This is a three-part series on the ongoing public debate on diversity in publishing. I will keep updating these as necessary.
Part 3: Some Potential Fixes for the ‘Diversity in Publishing’ Problem
In Part 1, I gave a brief introduction to the ongoing debate around the lack of diversity in publishing. This is not a new issue and the current debate is not highlighting new causes. That said, it is certainly providing more evidence — both statistical and anecdotal — from different stakeholder groups across the publishing industry.
Now, in Part 3, I would like to offer up some potential suggestions or approaches that might help improve diversity in publishing.
Let me start by saying that I am not a publishing industry insider. And, my points below may well reflect some of what has already been initiated by various influential and/or progressive gatekeepers of the publishing industry. Most notably, we have already seen:
— Projects like “A Year of Reading the World” by Ann Morgan, which spurred similar projects across many book clubs across the world.
— Provocations (which was more to get a discussion going rather than be taken literally, in my opinion), like this one from Kamila Shamsie, to have “a year of only publishing women“.
— Viral hashtags like #ownvoices about “books with diverse characters written by authors from that same diverse group”
— Campaigns like #1000BlackGirlBooks by eleven-year-old Marley Dias
— Avowals, like this one from Eva Jurczyk, to “only review books by women“.
— Creation of new imprints like this one by Simon & Schuster, one of the Big Five traditional publishers, for Muslim-themed children’s books.
That said, I am a lifelong reader and a writer of color. This issue has been core to my existence from when I was a little girl, trying to find books that spoke about my concerns, joys, challenges, sorrows. Living in the West, unable to find these reflected in the world around me, I found myself trying to fit in by denying parts of myself and repressing awareness of my sense of otherness. Now, as a writer of color, I get what Kavita Das means when she writes:
Not only is it harder for writers of color to get published, but when rejecting our work, publishers tell us that what we’re writing about is too narrow and niche and won’t appeal to mainstream audiences. It’s hard not to perceive this as both a rejection of the relevance of our work as well as ourselves. And for many writers of color who face barriers in other parts of their life due to their identity, the rejection is compounded, forcing some to put down their pen and give up their voice.
So, here are some things I would like to see happen within the publishing industry.
Let’s start with the two primary gatekeepers: agents and editors/publishers.
My suspicion is that the ones who insist on sticking with what they think are “tried, tested, and true” demographics and tastes are not keeping up with the evolving zeitgeist of reader preferences. This could be a head-buried-in-the-sand issue, or a it’s-not-broke-let’s-not-fix-it attitude, or, to give them the benefit of the doubt, maybe they simply don’t have the best tools and systems to track how reader tastes have evolved. Clearly, though, we only have to look across social media to see what people are reading, liking, commenting on, and sharing.
Another big problem is that the tectonic plates of book culture and internet culture are not done shifting yet, so it is difficult to understand how the current print publishing model needs to evolve. Further, the economics of the standard print publishing model cannot be easily converted to a different model and still maintain the same profit levels.
Regardless, here are some things I might do as one of these stakeholders:
1) If I was an agent or editor/publisher, I’d start an online weekly/monthly publication as part of my brand. Or, at least, connect officially with one out there. I’d use it to do market tests across social media by commissioning articles related to certain topics/themes that I’m getting submissions for. I might even commission those new/emerging authors to write some of those articles and see what kind of reception they get. We do this in other business fields all the time (particularly the tech industry, where I’ve been on the real-life as well as the consulting side). But, for goodness’ sake, stop subjecting writers of color to this kind of idiocy:
The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing
After 20 years, my novel sold right away and everything changed. When I went to these houses, I was in this rare position that I got to interview the people who were interested in the book. I was worried they would sari and spices me, that they would do the India they wanted. One said, “You can talk about all of these things but you can’t have them all in there. What’s the most important angle? It’s the immigrant angle, obviously.” I’ve been running from that editor my whole life. I will be one person only to that editor. I cried that night even though I was able to say no to her. How many authors had to hear that before me with this editor as their only option? How many stories have I not heard because this editor was in charge?
