The lack of diversity in publishing has been a topic of discussion lately, and for good reason. Research by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center has shown that over the past twenty years, on average, only 10 percent of books per year are written about a “diverse” population.
The problem extends beyond the books published into the core of the industry itself. According to a survey commissioned by Lee and Low Books, the overall industry, comprising the executive level, editorial department, sales and marketing departments, and book reviewers, is 79 percent white and 78 percent female.
Across “the pond,” similar figures emerge. The Diversity in Publishing report found that only 7.7 percent of people working in publishing are from minority ethnicities, thus failing to reflect the reality that minorities comprise 28.8 percent of the working population. Even fewer of the editorial staff members, who choose which books to publish, stem from nonwhite origin.
Many pundits openly suspect that the lack of diverse staff links directly to the lack of diverse books. Either consciously or unknowingly, publishing staff seems to choose books that are written by and about people most similar to them.
Reading Diversity by the Numbers
Numbers and statistics might offer an alternative explanation to a bias by publishers. The Pew Research Center found that the average American reads twelve books a year. Breaking down the numbers, the survey found that black and Hispanic people read around eight books a year per person, while white, non-Hispanics read thirteen a year.
Even the most progressive-thinking publisher would gear publications to their most likely readership. If more white people than Latinos are buying the books, many publishers will choose to produce more books by white authors than by Latino authors.
Fear of Change
Another explanation that’s been bandied around is the publishing industry’s fear of change. The book business’s stodgy reputation is justified; just look at its slow embrace of ebooks. Venerable printing houses have come around to social media marketing, but they never seem to be at the forefront of new ideas.
This fear of change seems to translate into fear of taking on diverse authors. Nonwhite authors do write books, but several have publicly expressed their frustration at publishers’ rejection of their works. According to these writers, publishers have openly rejected their works because of their ethnic-related topics, regardless of the quality of the writing.
An Industry Shift
The general agreement among publishing experts is that the gatekeepers have to change their ways, open their minds, and take greater risks on books about nonwhite characters and subjects.
At the same time, indie publishers can change the thrust of book releases while side-stepping the traditional industry. In many ways, self-publishing has been a breath of fresh air, exposing works that otherwise never would have seen the light of day. Indie publishers have the potential to release more books by nonwhite authors and overturn the sad lack of diversity on America’s bookshelves.