Books, Publishing, and the Issue of Diversity: A Rant

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.

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8 thoughts on “Books, Publishing, and the Issue of Diversity: A Rant

  1. Maybe it’s because I’m really into sociology, but I really liked your discussion on this topic and I 100% agree with you on this point. As someone who is only now starting to read in some sort of regular way (I think I may have read a total of 3 books last year). I have never actually thought about the author’s ethnicity. I choose the books I want to read based on the book matter.

    I also think that blaming the consumer in this aspect is completely unfair. We only get to see / hear about books that are 1) published (how many books aren’t published? A zillion?) and 2) have enough advertising / marketing that they make it into the bookstore / library / on a Goodreads list, etc. I think the issue in author diversity is not a matter of author diversity specifically, but rather societal diversity in general.

    This blame of the consumer vs. the producers makes me think about the book The Treadmill of Production: Injustice and Unsustainability in the Global Economy by Kenneth Gould. It’s an environmental book that challenges the idea that consumers drive the demand for products (whose production is ruining our environment) but rather argues that the producers constantly crank out both the products we buy and the desire we eventually have for them. His basic argument is that the producers (or the publishers in this case) have much more control over the product and the demand of it than the consumer because the producer can actually create demand (through advertising, marketing, popularity, etc.). His argument ultimately is that in order for the treadmill of production to stop, the producers are the ones who have to stop it, which they can’t because the treadmill has already been set in motion.

    While I think consumers could create a demand for diversity in the literary world by putting pressures on the publishers, it is far more likely to be successful if the publishers themselves support and publish minority authors.

    I think this is not just applicable to authors, but is indicative of the power structure of society as a whole and, like all forms of cultural expressions do, the literary world is reflecting the society which it was created from.

  2. You touch on the big problem in your post, in that the problem is systemic. Both the publishers and the consumers feed into the skewing of the current industry. It’s a Catch-22. Karen’s right that publishers can create demand, but at the end of the day we have to admit that there is a limit to that. We’re asking them to to take a definite economic loss in order to act in a more ethically responsible manner. But they’re just as hesitant to focus on a new market as we are to spend a considerable amount of time actively looking into minority literature. There’s no easy fix, but we should definitely do our best!

    And it sucks too because not only do current “minority” artists/creators not get enough attention, it discourages other would-be artists to even try. The bulk of the literary canon is dominated by white men just because of the nature of sexism for most of our history. And there’s no way around that now. We can only encourage, in any way we can, minority writer’s to do what they do best.

    I think the internet has opened up the publishing space for a lot of independent authors, but the big problem we face right now is that there is TOO MUCH and no really efficient way to sort it. Anything without a white, male, hetero-normative protagonist is in someway ‘Other’ed. That’s another double edged-sword! We obviously want to emphasize the growing number of women, or POC, or queer stories, but the instant we do that we alienate parts of the larger majority market who may not understand that just because a story involves, say a queer protagonist, doesn’t really preclude them from relating to the story. It’s so complicated!

    Also on the “POC”/”white person” discussion, we all have certain privileges and it’s often a mixed bag. Even self-proclaimed feminists will sometimes cast aside an actor or other artist’s racial ancestory because they somehow benefit from white privilege. And that’s really fucked up. But it’s possible to both benefit from that privilege and be harmed by it. Just like patriarchy is harmful to men, even if the problems it causes for women are far more severe. So I guess use whatever you’re comfortable with as long as you’re not erasing someone’s identity and experiences while doing it!

    So far this year I’ve only been reading one book, and the author is Japanese, so I’m off to a good start!

    Okay I’m kind of all over the place here, so I’ll stop here. I could probably go on… and on… and on… It’s a really interesting subject! And I really like the last sentence of your comment Karen. Um… End Rant!

