What I Didn’t Know about My Own Industry

Every day my job involves getting to work with authors on stories they may have been working on for months, if not years. You would expect that they know these characters and their lives inside and out—and they do.

But my job as a book editor, I always like to say, is to hold up a mirror to every tiny corner of an author’s story—to reflect it back to them from an objective standpoint so they can see it with fresh eyes and get the big-picture overview they may have been unconsciously blind to. One of my favorite parts of my job is hearing an author light up with new, deeper insights because suddenly they’re seeing their story with a broader perspective.

I’ve spent nearly 30 years now in the publishing industry, but during a weekend workshop I presented not long ago for the Washington Romance Writers, a group of writers flipped the script and held up a mirror for me, opening my eyes to realities of racial marginalization and discrimination in publishing that I’d been blind to.

This conversation shook my foundations—in a great way—and made me start to question, to reexamine with fresh eyes.

What I didn’t know about my own industry

Did you know, for instance, that many bookstores and outlets categorize a lot of books by black authors under “African-American interest”—regardless of genre? I didn’t. So you may find romances there, mysteries, women’s fiction, literary fiction, etc., marginalized off in its own little section you might never think to visit. Did you know that some publishers long told authors of color that romances wouldn’t sell with African-American protagonists on the cover? I worked as a copy editor with romance publishers for years and I never knew this.

I didn’t know, until I was told, that the RITA award, the highest honor in the Romance Writers Association—an organization cofounded by a black woman—has never been won by author of color, and less than half of 1 percent of finalists have been black authors. I didn’t know that African-American authors are regularly offered vastly lower sums in book contracts than white authors. I didn’t realize that in the industry I have spent nearly thirty years working in, a mere 5 percent of publishing/review journal staff and literary agents are African-American—and 76 percent are white.

I like to think I’m pretty inclusive and antiracist, and yet I was completely unaware of these facts—in an industry I have spent my entire career within. I was unconsciously blind to the homogeneity around me that doesn’t even come close to reflecting the world we live in—and my reading habits were similarly unconsciously biased toward what I saw most: largely white cis authors writing about white cis characters. Which were then the materials I often used in my workshops, furthering this one-sided representation of the world even as I was presenting to authors of marvelously diverse backgrounds, cultures, ethnicities…when I was teaching them how to most truthfully reflect the world we live in to most profoundly affect their readers—and I was unintentionally presenting only a fraction of the rich picture of life.

This isn’t about being painstakingly PC. It’s not even about being “woke.” As authors, as creatives, this is about our being deeply aware of the world we live in and reflecting it as truthfully as we can. But even more, it’s the power of storytellers to change the world.

Throughout history, story is the engine of change, and change doesn’t just happen. We have to be the ones who make it happen—the artists, the creatives…the storytellers. We have to be willing to look inward and know there’s no shame in admitting to having been ignorant, or unintentionally biased, or even privileged. But then to learn better—and do better.

We learn about people, lives, cultures, experiences different from ours through their stories.

One way to support PoC right now and address systemic inequality is to broaden your reading parameters. Since that paradigm-altering lunch, I’ve opened myself up to some unbelievably great books thanks to those writers that day and that frank, open, wonderful conversation—and I hope I do the same now in my presentations as I incorporate that wealth of work I’d previously unintentionally excluded. My world is broader and it’s better, because my eyes were opened to what I’d been unconsciously blind to. That’s a gift.

You might already be doing this, but seek out more books by authors of color. Change your preferences for book-release notifications to include the “African-American interest” category, for instance—or better yet, write to your bookseller and ask that they rethink that system and categorize these books by genre like every other book in the store. Make a point, if you love romance, to seek out stories with faces on the cover that aren’t just white.

Read widely about stories about people from cultures, backgrounds, experiences vastly different from your own—travel the world from your sofa as you open yourself up to the richness and joys and challenges of lives lived under vastly different circumstances—as you celebrate the common desires, longings, fears, and motivations that connect us. We are so much more alike than we are different.

Publishing disadvantages authors of color in many ways, often making their road to publication even harder than any author seeking to win a book contract already knows it is. Support those books and help show the industry there is a demand for those stories. And in the process, enrich your own life, your own writing, and your own stories you want to tell by opening yourself up to swaths of wonderful books you may not have thought to seek out. Let your reading reflect our world—and let your writing help to change it for the better.

Here’s just a sampling of suggestions to get you started.

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