The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Friday, June 08, 2007

Copyrights and black male readers

I find it interesting when people use the “Artist X says its alright to take their music/books for free” argument to say that I must or should do the same, or that the consumer has the right to set the price. This argument has always been in existence. There have ALWAYS been people who give away sex, or books, or performed free concerts. Great! Fantastic! Go there. It has nothing at all to do with whether you can take those things from ANOTHER person without their permission. Nothing at all.

If Krispy Kreme gives away free doughnuts, does that somehow give you the right to steal doughnuts from Winchells? Reminding me that that’s an excellent marketing ploy doesn’t mean that Winchells is obligated to do the same, otherwise customers have the right to reach around the counter.

As the business model changes, people will find different ways to promote. Publishers give away free copies of books. Free Downloads may be available, with hopes that people will buy hard copies. Fine. None of this has anything at all to do with whether person X gets to set the price for person Y. None at all.

And remember please: we have electronic books. It’s right here. And they only have to get about one generation better before they’re equal or SUPERIOR to the paper kind. At that point, the entire question of electronic theft becomes very serious indeed.

I know lots of people who offer electronic samples of their work. Good for them. I’ve done it myself—through my publisher. I might do it through my website, but that’s another day. Probably be a good idea. But I’m reminded of comments by rapists to the effect that, hell, they weren’t hurting her. Not like they were breaking something, or wearing something out. Hell, they were doing her a favor!

I don’t pretend to know what is “true.” All I’m doing here is stating my position. And my position is that anyone who thinks they have more right to decide what shall and shall not be done with MY work is no one I wish to call friend, or would want as a reader, or neighbor. Deal with that as you will. Because you found a key to my house doesn’t mean you can come in and take what you want.

But if you do—at least, for God’s sake, be an honest thief and say “I do this because I can, and I want to.” All of this crap about how people are doing artists a favor to take their work, even if the artists protest, is the very worst kind of childish self-deception.

Musashi’s first principle: “Do Not Think Dishonestly.” Break this one, and you can’t even get into the game. To be honest with you, you can’t even see the stadium.


The question of finding black male readers is an interesting one. And there are two basic approaches to finding readers at all:

1)Synthetic media (television, billboards, internet, magazines, etc.)
2) organic media (word of mouth)

“Casanegra” for instance, was created to be a cross-over book in several senses. The following audiences are targeted:

1) Mystery fans. It’s just a cracking good mystery.
2) Hollywood story fans. The folks who read tabloids. We have a Roman a clef here, dealing with the (fictionalized) murders of Tupac and Queen Latifah.
3) Steven Barnes fans.
4) Tananarive Due fans.
5) Blair Underwood fans. In many ways, it’s a book written by me and T, but “starring” Blair. It’s as close to his voice as we could get, and we worked carefully with him on background, character and tone.
6) Women readers in general. Very sexy book.
7) Male readers. Great action and suspense
8) Black women readers specifically. Blair has a huge following here. And this is where we get to cross-over to—
9) Black male readers

My position is that the black male readership isn’t there because they like the exact same things that white male readers like, and such books (with specifically black characters) don't exist in sufficient quality and quantity to create and feed a sustained readership. And males don't empathize with males of other groups TO THE DEGREE that women do. So white women would read "Waiting to Exhale" more rapidly than white men would read a book about a black James Bond. Conversely, black male readers seeking action have ALWAYS read white books--its all there was. But the percentage of men who can get past the color shock simply isn't as large as the sum total of potential male readers.

I’ve been watching this market for over 40 years, and I’d say that the black male reading audience is actually larger than the percentage of books designed to appeal to them.
There has always been “street lit” and I suppose most of it is roughly equivalent to the books that imitated “The Executioner” or “The Destroyer”—very pulpy, cheap, poorly written in the main. In terms of contemporary stuff—not much. Even Mosley’s Easy Rawlins is historical, not contemporary. The action, adventure, military, detective, or suspense stuff—not so much. A tiny fraction of the published output.

The “Alex Cross” novels by James Patterson are interesting. Quite popular, but I think more with white males than black ones. While Patterson writes Cross with respect, Cross simply doesn’t have the internal representations of the typical black man, even successful black man. Yes, there are black men like Cross, but Cross’s popularity is I think largely because he is comfortable for whites: he carries little of the specific damage black men take, the anger and fear they feel. In some ways, it is as if he was born perhaps in 2020, the product of a future generation, transplanted back in time to grow up in the 20th Century without a 20th Century black man’s actual experiences. Still, I respect them.

It is interesting to read Dean Koontz’ comments about Denzel being his favorite actor (available on Amazon). Loves his grace and poise—except in his films that deal with race.

Also interesting to note people’s reactions to “Crash,” Paul Haggis’ story of race relations. Tons of venom, feeling that it was a bad exploration of these issues. Never, in one post or conversation, did anyone spontaneously suggest an alternative film that dealt with these things, and usually when I ask, people go blank. The entire issue makes whites uncomfortable, and understandably so.

It’s a little the way Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell were poster children for the Right, examples of the “incontrovertible” fact that if you are smart, and work hard, you can make it on your own. Both of them have suggested that Affirmative Action was important to counter-act historical racism. This opinion on both their parts is, to my knowledge NEVER referenced by Conservatives arguing that all is well.

And I note how often people say to me: “gee, Steve, you’re so successful. How can someone as intelligent and self-motivated as you believe the playing field isn’t as level as it can be..?”

In other words, if you are winning at the table in Vegas, you don’t ask if the deck is stacked. In truth, you don’t want to know.

So this can be a problem. If you create a black character with realistic internal representations, whites will be uncomfortable. Even if you don't, they'll be wary if there is even a black face on the cover. Since most publishers, editors, distributors and store owners are white, you get segregated into the “black” book section, and your exposure is minimized.

If you create a black character (Alex Cross. And by the way, anyone notice that when they made him into a movie, they stripped out the sex?) without such internal representations, you sell to white audiences without giving black males much to hang their hearts on.

And if, of course, a black author writes about white characters, they are simply behind the curve in terms of depth. Given 100 units of talent, they won’t be able to create characters of the same depth as a white writer with the same 100 units of talent. It will take about 120. So there’s a problem THERE, too, in terms of earning a living.
Thinking this all through, I realize that all I wanted to do was create characters that I could have identified with as a child, a young man, or an adult. Yes, I identified with Tarzan, and James Bond, and so forth, but was aware that my own skin color was omitted, and when it was featured, it was generally in a demeaning way.

I never wanted to create solely black characters—and never have, with the exception of “Great Sky Woman.” Note that no SF magazine would even review it. Coincidence, I’m quite sure.

What I wanted to do was create a book that would appeal to anyone who doesn’t “sort” primarily by race, that would be good enough to overcome the “5-10% Flinch” response.

And also to reach what I believe to be a gigantic, untapped market: black male readers. And the tactic I’ve selected is to write a men’s book disguised as a women’s book. By appealing to women, I have a potential market quite large enough to support my family. Blair has a great fan-base. Black women readers are a gigantic group, networked to the hilt. Publishers KNOW how to reach them already. And each of these women has brothers, fathers, sons.

So…I can use synthetic media to reach them, and then…IF we’ve done our job properly, they will pass the books to their friends, husbands, and cousins of the male variety. In droves. “Read this!” is the highest form of organic advertising.

And THAT is my plan. To create a great book that anyone who likes mystery and suspense would want, but has special appeal to a segment of the population that has been grossly underserved.

Only time will tell if we’ve pulled it off.

But if we have…

Whoa. Good times.

No comments: