For a while now, I have been reflecting on the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag that spawned something of a movement in 2014. I’ve been wondering what, beyond the good feels, and positivity of the darling pictures of small children holding up signs about the kinds of books they want to see, the movement has generated in terms of quantifiable change, purchases, and so forth. So I thought that I would write a blog about it, and then I came across this blog, which also draws from the data posted here. Suffice to say, I did not need to write that blog.
The long and short of it that the 2014 numbers are way up from the 2013 numbers. However, the fact of the matter is that for every group with the exception of Asians, the numbers are still a decline from the 2001 numbers. So think about that for a moment: we’re still trying to climb back to highs that we reached fourteen years ago. (I’ll leave to others to theorize the reason for the decline in the first place.)
Numbers about what underrepresented authors are earning from their writing are harder to answer, but as much a part of the question. If authors who write books that reflect a diversity of experience are not selling copies of their books, the vicious cycle just begins all over again (we’ve all heard the old line too many times). So my new question is where to go from here.
The power in #WeNeedDiverseBooks is only ever going to rest in the material change that it brings to the industry. It’s all well and good to tweet about the necessity of diverse books, but as the adage goes “Money Talks, Everything Else Walks.” So how do we up the game from generating conversation to real ground swell change?
1) BUY A BOOK. This is probably the easiest way to affect change. If the gate-keepers say that the reason more books aren’t published is because they don’t sell, demonstrate that they can and do sell. Imagine, if you will, if everyone who was tweeting #WeNeedDiverseBooks last May actually purchased a book on the final day of that campaign. What if that same group committed to purchase one book from an author from an underepresented community per month. How would that change the numbers?
Here’s the thing, for authors with a traditional publishing contract, those sales are so important. It can determine whether they have an opportunity to write another traditionally published book. The world is a cold place for an author and publishing companies have no compunction about dropping authors that don’t meet expectations, so do that author a favor and buy her book. Here’s the other thing, authors don’t make a lot of money (see here). For every 1 J. K. Rowling, there are a 100 mes, i. e. writers who cannot live on their writing alone. Being able to sustain themselves through their writing allows writers to give more time to their creative work, which hopefully means better and better books. If you have enjoyed their work, even if you initially borrowed a copy, help them to make more by purchasing another book.
And here’s the thing, there are books at every price point. Have a dollar? There are plenty of $.99 cent ebooks by indie authors that fit the bill. Got $5? That’s about the threshold for an ebook coming from a traditional publisher, a book on sale at your local bookstore, or 5 $.99 indie authors books. $10? You don’t even have to search the sales stacks. You can get a trade paperback YA book for around $10 at either a brick or mortar store or online. Financially supporting the work of authors from underrepresented populations is within easy grasp and is a crucial next step in the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement.
2) WRITE A REVIEW. Ok, so maybe you can’t financially support authors. Maybe you have so many books that if you buy any more you risk being tragically crushed to death by your own collection. Maybe you are a staunch supporter of public libraries, so you only get your books there. Maybe pockets are thin round your way and even a dollar is impossible to spare. I get it. I’ve been there. There are still ways for you to really impact the discoverability of your favorite underrepresented authors. First and foremost, you can write a review.
Do me a favor, go to your favorite online book portal (B&N, Goodreads, Amazon, your blog, whatevs) and take a look at the books that are ranked in the top 10, top 20, top 100. What do you notice? Thousands upon thousands of reviews. Case in point: Veronica Roth. Now, take a look at your favorite author from an underrepresented community. Not so much the case, right? Case in point: N. K. Jemisin.
Why does this matter? In a world where so many of our purchases happen online, reviews mean discoverability. Reviews mean buzz. When a book doesn’t have a lot of reviews, people presume that no one is reading it. They further presume that no one is reading it because it’s not any good. Neither of these is necessarily true. Reviews drive purchases, which are crucial (see above). I’ve heard from so many different folks that if a new book doesn’t have at least fifty reviews in the first week, it’s consigned to a bookish purgatory from which there is little possibility of redemption.
So if you can’t/don’t want to make the financial investment, invest a bit of your time and write a review. (But, really, you should buy a book. Really.)
3) USE YOUR PLATFORM. If you are a teacher, design a unit that requires only texts by authors from underrepresented communities. (Even if you are beholden to a canon or a particular set of educational objectives, this is imminently possible, if you consider that such a unit can include writings by black authors, women authors, international authors, LGBTQ authors–with all of the intersections between–and so on).
If you’re a librarian, solicit authors from underrepresented populations to participate in library events. Even if your library doesn’t carry copies of their books (as is the case with many indie authors), you can create opportunities to expose readers to their work.
If you are a bookstore manager, invite them to your store. So many authors from underrepresented groups are not the big wigs that everyone scrambles after. They are not the authors with the publicist and whom their publishers are throwing big publicity dollars behind. Think of the exposure that even having their picture and their book cover in your window for a couple of weeks will provide. Plus, they would love the opportunity to have an audience.
And if you are just you, shout your favorite authors out, on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr, whatever. Word of mouth (or word on screen) is so important for spreading the news about books and authors that you enjoy.
These are just a few of the ways that through our support we can move #WeNeedDiverseBooks forward. What are some the other ways that you are helping to move #WeNeedDiverseBooks beyond the hashtag?
Oh, and here’s your obligatory green.