Thursday, July 08, 2010

One Way to Stand Up Against Whitewashing

Publishing, like most industries, is extremely imitative of past successes. Said imitation drove the fantasy boom of the early 2000s, the vampire boom that followed that, the paranormal and wimpy-kid booms that have followed that. Why? Each big success proved there was a sizable market for such books, and then publishers rushed to sign up books to serve that market, or to create covers that played to that market -- quite often nearly duplicating the covers that inspired the original boom.

So, if you're upset about whitewashing or the proportional lack of authors of color in the industry, here's one of the most useful things you as book-buyers or -bloggers could do to change the situation: Make a huge success. All of you get together and pick a book, new in hardcover or new in paperback, with a protagonist of color on the front cover. (Note: The book chosen cannot be a book that's already won major awards or by an author who's already a major-award-winner/famous, because the resulting success would be attributed to those reasons, not protagonist-of-color-on-the-cover reasons.)

Then everyone buy this book, all the same week, from stores that report to the New York Times bestseller list. The IndieBound or Publishers Weekly bestseller lists would be great as well. And get your friends or family members to buy it too. Get every reader you know. (Note this may require pre-ordering the book from your local bookstore to be sure they have it in stock. All the better: The book will be sure to get that bookseller's attention.)

Get the book on said bestseller list. (It may take a few weeks of sustained book-buying to make this happen; the link above explains why.) I've seen the kidlitosphere come together and do amazing things; I don't doubt this is possible.

Ideally, do it again a few weeks later with a protagonist of a different color.

And then do it again one more time, or as many times as necessary. Making this project a regular kidlitosphere event, like the Reading Challenges or the Blog Blast Tours, would be fantastic.

And then every editor* in future who wants to acquire a book by an author of color or put a protagonist of color on the cover of a book will have solid numerical support that says "These books and these covers WORK." And then we can do more of them, and pay their authors more, and get bigger marketing budgets, and all those good things. The very worst thing that can happen here is that some deserving author gets a lot more attention and book sales, and I don't think anyone will object to that.

(* I haven't had any negative experiences with this myself: Every time I've wanted to do either of these things, I've had Scholastic's full support. But I've been following the stories with interest.)

I apologize preemptively to anyone who says, "Of course there's a market for these books -- I'm a person of color, and I'm the market, dammit!" Many of us editors are genuinely trying to publish books for you, and your flaunting your power here could make a huge difference in that effort. And obviously, there are a lot of pieces to this conversation -- getting submissions from authors of color; matching those submissions to the right editor; having sympathetic editors available; finding the right places to market and sell the books; encouraging readers and adult-book-buyers to cross color lines in buying books -- and I'm in no way saying this would address all of it. This is just ONE piece that would help those of us who are interested in these issues within the industry move the ball forward.

Thanks to all of you for supporting these books.


  1. LOVE this idea! It would be awesome to do. Thank you for sharing this. I'm in :D

    Scholastic does a really great job of publishing diverse stories. I took a poll asking people which publishing company they thought had the most diversity in YA and Shcolastic had the most votes. Now I just need to do the actual research.

  2. this IS a great idea. I think it would be fantastic if - somehow, though it's probably unlikely - we could all choose one book as our "test case," and really make a concerted effort as a (far-flung) community to make this happen for one specific title.

    and then another.

    and another.

  3. Thanks for paying attention to this kind of thing Cheryl. I think one of the problems too is that people of color who've live all our lives in the West are so used to the protag being a person without color (???) that we don't even recognize the problem anymore.

    This is tangential to your point, but I've just finished my first manuscript and the protag is a bi-racial girl, but I never mention her race in the manuscript for fear that agents and editors wouldn't think it would sell...also because her race really isn't relevant to the story.

    But I've often wondered if having a non-white protag might hurt your chances...not because of overt racism, mind you, but because of the simple fact that publishers understandable want to sign only those books they think they can sell.

    Oh well, such is life. :)

  4. Well, Jason, it all depends on the agent, editor, and publisher. Authentically written protagonists of color win you points with the editors at Arthur A. Levine Books; they might lose you points elsewhere. The reason I'm suggesting an effort like this one is to change the scoring system across the whole industry.

  5. Well, this is how Glenn Beck does it, right? But the idea of a organized buying campaign to reap fortune for one book (and how would you choose which one?) goes against everything I feel about book-buying, which, at its best, is personal and private. That's what makes it fun!

