Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Penguin: (Millenia) Black and White

Over the past few months there have been quite a lot of discussions both here and elsewhere about the way in which romances featuring black protagonists, written by black authors, tend to be placed in "AA romance" lines, and are often shelved in the "AA section" rather than the "romance" section. During those discussions mention has been made of non-black authors who've written romances featuring black characters, and whose romances didn't get treated in the same way as the romances written by black authors and featuring black protagonists. Although Millenia Black isn't a romance author, her experience highlighted the importance of the race of the author, not simply the race of the characters, in determining the ways in which a book will be marketed and shelved. In addition, once her publisher became aware that she was black, they expected her to write about black characters. As a result, Millenia Black (the pen name of Nadine Aldred) brought a lawsuit against Penguin (a pdf of the complaint she filed can be found here, via On Point). As summarised on one blog written by a "best-selling author [...] trapped in the shadows [...]. Me and every other author of color in the publishing industry":
In or about September of 2002, plaintiff Aldred self-published her first novel, entitled The Great Pretender, under the pen name Millenia Black. The work of fiction centers around the topic of ­marital infidelity, and contains an additional subtle component, in that all of its subject matter and characters are devoid of racial characteristics. [...] Aldred is not described by race anywhere in the self-published version of The Great Pretender and neither does her photograph appear. [...]

In the latter half of December 2004, and as a direct result of the successful marketing of the self-published edition of The Great Pretender, Penguin became interested in Aldred’s current and future work. [...]

On information and belief, defendants’ employee and agent, Kara Cesare, who was assigned by Penguin to be Aldred’s editor, asked plaintiff’s agent, Sara Camilli, whether she had ever met Aldred in person and whether Aldred was black or white. Camilli responded that Aldred is black.

For its version of The Great Pretender, Penguin revised the original cover art by superimposing two non-white women over the image of the burning weddi­ng bands. Penguin published and marketed The Great Pretender using the revised cover art.

Plaintiff objected to the use of false racial identifiers on the cover art of The Great Pretender, but Penguin published the work as such over Aldred’s objections.
Millenia Black then wrote a second novel:
The Great Betrayal focuses on marital infidelity and family secrets. As initially written by Aldred, The Great Betrayal’s characters are described as ­white.

After reviewing the manuscript, Penguin demanded that Aldred re-write the characters so as to render them African American or race-neutral.

Thereafter, Penguin showed Aldred its intended cover art, which portrayed an unmade bed with the face of an African American woman and the back of an African American man superimposed above it.

On information and belief, Penguin intended to classify and style The Great Betrayal as African American fiction/literature, based solely on plaintiff’s race and without regard to the subject matter of the book.
Today (link via Monica Jackson's blog) Millenia Black posted that she is "very pleased to share that the matter has now been resolved to my satisfaction through an agreement, the terms of which can never be discussed."

That's the second time in recent months that Signet (a division of Penguin Group USA) has taken action to rectify an unethical situation. The other involved Cassie Edwards:
Romance writer Cassie Edwards and publisher Signet Books have decided to break up after allegations emerged in January that in she lifted passages in several of her books from other sources.

"Signet has conducted an extensive review of all its Cassie Edwards novels and due to irreconcilable editorial differences, Ms. Edwards and Signet have mutually agreed to part ways," the publisher said in a statement Friday.

"Cassie Edwards novels will no longer be published with Signet Books. All rights to Ms. Edwards' previously published Signet books have reverted to the author." (Hillel Italie, via the Smart Bitches)

And to celebrate the result of the Penguin's deliberations (I imagine it standing, as in the photo above, staring into the water while trying to decide what to do) here are two free online reads that are, at least in part, about justice.

The first is A Darker Shade of Midnight, by Lynn Emery, a paranormal romantic suspense story set in Louisiana.

The second, much shorter story, Tea with a Stranger, is by Isolde Martyn and begins in Port Jackson, Australia, in 1796.

The photo of the pensive-looking penguin was taken by Jerzy Strzelecki, and I found it at Wikimedia Commons.


  1. Sure you don't mean this?


  2. I wonder how much of Penguin's actions were pigeon-holing the author due to preconceptions about race, and how much was Penguin just so desperate for A-A content that they were going to push anything they possibly could in that direction.

    Anyway, I hope Aldred gets a better deal next time around.

  3. Tal, those penguins don't look like the right species to me, and there are too many of them, unless you're thinking that each one is one of Penguin's divisions, and the one standing alone is Signet, which has got to learn how to behave itself. Which, going on the "i just gotta be me" label on that t-shirt, it wouldn't seem to have worked out yet.

    Paca, when they signed her, they didn't know her race, so they can't have been desperate at that point for AA content.

    I was curious, so I took a look at Penguin's various websites worldwide. If you go to Penguin US's website, they have "african american" listed in a sidebar for "special interests." Other "special interests" include romance, short reads etc and only one other race-based category, latino.

    Penguin UK's website has a much longer list of categories, including Asian interest, Black interest, Gay & Lesbian, Irish interest, Jewish interest.

    Penguin Australia have no such sidebar at all. They do divide the books up into categories but none of them are based on race or sexual orientation. There are a number of "Aussie" categories.

