There's been a lot of discussion about readers and publishers and who has the greatest role in blocking the publication of particular books/preventing them becoming a success. There's also been discussion about how the RWA awards (which can help boost an author's career) might be shaped by racism and homophobia.
Recently, another type of player has been under discussion: the corporate book buyer. In particular, Sue Grimshaw. In 2007, Grimshaw was interviewed at Dear Author and the importance of her role was explained:
Sue Grimshaw is the romance buyer for BGI. She buys for Borders, Borders Express and Waldenbooks. Since she began her position with BGI, Ms. Grimshaw has increased romance book sales for BGI by 20%. She is a fan of the genre and is devoted toward getting the romance books into the hands of the romance buyer.
Can you share a little about how you came to be the buyer for romance for Borders?
Prior buying the Romance genre I bought for our non-fiction and children’s categories. Five years ago when our Romance Buyer left the company for a job in NYC, I jumped at the opportunity to interview for the position & thankfully got it! I am a voracious reader of the category and read anywhere from 3 to 5 books per week. I totally love the genre and enjoy seeing authors succeed.
What is your role as the romance buyer for Borders/Waldenbooks? I.e., what exactly is it that you do!
The merchandising structure in the company begins with the buyer who reports directly to a category manager, who manages various categories in a segment of our merchandising business. Each buyer has a seasonal/financial plan that they build and adhere to. The decisions are made by the buyer then supported by the category manager.
My position includes all of the responsibilities pertaining to buying: purchasing and marketing books, placement in stores, financial plans, industry support, which includes but is not limited to attending conventions and chapter group workshops. [...]
What books are you looking for to stock in the stores? Does it differ from region to region? How can readers affect what is stocked in their stores?The next year "Sue Grimshaw, buyer for romances at Borders for the past 7 years, was awarded the 2008 Vivian Stephens Industry Award from RWA." Down in the comments section at Dear Author, though, strong concerns were raised about the practices at Borders and about Sue Grimshaw's role in upholding them, particularly the way that romances by African American authors/with African American authors were shelved not in the romance section, but in the African American section:
To put it simply, I am looking for books that I think our customer base would be interested in.
AA response[I've truncated the comments, but you can follow the links to read them in full.]
Borders treats black romance authors as Southern black bus riders were treated several decades ago. Plenty of folks said blacks shouldn’t complain because lots of blacks got to ride buses down South. Lots of folks didn’t notice blacks had to sit in the back. Some could rationalize it that black bus riders didn’t want to sit up front with the other riders anyway. And what was the black’s problem? They were on the bus too (carry a lot of segregated AA romance).
Black authors writing romance aren’t considered romance authors by Borders, but put in a racial category of fiction. The romance specialists don’t deal with the black romance authors. Blacks are not a part of Border’s romance initiatives.
Matters came to a head recently because Grimshaw was announced as an editor for Marie Force's publishing company. Thanks to Grimshaw's Twitter account, concrete evidence was available of the kinds of tweets Grimshaw "liked". This was not simply about one tweet: there was a consistent pattern to the tweets Grimshaw "liked." Grimshaw subsequently removed much of these from her timeline but Ella Drake has screenshots of just a few of the liked tweets, which she summarised as including "likes of "Trump's [...] tweets, ICE raids, articles calling Elizabeth Warren a hate monger".
On 16 August Marie Force announced that she and Grimshaw had parted ways:
However, Grimshaw remained employed as an acquisition editor at Suzan Tisdale's Glenfinnan Publishing and the bio there continues to stress Grimshaw's influence in romance publishing in a variety of roles:
["With more than a decade in the publishing industry Sue has done it all. From bookseller to buyer, acquisitions and developmental editor with a proven successful history of working with New York Times bestselling authors ensuring accuracy and quality of content, Sue knows what readers want to read. Now freelancing with Glenfinnan Publishing, Sue manages her own editing services at www.editsbysue.com."]
Concerns were then raised with Suzan Tisdale, who responded on 24 August with a video. I have transcribed this in full below. Although, as you can deduce from her comments at the start, Tisdale would no doubt prefer you to watch her video, I feel a transcript is useful for analysis and for those unable to watch/hear a video or who simply prefer text. I've inserted screenshots of commentary, followed by the text of those comments in square brackets.
