Is American Publishing Too White?


In an early chap­ter of “American Dirt,” the much-hyped novel now at the center of a racial con­tro­ver­sy, the pro­tag­o­nist, Lydia, fills her Acapulco, Mexico, book­store with her favorite lit­er­ary clas­sics. Because these don’t sell very well, she also stocks all “the splashy best­sellers that made her shop prof­itable.”

Ironically, it’s this lop­sided busi­ness model that has, in part, fueled the back­lash to the book.

In the book, Lydia’s favorite cus­tomer, a would-be poet turned ruth­less drug lord, orders the mas­sacre of Lydia’s entire family after her jour­nal­ist hus­band writes a scathing expose. Lydia and her 8‑year-old son must flee for their lives, join­ing the wave of migrants seek­ing safety in the U.S.

With the border crisis as its back­drop, the book was anoint­ed by the pub­lish­ing indus­try as one of those rare block­busters that Lydia might have stocked in her fic­tion­al book­store. Its pub­lish­er called it “one of the most important books of our time,” while Oprah chose it for her book club.

But Cummins is nei­ther Mexican nor a migrant, and crit­ics savaged the book for its cul­tur­al inac­cu­ra­cies and dam­ag­ing stereo­types. At least one library at the border refused to take part in Oprah’s promotion, 138 pub­lished authors wrote an open letter to Oprah asking her to rescind her endorse­ment, and the pub­lish­er can­celed Cummins’ book tour, claim­ing her safety was at risk.

As someone who studies the publishing business, I see this ordeal as a symp­tom of an indus­try that relies far too heav­i­ly on a hand­ful of pre­de­ter­mined “big books,” and whose gate­keep­ers remain pre­dom­i­nant­ly white.

Sadly, this model has become only more pow­er­ful in the dig­i­tal era.

A high-stakes poker game

Today’s pub­lish­ing indus­try is driven by three truths.

First, people don’t buy many books. The typ­i­cal American read four last year.

Second, it’s hard to decide which books to buy, so most people look for best­sellers or books by authors they already like.

Third, nobody – not even big pub­lish­ers – can pre­dict hits.

As a result, the busi­ness can some­times seem like one big, high-stakes poker game. Like any savvy gam­bler, edi­tors know that most bets are losers: People don’t buy nearly enough books to make every title prof­itable. In fact, only about 70% of books even earn back their advances.

Luckily for pub­lish­ers, a single hit, like Michelle Obama’s “Becoming,” can sub­si­dize the vast major­i­ty of titles that don’t make money.

So when pub­lish­ers think they have a win­ning hand, they’ll bet the house. To them, “American Dirt” seemed to have all the cards, and the book sold at auc­tion for seven figures.

With that much money on the table, pub­lish­ers will do every­thing they can to ensure a payoff, chan­nel­ing mas­sive mar­ket­ing resources into those select titles, often at the expense of their others.

Who’s hold­ing the purse strings?

It wasn’t always like this. Back in the 1960s, pub­lish­ing was a sleepy indus­try, filled with many moderately sized firms making moderate returns. Today, just five conglomerates dom­i­nate global pub­lish­ing.

Big firms seek big prof­its, and, as Harvard Business School pro­fes­sor Anita Elbersehas point­ed out, it’s cheap­er and easier to launch one enor­mous pro­mo­tion­al effort for a single “big book” than to spread resources across those small­er bets.

With each pub­lish­ing house releas­ing just one or two big books a season, few authors can hope to pro­duce one of those splashy best­sellers.

That’s even more true for mar­gin­al­ized authors, because every step in the pub­lish­ing and pub­lic­i­ty process depends on gatekeepers who are largely white – to the tune of 85% of edi­tors, 80% of agents, 78% of pub­lish­ing exec­u­tives and 75% of mar­ket­ing and pub­lic­i­ty staff.

Nevertheless, the book world does occa­sion­al­ly pub­lish block­busters by authors of color, whether it’s “Becoming” or Tayari Jones’ “An American Marriage.” As black author Zora Neale Hurston wrote in 1950, edi­tors “will pub­lish any­thing they believe will sell” – regard­less of the author’s race.

