As an indie author—and neuroatypical goober who thinks in patterns—I've noticed something in recent days. Well, that's not quite true.
I've been aware of a pattern for some time now, but as I'm releasing a trope-bashing LGBT+ sci-fi trilogy, I didn't feel like I could talk about it.
Mostly because I don't think many (not all) represented authors with the reach to broach this topic will, as they have little to gain by doing so.
Moreover, I think plenty of authors have misconceptions about what being represented means, which lends itself to protecting the industry that represents them.
An industry that seeks sales above all other things. Hence the titular title:
This is brilliant, but can I sell it?
Combine this question together with mass competition, queer authors trying to break the lavender ceiling, the mind-numbing amount of work needed to self-publish, and a powerful institution that purports it keeps no gates, and you get a messy pattern.
A messy pattern called hegemony.
Hegemonic power structures privilege some stories/people over others based on the dominant culture's self-preservation instincts, tastes, and outlooks.
This mess of hegemony is what fuels the industrial mechanism known as "sales" as divinized by historical data on what sells—and what has been allowed to sell.
I'm just being honest.
And we honestly have to talk about it.
How art and meaningful media dies
It starts with focusing on the wrong metrics
"This is brilliant...but can I sell it?"
This was in the comments section of an article about how traditional publishers—and agents—are not gatekeepers. The person asked the blog author (a literary agent) if she had asked herself this question. Did she ever experience a moment where she had to make a choice between art and profit?
I have no ill will against this agent. My problem is that the comment was left unanswered, which bothered me, because it's a solid question about the nature of publishing, what gets picked up, and why.
I sat and thought on this. I even penned a goofy tweet thread that fellow historically excluded authors responded well to.
Yet, this is still an ephemeral conversation.
It's ephemeral because very few in positions of power are discussing it. Critique of hegemonic trappings mostly come from indie authors, queer authors, BIPOC who get routinely sidelined, neuroatypical and neurodivergent writers, and disabled writers.
You know, historically excluded authors that have unique voices that publishing says it wants, but only if it looks like the work of yesteryear and/or what's already popular.
Which marginalized work often can't perform on principle, for one very important reason: we've never had art without hegemony suppressing it. We have to work to change that for the most vulnerable authors to get the spotlight.
This is why this question is so important: if sales reign in capitalism, what dictates what can sell? What can sell to whom, and how is this measured?
Let me expand upon gatekeeping so you can better grasp of what this actually means: This is brilliant, but can I sell it?
The answer to that question is contingent on what is allowed in, after all.
Gatekeeping marginalized people isn't always about explicit bigotry
Sometimes, it's death by a million cuts
In the following section I'm going to outline two distinct ideas: gatekeeping by way of hostility and rainbow capitalism, and gatekeeping by way of systems and processes not designed for use by ND/NA people.
In an already classist world predicated on the othering of so many, traditional publishing likes to position itself as being a megaphone for historically excluded stories.
While I have no doubt that there are many publishing houses and organizations that actively work to uplift marginalized authors, I'm also under no illusions that the mechanisms of publishing aren't a form of gatekeeping.
This matters, because we cannot address "This is brilliant, but can I sell it?" without examining where that question lives.
Let me show you what I mean:
Allowing hostility to thrive pushes marginalized voices out
No need to gatekeep if what's beyond the gate sucks
The #OwnVoices movement that was earnestly created to platform marginalized authors and get them published has been used, in many cases, to denigrate and reject them. Not only that, but it's obvious to many marginalized authors that certain narratives are favored over others. This touches back on the hegemonic underpinnings of "can I sell it?"
Moreover, there's a sentiment circling Own Voices that authors must come out on other peoples' terms in order to be "authentic" and accepted.
As if the queer community is owed a performance versus the safety of queer authors who may not live in a country/space where this is safe to do so.
It's as though one has to perform queerness to be supported. As though queerness is market first and person second. That's rainbow capitalism. It's also a sentiment that values optics over human beings: case in point, authors who get pushed out of the closet.
