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Monday, May 26, 2014

Racial Equity in Christian Publishing: #IVPFall14 and Beyond (Part 2)

Continued from part 1...

Pipeline Paradox 

There seems to be a disconnect between publishers who point to an inadequate pipeline for authors of color, and the many writers decrying the lack of opportunity to be published. The differences in representation go way beyond what can be explained by population size, and much of it is indeed part of the larger systemic disparities in education, wealth, employment etc. There are many barriers preventing authors of color from emerging to the market, and publishers certainly see this reflected in the distribution of pitches they receive.

Nevertheless, there are many strong authors of color that have trouble getting noticed by publishers. When industries do not consciously combat a white-default mentally, white aesthetics, perspectives and subject matters will be consistently prioritized. Authors of color are subtly marginalized as 'not relevant for audiences' or 'not marketable to our reader base.' Unfortunately, these disparities are sometimes attributed to differences in quality, readability, or relevance. But such measures are highly subjective and easily subject to unconscious racial biases based on familiarity and preference.

'Buy More Books'
Another common response from publishers is that consumers must buy the books they want to see, creating a demand that will fuel an increased supply. It is indeed important for readers to back their desires with their dollars. But putting the onus on those already in a position of disadvantage isn't a great way to solve the problem.

If there is narrow visibility of books by authors of color, fears of limited sales performance become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Books that are poorly marketed will sell poorly, and so subsequent books of similar content will also be given restricted marketing budgets. Thus, we artificially reinforce the perception that books by authors of color have limited market potential.

As described for above with regard to editors and sales reps, readers will also tend to prefer what is familiar to them. The goal of marketing is to catch the eye of consumers that don't yet know they are interested in a book. This is the sort of influence that writers of color need from their publishers. It's an opportunity to use a  position of privilege to subvert disparity by introducing broader audiences to previously marginalized authors, increasing their subsequent selling power.

Yes, we all have parts to play in altering systemic injustice, including the consumers. But there is extra responsibility for those in a position of privilege (Luke 12:48).

Silenced Voices
While many authors of color participated in the #IVPFall14 public discourse, several others communicated privately a reticence to join in based on a fear of further jeopardizing what little opportunity they may have in finding a publisher. Because of the difficulty of receiving contracts, some may be hesitant to voice dissent or to be perceived as ingrateful for previous opportunity, even if they feel the issues are important to them. This reflects a perception of lack of trustworthiness for those in power. When marginalized communities cannot give voice to their struggles it perpetuates the perception that everything is 'basically all right'. 

It is essential that those in positions of privilege listen carefully when issues are raised (Acts 6:1-7). It's also important that the grievances voiced are neither delegitimized nor rationalized away. Furthermore, those who are in a position to speak up, must do so. White authors and editors must use their voices  They must risk their own reputations, their own book contracts, their own speaking engagements to prophetically live into the values we profess. It cannot always be editors of color advocating for diverse books. It cannot always be authors of color writing about diversity and justice. 

White voices should never speak over those who are already being silenced, but must instead help amplify the those voices that may not otherwise be heard. This means stepping aside, yielding the podium, sacrificing the book deal, offering up the pulpit, relinquishing control. You cannot proclaim a desire for justice and equity while remaining unwilling to make the appropriate sacrifices in your own life. 

First-Step Solutions
Certainly, given the events that precipitated the #IVPFall14 hashtag, more attention should be placed on the space allocated to each book in publishers' catalogs. There may be a tendency to think about marketing on a book-by-book basis, but examining the overall distribution of the catalog is also important. Who gets the big features? What sorts of authors receive multiple pages? Who appears in the early spreads, and who is relegated to the 'back of the catalog'? Even when publishers acquire significant numbers of authors of color, if their faces aren't included in the publicity material, we literally perpetuate the invisibility of people of color in publishing.

Ethnicities of authors whose books 
were reviewed by NYT in 2011
Particularly for publishers like IVP who have some foundation in intentionally diverse publishing practices, many other initial steps toward equitable marketing are fairly straight forward. Publishers can ensure that their webpages prominently feature books by authors of color. Who is on the homepage? Who is featured under 'marketing' and 'new releases'? In addition, care should be taken that official Twitter handles and Facebook pages give plenty of coverage to books apt to be marginalized by the buying public. These changes are easy to implement and cost virtually nothing.

When books by authors of color are sent out for review, do send them to relevant ethnic-specific communities, but also be sure to stretch the bounds of who might be interested. What other intersections might be at play?  Might the audience be wider than we first supposed?

Publishers might also consider implementing 'platform making' mechanisms, that promote authors of color. Associations like Redbud Writers Guild and Her.meneutics provide an outlets for women of faith and help build their platform. Similar endeavors for writers of color, with direct associations with publishing companies, could be great ways for authors and editors to find each other. Publishers should also collaborate closely with any partner organizations that sponsor conferences to ensure that the speak-writer feedback loop is well coordinated and strongly infused with diversity (IVP/IVCF is quite good in this regard).

These are some simple ideas, based mostly on how I personally interact with publishers and their new books. I am confident that experienced publishers themselves can come up with many additional innovative ideas that make sense in their own contexts. 

