The Many Shades of Gatekeeping: How “Emerging Author” Hurts More Than Helps

July 19, 2021

By L.M. Davis

I’ve been in the fantasy game for more than a decade.  I can remember a time when the attention to and concern with the lack of diversity in the genre wasn’t even a twinkle in anyone’s eye.  (To be more precise, in most power players’ eyes.  It’s been a full-on raging inferno inside of me since I started writing. It was, in fact, one of the reasons I wrote my first novel.) The genre was almost categorically white (10% for all people of color) in 2010 when my first book came out. The problem was even worse for black authors writing speculative fiction. 

Time and again as I shopped my first novel, Interlopers, in 2009, I was told by agents that there was no audience for my book, and they would not be able to place my story.  Rather than the rejection part, which is par for the course for writers, it was the character of the rejections—the explicitly stated belief that there were no readers for black YA fantasy—that was the major catalyst for my decision to go indie.  Because of these early experiences, I was thrilled when #weneeddiversebooks became a rallying cry within the YA community circa 2014. When the call seemed to produce new opportunities for writers of color in YA, I was ecstatic.

Unfortunately, that excitement was short-lived.  While there were opportunities, to be anthologized alongside “established” authors and mentorship programs for example, increasingly these opportunities came with one troubling caveat.  Any would-be author who wanted to take advantage of these opportunities had to fit into the category of “emerging.” On its face, tailoring these opportunities to emerging authors, rather than authors who already had representation, contracts, and had sold thousands of copies, made sense.  The folks in the latter category would likely be in less need of the types of guidance and exposure that “emerging” authors might need.  So, it’s not that that these opportunities were geared toward emerging authors, but rather how emerging has come to be defined.  Namely, would-be applicants to these programs and publications cannot have any book publications, traditional, indie, or otherwise. 

Perhaps, at this juncture, you’re unclear about the reason for my beef. Maybe it seems reasonable to exclude previously published authors for the sake of unknowns. And that is exactly the point.  In the book industry, it is quite possible to have multiple books published and still be relatively unknown.  This is doubly true for indie authors who do not benefit from the distribution infrastructures of established publishing companies and have challenges in terms of discoverability and raising awareness about their writing. 

Most indie authors would benefit greatly from the opportunity to have their stories appear alongside those of authors with greater name recognition. Even traditionally published authors—those who publish with smaller presses or who, for myriad documented reasons that too frequently reduce to race, do not receive many resources or much support from their publishers—would stand to gain from such changes. How many authors, still “emerging,” are excluded from these opportunities, which are ostensibly intended to create pipelines.

Worse than that, this criterion can be de facto ageist, with an undue impact on authors who are over 30.  To underscore the problem with this criterion, I direct you back to the reality of the YA scene when I first started publishing in 2010.  Only ten percent of all the children’s books published in 2010 were by people of color. Not ten percent by black people, ten percent by everyone who fell under the all-encompassing umbrella of people of color (Indigenous, Asian, Latinx, and Pacific Islanders included).  Put differently almost ninety percent of children’s books in 2010 were written by white authors. In 2010, only seventy books written by black authors were published, and by 2020, this number was only 252.

Presented with those kinds of dreary numbers, it’s no wonder many black authors looking to get their stories out a decade ago—or even now—might have chosen to self-publish rather than wait for some miraculous sea change in publishing culture.  And the reward—more like punishment—for taking a chance on their writing when no one else would is to be excluded from opportunities when they finally come along. 

All of this is for a criterion that, at the end of the day, seems rather arbitrary.  I hate to go to textbook definitions, but here it is: emerging means becoming apparent or prominent.  At the most basic level, the term applies to a broader swath than wholly unpublished authors. Which begs the question of why the creators of these opportunities would choose to define the parameters so narrowly through which authors of color broadly and black authors specifically might enter into these pipelines.  I have many thoughts, most of which tie to the fact that many of these opportunities are offered in conjunction with major publishing houses.  But that’s another article.

Fortunately, there are some out there who are getting it right.  The recently published Black Panther: Tales of Wakanda Anthology (man, I really wanted to be a part of that one) offered space for multiple emerging authors alongside perennial luminaries like Tananarive Due and Nikki Giovanni.  The Associates of the Boston Public Library has a Writer-in-Residence program for emerging authors that formerly allowed for authors to have published up to three books and still be eligible.  It appears that for the 2021 application, they have gone to a no publications model too.  I truly hope that they rethink this change.

The bottom line is that if these authors, companies, and institutions are really interested in creating pipelines that are as inclusive as possible, they must rethink this arbitrarily exclusionary definition of emerging authors.  New definitions must take into full account the unique obstacles that authors of color broadly and black authors specifically have faced on their journey to publication.  Black folks come from lineages that teach us, when denied a seat at the table, to build our own.  Those who truly seek to redress ongoing issues of exclusion and omission should create opportunities that celebrate that perseverance.

 L. M. Davis is a YA/MG author who writes about shapeshifters, aliens, immortals, and witches. She is the author of Interlopers: A Shifters Novel, Posers: A Shifters Novel, and Skinless: A Novel in III Parts. Additionally, she has worked as a background actor on a variety of SFF projects including “Black Panther,” “Raising Dion,” “Spiderman: Homecoming,” and “Lovecraft Country.” She has recently written and directed her first speculative short film, titled “Fevered Dreams.” Her most recent novel, Forgers was released on Juneteenth.  

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