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.