This year has been full of some hard lessons. One of them was that I wasn’t as good as I thought I was about reading authors of color. It’s something I have been trying to do in recent years, and just wasn’t where I thought I would be. So, in early 2020, I set myself a challenge: I was going to try and read one book by an author of color for every book I read by a white author this year.

Yes, I realize this challenge isn’t perfect. I should really be reading more books by authors of color than by white authors. And the authors of color I do read should be as diverse as possible. Because, while reading books by black authors is really important, you can’t say you read diversely if you don’t also include indigenous or Chinese or Indian authors (among many, many others).

Regardless of how this challenge could be improved on, I still failed. But I tried. It just didn’t go quite as well as I’d hoped. Which prompted me to sit down and think about both why this challenge was honestly kind of difficult and also why I didn’t do as well as I had anticipated.

POC authors get published less

I think we all know that the publishing industry isn’t the most diverse. And, if you didn’t know, maybe you weren’t paying attention. It’s not exactly a secret, and it’s not even a little bit subtle (check out this great article that shows just how not-diverse the publishing industry is as a whole).

I say this as a white person who is absolutely not okay with this: it’s easier for white authors to get published in the first place. It just is. And, while it might be getting better, we’re definitely not there yet and this unbalanced model has affected publishing for… forever. Can you think of a single classic novel off the top of your head written by a non-white author? If you can, can you think of five? Even those that are translated are few and far between, and definitely not as widespread.

But, even now, white authors dominate the publishing industry. And it’s kind of a problem. I’m not saying that white authors should not get published. Some of my all-time favorite authors are white. But every time I read a crappy book by a white person, I can’t help but think about all of the authors of color that might have been overlooked in the process. How many incredible novels will we never read because they were written by someone who wasn’t white?

White authors have always had an unfair advantage when getting published. I couldn’t find a good resource of all of the mainstream books published this year, but I’m guessing the majority where white (even though there have been a lot of great books by authors of color published this year). But that’s not the only problem.

POC authors don’t get as much publicity

Not only do authors of color face more obstacles and get published less often than white authors (just in general), they don’t seem to get as much publicity for their books. Since you are reading this now, I’m guessing the internet algorithms have figured out that you like books. And I’m guessing you see ads for books on the internet, at least occasionally. Think about it: when’s the last time you saw an ad for a book by an author of color? (And no, Obama’s book doesn’t count.) What was the last book ad you came across? Was it a diverse book? I’m pretty sure for me it was a James Patterson book, which I have absolutely no interest in. But I also know there is a lot of money thrown around to get people to buy his books.

Publishing just doesn’t really support POC authors. But it isn’t just publishing. It’s book bloggers and YouTubers and celebrity book clubs. It’s all the books you see mentioned by anyone ever and think “that sounds cool, I want to read that!” Because I guarantee you most of those books are by white authors. I’m personally working to fix that on this blog, because I was a part of the problem for a long time. But this little book blog can only do so much, and it’s a big problem.

I tried this year to seek out books by authors of color. I honestly probably could have done better, but I honestly made an effort. I tried to showcase them more on this blog, and I tried to read more of them. But it also felt like I had to seek them out, instead of just finding them organically like so many of the other books I add to my reading list. It’s not an even playing field, and this year I realized just how uneven it is.

I’m not using this as an excuse, but I genuinely feel like a lot of the books by authors of color I did read this year are books I had to actively search for. They were not books that were just sitting at the top of my TBR pile, nor were many of them books I’d even heard of before this year. And I felt like the majority of new books or authors I discovered this year were white. It’s definitely something I noticed, and I think it’s something that affected which books I picked up. And it’s something I think affects which books many of us decide to buy and read.

I approach books by POC authors differently than I do books by white authors because I’m a blogger

I honestly didn’t realize that I do this until I sat down and thought about why I tend to pick up more books by white authors, even when there are a lot of books by POC authors on my TBR. And it all stems from me blogging about books. If I wasn’t sharing my opinions with the internet, no one would care. But I am very aware that I do. And it does influence my book choices.

Because I try to share and promote diverse books as much as I can, it just feels like there is more pressure when I do read those in my free time. Sometimes (especially this year), I like to pick up books and just read for fun as a distraction from the real world. But, with a book blog, a lot of the time, I have to be aware of things I might like to share later or points I want to make when I talk about what I’ve read.

Here’s where the issue comes in: I feel like I have to be more thoughtful in my reviews of books by authors of color. If I picked up a book by a white author and hated it, not too many people would care. But if I dislike a book by a black author, I feel like I have to justify why I feel that way. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it can make reading those books less fun.

