By Jing Xuan Teo
I was 21 when I finally read a book whose characters were just like me.
I will admit, race in books was not something I paid much attention to until I co-founded Amplify Bookstore. In the last few years, race relations and representation movements have been gaining steady momentum, and industries like film and television are under much scrutiny for their whiteness. Yet, the publishing industry managed to slip through the cracks. It’s easy to write off race in books as “less important” forms of visual media. The colour of the author’s skin or the characters’ is less overt in books than on screen.
The research involved in justifying Amplify’s existence opened my eyes to a larger problem that I was once oblivious to. It’s no surprise that the publishing industry (like many other entertainment industries) is incredibly white. And since there aren’t many available statistics on race, understanding the industry’s whiteness is extremely difficult. In 2018, 11% of books published were by People of Colour (POC), and 76% of the industry was made up of white people. The majority of people who hold positions of power are white. However, Lee and Low’s survey found that 49% of interns are POC, which shows there isn’t a lack of POC talent available, the industry just chooses to hire white people instead. While these statistics are from the American publishing industry, it’s reflective of the Australian publishing industry as the bulk of books published here are imported.
Playing into the White Norm
While more books by Authors of Colour (AOCs) have been published in this decade than the last, AOCs are still less likely to get published compared with their white counterparts. They are often relegated to writing about race or have to write racially ambiguous—and thus, ‘white’—characters to be published. When AOCs do write characters of colour, especially in genre fiction such as romance, they have to ‘hide’ their character’s race on the cover to pretend that they’re white so that it is more ‘inviting’.
A good example of this is Helen Hoang’s The Kiss Quotient, a romance centring on a neurodivergent woman and her mixed Vietnamese-Swedish love interest. The first edition cover was an illustrated cover featuring the two main characters, both light-skinned with their faces obscured. Hoang revealed in an Instagram post that she wanted an illustrated cover to slip past the unconscious bias so she “could be on equal footing with other authors and tell a love story with an Asian person in it without race being the biggest part of it.” She also expressed her pride and anxieties regarding having an Asian man on the cover of the mass market paperback.
Reading Hoang’s Instagram post is heartbreaking. It goes to show how deep racism in the industry runs, and the hurdles authors have to go through to play to the white norm. It’s not always the explicit things like refusing to publish a Black author because ‘you already have one’, but the little things like what goes on a cover that reveal how hard it is for us to get by. The fight doesn’t end when someone agrees to publish your book.
Literary awards’ (fake) diversity
For most literary prizes, especially the larger ones, publishers must pay to have their title considered. So, the question I pose is this: do publishers specifically nominate books by POCs for literary awards to prove that they (and thus the industry) is diverse? Or do they genuinely think these books are great and deserving of wider recognition? If the answer is yes to the latter, then why weren’t they putting in the effort to market these books in the first place?
The irony in this is that whilst books by AOCs are a large minority, they make up a significant portion of literary awards. AOCs made up more than half of the ten most recent books that were awarded the National Book Award for Fiction. Five AOCs have won the Pulitzer Prize in the last 20 years. Four of the thirteen authors longlisted for this year’s International Booker Prize are POC. Half of the 2021 Stella Prize longlist are AOCs, with Asian and Asian Australians at the forefront (a rare sight!). The list goes on, but you get the point.
Literary awards prove that books by POC are really good, and yet, books by AOCs are often under-marketed and given less attention than their white counterparts. Digital marketing assets of books we stock at Amplify (aka books by POC) are so rare I stopped looking through the folders because I would almost always be guaranteed nothing. Advanced review copies (ARCs) are also less available for books by POC, and these ARCs are crucial for getting industry reviews and publicity prior to a book’s release. But, more often than not, we get finished reading copies from the larger publishers only a week or two before their release, as no ARC was even produced. Conversely, Jay Kristoff’s upcoming release has five different ARC editions, which is not only pointless since publishers have deemed it unethical to resell ARCs, but also shows how much effort they are willing to go for a problematic white author. Yet, an ARC for an author of colour is rarely guaranteed.
The role of booksellers
There is an argument to be made that it’s the bookstore’s job to sell these books, not the publisher’s. In a way, yes, it is my job as a bookseller to get these books onto your shelves; but it is a combined effort between publisher and bookseller to market and publicise their books. Booksellers rely on publishers to let us know what book to spend our marketing budget on, and this is usually through looking at what books are given marketing assets. Amplify has the advantage of being a specialist store, allowing us to give books by AOCs the attention they deserve; but that’s not true for larger chain bookstores. There, AOCs are not only harder to find, but are also rarely at the forefront.
It’s no surprise that the publishing industry has a diversity problem. Most media industries do. But, unlike the film and television industry, we have not seen any progress globally. Whilst there is definitely more attention being placed on publishing Black authors, such as Penguin’s Black Britain: Writing Black series, the lack of work being done behind the scenes to diversify the industry is disappointing to say the least.
There’s so much more to be done in terms of diversity. But one thing is certain: representation is not a privilege, it’s a right. And we, as an industry, should strive to make that happen.
Born & raised in Singapore, Jing Xuan Teo is a writer, editor and co-founder of Amplify Bookstore. Her writing often reflects her interest in media (be it film, tv or books), the cultures that guide our sense of truth, and her search for identity. She is currently finishing a Masters in Publishing & Communications at the University of Melbourne.
Cover photo by Jing Xuan Teo, 2020.