  6. Roger, if book buying is personal and private for you, then good on ya...but I'm not sure that's a moral obligation written in the stars that we must all live up to. Still, I see your point. I certainly respect popular books (even when I don't like them) because we've voted with our purses and they've come out on top, right? It's a very natural and organic process.

    On the other hand, I totally love to see non-minorities take these issues seriously. Says a LOT about the kind of person you are, Cheryl.

  7. Roger, book-buying for pleasure is fantastic, but pleasure surely isn't the only thing we read or buy books for? I buy them for reference, for research, to support an author I love, to be part of a community like my book group (which is also fun); and I'd view buying a book as part of this effort as participating in my kidlit community and trying to make it better.

    I also don't think choosing the book would be impossible: Someone agrees to organize the effort, sets some guidelines about pub dates, etc., accepts nominations on his/her website for a certain period, and then accepts votes on the website for another period. Once the winner emerges, this organizer would set the date for everyone to buy the book, and it would be the responsibility of the rest of us to spread the word. There's lots of opportunity for people to behave greedily here, of course, but those are equally opportunities for people to behave well.

  8. It certainly would be interesting to see what would happen. Can we find out what kinds of numbers would be needed to get a book on the list? It might be good to know what to aim for.

    I really do only buy books for pleasure, and I can't see where that is a stance of "moral obligation" as Jason says. Quite the contrary! It's completely hedonistic. Camille Paglia once wrote about how she hates when books announce that "some portion" of the proceeds would go to a given charity or cause. She felt that it was a kind of emotional blackmail-- buy this book or we will kill this dog. What you're proposing is not the same, except in that it attaches a similar moral dimension to what should be a simple choice: buying a book because you want to read it. In the past I have worried aloud that for all the talk *about* books in the blogosphere, we don't know what if any effect it has upon sales. Your proposal would give us some idea, albeit of an artificial nature: organizing people to *buy* a particular book is to me a kind of depressing distillation of getting people to *read* a particular book on the basis of seductive discussion rather than organized consumerism.

    And if there is no spillover effect, if only the targeted titles sell, what then? Publishers would know where the spike came from, so would they not be more interested in getting the next "blogosphere POC pick" rather than the next book by the author of the last one?

    But I'd be delighted to be proved wrong about all this, so go for it.

  9. I think this is a great idea if only for the let's see if it could actually work. Getting a community to come together and essentially support each other (on a large scale)would be amazing to see.

  10. Sign me up. I'm so disgusted about this that I'm willing to put my money where my emotions are, and in the spirit of full disclosure, I'm as lily-white EuroAmerican suburban mom as you can get.

  11. This is a great idea. I started doing this last year for Dork Diaries.

  12. Thanks for your great idea. While I am not of color, my daughter is and I so wish there were more books with characters that were different races. And for any books that do have characters of different races, I wish the publishers would get the covers right. I think kids do notice this. My daughter is 13 & starting to be bothered by this, especially when the skin color of a character in a book is not matched in the movie version.

    I'm so glad Arthur Levine is trying to be diverse. It's so important we all take a stand about this. Authors should do what they can to have input on their covers.

    The Spectacle had an interesting blog post on this subject this week too.

  13. We live in a highly diverse area (South Florida), where it's a wonderful mix of national identities and ethnicities from all over the Americas. We make a point to read books with all kinds of people to our young children, but it seems like when the kids hit MG or YA books, a lot of that wonderful diversity drops away. The kids channel into fewer and fewer books. I think part of it is "identity books"—the kids are seeking books with characters who are similar to them. But part of it also may be that, without research, it's harder to find diverse stories. So you point the way, and I'm in.

  14. I think this is interesting and true enough, but often the so-called "big" books are big before a reader has ever had a chance to see it. They get the big advances, the big marketing dollars, the big buzz. How else would a book debut on the NYT list?

    Cheryl, I'd be interested in your perspective on whether it's more likely for a book to grow big or be born that way.

  15. I'm going to ask a question, and I'm totally sincere about it. No flaming or rabble-rousing intended.

    Where in the submission process would an author state his race? Query letters contain information about the story itself. A bit of biographical information might be added, but it is my understanding that it should be past publishing credits or maybe work/life experience that gives the author a unique understanding for his story. I don't believe "I was a teenaged boy once, so I can write a teen boy's story" is what an editor expects. Neither should they expect "I was a Black/Asian/Hispanic teen, therefore I can write this story."