    Penguin Canada's website has a sidebar, but none of the categories are racially or nationally based. If you browse the subcategories for fiction they have one for "Gay & Lesbian" but none for any specific racial group.

    I'm not sure what conclusions one can draw from that, but it was interesting to me to see the differences.

  4. Personally, I think there's a BIG difference between the way the Edwards situation was resolved and the way the Black/Aldred situation was.

    I've already said my piece on this several times now, so I won't do it again, but I'm way less enthusiastic about this development than others. As Jane has pointed out, that gag and purge element of this is quite extraordinary.

  5. Robin, I don't think we can assume that there was a "purge" element written into the settlement. Millenia wrote that

    The Discrimination Lawsuit.
    I've received several inquiries about the status. I'm very pleased to share that the matter has now been resolved to my satisfaction through an agreement, the terms of which can never be discussed.

    In the interest of my blog's archival integrity, I fully disclose that all previous discussions about the case have been removed. There will be no further information about the lawsuit on my blog.

    It may be that she removed the discussions about the case because she's agreed to a "gag," and so thought it easier to comply with the "gag" if there weren't posts on her blog which might spark discussion of the case. Sometimes people remove content just because it seems easier/less hassle. Maybe she's just being extra careful that nothing appears on the blog which might be interpreted as infringing the "gag" part of the settlement.

    However, given that she's agreed not to discuss the terms of the settlement, she can't say whether there was a "purge" element to the settlement as well as the "gag" one.

    As for the "gag", Jane wrote that

    The gag order is perfectly normal. The purging? Not so much. The purging says to me that she lacked leverage to make to make a stand. The purging, frankly, makes me wonder if Penguin threatened to countersue with a libel claim.

    It’s one thing to not talk about the details of the settlement. That’s really ordinary.

  6. Laura, perhaps the penguins on the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC t-shirt were plagiarized from another ice floe...

    WV -- xrtyg
    Inuit word meaning "romance novel set in the Arctic containing plagiarized passages from another one set in the Antarctic"

  7. perhaps the penguins on the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC t-shirt were plagiarized from another ice floe...

    So one writer was happily thinking she'd got a (n)ice flow of words going, when she looked up and realised that someone had p-p-p-p plagiarised her penguins.

    I have the impression that the p-p-p penguin thing won't make much sense to Americans. It's part of the advertising for Penguin chocolate biscuits. There are a couple of the adverts on Youtube: here and here (although as I'd never seen the adverts before, I don't know for sure that they're real ones rather than p-p-p parodies).

  8. Maybe she's just being extra careful that nothing appears on the blog which might be interpreted as infringing the "gag" part of the settlement.

    But that's the thing, Laura; such an agreement would extend far beyond the terms of the settlement, which is generally only what one keeps confidential in these situations.

    But I think your point about how she could be purging for multiple reasons is the point I'm trying to make about why the case settled -- that it doesn't necessarily imply that Penguin has "taken action to rectify an unethical situation." I mean, Penguin could just have easily threatened to counter sue Black, too, resulting in a settlement to Black's "satisfaction." Cases settle for many reasons that have nothing to do with admission of liability, and in a situation like this, we don't even know who initiated settlement. IMO what remains in the public record (which goes beyond the complaint and the answer), along with what has been erased, provokes way more questions than answers.

    IMO this case raises many important and interesting issues, some of which are implicated through Black's reliance on section 42 USC 1981, freedom of contract in her initial complaint, rather than 42 USC 1983, deprivation of civil rights. There is, for example, the question of what it means to give a publisher the exclusive rights to market and sell one's book, as well as the relationship between those rights and racial discrimination.

    Then there's the whole issue of what constitutes legal discrimination as it compares to our general use of that word (like on the thread the SBs have up now regarding Zane's f/f erotica). Then there are, of course, all the issues around whether niche marketing in a purely racial context is essentially discriminatory, in either a legal or general sense.

    I'm not sure how these issues would have been adjudicated, but now one of the main players has been removed from the discussion.

  9. FYI. 42 USC 1983 covers action against the state (government). You can't sue a company in the private sector under 1983.

  10. Had another thought. If a plaintiff has no case, the defendant's attorney files a simple motion to dismiss, or motion for summary judgement. Clearly, that did not happen here. When a defendant settles after two years, particularly in discrimination suits, it usually means they have reason to be averse to the risk of taking it to trial. No grounds for dismissal? No grounds for summary judgement? Settlement two years into a case usually means the defendant blinked first after fruitless discovery. It usually quelches the question of unfounded allegations. Not saying this is true for every situation, just what's typically the case with discrimination suits.

  11. FYI. 42 USC 1983 covers action against the state (government). You can't sue a company in the private sector under 1983.

    Yeah, I know. That's part of the issue this case raises -- the question of how one mounts a discrimination claim when the defendant is neither a state actor nor an employer under Title VII. That is, how is discrimination conceptualized and how does the contract control, especially in a commercial environment where the author cedes particular rights to the publisher (that is, whose rights are being exercised under the contract, Black's or Penguin's).