What Do You Publish? Embracing Diversity

Decades ago, Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poets Society told his students to stand on their desks and look at the world around them from a different perspective.

To do that here means starting with Alicia Elliott’s words from “Not Your Noble Savage”, one of the many excellent essays collected in her exceptional book, A Mind Spread Out On The Ground.

Where does that leave an Indigenous writer like me right now: a half-white, half-Tuscarora woman who writes about whatever she pleases and has, mournfully, never danced in a powwow? There are already three strikes against me, yet there’s still this persistent belief that I’m somehow at an advantage because I’m a Native writer. Richard Wagamese best summed up my feelings on this idea: I’m not a native writer. I’m a fucking writer….I don’t want to be compared, I don’t want to be ghettoized, I don’t want to be marginalized….I just want [people] to read my work and go, ‘Wow’.”

Don’t misunderstand me. My hesitation to be labelled a “Native writer” isn’t a hesitation to be labelled such by other Native people. That is a point of pride, a sign of kinship and solidarity. Being labelled a “Native writer” by non-Native people, however, is more often than not an act of literary colonialism, showing paternalism, ownership and a desire to keep us inside a neatly labelled box where they deem us a non-threat. A continuation of the fairy tale.

“What do you publish?”

Variations of this question come up often—‘I don’t know what you publish.’ ‘Can I submit to you?’ ‘I don’t know if you’d publish me.’— and people are seldom referring to genre.

Diversity in publishing has been a hot topic for some time now, but the push for meaningful change is often met with resistance or attempts that fall short of meaningful gains.

In 2015, Mira Jacob attempted to give a keynote speech about the challenges facing writers of color in publishing. Half of the room turned away and talked over her.” – Source: The Evan Marshall Agency website

Right now, there are people reading this who are thinking:

  • I’m sick of this topic.
  • Things are going too far. The best books should be published, period.
  • You’re a white woman. What do you know about this?

Let’s break those things down before I get into the heart of this piece.

Charlie’s Angels

I grew up in the 70s. After getting home from school, TV options included Three’s Company, Charlie’s Angels, and G-Force: Battle of the Planets.

Charlie’s Angels was quite the show. These women were going out into the world and taking down bad people. They caught villains. They brought people to justice. And they didn’t need a man to help them do it.

I asked my mom if I could take karate. She said it was for boys. But on TV, I could see Kelly and Sabrina and Chris fighting the bad guys. 

Why did this matter? It was the first time that I recall seeing the world differently from one of my parents, and realizing that they may not always be right.

What happens when children can grow up seeing people of all races, ethnicities, religions, genders and orientations getting along and living side by side with respect and acceptance? Could it be that those children might grow up to have respect for all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, orientation or anything else?

It’s important for all children to read books featuring diverse characters because it challenges them to look outside their own personal experiences and their personal appearance.

– Crystal Swain-Bates

There is no doubt in my mind it is even more meaningful for people from diverse groups to see themselves represented. One only had to look at the response to the cancellation of Chambers to see how Indigenous people felt about it.

@netflix you get rid of the show with positive native representation while paying and advertising for adam sandler, who has been blatantly racist against natives. is this the hill y’all wanna die on?

– Super Inun

Representation matters. 

Netflix took away what, I believe, was the only show that had an Indigenous character in the lead, on TV anywhere right now, and that compounded how Indigenous people feel about cultural erasure and lack of representation.

Things Are Going Too Far. The Best Books Should Be Published, Period.

Why do you assume they are? 

Let’s look at some statistics.

… for every 100 books that were published by leading romance publishers in 2016, just 7.8 were written by people of color. Half of the publishers surveyed had fewer than five percent of their books written by people of color.

“… in 2016, Black, Latinx, and First/Native Nations authors, all combined, wrote only six percent of new children’s books that were published.”

My first question for anyone who is throwing this out as a way to divert the conversation away from supporting diversity in publishing is what makes you think the best books are being published? 

What does ‘best’ mean, anyway? Fifty Shades of Grey? Twilight? Harry Potter? 

