*(Some quotes have been edited for brevity/clarity.)
Despite the uproar over the lack of diversity in books, the traditional publishing industry has done little to genuinely work towards inclusiveness. Lackluster surface-level initiatives offer little in the way of concrete change, and this performative support serves to merely deflect further criticism and demands for diversity. “We’ve got our token program. Now leave us alone.” However, the new wave of diverse writers and content creators isn’t looking to anyone else for change: They’re creating it.
When I was trying to land a literary agent for YOUR HEART AFTER DARK, it never occurred to me just how white the machine of traditional publishing was, or how this monochromatic landscape would affect the performance of my work. After receiving flat out rejections, I examined the list of agents I was querying and finally realized: I was trying to sell my story to an audience it was never written for, namely white middle-aged women who expected me to write about my supposed desire for emancipation, not POC werewolves. A few traditionally published POC Muslim writers have found success in fiction, particularly in fantasy, but there is one stark similarity among their books: There are few, if any, Muslim characters.
“Fear plays into it a lot,” says Latinx sci-fi writer Sandra Proudman. “Fear from both publishers and agents that they might take a chance on genre fiction from a BIPOC author that might not sell the way that contemporary works about BIPOC pain have.” Traditional publishing’s obsession with certain types of POC narratives, or the “single narrative”, likely stems from a “if this works, why change it” mentality, suggests Proudman. After her sci-fi manuscript wasn’t picked up by the traditional industry, Proudman wondered if her story was simply too diverse. “All the science fiction manuscripts I’ve seen acquired lately are by white authors … I think that constant “what if my book was less me” is something that white cis authors don’t have to consider…”
After realizing the exclusionary nature of traditional publishing, I decided to become an indie author and professionally publish my debut on my own. There’s no use in waiting for an industry to realize its role has evolved beyond armchair anthropology. Authors are finding more and more publishing options in the indie landscape while traditional publishing houses are struggling, with mergers and shutdowns all too common. As traditional publishing creeps towards obsolescence due to its own refusal to diversify, POC book pros and writers are catering to readers who are starving for nonwhite rep in fiction, creating the future of books.
“Personally, I expected a few of my friends to be excited for me, but I didn’t expect to get a lot of public support like we have,” says Leelynn, co-founder of Hear Our Voices Book Tours (HOV). Co-founder Nox expressed similar sentiment, saying she had no idea the book community wanted them as much as it turned out.
HOV began in June 2020 as an online POC book tour company focused on getting ARCs (advanced reader copies) of diverse books into the hands of diverse reviewers. It has since arranged virtual tours for several books and continues to generate interest among the online reader/blogger community.
Leelynn says traditional publishing needs to respect POC voices in the industry. “They [POC] need to have the opportunity for internal growth, to have matching marketing dollars and plans as their white counterparts, and they need to be valued.” Nox says the data stacked against POC is frustrating, and the issue exists not only on the publishing level but on the reviewer level as well. “I don’t think equality can be achieved until we stand with and for each other, as reviewers, authors, and professionals.”
According to Proudman, for true diversity to exist in traditional publishing, several elements must be present. “I think ultimately it [diversity] starts at the publishing level and should trickle down. I’ve always thought it’s a matter of three things happening—publishers hiring more diversely at whatever level gets the last word on an acquisition, even if this means that they’re allowing people to work remotely; agents feeling confident they can make a living by pitching BIPOC works to editors once they’re truly hiring more diversely; and mentorship of BIPOC authors at all levels.”
Whether or not traditional publishing takes genuine steps towards diversity, diverse writers and industry pros are finding ways to succeed. The indie landscape has evened the playing field for POC writers, and the POC book community is right in step offering services and support like never before. The new generation of content creators is innovative, conscientious, and proactive, and the diversity which once seemed so distant is quickly permeating the publishing landscape.