I recently read this excellent article on Buzzfeed by Daniel José Older all about the problem of diversity in the publishing industry – namely, that there isn’t any. Looking at the largest publishers in the world, from Penguin Random House to Bloomsbury and HarperCollins, the vast majority of execs and CEOs are old, white men. Now, I don’t have anything against old white men – all being well, I’m going to become one eventually, but what I do have a problem with, is that this has caused a huge ‘whitewashing’ of literature ever since publishing began. According to Older’s article, of 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, just 93 were about black people. I’d like to find someone who would argue that this statistic is not related to the fact that nearly every top dog at a major publishing house is white.
The problem is not just confined to kid’s books, though. When we walk into a bookshop or browse the online bestseller lists, we are bombarded with literature that is unashamedly centred on white people, and more often than not, white males. It goes without saying that there is nothing wrong with this – loads of great books are about white males, but wouldn’t it be nice to have a little diversity? Of course it would. The problem is – the publishers don’t think we’re ready for it. Despite the fact that we live in a multicultural society, the white guys at the top are reluctant to run a risk with a book about a non-white character, or indeed, by a non-white author. When someone does slip through the net, take Zadie Smith for example, they are often treated as something of a novelty, and their work becomes a representation of otherness rather than a good piece of literature in its own right.
This problem is also not confined to the issue of race. As Older writes: “Lack of racial diversity is a symptom. The underlying illness is institutional racism. It walks hand in hand with sexism, cissexism, homophobia, and classism.” I wrote a post a while ago about the lack of non-erotic books with a gay protagonist, and this problem is very much the same today as it was when I wrote the original piece. Equally, there are much fewer mainstream books with main characters who are working class and non cisgender. Unsurprisingly, protagonists tend to reflect the publishers behind them – straight, white, and middle or upper class.
You may argue that people just aren’t writing about minority characters, and there just isn’t the demand for them. I think that’s bollocks. There are plenty of writers out there creating excellent fiction centred on non-straight or non-white characters, but who don’t get a look in because publishers can’t identify with them. Until they take a chance on these authors, they’ll remain blind to their potential.
So what can be done about all this? Well, if the bigwigs at Simon & Schuster or Hachette Livre don’t want to publish this literature, the authors must publish it themselves. The joy of self-publishing is that authors get ultimate control, and they deliver their words to their readers without having them diluted by publishers who can’t understand or relate to their work. It’s a shame that in this day and age there is still a distinct lack of non-white and non-straight authors and protagonists, and you would be hard pressed to argue that this is not related to the overwhelming majority of major publishers being controlled by straight, white men. The only silver lining to all this, is that until these publishers do decide to branch out, authors can rely on the increasingly popular tactic of self-publishing. And unless these publishers do catch up to the changing, diverse world around them, that’s where all their readers will be looking too.
What’s your opinion on the lack of minority groups in publishing? Leave a comment below!
Advertising a book is a tricky thing. It’s completely different to how you would market any other type of media such as music or film, or anything else you might see an advert for – a holiday, a vacuum, a nice hat, and so on and so forth. So why exactly is advertising a book so bloody tricky? Books have been around for ages – surely by now someone has worked out how to advertise them effectively? Well, no – not really.
On the rare occasion that I see a TV ad for a book, I find it very odd. I remember the last one I saw was for Dan Brown’s new novel a few months ago. All the advert really did was show the book’s cover over some dramatic music. It didn’t say what it was about or offer much in the way of a reason to buy it – apparently the fact that it was written by the author of The Da Vinci Code was reason enough. You can watch it here if you like – though you’d be wasting twenty five seconds of your time that you could spend listening to the opening bars of Pure Shores.
The reason the Dan Brown advert sort of worked, though, is because it did everything it needed to. It told you that the author of The Da Vinci Code had a new book out. It assumes that that’s enough information for you to rush out and buy it – and for scores of people, that definitely was all the information they needed. But what about lesser known authors? A TV ad like this would never work. If you’re flogging a film, you can show a montage of the best scenes spliced with some exciting dialogue to give the viewer a real taste of what to expect. You can’t do that with a book. You can’t translate the text into visual media when everyone will imagine the characters, the setting and the events differently. Equally, you can’t read out snippets from the text. Not only would it be too time consuming, but it would sound ridiculous out of context. All in all, unless you’re as big and rich as Dan Brown, TV advertising is a no go for authors.
Similar problems arise when you consider other types of advertising, though. Loads of stuff, from holidays to washing machines are advertised on billboards – but this throws up just the same problems as TV adverts. Sure, you can show the cover of your book, and if the cover is really great, that might be enough to garner a few sales – but you’re limited to the extent that you can tell your reader what the book’s really about, and at the end of the day, that’s what’s going to sell it. With a washing machine, for example, you can show a snazzy image and maybe note a few features it has, and that’s all there is to it. A washing machine doesn’t have to tell a story – a book does.
Music is an odd example because more often the not, you hear a song in its entirety before you buy it. This makes sense – on average a song lasts about 3 and a half minutes, and unlike a book or a film, you’re likely to play it again and again and again – it’s only sensible that you make sure you like it before you part with your money. Holidays can be tricky too, in that they aren’t selling a product as such, but more of an experience. Still, a few shots of a generically good looking couple mooning around on a beach is generally all it takes to draw some interest. Books, on the other hand – where do you even start? They’re just lumps of bound paper, it’s hard to make them seem sexy.
Musicians generally stream their tracks so you can listen to them for free. If you like the track, maybe they’ll charge you to buy it. It makes sense, because people are happy to spend a few minutes listening to a song that they may or may not like. They wouldn’t be so happy to spend a few hours slugging through a book they only decided to read because it was free. And at the end of it they’d probably leave a shitty review on Amazon too – a death-blow to an up-and-coming writer.
So how can you effectively market a book? Sure you can list it on book blogs and harp on about it on Twitter, but this isn’t hugely effective, and it only reaches a limited audience. Frankly, I’m not sure, and I doubt anyone else is either. In my experience, the best thing you can do is try and win some good reviews and hope your mates will try and convince their friends to read it too. Until someone thinks of a better idea – that’s all I’ve got.
How do you think books should be advertised? Got any pro tips? Leave a comment below!