In thinking about the world of publishing right now compared to a couple of years ago, there’s no doubt about the progress that is being made. At least in one sector, we seem to be moving forwards rather than backwards. But, despite the efforts of We Need Diverse Books and others advocating the need for diversity within the industry, we still have a long way to go.
I’ve been thinking about this ever since I read the synopsis to A Quiet Kind Of Thunder by Sara Barnard. I won’t discuss the importance of the specific book here as I already did so in my review, but I would like to comment on its marketing.
Naturally, I read a number of reviews before the book had been published and one thing that stood out to me was that most mentioned a ‘challenge’ that was set by the publisher. I am in no way discrediting this challenge; I thought it was a great way in getting people to engage with the book, and there were many creative responses.
Put yourself in Steffi’s shoes. What would your day be like if you weren’t able to use the power of spoken word? It’s a good question, and if I was participating in the challenge right now I wouldn’t be able to answer it. The problem I had, however, was that selective mutism is a real life condition which means that there are people out there who don’t need to imagine themselves in such a scenario.
Considering it isn’t an #ownvoices novel, it got me thinking about how publishers don’t try hard enough to seek out reviewers that are actually represented in the books they are publishing. I understand the need to make sales and hence reaching out to reviewers with the biggest platform and influence, but it’s as if they forget that they themselves have a platform too.
Surely they can boost reviews from people who don’t yet have the desired platform, and in doing so those reviewers may finally feel as if they have found their place within an industry where quantity seems to be valued above quality. Personally, I am more likely to buy a book if it has been recommended by someone who identifies with one or more of the characters within it.
I know there are certain complexities surrounding this, especially when the group that is represented is relatively small and there just aren’t any reviewers out there. But we see the same thing happening with other marginalised groups, such as those from a BAME background. One of the most anticipated releases of this year is #ownvoices novel The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, but how many of the ARCs have actually been sent out to reviewers who identify as African-American? I don’t know the answer to this but I suspect it’s not many.
Alternatively, when you send books that aren’t #ownvoices to people who aren’t represented, you encounter problems in the long-run. Carve The Mark, for example, was well received within the community when the first ARCs were sent out and read. But you will notice that all the positive reviewers have something in common; they aren’t the ones being written about. By the time someone had picked up on the problematic representation in the book, it seemed too late to do anything about it and it was given the green light for publication. Despite the backlash towards its harmful tropes, it is now a #1 NYT bestseller which just goes to show how fucked up the industry is.
The responsibility of getting the right books into the right hands is, of course, not limited to publishers alone. I’ve already mentioned that reviewers have influence. They not only put the right books into the right hands, but they also make sure the wrong books don’t get into the wrong hands (or any hands for that matter), although the success of this pretty much depends on the publisher and author in question. Sometimes backlash from the community has worked, and sometimes it hasn’t.
As reviewers, if there is positive representation of a marginalised group within a book, no matter how big or small, it’s important that we talk about it. We must never underestimate our collective influence, not just on individual readers but on librarians and teachers too; they may just recommend a book, based on a review, to someone who has never seen themselves within the narrative.
To date, I have never read a book in which I am represented. AQKOT reflects someone I used to be, but in terms of my cultural identity there seems to be a serious lack of representation. That being said, there are two 2017 releases I know of that I will definitely be reading for this reason.
And so, to conclude this post, I am reaching out to authors, particularly those who are marginalised. If you feel as if you are underrepresented or misrepresented within this industry, do not let it deter you from telling your story. We need your voices.
Keep on writing your resistance.
I would love to hear other thoughts on this issue. Maybe we ought to call it the publishing paradox? In which we solemnly swear to publish diverse books but we refuse to make an effort in getting them into the hands of the people the stories are written about. We need more than just diverse books.