#WeNeedDiverseBooks: Writing and Publishing in the 2020s (Part 3)
by Michele Tracy Berger
Coming of age in the 1970s and 1980s, I never read a commercial novel that featured a character that was anything like me: African American, female, wickedly smart, urban, and geeky. The children’s and young adult market was dominated by white heroes, white heroines and white authors. If I came across an African American character, they were typically described by the color of their skin (in contrast to white characters who were never described by skin tone) and simplistically rendered. They functioned as a sidekick, devoid of cultural experiences that connected them to the rich kaleidoscope of African American life. It wasn’t until college (!) that I discovered commercial (and literary) novels that reflected some of my life experiences back to me. This was a result of two factors. One was the success of small independent presses begun by second wave feminists that published new work by a diversity of women writers. The second was that by the mid-1980s traditional publishing briefly opened up to a few African American female writers, including Toni Morrison and Gloria Naylor.
Over the past two columns, I’ve been chronicling the changes in publishing and speculating about how those changes will shape the 2020s. One definite trend that will continue is the pressure on the publishing industry to become more diverse internally and for books to better reflect the diversity of the United States. Publishing, like all media industries, is facing core questions about diversity and representation. And, these questions are resonating not just in the U.S., but globally.
Publishing has a diversity problem, both in the kinds of books that get acquired, supported and reviewed and in the composition of the people that constitute ‘the publishing industry’. This is not new. What is new is that there is greater acknowledgment that this is a serious problem (which was not true even 10 years ago), and a social movement composed of readers, publishing insiders and writers is active, organized, and vocal.
What does the lack of diversity in publishing look like? The children’s book publisher Lee and Low released their ‘Diversity Baseline Survey’ in 2015. They highlighted their findings from their study of the publishing industry (over 30 publishing houses and 8 review journals). Lee and Low demonstrated that overall the publishing industry is 80% white, mostly able-bodied (92%), mostly heterosexual (88%) and female (82%). When looking at areas like sales, marketing or at the executive level those numbers are even more stratified. Prior to this survey, there was little empirical research about diversity and the publishing industry. The Cooperative Children’s Book Collective had been vocal for years that the number of diverse books (both by authors from underrepresented communities as well as in content) they received for review were dismally small, and didn’t reflect the diversity of the United States.
The diversity of publishing staff and the kinds of books chosen for publication may be connected as Lee and Low note : “what is at work is the tendency—conscious or unconscious—for executives, editors, marketers, sales people, and reviewers to work with, develop, and recommend books by and about people who are like them.”
This survey marked a turning point, contributing to the popular Twitter hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks which has galvanized many. Difficult conversations and social action at various levels has defined the last several years. Some agents have created new opportunities for diverse creators to directly pitch their work. Authors of color have spoken out about their systemically poor treatment in the industry. Editors at certain publishing houses have worked to solicit, publish and champion books written by disabled authors.
It is important for readers from minority or non-dominant communities to see themselves represented in fiction. To paraphrase writer Walter Mosely, “If you aren’t in a culture’s literature, you don’t exist.” But, it also equally important for readers from majority communities to read fiction that features non-dominant characters as capable, good, villainous, heroic, and generally multi-dimensional.
Traditional publishing is trying to self-correct. As a creator, I am excited about these changes. And, I’m glad that future young readers will have more choices than I did. But, I’m also mindful that institutional change is difficult and can be glacial.
In the 2020s, diversity will remain a key issue for publishing, especially as publishing companies seek to reach readers in global emerging markets (e.g. India and Africa).
Michele Tracy Berger is a scholar and creative writer. She is founder of The Creative Tickle®, a creativity coaching practice. Have a writing question? Email her at: firstname.lastname@example.org To receive her free guide: Ten Ways to Keep Connected to Your Writing Self during COVID-19 go to: https://mailchi.mp/creativetickle/tenways