Whitewashing in Publishing: What Can Readers Do?
Where is whitewashing in the publishing industry occurring and how can we as readers advocate for change?
It should come as no surprise that whitewashing is deeply embedded in publishing practices. Starting from acquisition and all the way through publication and marketing/publicity, stories by BIPOC authors* are likely to face erasure in some way shape or form. And, as always, it typically comes down to a publisher’s bottom line; Especially for big houses that have stakeholders to report to, profits are considered above all else. And with ideas rooted in capitalism, they hit the nail on the head repeatedly in their desperate attempt to cater to white women.
“The industry doesn’t collect demographic data on readership, but when agents and editors talk about book-club readers, they tend to have a particular person in mind: ‘suburban white women ages 35 to 65 who lean liberal,’ one agent explained.” And this doesn’t come without consequence. Earlier on in that article, an editor who received a manuscript of American Dirt, a problematic novel depicting a whitewashed version of immigration, says: “I remember telling my boss, ‘I feel like this is finally a book about immigration that people who have no interest in immigration will read.’” No matter that the author’s own identity lent itself to an inauthentic plot line; what really mattered to these editors was what white readers would think.
But if publishers base everything around the demands of white women, and then use that resulting information to reinforce and justify those actions, they enforce a toxic cycle of confirmation bias rooted in white supremacy. Of course publishers think their audience is only made of white women—if that’s what they believe, then that’s who they are going to cater to and seek out, and then that’s who is going to continue buying their books. But if they branched beyond that, considered publishing more diversely and embedded more equitable practices into their everyday functions, they’d see a wider range of buyers.
With the rise of social media, more examples of whitewashing in publishing are making their way out into the public, instead of staying behind closed doors. Stories that may not receive large marketing budgets—whether because of the size or ingrained racism in the publisher—have a chance of becoming well known.
In this issue, we’re breaking down a few common whitewashing practices in publishing, as well as ways to help combat them. Read on for real-life examples, as well as the usual treats: featured writings from our community members and free downloads.
*It’s not just whitewashing—it’s fatphobia, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, xenophobia, etc. The practices we discuss in this newsletter can be extended to any of these issues, further perpetuating the problematic practice of “othering.”
“Why must writers of color always have to talk about whiteness? Why center it in our work when it’s centered everywhere else?” Cathy Park Hong asks in Minor Feelings, a story that is part memoir, part nonfiction, part poetry. From the subjects she tackles to the way she writes, Hong aims to dismantle western standards.
Have you read Minor Feelings? What books have you read that disrupt a western gaze? Have you noticed who these stories are published by and how widespread they become?
Read more on the book and share any thoughts with us.
So when and where exactly does whitewashing occur in the publishing industry? (Tip: The second slide of this graphic breaks down the publishing timeline.)
Acquisition: If publishers are primarily focused on what will sell, then from the very start of their hunt for manuscripts, they are likely focused on a white audience. For an industry that skews white, especially in editorial positions and at executive levels, editors will be seeking stories that they think their audience will identify with and/or emotionally resonate with—and those perceptions will be influenced by their own identity. This enables books like American Dirt and The Help to be published.
Editorial standards: Western practices dominate editorial standards. English grammar is held high and mighty, and when white readers don’t “understand” a format, that format is deemed “incorrect.” (For more on this, we suggest reading Minor Feelings.) Another practice? Italicizing non-English phrases. Italics subtly suggest an emphasis, a difference from the rest of the words on the page. In marking these phrases, publishers “other” them. (One book we read recently had a solution to this: a glossary. Simple and effective.)
Cover design: Authors rarely get a say in what their covers look like, and when they do, it’s typically subject to change (sometimes even without consent) at the behest of the publisher. (Fun fact: Even large bookstores like Barnes and Noble can have control over cover design if they think the changes will cause a title to sell better.) As you can imagine, this has resulted in problematic practices. One well-known example is with Dr. Nnedi Okorafor’s The Shadow Speaker. Needless to say, if publishers think a white character on the cover—even if it doesn’t align with the character’s description—will lead to stronger sales, that’s that.
Book blurbs and endorsements: Before a book is published, publicists will send a title out to garner “advanced praise” in the hopes of making the story all the more appealing to readers and other invested parties (like book clubs, award committees, etc.). Often, authors are asked to supply a list of contacts they have that might be interested in reviewing the story—the level of fame of these contacts will vary from author to author. But more than anything, publicists are keen to get reviews from individuals that are considered a “big deal.” Who is considered a big deal may vary based on the title—a poetry anthology likely does not have the same audience as a political thriller—but one thing is typically the same: a “big deal” is too often synonymous with white.