All of this is hostility from something meant to be positive: #OwnVoices as a way to uplift historically excluded stories and storytellers. This isn't to say #OwnVoices isn't meaningful. It is to say that the co-opting of positive movements for brandable moments is an eternal hegemonic impetus.
Another example of hostility is a publishing agent telling a Black author that "African American fathers are tough sell." This is demonstratively racist hostility, and it's absolutely beyond fucked up.
Yet another example is the case of Isabel Fall, who was bullied off the internet for writing a short story inspired by an anti-trans meme. Isabel Fall was—at the time—a closeted trans woman.
Gatekeeping doesn't just mean someone slaps a sign on a door that says "no XYZ writers allowed." It also means creating a hostile environment by way of ignorance.
This is why many historically excluded authors turn to self-publishing. We do not feel safe in a space that caters to crabs-in-a-bucket mentality.
We also do not feel supported by publishers when our lives are scrutinized due to the optics of publishing and the marketability of said optics.
Submitting manuscripts is a can of worms for ND/NA and disabled authors
"Ignorance creates barriers" isn't an acceptable excuse
Querying authors have three ways to get manuscripts in front of publishers: literary agents that need connections to broach effectively, 100+ query emails that all require their own tooling, and the UI/UX disaster known as QueryTracker. (I know some like that system but the UI burns my spoons.)
Each has their own downsides that are obvious to me as a queer neuroatypical creative with limited spoons and no access to generational clout:
- "What you know" doesn't ever hold up to "who you know," and lord knows marginalized people have historically gotten the short end of the stick here.
- Many disabled people struggle with spoon-destroying tasks like the spray and pray of email outreach.
- Poorly designed UI/UX is an accessibility nightmare for many. If an automated tool isn't accessible, it isn't meaningful.
Let's focus on #2 so we can better tease apart this system-vs-people problem:
A system not designed for marginalized writers
Will inevitably keep out the voices that need the biggest lift
Flag down a gaggle of publishing houses—any at all—and look at the manuscript submission processes and guidelines. Nothing is standardized. Every single publishing house uses a different rubric. Take a look at what ND/NA authors are saying in this thread for similar sentiments to my own.
If online submission forms exist, they're all over the place, broken, and often unclear. If they don't, you get to craft copious emails.
You'll be asked for 10 pages of a manuscript for one, 3 for another, and everything has to be made to often nebulous spec or you'll get dumped in the slush pile.
You also have to send the equivalent of a cover letter: you must outline what your work mimics (that's sellable) to get a foot in the door.
But what if the work doesn't mimic anything currently sellable, because who you're writing for has never had large enough standing in hegemonic art-culture to begin with?
What do you do then?
You try to make your work fit, regardless if it does, and lean into systems not designed to work for you. That's suppressive.
Let me be frank: accessibility does not matter to the dominant social order. Therein, the process of querying was never built with historically excluded authors in mind to begin with.
This is called gatekeeping.
So what does this all mean?
It's about what stories are allowed to sell, and why
When culture is hostile, efforts to attract diverse talent/voices are co-opted, and systemic barriers are agonizing, you get a mess.
A mess not built with marginalized people—marginalized authors—in mind. That's gatekeeping, no matter how you slice it. And gatekeeping has a lot to do with what is allowed to sell, FYI.
A gate exists, it always has, and it doesn't dissolve because we spackled it with rainbow stickers or brandish it with a hashtag. There are systemic issues we are failing to address.
Not only that, but all of this is beneficial to the dominant social order's stronghold over whose work gets seen/sold. Call it a useful byproduct of the ignorance that systemic privilege affords.
If the publishing industry and its processes were made with authors of all sorts in mind, dog-eat-dog was not on the agenda, and creating the environment for diverse work to sell was the goal, the dominant culture wouldn't get to craft infighting in the arts.
