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Verb Noire

contributed by: Flourish Klink

Verb Noire is a small, independent e-press with the stated goal of providing a platform for authors who seek "to publish stories featuring characters from groups that have historically been under-represented in fiction," primarily characters of color and GLBTQ characters. They were founded partially as a response to heated discussions taking place in science fiction and fantasy fandom - a highly participatory subculture with an unbroken history from the 1930s to today. Their goal is to become a sustainable, profitable independent publishing house.

Precedents & Catalysts
Prior to Verb Noire's foundation, sci fi and fantasy (sf/f) fandom became involved in an extended discussion of cultural appropriation, race, and anonymity that is typically referred to as "Racefail '09." The discussion began in January 2009 and had largely trailed off by April, and it was primarily conducted on LiveJournals and blogs. Some of the major figures in the discussion included well-known sf/f authors Elizabeth Bear, David Levine, Sarah Monette, Will Shetterly, N.K. Jemisin, K. Tempest Bradford and John Scalzi, and sci fi editors Teresa and Patrick Nielsen Hayden (as well as numerous sci fi and fantasy fans, including Avalon's Willow, Deepa D., and Rydra Wong). The discussion was wide-ranging, extensive, and at times deeply uncivil; it uncovered many unexamined assumptions about race that members of the sf/f community held. Deep divisions in the community became clear as a result of Racefail '09, and while race is widely considered less of a taboo topic in fandom post-Racefail '09, it is debatable (and frequently debated) whether the discussion was a good and positive or necessary thing, or not.

Verb Noire was formed during Racefail '09. While Racefail '09 was not the entire motive for its foundation (these issues have been endemic, if not widely discussed, in sf/f fandom for many years), it has been described as the "straw that broke the camel's back," leading Mikki Kendall, Jamie Nesbitt Golden and a team of volunteers to action.1 Verb Noire was founded as an LLC, because "nobody really cares about a non-profit publishing company. You can sell people on a non-profit for many things, but putting out sci fi books? Not so much!" Nevertheless, there is a large team of associates who volunteer their time to build the Verb Noire website, read through the 'slush pile' of submitted manuscripts, proofread, and so forth. These associates are largely 30-40 years of age, women of color, and motivated by their experiences as sf/f readers and in sf/f fandom - both during Racefail '09 and in general.

While Verb Noire does not explicitly limit itself to publishing works of science fiction and fantasy, Mikki discusses their origins and mission largely in sf/f terms. Describing why it is important to have a company like Verb Noire to publish stories about underrepresented groups, Mikki points out that "sci fi is our view of the future, so to speak, but we're [people of color are] not there. You can't say 'we're all American together' and then you look at say Dune [the movie] and there's no brown people." With regard to fantasy, she also says that "no matter how great the last book about elves is, this may be the time to do something different" - pointing out that the focus on Northern European mythology in fantasy has intensely limited the types of stories that are being told. Thus, the mission of Verb Noire is both a political an an artistic mission: to increase the types of stories that are told in sf/f and reduce the number of "retreads," and to increase the representation of underrepresented groups in sf/f.

The one book currently available from Verb Noire, River's Daughter by Tasha Campbell, is a fantasy novel about a daughter of a mixed marriage in the post-Civil War South. There was originally an anthology also planned, Jukebox Bard, but as a result of problems with the writers' contracts, it was pulled.2 A novel is currently in production, entitled Martin's War. Generally speaking, Verb Noire's goal is to publish two novels and an anthology each year. The novels thus far have been priced slightly fairly competitively for ebooks - $4.99 for River's Daughter and $9.99 for Jukebox Bard - and are available in a range of ebook formats.

For-Profit, Yet Volunteer & Donation Driven
Apart from income deriving from the sale of their books and the sale of "swag" (including t-shirts, mousepads and buttons), Verb Noire has also received donations. They have not held any formal fundraisers, but the online sf/f community surrounding Verb Noire has independently rallied around the company, trying to help it get off the ground. Given that Verb Noire is not a non-profit, the heavy volunteer involvement and fundraising may seem counterintuitive: who would donate their money to a for-profit company without getting anything back? However, as Mikki points out, "social networking lets you find people who feel the way you do who will step up." At least a subset of the sf/f community feels strongly enough about Verb Noire's mission that they are willing to donate money to a for-profit company to see that company's goals succeed.

Verb Noire is one of the fruits of Racefail '09, a discussion that took place in a historically participatory culture (sf/f fandom) about important civic issues - the issues of cultural appropriation and underrepresentation of particular groups in cultural products. It is also deeply rooted in the belief that science fiction narratives provide people with a way of thinking about the future - and therefore, that science fiction narratives ought to reflect the future that one hopes to see. It is an intervention into the cultural production space that takes advantage of modern technology to provide an alternative to the major publishing houses. The features of participatory culture make Verb Noire possible, and Verb Noire seeks to increase the participatory nature of sf/f culture by lowering the barriers to publication for underrepresented groups.


1 Patrick Nielsen Hayden and Teresa Nielsen Hayden, sci fi editors, were in some quarters considered to have behaved in racist ways over the course of Racefail '09; this may have been one motivating factor in founding a competing independent press.

2 Jamie Nesbitt Golden left the company over this incident; however, it appears to have been purely a logistical problem, and not particularly important to our study.

Anna van Someren,
Jan 29, 2010, 11:26 AM