Diversity in Book Publishing
diversity in book publishing by Ashley Holady
written by Ashley Holady
Amidst the Black Lives Matter protests, serious questions that have been asked for quite some time now in promoting black equality are taken into consideration yet again, only this time we might actually get serious results that stick. These points to consider can range from a reasonable standpoint, like how to better portray people of color in the media, all the way to the extreme end of the spectrum, like whether or not to take down statues of problematic figures in history.
One of these issues we still face today, ranking as a fair enough feat to achieve, are in regards to how to better incorporate marginalized groups, or diversity, in not just the books we read but also the staffing of the publishing companies that put out those books, a topic that has always been a pressing issue in previous years. Marginalized groups include but are not limited to: the Black, Indigenous, and People of Color community (BIPOC), the LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities and illnesses, and people of different ethnic cultures and religions all over the globe.
That is, any group outside of our predominantly white, heterosexual, cisgender, abled, healthy (conventionally), Catholic/Christian-oriented American culture, which is in no way faulted for being present in the media we had consumed and been surrounded by for as long as centuries, yet has proven more often than not to be vastly overwhelming, leaving out any representation of these groups, thus denying them their presence in our culture and media – namely, our books and the companies that produced them.
To better illustrate the idea of exactly how low the diversity is in published books and publishing as a whole, here is just a handful of startling stats from Bustle.
Most of these are standard facts detailing the “abysmally low” percentages of these marginalized groups across the board of the literary landscape, whether within the works themselves, behind them, or even as little as their reviewers, such as: the few people of color who were recipients of literary awards or as romance authors; the very few women and non-binary reviewers in major literary publications; the very low LGBTQ+ content of significance, not to mention the very few LGBTQ+ authors of that content; among others.
Some may view these stats as expected while others may view them as eye-opening. Here’s an interesting statistic: according to a 2018 study conducted out of Cooperative Children’s Book Center of Education (CCBC) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, only 23 percent of the surveyed books featured people from diverse backgrounds, while half featured white characters and the remaining 27 percent featured animal characters or “other.”
On that last part, that may be because animal (or “other”) characters could be seen as racially ambiguous so that anyone could fit into that generic mold. However, while anthropomorphic animals are fun to see in stories, we have seen far too many of them take center-stage over the kinds of stories that we need to see or even still have yet to see, making less room for stories that depict specifically non-white (yet still realistic to our culture) human characters.
Another interesting, perhaps even ironic, statistic: in a 2015 study by Lee & Low, deemed the “largest multicultural children’s book publisher in the country,” is still mostly white, straight, nondisabled, and cisgender, though the sole consolation may be that women have a higher representation here than any other aspect within the industry. As for the last statistic, the most important one of them all: significantly far more white people read books than do those in any other demographic, which is up to the publishing companies to change for the better.
So clearly, the publishing industry has its work cut out by a large margin: what with the very little diverse representation within the books being sold to the public, as well as that within the industry itself: the collective face which prepares those books to be sold. However, that is not the only issue when it comes to providing diverse representation, bringing back the aforementioned point about the portrayal of people of color, as well as other diverse backgrounds, in the media, which includes the books that we read.
While the media is making strides in incorporating diversity, especially when it comes to the entertainment industry, which is of course responsible for providing us with television and film adaptations of the books produced by the publishing companies, it is no longer enough to just simply have them exist, mainly for diversity or plot’s sake. People of color are still people.
Of course, the same goes for people in the LGBTQ+ community, disabled people, people with mental illnesses, people of different religions or countries… the list goes on and on. They are all still people. So, while it is important to portray them facing racial challenges, showing us (the readers) the realness of that pain, that is not all that they are. They still have regular, everyday experiences and problems that are normal in just about anyone’s life, while dealing with their own unique problems that can relate to the color of their skin, or sexuality, or upbringing.
Of course, please know that this is not to put down stories that seem to lack on the diversity side of things. Rather, this is mainly to inform that we should be doing a better job in showing people in every possible demographic that they are seen, that they matter – not just the weight of the issues they’re facing because of their differences, but also the triumphs, defeats, and every possible thing in between that every coming-of-age story brings to its eager readers.
A helpful tip: the most engaging diverse characters are the ones that teens and young adults, as well as new adults are often relating to – quirky characters. According to Bustle about the depiction of diverse yet quirky characters in Young Adult lit today, “we need to insist on an inclusive publishing industry that recognizes all kinds of diverse stories as important, and one that allows marginalized people to exist, just as they are, ‘quirky’ or not.”
So, for those who are authors, writing the kind of stories that you want to tell and to have your readers inspired by, the best thing you can do to expand your scope is to do your research. All the resources you want to look into are all there online – they are even here in this very article! – so all you have to do is click away and start reading.
As for publishing companies, well you can read for yourself in this newly released New York Times article on new diverse staffing changes in publishing, showing us that “[e]veryone is going to have to widen their lens,” specifically when it comes to recruiting people of color to work in publishing, among other beneficial changes.
While there is still work to do, to ensure that all stories, and all the companies that bring out those stories, stick to their goal – their mission – to encourage readers and publishers to share their own voice, we can get there in time, and the sooner we start, the better. On her work for the National Book Foundation, executive director Lisa Lucas, puts it best (in the aforementioned NYT article), plainly and simply: “The idea is loving tradition but also loving the future.”
Article link footnotes:
2018 study (CCBC): http://ccbc.education.wisc.edu/books/pcstats.asp#USonly
2015 study (Lee & Low): https://publishingperspectives.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Lee-and-Low-infographic.jpg
Bustle diverse/quirky characters piece: https://www.bustle.com/p/why-we-need-diverse-ya-books-that-represent-marginalized-characters-in-all-of-their-complex-quirky-glory-8003404
New diverse pub staffing changes piece: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/15/books/book-publishing-leadership.html