You Need To Promote Diversity In Publishing – Here’s How and Why
Maya Angelou once said, “It is time for parents to teach young people early on that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength.” It is indeed time for the world to recognise the need for diversity and inclusion in every field including (specifically) the publishing industry.
Books hold the promise of a better and progressive tomorrow. One can learn from the mistakes of the past through documented material of the same. Books essentially dictate and present narratives in society. Each book, irrespective of the genre, holds a story that will make an impact on its reader. Publishers are hence the gatekeepers of this promise. The publishing industry is the link between a story and a reader. Therefore, the publishing industry has the onus to cater to a larger diverse and inclusive audience. Through the course of this blog, we will look at where the problem lies and how we can attempt to fix it.
What is the problem?
At any given point in time, one can concur that literature has played a vital role in the development and progress of a society. This holds true because books essentially form and display the essence of the society. Therefore, works of literature that represent the diversity can be credited for facilitating a more inclusive society. It is true that the literature space is way more inclusive than it ever was in the past.
However, the change is happening at a negligible rate. According to an article by Bustle, “Only 30 women have won a Pulitzer since the prize’s 1917 inception, including only three women of color: Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Jhumpa Lahiri. No woman has won the prize since 2014. Even more concerning, only 14 women have won the Nobel out of the 114 prizes that have been awarded since 1901.”
The article also informed that “The 2017 CCBC study of literature for children and teens, found that, out of 3700 books surveyed, just 3.68%, or 136 books, contained significant LGBTQIA+ content. Of those, only 41% (56 books) was written by an author who identifies as LGBTQIA+.” Reni Eddo-Lodge author of Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race became the first black British author to reach the number one spot on the UK overall bestseller list. What is astonishing and a tad bit disappointing about this information is the fact that it only and finally happened in 2020. During the same time, Bernardine Evaristo became the first woman of color to top the UK fiction paperback chart.
Goldsmiths, University of London, Spread the Word, and The Bookseller, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council conducted the first “in-depth academic study in the UK on diversity in trade fiction and diversity in publishing industry.” The study was called Rethinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing. Under this 113 professionals were interviewed from the publishing industry that included authors, agents, editors, etc. The research also included major publishing houses who were asked questions “about their practices and their experience publishing writers of color.” The research concurred that “The core audience for publishers is white and middle-class. The whole industry is essentially set up to cater to this one audience. This affects how writers of color and their books are treated, which is either whitewashed or exoticized in order to appeal to this segment.” According to the research, “Publishers claim that they would like to reach more diverse audiences but do not know how to, or are reluctant to expend resources on doing so.” Furthermore, the study showed that “’BAME’ (black, Asian and minority ethnic)/working-class audiences are undervalued by publishers, both economically and culturally: This, in turn, affects the acquisition, promotion, and selling of writers of color.”
Under The 2019 Diversity Baseline Survey, “153 companies participated, including all of the Big Five publishers, eight review journals, forty-seven trade publishers, thirty-five university presses, and sixty-three literary agencies of all sizes from across North America.” The survey concurred that 74% of the respondents self-reported themselves as cis women. It further showed that “97 percent of publishing staff identify as cis men or women, meaning that they identify with the genders they were assigned at birth.” One can deduce from the survey that “the small number of a genderfluid, non-binary, genderqueer, trans man, trans woman, and intersex people in publishing points to the need for publishers to make sure that books on these topics are examined for cultural and scientific accuracy by experts before they are published. According to the survey, about 81 percent of publishing staff identify as straight or heterosexual.” An article published by Forbes presented that Publishers Weekly’s own annual salary survey “showed minimal improvement in terms of creating a more diverse publishing industry.”
The above-mentioned surveys point out a very cyclical problem. The publishing industry runs heavily on profit margin like all the other businesses. Publishing houses take the risk when they are convinced that they will get returns. Publishers hesitate from investing in books by BAME or BIPOC authors because they don’t think there is a market for such material. Most of the work conceived by the authors in this category are seen as niche writing. They are expected to cater to a very minor group of audience. Even in cases where the publishers take up work by BAME or BIPOC writers, they are highly whitewashed to ensure profitability. This leads to a compromise in the authenticity of such stories. Similarly, professionals from the minority group struggle with getting jobs in the industry for the above-mentioned reasons. There is also a bias that exists in the current society where the publishers do not see the potential of a significant reading audience in the minority groups. It is a known fact that the privileged section of society consumes more books as compared to the marginalized class. However, this divide is also a result of the lack of materials available to the minority groups.
Somebody who only reads newspapers and at best books of contemporary authors looks to me like an extremely near-sighted person who scorns eyeglasses. He is completely dependent on the prejudices and fashions of his times since he never gets to see or hear anything else.– Albert Einstein
How can we fix the problem?
Now that we understand the gravity of the issue, we can work towards a substantial change as readers and consumers. Let us look at a few ways in which we can get more diversity in the publishing industry:
1. Use social media for awareness
Living in the information age, we have the advantage of getting our voice heard and noticed. Use your social media platforms to actively support artists from minority groups. Follow their social media handles and amplify their work. Social media caters to a ripple effect. When something is trending, everyone wants to get on board. We need to ensure that work by the minority groups is always trending and hence, keeping them relevant. Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum during the protests. During this time, the books written by black authors about racism saw a hike in sales. This momentum needs to be maintained throughout in order to include diversity thoroughly in the publishing sphere.
2. Support publishers that promote diversity
Like any other business, the publishing industry too runs on profit margins. Publishing houses will only support work that has demand in the market. As a reader, you can actively seek out publishing houses that have a diverse pool of employees and have constantly promoted inclusivity in their releases. There are very few and small publishing houses that do cater to specific minority writing communities. Amplify and market their work so that they have the funds to make an impact and provide opportunities to authors.
3. Write more for diversity
If you are an author who comes from a minority group, you need to write and write and write. As a writer, you have the power to make people listen to your stories. Do not compromise on the authenticity of your story in order to fit in. Tell your story as it is. Get in touch with writing communities that will provide a safe and conducive environment for your writing. Some of the writing communities that facilitate writers from the minority groups include Black, Indigenous, POC (BIPOC) Writing Community, Out on the Page, and LGBT Writers.
At the end of it all, publishers make books for the readers. The reading audience dictates the market. The real power lies within the people who consume books. This essentially means that readers have the moral responsibility to contribute towards a significant and progressive change. Every book tells a story. One cannot be reading the same story over and over again. That would lead to a stagnant society and nobody wants that.