Growing up an avid reader, Kwana Jackson knew where to look for romance novels with Black characters: Segregated in the “African American interest” section where only determined shoppers would find them.
When Jackson became a published author she saw other ways in which writers of color were obscured, potentially affecting both book sales and the odds their work would catch the entertainment industry’s attention.
“That’s why, after 10 novels, I was surprised and thrilled when my agent came to me and said, ‘We’ve had interest in ‘Real Men Knit’.” Jackson's 2020 novel about four brothers in New York’s Harlem is now optioned by a production company for a potential TV series.
What she calls a dream come true is a pragmatic reflection of the unprecedented number of TV outlets in need of shows and growing pressure for inclusive fare — a one-two punch creating opportunities for overlooked writers and ignored perspectives.
“There’s a huge appetite for diverse voices and for almost forgotten voices,” said Steve Fisher, head of intellectual property and a partner at the APA talent agency.
Jackson, who said she strives to write stories that portray Black and other ethnic characters fully, both in conflict and love, believes such depictions on TV have the power to chip away at stereotypes and build empathy.
“We need to change that perception of how we’ve been shown. We are just like anyone else, with real stories, real love, real joy, real problems,” she said.
Sean Berard, literary manager with the Grandview management agency, credits publishers for making the effort to find stories that are “coming from authentic places” and for bringing deserved attention to their authors.
“We hear from time to time a (rights) scramble for a certain project, a certain book, that’s not even published,” Berard said.
Such fierce competition was inevitable. Within a year’s time, Netflix, Amazon and Hulu were joined by new streaming services including Disney+, Apple TV+, HBO Max and Peacock, all jockeying for viewers and justifying their subscription fees alongside premium cable channels including HBO and Showtime.
Overall demand by the entertainment industry for content has “increased exponentially” in the last few years, said Michael Cader, founder of the Publishers Marketplace newsletter. Streaming services are among the neediest outlets, and book-related content “often brings a built-in audience and respect,” he said.
They industry has also become acutely aware of demands for change, facing organized criticism in the form of #OscarsSoWhite and the #MeToo movement, among others, and within the context of the country’s rising social and political tensions.
Established writers are among the beneficiaries of the scramble for content, including those whose literary novels make for a more challenging transfer to the screen. Colson Whitehead, for example, has been “a fabulous writer for decades and now he’s finally getting his adaptation,” Cader said.
Whitehead’s 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Underground Railroad” is the Black American writer’s inaugural work brought to the screen, the basis of an Amazon series debuting May 14.
Sci-fi and fantasy author N.K. Jemisin became the first Black writer to win the prestigious Hugo Award for best novel, for 2015′s “The Fifth Season,” then made it three in a row. Jemisin’s work has yet to be adapted, but her “The Inheritance Trilogy” reportedly was optioned earlier this year.
Although Black-themed projects have been in the forefront, producers are beginning to cast a wider net. Native American author Angeline Boulley’s 2021 debut novel “Firekeeper’s Daughter,” a thriller set on an Ojibwe reservation, is being developed for Netflix by Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company. Charles Yu’s National Book Award-winning 2020 novel “Interior Chinatown” is in development for Hulu, which ordered a pilot based on the forthcoming debut novel “Olga Dies Dreaming” by Xochitl Gonzalez.