Of note, it is not necessarily an ideal solution to publish special edition catalogs for authors of color. Not only does this run the risk of 'ghettoizing' these books (as Hsu brings up in his interview), but such endeavors are often ineffective in producing sustainable change. They may provide some short term benefits, but these burst of attention often quickly subside as old habits return. Real change requires perseverance and continued attention that alters the fundamental habits of an organization.

Why IVP?
IVP was the focus of this recent campaign for a number of reasons. First, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) is largely what I consider my own community. I was 'raised' IVCF in college and continue to surround myself with great IVCF folks. I'm involved in a graduate chapter, attend IVCF conferences, and regularly write for the IVCF blog. So IVCF is where I have a measure of access, as well as some level of history, relationship, and trust. Along these lines, IVP is the only publisher for whom I am currently on the mailing list to review books (again, speaking to relationship and access).

partnership from IVP
But most importantly, I know IVCF/IVP cares about multiethnicity, and proclaims it publicly as a value. I knew they were apt to engage and to be responsive in a way that would be a great witness (and they came through mightily!). What is more, because IVP is indeed intentional about trying to sign authors of color, many of the solution mentioned above are easily implemented, even with their book lines as they currently stand. They are well positioned to incorporate changes that will have meaningful impact for their authors of color.

Had I engaged a less conscientious publisher, I would have likely have received a 'we love PC diversity' form letter in response, essentially ending the conversation there. Indeed, several publishers may even contest the premise of intentional multiethnic publishing on the grounds of 'reverse racism.' Publishers with no demonstrated interest in investing in diverse books are unequipped to critically examine their marketing practices, and are unlikely to be able to make significant change in the near future. That said, my hope is to send these dialogues to other publishers/gatekeepers, praising IVP for their engagement and encouraging others to consider their own catalogs and publicity strategies. I am grateful for IVP's intentionality and attentiveness that has led to what I hope has been an edifying conversation for us all.

The marketing budgets allocated to books have a direct affect on sales and publicity for their authors. It is important to be intentional about the proportions of authors acquired, but if few authors of color ever see their books broadly publicized, such acquisition efforts make little lasting difference.

We must go beyond counting bylines, and ensure all aspects of publishing are equitable. As Daniel José Older asserts, "We’re right to push for diversity, we have to, but it is only step one of a long journey. Lack of racial diversity is a symptom. The underlying illness is institutional racism...This is work for white people and people of color to do, sometimes together, sometimes apart. It’s work for writers, agents, editors, artists, fans, executives, interns, directors, and publicists. It’s work for reviewers, educators, administrators. It means taking courageous, real-world steps, not just changing mission statements or submissions guidelines."

Who we acquire and market sends a strong message about who we believe is valuable, who is smart, who is interesting, and whose perspectives matter. We must establish ledger sheets that match our mission statements, prophetically demonstrating what it could look like to facilitate God’s Kingdom on earth. It takes persistence and intentionality to combat the inertia of the status quo. It is an ongoing endeavor, but it's worth it.

Across the publishing industry as a whole, statistics for authors of color are troubling. But it seems Christian publishing is particularly lagging (as Hsu suggests in his interview). For those Christians convinced of the Gospel's power to affect meaningful change on earth, this is a disappointing assessment. It's one more example of the church's chasing societal progress, rather than being one of its leaders.

I know that Christian publishers have to pay attention to their bottom line--that's what keeps them able to supply excellent books. But we must also question what our bottom line should really be.  Christians set ourselves apart on this earth by sacrificing of our own desires for God's greater glory. Do we bear witness to Christ's redemptive power, God's call for justice, or do we perpetuate the world's priorities?

Is this all just hopeful idealism? Maybe. But if we remain reactive, rather than prophetic, we miss the opportunity to demonstrate the healing power of Christ over all aspects of our lives. In fact, it further entrenches the our world's understanding of our faith as powerless in the face of society's injustices. It reveals that secular institutions and their solutions are better equipped to address the needs of the oppressed than are God's own people. This isn't simply about being PC, it isn't even simply about justice for justice's sake. It's about the Gospel and whether it has anything of relevance to say to the world in which we live.

Why is equity of representation important to you?
What questions would you have for Christian publishers? 
What solutions would you like to see implemented? 


  1. These conversations about diversity in Christian publishing happen to come on the heels of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign that sought to bring particular attention to disparities in Children's publishing. In her recent article for Diversity in YA, Malinda Lo found that "when considering the race of the main characters, among the 123 young adult bestsellers on the [Publishers Weekly] list...12 are about main characters of color. That adds up to 10% of the total." Similarly, the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison reports that of 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, 90 were by Asian Americans, 67 were by African-American authors, 48 were by Latinos, and 18 were by American Indian authors.

  2. Katelin--this is really a fine series of posts. If this happens with IVP and they are indeed among the most conscientious, this is a sad tale. I recently did a review of one of their books on preaching--all Anglo males, which. I think, reflected the limits of the author's network, and in the case of gender, theological commitments.

  3. Thank you, sir! Telling indeed, for this to be the state.
    You're right inn that so much of it has to do with network, connection. Folks don't intentionally try to select only white males, but if these are the people they know, that's what ends up happening.

  4. This article was written with congregation diversity in mind, but it has a lot of relevance for publishing and hiring as well:


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