Commentary on The State of Black Publishing: Interview with Bill Campbell
by Tiffany M. Davis
“When you are a writer of color and in a place people don’t think you ought to be, your very presence is a political statement.” – Bill Campbell
TAGS: Bill Campbell, Rosarium Publishing, pop culture, Publishers Weekly, Bridgewater College, University of Wisconsin at River Falls, Ishmael Reed, satire, Toni Morrison, Indiegogo
Bill Campbell had wanted to be a writer since he was nine years old. He self-published his first novel, Sunshine Patriots, in 1998, which was an eye-opener. “Putting out a book with anti-war rhetoric, during the Iraqi war, made for an uncomfortable book tour,” Campbell said during the Google Hangout interview.
After publishing and promoting Sunshine Patriots, Campbell thought it best to retain the services of a literary agent. He did so and wrote My Booty Novel, which Campbell described as “fluff for nerds." However, his agent was unable to generate much interest for this book; he told Campbell that the book was “not ghetto enough”. Campbell published his third book, Pop Culture, which was a collection of his blog posts about life as a stay-at-home dad. His fourth novel, Koontown Killing Kaper, was satire in the vein of Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo. Unfortunately, not everyone got or appreciated the satirical aspect of KKK. Campbell was dropped by his agent and, with no attention from bookstores, resorted to selling the book out of the trunk of his car.
Enter crowdfunding and Mothership: Tales from Afrofuturism and Beyond. Campbell, still irked by the “not ghetto enough” comment from his former agent and the relative marginalization of authors of African descent in science fiction and speculative fiction, put together a diverse group of forty authors to create the anthology Mothership. He started an Indiegogo campaign to raise money to publish the book, which he was against doing at first. “Mothership was just supposed to be the jumpoff for Rosarium Publishing,” he said of his publishing company. “I was initially against crowdfunding because I thought it would be a lot more work ... and I was right. The idea was great, and I’m glad it was successful, but many people with money use crowdfunding, and use it as a marketing tool. I didn’t want to get into that.” The success of Mothership came with the usual price that authors of African descent are used to paying. A positive review in Publishers Weekly magazine alluded that most works by authors of African descent contained “obvious messages” ad nauseum, even though Mothership stories mostly stayed away from them. When asked if he thought the allusion was accurate, Campbell responded, “When you are a writer of color and in a place people don’t think you ought to be, your very presence is a political statement.”
Indeed, Campbell’s presence has made a statement. Koontown Killing Kaper is taught in the curriculum at Bridgewater College and the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, and will be included at six other schools by 2014. A student once wrote part of his PhD dissertation on Campbell's first novel, Sunshine Patriots. Yet Campbell can’t get any interest from a mainstream publisher. “You are dealing with corporations, who deal with marketable products,” Campbell said of mainstream publishers. “In America today, our art and culture are being run by corporations. But these two models are antithetical. Art depends on the new, the works that push boundaries, whereas corporations depend on existing corporate models. They can't really exist side-by-side." The need for such corporate models is a primary reason why publishing, much like the music industry, seems to promote the same types of books and does not truly reward originality. Campbell is of the firm opinion that if the great Toni Morrison were a new author today, she would not be published because she does not fit into the corporate sales paradigm.
The lack of encouragement with regard to authors of African descent writing in different genres, is usually explained away by mainstream publishers as “not having the numbers” that demonstrate that a certain genre is read by certain readers; this would explain why authors of African descent in America enjoy limited success within the context of novels set in the Black Church; novels about relationships; and urban fiction (“street literature”) novels, as the assumption is that readers of African descent can only relate to these types of books. Campbell disagrees, and even questions the existence of such numbers. “Most successful minority authors are heavily reliant upon a large white readership,” Campbell said. When he couldn’t get My Booty Novel carried in the urban/city large chain bookstores, he found traction in bookstores in the suburbs. “My audience was white Republican women.” In the same vein, the majority of the people who attended his signings for Koontown were white, as it seemed they got--and enjoyed--the satirical aspect of the novel.
Which comes back to the institutionalized segregation of mainstream publishing. “Mainstream publishing mainly rests on the shoulders of recent grads from elite universities going through slush piles, then passing on those deemed worthy to editors with the same backgrounds." This lack of representation for authors of color at the upper echelons of mainstream publishing houses leads to a corresponding lack of distribution of books by authors of color; so who is buying the books of successful black authors? “At the time I wrote Koontown, 80% of books by/for/about black people was urban/ghetto lit, yet 30% live in majority/minority neighborhoods, 'ghetto' or otherwise, according to 2010 census," Campbell states. "So, you were about two and a half times more likely of being portrayed as living in the ghetto than you were of actually living in one."
Obviously, there is are still obstacles facing authors of African descent in mainstream publishing. “Race is still a third rail,” Campbell notes, “even more so than November 4, 2008.”
Tiffany M. Davis is the Senior Editor of QBR: The Black Book Review. She has been published in anthologies and The Backlist newsletter, and has contributed her writing and editorial services to clients that include National Geographic, Sodexho, the American Society for Cell Biology, and Triple Crown Publications. A graduate of Georgetown University and a former chef trained at the Culinary Institute of America, she currently lives in the New York area.