Book clubs: Celebrity book clubs are popping up left and right, and those rising to the top are (yup, you guessed it) led by white women. Such endorsements have become coveted amongst publishers, as they’ll often skyrocket a book into the bestseller list (Reese’s recently celebrated that 82% of their 2021 picks made the NYT list). But if publishers are eager to receive such clubs’ approval, how does that shape their practices? (Note: For more on the legacy of book clubs, check out this post.)
Awards: When marketing teams send out books for award submissions, often they are sending to the likes of the National Book Award, Booker Prize, and Pulitzer. These, of course, are major awards...and many are rooted in unequal and violent practices. Yet these awards are lauded as the mark of successful literature. (Many smaller, more niche awards and award categories exist and should be celebrated.)
Reviews: Advanced praise is also helpful for securing critic reviews. Publicists will take these advanced reviews and craft a pitch that they believe will resonate with individual critics, based on their areas of interest. However, as was the case with American Dirt, publishers might frame the story in such a way that makes it the story on a topic. In doing so, they suggest a story speaks for a group of people and/or identities, turning them into a monolith.
If there’s an issue you are passionate about that we haven’t discussed on Instagram, send us an email—we’d love to work with you on a spotlight.
Book bans and challenges continue to take place at alarming levels across the country. Another form of whitewashing, such bans overwhelmingly target stories by BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ authors.
We’ve created an Instagram Story template for us to all share to fight these bans. Download at the link, customize with books that have influenced you, and share on social media using #BannedBooksShapedMe. You’ll also find on this page a script/email template to use when contacting your local political representative(s).
Additionally, for all shared in-feed posts that discuss the importance of banned books and use the tag #BannedBooksShapedMe, we will donate $1 (up to $50) to Diverstories—an organization that works to diversify the books in Little Free Libraries around the country.
For your exclusive download, we’ve created a suite of phone backgrounds based on our Reading in Public Woes series (see Sunday Funnies for the original!).
Visit this page, use the password FightBookBans to download.
We’ve been listening to a lot of audiobooks as of late, and, well, we’ve been learning the hard way the challenges that come with listening in public.
Share your reading in public woes with us by using the tag #ReadingInPublicWoes on Instagram.
This month we are excited to feature writer Perry Fernands (@periwinkle_pages). Perry is a current student, worker, and organizer who aspires to become a librarian and writer.
In the back of our cramped living room, I perched on the ancient, moss-green sofa while my cousins sat cross-legged on the dusty hardwood floors and watched cartoons directly in front of the TV. As the familiar first notes of Arthur’s theme song played, my auntie burst into the room and made a beeline for the remote. When she switched to the news, images of a silver balloon in the shape of a rotund mushroom covered the screen as the anchor explained that, in fact, this balloon carried a passenger he dubbed “balloon boy.” At once, my cousins began to whine about their mother’s interruption, but I leaned in towards the TV and tuned them out, fully entranced by the screen’s glow. I smiled, felt myself ascending to join this balloon boy in the sky; people and places that had felt so big now made small. As we jumped between clouds with no particular direction in mind besides up, the world we knew slowly dissolved away into the haze. As a red “Breaking News” banner streaked across the screen, the same monotone anchor repeated words I’d only heard when eavesdropping on my auntie and mother’s whispered conversations: “housing,” “foreclosure,” and “crisis.” I finally felt the unyielding pull of gravity as I tumbled back to earth.
We are looking for short (~150 words) writing submissions on any topic, as long as they are rooted in and/or guided by an intersectional feminist lens.
Each published writer will receive their choice of one of the following:
$25.00 gift card to bookstore of choice
$25.00 donation to organization of choice
More info can be found here. Feel free to email or DM us on Instagram with any questions.
Based on a traditional publishing timeline, we should gain a better sense as to how committed publishers are to equity in 2022. Addressing whitewashed practices is a necessity if publishers are to uphold the promises so many of them made in summer 2020. How can we work to hold them accountable?
From supporting unpublished writers that are seeking book deals to continuing to uplift BIPOC, LGBTQIA2S+, and disabled writers, this post outlines a few action steps.
Us allies: Call into conversation those you see who are still mainly reading white authors. There is no excuse in 2022 for anyone to be that white, “book club” woman.
Whenever you select a book to read, take a look at who the blurbs are from and who else—whether a book club or prize committee—has endorsed the story. Ask yourself why these individuals were selected. Do they actually have any “real” connection to the story? Are there other authors that could have been selected instead? (Oftentimes the answers are no and yes, respectively.)
Check out this list of 2022 spring releases to find your latest read.
Support publishers that are doing the work. Some of our favorites include:
And check out these newer publishers that are flipping the script:
Do you have any other ideas? Let us know. Thanks so much for reading, and, as always, if you have any thoughts, questions, or concerns, be sure to get in touch.
Olivia and Fiona