Hi everybody, it's me, Suzan Tisdale and I decided to do a live video so that you could see my face, hear my tone of voice. Sometimes when we write things, you can write one sentence that can be taken twenty different ways by twenty different people and I want to try to avoid that. So this is regarding Sue Grimshaw and the little fiasco, I guess is what we could call it, that's going on regarding Sue. This all started because Sue liked a tweet by Diamond and Silk. Now, for those of you who don't know, Diamond and Silk are two lovely African American women who are conservatives and huge supporters of President Trump.[LV: Just to provide more context, Diamond and Silk have their own show on Fox News: they are not simply a random couple of people (lovely or otherwise) with strong opinions.]
The tweet that she liked was one where Diamond and Silk were discussing white supremacy. Suddenly we've gone from "Sue Grimshaw is a great acquisition editor, congratulations Suzan, great decision you made bringing her on" to everyone, well not everyone, to some people, accusing her of being a racist and a bigot.[Jayce Ellis notes that "Suzan pointed to *one* tweet by them as the genesis of this "fiasco" (her words). Not the ones by Pence, or C. Kirk, or any of the 700 that Sue Grimshaw deleted over the course of a night, but the one by Diamond and Silk. And she made sure to point out that they're African-American. Multiple times she referenced it. They're ganging up on Sue for liking a tweet from BLACK people. Can you even imagine it? We're so often in publishing accustomed to people using Blackness as a shield. Well, my Black friend said it's okay. Well, I'm married to a Black man and have Black kids so I can't be racist. And on and on. This time, Suzan used it as a cudgel."]
And I'm here to tell you that Sue is neither of those things and I know this is going to piss a lot of people off, and I know it is, but I felt compelled to do this. Sue is no more a racist or a bigot than I am.[Jackie Barbosa: 'True, Suzan, true. It's just that you aren't NOT a racist. I'm sure you don't see yourself as one, though, which is why you don't think Sue is one, either.']
She is a conservative woman but not the kind of conservative woman that you might be conjuring up images of. The last time I checked, this was America, and we were all allowed our political opinions and Sue is a Christian, she has conservative leanings, but that does not mean that she's a skinhead or a member of the KKK or an antisemite or anything like that. OK.
[Inserted screenshot of a response by May Peterson, pointing out that 'What people like you keep failing to understand is that it isn’t skinheads, Klan members, etc, the extremists that you think of as “truly bad” that are the problem—the problem is nice, normal people who support harmful ideologies and systems of society.']
She's a lot like me. We have conservative fiscal values but liberal social values, OK. I just don't understand how liking a tweet by two African American women who were discussing white supremacy makes anyone a racist. And it's probably going to surprise a lot of you but I have liked some of Diamond and Silk's tweets, I have liked some of their videos, because I, I am open to all opinions, OK.
I am a fierce, fierce, independent. I have no political party and I don't like discussing politics, especially in today's current political climate. Now here is my personal opinion, just my personal opinion on politics: both sides, regardless of what letter's behind their name, want us, the people of this country, to hate and despise each other. It boils down to a couple of things: my team's better than your team, OK. The Republicans want you to think that Democrats want everybody to be able to run around naked and bark at the moon, in public, and whatever, they just want you to think that liberals are bad, bad people, who want, you know, excessive gun control and they want to become socialists and bla, bla, bla. The Democrats want you to think that the Republicans are evil and they want babies to starve. OK. So, they've pitted us against each other, and they only do that so that they can maintain all the power that they have accumulated over the years. So when we're hating on one another, and hating each other and despising whatever political views, you know, the other people have, we're not paying attention to them and all the crap that they're pulling.[LV: Tisdale seems to have produced a conspiracy theory in which politicians on both sides of the US political system are intent on stirring up hate. Be that as it may (and bearing in mind that not everyone involved in this discussion is even from the US), party politics are not the issue here. As Janet Lee Nye has observed, "Problem is not being conservatives or Christians. The problem is a history of problematic behavior towards people of color."]
Each of us has a standard of conduct and morals that we live by. Each of us. And it is not up to me or anyone else to tell anyone that they're wrong for thinking or feeling the way they're feeling. It is not up to me or anyone else to tell anybody how they should live their lives. Unless they're hurting children or they're calling for the annihilation of a race or group of people. That's where I draw the line. Those idiots can flip and bite me.[LV: Re "hurting children" it's possibly worth pointing out at this point that one of the screenshots of Sue Grimshaw's "likes" preserved by Ella Drake includes news of a raid by ICE.
Many of those detained had children, whose misery was recorded by the media. And since reference was also made to Grimshaw's Christianity, it may also be worth noting that 'Mississippi’s Catholic bishops joined with the state’s Episcopal, Methodist and Lutheran bishops in condemning the Trump administration’s Aug. 7 raid on seven food processing plants in the state to round up workers in the country illegally. Such raids “only serve to … cause the unacceptable suffering of thousands of children and their parents, and create widespread panic in our communities,” the religious leaders said in an Aug. 9 statement' (Catholic Philly). More details of individual statements made by the religious leaders can be found here.]
