As I sit here, I’ll admit part of me wants to go on a tear about several things currently taking place in and around the con circuit. I’m not going to. Partly because I’m still so angry about one item that I’m not sure I could be anything but profane in my comments. It is also partly because I have neither the time nor the desire to deal with those who would skim until outraged and then pitch fits here or elsewhere. Instead, I’ll deal with another issue that is currently trending when it comes to publishing (and most anything else). Diversity.
Right now, it doesn’t matter what the industry. If you look hard enough, you will find someone saying that industry has a diversity problem. Frankly, it’s true in a lot of industries. The question of whether or not publishing has such a problem isn’t new. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve seen posts claiming publishing has a diversity problem because most so many of its employees are female. Within 24 hours, I saw another story claiming just the opposite. There are stories that there are too many male writers or white writers. There has been a movement (well, that might be giving it too much credence) to encourage people to only buy or read stories written by female POCs. There are others telling us we shouldn’t read books written by anyone but “marginalized” authors. There are those who say we shouldn’t read anything but traditionally published books or books written by men or whatever. As I said, if you look hard enough, you will find someone saying one group or another is being discriminated against in the industry and that group needs to have an extra hand up to make up for it.
Now there is this story from NPR that the romance genre has a diversity problem. It seems less than 0.5% of the nominees for the RITA have been black and no black author has won the RITA. RWA has admitted there is a “problem” and the first step to solving it is to educate “everyone about these statistics.”
Okay, I’ll have a problem with this I’ll address in a bit. In the meantime, let’s look at the RITA. The RITA is awarded for the best books in certain romance genres and sub-genres. Here is what the RWA has to say about the award.
So, up to 2,000 books are initially considered. Then they are judged by romance authors before being narrowed to 100 finalists. That is a fairly large sample across a number of genres and sub-genres to be considered.
Two things stood out to me as I read the NPR article. First, and this is one of my pet peeves, the article only calls out RWA and the RITAs for not having diversity when it comes to “black” authors. Why is this? Is it because others who are considered “persons of color” have won the award and this would skew the narrative? Or is there some other reason? By limiting the diversity claims to only one segment of the population, they dilute their own arguments.
The other thing that stood out was that the one author they quote in the article isn’t African-American. She is, in fact, a “south Asian author”. While I applaud NPR for asking about her experiences, she isn’t the author their article is about. Her concerns are valid and, quite possibly, apply to African-American authors. But they also apply to new authors going to their first RWA convention. I remember when Sarah and I went. If I was at a session on my own or went to get a cup of coffee, etc., without her, I was alone. Most of those who reached out were either non-authors or newbies like myself. The other authors, the “pros” were off at their own track sessions or meeting with agents and editors, going to parties we weren’t invited to, etc. It was easy to forget their track might not run at the same times as the track I was following and, therefore, assume they didn’t want to associate with the newbie when I went to sit at a table and they got up to leave.
As for the argument that there need to be more books published by authors of color, as The Passive Guy says, the blame “must be laid at the door of the traditional publishers in the romance industry. They have decided and continue to decide which authors are published and which are not. Which material will be included in those books and which will not.” Even though RWA was one of the first, if not the first, organization to recognize indie authors and welcome them into the fold, I would lay odds that most of the authors “judging” the nominees are traditionally published. Whether they want to admit it or not, there are still a number of authors who feel a book is better simply because it came from a traditional publisher. They still believe the myth about the gatekeepers.
But there is something else. Most readers simply don’t know what a writer looks like. They guess at the sex of the writer based on the name on the book. But even then, it’s a guess because of pen names. Unless there is a picture of the author on the back cover, or the author is local and possibly known to the reader, they have clue zero about whether the author is young or old, short of tall, skinny or fat or what their race might be. Readers, by and whole, pick up a book and read it based on the blurb or how quickly it grabs them if they check out the sample.
If RWA is worried about a lack of diversity, it needs to not necessarily look at winners of a contest but at what is being published by traditional publishers. It needs to work with them to expand the numbers of authors from all backgrounds. But, as they do, they have to keep in mind one very big truth — if the books being published aren’t entertaining, romance readers will move on and find another author. Unlike 15 years ago, they can actually do that. There is a thriving indie romance industry out there.
There is no easy answer to the issue. However, NPR doesn’t help. If you are going to write an article complaining about the low percentage of a certain type of author being nominated or winning an award, you also need to supply the percentage of titles being published, traditionally or otherwise, by that type of author. Otherwise, you give incomplete data. For all we know from this article, the percentage of nominees is in line with the number of titles being published by African-American authors. That skewing — or omission — of data shows, at best, a lack of solid research by the article’s author and, at worse, bias. Not that the latter would surprise me at all.
So here’s my question for you. What is it you look for when finding something new to read (and it doesn’t have to be romance)? Where on that list is the author’s sex, race, color, creed, etc?