The Unbearable Whiteness of Reading: Why Self-Publishing Will Not Solve Diversity Problems Anytime Soon

Catchy titles aside, let us speak plainly: North American traditional publishing is a remarkably undiverse space. Lee & Low Books pegged the numbers, as of the beginning of 2016, thus: seventy-nine percent of the industry overall is white; seventy-eight percent is female or cis-female; eighty-eight percent is heterosexual; and a full and staggering ninety-two percent is non-disabled (Low 2016). These numbers carry through to published books; Low suggests “[t]he percentages, while not exact, are proportional to how the majority of books look nowadays—predominately white” (2016). The face, it seems, of the traditional publishing industry, a gatekeeping industry, is an able-bodied and neurotypical straight white woman.

Understandably, minority authors do not feel welcome in such a landscape. On one side, many feel markedly out of place among people whose backgrounds are nothing like theirs, and that the subtleties of their work are misunderstood. On another, many feel tokenized or fetishized, asked to or forced to speak for the entirety of their race or gender or sexuality or disability. On a third, paradoxically, many feel that their voices and their stories are being silenced by traditional publishing employees who feel that there are enough stories that contribute to the picture of that minority (Elliott 2015). As a result, many of these authors are turning to the route of self-publishing to make their voices heard. Here I note self-publishing as that form of publishing in which the author takes on the tasks of editing, designing, and marketing their book, or at least takes on the task of finding freelancers to do that work.

And, on the surface of things, one cannot help but understand their reasoning. If there is no space for you at this table, simply build another. At that table, you can serve your own preferred dishes and worry little about having to choke down your racist uncle’s Jell-o salad. You can even, if you choose to, share your food with the first table.

In an ideal world, both tables could coexist in a mutually respectful and symbiotic way. But in an ideal world, I have a mermaid tail and am not beholden to capitalism. The fact is, self-publishing continues to be disregarded and derided as over-saturated and downright bad (Sutton 2014), and that, if The Little Mermaid is anything to go by, even as a mermaid I would be shackled by a capitalist system. Self-publishing, in other words, may be able to solve diversity problems within itself; but if the greater world of books is to be taken on, self-publishing will not be the realm to take us there, at least not for a very long while.


The numbers quoted above are those of the industry overall; but Lee & Low (2016) was able to segment their results further. The most notably different—though probably unsurprising—figures are those at the executive level: while publishing executives are far less likely to be female—less than sixty percent—they are significantly more likely than the already astronomical average to be white, straight, and able-bodied. The gender split at the executive level represents the most diverse segmentation of the entire study; no other number, segmented either by department or by trait, has a majority of less than seventy-five percent. It seems ironic, given the gender split of executives in other industries, that that small amount of diversity in publishing was attained by adding more men.

Lee & Low’s diversity survey, however, has seen some pushback from publishers. While some say that they believe their companies to be “comfortably ahead” (Deahl 2016) of Lee & Low’s numbers, there are no competing surveys to compare, nor have any large publishers released their own data. Meanwhile others suggest that these numbers show how very diverse the publishing realm is, to have so many women working there; but apparently they do not understand that homogeneity in any form is not diversity.

It is little surprise that minority authors find this space to be unwelcoming. It is not just authors who choose to self-publish, either, that have made these claims, but some of the most well-known names of our time who have written about how unwelcome they have felt in the past or continue to feel in the realm of literature. Marlon James, who won the Man Booker Prize in 2015 for his novel A Brief History of Seven Killings, believes that he would have been published far earlier and more frequently had he written “middle-style prose and private ennui” that “pander[ed] to the white woman” (Cain 2015). Junot Díaz, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, wrote in 2014 that his experience in a Master of Fine Arts program at Cornell University was

[t]oo white as in Cornell had almost no POC—no people of color—in it. Too white as in the MFA had no faculty of color in the fiction program—like none—and neither the faculty nor the administration saw that lack of color as a big problem. (At least the students are diverse, they told us.) Too white as in my workshop reproduced exactly the dominant culture’s blind spots and assumptions around race and racism (and sexism and heteronormativity, etc). […] Race was the unfortunate condition of nonwhite people that had nothing to do with white people and as such was not a natural part of the Universal of Literature, and anyone that tried to introduce racial consciousness to the Great (White) Universal of Literature would be seen as politicizing the Pure Art and betraying the (White) Universal (no race) ideal of True Literature (emphasis added).

And Roxane Gay, who wrote the critically-acclaimed Bad Feminist, points to letters sent to her by authors whose works were rejected by publishers: “there’s already a Roxane Gay” (Rosen 2017).

If the landscape looks like that, talks like that, writers who choose to self-publish can hardly be blamed. How demoralizing it can be, to spend yourself crafting a story only to be told that it is the same story being told by another, or that another story would be better or more well-received, or that your story contributes nothing. An angry and hurt author could easily decide to turn away from the grown-ups’ table of traditional publishing and take a seat at the kids’ table of self-publishing, if the grown-ups were being so awful.