So, as far as it goes for Sue Grimshaw, she is a lovely person and instead of calling for her head on a fricking platter, I would suggest that people try to get to know her better. There's a lot of misinformation going on out in the Twittersphere. Someone, I believe, said that when Sue worked for Kmart that she refused to buy books by authors of color. Sue didn't buy books for Kmart. She bought cosmetics.[LV: As these tweets by Courtney Milan from 17 August demonstrate, it was Grimshaw's position as the romance buyer for Borders which was of concern.]
["Sue Grimshaw was the romance buyer for Borders, one of the biggest buyers for romance. She received the Vivian Stephens industry award for her work buying romance. She was capable of making a romance novelists’ career by putting their work front and center around the country. [...] And the corollary to being able to make someone’s career with favorable placement? Is the ability to break it by not buying the book at all.
We don’t know. We don’t KNOW. But for decades, Black romance authors heard there was no market for their work.
But we heard that in a time period when one of the major bookstores was being headed by a person where we now have serious doubts as to whether they could review their work. If you were not in Borders, you would not have a career."]
Now, as far as Glenfinnan is concerned, yes, Sue will remain an acquisition editor. When we receive a manuscript from anybody for Glenfinnan, we don't know who's written it, 98% of the time we don't know the author. It's just a blind submission. The only thing we look at, ever, is the manuscript. Is it beautifully written, is it funny, is it compelling, is it intriguing, is it written well? Those are the only things we look at, ever, under any circumstance: it's the manuscript.[E. E. Ottoman observes that 'There is literally no single bigger red flag for me than a publishing professional claiming that they "only care about the quality of the writing" when talking about gatekeeping, systematic discrimination and diversity in publishing' and Jessica concurs, adding that 'This [is] dog whistle pitched language for "its not MY fault WOC aren't any good".]
If it is compelling and beautifully written or funny or intriguing or whatever, we move to the next step, which is reaching out to the author. And again, 98% of the time we don't know who that author is, we wouldn't have a clue what color of their skin is. It doesn't matter: what matters is the writing.[Alisha Rai draws from her own experience to illustrate how "There is no such thing as a blind submission": "I heard this line a lot when I first started. But when I was submitting (my very marketable, it did pretty well when it finally was published!) first book in 2008, the repetitive feedback I got from NY was that I needed to change my character’s ethnicities and hide my own. I didn’t lead my sub with my ethnicity. I didn’t have an internet presence then. It was as blind of a submission as it could be. And yet SOMEHOW the acquirer could suss details like my name or the character’s races out! A mystery! So be wary of a publisher who says this. Maybe she means “We don’t know what color or orientation you are, so long as you write white and straight characters!” but that’s not a publisher you want. Or a publisher that can do their fucking job, which is selling your books.]
So I would ask everyone to please just take a deep breath and stop and look at the whole great big picture. Sue's not a racist and she is not a bigot. She is a really nice lady and I've talked to her lots of times.
And this is what boggles my mind: when I first made the announcement that Sue was going to be acquisition editor, not one person, not one person, came to me and said "Ooh, Suzan, that was a bad idea, did you know x, y, z". No-one did that, not one single person came to me and said anything bad about Sue. Suddenly, because she liked that tweet, suddenly, people are coming out of the woodwork saying "Oh, I've known for years that she was a racist and a bigot". Why didn't anybody come to me? If that was the honest-to-God's truth, why didn't somebody come to me? Nobody did. Not one single person. Because that's not true. It's just not true.[Courtney Milan: "Uhhhh why is @SuzanTisdale gaslighting us? At this point people have talked about Sue’s editorial behind the scenes. I have heard from multiple people at this point that she explicitly had issues with race being mentioned in books."]
[LV: There is, as OMGReads observes, a significant pause part-way through that sentence, between "color of your skin" and "when it comes to writing".]
We are each of us entitled to our political opinions. Each of us. And gone are the days where we could have polite civil discourse to discuss politics. We can't do that anymore. The moment anybody opens their mouth with a political opinion, especially in the Twittersphere, there are a thousand people ready to jump on that individual and call for their heads to roll.
Sue is one of the nicest women that I have ever had the pleasure of working with or talking to.
