The Diversity Movement Has Publishing Shook

So many people in publishing are shook right now, particular white people. This is nothing against white people, simply an observation of many behaviors of predominately white writers, readers, bloggers, industry professionals, on and on. Non-white authors are making noise about how messed up publishing is racially, and that noise led to a little change, but it’s still present and tangible. This change has resulted in repeated statements like “you want less white people being published” or “you want publishing to ignore white people.” That’s fear talking, and it’s hilariously ridiculous for a number of reasons.

1. To this day no one fighting for diversity in publishing has said, “publish fewer white people.” It’s been “publish more non-white authors.” That’s it.

2. Not that many more non-white authors are being published than before. True, we’re making a big deal about those authors, so these books seem like they’re everywhere. With a little research it’s easy to find the numbers that show how things are very much the way they’ve always been. Studies from last year show white authors dominate the market on a level that borders exclusivity.

Numbers prove what non-white authors have always known (this is a separate study from the one above, but it came to the same conclusion), but now that someone other than us is saying it, people are starting to pay attention.

Outside of these studies, one only has to look to the Publishers Weekly sales each week. Of the 10–12 sales listed, one or two will be non-white authors, if there are any at all. Yes, non-white authors are starting to get bigger deals with more money and books included (the kind white authors have always gotten, so much so it’s just business as usual round here) but the comparitive number is still incredibly low. There are two major deals people always bring to light as an example. Only two, over the past two years. That’s one each year. The number of these deals afforded white authors easily reaches the double digits in a single year.

Shook people ignore numbers, because they’re scared. Said fear, irrational as it is, becomes rooted as truth, but it’s not.

“White authors are pushed out,” false.

“Diversity means fewer white authors,” false.

3. There are no limited lists for white authors. They’re told “we have a similar time travel already” or “we have a Romeo & Juliet-esque book.” Non-white authors are told the same, but we’re also told “we have our black girl/Indian girl/Asian boy book for the year.” Plot and genre does not mater, the character’s skin color is the negating factor.

Non-white authors also have their stories turned away for being “too ethnic” on some level, so the agent or editor doesn’t “connect” even though the book hits all of their sweet spots. It’s told through a gaze the gatekeepers aren’t used to, because they keep closing the gates on it. How about an example.

Luke Cage is an excellent show, amazing, and black. Super black. Blackity black. There were blog posts and articles about how the first episode made many white viewers uncomfortable. Not because of subject matter or characters doing unethical things. Luke and his friends were just talking. That’s all. An every day conversation between a bunch of black folks, and it was the show’s blackness that made white viewers uncomfortable. This happens when you’re used to being the dominate narrative, then aren’t.

Some of viewers realized this and called themselves out. Others — those that were shook — went on about how TV now has all of these non-white shows. Firstly, there is no “all of these.” Marvel has put out four Netflix series, one of them running for two seasons already. Only one isn’t white centered.

This is the same mentality shook white people in the writing community have. A few books get big deals or sit on the NYT list and suddenly non-white authors are trying to push everyone else out. You have to be in a place of power to push someone out. Even those non-white authors doing amazingly well are still in too precarious a position, because of race, to start attempting to throw people from the boat.

4. Mediocrity has always been the gold standard for predominately white publishing. What this means is white authors are allowed to be mediocre and still succeed. Time and time again. If a white author’s book failed it was the market. If a black author’s book failed it was because they’re black and the people at the top were right about “those” books not selling. That’s not true. What more than likely happened is the publisher didn’t market the black book, didn’t push it, and when it underperforms, surprise! They pull out the no-one-wants-to-read-those-stories lie. Yes, it’s a lie, because the largest demographic of people who read is black girls and women.

Since non-white authors are not allowed to fail, at all, non-white authors have to work twice as hard to get half as far. As a result, non-white authors appear to put out amazing books every single time. They have to if they want a career. Some books fall short, but they’re extremely few and far between. White authors don’t have to work as hard. Before you get defensive white authors reading this, please take a careful look at what the sentence actually says. White authors don’t have to work as hard. This draws on being allowed to fail and brush it off. White authors get second chances, third chances, on and on.

There are white authors who pour all of themselves into their work. They will still get those second and third chances while non-white authors will be swept aside. So, when shook white people see the (only) two major deals for non-white authors, or see the books released by non-white authors that — on the rare occasion when it happens — sit at #1 on the NYT list for months straight, they don’t take into account the work those author not only had to put in as a writer but as someone fighting systemic racism at every step.

5. No one is out here trying to take people down or ruin careers. Part of the diversity movement has been calling out overtly racist books where the author either calls Indigenous people savages, presents the dark skinned aggressor trope, presents non-white people as harmful stereotypes at every turn, the list goes on. Many people say non-white people are talking about these issues within these books as an attempt to smear the authors.

I’m going to take a moment to speak for myself. I don’t know the authors of racist books non-white members of the community bring attention to. I do know they pose a threat to their readers. What’s more, I don’t need to know the writer, because I know racism. I’ve experienced racism pretty much daily since preschool. I’m fluent in it and the excuses and backtracking people make around it. I know what it looks like, I know when it smells like, like a master chef knows food. Time for another example.

If you sit a quiche down in front of a chef and say it’s an omelet, she’ll call you on your mess. That is not omelet. It may be an exquisite quiche, but it is not an omelet. The chef doesn’t have to know you as a person to know this, and you may be an amazing cook, but you’re wrong. I don’t have to know an author to spot racism in their stories, because I know racism. Conversely, knowing an author “isn’t like that” does not negate, erase, or water down the racism present in their work. The author’s career or ruining it is not on my mind. I’m here to make sure the messiness in their work doesn’t reach non-white readers.

Racist material leads to hurt and death. Books inform opinions and viewpoints, they shape the ideas people have of communities. If books only present black men as dangerous, Muslims as terrorists, Native people as less than human, that has an affect on the generations exposed to these stories. It leads to kids growing up believing black boys in hoodies are up to no good and that deadly force is the first and only option in dealing with them. The kids who would fall victim to this harm, and the kids who would wind up furthering it, deserve better. They deserve authentic books told by people who live these experiences. They deserve to see the numerous sides to various races and cultures, because non-white communities are not a monolith. They deserve the representation and the resulting empathy diverse books written by diverse writers would provide. This is not a threat to white authors; it’s a boon, for us all.