Hello Writers. As we participate, watch, and listen to the current events unfolding in the United States, the vital takeaway is this is not and should not be a fight confined to the moment. We must continue to push for change, tomorrow, next week, a month from now, years from now. To dismantle a system, you must build a new system from the ground up. To enact change, you must acknowledge what has to be changed. True change is a process. This goes for the publishing industry as well, where issues of diversity and disparity are still rooted in and trickle down from the top tiers of the industry.
Currently the overall industry is still predominantly white, the Diversity Baseline Survey shows over 75% of the overall industry, from executive level to publishing interns, is white. The executive level makes this gap even more prevalent, clocking in at 86% white.
How does this break reflect on the trickle down push for diversity in literature? It becomes highly problematic when the push for diversity has led to publishing more books with characters of color but the authors writing them are still white. The DBS survey highlighted this disparity, demonstrating how between 2014 and 2017, while the number of POC children's books showed a significant uptick, the actual number of POC authors in the industry went from 6% to 7%.
The last four years have seen some great changes in the industry. The creation of #dvpit by Beth Phelan, and Corinne Duyvis coining the #ownvoices hashtag has upped the visibility of stories written by people of color and marginalized voices for online literary pitch events. #Ownvoices has influenced the marketing side of books as an important indicator of genuine voice.
The founding of #Disrupttexts by four educators of color called into question books commonly taught in high schools, focusing on the predominantly white authored books featured in top ten reading lists. To Kill A Mockingbird is a classic used in studies of racism, but this is still a white authored text. Instead these reading lists could feature Black authored classics like Ellison’s The Invisible Man, Walker’s The Color Purple, and Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and include contemporary stories like Angie Thomas’s The Hate You Give and Nic Stone’s Dear Martin.
The industry has also seen problematic books taken to task, 'rewritten, re-illustrated, and pulled.' These reader/ twitter led initiatives saw a fair amount of backlash themselves, especially after authors of color found their books under fire as well but as Patrice Cadwell pointed out in an article on the subject, the problem didn’t lie with twitter culture alone.
“It’s publishing’s lack of support for marginalized people and lack of care to invest in us AND in training themselves.”
While cancel culture is a minefield of issues itself, it did force the industry to take another hard look at its publishing and marketing practices and turn to sensitivity readers, to involve more people in the conversation. Authors of color have also become more vocal about their exhaustion in what often seems like a one-sided diversity conversation. It is a fine thing for industry panels and talks to continually discuss diversity, and another to actively enact necessary changes to make it happen. Which brings us to the RWA, which saw a true shake up at its very core this year, where the underlying tones of discrimination and disparity were brought to a boiling point with the inequitable dismissal of Courtney Milan. The controversy saw a great deal of the organization dismantled. If the RWA seeks to recover not only a presence but regain trust from authors and readers, it will need to build from the ground up, with a diverse inclusive leadership and inclusion of the work of Black and other POC authors. Things are changing, but in the higher tiers of industry, the song remains the same.
Why is the Industry so White?
To create a genuine voice and genuine stories, more authors of color need book deals. More Black voices need book deals. But ultimately, more Black voices and voices from people of color also need to be lifted up in the industry.
Back in 1994, sources like Publisher’s Weekly were already digging into this disparity. At the time, the reasons given for lack of diversity in the upper echelons of the industry included ‘hostile work environment, low pay, and lack of interest in the field from minority candidates.’ However, twenty years later, while the industry has shifted in many ways, that disparity at the top remained. What did PW find this time when they asked? Unconscious bias, the very issue that has been so difficult to dismantle regarding systemic racism. How do you change an issue that goes unacknowledged until it is thrown in your face?
This isn’t about easy answers. Creating genuine change in a huge industry is never easy, but the reality is, this change can’t fall on marginalized voices. Black people and other people of color have been pushing for change this whole time. Hiring practices need to change. Salary practices need to change. As Diana Pho from Tor pointed out in a 2019 Bustle Article:
“If we want to diversify our workforce, we have to address the economic inequality that keeps certain people from entering or staying in the industry in the first place.”
The white side of the industry needs to acknowledge the disparities and diversity issues and actively work to fix them. We need to push it from the ground up.