Week before last, I began to examine the ongoing conversation centering on diversity in self-publishing that has sprung up over the last couple of years, and only risen in importance and visibility since then. Last week, I addressed two questions:
- What’s the track record of diversity in publishing? (and)
- What about within self-publishing, specifically?
This week, I want to address two more questions. The first, as you’ll see, follows on immediately from number two, above:
Are there differences between the track records of traditional publishing and self-publishing in regards to diversity, and why or why not?
As MediaShift’s correspondent Miral Sattar notes in her excellent article for PBS, diversity has always had a little bit more of a foothold in the world of self-publishing than it has elsewhere. In large part, this can be traced back to the blue-collar, anti-establishmentarian streak that gave rise to the self-publishing industry in the first place. Wanting to place profits in the hand of an individual author as opposed to a company or a collective? When it comes to books, that’s a radical idea. Wanting control over the entire authorial, publishing, and marketing process? That, too, falls outside the established framework provided by traditional publishing. All of this independent thinking and hungering after self-realization has led to an environment that fosters rebels and self-starters and free-thinkers and otherwise marginalized peoples. That includes, of course, people of diverse origins, pursuits, and identities.
In her article, Sattar mentions a whole host of self-published authors, including CJ Lyons, Orna Ross, Lara Nance, HM Ward, Kailin Gow, Margarita Matos, Abdul Qayum Safi, Lozetta Hayden, Manuela Pentagelo, Tejas Desai, and Aleysha Proctor. And these are just a very few of a very great many self-published authors currently putting their books out there. There are others: Mary Sisney, Liz Castro, Nadeem Aslam, Johnny Townsend, Qasim Rashid, and so, so many more. The fact is, if you want to publish something that the mainstream publishing industry isn’t prepared to market, and which isn’t angling to be a blockbuster seller, then the generous spirit of the self-publishing world is always waiting. We live in a day and age, thankfully, when the self-published book is no longer synonymous with “I’m selling this out of the trunk of my car” (although that may still be the case), and with a whole host of resources out there, from internet forums to hybrid publishing firms, the self-publishing author can count on sending a high-quality–if radically counter-cultural–product out there into the world.
Why does diverse representation in literature and the industry matter? Why should we authors and readers and (self-)publishers care?
This fourth question is, in some ways, a much harder one to answer. As with many things in life, it might seem easy to fall back on a rote answer (you either do or you don’t), or to fall into the trap of trying to heavy-handedly preach readers into one perspective or another (because I said so!). The fact of the matter is, caring about something as radically life-changing as diversity and representation is more than just a private act, but it’s also something you can’t just tell people to do.
When someone leans in over the dinner table and asks me why they should care about diversity–as has happened fairly often this last year–I fall back on a whole retinue of explanations: the statistics about social stratification and advancement or regression, the ethical and moral ground upon which we build healthy and just societies, and the anecdotes of people I know who have found themselves on the wrong side of the line when it comes to representation. And of all of these arguments, the most effective one is, appropriately enough, one that requires a little imagination.
Imagine you are a child, any child who doesn’t look like a descendant of a hundred Caucasian family trees, who maybe doesn’t tip the scale quite to quite the same number as any of a thousand Disney Channel stars, who maybe comes from a faith background or an ethnic background that isn’t mainstream Christianity or undecided, who maybe has physical or emotional disabilities, who maybe identifies as something other than cisgendered or “straight” or is questioning their identity, who maybe comes from a dysfunctional family or society. Imagine you have any one of these attributes, or a whole heady cocktail of them, and ask yourself this question: Have you seen yourself in a popular book lately? How about on TV or in a movie–as the main character? Have you seen yourself anywhere but in the bathroom mirror and have you seen yourself compassionately rendered there?
I remember the first time I found myself in a book, the first time I encountered a character who looked and felt and acted and believed like me. It was absolutely, entirely, 100% life-changing.
Why should we care about diversity in publishing and self-publishing? Because we want our children to grow up knowing that they don’t have to live in the shadows. That they are lovable and loved. That they don’t need to bleach their skin or get rid of their accent or faith or private struggles in order to be a whole human being.
Explaining to a child who has never seen a familiar face or life story told on television or in books or in music why they’ve never seen that story is absolutely heartbreaking, not to mention difficult. One hopes that we don’t have to end that conversation with “…and it looks like it’s going to stay that way for a while.” One hopes we can end that conversation with: “But see? We’ve made progress, and here is a whole host of stories to get you started.” Others have put together powerful arguments why diversity in publishing (of any kind) is important, too, so I think there’s a lot of hope we’ll see change within our lifetimes.
These thoughts barely scratch the surface of these questions, much less the conversation as a whole. As I continue pondering how to go about touching on the other questions I posed two weeks ago, please drop me a line in the comments section below with your own thoughts or suggestions! And of course, check back next week as we explore still more of this complicated tangle!
||ABOUT KELLY SCHUKNECHT: Kelly Schuknecht is the Executive Vice President of Outskirts Press. In addition to her contributions to the Outskirts Press blog at blog.outskirtspress.com, Kelly and a group of talented marketing experts offer book marketing services, support, and products to not only published Outskirts Press authors, but to all authors and professionals who are interested in marketing their books and/or careers. Learn more about Kelly on her blog, kellyschuknecht.com.