Do publishing and bestseller lists accurately reflect the rise in demand for diverse novels? Heather Slevin investigates.
In January 2000, the New York Times Best Sellers List listed, as they have done since 1931, the fiction novels that sold the most copies that month. Of the fifteen books listed, every single novel was written by a white author.
In January 2021, only one of the fifteen books listed as best sellers was written by a person of colour - Brit Bennet, for her novel, The Vanishing Half.
And yet, despite the poor ratio of white to non-white authors on the adult fiction bestsellers list, the demand for diversity can be seen as reflected in the bestseller lists for Young Adult Hardcovers. Earlier this September, four of the ten books listed are by non-white authors - 2nd on the list is Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi, who are both Black American authors, for their novel, Stamped, a fiction book that hopes to teach the younger generation about racism, antiracism, and how race has been used to gain and keep power. Following 3rd on the list is Angie Thomas, an African American author, for her book The Hate U Give. These Violent Delights comes in as 7th on the list, a fantasy written by Chloe Gong, a Shanghai-born New Zealander. She is followed by Angeline Boulley, for her novel Firekeeper’s Daughter, a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. At 10 on the list is Faridah Abike-Iyimide, a Black British author, for Ace of Spades. Not only are these novels written by a diverse group of authors spanning from different races to different sexualities, but the books contain characters of all identities; they represent young people in the 21st century, with stories not only addressing the issues of racism both in our society and fantasy societies, but containing stories about LBGTQ+ characters, disabled characters and characters from minority backgrounds.
Publishing has made waves in recent years to change the ‘whiteness’ of publishing. Even the New York Times acknowledged this issue in their article, Just How White is the Book Industry? in December 2020. In the article, it is brought to light that in the six years between 1984 to 1990 only two novels by authors of colour were published by Penguin Random House. This leaves the question: is it prejudice leaving this massive gap in the market? Or is it that there simply aren’t that many authors of colour?
It is not that non-white authors do not exist, nor is it that they are not as talented, despite what a lot of white authors on Twitter like to speculate. The main fact and issue that diverse authors face in publishing is, in fact, prejudice. Last June, during the Black Lives Matter protests, a huge oversight in publishing was revealed through a trending Twitter hashtag; #publishingpaidme. The hashtag revealed that many black authors were paid way less than their white counterparts for the rights to their books. This exposure of inequality, not only in the struggles Black and other non-white authors face securing a literary agent and then a publisher, shows how publishing has, historically, been built up to honour the work of white authors over over anyone else. This is reflected not only in the huge disparity between advances of both White and Black debuting authors; with some White authors receiving three or four times the amount as Black authors for books in the same genre, with typically the same expected sales, according to Publisher’s Weekly, but this is also reflected in the fact that still, in 2021, POC authors are struggling to get a spot on the bestseller list.
However, publishing seems to be pushing for a change. This year, Skein Press and The Stinging Fly ran a pilot programme. The programme, a fellowship geared toward minority and POC authors; authors of diverse backgrounds, lower-income backgrounds, of differing sexualities and identities, were asked to put their applications forward in the hopes to allow a bigger space for these minorities in the Irish publishing scene.
“#publishingpaidme… The hashtag revealed that many black authors were paid way less than their white counterparts for the rights to their book.”
“The rise in demand for diversity in publishing, as well as grants such as these, help authors who otherwise might not have had the tools needed to get their stories out there, to reach the people like them who want to read those books.
Not only are these kinds of initiatives important, and there will surely be more opportunities for diverse novels as we continue on, but there are also many literary agents requesting manuscripts sent in by not only POC authors, but LGBTQ+ authors, authors from low-income backgrounds and disabled authors. These kinds of pushes for inclusion are incredibly important, and show how despite the statistics these past years, that publishing is changing.
This clear rise in demand from the younger generation is representative of how publishing must adapt as we move on in this century. While there are still taboos, and while there will always be issues when it comes to acceptance, the obvious demand is that young people wish to see themselves in the books they read. No longer will they sit and read the same white, heterosexual story again and again; the demand for stories about black girls, gay boys, transgender teenagers, POC boys and girls adjusting to life and adulthood is only growing. This is not to say that one story is more important than the other; simply that the space is finally being made for stories that stray from the expected ‘norm’ in publishing.
Not only have agents begun requesting to see more diverse authors in their inboxes, but new grants have opened up for diverse writers too. Diversebooks.org, a not-for-profit organisation that pushes for diversity in novels, has started allocating what’s called the ‘Walter Dean Myers Grant Programme’. The grant, of $2,000, is intended to financially assist unpublished authors as they write. A brilliant idea, especially for minority and low-income writers, who simply do not have the time and money to draft and write constantly. Angie Thomas, a recipient of the grant, used the funds to purchase a laptop in order to write and went on to publish The Hate U Give, a novel which has since sold over one million copies, sat on the Bestseller list for 80 weeks, and has since been made into a feature film. Her success is inspiring, and the availability of something like the Walter Grant programme helped her secure her footing as an author in those beginning stages. The rise in demand for diversity in publishing, as well as grants such as these, help authors who otherwise might not have had the tools needed to get their stories out there, to reach the people like them who want to read those books.
The rise in demand is obvious; especially amongst the younger generation, and when you compare the differences in diversity between adult and YA fiction bestsellers lists, the split is clear. Young people want diversity, and though publishing is still far behind, pushes to allow more space, to give more opportunities, and to give more windows for diverse authors to secure themselves not only the time and money to write something incredible, but for them to land fairly paid publishing deals, will make a massive difference in the kinds of books published; the kinds of books that represent every single person, no matter their gender, race, sexuality, or anything else.