How to Publish Writers of Color: Some Basic Steps for White Folks In the Industry

Someday I'm going to write the Essay to End Them All on why I don't work in traditional publishing anymore and what I think of the industry's institutionalized racism, but today is not that day (oh, honestly, just buy me a couple of whiskeys and I'll yell it at you). But there has been a lot of hand-wringing on the internet of late about Diversity and Why We Don't Have It, prompting today's Twitter rampage, and look, folks, the answer is not because people of color can't write. I run a small press, Guillotine, out of my apartment; my list is currently nearly 50% writers of color, and will likely be more like 80% writers of color next year. Nearly all my chapbooks sell out and the press is 100% self-sustaining. Commercial publishing, if I can do it, so can you.

I wrote 99% of this on the train just now in a state of total rage, so please excuse anything important I may have left out. This is an ongoing conversation. And again, again, a hundred times again: I am not saying anything here that has not been said better for decades by writers of color.

1. CHOOSE. Does publishing writers of color matter to you, or not? If it does not, carry on. Continue to publish sad second-rate reiterations by white writers of that one thing that made you a shit-ton of money that one time. The reality is that the vast majority of all the money in the world is in the hands of a very few white dudes anyway and you will likely suffer no consequences for your laziness; but maybe do us all the favor of no longer pretending in feeble and ineffective editorials and panels that you are genuinely invested in altering the landscape of the industry, in valuing the stories and the work of the vast majority of humanity, and of not looking like a bunch of assholes. If publishing writers of color does matter to you, by all means, make some changes.

2. EXAMINE YOUR BIASES. I am a white lady. I read a lot of writers of color. I also read a great many white ladies who write about perilous adolescences, bad decisions, and vampires. That's fine. What I read has no relevance to this conversation. I am not publishing work as a reader; I am not publishing work solely for the purpose of reflecting my own experience; and, most importantly, I do not assume, as a publisher, that my own experience is any more universal, relevant, or salable than anyone else's. Guillotine publishes work that uses the lens of the personal to explore larger political issues. "Personal" in that context does not mean "my own life and my experiences." It means the life and the experiences of the writer. As a publisher, it is my responsibility to recognize when I'm defaulting to my own story and to decide whether my extremely limited time and resources might be more impactful directed somewhere else.

3. FIND YOUR WRITERS. There are brilliant, amazing, innovative, and groundbreaking writers of color everywhere. EVERYWHERE. ALL OVER THE PLACE. Why are they not submitting to traditional publishers and agents? IDK, maybe because traditional publishing is an industry made up of nearly entirely white folks from upper-middle-class and wealthy backgrounds who routinely reject work by writers of color as "unsalable" or because "we already have one of those" and who do not bother to publicize or get behind any of the handful--literal handful, folks, come on--of books by writers of color they do manage to publish every year, thus effectively ending those writers' careers when their books tank. I wouldn't submit, either. (For the record, 100% of the people who have submitted directly to Guillotine have been white.)

So how do I find writers? The Internet, obviously. I pay attention to Twitter, I read blog posts retweeted by people whose curatorial eye I trust. I personally don't look at high-profile sites like Slate or Buzzfeed; I find most of my writers through social media or through their personal blogs. And then I ask them directly to write for me.

Does this take time? Yes. But we make time for what matters. I also work 40+ hours a week, volunteer, train for a marathon, write a novel a year, periodically write irate blog posts, and single-handedly run a small press--that means letterpressing every cover, sewing every binding, and stuffing every envelope one hundred percent by myself--in addition to having friends and occasionally leaving my house. Unless you are a neurosurgeon single parent of quadruplets, I can pretty much guarantee that you do not have any less time than I do. Again: we make time for what matters.

4. MAKE IT SELL. It's important to recognize that if you're publishing writers outside of your own cultural experience and literary communities, their reach and impact may not be immediately visible to you. That does not mean they do not have a powerful ability to promote their work within their own extended community. Your writers are the experts of their own audiences; coming to publicity and promotion as a partnership, not an adversarial relationship, vastly increases your ability to sell the work you publish.

Guillotine has to pay for itself; losses come out of my own pocket, which is not (alas) so deep as some of us who own publishing companies. I'm able to publish work by lesser-known writers, which may take longer to sell through, by balancing it out with writers whose chapbooks I know will sell out. And by building a reputation for a having good taste, I'm able to encourage readers to take risks on writers they've never heard of, so even chapbooks that don't sell out quickly continue to sell steadily.

5. That's it. That's how I do it. I promise you, it's not hard.