing because I don’t see an end to traditional publishing marginalising different voices. If the reader, in their eyes, continues to be white, authors like myself will need to work harder for visibility. And for now, that means indie publishing will continue to become the avenue of choice for many own voices.  

Angela McConnell-Hughes aka Angela Kay Austin is a USA TODAY bestselling author, podcaster and YouTuber. Contact Angela at angela@angelakayaustin.com to learn more about her writing.