But those editor beliefs about what would sell, she noted, were extreme­ly lim­it­ed when it came to authors of color. Stories about racial strug­gle, dis­crim­i­na­tion, oppres­sion and hard­ship – those would sell. But books about mar­gin­al­ized people living every­day lives, rais­ing kids or falling in love? Publishers had no inter­est in those sto­ries.

Of course, well-told sto­ries of strug­gle are impor­tant. But when they’re the only sto­ries that the indus­try aggres­sive­ly pro­motes, then read­ers suffer from what nov­el­ist Chimamanda Adichie calls “the danger of a single story.” When a single story gets told repeat­ed­ly about a cul­ture that read­ers haven’t expe­ri­enced them­selves, stereo­types become more and more deeply engraved in pop­u­lar cul­ture. In a self-per­pet­u­at­ing cycle, pub­lish­ers become even more com­mit­ted to pro­mot­ing that one story.

Much of the crit­i­cisms around “American Dirt” cen­tered on Cummins’ lack of first-hand expe­ri­ence – the book, for instance, was pep­pered with inaccurate Spanish expressions and off-key notes about the middle-class heroine’s actions and choic­es.

While a vast net­work of pub­lish­ing insid­ers would have likely looked at “American Dirt” before it was pub­lished, they all missed ele­ments that were glar­ing­ly evi­dent to informed read­ers. For the mostly white pub­lish­ing world, Cummins’ book simply fit the nar­ra­tive of the “single story” and aligned with pop cul­ture stereo­types.

Its fail­ings easily slipped past the blind spots of the gate­keep­ers.

The internet’s unful­filled promise

The inter­net was sup­posed to have upend­ed this system. Just 10 years ago, pun­dits and schol­ars her­ald­ed the end of gatekeepers – a world where anyone could be a suc­cess­ful author. And indeed, with the dig­i­tal self-pub­lish­ing rev­o­lu­tion in the late 2000s, hundreds of thousands of authors, pre­vi­ous­ly exclud­ed from the mar­ket­place, were able to release their books online.

Some even made money: My research has found that romance writ­ers dou­bled their median income from 2009 to 2014, large­ly due to self-pub­lish­ing. Romance authors of color, in par­tic­u­lar, found new out­lets for books exclud­ed by white pub­lish­ers. Back in 2009, before self-pub­lish­ing took off, the Book Industry Study Group iden­ti­fied just six cat­e­gories of romance novels; by 2015, it tracked 33 cat­e­gories, large­ly driven by self-pub­lish­ing. New cat­e­gories included African American, multicultural, interracial and LGBT.

By 2018, at least 1.6 million books across all genres had been self-published. Nonetheless, though choice is expand­ing, read­er­ship has stayed flat since 2011. With more books but no more read­ers, it’s harder than ever to get the atten­tion of poten­tial buyers.

Meanwhile, many grass­roots out­lets that could push a midlist book – indus­try jargon for one not heav­i­ly pro­mot­ed by pub­lish­ers – to mod­er­ate levels of suc­cess have reced­ed. Local media out­lets that could create buzz for a local author are hol­lowed out or have vanished altogether. In 1991, there were some 5,100 indie booksellers; now there are half that many.

The onus is now on authors to pro­mote their own work. They’re spend­ing a full day a week doing so, accord­ing to a forth­com­ing paper I wrote for the Authors’ Guild. In that same paper, I find that authors of color earn less from their books than white authors; in addi­tion to other seri­ous prob­lems, this indi­cates they may have fewer resources to pro­mote them­selves.

It’s clear the inter­net has not deliv­ered the democ­ra­ti­za­tion it promised.

But it has helped authors in at least one impor­tant way. Social media has offered a pow­er­ful outlet for mar­gin­al­ized voices to hold the pub­lish­ing indus­try account­able. We’ve seen this twice already this year – with “American Dirt” and with the Romance Writers of America, which lost spon­sors after it penal­ized an author of color for con­demn­ing racial stereo­types.

Such out­cries are an impor­tant start. But real progress will require struc­tur­al change from within – begin­ning with a more diverse set of edi­tors.

On Feb. 3, exec­u­tives from Macmillan, the pub­lish­er of “American Dirt,” met with Hispanic authors and promised to diversify its staff.

It’s an exam­ple that the rest of the pub­lish­ing indus­try should follow.

This arti­cle by Christine Larson, Assistant Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder, appeared in The Conversation on February 5.

Image: Reuters.

Source: National Interest

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