Last week has resulted in an even more intense discussion of the need for diverse books than usual. Between Handbook for Mortals attempting to scam the New York Times bestseller list and displacing, however briefuly, Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give from #1 and bumping Nicola Yoon’s Everything Everything off the list, the Linda Howard debacle over diversity in the Romance Writers of America (RWA), and an indignant sci-fi author on Twitter, Jon Del Arroz, arguing that trade publishing agents are only seeking LGBT+ books, we need to talk. The publishing industry is not a zero-sum games, and diverse authors are not stealing from “more mainstream” or so-called “more traditional” writers.
The Handbook for Mortals controversy has been extremely well documented by Kayleigh Donaldson at Pajiba. I won’t rehash it in depth. The basic story is that a former band manager and extra in such films as Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2, Lani Sarem, wrote a manuscript that became Geek Nation’s first published book and somehow managed to become a #1 NY Times best seller, despite a tiny online footprint and little to no advanced buzz or reviews. When Jeremy West and Phil Stamper became impromptu YA Detectives and unconvered irregularities in the book’s orders, Handbook was subsequently taken back off of a retracted NY Times list and was also taken off The American Booksellers Association list as well. When apparently caught, author Lani Sarem seemed to dig into the narrative that she was being victimized and denied a chance to be the new kid on the block in YA Literature. (It should be noted, by the way, that the lead character of the book, Zade, is twenty-five and both her love interests are in their thirties. In fact, no actual teenagers seem to appear in the book at all). In an interview with The Huffington Post, she said:
“People keep saying that they’re tired of hearing the same story over and over again. Well, start supporting new stories. Start supporting new artists.”
It feels like supreme irony that Ms. Sarem, a white author with enough privilege to have celebrity friends even tweeting about her book during its debut, is complaining about not being included in the YA world. She seems to be attempting to paint herself as being discriminated against when she supposedly didn’t go through the same typical, YA channels to promote her book and relied on the comic convention avenue instead. In effect, her stunt had the potential to affect the careers and rankings of Ms. Thomas and Ms. Yoon, who have managed to break through in a still predominantly white YA market. Ms. Thomas’s The Hate U Give has been optioned for a motion picture due both to the organic groundswell around a well-written work and, I think, because it has the courage and the authentic voice behind it examining the police-sponsored racial violence that’s running rampant in our country. Ms. Yoon’s Everything, Everything was also turned into a film earlier this year, and, frankly, is the only YA-based movie I can think of in the last decade where the lead is an African American girl. In contrast, Ms. Sarem’s tale is the same Mary Sue story about a special girl, who’s beautiful but doesn’t know it, and will soon be the object of a love triangle between two bland dudes. Truly, I’ve never seen anything like that before.
SONA CHARAIPOTRA AND ZORAIDA CÓRDOVA of Bustle had an excellent article titled “How YA Twitter is Trying to Dismantle White Supremacy, One Book at a Time” that was inspired in part to the reaction to The Black Witch and Handbook for Mortals controversies. It’s a brilliant look at the struggles of marginalized authors trying to tell #ownvoices stories. For example, Nic Stone, author of Dear Martin, was rejected by an editor and told that the reason was that “they already have an (insert POC) book.” Perhaps the most striking part of the entire piece was this sobering statistic:
Fewer than 400 of the 3,200 children’s books published in 2016 were written by and about people of color…
By 2020, the Bustle piece goes on to say, over half of the juvenile population will be children and teens of color. The fact that barely an eighth of YA publishing provides books about people of color as written by authors of color is appalling. Yet, you get the impression from the infamous Vulture piece about the “toxic” YA culture hurting the author of The Black Witch and Ms. Sarem’s own interview, that the YA horizon is actually full of so-called culture cops trying to sometimes deny white (see also cis, straight, predominantly middle-class and Judeo-Christian) authors their due readers.
The entitlement doesn’t end with the young adult market.
Last weekend, RWA twitter exploded over the Linda Howard controversy. Again, this is a topic I’ve covered more in depth on my personal author blog. However, the long story short is that Ms. Howard, as a former board member of the RWA and charter organization member, voiced her frustration with the RWA’s current direction on the site’s forum. The comments were so hurtful that the ire over them bled into more public spaces like Twitter. Essentially, Ms. Howard appears to be upset that the RWA is focusing resources on “social issues” and has also reportedly said that “Diversity is discrimination. It just is.”