My second question is, do you really think that 94% of white children’s authors and 92.2% of white romance authors are better than everyone else? In a country that is 60.4% white, 18.3% Hispanic or Latino, 2.7% mixed race, 13.4% Black, 1.3% Indigenous, 0.2% Native Hawaiian, and 5.9% Asian do you really think that white people produce more than 90% of the best written works? To think that, to even infer that, underscores the existence of white privilege and racism in publishing. 

My husband named Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese as his best read of 2018. Not his best Indigenous read. Not his best WOC read.

His best read, from all books, by all authors. And he reads a lot.

Incidentally, Tommy Orange’s There There also made his books of the year shortlist. 

I’m Sick of This Topic

Well, if the only way you can get anywhere is by clutching your privilege …

People Still Aren’t Listening

An LGBTQ+ author, who asked to remain anonymous, told me, “I queried a smaller press who only publishes novels with LGBTQ+ characters. I received a response a few weeks later stating that my character, “wasn’t the representation they were looking for.” In layman’s terms, even though the character is openly bisexual in the novel, he wasn’t queer enough because he became romantically involved with a woman by the end of the novel. A person’s bisexuality is often erased if they end up in an opposite-sex relationship, and that’s what happened here. Also I should note that per their submission guidelines, at the time, they were looking for representation across the LGBTQ+ spectrum, which would / should have included bisexual characters, and they rejected my book solely because my character “wasn’t the representation they were looking for”.”

Black children’s author Katie Otey shared a heart-wrenching thread on Twitter about being rejected because of stereotypes by gatekeepers.

Some of us have spent a lifetime fighting stereotypes and it is exhausting. My blackness has been called into question on so many occasions and it hurts every time. I avoided so many books and movies that featured black characters because the representation was painful to see.

“WE WANT TO SEE OURSELVES DO MORE IN BOOKS THAN JUST SUFFER!!! Black kids are smart, cultured, musical, well read, and so many other things people assume are white by standard. When you say the underrepresentation you are looking for needs to be more unusual, you are saying WE ARE UNUSUAL. It’s hurtful. It’s demeaning. It’s depressing.

Writer Destinee Schriner also expressed concerns about how she will be perceived. “I’m afraid that because people see that I am married to a man they will think that means that I’m not bisexual and that’s not true. I don’t like that I’m asked to prove my sexuality; I was born this way.  I hope people in the publishing industry can see that.”

If the publishing industry truly intends to embrace diversity, then it must actively work to ensure that editors, agents, reviewers, booksellers and all people involved in book sales and production are not governed by stereotypes. Why are bi characters being erased? Why are Black people being told what their experience or reality is? That isn’t true representation; it’s white-washing diversity.

Why does this continue to happen? Look at who makes up the publishing industry. “92 percent of respondents identified as not disabled, 88 percent identified as heterosexual, and 79 percent identified as Caucasian.

What Has Been Done to Improve Diversity in Publishing?

Over in the U.K. the industry has invested in everything from “more inclusive recruitment processes, to unconscious bias training (across the entire workforce—no other industry can say the same), to paid internships and even free accommodation for interns from outside London.”

Other publishers are starting diversity imprints. Rather than set targets to increase diverse authors in their regular catalogue they establish an imprint that only accepts submissions from authors they consider diverse. This can vary from publisher to publisher, with some publishers considering women (straight or otherwise) to be diverse, with other publishers emphasizing race, ethnicity or orientation.

Are These Efforts Working?

The statistics that underscore the need for more diversity in publishing certainly suggest publishing hasn’t become more inclusive, and diverse authors that do get published find themselves facing other challenges.

“Nonetheless, the situation is that writers of colour either struggle to get their books commissioned or struggle to reach the right audiences when they do. As a 2018 study by academic Dr Melanie Ramdarshan Bold revealed, the number of books published by black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) authors in Young Adult fiction has been falling since 2010; and … a key finding … was how writers of colour feel pressured into using racial and ethnic stereotypes. So we have a situation where writers of colour are struggling to get their stories out there and, when they do, they feel like they are being made to reproduce the very stereotypes that they set out to challenge in the first place.”