But from Suffrage to Black Lives Matter, the discourse surrounding minority groups’ attempts to make space for themselves has frequently been dismissive at best and threatening at worst. Simply examine how traditionally female pastimes are derided compared to male ones; if a fan is simply someone with a strong interest in something, why are Supernatural fans mocked while football fans are not? Or examine how Black Lives Matter and Women’s March organizers have received death threats (Allen 2016); or consider the many instances of right-wing publications reporting on—or out-and-out fabricating—criminal records for these same people.

Similarly, supporters of traditional publishing delegitimize self-publishers by questioning their quality and their credentials (Sutton 2014), though neither is a prerequisite to be an author contracted with a traditional publishing house. Moreover, it is not only traditional publishers who are so derisive of self-publishers; it seems, at times, that most of the world feels the same way. It may be demoralizing to try to make headway into the realm of traditional publishing, but, as Junot Díaz said in 2014 about why he stuck it out in his MFA program: “Maybe […] I was just a stubborn fuck.” Rather than working for separation or an entirely new system, which may be fifty years or more down the pipeline, if ever, it seems that a more expedient way to achieve diversity is by being stubborn fucks and insisting on a space at the grown-ups’ table.

Some people who began as self-publishers have, in effect, turned back to traditional publishing. Blood Orange Press, for example, began as a self-publishing project by Janine Macbeth. As Macbeth came close to the point of publication, she created an independent press and announced her intention to publish other authors. Although she has not yet published works by any other authors, Blood Orange Press’s website includes a call for submissions (“Submissions” n.d.). In creating an imprint, Macbeth crossed from being a self-publisher into being an independent publisher. The notable difference between the two is the solicitation of manuscripts by other authors. It is the addition of a gatekeeper, of someone choosing whose manuscripts to publish, which sets Blood Orange Press apart from self-publishers.

There is a legitimization for authors in being selected by someone else—confirmed as worthwhile by someone else—which self-publishers do not receive, just as there is a legitimization for those in minority groups in being selected or respected by the majority group. As it stands now, traditional publishing purports itself to be a meritocracy: “[t]he real problem is that most self-published books […] are pretty terrible” (Sutton 2014) and that, at least in large part, what gets published by traditional publishers is chosen because it is better than what eventually gets self-published. For any traditional publisher to suggest that there is a binary traditional-publishing-is-good-writing and self-publishing-is-bad-writing is to lie; and moreover, if this discussion is to be had, someone must ask why certain mediocre or even bad books are published by traditional presses and why certain ones are not.

Certainly there is a portion of self-published books which were not picked up by traditional publishers because they were just really bad. And some books were self-published because the author did not find the right publisher. And some books were self-published because the author did not want their vision to be compromised. But the sheer number of authors who have been told that their work was uncomfortable, like Zetta Elliott, or that another kind of story—one that does not focus on race, or gender, or sexuality—would be better, like Marlon James, or that their story results in a zero-sum contribution, like Roxane Gay, or that their story contains too much Spanish and thus alienates readers, like Junot Díaz (Rosenblum 2012), are all being told, in one way or another, that their work is not good enough. “True equality,” to use Chris Rock’s words, “is the equality to suck like the white man […] and come back” (2008). Even in this paper, I have chosen to quote diverse authors who had to labour in invisibility before producing works so good as to be undeniably exceptional in order to be recognizable. “Great black people have always been compensated” (Rock 2008); but until a black—or other minority—person can be not-great and still well-received, or at least told that their story is worthy, self-publishing will remain the subject of much derision. At the base of it, the only way to achieve that is to be included enough in traditional means of publishing.

Finally, we return to the numbers laid out above. For diverse authors to feel welcome, there are two things that need to happen. First, there simply need to be more diverse workers in the publishing industry. For minority authors to enter spaces where they perceive themselves as alone is a daunting task, made worse when those authors are peddling wares which address these situations. To show that work to people who do not need explanation to understand it is what many authors dream of. Second, the part of the publishing industry that is in the majority needs to acknowledge and address its biases. In order for there to be more diverse books, there needs to be an empowered effort to make that happen; and empowerment is generated in organization, in groups of people working toward the same goal. That is made easier and faster by empathy and help from those who already have power. In other words, large publishers—all publishers—need to use the power that they have in influencing the media landscape to sign diverse authors who are producing diverse stories. As self-publishing is not an industry within traditional publishing but rather is one that exists alongside it, the diversity of one will not affect the other. We need diversity in both spaces.

Works Cited

Allen, Stephanie. “Planned Black Lives Matter protests spark death threats, leader says.” Orlando Sentinel, July 15, 2016.

Cain, Sian. “Marlon James: ‘Writers of colour pander to the white woman’.” The Guardian, November 30, 2015.

Deahl, Rachel. “Why Publishing Is So White.” Publishers Weekly, March 11, 2016.

