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Monday, May 26, 2014

Racial Equity in Christian Publishing: #IVPFall14 and Beyond (Part 1)

Last week, discussions progressed regarding the racial distribution of the authors featured in the InterVarsity Press (IVP) Fall 2014 catalog, including a generous interview with an IVP senior editor Al Hsu. The conversations sparked from the #IVPFall14 hashtag have been impressive, and I'm encourage to hear from IVP and so many others regarding the importance of visibility for authors of color in book marketing.

The following are some of my own takeaways from the week as they pertain to racial justice in the Christian publishing and marketing industry as a whole.

I was struck by how much of the publishing process is based on relationships: between editor and author, publicists and reviewers, sales reps and booksellers, authors and their networks. Personal relationships help these connections thrive, and lead to strong, mutually-beneficial working relationships.

The problem is that we tend to value relationships with people who are similar to ourselves. When editors, marketers, publicists, and distributors are predominantly white, their networks will also tend to be disproportionately homogenous. Their preferences will subtly reflect cultural values and aesthetics that are most familiar to themselves. Even the most well-intentioned folks unwittingly prefer relationships (and books) that share their own culture (see post: Implicit Associations of Racism).

Christians are punny.
These are similar to the issues that arise with network-based hiring. Much of one's success in the job market depends on who you know. And who you know is often a function of race. People tend to cluster within their groups, and to sympathize more strongly with those like themselves. White editors are more apt to know white authors, white publicists are more apt to follow white bloggers, white sales reps are more apt to have better sales influence with white booksellers, and all of them are more likely to relate to white-culture books.

We tend to differentially offer a helping hand, or the benefit of the the doubt, to those that are most like us. Network-based strategies are great for developing business connections, but relationships are particularly vulnerable to racial bias. And the publishing world is highly dependent on relationships.

Much has been made recently of publishersclear desire for authors with 'platform'--that idea of social connectedness and the ability to help market one's own book. It is a vital aspect of a book's capacity to reach an audience, and it directly affects how well it sells.

Publishers hoping to acquire more authors of color will need to bear in mind the racial disparities in platform-building capacity. Authors of color will be at an inherent disadvantage when it comes to platform. The same factors mentioned in the previous section affect one's ability to connect to networks within denominations and organizations, as well as online. Authors of color face significant discrimination when it comes to speaking engagements and conference keynote opportunities. It is also more difficult for authors of color to be perceived as voices of authority on Twitter or Facebook. They are more subject to the fierce targeting of online trolls. Thus, a seemingly neutral metric like Twitter followers can be severely affected by race. Relying too heavily on this metric skews the results, and misses authors' potential.
How to build

Rather than perpetuating disparity by further penalizing lack of platform, publishers can be agents of change by allocating extra marketing opportunities for their authors of color. At their best, marketing teams exist to help authors do what they cannot do on their own. And so in the spirit of 1 Corinthians 12:12-26, special dispensation is appropriate for those members who are in need of it.

Platform Makers
Given the increased desire for author platform, additional scrutiny must be placed on the 'platform makers.' Writers hoping to break into publishing are often dependent on outlets like Patheos and Christianity Today to help build their audience. This means that the critiques regarding author representation leveled at traditional publishers with #IVPFall14 may be doubly salient for these major gatekeepers of digital audience-building. Similarly, it is incumbent upon conference planners to be diligent in their invitations to speakers. Speaking engagements and books deals are intimately linked in a positive feedback loop. Platform makers must be vigilantly careful to give ample opportunities to writers of color. Unfortunately, they all too often fall woefully short when it comes to equitable racial representation. 

Niche Marketing
It makes sense to focus a book's marketing based on its predicted target audience. Just as with race-specific fellowships, it is often appropriate to have within-group conversations that focus on needs not addressed within the larger community. But I also wonder whether, when taken too far, this strategy recapitulates the 'homogeneous unit principle' (HUP)-style of church building within the Christian publishing industry. HUP focuses on gathering similar people together to efficiently form growing congregations. It's very effective at getting people into pews, but is it healthy for the multicultural body of Christ? Experience tells us no.

Similarly, if books on race and diversity are more substantially marketed to audiences of color, it may increase short term sales, but it ultimate limits the broader selling potential of authors of color. What is more, it sends the message that these are special-interest issues, of little concern to broad audiences, and especially of no consequence to white people. 

Beyond Byline Counts
Though it is an important metric of progress, diversity in byline counts is not enough (see post: Beyond Diversity) . The subjects on which authors of color write are important too. It is essential that we have voices of color speaking about justice and diversity, but if these are the only topics on which they are heard, we severely limit our access to the wide range of topics on which authors of color may be called to write.

In addition, by limiting the topics of their books, we also restrict the audience and sales-potential for authors of color. Subject matter directly affects how broadly books can be marketed and how many people are apt to buy them. These are the books that will be given prime spots in catalogs and bookshelves.

While encouraging authors to focus on a niche, publishers' main features and large advertisements tend to prioritize books with broader subject matter. Therefore, authors of color must also be consistently among those writing books on general theology, discipleship, and evangelism. Not just Black theology, Asian discipleship, Latino evangelism.

The limited scope of content is a function of which authors are brought to the table for certain initiatives. But it may also be a matter of the topics the authors themselves feel comfortable in suggesting. In trying to break into a competitive publishing environment, authors may feel pressure to write on ethnic-specific topics because these are the opportunities they have seen available to others in the past. They may feel it is the best way to get their foot in the door.

Authors of color should receive particular affirmation that their opinions matter on a wide range of subjects.
Even in the context of niche writing, authors of color are multifaceted and should be encouraged to target the many niches they occupy that may or may not have anything to do with their race.

Conversely, authors of color should not feel pressured to downplay their racial identities. We should avoid pigeonholing authors as ‘race’ theologists, just because their ethnicity is salient to what they write. Indeed, many of the mainstream books today are in reality treatises on white theology. But in a white-default world we don't often perceive them as such. We should. 

Continue to part 2 for a few more observations, some first-step solutions, as well as an explanation of my particular focus on IVP itself...

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By Their Strange Fruit by Katelin H is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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