In the past, Ms. Howard has also seemed to be resistant to inclusive steps like the addition of the Rainbow Romance Writers chapter to the RWA, the chapter that supports LGBT+ authors and those writers interested in creating LGBT+ stories. Moreover, she also seemed to err on the side of the Romance Writers Ink (Oklahoma based chapter) when it didn’t want to let LGBT+ stories into their contest in 2012 due to members, apparently, feeling uncomfortable. Oddly, the same contest appeard to be fine with menage stories, aliens, or paranormal creatures like vampires and werewolves.
It should be noted that, last week, many of the big name RWA authors on the forum and on Twitter clapped back at Ms. Howard and expressed support for social issue/diversity focus and also for marginalized authors. On the other hand, it still remains to be seen if actions will follow words and condemnation. After all, the Southern Magic chapter still has, of all things, its newcomer award named after Ms. Howard, an author who has seemed in the past to want to keep the RWA more like its original founders and to exclude more categories of romance, independent authors, and marginalized writers.
But I see this sentiment rising in the RWA and YA community, this idea that books by the “other” or by marginalized authors are taking rightful readers of more established and, sometimes, so-called more “traditional, mainstream” authors. Publishing is hurting right now. There’s no doubt about that. The number of physical bookstores has plummeted. I live near a college town by a huge U.S. city, and even they had to shut down its last Barnes and Noble last year. The smaller presses for romance writers like ARe and Samhain have crashed, and small presses or electronic first presses are focusing their lines to fewer debuts each month. This spring, Harlequin, the grand dame of romance publishing, consolidated five of its lines, including: superromance, western, love inspired historical, nocturne and kimani, which traditionally featured African American centered romance.
Still, it seems that as authors in general see less avenues to publish, lower potential royalties when compared to fifteen or twenty years ago, and, often, cratering payouts from Kindle Unlimited (KU), there has also been a concommitant backlash that appears to be set against marginalized authors. Personally, I feel the biggest problem facing publishing right now is that one player still has a monopoly on everything and other online publishing platforms are still struggling to get a solid percentage of the market. Until places like Kobo, Nook, iBooks, and Google Play also gain against Amazon’s almost monopoly on e-publishing, then there is that risk and pain of having to suffer under what often Amazon will pay out, especially for KU authors. Similarly, click farms have been destroying and abusing the algorithms at places like the iTunes store and Spotify. They’ve also started hurting authors. If anything, authors should be banding together to work for perfecting online retailers’ ability to weed out scammers. Authors should also be working together to support other writers in thinking about going wide so that multiple online vendors can stay strong and foster healthy competition.
However, instead, it feels as if there’s a backlash. In a microcosm of what may be happening in America, some authors seem to be working toward “Making Publishing Great Again.” The reaction in some spheres appears to be defensive, where some authors in YA and in romance are arguing against the marginalized authors coming in and taking publishing slots and readers, as if we were taking “their jobs” and the readers they are entitled to have.
Again, it’s not just YA and romance that are showing this trend. Sci-fi authors are pushing back against perceived SJWs (social justice warriors) and diversity as well.
Over the last few years, it’s been no secret that The Sad Puppies have worked to block vote in nominees for the Hugo Awards for science fiction that ensure that mainly white, male conservative authors make up the nominees. There are definitely authors there who feel that diversity and “politically based” books are ruining their right to spin sci-fi fun romps.
Last week (like I said it’s been a hell of a week, guys), one author spoke out against what he saw as, I assume, reverse discrimination against men writing cis, straight sci-fi stories:
Mr. Arroz seems to have deleted his original tweet, but in subsequent conversations with other authors on Twitter he alleged that a few agents told him this at a bar during a writers’ conference. He also admitted he prefers to independently publish (a valid publishing option, in my opinion), but that the information he got from that conference told him that there was so-called discrimination against cis, straight sci-fi in trade publishing right now. One thing I’ll say is that whereas this is demonstrably false (I’ll illustrate this in a minute), I do believe that agents or editors or others in publishing have the potential to say one thing officially about diversity initiatives but may privately (or where they think it’s a private conversation) lament that same push more quietly. I think Ms. Stone’s comments above probably support that there may sometimes exist hypocrisy or disingenuous feelings in trade pub’s push for diverse books.
