It’s been weeks, and I can’t get #WeNeedDiverseBooks out of my head. The support for the cause has blown me away, but I know one of the major questions that has come out of the campaign is “What can I do? What can someone like little ol’ me do to make a difference?”
I am SO glad you asked!
1. Buy diverse books
Duh. If you want to support diverse books, then buy them. And when I say “buy diverse books,” I mean make an effort to buy diverse books. If you’re anything like me, your to-read list is miles long. I get that. And it’s easy to use whatever pocket cash you have to pick up the latest Big Thing on the market. There’s nothing wrong with picking up that shiny story you’ve been eyeing, but what I’m saying is that you should put some thought into your purchases.
A few weeks ago, Better World Books (a used books site I love) was having a great sale—4 books for $10. Instead of picking whatever looked good, I made sure my choices looked good and had a healthy variety of characters. Of the five books I bought, three of them had diverse MCs. It’s not a perfect ratio, but it’s a start, and it was purposeful. Now, since they were used books, that money doesn’t make it back into the authors’ pockets and the publishing houses don’t factor it into sales stats. But now that I own them, I can read and promote them. They’ll go in my haul post, in my “books I can’t wait to read” posts; I can work them into RRSS14 and write reviews when I’m done. I can still support these stories, regardless of where I bought them. Ideally, though, purchasing new books from retailers works best. Preordering new books from retailers works even better!
2. Read diverse authors
This one took a bit for me to get used to. I love authors, but I don’t pay attention to them at all until I’ve read their books. I honestly can’t tell you what half of my favorite authors look like, and I certainly don’t bother reading their bios. So when I was told to pay attention to diverse authors, I didn’t see how I could. After all, how could I know if “Ms. Smith” was black, white, or purple, and why would I care so long as her book was good?
I’ll admit, I’m still not very good at this. I don’t read author bios and I don’t look at photos. I don’t exactly care who wrote a book as long as it’s good, but. BUT! Again, it’s all about effort expended. It can be incredibly hard for diverse authors to get an adequate platform for their books. As a reader (and especially as a blogger), you have the power to make an immense difference. Your friends listen to you. They trust you. So if you find a diverse author that you enjoy, TELL SOMEBODY! Write a review! Interview the author! Brag about them on Twitter! USE YOUR VOICE.
3. Seek out lesser known titles
I’ve already touched on this one, but don’t spend all your time with the bestsellers and frontlist titles. Yes, these are often great books and that’s why they’re promoted so heavily, BUT there are often equally great books that get far less press because of different reasons. Publishers back what they consider to be the best bets (ex: an “in” genre, already popular author, spunky kick-butt white female protagonist, etc.) and give those books the bulk of the publishing dollars. It’s business, not personal, but since too many publishing gurus believe the antiquated (and incorrect) popular wisdom that diverse books don’t sell well, those stories are often left out in the cold. Books that are underpromoted don’t garner the initial buzz that they need to succeed. Then they undersell and soon fall off everyone’s radar, thereby becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy that “proves” that diverse books don’t sell well.
There is an easy way to free books from this cycle, and it’s one you can help with. Look beyond the headliner books. Dig into the midlist or backlist instead. Scour your local library shelves. Talk to your friends, and find out what quiet books they’ve enjoyed over the last few seasons. Talk to your publishing contacts and find out what unloved darlings they’ve cherished. Odds are everyone has an underpromoted beauty that they can’t wait to foist on a willing victim. (Just look at the #UndertheRaderYA hashtag!)
4. Follow others who read diverse books
I get so many wonderful recommendations from friends. They know me, and I know them. I trust their taste, and without them, I wouldn’t have nearly the breadth and depth in my shelves that I do. Follow people who read diverse books. Follow people who stride off the beaten path and uncover those hidden gems. Let your feed do your work for you. They’ll find the cool books. All you have to do is scoop up the recommendations they shower you with. BOOM. Hard work done. (This is the easiest way to get started if the previous step is too daunting for you.)
5. Change your default
Talk about life-changing. In general, everyone has a character setting they default to when picturing an undescribed character. In our culture, the default is white. Think about it. If I told you that I had a friend John who had brown eyes, what skin color would you mentally assign John? This default is the reason people were in an uproar when they found out Rue and Cinna from The Hunger Games were black, even though they were clearly described as such in the book. Look, I get it. Brains are lazy. They jump to conclusions and stick with them, even when those conclusions are wrong. But guys, white is not a default setting, not in literature and not in life. It is one option out of many, many other options. This isn’t a piece of notebook paper we’re talking about, but a person.
I was mulling over this idea of an erroneous default while reading A Creature of Moonlight by Rebecca Hahn. I realized that I had been picturing everyone in the book—Marni, her grandfather, the handsome duke, the king and queen, the villagers—as white. BUT ABSOLUTELY NOTHING PEGGED THEM AS WHITE. There was no talk of fair skin or freckles or flaxen hair. If I remember correctly, the closest Ms. Hahn comes to a physical description is mention of a character’s dark hair. (Which, I shouldn’t have to point out, is a common hair color in every race.) So, on a whim, I decided to mentally adjust the races of everyone in the book. I decided Marni looked like Lupita Nyong’o, and her grandfather and uncle would follow suit, ethnically speaking. Her aunt, on the other hand, is mentioned as being from a different country, so I pictured her as a Hispanic woman. And guys, it was EXCELLENT.
Bottom line? Change starts with you. It starts in your own mind, with your own attitudes and perceptions. Change those, and then you can change your actions. Change your actions, and who knows? Maybe one day the push for diverse books won’t be needed any longer. We can only hope.