#PublishingSoWhite: 13 Ways to Diversify Your Press

February 19, 2016 by Vivek Shraya

Stemming from a keynote speech and performance delivered last month in Toronto, artist and author  Vivek Shraya details thirteen positive recommendations to publishers looking to diversify their presses. In the wake of #OscarsSoWhite, we'll see that there's work to be done at every step of the way: from acquisitions, to marketing, to simply examining our own existing biases.

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I recently had the honour of giving the keynote at the Association of Canadian Publishers/Literary Press Group’s Mid-Winter Conference. I shared my experiences as an artist who has self-published three times, and has now been published by Arsenal Pulp Press.

Publishers need to take more risks in publishing, in regards to both format and content. One way to do this is to rethink the notion of risk itself. Is it a risk to publish more books that reflect what the world actually looks like or is it a necessity? It’s also critical to redefine what “diversity” means, as our current definition is often limited. As a queer and trans person, I believe that a diverse booklist must include queer and trans writers, women writers and writers with disabilities, but I also see the ways in which the word diversity is used as a means to gloss over and not consider race and racism. Whiteness tends to dominate in every arena, including sexuality and gender, so even a “diverse” booklist remains overwhelmingly white.

During the Q&A, there were questions from publishers who stated that they realized that this was an issue, but were struggling with what they could do to address it. After reflecting on these questions (and talking to friends and peers), I came up with the list of suggestions below. The list is by no means exhaustive, nor are these suggestions without their own set of challenges, but the most important point to note is that systemic change, or change in general, cannot happen without action. Sometimes the action required feels uncomfortable or unfamiliar, but change seldom occurs without discomfort.

1. Examine your biases. Often in trying to have these conversations, the discussion turns to questions like to “shouldn’t we be focusing on publishing GOOD books? As opposed to books by such and such group?” To lean on this argument is to suggest that all the books currently being published are selected solely on the basis of merit, which also suggests that white male authors are by far the most prolific and consistent producers of “good” books. There are many factors that determine which books get published, which books sell and are acclaimed, and it is naive and detrimental to not acknowledge race as one of these factors.

2. Examine how you use the word “diversity.” If your mandate includes the word diversity, ensure that your website, catalogues, and general profile reflect this diversity. As a writer of colour, noting the lack of diversity—and the consistent whiteness—on publishers’ rosters was demoralizing for me. I was certain these publishers would not be interested in my work, and even if I submitted my manuscript to these presses, I worried about how my writing would get misread or dismissed for being too “ethnic.” The flipside is that writers of colour are more likely to submit to a publisher that clearly shows they do, in fact, celebrate diverse voices. I felt more confident submitting a bisexual love story to Arsenal Pulp Press, as they have a solid track record of publishing LGBTQ books. Diversity is a standard that has to be lived up to in practice, not an empty buzzword.

3. Do an open call: If you are committed to publishing diverse books and you are noticing that all your submissions are by white males, do an open call: “We are committed to publishing x number of books by Indigenous and Black writers, and writers of colour every season, and are actively seeking submissions from these writers.” Share this on social media. Ask writers of colour you are connected to (like myself!) to help spread the word, as your networks might not yet be as diverse as you would like them to be. You might not get submissions at first, but an essential part of the work is doing it continually. A writer of colour might not have a manuscript to submit this year, but they might take note of your open call, and submit to you next year. A great example of an open call is Caitlin Press imprint Dagger Press’ recent call-out for specifically queer women. It didn’t explicitly request self-disclosure. The assumption was that whoever was submitting a manuscript self-identifies as a queer woman. Here is another example of an open call by Room Magazine.

4. Reword your mandate: A focused open call might feel like too bold a move (though I maintain that bold moves are necessary!). If this is the case, consider rewording your submissions mandate: “We are committed to publishing diverse voices and experiences. In acknowledging historical and systemic barriers, and the limits of our existing catalogue, we strongly encourage Indigenous and Black writers, and writers of colour to submit their work.” This kind of transparency signals to an interested writer of colour that although your existing catalogue or brand might not reflect the diversity you seek, you recognize this and are working to make changes.

5. Provide opportunities for self-disclosure. One of the issues that came up is that many writers don’t self-disclose their racial background and there is a fear of making assumptions. One way to handle this would be to include in your submission process a statement modelled after the Ontario Arts Council’s Voluntary Statistical Information Form (page 4 in document)—but not for the purposes of collecting stats. This gives the writer the option to self-disclose.

