‘No room at the table’: Student authors call for diversifying publishing industry

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From The Stanford Daily:

When Kyla Zhao ’21 was looking for agents to publish her debut novel “The Fraud Squad,” prospective agents asked if she would be willing to change her book’s setting from Singapore to America. If she wanted her novel to be more “marketable,” they said, she could make some of her Asian characters white too. Zhao refused and found her current agent, Alex Rice, instead.

“It’s apparently quite common when you’re an author of color that a publisher says, ‘We already have one book coming out this season from a Black author, we don’t need another story from a Black author,’” Zhao said.

Though the publishing industry has long been a rigid and oversaturated environment for authors, the road to publishing can be even more challenging for women and writers of color. Traditionally, books published by female authors are also priced 45% lower on average than those by male authors.

This creates a “zero-sum game” in publishing, said Zhao, and leaves “no room at the table to foster stories from the same community.”

“I think that also goes back to this perception of marginalized communities as a monolith, where everyone in this community has the same experiences,” she said. “There’s just not as much room for diverse experiences as one would hope.”

“The Fraud Squad” tells the story of a woman who impersonates a socialite to infiltrate high society and secure her dream job. Because Zhao is supported by Berkley Books, she can publish and promote the novel through resources like Berkley’s marketing team and cover artists for free. These resources can cost thousands of dollars for a self-published author.

But still, as traditional publishing can push out authors from marginalized communities or limit their creative control over edits, more and more writers are now turning to self-publishing. More than 1.7 million books are self-published every year. 

Aparna Verma ’20 has, uniquely, gone both routes. Her debut novel, “The Phoenix King,” was originally self-published as “The Boy With Fire” in 2021. 

“I want to keep writing the books that I want to write,” Verma said about her initial decision to self-publish the novel. “I don’t want to ever be held back by people’s rules or expectations.”

Verma called her novel “an Indian-inspired sci-fi fantasy that blends futuristic elements with ancient Hindu mythology.” After “The Boy With Fire” gained popularity on social media platforms such as TikTok, it was picked up by a traditional publisher, Orbit Books, and republished in August. For Verma, one vital factor of her positive experience with Orbit was working with a South Asian editor.

“It was so amazing working with a South Asian editor because she just understood all the little intricacies and subtleties,” Verma said. “She didn’t ask me to change the cultural authenticity. She asked me to expand.” 

Verma called for more women and people of color to hold positions of power in the traditional publishing industry. So did Shanti Hershenson, a self-published teenage author from California.

“If I were a man, I feel as though I would be so much more successful by now and I would have so many people reading my books,” Hershenson said.

Hershenson, a sophomore in high school who lives in Carlsbad, Calif., has published 14 books and written 26. She said she has felt and seen sexism during book festivals, where she has witnessed men acting “really passive aggressive” towards young female writers. 

“I had a guy come up to me and try to tell me how my book’s title is grammatically incorrect,” she said. “It’s not. That title went past multiple people before it went out, and I know my grammar.”

Link to the rest at The Stanford Daily

13 thoughts on “‘No room at the table’: Student authors call for diversifying publishing industry”

  1. Back in the 70s, Johnny Rotten predicted–correctly, it turns out–that Billy Idol would go far because he was so very, very stupid. And that is the vibe I get from the lady writers mentioned in the OP.

  2. Perhaps the OP would do better looking not just at the internal/editorial hierarchy of the publishers (and its lack of diversity), but the positively monochromatic array of control persons at the C-suite level and above. Think for a moment about the race/gender/religion/national origin “diversity” among the CEOs and controlling shareholders at Bertelsmann, von Holtzbrinck, NewsCorp, Hachette, and National Amusements (not to mention Pearson, Wolters Kluwer…); you’ll be shocked — shocked, I tell you — to find that the policies and procedures unconsciously adopted in that group percolate downward/reinforce preexisting attitudes in their contact-with-the-author hierarchical structures.

        • How does an unpaid internship “reinforce preexisting attitudes in their contact-with-the-author hierarchical structures.”

          How about paid internships?

          • How many minorities can afford to take an unpaid internship to move up, someday, into a paying job? In NYC? Especially when the paying jobs go to “friends of a friend of the family”?
            They help by filtering out the great unwashed.

              • The rich ones from Ivy league schools.
                Mind you, those are few, but with those criteria in mind, what chance the OP gets what it wants?

                • I’d say there is very slim chance of the OP getting what she wants no matter who is wrangling the Xerox machine for free.

                  These companies are interested in making money. She doesn’t make the case that her book will do that. There is an odd notion that people have an obligation to finance some author who wants the world to hear her voice. That’s why God made KDP.

                • And web sites.
                  And social media.
                  Getting your voice out isn’t the gripe; getting the payday loan is.

  3. “Traditionally, books published by female authors are also priced 45% lower on average than those by male authors”

    Interesting – if true – but it would be much more interesting if analysed by genre, for example, and also if the impact on sales – and thus author income – could be factored in. When it comes to the e-books the price in the UK (£3.99) has clearly been set by the publisher (Headline Accent and thus ultimately Hachette) to maximise sales. So far as I can tell (as a pretend American via a VPN) Berkley are charging $11.99 to reduce her sales.

    “…she can publish and promote the novel through resources like Berkley’s marketing team and cover artists for free. These resources can cost thousands of dollars for a self-published author.”

    I suspect that she has no control on whether Berkley’s marketing team will actually do anything for her book, and there is no recourse if she hates the provided cover. Still, it can cost thousands for a self-published author if they are (a) gullible and (b) dealing with con artists.

    • American corporate publishing has repeatedly made it clear they don’t believe in price elasticity and that discounting “devalues” their precious. Their goal is to maximize launch window income and maximize per unit reader spend.

      In their world, a book that launches with 10,000 sales in the first month and 100,000 in the first year is a failure but one that moves 40,000 the first month and 50,000 total, ever, is a success.

  4. I am sure that Ms. Hershenson believes that if she were male she would have greater success. Frankly, the reason she isn’t more successful is because she’s a teenager, albeit apparently a precocious one, and looking at her bibliography on Amazon her output seems to be pretty standard YA dystopian fare.

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