Are Publishers Too White to Survive? Who Cares!

diversity matters by andres musta
diversity matters by andres musta

A recent meeting with two Caucasian well-respected literary agent friends of mine cemented that concern when one announced, “We’re all the same, [people the publishing industry]. We’re all white, we’re all over-educated, Ivy-leaguers, many of whom are trust fund babies.”

Jeff Rivera, Declining Book Sales?

WTF? Seriously?

This is apparently going to be remembered as Rant Week since I’ve been forced to emphasize the loud in loudpoet way more than usual, so bear with me a minute and don’t jump to any conclusions.

One of the few things I hate more than pundits are stereotypes, especially when they’re being used to make a point I might otherwise be inclined to agree with, but Rivera’s well-intentioned point in his GalleyCat op-ed so overshoots the mark that it’s kind of embarrassing, especially in light of his usual editorial role there as, well, the token guy of color.

Or so it felt for his first few months when the majority of his posts included the qualifier… “of Color“.

In the op-ed, Rivera argues that the decline in book sales is partly because the “publishing industry has lost touch with… who the consumer actually is.” No argument there, but then he takes the rather bizarre angle of citing a US Census Bureau projection that “by 2042 the minority (aka person of color) will actually become the majority” and concludes that “there are not enough people of color working in the book publishing industry.”

Despite the industry having a lot more immediately pressing concerns than the racial make-up of the country 33 years from now (?!?!), I’m still kind of with him overall — I’ve been in way too many meetings in my career where I was the only naturally tan face in the room — but then he totally jumps the shark with the “Trust Fund Muffy from Harvard” nonsense that’s the diversity-in-media equivalent of Godwin’s Law.

Does publishing have a diversity problem? Hell yes; of course it does! But just like comparing someone to Hitler tends to stop a debate in its tracks and makes the person making the comparison look foolish, dropping the trust fund stereotype into this particular debate — even if it’s your Caucasian friend saying it — has a similar effect.

Justine Larbalestier garnered a lot of attention earlier this summer when she intelligently and rationally spoke out about the whitewashing of the cover of her latest novel, Liar, by its U.S. publisher, Bloomsbury, jumpstarting an invaluable conversation that ultimately led to the cover being changed after the backlash become too loud to ignore. A white woman from Sydney, Australia, Larbalestier once answered the question asking why her protagonists weren’t white by noting: “Because no white teen has ever complained about their lack of representation in those books.”

That’s an issue I’ve wrestled in the past, particularly in relation to comic books, noting that I wanted “heroes that I can share with my kids as they grow up so they don’t have to look to a Boba Fett, his face always hidden behind a mask, his true identity unclear.” (Funny that, years later, he’d actually turn out to look a little bit like me after all. Closer than Luke Skywalker, at least!)

On the question of whether or not “black books” sell, Larbalestier smartly notes:

The notion that “black books” don’t sell is pervasive at every level of publishing. Yet I have found few examples of books with a person of colour on the cover that have had the full weight of a publishing house behind them…

There is, in fact, a large audience for “black books” but they weren’t discovered until African American authors started self-publishing and selling their books on the subway and on the street and directly into schools. And, yet, the publishing industry still doesn’t seem to get it. Perhaps the whole “black books don’t sell” thing is a self-fulfilling prophecy?

In the end, it all comes back to marketing and an exaggerated sense of entitlement.

MOST books don’t sell, and it’s typically only the sure bets that get a publisher’s marketing muscle, ineffective and out of shape as it may be in many cases. Unless they’re already a well-established name, every author is going to have to bust their ass to market their own work, whether it’s published by a traditional publisher or self-published. I used to run into many of those authors Larbalestier mentions, on the subway and on the street, hand-selling their books to anyone who’d show interest, and the poetry slam and indie comics scenes are powered by the exact same kind of ambition and drive.

While the major publishing houses could certainly do more to encourage diversity in their staffs, both on the editorial and business sides, most of them aren’t exactly standing on the firmest ground these days, so why worry about them anyway?

I’m inclined to go back to my comic book days and quote Cheryl Lynn of Digital Femme, whom, frustrated by the sad state of the comics union, nailed the solution back in 2007:

“I can see that I am going to have to make the fucking comics.

