Today is International Women’s Day – a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating women’s equality (definition from the IWD website). Each year there is a theme to International Women’s Day and this year’s theme is Break the Bias. As I’ve reflected on the past year, I’ve realized that it’s not enough to just be a woman advocating for women. My post from last year’s IWD reflects a great deal on this year’s theme, coincidentally, but it also gives me a good starting point for this year’s reflection.
Diary of a Bookseller #24
Today I think about how much I’ve actually struggled to break my own implicit bias when it comes to selecting the books that I choose to read. Since last year’s post, 27 out of the 35 books I have read have been by women. Every book I’ve read so far this year has been written by a woman. Three of the 8 books by men that I read were for book club, 1 is by a gay man, so of 35 books read, only 4 that I read by choice were by straight white men.
Safe to say, I don’t need to set the goal to read more books by women, I’m doing pretty well there. But what I do need to do, is read more books by BIPOC and LGBTQ+ women. My feminist book list is overwhelmingly white and straight. As I intended to last year, I did read Me and White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad, but have I reviewed it on here yet? No. There are many reasons for this, but I should.
But numbers are my safe place (I know, a bookseller with a math degree, who would have thought) and it often takes a breakdown of statistics for me to see things clearly. So of the 27 books by women, two were authored by one Asian American author, and two by two black women. And only one book by a woman who actively identifies as a member of the LGBTQ+ community*. Pitiful. And of the books in my new favorite subgenre of mid-century historical feminist fiction with a hint of coziness? Yep. All straight* cis white women. I’m disappointed in myself.
But I’ve gotten to thinking. In the past year, I’ve read a lot more advance reader copies than usual. I wasn’t just pulling books off the shelves to read. And there is, of course, a major conversation going on in publishing right now regarding diversity (#publishingsowhite was trending on Twitter last summer). There was a great deal of backlash when one of my favorite Aussie authors got not one, but four ARCs printed for his vampire book while many debut fantasy authors, particularly women of color and queer women distributed by the same publishing house, did not get that kind of pre-publication boost to get their books in the hands of booksellers, bloggers and influencers.
ARCs are best for debuts, not for authors who already have a rabid fan base who have been talking about their upcoming book for literal years. They don’t need the help. Do I love getting to read books by my favorite authors months before everyone else? Of course. But I would have read it anyway, I didn’t need an advance copy. The books I blurbed (not counted in my statistics because I count them differently), are mostly from digital advance copies and are far more diverse (including those by the aforementioned LGBTQ+ women of color). But those are digital copies which is why I blurb read them, and didn’t sit down and savor them. I approach them differently because despite the seismic shift to digital advance copies, I still infinitely prefer a physical book in my hand, which brings me to manuscripts & physical ARCs.
Every manuscript I’ve received in the past year has been from a straight white woman. Again, they’ve got the woman part down. Every physical ARC I’ve been asked to blurb has been by a white woman. Again, the publishers know that I love anything with a strong female protagonist. And I read a lot of historical and feminist fiction and romance**. White women aren’t lacking for representation in these genres. But it makes me wonder, why isn’t there more diversity in the physical advance copies and manuscripts? Do they exist and just aren’t being sent to me/the store? Or is there existence lacking? Is it proportional to their representation in the industry (which should be higher anyway)?
What I can say, not to make me feel better but to end on a small high note, is that the characters of my reading selections have become far more diverse. My books may not be #ownvoices titles, but their authors have taken great care to represent an accurate cross-section of society. They may be straight cis white women, but their characters are so much more. And as they are not reviled on BookTok, Goodreads, Bookstagram or Twitter, I have to hope that means they’ve done a good job representing people who identify differently than themselves.
* In tracking this information, I do have an “unknown” classification if I cannot find direct evidence of a person’s orientation. There may be more authors I’ve read who are BIPOC or LGBTQ+ but I could not find direct evidence. About a third of authors I’ve read have unknown in one or both of these categories.
** Romance here is an exception, but I usually give the romance ARCs to my coworkers first so I haven’t actually read as many but they, my coworkers, have testified to the diversity in the romance ARCs we receive.