Wednesday, September 24, 2014

On Diversity In Publishing And Lost Readers

This is not exactly news, but it could be an alarm, not for an industry, but for society.

Publishers Weekly reports that the publishing industry is overwhelmingly white.  Those who work in this industry are already aware of that fact. Those who follow the industry are likely aware of the majority whiteness as well. Look at any photo snapped at any industry get-together, from a book signing to a launch party to Book Expo America, and the faces are uniformly pale. And female, but that's another issue.

Why don't non-white types not go into the publishing game?

At first glance, you might rely on stereotypes of Asians and conclude that they are too smart to join an industry that pays little for long hours. They go into medicine for the long hours, and get paid well for the effort, unlike publishing which returns little more than satisfaction in seeing a beloved manuscript turned into a book for others to enjoy. Asians prefer the rigor of engineering to the artistry of prose so they don't choose publishing as a career.

What about blacks? Why so few black people in the publishing industry? Are we to conclude that black people don't read?

What has industry insiders worried is that the lack of African-American influence in what gets published is having an effect on black readership. If literary agents and acquisitions editors are not falling in love with manuscripts that will resonate with blacks, then those manuscripts are not being printed. African-Americans who peruse the shelves at bookstores or libraries then don't find books they can get lost in because there isn't anything within the pages that they relate to.

Not everyone cares for Maya Angelou's prose, just as some don't see what is so great about F. Scott Fitzgerald or Stephen King. Richard Wright and James Baldwin are fine if you want literary fiction, but how about some sci-fi or fantasy or romance or historicals? Just ordinary books that entertain, but also touch on the African-American experience in rust belt cities or sleepy rural enclaves.

The lack of readers leads to a lack of writers, and so the industry ends up reinforcing the existing population within the industry. Publishing will continue to be majority white if black kids don't develop some interest in reading and then grow up to be English majors. Without the right kinds of books, they do not find much to enjoy and reading then loses out to video game playing as the favorite leisure activity.

Big cities host all night basketball tournaments to get kids off the streets. Will there ever by an all night readathon for the same purpose, or has publishing already lost another generation of potential readers?

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