How to Ensure Diversity in the Publishing Industry - Thee Sim Ling

Over the last decade, the writing industry has started embracing unique identities and “diversity” has now become the hottest trend among the Big Six publishing companies. Books with characters who are non-white, female or nonbinary, queer, disabled, low-income, and/or belonging to any other marginalised groups now have large audiences and mega sales figures. In spite of this, representation of marginalised groups is still low, and even when it’s done, the very communities are misrepresented inaccurately, leaving them hurt.


Why is it that, in the 21st century, we are still facing this problem?


There’s still a diversity problem in publishing.


Many writers and publishers are making an active effort to increase diversity in all areas of writing. We should rightfully commend their achievements. However, to solve the problem, we need to fix it from the ground up. That means, we need to start from our youth.


In order to achieve real diversity, the writing world must open up its space to writers of marginalised groups, with identities different from the stereotypical white, male, straight, non-disabled and middle-class identities of the vast majority of authors on bookshelves. Luckily, one generation of writers is leading this change — Generation Z. Young writers are undoubtedly the lifeblood of the publishing industry, and as we advance into the digital age, there have been more opportunities created for juvenile pensmiths. But, are all opportunities created equal?


If you’ve never really tried writing as an in-depth hobby or career, it can be easy to get the misconception that writing is “easy”, an isolated pursuit of literary fame in a lone hut by the sea. In fact, many people think that 99.9% of publishing a book is based on someone’s talent. I think almost every writer would wish that it were true, but unfortunately, the formula for writing success is more of 40% grit, 30% writing ability, 20% networking, and 10% of pure luck.


The fact is that writing, like many other art forms, is subjective. One agent may fall head over heels over your novel, while another will dump it into the trash bin without a second thought. It is almost impossible for a literary work to be loved by every single reader, because all of us have different perspectives and outlooks on the world. Plus, there are millions of people all over the world who write, and there are definitely a number who want to write a book. There is a low chance of new writers being discovered by agents and actually being able to write a book that becomes famous.


You may wonder how is it that with so many enormous obstacles, there are numerous success stories of unknown writers bursting into the limelight, including teenage writers. How did they achieve this? Well, there are a few ways to increase your chances of being published.


Firstly, writers need to secure opportunities to get their work out and their name known. It is expected for a newbie writer who wants at least a shot at being published to submit their short pieces to literary journals and get bylines to boost their portfolio. That’s far easier said than done, though. There are only a few “prestigious” literary journals that publish the work of teenagers, and due to their reputation, receieve dozens of submissions every single day. The acceptance rate is thus low and even if a piece is excellent, it might not be excellent enough. Plus, these established journals need to stay afloat and may resort to charging writers for submissions. This helps maintain the cost of printing the journal as well as paying for the subscription of the submission platform. This causes many problems; not all young writers can afford to pay submission fees. People from well-privileged backgrounds as well as from certain cities and states will be more likely to submit to these journals. People from low-income families, disadvantaged race groups, or less wealthy areas may fall behind. Plus, these journals are probably run by people with similar backgrounds as submitters! This may create an unconscious bias of choosing work that tallies with their life experiences.


Of couse, there are many youth-run literary journals that are made up of a diverse volunteer staff of writers passionate about featuring all voices, but these journals have the disadvantage of being newly formed and not as well known. Someone would look more favourably at a writer who has been published in a literary journal they know of than a literary journal that is unheard of.


Secondly, writers need to improve their craft by attending course and programs. Contrary to popular belief, writers are not already “born” with a large amount of writing ability, and many celebrated authors attained success due to years of toiling behind the scenes. Teen writers can apply for prestigious writing programmes, writing courses, or find writing mentors who can give them constructive criticism and cheer them on through the ups and downs. The troubling fact is, these resources are not accessible to everyone. Writing programs often require expensive course fees. Recently, a teen writer friend told me she wanted to apply for Adroit Journal’s Summer Mentorship Program (its cost is about US $300). When I remarked that the fees were extremely pricey, she replied that she aimed for this program because it was actually one of the cheaper options on the market! Yes, financial help is available for those who need it, but the majority of applicants do not need this help or qualify for it. Some programs also center around a certain geographical location. Young writers who do not live in places with a large writing community often face disadvantages in securing opportunities. Luckily, in the present, Covid-19 has moved everything online, and virtual writing programs are more accessible to writers in all parts of the world.


Writing mentors are a crucial part of the writing journey. You can’t just randomly “get” a mentor, especially an experienced one. Conventionally, you find a writing mentor either through a mentorship program like the one stated above, or through networking. A lot of this industry is about who you know, and for writers in marginalised groups, it’s much harder to cultivate connections from scratch.


Finally, writers need to have a supportive environment which allows them to reach for the stars. Some young writers are lucky enough to be born in well-off families with supportive parents. Their family members may even be writers themselves! The probability of marginalised writers having a supportive environment is lower. Marginalised writers are more likely to come from low-income backgrounds, and less likely to be told by others around them that writing is an “actual” career they can embark on. They are less likely to be admitted into better schools with more resources that can encourage students to pursue their passions, such as having writing teachers or a school literary journal. You can see in prestigious writing programs for teenagers that the writers who are admitted are often academically excellent students coming from top schools, and are very likely to graduate from top colleges in the future. Not all writers are top students, and being good at academics or being in a comfortable school environment shouldn’t be a requirement to writing success.


How can we fix this problem? We need more resources and opportunities that are free and accessible for all writers, regardless of their background or identity. For example, The Young Writers Initiative offers free services to young writers and volunteer opportunities for young writers to gain experience. (https://tywi.org)


If you are a young writer feeling disheartened, remember this: the most important ingredient of writing success is grit. Even if the odds are stacked against us, if we persevere and stick to the path, we shall one day have success of our own.



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