Diversity in Publishing: Good Ethics, Good Business

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Don’t mind me. I’m nobody.

I have no experience as a publisher, editor, or anthologist. Hell, I’ve only been an active member of the genre writing community for a couple years, and I have barely a handful of published credits to my name. As such, my opinion carries little to no weight.

That’s okay. I don’t think I’m smarter than people who have been doing this for decades. I don’t think I have all the answers. I don’t think I know better. All I know is what I believe, and if you don’t agree with me, well, feel free to chalk it up to me talking out of my ass.

Recently, the issue of diversity in publishing has reignited as a hot topic in the horror, bizarro, and weird fiction communities. It’s not a new issue. Nor is it one that necessarily impacts me, a (mostly) hetero-leaning white cis male, all that directly. I’m fortunate in that way. I’m privileged enough to not have to look very hard or very far to find my own perspective reflected back at me. A vast majority of the art and entertainment I consume is dominated by characters I can easily relate to, produced by creators who come from a similar background.

That doesn’t mean the issue of diversity in publishing doesn’t impact me whatsoever, though. It impacts every last one of us, in fact, and we should all view it as a matter of utmost importance. After all, isn’t the value of reading widely one of the great truisms which both readers and writers hold dear? That doesn’t just mean reading a wide variety of styles or genres; it also means reading a wide variety of authors, voices, and perspectives. Being open to a multitude of different worldviews, lifestyles, experiences, and identities is not just the hallmark of a good reader, but of a good person. In turn, our own life experience becomes all the richer for it, exposing us to possibilities we might have otherwise never dreamed of.

Which is why it disappoints me so much when I look at the table of contents of some new anthology and see not even one woman, person of color, or LGBTQ author listed as a contributor. It’s the kind of thing that makes me double-check the copyright page just to make sure that, yes, I am indeed holding a product of the current century.

Even when unintentional, this kind of oversight is especially damning when it comes to anthologies, wherein part of the whole point of the thing is to offer up a veritable witches’ brew of diverse voices. For all the variety that differing writing styles, plots, themes, and characters can provide, even if some contributors are specifically trying to represent perspectives different from the ones they personally identify with, the fact remains that you can line up a hundred hetero white guys and not one of them will be able to reproduce the unique viewpoints of just one woman, person of color, or LGBTQ author.

Of course, we are, all of us, different and unique and we all have our own singular life experiences, blah blah blah. That’s a given. But there are nevertheless some experiences which more or less all individuals of a certain background are more likely to be able to relate to. One hetero white guy may overall have very different life experiences from another hetero white guy, but chances are there remains a common baseline of experience uniting them simply because they are both hetero white guys. It might seem like a small thing, but that’s the kind of fundamental difference that stacks up over time. It affects the way you think and what you expect from life. It affects the very way you understand reality.

In a very real, meaningful way, women experience the world differently than men, people of color experience the world differently than whites, and LGBTQ individuals experience the world differently than straight folks. This does nothing to diminish the value of any individuals’ experiences, nor does it validate or invalidate any of those experiences above or below the others. None of this should be seen as excuse to hold biases against those who are different. Quite the opposite, it should motivate us to reexamine what biases we may already hold because of our individual privileges (or the lack thereof).

Therefore, an anthology which deprives readers of a truly diverse lineup of contributors in turn deprives readers of entire swaths of possibility and experience. Such an anthology inevitably falls far short of its full potential. And, frankly, in a market overflowing with competition, why should any reader be expected to waste their time and money on something that isn’t the very best it can be?

A few days ago, I said as much in a thread on Facebook, only to have my opinion completely dismissed by a writer and editor far more experienced and respected than myself. I don’t disagree with this person being held in high regard (in truth, I count myself as a fan). Nor do I dispute the validity of said person’s own experiences.

And yet…

Here’s the thing. In the simplest terms, this person’s argument boiled down to a rehash of the idea that it is not an editor or publisher’s responsibility to seek out and cultivate diversity, and that an editor or publisher shouldn’t be expected to do anything beyond simply rifle through whatever submissions they receive and select the very best stories they can, regardless of who wrote them.

Seems like pretty sound logic, right?

Eh, not so much.

I’m not even going to go in-depth into the disingenuousness of claiming editors/publishers always accept only the best stories regardless of author (admit it, if Stephen King submitted a pile of barely readable crap, most of us would probably accept it sight unseen, if only to guarantee the book healthy sales numbers and a shot at attention from mainstream media). Nor am I going to spend much time tackling the ugly underlying implication that women, POC, and LGBTQ authors would be published more if only they were good enough writers (independent from the fact that many of the very best writers working in genre fiction today are women, POC, and LGBTQ individuals, this notion blithely ignores years upon years of marginalization and homogenization through which minority voices have often, at best, been treated as novelty items and, at worst, been told in no uncertain terms that they are not welcome here).

