Recent pushes for greater diversity in the publishing world have brought attention to the lack of novels that feature diverse characters as well as the lack of diverse employees in publishing houses. The mainstream publishing industry is struggling to survive against the growing number of self-publishers, low-priced eBooks, and online piracy. Publishers are feeling the pressure to only choose stories with a guaranteed pay-out. These monetary and publicity incentives have publishers picking novels that will become blockbusting films, or ones that follow the example set by past successful books. For every original, ground-breaking novel, there are shelves and shelves of stories that are whitewashed and rote. By looking to the current state of diversity in publishing, the recent urgings of minority readers and writers for increased diversity, and the movements to encourage diverse books, we can consider that the future of publishing may be bright.
Kimberly Coles, a professor of English literature at the University of Maryland says that large publishing houses are most likely to adhere to long-established models of writing to preserve themselves.
Diversity Within the Industry
The publishing industry is lacking diversity internally. Surveys conducted by Publisher’s Weekly among employees in the publishing industry found that in both 2014 and 2015 (an approximate total of 1,055 responders) 89% were caucasian. The 2014 surveys found that “sixty-one percent of respondents, including 60% of those who identified as white, said that there is little diversity in publishing.” A lack of diverse employees means there are fewer advocates for diverse books through every stage of production, such as marketing and editing.
A close look at 2013 New York Times bestseller list by Lee & Low, a diversity-friendly publisher, found that of the 124 authors on the list, only 3 were people of color.
Diversity in Books
The 2015 summer reading list compiled by literary critic Janet Muslin at the New York Times contained only books written by caucasian authors, a fact that didn’t escape proponents for diverse books. Marginalization of minority writers and the stories they have to tell is a huge issue for the literary world. One genre in particular that has garnered the highest levels of criticism for its lack of diversity is children’s (and young adult) literature. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has been keeping track of the number of children’s books written by and/or about people of color that pass through their library since 1985. The most recent count, in 2014, found that of the 3,500 books the CCBC received, 396 books were about a minority group, while only 292 were authored by a person of color. Children’s books are very important to a child’s understanding of self and how they fit into the world around them, as many studies have noted. Christopher Myers, a writer and illustrator of children’s books stated in a New York Times article that “the cartography we create with [non-diverse children’s] literature is flawed…when kids today face the realities of our world, our global economies, our integrations and overlappings, they all do so without a proper map. They are navigating the streets and avenues of their lives with an inadequate, outdated chart, and we wonder why they feel lost. They are threatened by difference.” His father, writer Walter Dean Myers, was also featured in the New York Times, where he shared his experience of growing up and realizing nearly all the books he read did not reflect him or his personal struggles as a person of color. When he read “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin, a story set in Harlem, he finally felt recognized in the literary world he loved.
Professor Coles weighs in on the topic of whitewashed children’s literature from her perspective as a literature expert, and as a mother:
The Push for Change
A number of writers are speaking out for diversity and the excuses of the publishing industry. A 2014 NPR article took statements from writers Daniel José Older, Ken Chen, and Bushra Rehman–all diverse writers–who are challenging the excuse that there is no market for diverse books, no audience that would connect with writing that handles specific ethnic struggles. Daniel José Older further proposed (in an article for Buzzfeed) a question for the publishing industry to ask itself: “How can I use my position to help create a literary world that is diverse, equitable, and doesn’t just represent the same segment of society it always has since its inception?”
One movement that has gained a significant amount of attention is the We Need Diverse Books campaign. In May of 2014 the hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks trended on Twitter and Facebook and caught the attention of Teen Vogue, Buzzfeed, Salon, Publisher’s Weekly, the LA Times, and the Internet at large. The campaign formed in response to the all-male, all-white panel “Blockbuster Reads: Meet the Kids Authors That Dazzle” at the 2014 BookCon, and to the fact that the entire, 30 author line-up of children’s authors was white. To the many female and colored authors who write popular children’s books, and to the readers who support them, this was an outrage. Ellen Oh, a YA author, was the founder of the WNDB movement, and she organized the hashtag to trend as users tweeted the reasons why the world needs diverse books. According to Publisher’s Weekly,”Even before the official launch time, the hashtag, #WeNeedDiverseBooks, had gone viral, with 27,796 Tweets from 8,988 contributors recorded at 10:45 a.m. By 5:00 p.m., there were 46,672 tweets from 13,459 unique contributors, with 82,272,930 timeline deliveries.”
Not long after this campaign, the convention organizers reached out to the founders of the campaign to create their own We Need Diverse Books panel, which was comprised of authors Ellen Oh, Aisha Saeed, Marieke Nijkamp, Lamar Giles, and Mike Jung. The panel could very well become an annual event at BookCon.
The We Need Diverse Books campaign didn’t end there. It organized collaborations with publisher Lee & Low Books, the National Education Association’s Read Across America program and publisher First Book to provide better support for diverse authors and reach out to low-income audiences. Even Barnes and Noble and other stores have added lists, shelves, and displays to highlight the diverse books they’re selling. Diverse books are being placed in as many hands as possible, because everyone needs diversity.