These barriers aren’t just unique to the American publishing industry. Earlier this year, a report came out about the publishing prospects for writers or color in England. The report, according to an article in The Guardian, “found that the ‘best chance of publication’ for a black, Asian, or minority ethnic (BAME) writer was to write literary fiction conforming to a stereotypical view of their communities, addressing topics such as ‘racism, colonialism or post-colonialism as if these were the primary concerns of all BAME people.’” And like the Publisher’s Weekly survey, the report also confirmed the lack of diversity within the U.K. publishing sector.
One of the most curious aspects of this mode of operation is that it gives rise to a secondary narrative: that of discovery. Instead of dismantling these barriers, literary power players emphasize how they “discovered” an author, even though that author was knocking at the door of the literary establishment the whole time, just waiting to be seen and let in.
These barriers are steep for all writers, but they are even more daunting for writers of color and other underrepresented writers who write narratives that revolve around themes of identity. Not only is it harder for writers of color to get published, but when rejecting our work, publishers tell us that what we’re writing about is too narrow and niche and won’t appeal to mainstream audiences. It’s hard not to perceive this as both a rejection of the relevance of our work as well as ourselves. And for many writers of color who face barriers in other parts of their life due to their identity, the rejection is compounded, forcing some to put down their pen and give up their voice.
In a recent NPR article about the need for greater diversity in the publishing sector, the writer Daniel Jose Older describes the formidable obstacle faced by writers of color in getting past gate-keeping publishers and agents, who are predominantly white:
You have to always be conscious of that. Am I going to be submitting something that is going to put the person on the defensive? Is my voice somehow going to be somehow alien or unrecognizable to the person I am submitting it to?
The article goes on to discuss how Corona, a novel written by the author Bushra Rehman about a Pakistani Muslim girl from Queens was rejected by major publishers. “That was the one comment that I remember, that there is not an audience for this work.” Thankfully, Rehman persisted and Corona was published by a small independent press.
But the impact of this publishing system failure goes beyond the writer. It means readers lose vital stories that make up the broader contemporary narrative. This isn’t just unfortunate, but also perilous, as explained by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story”:
It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is nkali. It’s a noun that loosely translates to ‘to be greater than another.’ Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali: How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.
Just weeks ago, the author Mira Jacob was asked to give the keynote speech at a Publisher’s Weekly event. She was speaking about her experience being published as a writer who’s a woman of color, but ironically her speech went largely unheard, for technical and non-technical reasons. Adapting her remarks for a Buzzfeed post, Jacob said, “American audiences are capable of so much more than some in your industry imagine. And if we can break that down to what I really mean, I mean this: White Americans can care about more than just themselves. They really can. And the rest of us? We are DYING to see ourselves anywhere.” Jacob goes on to explain why it makes good business sense to publish books that reach and reflect untapped audiences. “Because all of us are so ready to talk about the world we live in. We are ready to have a publishing industry that is of that world.”
So, the next time a brilliant writer wins an award only after being rejected countless times, I will celebrate the writer and their persistence and victory against the odds. But I will continue to hold out hope that the winds of change will shift the odds in favor of more writers, creating a victory for everyone who loves new, untold stories.