2) Next, I’d work on strengthening the pipeline of minority writers. Beyond encouraging pitches and submissions, I’d market the heck out of my few existing successful minority writers so that other new/emerging writers see them as role models and are encouraged. An active, ongoing, innovative marketing campaign, mind you. That there are fewer opportunities for minority writers to develop strong voices and viewpoints from an early age is still a reality in most cultures today and being exposed early to role models can only help. This is the case with any male-dominated profession — from astronauts to zoologists. Even creating and/or supporting literature mentorship programs like this one by Rolex would be great.
3) Some publishing houses do this already: sponsor contests, fellowships, grants, and so on to encourage more minority writers to come forward on their own merits. Yes, more of these efforts would have to be targeted towards minority writers and could be accused of being exclusionary towards majority writers. But, let me use a business analogy: in the corporate world, if you have an under-utilized or under-performing business unit that you know could give you good returns through new and innovative products, wouldn’t you invest more into it at the expense of another? If you believed in the viability of a new technology, wouldn’t you put more time/effort/money into its development?
4) [ADDED March 5, 2016] And, let’s not forget that we also need class diversity in our literature as Alison Stine pointed out in this article: ‘On Poverty‘. Her suggestions, which I fully endorse:
This means no submission fees. This means paying your interns—and your writers. This means shorter residencies for writers who will be fired from their jobs if they leave for long, or who have children without nannies. This means searching for writers to celebrate beyond New York and outside of academia. This means putting up flyers for your journal and posters advertising your readings not just at the hipster coffeehouse and AWP elevator, but at community colleges and laundromats, at halfway houses and homeless shelters. This means recognizing that not everyone—including every writer—has internet at home, not everyone has a working printer, not everyone can apply for a grant early or at all, not everyone has an hour of free time, not everyone can write when they are not bone tired or hungry or cold.
5) There are a lot more suggestions from editors themselves at this PEN Equity Project Roundtable Discussion.
I will admit that I do not understand the entire publishing value-chain well enough to know where the finances for the above might come from. But, maybe:
a) Endowments or donations like those received by educational institutions
b) Government support through favorable tax arrangements
c) Profits from one business unit subsidizing another
This is a solvable problem. Humankind has solved many more serious life-and-death problems through the ages. Surely, a few brainy industry folks could get together and solve this one.
Let me use another business analogy. What if Steve Jobs had said: nope, people will never want to listen to music on their phones so we’re not going there. Or: nah, we’re great and successful at making computers and phones will never sell as well or more than computers, so let’s not go there. My point: every industry has its visionary risk-taker who leads the paradigm shift. Let’s hope that the publishing industry has a few of those too.
Next, let’s talk about what reviewers and critics could be doing.
They are, to me, the next most important set of gatekeepers in this industry. A lot has already been said about their biases and blind spots, at least in the US, by Jennifer Weiner, Jodi Picoult, and Roxane Gay, among many others.
1) Look, I get that even reviewers and critics have personal reading preferences. Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times is hardly likely to review a Young Adult book. That said, influential critics like her are at every major publication. They carry enough clout to encourage their chief editors and corporate owners to bring on board reviewers who will happily focus on minority writers. This should not be difficult to do. I mean, even The New York Times eventually brought Jennifer Weiner on board in 2014 as Op-Ed Writer on gender and culture issues, after her several public exhortations to them to be more gender-neutral and genre-neutral in their book reviews.
2) Literary magazines have been proliferating in the last few years — both in print and online. They don’t make much (if any) money at all, sadly, but, they continue to exist due to the love of reading and writing. Certainly, many of these are still not looking to minority writers when they publish book reviews. This is an easy fix. Put out calls for submissions through the many online outlets for reviews of books by minority writers. And mean it.
Let’s now turn to readers and what they can do to support.
1) This may sound blindingly obvious but I’m going to say it anyway: we need to buy diverse books for ourselves or as gifts for others. Request them from our libraries if we cannot afford to buy them. I’ve had a couple of white reader friends tell me candidly that they simply do not care much for the typical minority writer story that they keep coming across: e.g. the immigrant-against-the-odds. There’s some truth about this being the more common theme among writers of color because some agents/editors ask writers of color to play up the immigrant angle over others. There’s also a possibility that what is actually turning these readers off is having to face some harsh truths about racism and discrimination either within themselves or the world around them. I am convinced, though, that, if we look hard enough, we will find other stories by minority writers out there. We may just have to look that little bit harder because these writers may not have had the big marketing bucks to raise the visibility of their books.
