Book publishing has a well-earned reputation of being two things:
In 2012, the New York Times Review of Books published reviews of 405 books—and 316 were written by men.
Similarly distressing, Publisher’s Weekly found that 82% of employees in editorial departments of major publishers were white. Not surprisingly, writers who identify as anything other than a white man have been clamoring for change for a long time.
Over the last decade, however, something interesting has happened. A much more diverse cast of authors has emerged into our cultural spotlight:
Obviously, the publishing world is still critically lacking in diversity, but serious progress is being made.
The question is, how?
Has traditional publishing changed? A little bit. There have been steps in the right direction, but we can’t put all the progress down to major publishers having a change of heart regarding diversity.
The bigger forces at play are the rise of small presses and self-publishing.
Of the three authors listed above, all three started out as self-published authors. Traditional publishers wouldn’t give them a shot, but when they self-published to much fanfare, publishers were chomping at the bit to get ahold of their book rights.
Why didn’t this happen sooner?
Self-publishing hasn’t always been viable as a legitimate publishing option. In the past, you needed a professional publisher to layout and design your book correctly, to handle your marketing, and to get your book carried in bookstores.
Self-publishing, however, has grown up quite a bit.
Now, you can learn how to make a book—formatting and all—out of your manuscript in minutes. You can hire someone to design your author website, or do it yourself, at a fractional cost. You can even put together a press kit and email journalists yourself—no major publisher necessary. So many marketing tools have also appeared, allowing writers to reach millions of people without signing over all of their rights and revenue.
The fact that this is all it takes for a writer from an underrepresented community to go from “unpublishable” to a bestseller speaks to a greater truth about books and the publishing world:
The audience for diverse literature exists and has existed for a long time. The bottleneck to this literature being released into the world was not the writers or the readers. It was the publishers who dropped the ball, failing to introduce the world to a diverse array of writers.
Now, it seems, that decision is no longer up to them.