Other Complications Impacting Sales

Publishers fail to market effectively, giving way “to the ill-posed belief that so-called “diversity books” can only be enjoyed by readers of the same race.” In her article “Rethinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing”, Crystal Swain-Bates goes on to add:

Diverse books aren’t just for the diverse. They are for all of us. Books are more powerful than just a bunch of words. They can help build bridges of cultural understanding, promote tolerance, normalize identities unlike our own, and allow people to develop an appreciation for the cultures of others.” 

Part of the problem is that publishers, marketing staff, and others involved in the sale of books have to see books by diverse authors as more than simply ‘diverse reads’. They are, yes, expanding representation. But they are also breathtaking romances, action-packed thrillers, compelling mysteries, groundbreaking science fiction and fantasy stories. They are damn good books that deserve to be read because they’re great stories, and they deserve to be read by everyone.

Diverse authors still face hurdles after publication, however.

There is still the matter of reviews, distribution, and acquisition. In other words, while self-publishing has opened doors for more diverse books to be published, those books can’t be successfully sold without distribution. So, we are still at the mercy of the people making the purchasing decisions at bookstores, libraries, and beyond—and if they aren’t committed to building a diverse catalog of books that everyone can enjoy, the books won’t be sold, whether self-published or not.” 

What Actually Should Be Done?

In Crystal Swain-Bates’ article she makes recommendations for changes, addressing four key groups of people with strategies that can be utilized to improve diversity in publishing. She starts with parents and educators, calls on schools and educators to be more inclusive when bringing authors in, and encourages publishers to hire more diverse staff or supplement staff with sensitivity readers. Swain-Bates concludes by encouraging retailers to embrace desegregation.

Retailers: it’s time to desegregate your stores. Many bookstores still place titles by authors from non-dominant groups in their own little sections as a way to categorize them. How about instead of having an African-American section, for example, integrate all of your titles and arrange them by genre or theme, regardless of the race of the author or main character. Why? Well, this type of shelving is limiting for several reasons.

First, having books sectioned off in this way gives shoppers the perception that those books are only of interest to black readers. It perpetuates the false notion that white readers only want to read about other white people, and while that is not the case, the current shelving practices make it hard to find alternatives. 

Second, by keeping these books in their own little section, it limits the number of non-black readers who ever see the books, which impacts the sales, visibility, and overall success of the book. Think about it. Outside of Black History Month, how often have you personally perused the African-American book section of your local bookstore? If your answer is never, that proves my point. Unless you are intentional about finding that section of the bookstore, you likely won’t come across it by chance, and as a result, those books never get seen by the majority of shoppers.

Finally, this leads bookstores to believe that low sales for the title are because there is no audience for the book when in reality, it’s just really hard to sell a book when it’s only marketed to 12% of the population. Imagine how this perception impacts the owner’s willingness to purchase diverse books in the future.

How Do Current Actions Compare?

Swain-Bates did not discuss diversity imprints, and I reached out to some authors to get their impression. An author I’ve published in the past, who happens to be from a diverse group and wished to remain anonymous, told me:

“Being placed in a diversity imprint reeks of ‘separate but equal.’ That never works and comes off as a way to shuffle marginalized authors to the side. There’s no reason everyone can’t stand out in front together. If publishers are concerned about publishing marginalized authors, they would do better committing to publishing us instead of creating a literary quarantine.”

Why do we have a diversity emphasis instead of a diversity imprint? Existing publishers are trying to fix a system that is broken. Yes, this may actually increase opportunities for some marginalized writers initially. However, it’s imperfect, because not all diverse authors are willing to be compartmentalized, nor should they have to be. The words shared here by one writer echo the sentiments expressed in the quote at the beginning of this article. They echo Swain-Bates exhortation to retailers to desegregate. Imprints counter integration. When Otto Penzler announced an imprint, “Scarlet, a joint publishing venture specializing in psychological suspense aimed at female readers,” it ultimately led to widespread criticism, particularly over the fact that the imprint was signing male authors using feminine pseudonyms to write books about “complex women characters”.

