Publishing isn’t the easiest business to be in right now. Book sales are down. Costs are up. Self-publishers are crowding the field. Breathless articles about the “death of the publishing industry” are being churned out at an alarming rate. It’s easy to see why some publishers have become more ruthless than ever in their acquisitions process. Forget books that matter, make a difference, or tell rare and meaningful stories—let’s stick to books that are commercial, conventional, and bland.
Of course, any true book lover could tell you that this is the worst move that publishers could make. In order to stay relevant, book publishers must expand their vision to embrace innovative and original stories. The We Need Diverse Books campaign, or WNDB, is one of the best examples of how organic and urgent the need for increased social consciousness in publishing is. After all, WNDB didn’t start as a movement. It started as a hashtag.
Marie Lu and Ellen Oh, both Asian-American kidlit authors, exchanged frustrated tweets when news broke that BookCon’s kidlit panel would be all white and all male. Others chimed in with offers to help take action, and plans to have an event celebrating diversity in children’s literature emerged. Author Aisha Saeed put it simply when she tweeted, “No diverse authors at #BookCon. None. Nada. Zilch. #nowords … #weneeddiversebooks.”
Her hashtag instantly gained popularity, as did the planned event. The Twitter exchange had tapped into a deep-seated anxiety in the literary community over diversity. Study after study was demonstrating that representation of marginalized groups in literature, particularly children’s literature, was poor and not improving. Only ten percent of all children’s books feature some form of “multicultural content.” It’s a shocking statistic that becomes more understandable, if no more acceptable, if you consider that 77 percent of editors are white and 88 percent are straight. Lu and Oh’s exchange was a match to the kindling of readers’ simmering, ongoing frustration.
The hashtag is now a nonprofit, dedicated to improving diversity in the literary industry on all levels—supporting diverse authors, promoting diverse books, and helping people from diverse backgrounds break into the notoriously competitive and homogenous publishing industry. To offset the financial burden of one of the main obstacles to a publishing career, the dreaded unpaid NYC internship(s), WNDB offers grants each year to diverse candidates who want to pursue careers in the book publishing industry. With just a few thousand dollars a year, WNDB provides applicants with the ability to explore careers and to advance in a field that might otherwise be closed to them.
One grant recipient, Olivia Funderburg, says she would have been concerned about representation in books regardless of how she managed to fund her editorial internship at HarperCollins but explains that “having this grant and program behind me keeps it at the forefront of my mind.”
Representation in books is an issue that Olivia takes seriously. She cites Everything, Everything, a YA book-turned-movie featuring a black, biracial young woman as the main character, as one of the first times she has read a book with a hero who shares her background. “You know you can be the hero of the story,” said Funderburg. “Kids who are figuring out their place in the story need stories where they can see themselves as the hero.”
It is a simple but compelling argument for why people working in kidlit should be especially conscious of how well their books represent marginalized groups. Children look for themselves in books and feel excluded if they don’t find a reflection. As the expression goes, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” It’s a problem that white, straight, able-bodied, male, cisgender children never have to face. Olivia and others involved in the campaign are determined to spread that privilege to all young readers.
Some people argue that tackling major, thorny issues like representation now, at a time when many publishing houses are financially floundering, is reckless and even potentially harmful. Baked into this claim is the assumption that books with diverse content “don’t sell.” In reality, the value of improving diversity in book publishing is both moral and practical. While the importance of giving all young people role models can’t be overstated, it’s also good business sense not to deprive a sizeable portion of the market of books that reflect their lives. Recently published books like Everything, Everything and The Hate You Give, both of which feature women of color as the main characters, have become successful critically and commercially. Both have garnered film deals. There’s a clear appetite for diverse content that would be filled if we could only diversify publishing houses enough to make the industry embrace it.
As pushes for diversity take place across all forms of media, the often-traditional publishing industry must adapt or be left behind. With newly amplified marginalized voices clamoring for better representation in books and publishing—and putting their money where their mouths are—it’s obvious that We Need Diverse Books and groups like it are providing a valuable service to the literary world. Dreaming Big Publications is proud to employ people from a wide variety of backgrounds and to publish books with a conscience, books that we believe will make a difference in the world. All that’s left to do is to get the rest of the literary world to agree.
EDITED BY London Koffler