    I do not mean to offend. I don't look for books to buy because of the color of the main character. I look for books to buy with stories that will stir my imagination. Edgar Rice Burroughs covered the color spectrum with his "John Carter of Mars" series.

    A Reader

    p.s. the word verification is 'danti'. Brings up images of an inferno. Hmm.

  16. @Roger If only the targeted titles sell, that is still one more source highlighting books by people of color (and hopefully making them bestsellers) than we had before.

    @Martha There are three opportunities for a book to hit it big: with the editor, who might then pay a lot of money for it (which does not always recoup its investment); with the sales force, who might then read it and say "You know, we should spend a lot on marketing this" (which does not always recoup its investment); and with readers themselves via word of mouth, which pretty much always recoups its investment. If this worked, it would be all the more notable an achievement for coming from readers themselves.

    @Anonymous: I have a policy of not responding substantively to anonymous comments, especially on such a complicated subject as race -- if I have to own my words in talking about it, you do too. Sorry.

    For the record, I am not volunteering to organize this effort because I have obvious conflicts of interest in doing it.

  17. I like the idea of people going out and buying a children's book with a kid of color on the cover.

    Around the same time. That alone will say something, especially if it happens again and again.

    Though I just feel bad if one book is choosen because there are so many good ones out

    Plus its very difficult for a book to crack the NYT the organic way, especially an author who hasn't been on there before.

    As long as people buy books with kids of color on the cover, I am happy.

    I don't think readers are given enough oppurtunities or credit for buying these books.

  18. Why is there no person of color depicted on the cover of EIGHTH GRADE SUPER ZERO? Why is the African-American character silhouetted so that we can't see his skin?

    Is "blacking out" this character any different from white-washing another?

    Surely, this novel contains one of the most diverse casts of characters of any book out this year. Given the lack of person of color on the cover, would this book be disqualified for the very program you recommend?

    (And, yes, all rhetorical questions, given my anonymous status.)

  19. I LOVE this idea, Cheryl. Sign me up for it, too. You choose. I'll buy & encourage others to do so, too. I'm a person of partial color without color (grandfather, Native American, but you can't tell by looking at me). Some of my stories involve green people, but I don't think that's what you mean. (lol)

  20. Sorry to see you doubling down on that anonymous status, Anonymous. But actually, I will respond to your first question, only because I've already answered it elsewhere. See the comments here:

  21. I was thinking about topic again yesterday...

    I haven't done any sort of in-depth study, but it seems to me that readers don't have a problem with protags of color when race isn't the main issue of the storyline. I mean, consider the movie industry. There are several examples of this...The Karate Kid remake has two minority actors playing lead roles, for example. Or anything with Will Smith or Denzel Washington.

    I think the problem with books is that when a book has a black protag, his/her race is typically (not always) a significant part of the plot. And I think non-minority readers don't believe they can relate in those cases. Therefore a HUGE part of the market is removed for these works.

    The one exception I can think of is James Patterson's character, Alex Cross. He's black, and those books have done quite well. But once again, his race has virtually nothing to do with the story line.

    I know I'm biased because in my writing, race rarely has anything to do with the plot. But I wonder if seeing black as a *part* of who the protag is rather than the defining element of the character would help more black authors become mainstream...

    Certainly it doesn't make sense to claim that people have an aversion to blacks on principle where art/entertainment is concerned.

    Don't have it all figured out...I'm just thinking out loud here...

  22. I have to say I'm a little nervous about the flash mob aspect of your proposal, Cheryl, but you are absolutely right: we have to do *something*.

    What if we all agreed, on our blogs, to our friends, to ourselves, to give EVERY book we encounter featuring a person of color the same chance we give our favorite kinds of books?

    I'll even start, right now. I'm a big fantasy reader, and I have always given fantasy books much more of a chance than, say, a girl and her horse stories. Well, I'm going to give that same chance to books about people of color. And they won't all be good, but neither is every fantasy book I read. We have to get out of our comfort zones, put away our preconceived notions (Anyone else willing to admit they assume books about POC will be "issue" books?), and give these books a chance.

    And then, once we've started giving these books a chance, we *have* to talk about them, share them, and clamor for more.

  23. Well, fair enough, EA. You wrote a strongly worded post about whitewashing recently (; what would you suggest for readers who want to fight it?

  24. When do we start listing books to buy? That's what I'm interested in!