Glenfinnan is important to me. We take all manuscripts. The only thing we're not taking right now is erotica, because I simply don't know how to market that. We will take LGBTQ books if, if, the story is compelling and beautifully written and a wonderful story, OK? We will take books by authors of color if the writing is beautiful, intriguing, funny, compelling, whatever. But we never look at those things. We don't care about your sexual orientation and we don't care about the color of your skin when it comes to writing.
What we look for are authors who can tell a great story. Because that's what it all boils down to: it's the story, it's the writing. And sometimes it is the message that the author is trying to get across. Those things are really, really important to us.[Courtney Milan: 'if your line of acceptability is “calling for the annihilation of a group of people” but you don’t have an issue with systematically excluding a race of people from bookstores and publishing contracts? Then you are DEFINITELY a racist.']
Now, I'm sorry if this is going to disappoint people that I'm not presenting to you Sue Grimshaw's head on a platter. I'm not going to do that. I think that we are all adults and we should be able to have these important conversations without getting upset. And again, this all boils down to the current political climate in this country, that has been this way for years and years and years. Both sides of the aisle want us pitted against each other. When you and I are taking time out of our busy day to argue about these things, to hate on one another, to despise on one another, again, we're not paying attention to what the actual politicians are doing. And that's what they want in this country. They want us hating each other. And I don't hate anybody. I don't. I hate paedophiles, I will tell you that. I hate paedophiles. Don't like skinheads. Don't like KKK members. I don't like anybody who wants to hurt a child or see the annihilation of a specific group of people. That I can't stand. That is when I will get up on the table and shout at the top of my lungs that these people are idiots. But Sue has done none of those things, absolutely none of those things.
So that is my public response to the current outcry over Sue. If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to me. I would be glad to have these discussions with you. But for now, Sue remains, until someone can show me something worse than her liking a tweet by Diamond and Silk.
That's all I've to say on that. I love all of you. I hope everyone has a great day and God bless each and every one of you. Goodbye!
That's the end of the video. I have checked the transcript repeatedly in order to ensure its accuracy, but I'm willing to listen to the video again if anyone spots a serious error.
Edited to add: For the sake of clarity, and because it has subsequently been mentioned on Twitter that when Grimshaw was a romance buyer for Borders this did not include purchasing African American romance, I thought it might be useful to provide a bit more information. Obviously I can't guarantee the accuracy of all this, since I'm reliant on what I could find online, but here is what's available via LinkedIn:
The dates of 1995-2011 (16 years) as Romance Fiction Buyer at Borders Group followed by a position as Category Specialist & Editor at Large at Penguin Random House (2011-2019) fits with information on the Penguin Random House website, on a page about
Sue Grimshaw, Category Specialist and Editor at Large, who celebrated her fifth year with the company on March 28, 2016! Get the scoop on Sue by checking out her interview below:However, it seems that at Borders, the Romance Fiction Buyer was not responsible for African American romance. A comment here suggests that these novels were handled separately, by a Borders employee called Sean Bentley. Elsewhere, I've found reference to an article in the
Describe your role at Penguin Random House.
My title is Category Specialist and Editor at Large. I’m an acquiring editor for the digital division for the Loveswept and Flirt imprints and have also acquired for Bantam during my five years of employment.
Why did you decide to join Penguin Random House?
The first sixteen years of employment in the book industry were as romance buyer for Borders Incorporated. A year before their closing, Scott Shannon contacted me asking if I’d be interested in working in a new division. The timing was perfect.
May 2008 Romance Writers Report [...]. It was a decent article, but one thing in particular struck me and that is that “literary segregation” (not my term) is being practiced in the name of sales-without-data. [...] The article cites Sean Bentley (Borders Group International) as portraying several interesting things (his direct quotes will be in “” marks; otherwise, I’m just quoting the article):This gives more context to the comments by "Black romance" and "AA response" which I quoted at the start of this post. It's not got a direct bearing on the current discussion of Grimshaw's Twitter "likes" and Tisdale's response. However, it does paint a picture of a system, of which Grimshaw was an important part, which normalised the segregation of African American romances. Moreover, this history is important to bear in mind when Tisdale refers to novels being "compelling" and "intriguing", as though these are objective qualities. They clearly are not given that Borders' policy of shelving AA romance separately (particularly when it treated AA "sci-fi or thrillers" differently) demonstrates that AA romance was considered inherently not compelling or intriguing to white romance readers.
Most Borders stores shelve fiction and nonfiction books by and about black people in an African American section…Bentley says the exception to the rule is science fiction and thrillers by African American authors, since “their readers are more likely going to be looking for sci-fi or thrillers, rather than books that reflect their ethnicity.”