What You Read Matters

Recently, someone on Instagram commented on one of my posts about Standard Written English (don’t know what that is? You can read the blog here) and stated that they don’t buy books because of the author, that they don’t pay any attention to who has written the book, their race, gender, sexuality, or even what genre the book is — they just read whatever book appeals to them in the moment.

Their argument was that they have no bias because they aren’t intentionally reading books by white authors.

I know you’re a good person; I know I’m a good person (mostly).

I know that neither of us would intentionally hurt another person.

If you’re an avid reader, it’s reasonable to assume that you are thoughtful, progressive, empathetic, and considered (among many other sterling qualities); you’re one of the good guys!

And you are (!), but here’s where things get a little tricky and sticky.

Want to hear some disturbing facts?

79 percent of the publishing industry is white.

88 percent of the books reviewed by The New York Times are written by white authors.

Consumers engaged with a product up to SEVEN TIMES before they even consider buying it.

While you may not be bias about the types of books that you are reading, the publishing industry is bias about the types of books they’re willing to publish.

The majority of narratives published by the industry belong to white writers.

So, even if you are not intentionally buying books by white authors, statistically speaking, the majority of the books you SEE will be written by white authors.

Whether we want to admit it or not, we do have a natural bias for the familiar.

We read books by white authors in school, we study them in university, we (somewhat) unknowingly fill our bookshelves with these particular narratives because we have been told this is what good literature is.

If this person is learned and reflective, they will likely recognise this fault and start to diversify (hopefully).

This is where the road splits and two things can happen:

  1. The unaware reader gets a job in publishing and continues to advocate for books that fit into the shelf of ‘familiar white narratives.’
  2. The aware reader gets a job in publishing and learns that books written by white authors sell better than books written by black, indigenous, or people of colour.

In a research paper published by Macquire University in March 2017, 63% of Australian readers believe that books by Indigenous authors are important for Australian culture, but only 42% expressed interest in reading these narratives.

Fifty-one percent of Australians read one to ten books a year.

Similarly, according to the Pew Research Center, the average American reads 12 books (in whole or in part) a year. When this statistic was broken down further, it was revealed that Hispanic and black, non-Hispanic people read eight books a year, and white, non-Hispanic people read 13 books a year.

My point? That’s not a lot of books.

Want another scary statistic?

In 2017, Australian publishers (of which there are 4,078) collectively published 23, 832 new books.

23 832 new books in ONE year and the average reader is getting through ten (if I’m being generous). 

Want another one?

The average person will read 2,000 books in their lifetime.

It’s reasonable to assume that most people working in publishing are pretty progressive, but when you look at the data and see who is buying books, it is easy to see why (and how) books are marketed to white people and why white voice are promoted over marginalised narratives.

The problem is complex and systemic, and the challenge of correcting this problem has left authors, publishers, and readers wondering, ‘Where do we start?’

There are a variety of issues that need to be addressed.

  • People in positions of power need to check their bias and publish narratives by BIPOC authors.
  • The industry needs to create more opportunities for black, indigenous, and people of colour, so that publishing is able to diversify from the inside out.
  • How we educate readers and writers about what constitutes ‘good prose’ needs to change.
  • We need to consider who has written the books that we are consuming.
  • We need to buy books by authors whose race, gender, religion, and sexuality, differ from our own.

And all these changes need to be made to an industry that is already in crisis.

People may be reading more than ever, but they aren’t reading books. It’s the sales of a few, very high-profile authors that are keeping this ship afloat.

I don’t want to live in a world without books, and I don’t want to live in a world with only one type of book.

So, what can you do?

Buy books by indigenous Australians (here’s ONE list and ONE publisher).

Buy books by black authors (here’s ONE list)

Buy books by black booksellers (USA).

Include characters who aren’t white in your fiction (here’s a blog about how to do that).

What a long read that does a deep-dive on this topic? Check out this fantastic article by Vice. 

This is a big topic, more than I can possible cover in a 1,000 word blog post, so if you have any recommendations or points you’d like to raise, please leave a comment below.


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