Why we need diverse books

The lack of diversity in publishing (1)

Like every other industry, publishing needs to up its game in terms of its diversity. This isn’t a simple issue of, say, publishing more books with a black girl on the cover; it is a deep-rooted, systemic issue that must be dealt with at every level.

Publishers, marketers, authors, readers, teachers – everyone has to make a conscious effort to examine their (unconscious) biases, expand their worldviews and give different voices a chance and a platform. They all have a responsibility to these works and their potential audiences – the responsibility of any content creator – because authors are not the only ones telling the stories.

In 2015 Lee & Low Books, the largest multicultural children’s book publisher in America, conducted a major study of staff diversity in publishing. The Diversity Baseline Survey was established under the premise of needing to understand a problem before it can be solved, and in this case it was the problem of homogeneity behind the scenes of the industry.

Its goal was to establish a baseline that showed where the industry was currently at so that it could start taking concrete steps to address the problems within it.

Industry Overall results
Industry Overall results from Lee & Low’s Diversity Baseline Study 2015. Used with permission. See the full results here.

This study only focused on American publishers, with eight review journals and 34 publishers of all sizes from across North America taking part. In each department and area examined, the number of those who self-identified as ‘white’ ranged from 77 to 89 per cent. The results also showed that between 88 and 96 per cent were able-bodied/non-disabled and that between 86 and 91 per cent were straight/heterosexual.

Those who identified as males only accounted for between 12 and 23 per cent in every area, except, unsurprisingly, for the executive level where their numbers jumped up to 40 per cent.

These results show a staggering disparity between straight, white, able-bodied cis women, and every other demographic. While it’s fantastic to see such a high percentage of women making their mark on an industry, this is highly problematic when it’s a group made up of the same kind of women.

These are the people selecting the stories to publish, making decisions about changes within them, and then deciding on how to present and market these books to the press and the public. If the people making the decisions have a bias – which they almost certainly do, both conscious and unconscious – they will have a tendency to prioritise the same certain stories and people over others, even if these are not particularly interesting or unique.

This homogeneity is not just a problem in the U.S. but across much of the western world. Statistics published by The Bookseller showed that of the thousands of titles published in the UK in 2016, less than 100 were written by non-white British authors. Of the top 100 titles of 2016, only one was written by a non-white British author, while in the top 500 there were only six.

A three-year project report from Macquarie University on the Australian book industry showed that women comprise between 66-90 per cent of all Australian fiction and children’s authors, and while it is not clear what other groups these women belong to, it would not be unreasonable to assume that the majority of them are white.

Natalie Kon-yu, who worked with the Stella Prize to set up their first Diversity Count, has said she wants to undertake a comprehensive demographic survey of the Australian publishing industry which I would be very interested to read.

Wall of books at Bendigo Bookmark. Photography: Katerina Hanzl

While many publishers have expressed the desire to publish more diverse works, they have explained (or justified) their lack of range by saying they just don’t receive many diverse manuscripts.

But this ‘carry on as usual’ approach isn’t achieving and won’t achieve anything; publishers must be proactive about finding and encouraging these voices to come forward if they’re serious about making a change.

There is a complex collection of reasons why all aspects of the publishing industry have an overly high level of white, straight, cis, able-bodied women. One obvious example is that it is an industry which requires a university education to enter – an area which has traditionally been more accessible for white, middle-class people due to a further complex collection of racism, patriarchy and classism.

Salaries across the board and across countries are also not particularly high, which, according to one white editor, means that the industry is unfortunately “self-selecting for people who don’t necessarily need to live on a salary alone.”

Others have disputed this, saying that those who are truly passionate about the work don’t mind the salary; however, this cannot be discounted as an important factor for both publishers and authors alike.

The industry also has a history of nepotism and privileging those with already existing contacts (many often forged through university). This method is old-fashioned, and should be outdated, as it limits the potential pool of talent to those already within the circle, while losing the opportunity to discover new voices, avenues and connections.

Friendship Together Bonding Unity Youth Culture Concept
Image by rawpixel.com. Used with permission under the CC0 licence. Found here.

Many authors have written about characters and groups they do not identify with or belong to, which, while not automatically a bad thing, is often done inaccurately. These representations, even when done with good intentions, can have negative effects on those they describe and those who read them.

Authors need to think critically about why they want to write a particular character or story and what message they are trying to get across. They need to decide if it is a story that should be best left to be told by someone from that group.

If they choose to go on, they need to do as much research as possible from as many reliable sources as possible so that their characters and worlds are more accurate, complex and realistic.

Authors from diverse and minority backgrounds have to shout where others only have to whisper to have their voices heard. They are often ‘othered’ and then made to emphasise (or exoticise) their identities in ways that position them as tropes or spokespersons for the entire group in order to be taken seriously and considered for publication.

The responsibility and burden of dissecting and improving things should not be placed solely on the shoulders of those who are affected but with those who have created the hoops they are asked to jump through.

I think Indigenous Australian author Ambelin Kwaymullina summed it up best when she said “We need diverse books because a lack of diversity is a failure of our humanity. Literature without diversity presents a false image of what it is to be human. It masks – and therefore contributes to – the continuation of existing inequities, and it widens the gulfs of understanding that are already swallowing our compassion for each other.”

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