Australian writer Foz Meadows is rapidly becoming a favorite columnist of mine. She’s sharp, erudite and a good researcher. Over at Black Gate Magazine’s site, Meadows gives a meditative take on the resistance to diversity in the SFF field that involves all of us, conscious and unconscious, and how the industry responds and contributes to these issues in the article “Challenging the Classics: Questioning the Arbitrary Browsing Mechanism.” And she even references me! Specifically the piece I did in July on publishers needing to prove they really do want women authors to get women authors and why, “Reality and the Welcome Sign: Gender and SFFH,” in response to an announcement from Tor UK’s editor, Julie Crisp, on diversity and SF.
But that’s not really what impressed me about the article, nice as it is. Browsing is one of the three main interactive factors of the fiction market, along with symbiosis and variety. How readers browse is therefore deeply critical to what fiction publishers do, and I hope that a lot of them and booksellers especially will consider Meadows’ piece. If we improve diversity in browsing, and in marketing and publishing fiction, we improve and increase the market, the effectiveness of browsing. I also think it’s great that Black Gate editor John O’Neil has not only taken a long critical look at his own thinking, but continues to promote the discussion of these issues, including publishing Meadows’ piece. (Plus, have you checked out the fiction at Black Gate? — it’s really good.)
The depressing side of the article is that Meadows documents the many obstacles put in the path of that improvement, and often in our own brains. These artificial obstacles hurt SFFH, they hurt YA, and they greatly limit the appeal of fiction books, by a combination of discouraging readers away from books that they are trying to sell, and making it impossible for many readers to find the interesting and diverse books that have managed to get out there.
Books survive on a combination of the appeal of our romantic notions of them as objects and entertainment/insight providers, and getting as many people as possible to ever read any of them, any kind of book, in any format. Self-reinforcing and false feedback loops that discourage reading and limit it, sink the book market. Essentially, when booksellers insist that stories with non-white protagonists get whitewashed covers, for example, and publishers go along with that idea, they are committing sales suicide, not only for the book in question, but more importantly for the books to come. When the industry and fans promote the idea of women written books being only for women and always of poorer quality, for instance, they are sinking the market, losing huge chunks of growth. Throwing up your hands and wondering where the readers have gone when you’ve been telling them to leave and that there’s nothing for them here is creating a death spiral. While fiction stories will always survive, we could be surviving so much better, if not for absurd scripts in our heads that are put out in the market. (And it is in our heads — booksellers have no stats that the damaging marketing techniques are needed, only fears.)
It is in this area that self-publishing may be beginning to play an interesting and vital role. E-books sales are leveling off as they took up what they are going to of the mass market paperback market, and as tablet enthusiasts and electronics companies lose interest in books in favor of apps and video. And a lot of the folk who dove into the self-publishing pool have gone back out again after not selling many copies. But those who continue to experiment in that market include many authors who have found the going harder to get folk interested in trying their stuff — stories about women, non-whites, non-Western cultures, gay characters that come out in the other sectors of fiction publishing too, but which may be marketed badly. What we know is, when stories and authors who have been marginalized — and declared by many not to exist — see a real opening in the marketplace that they can get to, they’re right there. And the response is often new sales, new readers, and market growth for the whole industry.
So check out Meadows’ piece and some of the excellent articles she links to (no, not mine, the other ones,) especially this one on racism and YA book covers, “It Matters If You’re Black or White: The Racism of YA Book Covers” by YA librarian Annie Schutte.