I know I’m allowed to dislike books and I have no problem being honest in my reviews. But I personally feel bad when I don’t like a book (unless it’s genuinely problematic or offensive). And it’s worse when it’s by an author of color because I’m aware of how much harder they had to work to get their book out in the world. So, I’ve realized that I subconsciously just avoid the possibility of giving a POC author a bad review, rather than giving their book a chance.

Which is not cool, and now that I realize I’m doing it, I’m going to come up with a solution to deal with that better. Because I only really do it when I’m choosing books to read on my own – not for review – but I’ve transitioned to reading more for fun and less out of obligation. And I do want to read for fun, just more diversely. This one is absolutely on me, and I’m glad this experience opened my eyes to something I need to improve.

I didn’t meet my goal, but is it still a fail?

As of my writing this, the number of books I read by authors of color is just over half of the number of books I read by white authors. So, I didn’t even come close to meeting my goal. Yes, I have a few reasons (such as my reading experiment posts) why this was made more difficult for me. But I still didn’t do great. At all.

However, out of curiosity, I had a look back at my past reading years. And, honestly, this is a VAST improvement. I am almost hesitant to publish this because I’m so ashamed, but in 2015, out of all the books I read, only 3% were by authors of color. (And one of them was an assignment for a grad school class.) Last year, when I thought I was making an effort, I read 15% by authors of color. So far, in 2020, that percentage is up to 34%. It’s not half, but it is worlds better than my sad little three percent and more than double last year.

So, I’m not calling this a fail. It was absolutely a learning experience for me and I’m glad I did it. I’m going to keep this as a goal going into 2021 and even if I don’t manage to hit 50%, I know I can do better than this year. There are a lot of ways I need to continue to learn and grow, and doing things like this really help me to discover how I can improve as a reader and as a person.


I’d love to hear your thoughts on this! Do you think it’s harder to discover new authors of color than new white authors? Do you think there’s a disparity in the books that end up on our shelves? Or is this something you don’t really think about or notice?

Like I said, this is absolutely a challenge I will be continuing next year, and I’d love it if you joined me! I honestly discovered so many great books this year that I wouldn’t have read had it not been for this challenge, and I think it’s something we should all try.

Think about it: if we as readers start buying and reading a lot more books by authors of color, the publishing industry is bound to take notice. And maybe this is how we can work towards change.

29 thoughts

  1. I feel you. I read pretty broadly, and last year an embarrassing 13 percent of my reading was by or about BIPOC. This year, I’m at 25%. I agree with your assessment: such books are harder to find. We can all do more to increase our awareness.

    PS: The only classics I could think of by a BIPOC are those of Alexandre Dumas.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, good call! Maybe I’ll add some Dumas to my TBR for next year. But yeah, still hard to find. One I’m very excited about is I Am a Cat by Natsume Soseki. It’s a 100+ year old Japanese classic with a cat main character.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This was an incredibly honest and self-aware post.

    As far as feeling bad about disliking books by authors that don’t represent you—I’ve been there, even as a black person. This is what I do: I try to pick up diverse authors in genres I actually enjoy. I do not like literary fiction and there is so many POC who write that genre but literary fiction bores me in general. I don’t like most historical fiction so I don’t read diverse historical fiction, even if the average ratings are 4-5 stars.

    Secondly, I review the book exactly as I normally do but I don’t write “1 star” or “2 star”. I find one positive aspect I liked about the book, that way someone else can use that information for themselves in case I filter my experience into a marginalization I don’t have. Lastly, if you don’t like a diverse book, you can link your review to 2-3 reviews of #ownvoices readers so someone can decide for themselves.

    Sorry if that was long. I hope that helps! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is really helpful! I have read quite a few books lately that I thought I would enjoy, but didn’t. I no longer write full reviews, but linking to #ownvoices readers is a great idea! I’ll definitely be doing that from now on.

      Glad you enjoyed this post!

      Like

  3. I really enjoyed reading this post – it is so thoughtful and raises many valid points. You are so right that POC authors don’t get as much publicity for their books and this is something that has frustrated me (and I’m sure many others too) over the last few months/years. I also appreciate your honesty in admitting that you approach books by POC authors in a different way especially when reviewing. You have definitely made me reflect on this and actually I think that I do this as well almost subconsciously at times. So thank you for your reflections and for encouraging more open communication on this topic!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! It was absolutely subconscious until I went to write this post and started thinking about why I picked up books by white authors more often when I literally have a pile of books by black authors that I’m equally excited about reading. Even though I stopped writing full reviews on my blog, I know I’ll still talk about them in my wrap ups, so it’s something I always inadvertently pay attention to.