…right now I’m doing the second easiest thing. And that is to not-so-politely bitch. Because I suppose I’m still hoping that someone else will make the fucking comics. Because there are a ton of people out there with infinitely more talent and monetary resources than I possess. People who already have an established reputation and a publishing house that adores them. And I don’t. But they don’t give a damn. And I do.”

At the end of the day, we have two choices: complain and hope somebody fixes things for us, or STFU and get to work being the change we want to see in the world.

Rivera, for the most part, seems to be a good guy trying to do his part to change things for the better via his well-intentioned “People of Color” contributions to GalleyCat, and his own project, GumboWriters, but that op-ed is the rare case of words speaking louder than actions and potentially doing more harm than good.

10 thoughts on “Are Publishers Too White to Survive? Who Cares!

  1. I know it is just one in a universe of books “of color” but I can't help but think of E. Lynn Harris when I hear this “Black books don't sell” comment. His books flew off the shelf and this white boy was one of the constant buyers. I'm a writer and enjoy seeing new ways of writing so white, black, latino, I don't care the color, I look to the writing. BUT, suggesting it's the white person's fault for them not selling.. is that fair in and of itself?

  2. seems to me that the market does what the market calls for. this isn't a diversity program, and i see no reason why we need to install a quota system for publishers. perhaps over-educated, Ivy-league white people tend toward publishing, therefore there are more publishers that fit that general category. perhaps more white people buy books, so therefore it makes sense from a marketing standpoint that there will be more whites on book covers, and from a publishing standpoint more whites as protagonists. hmmmm. it could just be all very logical, or it could be a conspiracy.

    i, for one, have a number of non-white protagonists, and indeed an albino, in my novel, and several of the characters are multi-racial, but i don't write them that way because i'm hoping someone of a certain color will buy me, read me, or boycott me; i write that way because i'm writing about the future in which i see people of all races capable of anything and everything, so my book represents that idea/l.

    saying we gotta get more non-whites into publishing is ridiculous. what's more important is getting people into publishing who want to be publishers. i think that's enough.

  3. Woohoo, that is much more like what I want to hear. Just personally. You should see what my friend Maxine Clarke is going through trying to get government funding. No-one can sell any books. There has to be a better way. Can't people just decide, heh I like this person's writing. I've met them or I've interacted in their blog, oh and here is a link to their self-published book with no middle person getting the profits. I'll buy that.

  4. To know the real truth, how about asking some minority authors… Terry Macmillian was told that noone would read her books either…
    It is harder, not impossible, but harder for minority authors

  5. E. Lynn Harris is an excellent example of one of many authors who didn't wait for a publishing deal, but busted his ass to get his book out there and make a name for himself. As a gay black man at the beginning of the 90s, he didn't have any of the options available to writers today and far bigger obstacles — racism AND homophobia AND the “black books don't sell” meme — but he didn't use them as excuses.

    I think Rivera wisely stayed away from claiming racism as the problem, instead focusing on lack of representation, but his “trust fund” stereotype does make it seem like he's blaming white people, thus my final point about the op-ed “potentially doing more harm than good.”

  6. I think lack of diversity on the business side of publishing is a fair point to make, Rivera just over-reached with the “trust fund” quote and ruined his argument.

    As Larbalestier noted — and as many ambitious authors have proven — you can't say the market doesn't want a certain type of book if you don't bother to publish and market them, or do so meekly and generically. It's a problem for the publishing industry overall, not just for books by minority authors, but it's a huge opportunity for authors ambitious and savvy enough to embrace it.

  7. Unless you're narrowly defining the publishing industry as only being the major publishing conglomerates, I don't buy this argument. Publishing is a business, not an honor society, and writers today have many options to reach the communities that are actually looking for their kind of writing and publishing for them, not for the major publishers or the NYT Bestseller's list.

  8. i figure it's simply a “supply and demand” issue. once we have enough minority authors who can't get published, we'll see more minority publishers crop up to take care of that need, and/or more non-minorities will see an untapped market and start moving those books into the marketplace. either way, it's a business issue, not necessarily a cultural one.

  9. Lee and Low Books is an independent children’s book publisher specializing in diversity. They take pride in nurturing many minority authors and illustrators who are new to the world of children’s book publishing.

    For more about their history and their books, visit:
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