The traditional publishing industry has historically lacked representation, and continues to leave marginalized people out of the conversation. But why are People of Color still being excluded from the traditional publishing world and how can self-publishing help? Before we can address diversity, we need to look at the current state of traditional publishing.
So, how diverse is the traditional publishing industry?
To put it rather bluntly — not very. In fact, The New York Times found that of the 7,124 books published by traditional publishers for which the author’s race was identified, 95% were written by white people. Just 11% of books published in 2018 were written by People of Color.
This glaring inequality in the industry can likely be attributed to the people who work in traditional publishing. The heads of the biggest publishing houses are white. According to a 2019 survey, so are 85% of the people who edit books. The share of LGBTQ+ Employees is also low, with a breakdown of the publishing industry by sexual orientation showing that straight people account for more than 80% of the workforce. Data and studies confirm the sizable inequality of minorities as staff, contributors, and creators throughout the traditional publishing industry. The lack of representation and inclusivity of voices that are underrepresented in traditional publishing in this way enables marginalization.
Why Diversifying Your Bookshelf Matters
Reading books from Writers of Color matters because People of Color exist, their stories exist, their experiences exist, and we all benefit when those voices are heard. We learn by understanding the richness of human experience and by exposing ourselves to new perspectives. I love learning about cultures other than my own, different experiences, and history from another perspective.
Representation matters and books give marginalized people their voices back. When we read diverse literature, we are reminded that, while we may be different, we are also more similar than we think. It enables us to grow and appreciate other cultures, as well as normalizing identities unlike our own while building bridges of cultural understanding.
Challenges People of Color Face With Publishing
The traditional publishing industry has neglected marginalized people who have never had the same opportunities as the majority. There are many gatekeepers that stand in the way of any author hoping to be traditionally published, the hurdles that many Writers of Color have to jump through to get published in the US are significantly higher than they are for white writers.
Let’s say you’re a brown writer and you’ve always dreamt of publishing your writing. Here’s the deal in the world of traditional publishing: you have to be a lot better (and a LOT more marketable) than all the other brown writers, since all brown writers are competing for that one opportunity.
“It’s not ‘marketable’.”
“It’s ‘too Indian’.”
“But readers tend to stick to what they know.”
“I just didn’t fall in love with the characters [of a mostly multicultural book].”
“It’s not relatable to me!”
It’s become almost redundant to hear over and over from editors and agents (who are, in almost all cases, white) all of these statements. Some may claim that these are just standard industry responses, and while that is partly true, the fact of the matter is that white authors are getting published and Writers of Color, at least in any significant numbers, are not.
Generally, the most well-known books by Writers of Color focus on “othered” experiences, while white authors are valued for having “normal” experiences.
Muslim Women Authors, for instance, are more valued when writing about their experiences of facing discrimination or their experiences of wearing the Hijab. This limits their talent and leads to what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls the single story, in which the work of minority authors is used merely to highlight differences and reinforce stereotypes. While a Writer of Color might choose to talk about their marginalized experiences, this expectation prevents Writers of Color from speaking about broader issues or interests. Writers of Color shouldn’t feel the need to write about their experiences or to cater to a white audience, they should be able to write and publish whatever they want.
How Self-Publishing Helps To Elevate Marginalized Voices
Self-publishing has opened up our literary options, giving readers access to more diverse authors and giving authors from all backgrounds the opportunity to share their stories on their own terms. Now you have the freedom to share your story the way you want with readers around the world.
While legacy publishers such as Penguin Random House and Hachette Book Group have historically been important players in shaping this conversation, today, because of indie and self-publishing, there are more books and more voices than ever. Publishing gatekeepers from a privileged and white-centric position have long decided what does and doesn’t get published. Self-publishing opens the doors for anyone and everyone to publish what they want without approval from a publishing company.
With self-publishing, not only do you avoid gatekeepers, publish a book with little investment, and have complete control of the narrative of your story without needing a green light from a publishing house, but creating your story without limitations can enrich your creativity, your identity, and your journey to finding your voice.
Self-publishing can be empowering as it gives you a sense of possibility. You are free to write and share your story, the way you envisioned it, in its most authentic form, without the pressure of a publisher telling you to mold your unique story to fit a certain audience or expectation. When you self-publish, the only people you need to answer to are yourself as a writer and creator and your readers.
Your story is worth sharing. When you self-publish, you have the freedom to write what you want, from your heart and in your authentic voice. When you self-publish, you can be confident that you are sharing your story because you are the one who decided to share it. Not because someone else validated your story as ‘good enough.’ You are free to be vulnerable with your writing. You are free to be ‘controversial’ if you’d like. You are free to be authentically you.
The Importance of Creating Authentic Stories
Reading authentic stories is important, but so is creating them. Your story matters and sharing it has historically been powerful and liberating. Authentic and unique stories move us. It’s stories that help break down barriers of inequality, stereotypes, and bias. It’s stories that foster inclusiveness and generate empathy when they are told.
Consider the height of enslavement, for example, when it was forbidden by law for enslaved Black Americans to read or write. There was a reason for this. There was a fear that literacy would prove a threat to the enslavement system. Enslaved people knew that telling a story was the only way they could bear witness to what they’d been through.
Virgina Hamilton, the author of People Could Fly said that storytelling was the first opportunity for Black Americans to represent themselves as anything other than property.
Create something that’s meaningful to you. Create something that empowers you. Create for the sake of feeding your creative wellbeing. Create for the sake of creating. Create something that comes from your heart. Create something just because you want to and can. Create whatever you want, after all; no one’s stopping you.
The Importance of Reading Authentic Stories
Although the self-publishing world has opened the doors for many underrepresented groups to break through and share their stories, the job isn’t finished. The future is you (yes, you, the reader). Creating authentic stories is important, but it’s on us to read and share these stories. It’s more important now than ever to expand our own reading lists to be more inclusive. We can all do our part to amplify marginalized voices, to make sure all stories have an opportunity to be heard by sharing books written by Authors of Color.
We no longer live in a time where marginalized people are voiceless. Instead, we have the opportunity (and responsibility) to ensure that those voices are amplified. So go cast your net wide, champion stories that often go overlooked and unheard, create authentic stories that mean something to you, spread the word about books you love. And most importantly, go diversify your reading lists!
The traditional publishing industry has long shaped and controlled literature without accurately reflecting our cultural diversity. It’s an industry that has denied us the opportunity to access real and valuable perspectives through literature; self-publishing, however, has been an ultimate game changer.
Self-publishing has opened up opportunities for all voices to be heard without barriers or limitations. Now we decide the worth of words, rather than one person at a publishing firm dictating what is ‘good’ content and what is not. Readers and creators have a responsibility. Now, we control the narrative by not only creating authentic stories, but by reading them as well.