Diversity in Publishing: Next Steps in the Discussion

booksDiversity is a hot topic in publishing right now. Though many have been working toward a more diverse and equitable literary landscape for years, there has been a significant increase in the number and frequency of conversations surrounding the topic in the past few months.

Arguably, the tipping point came when independent children’s publisher Lee and Low released their “Diversity in Children’s Books” infographic in June 2013. Based on the report and statistics of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, the chart made the grim reality of children’s publishing impossible to ignore.  The graphic quickly went viral and has been cited in nearly every article about diversity in publishing released in the past year.

And there were many. So many, in fact, that this list compiled on BookRiot is not even close to exhaustive. That list doesn’t include:

  • the September 2013 discussion of #DiversityinSFF on Twitter and and the related blog posts. (For brevity’s sake, we won’t even talk about the numerous blog posts calling for inclusion and equity incited by the string of SFWA controversies in 2013.)
  • Zetta Elliott’s spot on NBC New York in February 2014
  • Daniel José Older’s essay on the intricacies of race and power in the publishing industry in April 2014

And finally, when BookCon released a guests list that featured 29 white people and a cat (I shit you not), a group of industry insiders led by author Ellen Oh started the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign. The hashtag was a trending topic on Twitter for nearly four days (starting a full day earlier than expected) and the story was picked up by the Guardian, Salon, the Huffington Post, and the major industry publications Publishers Weekly. The timing was impeccable as, that same week, the School Library Journal released its Diversity issue.

Raising awareness is the first step in any struggle. After a solid year of high-profile articles on the subject, I think we have reached a time when English language North American publishing professionals can no longer reasonably say they haven’t heard of the diversity problem.

So. Are you aware yet?

There comes a point where we have to move beyond saying there is a problem and begin actively working towards the solutions. All the effort and thought of this past year (and the many years prior) are incredible. But it would be a shame to simply keep rehashing the same work instead of building upon it.

Consider the stakes. The lack of diversity and equity in the publishing industry is not a theoretical issue for us to intellectualize over coffee. It is an injustice. The destruction of libraries and burning of books has historically been used to strip peoples of their history and culture.  Those in power continue to limit the ability of those they have subjugated to share their stories. They retain ultimate control of the narrative and their power.

The publishing industry creates and disseminates stories. The fact that the industry neither includes marginalized people in those stories nor gives marginalized people enough access to share their own stories makes the industry itself oppressive.

And, by virtue of reading this piece and all the other pieces shared online this year, you know this.

So. What will you do?

Most of my work concentrates on those next steps. In an effort to connect various groups and individuals advocating for diversity in Canadian Literature, I facilitate weekly #DiverseCanLit twitter chats on various facets of the complex problem, during which we identify root causes and brainstorm immediate actions we can take to address them.

I would be more than happy to use this space to have the same sort of brainstorming sessions with all of you. What are the obstacles you face? What kind of support and resources do you need? (These are not rhetorical questions! Please reply in the comments.)

To start, here are two things to consider as you think about what you can do to help:

Center the needs and voices of people from marginalized groups.

This is key. Too often, conversations about diversity and equity in publishing, devolve into white writers wringing their hands about how, why, and when to include people of color in their writing. (The assumption being that discussion of diversity are always about race and ethnicity. This is false.) Stop doing that. Besides being annoying, it also assumes that people from marginalized groups cannot write their own stories.  If we are to dismantle a system that is oppressive because it pushes certain people to the periphery, we must bring those same people to the center.  Every action should be a response to the question “how do we as an industry give greater access to people from marginalized groups?” Don’t assume you know the answer to the question! So, ask. Listen. Help when you can. Get out of the way when you can’t.

Self-assess and recognize your complicity. Know when you’re in the way.

The sooner you admit that you are part of the problem, the sooner you can start being part of the solution (or at the very least quit being an obstacle). The Lee and Low graphic was important because it was an irrefutable assessment of the children’s publishing industry. It provided evidence for the conclusions that many had already deduced from experience. We knew it was bad, but we didn’t realize it was that bad.

Examine your most prominent role within the industry and do your own count. As a reader what percentage of the books your read were written by people from marginalized groups? What about the percentage of books you review as a book reviewer or blogger? What percentage of the books you assign as an English teacher, or the books you read to your kids as a parent are written by people from marginalized groups? These self-assessments provide a baseline for you to then set a target for improvement. Do these counts and report back in the comments.  Challenge yourself and challenge each other to make a difference.

I, for one, don’t still want to be talking about this 20 years from now. We are not the first to realize that this is a problem but, if we work together, we can be the ones to find sustainable solutions.

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