  3. I don’t know why this post reminded of this, but in thinking about what you’ve discussed here, I remember a tweet of Sherman Alexie’s that said something to the effect of all southerners being assumed racist until otherwise proven, and though I loved his book Flight and what short stories of his I read in a Native American Literature class in college, that tweet was enough to make me unfollow him. Maybe I was wrong in doing so, but I was seriously offended by that proclamation given how much wasted breath I’ve used advocating for “POC,” as was referred in the podcast, against my family who struggle to empathize with people of different nationalities and thus tend to judge them harshly. I’m not saying the south doesn’t deserve some flack for that, but I was incredibly unhappy to be lumped into the vast majority just because this region of the country has had the stereotype of racism branded on its back since forever. Some of us have actually progressed since the Civil War. Having reviewed all of those repressed feelings of anger, I wholeheartedly believe this is an issue with marketing, in general, and not book buyers. I don’t pay attention to an author’s race when purchasing the book. My only requirements in reading a story are that the writing be enchanting and the author write like they know what they’re doing with the text. In fact, I tend to gravitate towards books that are about someone from a different cultural background than me, and have read and loved many books concerning the plights of slaves in the 19th century and the Civil Rights movement. Uncle Tom’s Cabin–whose author was an abolitionist, mind–is one of my favorite books, Toni Morrison is a beautiful person and linguist who had me scribbling the hell out of my copy of The Bluest Eye, Steve McQueen’s adaptation of 12 Years A Slave made me cry in a small arts movie theater sitting in a row with a bag of popcorn (which I didn’t even feel comfortable eating because of the content of the film) by myself, the best book I ever read about self-discovery and liberation was Their Eyes Were Watching God, AND, not that this has anything to do with literature, but my family doctor is an awesome black woman.

    (Possibly because of my family, I find the struggles and achievements of the black population especially fascinating, so this genre of literature is just my personal preface when it comes to reading books outside of my own cultural experience.)

    I know that I went kind of off the map with what you were discussing in this post, but you’re right–that whole concept is maddening. I refuse to be blamed. RE-FUSE.

    • No, no, that’s totally related! and I liked hearing about it. :) I understand that whole Southerners being stereotyped as racists – I’m from Texas, remember? :) And I find it incredibly frustrating to defend against, so they’re are certainly Southerners that fit the bill, especially in the near-backwoods that I grew up in.

      It makes me think of how easy it is to perpetuate stereotypes though, and how because of that, they DO persist, even long after they’re no longer accurate, if indeed they ever were. Like how people from counties other than the US, and even a fair amount of people in the US, still think that all Texans like, ride horses to school. ;)

  4. I agree with you. I don’t decide on what books to read based on authors either. I read them based on the storyline and whether or not I’ll be interested. The names don’t mean anything to me, really.

    I personally think there just happen to be more white writers than POC writers. I’m not saying that it isn’t us (readers) entirely just that most of the reasons why there aren’t that many POC writers on the charts is because it is uncommon for them, in my opinion, to write books.

    • Well, there appear to be – or you, know ARE – more white writers for a number of reasons, I’m sure. I mean, the most obvious is that more white writers get published. So we don’t know how many POC are out there writing whose work isn’t being made available.
      Then there are the socio-economic factors – unless you ARE published and your work is selling really well, you can’t write full time. I’ve read some low statistics – 1%, 2%, definitely 5% or lower – regarding how many authors can write full time. So you have to write when you’re not working and/or taking care of your family or other responsibilities. While things are getting better, there’s still a significant gap between POC and whites in this country and how they live. POC are more likely to be working more hours or multiple jobs or like, have to take care of their kids because they can’t afford to have someone else do so, and would therefore have less time to develop their writing craft and get published.
      Plus, for the time being – as far as I know, I could be wrong – whites are still the majority in the US, so it would make sense for there to be more white people doing anything, especially anything that garners success, given that racism is still a problem in this country. But regardless of who the majority is, we need representation from all, or as many groups, as we can get.

  5. Randomly found this blog somehow. So… hello :)

    I agree that publishers should be doing a lot more to promote books by everyone, not just white guys. But I also think there’s a lot of merit in getting readers to be conscious of who they’re reading. Yes, some of us are lazy… but how hard is it to look at an author’s name? You can frequently make a good guess to their gender and sometimes their nationality too. Because if you don’t, it is likely you’ll be perpetuating the status quo. But I think the reason most people don’t (which included me up to last year) is simply that we’re not aware of our own biases (which perhaps we have a little bit of ‘blame’ for?).

    • Hello! :)

      That’s a good point, about not being aware of our own biases. I hadn’t thought of that. I would have already agree that there’s merit in trying to be conscious of whose work we’re reading, but that point makes it seem even more important.

      I guess another problem I’m thinking of though is that a good portion of readers, myself included, read for pleasure. I don’t want it to feel like it takes a lot of effort or work, which sadly includes taking the time to broaden the diversity of what I read. I’m more concerned with finding something I’ll enjoy reading, and there’s plenty of that out there – I don’t have to look very hard. But I suppose if I want such ease to continue for everyone, I and everyone else need to invest in that by taking the time to seek out good artists whose work might be getting passed over, so that the groups they’re representing won’t keep getting left out too.

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