Publishing is Still Overwhelmingly White and #OwnVoices Isn't Helping
Growing up in a Latinx family, one of the most transformative experiences of my childhood was reading Pam Muñoz Ryan’s “Esperanza Rising,” a middle grade novel told from the perspective of a young Mexican girl. We were connected by age, heritage, and a love for la raza, a stark contrast to every book I’d read prior which featured a white or Anglo American protagonist. Though I may not have felt oppressed or even understood what that meant, I knew that I was being underrepresented in the literature I read (and it didn’t help that other personas de color were scarce at my school, too). Now in my early 20s, I see an encouraging rise of racial diversity in film, television, and publishing. But I also see authors of color being bullied by white authors on Twitter, receiving a lack of support from their agents, and earning lower book advances. So how much has the publishing industry really changed?
Last year, The New York Times released an analysis of publishing’s racial demographics in the United States from the 1950s to now, which was necessary as it was disheartening. Not only did the graphic show that the number of books written by BIPOC has hardly increased since the mid 1970s, but also found that just “11% of books in 2018 were written by people of color.” And in the past two years, that percentage has only decreased.
Despite the rise of social justice movements like Black Lives Matter, increased awareness of racial inequality in every professional industry and facet of day-to-day life for BIPOC, publishing is still overwhelmingly white, and it’s not hard to see why.
The number of BIPOC who write books and the number who acquire and edit them are disturbingly close. In 2019, only 15% of professional publishers were people of color, according to a study conducted by Lee & Low Books.
To me, the statistics are unsurprising. Because of my previous internships and work opportunities in publishing, I know what it’s like to be the only BIPOC in the room. I know what it’s like to sit in the middle of a sea of white faces and feel like what I have to say isn’t important. In writing classes, I constantly worry that my white peers won’t take the time to understand the Spanish I mix with English in my work because the only other context they will have interacted with Spanish was their high school language class.
But what’s even more infuriating is publishing’s solution to the stark racism being perpetuated in its industry—the controversy filled, only-for-damage-control movement that is #OwnVoices.
On paper, #OwnVoices is a fantastic idea because it allows authors of marginalized communities to regain agency in writing stories that reflect their experiences and are organically created from their perspective, rather than being told from people who do not share either.
As a hashtag, it’s also a great marketing tool for authors to use to promote their book on social media and attract a welcoming audience searching for more diverse literature to read and authors to support.
But unsurprisingly, white people continue to write diversity for us.
The same New York Times study found that the percentages of #OwnVoices books continue to be published in single digit percentages every year and the BIPOC who write them even receive smaller advances than those written by white authors.
It certainly doesn’t help that the movement is fundamentally flawed in its design. Though authors of color have more agency, they also have more responsibility, and have continually cited it as just another way to feel pressure in the industry. With so few BIPOC in publishing, you’re expected to perfectly encapsulate the experience of your community in one piece of work or even worse, only write about the hardships and struggles of your marginalized community. Not every Latinx author—certainly not this one—wants to feature machismo or stereotypes of characters without papers.
But for white publishers, if it’s not “authentic” to one reader, then it’s not authentic at all.
So what can we do?
Clearly, mining diversity through a hashtag for the sake of PR isn’t the solution. Like every other industry, publishing has to be willing to confront its racist history so it can pay authors of color what they deserve, hire more BIPOC in every department, and publish more books written by authors from diverse backgrounds even—and especially!—if it’s not a “struggle book” to relive the trauma of marginalized communities for cis white consumption. For years, we’ve had the answers but now, more than ever, it’s time for the publishing industry to actually do the work.