Díaz, Junot. “MFA vs. POC.” The New Yorker, April 30, 2014.

Elliott, Zetta. “Black Authors and Self-Publishing.” School Library Journal, March 16, 2015.

Low, Jason. “Where Is the Diversity in Publishing? The 2015 Diversity Baseline Survey Results.” Lee & Low Books, January 26, 2016.

Rock, Chris. In The Black List, 2008.

Rosen, Judith. “Roxane Gay: Diversity is a ‘Problem Seemingly Without Solution’.” Publishers Weekly, January 28, 2017.

Rosenblum, Dan. “Junot Díaz on writing about 11 Dominicans, getting ‘lunch money’ from Miramax, and the generosity of his readers.” Politico, April 27, 2012.

“Submissions.” Blood Orange Press, n.d.

Sutton, Roger. “An open letter to the self-published author feeling dissed.” The Horn Book, September 30, 2014.

2 Responses to The Unbearable Whiteness of Reading: Why Self-Publishing Will Not Solve Diversity Problems Anytime Soon

  1. hmcgregor says:

    You had me at “a more expedient way to achieve diversity is by being stubborn fucks.” Seriously though, this is a punchy essay (in multiple senses of the word) that does a really good job of articulating the argument that publishing total lack of diversity is a real, concrete, tangible problem. Your concluding recommendations, particularly your attention to the need to diversify the industry itself, not just published titles, and your call for anti-oppression awareness within the industry, are extremely apt. In some ways, however, it feels like you only get to the meat of your argument about self-publishing right at the end: authors who are already stigmatized/marginalized within traditional publishing cannot afford to self-publish because of the doubled burden of marginalization. That argument only applies, of course, if those authors are perceiving their readers to be mainstream i.e. white and middle-class. What if those self-publishing authors have no desire to reach a mainstream audience? Look, for example, at the success of black and queer romance in self-publishing circles; mainstream romance is resolutely white and heteronormative, so those authors have gone elsewhere to get their stories out and readers have followed them. I wondered, in the end, if this essay is really *about* self-publishing at all, or if it’s more about the way that burdens and expectations pile up endlessly upon minoritized authors: you have to write incredible work and oh wait now you have to publish it your own damn self and don’t forget to market it and it better all be flawless otherwise everyone will have an excuse to continue dismissing you and your work. That burden is real, and outrageous, and as you say, won’t be lessened until the industry itself starts to really rethink its attitude towards diversity.

  2. lbolducg says:

    Carmen’s essay was interesting to me because I had never stopped to think about diversity within the publishing industry before I came into this program. She laid out a well-thought-out argument about writers that are part of minority groups, who do not feel included in the publishing industry and how a lot of them must turn to self-publishing to see their work published. I liked the analogy of the grown-up table as traditional publishing vs the kids table representing self-publishing. I do find, however, that because things are shifting so fast with the internet nowadays, that that analogy might not be appropriate in a few years from now. Who knows, maybe the kids table will be traditional publishers trying to get a hold on those very successful self-published authors, while the latter find a way to make a lot of money publishing their books themselves—probably hiring freelancers along the way.
    One aspect that engaged me the most was Carmen’s mention of writers that are part of minority groups, who feel like their work should speak for the entirety of their race or sex, a phenomenon that doesn’t happen to writers who are part of a majority group. It is interesting—and saddening—to think of those writers having to worry about this, on top of having to worry about a dozen other aspects of getting their novel published, like finding the proper agent, polishing their manuscript, landing on the right editor, etc. The pressure that they must feel isn’t fair if you compare that to white, straight authors. And this should be addressed within the publishing companies themselves. I would be curious to know whether those authors feel this way because there isn’t enough books published about their subject and therefore they feel like their readers expect more of them, or because they fear that if their manuscript doesn’t deliver a story that embodies the voices of everyone within that minority group, it will be rejected by the publisher/agent.
    What I also found interesting was how the addition of a gatekeeper is what really sets self-publishers from indie publishers, with her example of Blood Orange Press, and how that gatekeeper legitimizes the “company,” and thus makes that company worth caring about by other people. And I liked that that need for authors to get past a gatekeeper and be chosen to publish their book in the traditional way is paralleled in minority groups wanting to be received by majority group publishers. I wonder if those authors want to get into those publishing houses because they want to feel accepted within that “community” or simply because that company might have a bigger following and thus make it easier for the author’s book to reach a wider audience.
    The conclusion of this essay wrapped up Carmen’s ideas nicely and gave a few suggestions as to how the industry could go about improving the situation. I would have liked to read a little more about what the publishing industry really thinks about this problem and what are their reasons for not accepting a lot of minority books. Because, for such a fragile industry that can barely get by, it might be difficult to take a chance on a manuscript that may or may not sell a lot of copies. Though if, however, it is just because they believe that enough books were published about this genre or this minority of people, then the problem isn’t solely in the publishing industry but in the way people think in general.

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