The response within the mystery/crime community has certainly underscored a lack of support for that particular imprint, and since some publishers include women in their diversity mandate, this imprint bears scrutiny as an imprint focused on stories about diverse characters. The community has enough established female writers to openly criticize the venture; the challenge for other diverse groups is that they may not feel as established, and therefore fear speaking out publicly against the diversity imprint trend.

Creating a diversity imprint is certainly more newsworthy than declaring an intent to increase publication of diverse authors by 25%. Perhaps that fact underscores part of the problem; diversity imprints risk becoming badges of honor that make white publishers feel good about how progressive they are when they continue to have white writers dominate their main publication lists.

I know many people are simply happy for the opportunity diversity imprints offer them now. I also know that not every person will feel the same way. There is no criticism here for anyone who takes an opportunity in a diversity imprint. 

Some may feel inclined to be angry about this exploration and the comments made by writers who are diverse. Some may take this personally. To completely reject these perspectives means you have just become the person dictating to diverse authors how they’re allowed to think and feel, and we must not simply ask diverse authors who have succeeded in securing publishing contracts; we must also ask those who have circumvented traditional publishing routes because of the shortcomings within publishing if we want to understand where we’re falling short. 

I do not feel that it is my right to make those decisions for anyone else on this subject.

Why address it here? Look again at what Swain-Bates said about retailers and the need for desegregation. Will an increase in diversity imprints fuel desegregation instead of promoting integration?

Look back to the beginning.

In 2015, Mira Jacob attempted to give a keynote speech about the challenges facing writers of color in publishing. Half of the room turned away and talked over her.

The question I keep going back to is, “Are we listening?”

Are We Listening?

There is a legitimate question about whether or not publishers have done enough to actually hear diverse writers, instead of filling meetings with representative white people who make decisions about what is best for diverse writers without actually listening to any of them.

So, Who Would Bronzeville Publish?

Everyone. Everyone who tells a great story. When I look at a story submitted to Bronzeville Bee, I read the story. When I review submissions to Bronzeville Books, I refined my process to this: I forward all attachments to my Kindle and read the chapters first, then the synopsis. I read the query letter last, and only if I’m interested after reading the submitted material. That means I often don’t know anything about the writer until the end, and only if they choose to share information in their bio or query.

The key distinction here is that everyone is coming through the main entrance. 

Yes, Bronzeville Bee’s non-fiction tends to emphasize more diverse voices. White people, especially white men, have always been welcome in publishing. They don’t need an engraved invitation. VIDA: Women in Literary Arts maintains statistics related to the publishing industry, as does Sisters in Crime. As of 2014, “(a) Publisher’s Lunch analysis book reviews shows that female fiction authors get about 40 percent of reviews.” 

Translation? Men receive about 60% of the review space available (even without publishing 60% of the content produced) and those numbers increase with more prominent venues. SinC found that “(t)he more prestigious the review outlet or the award, the less likely women crime writers will be recognized.”

When we created Bronzeville Bee, we created a space where we wanted to showcase diverse writers addressing their interests, art, and issues. This doesn’t mean that we will not publish white writers or feature works by white writers, but we are actively focused on countering the percentages that dominate coverage elsewhere. 

One only needs to look at our short fiction and non-fiction to see that we have, in fact, published white people. And we have published articles that talk about white people … yet there is a persistent belief among some that, because we emphasize diversity that means we only publish diverse authors.

Maybe some people are so accustomed to diversity imprints, and the unintentional consequences of them is that it’s assumed if all the diverse authors are going in one door, cis white writers can’t go there. 

I hear some venues are opening to diverse contributors first, with a staggered submissions system that puts white men last. I don’t really know those venues. I heard about it on Twitter and I’m just listening and watching and thinking.

This might surprise some, but as an editor, a lot of my time is spent listening. I believe everyone who is in publishing should use their ears a lot.

