Monday, March 08, 2021

Reporting on Diversity

In prior years I've referenced The Ripped Bodice's Diversity Report with caveats. This year, I am only going to talk caveats.  I think the people behind the report have full time jobs that are not this. I think they are looking to provide useful metrics.  Publishing in general is very bad at metrics.  A YA book by a Black author about a Black character has shattered bestselling records, and the numbers of other Black character stories being published has, well, it hasn't moved much.  
One of the things the Lee and Low study does is look at publishing.  It looks at editors, interns, agents, and other folks who are in positions to help get stories published for readers to consume.  And it looks at the characters in those books.  
So, while I totally understand that in looking at romance, and in looking at authors, that this report was meant to compliment rather than duplicate existing data.  Yes, of course not all agents and editors who publish kid lit publish romance, and vice versa, but we don't really need two reports to prove that publishing remains very white.  
However, a handful of people googling authors and making their best guess based on pictures and bios of their ethnicity - it was always going to be flawed.  Yes, there are many people who read boldly and loudly as their ethnicity.  And we need for publishing to publish those people as much as they publish people who don't look fit the so-called stereotype of Asian, or Black, or Pacific Islander, or Latinx.  
But I also want to tie this in with another discussion that's happening primarily in kid lit spaces.  The #OwnVoices tag was created as a signal for authors to provide to readers, to say this book was written by someone from that marginalization.  Because publishing's first reaction to calls for more diversity has often been to ask white authors to write more of it.  And I also think that's why The Ripped Bodice Report wanted to look at authors.  Interracial and multicultural books are being glommed onto by a lot of authors. But not all of those authors are there because it matches their lived experience.  And we have all had that moment where a book that should have been a book that spoke to us, instead left us cold.  Of course someone who shares my background can still write a book I won't like.  But chances are I won't dislike it because it did something ridiculous like tell me DC never gets hot in May.  
What we are now seeing, a few years into the idea of own voices, is that own voices is getting used too broadly and also as another gate.  On the too broadly front, it means that like a lot of terms, it's just being used to mean writing by a person who is not white, not straight, not abled bodied, and so on.  Rebecca Roanhorse mentioned her Star Wars book was called own voices by some, and well, she is not from a galaxy long ago or far away.  Recently a writer talked about having shopped a story where he more obviously matched one of the marginalizations of his character but an editor expressed concern that he did not appear to match one of the others.  And that wasn't the point of own voices.  None of this is to say readers can't decide if they want to read a story where an author is writing outside their experience or not.  But the reality is there is little evidence that white writers - writ large (I'm sure there are some small examples here and there) - are being asked by gatekeepers to write only characters that match their lived experiences.  So if that level of gatekeeping is only applied to marginalized writers, then it just becomes another tool for publishing to acquire less stories from writers of marginalized and underrepresented communities.
So back to the diversity report.  I want the traditional romance publishing machine to acquire more writers of color.  Other communities that are underrepresented and marginalized too.  I want those writers to be able to write about people that look like them, and even white people if they feel so moved.  I want traditional publishing to support those writers the way they have supported other writers.  That includes making them lead titles, publicity campaigns, the whole shebang.  But I also want traditional publishing to have a plan to support those writers and things they are more likely to go up against - be it social media harassment, book event issues, and so on.  Because if traditional publishing isn't prepared for the differences in supporting those authors, then feeding more authors into that system isn't really making the world a better place.  
Publishing is a business of course.  But serving a wider variety of readers is actually good business.  Traditional publishing as it currently stands is leaving money on the table.
I do think the Ripped Bodice Report provided a baseline to see what the scale of the problem we are dealing with is. The methodology used means the year over year comparisons aren't particularly useful  Now we have to work on actually tackling it.