I’m going to rant about something book-related. Please contain your shock.
Having just finished the Harry Potter series on audiobook, and my next audiobook hold not being ready at the library yet, I have turned my attention to catching up on podcasts. I have a handful that I follow, but my audiobooks tend to take priority, as I check them all out of the library and they have due dates. No due dates on my podcasts. So Welcome to Night Vale and others get pushed aside.
Today I was listening to the always awesome Book Riot podcast and was struck by a discussion they were having about the lack of diversity among authors’ in recent bestseller lists. In this context, they were referring to a distinct lack of authors who are people of color (POC)*, though there is plenty of evidence that says there’s an issue with gender as well. A lot more white* authors show up on these lists than POC; more men seem to have more sales than women as well.
I’m not surprised by these statistics, honestly. This is a problem prevailing in multiple disciplines. To argue otherwise is like arguing against the existence of climate change, or gravity.
Where I take issue is when blame for this particular problem – the lack of diversity of authors in the book bestseller lists – is laid on the shoulders of the readers/consumers. I am offended by this idea because I – and I would venture to guess a sizable portion of the reading population – don’t choose books to read based on the author, at least most of the time.
If I’ve heard that a particular author’s work is very good, or if I already have a solid, good relationship with that author’s work (John Green for example – although *gasp!* He’s a white male! Shame on me!) THEN I may choose a book because of the author. I have read four of Jane Austen’s novels, and because I enjoyed them, I am more likely to pick up another of her works. and so on.
I choose to read books based on the subject matter. I don’t know if it matters at all that I tend to read more fiction versus non-fiction – that’s a different can of worms that I do wonder about: I would guess that a good percentage of non-fiction is written by “white” people, since a lot of non-fiction is written by people who are hugely successful in their fields, and in our country, unfortunately, and sometimes undeservedly, it is largely “white” people who are at the top. I digress.
Really though, I pick books by seeking out stories or topics that interest me. I pay little attention to the identity of the author. Blaming me, as I am a consumer, for there not being very many bestselling authors who are also POC, suggests that I am wrong for picking books in this way.
Don’t get me wrong – I’ve already said that I agree that this is a problem. And I do think there is value in thinking about this and acting to effect change. I believe there would even be value in me personally making a distinct effort to read more diversely.
And there is a problem with the system overall, as I think I recall them discussing in the podcast. Bestsellers are in large part driven by marketing. Publishers choose which titles, which authors, to throw their weight behind, and they choose those based on what they think the consumers want. So without us demonstrating a desire for more diversity, the publishers have little to no incentive to change.
On that note, I know I often choose some titles over others because they have more exposure, which means either that I’m discovering one title and not another, or I’m reading one title before, or instead of, another because more people are talking about it, and I want to be part of that discussion.
I suppose it’s a vicious cycle: publishers push the titles/authors that they think we readers want, that they think will sell well, and we as readers often pick up the exact titles that these companies are pushing on us rather than seeking out something else.
I’m willing to make some changes in my reading habits and in the way I choose which titles I read – and am considering it as I write this. But I’m also willing to bet many readers can’t or won’t take the time it takes to make such efforts.
If more publishers chose to take risks and put a lot of marketing and support behind a wider variety of authors, I think more readers would pick up those titles. We’re not avoiding titles by POC because those titles don’t interest us – we’re missing out on them because we aren’t given the means to easily discover them. People/consumers are lazy, especially in their choices of entertainment. Most of us want convenient choices – fast food and food delivery, Redbox and Netflix, digital media that we can purchase and take in from the comfort of our couch.
While I don’t choose what to read based on the author, this has prompted me to look into the demographics of the authors I tend to read. Of the almost 30 authors I’m following on Goodreads, all but two are white. The last five print books that I read were all by white people, and only one of them was female. Of the 60+ books I read in 2013, only three were by POC.** Yikes.
I don’t think this lack of diversity is the fault of us readers, at least not solely. Obviously, we need some huge shifts in our society as a whole. And it even goes beyond gender and race, because people are so different in so many ways. Sexuality is another big one. I’ve been hearing about a lot of titles focused on homosexual relationships and/or written by homosexual authors, and I think that’s wonderful. We just need more of EVERYTHING.
What say you, friends? I would love to know if you keep track of the diversity of the authors you read, if you make an effort to read across genres and spectrums, and whether or not you think this is important.
*I really hate using terms like “people of color” and “white people.” I’m not sure how to get around that in a discussion like this though. Maybe it’s me being overly fearful of being politically correct. But it’s also an issue of blurred lines. Someone can look white or not-white, but what we’re really talking about is “of European descent” and not, at least for the most part, as far as I can gather.
I counted Khaled Hosseini in my count of POC I had read last year because he is from Afghanistan, but many people would think him “white” by just looking at him. When I glanced over the books I read last year to count how many white authors and POC authors I read, I didn’t have time to check out more than a picture for the ones I’m unfamiliar with. Maybe I did read more POC authors than I realize.
**I would like to point out that two of the three POC I read are fairly high profile. Khaled Hosseini, as mentioned, who is well-known in the book world, and Mindy Kaling, who is a celebrity. Taherah Mafi was the third – she has a more than decent online following, but I don’t know how well-know she is or how well her books have sold.