At least according to a survey done by Lee and Low, the independent book publishing company:
Lee and Low created and executed a large survey of publishing players in the States. The report tells us that the survey went to “1,524 reviewer employees and 11,713 publishing employees for a total of 13,237 surveys deployed.” With a gratifying 25.8-percent response rate, the team has reason to feel good about how much input they received. I’ll give you the very useful infographic here produced by the company. In addition, the results are set out in a slide presentation you can access here. And the report, itself, from Lee and Low is here, dated January 26: reactions have been coming in for about a week.
Lee and Low’s corporate information makes it clear that the company’s own mission in publishing is “to meet the need for stories that children of color can identify with.” Writing about the story for Quartz, Amy X. Wang described the Lee and Low ethnic results this way: “In the industry overall, 79 percent of people are Caucasian while just 4 percent are black, 7 percent are Asian, 6 percent are Hispanic, and less than 5 percent are Native American, Middle Eastern, or biracial. Figures on sexual orientation and disability status are no less lopsided.”
Lopsided, clearly, and most of us, sadly, are not surprised at these figures. In such campaign efforts as #weneeddiversebooks and myriad other consciousness-raising efforts, the failures of publishing to serve major sectors of the population adequately have been clear for some time. These are serious, pressing shortcomings and the more discussion about them, the better.
Basically, Lee and Low tells us that most publishing employees are straight, physically-abled, college-educated white women. Even at the executive level, long seen as the domain of men to the exclusion of women.
Lee and Low are big promoters of the “We Need Diverse Books” campaign (disclosure: I’ve entered in two of their contests) and I do want to address that in a future post, specifically my objections. But basically, the recap here is that they believe authors who fit a mold- college-educated, straight white women, are going to be the most likely to be published, because they look like the typical publishing employee.
I do believe that kid’s literature is too female-dominant. When I went to the SCBWI conference in Virginia in October, it was 93% female (I counted) and almost all were Caucasian. Granted, that tends to be who is most likely to read and want to be authors, not to mention editors and illustrators. Now the members were polite and no one made me feel uncomfortable. But I could see how someone like me might wonder if s/he belongs. The same is true in the indie publishing world. Just about all, if not all, bestselling indies are Caucasians writing primarily from their own middle-class POV.
As a kid I had no problem reading books with girls as the main character. But Goosebumps were one thing: Mary-Kate and Ashley’s Slumber Party is another. And unfortunately, I see too many variants of the latter these days and much less of the former. I personally do not care who runs what in publishing: My contacts, smart white women, are great and I enjoy working with them. But I actually do agree with Lee and Low that there is a bias, however unintentional, that promotes certain types of stories unappealing to boys and certain groups, and favors authors who fit a certain profile and who write a certain kind of story.
If book publishers want to reach boys and increase literacy overall, especially among kids, they have work to do. Now I don’t necessarily want white people getting bumped to fit “affirmative action” programs if the books are inferior. But publishers need to consider making an effort to reach audiences like boys and men if they want to boost sales. This means taking risks on those who may be able to bridge that gap between potential customers and the authors.
The ultimate goal is to get people to read, and be interested. Not to pander to the latest fad of making works shorter and more shallow, or giving up on books to exclusively sell coloring, connect the dots, fill-in-the-blank, and whatever else is popular, or that teaches people that books are outdated and we should just tweet stories instead, but more interesting and more engaging. That does mean embracing technology and maybe making books more interactive, available for mobile devices, and making books cheaper and somewhat shorter than what they are now so they’re affordable to more people and folks decide to read and not do other things. I saw two kids at the library last week playing games on their phones. The horror.
Indie publishing is different-the only real barrier is cost. That’s not something that can be controlled. For now, I think indie publishing is the domain of middle-class and above authors who can afford to spend several thousand dollars on something that is unlikely to earn money in the short term. That may change, and I hope it does, so more people enjoy stories and the people who tell them.