That all said and acknowledged, I don’t think there’s a gay agenda of any kind in mainstream publishing. I couldn’t find stats about the number of LGBT+ books published in general in 2016. However, I will say that my experience as an author and reader of lesfic and m/m fiction tells me that, most often, if I want to find LGBT+ stories, I need to go to smaller press publishers like Riptide, Dreamspinner, Ylva, Bella, and Bold Strokes Books among others. Additionally, the RITA awards for 2017 had over 80 nominees. There were a few m/m books and one lesfic book, Far from Home by Lorelie Brown. I was thrilled for the progress of having a lesfic contender in any category, but, as one can see, LGBT+ books aren’t exactly invading “mainstream” awards or trade publishing just yet. Similarly, in 2014, there were a total of 47 LGBT+ YA books. Only 24 came from big trade publishers.
Also, it’s difficult even with certain online vendors as an LGBT+ author. Currently, the streaming/subscription service Playster seems to be rejecting ebooks that have LGBT+ romances in them. While Playster has rules against erotica, it’s been reported that recently they’re rejecting sweet LGBT+ romances or romances of acceptable heat levels for heteorsexual romances and using the “but it’s erotica” justification. Currently, Draft2Digital, a vendor that works with them, is trying to help get this problem rectified, and we’ll have to see what happens after Labor Day in the States. However, it’s insulting that some places seem to see any story with LGBT+ characters as flat out erotica or, perhaps worse, seem to be refusing to accept and publish these stories period.
But, sure, it’s all wall-to-wall LGBT+ in publishing now. That old saw about when you’ve been the entitled group for so long, equality feels like oppression rings true often to me.
So what does it all mean?
Publishing has always been a hard business. It’s always had gatekeepers and a difficulty in getting one’s work out to readers. Now, with e-publishing and the rise of the independent publisher, one can get their books out, but there’s fiercer competition than ever before to rise above the noise and the crowd and to gain visibility. I think in a climate with trade publishers down to just five big houses, some smaller presses shutting down, and the crashing KU payouts, writers are getting defensive and, sometimes, those who feel entitled as being “more mainstream” and “not political” or doing “diversity for diversity’s sake” are vocally opposing any other voices out there. Publishing for a very, very long time has been dominated most often by white, cis, straight, male voices. In YA and romance, there does seem to be more room for female writers, but those fields are still disproportionately the realms of cis, straight, white writers of traditionally Judeo-Christian backgrounds. There is progress being made, albeit at what sometimes feels like a glacial pace, and independent publishing allows #ownvoices and marginalized writers to get out there and be heard like never before.
However, I think my point in all of this, after a week of being slammed with how writers like me and other marginalized writers aren’t quite welcome fully in the club, is that it’s not good enough yet. When the chips seem to be down, there is a chunk of authors who will turn on the diverse authors and will blame them for fallen profits or bad sales, who still feel entitled to the biggest chunk of readers.
Publishing is not pie.
The ability to appeal to broader voices and experiences is a good thing, and it strengthens publishing. People of color, of different faiths, of different ethnic origins, of different abilities, and across the LGBT+ spectrum deserve to see their happy endings too, deserve to be represented in all media, including publishing. Frankly, when you exclude our stories, it makes it that much easier to dehumanize us. People can learn to empathize with others via fiction. When there aren’t diverse characters out there, people stay more insulated from these issues and stories, feel less compassion towards what other people are struggling against, and find it easier to write marginalized individuals off entirely. Also, in my opinion, stories get boring when they’re all the same. Hollywood has quadrupled down on the mainly white, cis, straight male comic book world and, as a result, has had one of its worst summers in recent memory. If publishing and other authors don’t want to let marginalized writers in the club out of basic decency, then maybe they might appreciate the idea that “a rising tide lifts all boats” and out of a love for a higher bottom line. If publishing wants to survive and thrive, it needs to represent more types of people, not less.
We exist, we have voices, and we’re going to keep using them. And, no, we’re not taking your slice of the publishing pie.
I think the best way to end this is with a quote from romance writer Beverly Jenkins. When she was interviewed for the documentary, Love between the Covers, she expressed her frustration that readers couldn’t relate as often to African American romances:
Honey, if you can relate to shape-shifters and werewolves and (laughs) …chameleon people, but you can’t relate to an African American story, that’s a problem for me.
If we can have a world of cyborgs in space, vampire romances, and high fantasy elves and humans falling in love and having adventures, then why is it so hard to offer a space for marginalized writers and for stories that reflect all sections of society, including those who have to scrabble to see themselves in fiction at all?