Instead, I’m just going to focus on the question of what constitutes an editor or publisher’s “responsibilities.” At first blush, it seems reasonable to suggest that an editor/publisher should be beholden to nothing more and nothing less than the requirement that he or she put out the very best anthology they can, selecting the very best stories from whatever submissions that have found their way to them. Putting aside my earlier assertion that an anthology without a diverse set of contributors is inherently not the best it can be, the flaws with this line of thinking become apparent the moment we start thinking about everything else that we, both writers and readers, contributors and customers, expect from any publisher who wants to be taken seriously.

In general, we expect publishers to not only produce “good” products, but ethical ones as well. Otherwise, why would it cause a scandal when a publisher violates a contract, infringes copyright, fails to pay their writers, exploits rookie authors through predatory “for the love” submission calls, or employs someone with a proven history of sexual assault or who is literally Hitler?

Conducting business in an ethical manner is not just a responsibility of publishers; it’s a responsibility of all people, everywhere, at all times. Arguably, you can be a “good” publisher without being an ethical one, and you can be ethical publisher without being a “good” one. But, as previously noted, the market is awash with competition. When there are publishers out there who are indeed both “good” and ethical, why settle for anything less?

So then, what does it actually mean to be an ethical publisher? Well, aside from avoiding the obvious aforementioned pitfalls of shortchanging authors, employing white supremacist scumbags, etc., being an ethical publisher means, surprise surprise, seeking out and cultivating diversity.

Actively encouraging diversity is important. Not just because it inherently improves the quality of your product and enriches your costumers’ experiences with it, but also because it’s simply the right thing to do.

Why? Because women, POC, and LGBTQ individuals are still drastically underrepresented and often reduced to stereotypes, both on the page and behind the scenes. Because decades of this exact sort of thing has made the overall literary community into a place that is in some ways subtly intolerant and in other ways openly hostile towards voices which do not reflect the already accepted status quo. Because minority voices are already starting from a disadvantaged position which their majority peers can breeze right past, thus making “equality” an impossibility unless steps are taken to correct systemic prejudices.

These days, publishers are too frequently viewed, both by themselves and by writers, as godlike behemoths who exist to pass judgement on that which “good” and that which is “bad,” blessing the “good” with publication and banishing the “bad” to the hell of rejection. Publishers, in this context, become passive beings, monuments which we writers must trek to and grovel before, and if we don’t or can’t make that journey, well, that’s just one less supplicant for the publisher to pass judgement on. No worries; there are still many, many others eager to take our place.

Not all publishers embrace this view, but those that do, those who see no reason to actively search for and court new and different voices, are just plain lazy. Good publishers are not stationary gods. Good publishers are treasure-hunters.

Some publishers may protest, claiming they don’t have the time, energy, or resources to reach out to authors beyond their established pool of reliable contributors. As a reader, though, how am I supposed to trust that such a publisher will indeed put in the work required to make a final product worthy of my hard-earned money if I can’t even trust that publisher to put in the work required to put together a fresh, diverse line-up of contributors?

No one expects the unreasonable. No one expects your average small-press publisher to send out a network of undercover scouts to every community-college workshop and open-mic night on the eastern seaboard in hopes of discovering the next great diamond in the rough. But is it too much to request that a publisher or editor put in a few extra minutes of effort to ensure their latest submissions call explicitly asks for and encourages diversity? Or to ensure that said submissions call is posted in places where diverse authors might actually see it? Like I said at the start, I myself am not an editor or a publisher, so maybe I’m wrong here, but it doesn’t really seem like that taxing a request.

Either way, being that I’m not an editor or a publisher, I don’t really have a whole lot of power to directly correct what I perceive to be a genuine injustice in genre fiction. As a writer, though, I do have the power to say “No thank you, I don’t want to be involved” to any project pretending it’s 1955 and that heteronormative whitebread sausagefests are still acceptable. And, more importantly, as a reader I have the power to say “Fuck you, you will not get my money” to any product whose creators are too lazy to be bothered to put in even the bare minimum of effort to ensure diversity.

I may be nobody and my opinion might not carry much weight, but my cash sure does. Some editors and publishers can’t see past their own privilege, but they sure as shit can see the difference between good business and bad business.

Vote with your dollars, friends. Don’t just ask for better. Demand it.

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