Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

May 2, 2014

Do We Have Diverse Books?

The hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks has been blowing up on Twitter this week. The idea is to give visibility (literally, photographs) to how little racial, gender, identity and ability diversity exists in publishing on all levels. We need diverse books, but we also need diverse stories, editors, publishers, agents and booksellers (eloquently elaborated upon by Daniel José Older on Buzzfeed and Bogi Takács both on eir blog and in Strange Horizons). No matter how you cut it, we need to see every face of humanity when we turn to a book.

Pictures are great, but is our money where our mouths are? I thought I’d take a trip around my own bookstore to have a look. I feel as if we offer a diverse selection of writers, but until you really take a calculator to it, you never really know. So here’s a case study based on our frontlist fiction shelf. These are the hardcovers on display at the very front of my store as of 10am on Friday, May 2nd 2014. This is what greets the buyer when they walk through the door.

Three Brothers by Peter Ackroyd (British Male)
Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine (Lebanese-American Male)
Forgiving the Angel by Jay Cantor (American Male)
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (Canadian-born New Zealand Female)
Every Day is for the Thief by Teju Cole (Nigerian-American Male)
Independence by Cecil Foster (Barbadian Canadian Male)
Andrew’s Brain by E.L. Doctorow (American Male)
Falling Out of Time by David Grossman (Israeli Male)
Boy in the Twilight by Yu Hua (Chinese Male)
The Wretched by Victor Hugo (French Male)
Fire in the Unnameable Country by Ghalib Islam (Bangladeshi Canadian Male)
In The Slender Margin by Eve Joseph (Canadian Female)
Kinder Than Solitude by Yiyun Li (Chinese American Female)
All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu (Ethiopian-American Male)
Caught by Lisa Moore (Canadian Female)
Bark by Lorrie Moore (American Female)
Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor (Kenyan Female)
Between Friends by Amos Oz (Israeli Male)
Orfeo by Richard Powers (American Male)
Lovers at the Chameleon Club by Francine Prose (American Female)
Light and Dark by Natsume Soseki (Japanese Male)
The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan (American Female)
All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews (Canadian Female)
The Ever After of Ashwin Rao by Padma Viswanathan (Canadian Female)
Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese (Ojibway Canadian Male)

By the Numbers:

In the interests of not spending all day picking into the personal lives of writers, I have decided to count only the most visible forms of diversity – race and presented gender. That will be what the readers sees when they pick up the book. Will they see people like themselves?

# Male – 15
# Female – 10

Country of Origin:

United States of America- 6
Canada – 6
Israel – 2
China – 2
Barbados – 1
Britain – 1
Lebanon – 1
Nigeria – 1
France – 1
Bangladesh – 1
Ethiopia – 1
Kenya – 1
Japan – 1

Visibly “white” – 13
Visibly a “Person of Colour” – 12

Biggest single group: White American Men, at 3.


Some notes:

I have opted to count writers by their country of birth rather than current residence because writers with solid literary reputations tend to be snapped up by big American universities. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is currently tenured at New York University and University of California, Irvine – I don’t think anyone would argue that he is not a Kenyan writer.

“Visibly white” is tricky business. I counted both Israeli men as “white”, though Grossman and Oz are both Middle Eastern Jews who write in Hebrew. They are clearly writing from a different place than Richard Powers or Victor Hugo.

Two-thirds of these displayed writers are men, but I should note our two biggest bestsellers of the quarter are Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and Emma Donoghue’s Frog Music. These are not listed because they are sold out.

What does this mean for diversity? I think this looks good by a very low bar. We probably have one of the more diverse selections of books out there, but it is STILL a list in which more than half of the books are written by the dominant racial group. Putting aside countries of origin, a full 40% of them are American.

(Another 32% are Canadian, giving the North American contingent 72% of this shelf’s space – though this is mostly to do with the intricacies of publishing rights. We deal with Canadian distributors and Canadian publishers, who publish primarily domestic writers. International lists & translations do not make up the bulk of what they do. Another reason why “country of origin” is a more useful measure of diversity here: we want to see the faces of our neighbours, who are Canadian no matter how else they identify.)

Older asks us – those of us in the industry – to ask ourselves what we can do to make things better. What can we read, review, buy, sell? We carry fiction as a public service here – we don’t sell a tonne of it. We have it because we should, and when someone comes in looking, we want to be able to say yes. So we aren’t going to stop carrying Jay Cantor or E.L. Doctorow. These are good books. But we can add more good books. We take our cues from reviews, mentions in the newspaper, and customer requests. Last year one of our biggest fiction sellers was We Need New Names by Zimbabwean writer NoViolet Bulawayo because it got the buzz, and serious readers follow buzz. 

To beat that dead horse, write reviews. Blog about what you’ve read. Pitch those reviews to the magazines and papers. Show the industry what’s good and nudge the buyers who’ll tell them what sells. Making a Top Ten Books That Do Something For Me list? Make sure it represents. If it doesn’t, wonder about what you’re reading. You are the mouth, my friends. We all are.

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