2) Next, with diverse books and authors we have enjoyed, we need to SPREAD THE WORD through social media, book groups, personal blogs, and so on. Remember that most minority writers, unless they have the backing of a big publishing house, do not have the financial means to really market and sell their books well. Like all other writers, they are competing with other forms of media for the attention of their relatively much smaller readership. Word-of-mouth selling by loyal readers is a necessity, not simply a nice-to-have for them.
3) Leave reviews on major sites like Amazon, Goodreads, LibraryThing, etc. These make a huge difference. Most bookselling and recommending websites have algorithms that take ratings and reviews into account when ranking and displaying books in their search and recommendation engines.
4) Write a letter to your favorite minority writer and send it to them via their publisher. You may not get a response if the writer is busy working on their next book. But, the publisher will make note and, possibly, step up their support for that writer.
5) Post favorable comments on the author’s Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. If you’re on social media, rather than watch that next funny video, take a minute or two to write a comment of appreciation. You might just make the writer’s day and give him/her the much-needed encouragement to carry on writing.
6) If you’re also a parent, teacher or educator, create a diverse reading program for your kids. Start them young. Remember those Pew Research demographics I mentioned in Part 1? Guess what? Your kids are going to grow up in an even more diverse world than you’re living in. Their ability to appreciate and understand that diversity may well help them get on a lot better in life and at work. Still need more convincing? Watch this nine-minute ‘Doll Test‘ video, which shows how kids, white and other ethnicities — see people of color.
7) If you are a publishing event organizer (or one in any other field, really), diversify your speaker/discussion panels so that they can bring minority issues to the table. And, oh, please do not expect them to do it for free because you’re giving them “exposure”.
8) For goodness’ sake, if you’re a celebrity of any kind, in any field, take the opportunity to talk about diverse books and reading with your followers/network or on your platform. You may not have Oprah’s clout to move a book to the top of the bestseller lists, but you can do your bit.
Finally, of course, here’s what writers need to be doing.
1) If you want to write about diverse characters, by all means, do so. But, if it is not a culture that you are steeped in, as with everything else in writing, do your research very thoroughly. Get good beta readers who are from the minority groups that you are writing about so that they can give you decent feedback. And, of course, read more diverse books yourself. [UPDATE May 1, 2016: Here’s an excellent article on how to write diverse characters.]
2) As a minority writer, understand that, beyond writing good works and beyond the art and craft, getting to readers is about the business. Get out there to self-promote, even if you might have a publisher doing your marketing. You may not like this part of the job but there are gentler and easier ways to promote your writing .
3) If you believe you have written a winning book, but are not getting past the primary gatekeepers, go ahead and self-publish. This is not as bad a stigma as it once used to be. And, there are many resources out there (separate post on this at some point). If the self-published book does well enough, agents and publishers will jump on your next one because the one color they do recognize is the color of profitable dollars.
4) There are various schools of thought on whether and how active writers ought to be on social media, personal blogs, and so on. In trade parlance, this is known as “platform-building”. I am of the school that says that, if you’re still a new or emerging writer, you need to be somewhat active in developing your author platform. If nothing else, you need to be writing and publishing the odd article related to your particular interests or book’s themes/subjects to generate some level of reader interest.
5) I add this one at the end because it is still a bit of a hit-or-miss strategy. We hear of the odd blog-to-book story (‘Julie and Julia’) or self-published to big publisher to Hollywood (‘The Martian). For sure, there are more of these nowadays than ever before. So, if you think you’ve got a knock-out bestseller on your hands, by all means, go for this approach. Most of the writers who took this route did not plan or even hope for the kind of success they achieved. But, it is possible and there is less stigma because of those who have paved the way before.
That’s all I’ve got for now, folks. Check back in regularly for updates to this three-part series as this debate continues to evolve. And, of course, do share your own thoughts and/or links below.