Here, at Bronzeville, our goal is to be inclusive. And so I work twice as hard to tell writers who are BIPOC, who are non-binary, who are LGBTQ+ that they are welcome. They are safe.

That if we publish them, when I edit them, I will listen to them, because my job is to enhance the story they are telling, not whiten it down or straighten it up.

One of the things about starting a new venue was the ability to set the tone from the start. I am so blessed that writers like K.A. Doore, Gitz Crazyboy, Mel Vee X, Chanel Hardy, Amra Pajalic, Chris La Tray and Hector Acosta were willing to take a chance working with me to breathe life to the vision from the start.

And I’m doubly blessed to know that writers like Gitz, and others, will let me know if I get things wrong. They push me to change my thinking, and learn and grow.

If we really want women, POC, writers who are LGBTQ+ to submit work to us, we have to show we are listening to them. Their issues. Their concerns. Their perspectives on artists from their community.

Not our stereotypes and preconceived ideas about who they are or what their life is like.

It’s been a real privilege to create this venue and be able to showcase some amazing talent. 

We aren’t interested in side doors or tokenism. We are interested in great stories written by great writers.

We’re also willing to learn, and I truly hope that means we get things right more often than we get them wrong. 

We aren’t perfect, but we are progressing.

We may be too radical for some. Our accounts on Twitter, for example, do little more than post links to our content and interesting articles, and yet we know authors who’ve blocked them, including authors I’ve published in the past. I’m not sure why; they don’t have to follow us. They could even mute us. But for @beebronzeville to be blocked suggests something else, something that speaks of the obstacles diverse authors face every single day. It suggests an unwillingness to ever support diversity in this industry.

Consider: in a Duotrope search for pro paying crime fiction markets for short stories, there are a total of eight results, including Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, which are very difficult to gain publication in because of the submission rates. There are also two publications that are for children. This leaves four other professional paying markets, including Bronzeville Bee, and known mystery/crime writers are blocking us on Twitter. Despite posting first about our opening to a group that is for short mystery fiction writers, mystery/crime subs remain extremely low … and that is despite the fact that I’ve been involved in publishing over 200 short mystery fiction works myself. I was also harassed offlist by a person, because they felt the Bee wasn’t of interest to them, even when we did post about crime fiction. It persisted to the point that I had to state that I would never post about the Bee again to get them to leave me alone; I also threatened legal action to stop the harassment.

I am aware from other list members that the person is known for attacking anyone with liberal political views and our diversity emphasis at Bronzeville Bee seems to have been the person’s true issue with our publication.

What can I say if crime fiction writers are not concerned about being paid professional rates for their work? What does it say about publishing that people are willing to invest in the next kickstarter (and crime fiction has had some spectacular controversies over these in the past) rather than embrace existing markets that they don’t have to financially support into existence?

Well, I can say that horror and fantasy writers are killing it, and so they will continue to dominate our fiction publications as long as they dominate our submissions.

There is, to me, no more fitting way to close this out than to go back to Alicia Elliott’s excellent essay “Not Your Noble Savage” and see the words that followed the ones quoted above.

While certain non-Native readers, writers and critics continue to bemoan our refusal to be the Indian they’re looking for, others are willing to see us as ourselves. To acknowledge not only our talents but the historical landmines we’ve had to sidestep on our way towards each milestone. To appreciate our successes instead of regarding them with suspicion. To refuse literary colonialism and the way it desensitizes them as well. 

If you do nothing else today, order her book. It will not just change your perspective on the publishing industry, but on the world.

That’s the power that words have, and that is why we in the publishing industry must ask ourselves if we are embracing that power responsibly, or using our gates to undermine true, meaningful representation.

A Mind Spread Out On The Ground by Alicia Elliott

Quotes from anonymous and named sources, Twitter, and A Mind Spread Out On The Ground used by permission.

Sandra Ruttan is Bronzeville Bee’s managing editor, an editor with Bronzeville Books, an author, and the founder and former editor of Spinetingler Magazine (RIP 2018).
Find her on twitter @sandraruttan
Reach her via email submissions.desk@bronzevillebooks.com

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