This week Publishers Weekly, the leading American trade magazine about the book biz, used the picture at the left as their cover image to illustrate their annual feature on African-American publishing. The internet promptly lost its damn mind, and the weekend was a Twitter bonanza of people tweeting that PW was crazily racist (which you can follow at #afropw). The image itself is from Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present by Deborah Willis, which no one was particularly bothered by, so clearly it's the way the image was contextualized that's freaking everyone out.
The editor who chose the image for the cover, PW senior news editor Calvin Reid (@calreid), has issued an apology for the furor. A few people have come to his defense, including Willis herself, who's also the chair of NYU’s photography department and a MacArthur "genius grant" fellow. And personally I think the use of the image is just fine. On the other hand, I'm a white dude in his thirties, so take that with as large a grain of salt as you like.
On a related note, the idea of "African American publishing" always makes me feel a little weird. Does that make the rest of every publisher's catalog "Caucasian publishing"? To a certain extent, it's how shoppers feel, at least. Our African-American lit titles sell better now that they're in their own section than when they were just sprinkled among our general fiction. The demographic of buyers for crossover titles like Sapphire's Push and Edwidge Danticat's Farming of Bones is pretty varied, but our best-selling "African American Fiction" titles like Addicted and Nervous and, well, the entire oeuvres of Zane, Eric Jerome Dickey and Teri Woods (who doesn't even have a Wiki article...what?) have a pretty homogenous fan base. And I want to put books where customers will have the easiest time finding what they want, but still ... I look over at fiction and see it's segregated, to some extent, by race of author and/or protagonist, and I feel a little odd about the whole thing. Maybe we'll shovel it all back together and see what happens to sales. Project for the new year.