Vol. 1: Editor Cherise Fisher Points the Finger
Recently, the New York Times published an article called “What It’s Really Like to Work in Hollywood (If you’re not a straight white man),” a collection of stories from actors, directors, producers, and other film professionals who are consistently marginalized and underrepresented in a white male-dominated industry. To draw attention to similar issues in publishing, an industry with a dramatic disparity in racial demographics, we're collecting stories from writers, agents, and editors of color about what it's like to work and publish in an industry historically dominated by white people.
In advance of the Writers of Color Roundtable event at GrubStreet's Muse and the Marketplace conference on Friday, April 29, we’re kicking off the conversation with Muse 2016 presenters. First in the series is editor Cherise Fisher. At the Muse, Cherise is leading a session on How to Perfect Your Pitch.
I was fresh out of college, working as the assistant to the Editor-in-Chief of Dell — the only chocolate drop on the entire floor. I grew up in a sleepy suburban town in North Jersey, spent six years at a prep school in Manhattan, and slid through four years at an Ivy League college. In other words, I had learned early on how to negotiate the reality of being the only black person in the room.
As the Editor-in-Chief’s assistant, I was learning how to walk another tightrope. A superb editorial assistant is there to make her boss look good as effortlessly as possible. However, my boss was everyone’s boss, so it was a highly visible position as well. But let’s face it: when you are several hues darker than everyone around you, it’s nearly impossible to melt into the crowd.
I’d been working at the company for about seven months when one of the editors, Steve Ross, had the inspired idea to approach Dennis Rodman about writing a memoir. Rodman came in for a meeting, the deal was struck, and the company began the work of publishing the book. Rodman, at that time, was an essential member of the championship Chicago Bulls basketball team. He was controversial, alternative, and unpredictable. The book was perfectly entitled Bad As I Wanna Be, and an elaborate and expensive photo shoot was pulled together for the cover. It would be Mr. Rodman sitting perched on a motorcycle as naked as baby, with a cleverly positioned basketball keeping things PG-rated.
A few days after the shoot, the art director walked into my boss’s office with an armful of cover comps. The editor, the managing editor, publisher, and marketing director (in other words, all the top executives in the company) hovered around the table staring at the comps. Which font would be best? What background color should we use? Decisions! Decisions! I had slipped into my boss’s office to place some phone messages on my boss’s desk. I glanced over at the comps and casually said, “Well, actually, we can’t use any of these covers.”
The room stopped. Every single white face turned toward me. I’m sure no one had even noticed I was in the room until I spoke up.
I moved in closer. “Because THAT,” my finger pointed at the photo, “is the tip of Mr. Rodman’s penis.”
Audible gasps. Disbelief. People squinted. A loupe was produced. “Are you sure?” someone asked.
“Believe me, I know a black penis when I see it.”
And so out came the magic of Photoshop. Crisis averted.
I’ve thought about that story over the years, and I find that it is deeply related to ideas around diversity staffing in publishing. It was mind-blowing that seven people could all stare at a photo and not see what I only needed three seconds to recognize. But that’s exactly what blinders do: make you unable to see broader than your own experience. I strongly believe that for the majority of my work colleagues, there was never malicious intent behind the various blunders that happened over the years in the office. Simply blinders. Perhaps a discomfort with looking directly at the experiences that are ugly and complicated. Often, my colleagues lacked the lens or the language required to understand, relate, and assess. This is why having people with diverse experiences in a publishing company is so essential. My role as a person of color in publishing was to boldly point the finger. Sometimes that finger was pointed toward the possibility — I know the audience for this book and I know how we can reach them. Other times, the finger was pointing the power structure away from the disasters — have you noticed this part of the story and is that really how you want to be represented? The act of pulling away the blinders was challenging, requiring courage and openness on both sides — and, perhaps most important of all, mutual respect.
Twenty-year publishing veteran Cherise began her career in publishing as the assistant to the Editor-in-Chief of Dell, an imprint of Bantam Doubleday Dell. She later moved to Simon & Schuster, where she built a strong list of fiction and non fiction titles covering a broad spectrum of topics, including Christianity and spirituality, relationships, parenting, business and career development, beauty and lifestyle, sexuality, health and fitness, pop reference and pop culture, illustrated books, and commercial African American fiction. Her extensive trade paperback experience shaped the success of Plume's publishing program. Plume is a trade paperback division of Penguin, USA, which publishes between 85-95 books a year. Bestselling and award winning authors published by Plume includes Tracy Chevalier, Eckhart Tolle, Jenny McCarthy, Ayn Rand, August Wilson, and Karen Joy Fowler, among many others. Cherise has personally worked with scores of new and experienced authors including Pat Croce, Leonard Maltin, David Talbert, Bil Wright, Todd Wilbur, Nelson George, Paule Marshall, Tony Parsons, George Lopez, Victoria Christopher Murray, and Michael Baisden.
Specialties: Editor for the following New York Times Bestsellers: God's Gift to Women by Michael Baisden, Why You Crying by George Lopez, and The Passion Test by Janet and Chris Attwood.
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