Where are the Women of Colour in Books?

By Chyina Powell

[Please note: Canadian English style spellings are used in this article to keep with the publication’s overall style].

Publishing is a large industry, with billions of books sold each year and a global market size of nearly US$ 140 billion, according to BookMap; the top three global publishing markets are USA, China, and Germany. Everyone has a favourite bookseller. But there are some huge gaps in book publishing. It is a unique club and overwhelmingly white, able and heteronormative. And while that might have begun to change in more recent years thanks to research initiatives like the 2015 Diversity Baseline Survey that present a picture of this white-washed world, there is still a sizeable gap between books seen on the shelves and those written by women of colour and not enough data. I would like to highlight some concerns about the lack of diversity in books including: Why are books by women of colour  harder to find? How many women of colour writers are there? How many women of colour work in publishing? What are the hurdles that come with publication as a woman of colour?  

If you enter a traditional Barnes and Noble (or Borders) bookstore in the US (see below for pictures of a store I visited in Fairlawn, Ohio) – what do you see? Some craft books, some women’s literature written by white women and a slew of action-packed thrillers or mysteries by big names like Tom Clancy and James Patterson. What you don’t see when your eyes do that initial sweep of the store are books by women of colour, whether in nonfiction, poetry, fiction or any genre. Our voices aren’t important enough to be on display and sometimes they aren’t important enough to be in the store at all – at least that is what I can conclude from the layout of many bookstores. Note, in the pictures below, every genre has not more than one book or title about or by women of colour. How can we not recognize this omission? How do we rectify this?

As a black woman, I noticed this gap a long time ago and was led to believe that it was because women of colour didn’t write (even though I have always been writing). Thankfully I have discovered that to be untrue. Then why is it that the work of women of colour are so rarely seen in bookstores? Why are their books only available for online order?

Over years of observation and reading, I began to realize two things:

  • Women of colour don’t write less than men or white women, yet our works receive the least attention, discussion, appreciation or readership. This must be because we don’t actively acquire them enough and want to only publish the same kind of books and stories over and over.
  • There isn’t much scholarship on this subject. And by scholarship, I mean that there aren’t many ongoing or recent in-depth research-articles that analyze this problem of the lack of diversity. Where are the women of colour in book publishing? This is something that I, through my work with individuals and organizations, hope to change.

It occurred to me that perhaps people don’t want to read books by coloured women. But quick secondary research will yield results that people are tired of being exposed to books written by white men and women and in fact they have even dedicated a year to only reading the work created by women of colour. So there is a market for our stories that maybe aligns with a moral consciousness.

However the literati (editors or literary judges or select few who make the major decisions in the publishing industry)  don’t yet bank on the words of women of colour. This could be why so many women of colour feel as though they cannot go the traditional publishing route and either self-publish or seek out small indie publishing houses.

Booker Prize winning author Marlon James has criticized this trend of homogeneity in books, creating a mass palate that is mostly about “pandering to the white woman” who comprise not just majority of the staff in publishing offices but also the majority of book readers today.  Publishing may never have been easy but being marginalized comes with having to work harder than others in order to get the same access, treatment and opportunities, and while that disparity might differ by market, it plays a large role in why it is harder for women of colour to publish and market their pieces, and it also gives us insight into why their stories are so important. The use of stories here is not limited to fiction, it encompasses all writing from articles to poetry to blogs and memoir as well. I have written about the importance of a person’s story before and I will reiterate that when you write, whatever you write, there is someone out there who will read it. A “woman of colour” does not just mean an African American woman – this term includes anyone who is not white — and while I can’t speak for all women of colour or even all African Americans (the largest racial minority in the US today), I can and will advocate for them to my last breath.

Just because a story is written by a woman of colour doesn’t mean others are not allowed to read it or may not be interested in our work. Many women of colour may remember the times in school when they were forced to read novels, poetry and plays by people with different or more mainstream or non-racialized experiences than ours; we remember asking each other why our books weren’t considered scholarly and why they weren’t (and still aren’t) a part of the literary canon. Why they were ghettoized because people could never relate to our work being significant. We recall not getting straight answers from our educators or classmates or family and feeling dissatisfied and yet reading those mainstream works. Year after year. So why can’t others practice the same tolerance or learning or openness for our works?

Even if the work by women of colour deals with subjects you are unfamiliar with or makes you feel like the book wasn’t written for you, read it and discuss. Stretch out of your comfort zones by engaging with unfamiliar, challenging and diverse opinions and books. Even if you have never experienced what the author might be talking about or cannot relate to their dreams or fears, there is a lot of power in being an ally and champion for diverse books. Befriending and working with more women of colour might be a good starting point to ease your transition into their works.

There is limited data on diversity in books. According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Centre’s 2014 study, the US is home to nearly  40% of non-white population, yet only 10% of US children’s books reflect multicultural content. The same data reveal that more than half (57%) of the books about characters of colour were being written by “cultural outsiders” – and this is more pronounced in works about African American characters. Also, African American and Latinx creators appear to face the least freedoms in creating context-free children’s literature, owing to the limited awards they are forced to apply to (in order to gain any recognition) in the US at least. This data is just for children’s books, I dread the data we do not see in adult literature yet.

Let us change all this right now with ongoing research and some small steps:

  • Firstly, while it would be ridiculous to assume every woman of colour is a writer, we must make a habit of actively seeking out more women of colour who write. Then, replace “write” with any verb of expertise.
  • Women of colour tend to be ignored by the majority of the industry which is why it is difficult to find the books they write in many bookstores, unless they are already famous, like Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison and Forever First Lady Michelle Obama. Lesser known coloured women can’t be found in school curricula or in the literary canon. Find local talent and honour it. This could be you or your peers, colleagues or neighbours.
  • Largely ignored in literature and life, women of colour seek to self-publish or create their own small publishing companies to support other marginalized voices through communities and events. Support their initiatives generously.  

These conversations seem to be happening at Book Net Canada’s Headquarters and in their Tech Forum each year in Canada, even if to limited audiences as their panelists point out. BookNet Canada releases its annual Demand for Diversity survey results and this confirms a healthy appetite for diverse books. Is this appetite matched by action? Underrepresented readers tend to make more purchases through digital channels (especially buying more e-books and audiobooks than well-represented readers) through GooglePlay, Kobo, AudioBooks and Audible according to the same study. Better metadata can help discover more diverse voices.

We need to revisit these questions and challenge diversity standards repeatedly through discussions, events, more research and publications in our markets. Do women of colour make up a significant portion of the US, North American or global publishing industry? How many books by women of colour are published each year and who is buying them? What more will it take for diverse books by women of colour to be on the front-shelves of our bookstores?

Maybe these questions were never considered important enough to begin with; inclusion appears to be an afterthought in most industries, and it is not so different in publishing. What will it take for us to recognize these hidden voices? It will take what it has always taken… People willing to speak out,  be vocal, and demand a change. Is that you?

Chyina Powell is a lover of words and music, based in Fairlawn, Ohio. She is the Co-founder of the Women of Color Writing Circle, an international organization that supports and encourages women of colour in their writing, and is also the Finance Chair of the Sigma Tau Delta Alumni Epsilon Chapter.

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