Thanks for joining! This week, I’m talking about some of my observations as a children’s publishing intern, with regards to diversity in children’s book publishing.
In the first post of the series, I talked about my summer as a children’s publishing intern in New York City. I wouldn’t have been able to live and work in New York without the support of a grant from the We Need Diverse Books organization. (Which you should definitely consider donating to if you have the means!) I posed the question of how publishers can take action about the lack of books about characters of color, LGBTQ+ characters, and characters with disabilities.
In the second post, I discuss the “gatekeepers” of publishing – specifically, the correlation between the predominantly white world of children’s books and the predominantly white publishing staff.
Next, I’m talking about publishing as a business. We all know publishing is sustained by selling books, and that people need to buy them. Easy as leftover pumpkin pie. But what is there a quantifiable justification for not publishing diverse books? To find out, I took a deeper look into “the Market.”
“The Market”: Business model or myth?
I don’t want to under-emphasize the importance of seeing publishing as a business. It’s easy to idealize an industry that’s so closely associated with books and stories. For instance, I was walking through the office of a large publishing house to meet an editor. As we passed through the halls of cubicles, the editor remarked how people outside publishing imagine that she works in some fantastical, rainbow-colored book playground. She turned to me and said, “What do they expect? It’s an office. It’s a business.”
Although there was plenty of picture book artwork on the walls, this isn’t what a publishing office looks like. Sorry. Source: Pinterest
So publishing, like any business, is market-driven. What does that mean, and what is this Market, specifically as it pertains to publishing?
Something I noticed in conversations about books and diverse books is this amorphous force called “the Market.” In short, it seems like the invisible hand that stops well-meaning, not-racist publishers from publishing books about characters of color and of other marginalized identities. The Market has certain problematic assumptions: It assumes that 1) the majority of readers won’t buy a book with a nonwhite, non-disabled protagonist, and 2) readers of marginalized identities don’t comprise enough of the Market to allocate significant resources toward marketing to them.
I’ve only been able to collect anecdotal evidence to substantiate this Market myself, but it makes a lot of sense as an explanatory factor for some of the problematic practices of publishing, i.e. having significantly fewer characters of color on book covers, even if these books are about characters of color.
One editor recalled an experience when she was a new editorial assistant, and one of few people of color on her team. At a meeting regarding a book cover, someone managed to dissuade the team from accepting a book cover that prominently featured a character of color. This individual insinuated that people wouldn’t be inclined to buy a book with a Black model on the cover.
By framing their input as a business decision, the individual presented this choice not as an opinion, but as a fact of the Market. The cover was rejected.
I use an example of my favorite middle grade book (because even our dearest books can be racist, and we as critically conscious readers just have to accept that). In The Mysterious Benedict Society, one of the four protagonists, Sticky Washington, is a young Black boy. But why are all four children white? Where did he go? Now that’s mysterious. Source: Goodreads
I also spoke with an agent at a well-established literary agency about the Market. He was a publishing veteran, one of few men of color in the industry. He told me that only small percentages of book buyers are comprised by Black and Hispanic readers – so publishing staff are less incentivized to invest in stories about Black and Hispanic characters.
I couldn’t find a citation for this agent’s statistics (somewhere in Rhode Island, my journalism professor cringes). But the implicit biases of this intangible Market, the biases this agent alluded to, are more explicitly demonstrated by children’s book author Christopher Myers, who writes about his father’s experiences attempting to sell a children’s book about a Black child:
The Market, I am told, just doesn’t demand this kind of book, doesn’t want book covers to look this or that way, and so the representative from (insert major bookselling company here) has asked that we have only text on the book cover because white kids won’t buy a book with a black kid on the cover — or so The Market says, despite millions of music albums that are sold in just that way.
Myers’s experience highlights the contradictions inherent in the Market. With more reflection, it becomes clearer that the Market is actually a self-perpetuating cycle.
Here’s the cycle: Publishing operates on a tight budget, with limited resources to allot to a list of several books per season. If publishers believe that, for example, communities of color don’t buy books, they won’t devote as many marketing and promotional resources to this book that might appeal to an audience of color. If publicity is scant, potential readers won’t know about the book. Consumers can’t buy books they aren’t aware of. And so publishers assume that people of color do not buy books. Looping back to the beginning of the book-making process, editors accept few, if any, manuscripts with characters of color, and the myth continues. But here’s the thing: People of marginalized identities will buy books if their stories are properly invested in. In fact, there is no proof to substantiate the claim that people of non-marginalized identities won’t buy diverse books.
Source: We Need Diverse Books
In fact, quite the contrary. If there’s anything that the wild successes of Tony Award-winning musical Hamilton, Emmy Award-winning TV series Master of None, and New York Times bestselling YA novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian can tell us, it’s that stories with diverse characters and experiences are powerful. With proper investment, they perform exceptionally among consumers. Not that market value is the only reason why we should value diverse stories, of course, but it’s a metric that can sway decisions at meetings about pitches and cover designs.
Clearly, the Market is not a tenable excuse. It’s incumbent on publishers, editors, marketers, and publicists to take responsibility for their undoing the vicious cycle, and to stop blaming this nebulous force that the industry engenders and perpetuates.
In my experience interning, it seemed like the conversation about diversity, propelled by the efforts of We Need Diverse Books, was becoming more open. Based on conversations with numerous editors in a variety of companies, there is a tangible push to look for and publish books about characters of color, LGBTQ+ characters, and characters with disabilities. It’s clear that stories about people of marginalized backgrounds not only sell, and sell robustly, but the challenge is to make sure that diversity is not a trend. Diversity isn’t the new paranormal romance. Diversity isn’t the new Harry Potter. Diversity should be a change in the status quo, and that’s what publishers should really be striving for in the long-term.
This is all to say that once problems are identified, it’s easier to mobilize and come up with effective, actionable steps to solve the disparities in children’s book publishing. Tomorrow, I’ll be talking about what publishers and everyday book lovers can do (and, in many cases, have already begun to do) to make the children’s/YA stories a more inclusive world.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section! I’m excited to see your ideas and insights.