6. Feature your writers of colour. If you have a “Featured Authors” section, feature writers of colour. This signals to writers of colour that you do, in fact, publish diverse voices. If you don’t currently publish writers of colour, consider featuring only one or two authors until your roster grows.

7. Promote your writers of colour. Author Farzana Doctor, who also curates the monthly Brockton Writers Series, shared her experience of receiving largely white writers’ submissions from publishers to program in the series. She then explicitly requested Indigenous and Black writers and writers of colour, and only then started to receive these submissions from publishers. Not equitably supporting your writers of colour does a disservice not only to the writers but also to your publishing company, as it perpetuates the message that your press only supports white writers.

8. Publish an anthology project.This creates an opportunity for you to receive work from writers of colour that you might not yet be exposed to and to foster relationships for future projects. If you already publish anthologies, feature writers of colour.

9. Build partnerships. When you are organizing tours, panels, or launches, partner with other publishers (such as Kegedonce Press & Mawenzi House) who are committed to publishing writers of colour. This cultivates a rich sense of literary community. Also, consider partnering with local writing groups for youth of colour, perhaps by offering small sponsorships. Most publishers are too understaffed and overworked to provide opportunities such as writing mentorships, which would perhaps increase submissions from writers of colour, but partnering with existing organizations (such as Diaspora Dialogues) that are already doing this work might be an easier option. This would encourage these writers to submit to your press when they are ready. 

10. Go to readings. ECW Press Creative Director Crissy Calhoun and I were chatting and she talked about the importance of going to local events, especially ones that highlight diverse writers like Shab-e She’r, to check out emerging writers of colour and develop relationships, rather than being limited to only manuscripts that are being submitted. This allows you to actively seek diverse writers if they aren’t finding their way to you.

11. Reach out. Read books written by writers of colour. If you like their work, reach out to them directly. Tell them that you loved their book and that you would love to read a future manuscript. Writers of colour experience immeasurable rejection, and gestures like this could inspire them to keep writing, even if you don’t end up publishing their work.

12. Examine your hiring practices. Do you have people of colour working at your company? Why not? If you have an internship program, consider hiring a person of colour. (For an example, note in Publishers Weekly’s current job posting for a reviewer, they state: “Applicants of color and LGTBQ backgrounds are highly encouraged to apply.”) Every time I have considered submitting a manuscript, I have worried about whether a white publisher or acquisitions editor will be able to understand what I am trying to do, or dismiss it because they don’t relate to it. Applying to a press with a person of colour as a publisher (in my instance, Brian Lam, at Arsenal Pulp Press) has made a huge difference in terms of my willingness to submit because I trust that the work will be treated respectfully. Having staff of colour would also potentially diversify the kind of networks you have, and hopefully result in more diverse work being submitted to your press.

13. Continue to examine your biases. While many publishers might genuinely receive only submissions from white authors, I know that I have personally submitted my work to at least a dozen Canadian publishers (repeatedly) and have been rejected. This experience is not uncommon amongst my writer friends of colour. This brings us full circle. Examining and unlearning biases has to be a continuous effort. Ask yourself hard questions when reading submissions like, Why am I not connecting to this story? Is it because it’s not “good” or is it because it doesn’t match or confirm my experiences? Why do I think this white author will make us more money? For support with this, your press might consider seeking diversity training. Or, if in Ontario, consider applying to the Compass program (via Ontario Arts Council) to assist with hiring a consultant to develop a diversity strategy. Lastly, question your assumptions about what you think readers want to read. My consistent experience has been that readers are hungry for unique, genre-bending books. Perhaps there is a large untapped market for the kinds of books that you aren’t currently publishing!

Special thanks to Brian Lam, Farzana Doctor, Crissy Calhoun, Jack Illingworth, Shemeena Shraya, Adam Holman and Trisha Yeo for their assistance with this piece. The author wishes to acknowledge that the title for this piece was inspired by April Reign's hashtag #OscarsSoWhite.

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Vivek Shraya is a three-time Lambda Literary Award finalist, a 2015 Toronto Arts Foundation Emerging Artist Award finalist, and a 2015 recipient of the Writers’ Trust of Canada’s Dayne Ogilvie Prize Honour of Distinction. She is the author of She of the Mountains, God Loves Hair and the forthcoming collection of poetry, even this page is white (Arsenal Pulp Press, Spring 2016).

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Many, many thanks to Vivek for writing this thoughtful, considered piece on where we can go from here.



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