Do non-white heroes hurt book sales?

Harlequin had done extensive market research, she said.  They knew which titles were hits and which were flops.  And whenever they published a book with an Asian hero or heroine, no one bought those books.  They might be the best stories in the line, but they invariably failed in the marketplace.

“I want your books to be bestsellers,” she said.  “And this will hurt your sales.”

Tess Gerritsen

It struck me as odd, years ago, when I got the first “thank you” for making the protagonist in my Between Heaven and Hell series, Daniel Cho, a Korean-American. I wanted Daniel to stand out, and I thought Yet Another White Guy would be cliche as my hero. Especially considering that as the series plays out, Daniel becomes one of the most important human beings to ever live. I thought giving that destiny to Biff McWhitebread would be a waste of a good opportunity to do something else. So being a big fan of Margaret Cho, I gave him her surname, and a somewhat stereotypical Asian-American background, which Asian readers have ended up lauding for its authenticity.

But it never once occurred to me that it could hurt my sales.

Apparently, ignorance was bliss. Tess Gerritsen, whose Rizzoli and Isles novels I’ve loved for many years, posted today that the next R&I book will have two prominent Asian characters, and she felt like it was a breakthough being able to include them. Fortunately, the comments (now closed, alas) allowed many of her fans to cite examples of some of their favorite fiction that featured non-white leads. So it would seem I’m not in bad company.

But still, why did it come to this? Is this another example of publishing imposing a view on their readers that isn’t really there? After all, in the late 90s New York publishing declared that Horror and Westerns were dead genres, despite the fact that readers seem to continue gobbling up whatever slips past the conventional wisdom and gets published anyway. Did the same publishers “know” that their readers wouldn’t accept non-white leads, because books like that never sold, forgetting that they never sold because they were never published in the first place?