      Like

  4. At one stage there was a push to buy and read female authors. I’ve read quite a few, but don’t like to be told who to read. I feel the same about writers of colour. In the old days when I read more print books than ebooks I would be lured in first by the title and cover, then I would read the blurb on the back before deciding to take a risk. I was rarely disappointed. I refuse to be influenced by gender or colour. Good writing should transcend political correctness.

    I’m sorry for the way today’s authors are hamstrung. Good writing isn’t enough these days; publishers have ‘sensitivity readers’ to approve your work, I’m sorry to say that I’m not really expecting to come across anything original.

    Like

    1. You are free to read whatever you want. I understand not being told what to read. I just personally believe in reading more diversely to accurately reflect society and help me be a more empathetic person. I also think it’s important that we have things like sensitivity readers to prevent harmful opinions from perpetuating in literature and hurting those belonging to minority groups. Because that is still a problem.

      Everyone is absolutely entitled to read and chose books however they want. I just honestly believe reading as diversely as possible has made me a much better person, and I think everyone should give that a try.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Just a few quick thoughts in response to this!

      First, once you know that the publishing industry prioritizes publishing white authors, to ignore race in choosing your books is equivalent to choosing to read mostly books by white authors, because that’s what you’re most likely to pick up if ignoring race. So, to ignore race in book selection isn’t truly avoiding being influenced by race – it’s just letting race influence you via the publishing industry instead of taking control of that influence yourself.

      Second, sensitivity readers are no different than any other fact checkers. Making sure you write about characters who are a different race (or profession, etc) from yourself accurately, is part of having good writing, not an additional requirement. Also most publishers don’t bother to hire either sensitivity readers or fact checkers for most authors, even for nonfiction, which is such a shame. I want to be able to trust what I read to be true!

      Lastly, I suspect you’d be more likely to come across something original in your reading if you did read books by diverse authors. There are lots of incredible refreshes of old tropes or plots enlivened by new cultural context coming out lately that I’d highly recommend checking out. Unmarriageable, a Pride and Prejudice retelling set in Pakistan, is one that particularly worked for me 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  5. As a reader who has been looking to read more diversley this year, I is something as a reader you have to go looking for books. To me this is both a publisher and a reader issue,. Most readers when they pick a book are not bothered about who wrote a book, unless it is a writer they have read before,
    In my opinion to get more people to read diversly and that includes all types, race, gender, sexuality, language and nationality as well as the economic background of writers, publishing companies need to start looking for writers in unusual places.

    The average reader will then by the same number of books, but because the writers are more diverse people will read more diversity.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree. As readers, we have to seek out diverse books, and publishers need to do better at giving diverse authors and stories a fair chance at being published and promoted.

      I feel like I tend to read fairly diversely (most of the books I read by white authors this year were somehow diverse), I just wasn’t doing a great job at reading POC authors. This was my way of working towards fixing that.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve also noticed myself feeling a little guilty if I don’t love a book by an author of color. I’ve kept myself honest in my reviews by thinking about how patronizing it is to judge the work of authors of color by a lower standard than I do white authors. Then I try to review enough books that my favorite list will definitely end up including some diversity and no one negative review represents everything I’ve said on the topic 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Definitely agree with this! One thing that’s helped me quite a bit is that I stopped writing full reviews on single books. I feel less guilty sharing books I dislike in a small blurb in my wrap up, and then I have more space to talk about the books I did enjoy.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Thanks for this great post. I am in a book group and we decided to read only books by people of colour for one year. I am slightly embarrassed to admit that it’s only really been the past four or so years that I have read a large number of books by non-white authors. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is my favourite. I studied literature at school and university in Great Britain. As I recall, every single last one of the books on the curriculum was by a white writer. Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dickens of course (who are of course all men, too!). But even in the more contemporary literature books we studied, still all white. It makes me cringe to think about how narrow and Anglo-centric my education was.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is awesome! I want to be in that book club! 😊

      And I totally feel you. I have degrees in history and English, and while I did read some authors of color (I was actually assigned a few slave narratives for a grad school Romantic literature course, which was great), my education was definitely Anglo-centric. Something I’m working on fixing now. It makes me so happy to see other people doing the same! 😊

      Liked by 1 person

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