Thursday, September 27, 2007

Lessons From the Little Rock Nine

Fifty years ago this week, nine black students entered an all white high school in Little Rock, Arkansas. They didn't wait to be invited and warmly welcomed. They walked bravely into the school through sneers, scorn and worse to claim the rights the Supreme Court had established. The rest is history.

Now there's no way I'm going to try to equate the bias against self-publishers with the prejudice and discrimination black people have endured in this country. (Okay I may be a bit intense on this topic, but I'm not deluded). But as I've listened to some of these nine black former students speaking out in interviews this week recalling their experiences from a long-ago time, I've been struck by how their comments describing the feelings they had when prejudice hit them seem to be universal.

  • One woman said that she thought that she would be welcomed to the Central High School, but instead was rejected in a way that was beyond her imagination.

  • Another said she had been taught to look to adults for help, and she did, but the woman she thought was kind spat on her.

  • A man said that because they were entering the school a year or so after some changes had already been made, none of them expected the governor to use troops with bayonets to bar their entrance.

What? Despite the segregation and horrible injustices that had been done to blacks in this country up until then, these people thought they would be welcomed—or at least accepted—in this up-until-then all-white school? Of course they were children, so perhaps they were understandably naïve.

But aren't human beings often naïve in this way? We know we are good people, doing good things, selling good products or whatever. And we (perhaps naively) expect other people to recognize that—or at least to give us a chance to show them.

I think we as self-publishers have similar feelings—or at least I did. We write our books, get them critiqued and edited, re-write them, do (or hire someone to do) the layout and the cover to get them ready for printing—and we are proud of our books when we send them out into the world. Sure we've heard about the bias against self-published books, but we don't realize how bad it will be.

Now I'm not talking about having difficulty getting self-published books into bookstores. That's a complicated issue, especially because of returns, which can be a costly problem for a small publisher. The discrimination I'm talking about is more insidious and more unexpected. It's being told you can't join an organization of authors, or enter your book in a contest, or get it considered for review. It's being told that most self-published books are rubbish so they can't be bothered looking at any self-published books. It's being told your book doesn't measure up before anyone bothers to actually measure it. It's having someone spit on your hopes and expectations.

Bottom line—discrimination hurts. And it's hard to push on in the face of it. It's easier to say, "That's the way it is," and hope it will get better in the future. But, as a financial advisor at Merrill Lynch once told me after I told him I was hoping the market would go back up, "Hope is not a successful strategy." So we self-publishers need to act. We need to speak out against discrimination. We need to rise above it as the Little Rock nine did. Otherwise people will continue to spit on our books.



  1. Well said and so true!Discrimination is discrimination in whatever form it takes --whether on the basis of company size, self-published, publishing technology (POD), a person's color, religion, ethnic group, gender or sexual preference, it all has the same effect. It is bigotry which I oppose in any form.I am saddened that the leadership of Sisters in Crime does not share my view and have not come out in opposition to Mystery Writers of America's approved publisher LIST, which by omission creates a "Black List." As I understand it, discrimination was the founding principle of SinC . Given that, it is very troubling that officers and members of SinC argue in favor of MWA's discriminatory list.Thankfully, some long time members of MWA do not agree with SinC-IC officers and will shortly make their voices known. I sincerely hope it makes a difference.Mary Clay

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