It wouldn't get to repeatedly prop up white cishet ablebodied neurotypical male authors and vaguely gesture at marginalized groups—mostly relegated to months pertaining to their celebration.
It wouldn't get to package diversity neatly into sales pitches. And it certainly wouldn't get to gauge the merit of a manuscript based on if the dominant culture can stomach the messaging.
If it can't be stomached, then that is explicitly why it should be sold. That's how you change the world with art, after all.
And so, the publishing industry (which does not exist in a vacuum) remains steeped in gatekeeping and hegemonic mechanisms.
Don't mistake me: it isn't that this injustice comes from singular members of some secret hegemony-fellating group hellbent on keeping people down.
It's that ignorance affords this question life eternal:
This is brilliant, but can I sell it? Sell it to whom? You should know that answer by now. Still not getting it, huh?
I wonder if publishing ever does a racism
If so, what signal does that send about what is allowed to sell?
Let's start with race, the most pivotal point for discussing intersectional issues. A while back, Black author Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah got a contract for his short story collection "Friday Black."
He was concerned about the advance; $10k for his first book seemed low and so did $40k for his second.
So, he took to Twitter after the hashtag #PublishingPaidMe started trending. Writers began to share their advances.
Some white authors disclosed that they had been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for their debut books.
After comparisons between advances for BIPOC authors, white authors, and many other historically excluded author demographics, plenty of publishers promised to "do better."
And yet, doing better requires analyzing a dataset, doesn't it?
The creators of a study found that no data existed to measure current percentages of authors of color in the traditional publishing industry.
We guessed that most of the authors would be white, but we were shocked by the extent of the inequality once we analyzed the data. Of the 7,124 books for which we identified the author’s race, 95 percent were written by white people.
Author diversity at major publishing houses has increased in recent years, but white writers still dominate. Non-Hispanic white people account for 60 percent of the U.S. population; in 2018, they wrote 89 percent of the books in our sample.
If there's no difference in creative capabilities across race—there isn't, that's scientific racism—this number should be higher. And why isn't it?
For the answer to that question, take a look at this brief window into another industry still rooted in systemic injustice: employment.
Women of Color clock in at 3% of C-Suite players, and White Women are at 18%! That’s 6x less representation for Women of Color.
Men of color make up only 12% at the highest rungs of employment.
— I already wrote this article 9 million years ago. Sauces to stats in article.
Wow, what do you mean systemic racism impacts very many industries and "nothing exists within a vacuum?" What do you mean it's all connected?
Let's intersect queerness with race and gender now:
What does all of this signal to BIPOC authors about what publishing thinks can sell, what is allowed to sell, and which voices are left out?
Do you know the answer? I do.
If you're still lost, let me explain the titular question of this article—and what it really means—as simply as I can:
This is brilliant, but can I sell it?
The half-crafted question traditional publishing seeks to answer has a secret implication
"But can I sell it to the dominant culture?" This is the finalized question that traditional publishing will not easily admit fuels its decisions on what work gets accepted and why.
Or rather, I surmise that many are laissez faire about the implications of not admitting that traditional publishing mechanisms do not exist inside a vacuum.
This is the point of this article: there is a pattern. We must address it. We cannot dress it up in Rainbow glitter, hashtags, and promises with no widespread follow-through. A tool not used in great expertise can often become a weapon.
We cannot pretend that we do not have processes and mechanisms in publishing that require redress in order for art by historically excluded writers to be allowed to sell.
We address nothing if we analyze and uproot no systems.
If you'll permit me, I have an answer to this question, as a neuroatypical bi trans guy who thinks in systems of pattern recognition:
It's your job to sell. That's the bare minimum. So sell, change the landscape, and use art as the tool for justice it was always meant to be.
This is how art can change the world and it's the duty of those that represent art to see that this takes place. There are far too few marginalized authors with the power to do this. Change must happen systemically, and from the inside.
Can you sell the writing of historically excluded authors and help the meaning-making of media move in a positive direction?
You can, but my honest question is "will you?"