THE BLOG

Is the Western Publishing Industry Institutionally Racist?

Nov 04, 2013 | Updated Jan 23, 2014

My good friend's novel was recently rejected from several top publishers. He is an excellent writer and should be on the bestseller list with all the greats. However, my friend has one major flaw -- he is a brilliant Chinese novelist, not a brilliant white novelist. Here are some of the comments that were given to his agent:

"The novel was a fascinating take on Asian American culture. We were very impressed by his poignant and humorous story. However, we are currently publishing the books of 'Famous Asian' writer so we believe there may be some overlap if we take this book on. We wish 'Asian Friend' all the very best in his writing endeavors."

The "Famous Asian" writer wrote tear-jerking literary novels about being tortured under Chairman Mao. My friend's novel was a contemporary comedy on growing up as an Asian- American.

A comment from another editor: "As much as I loved the writing, due to the subject matter, I'm not sure whether it will be something that can sell in our economic climate. The novel does not seem to fit into the genre of our current Asian authors and we do not know how to place it in the market."

What "genre" was the editor referring to exactly?

Type "Asian," or "ethnic minority," book editor into Google and you will find it difficult to read any quotes or interviews from this silent minority. Pick up any newspaper that talks about "Top" publishers, editors and agents and I bet you anything -- all of them are white.

Don't get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with having Caucasians edit books of Asian authors. But what is wrong is the lack of diversity. The book industry is extremely subjective already. What influences the gatekeepers to the publishing industry is whether they "like" a book or not and whether the book will sell. Taking on a book is a highly personal decision for an editor. They may not identify with the culture or the message of an Asian author, and therefore do not have the personal gumption to push the book forward. Additionally, the editor might have stereotypical expectations of what an Asian author should write about and how the characters should act.

For example, many of the books by Asian authors that do get published seem to be about Chinese women and their very "exotic" sex lives, mystical folk stories, kung fu kicking monkeys or that old yarn of surviving the horrors of communism. If characters do not fall into this westernized viewpoint of what is typically "Asian," they are unsure whether the book will sell.

An Asian writer based in Australia told me that after months of going back and forth with a top literary agent, she finally secured a meeting. Everything was going well and the agent seemed really positive about her book (about racial issues Australian-born Asian people face). They somehow reached the topic about how the writer's five-year-old daughter's best friend was not coming to her child's birthday party because her mother did not want her to mix with the Muslim children coming. The literary agent almost dropped her glass of water onto the floor. She was aghast that something like that could happen in the multicultural schools of modern Australia. The writer told her that as a child, racism was an every day occurrence for her and all her Asian friends faced some form of racism. The agent listened and said it was "truly awful," before turning down her book a week later. As much as she liked the story, she felt she was not the "right champion" for the book. I wondered what would have happened if the agent had been an ethnic minority?

The publishing industry is still dominated by white, middle class editors. According to Creative Skillset (the industry body which supports skills and training for people and businesses to ensure the UK creative industries maintain their world class position) just 4% of people in the publishing industry in England and Wales are Black/Asian/Minority/Ethnic ("BAME").

However 14% of the population of England and Wales are BAME (UK 2011 census).

Further, a 2012 study by the Cooperative Children's Book Center of 3,600 books published in the U.S. found that only 3.3% were about African-Americans, 2.1% on Asian-Pacific Americans, 1.5% on Latinos and 0.6% were about American Indians. So, I guess ethnic minority children are given the impression that the world of books has no room for their stories.

There has to be change -- there needs be change.

However, Asian readers also need to take responsibility. Support for Asian authors is needed from Asian readers more than ever. It is not rocket science. All we have to do is reach into our pockets and purchase books by Asian authors. Simple. Do we open our wallets when we buy clothes, expensive dinners and apps for our phone? Why then do we shut our wallets tight when it comes to supporting Asian authors, such as recent Man Booker prize nominee Tash Aw or Nobel prize winner Mo Yan?

How about Asian playwrights? Do we go and support plays written by Asian writers? This year, I watched two wonderful plays written by Asian writers with an all-Asian cast. Yet, when I looked around, about ninety-nine percent of the audience were not Asian.

Where was the support from the Asian community?

If certain Asian books do not sell as well as their white contemporaries, it is very easy to point the finger and cite racism for the reason. Yet we need to question if Asian readers are playing their part too. If every Asian author had strong support from their community, it could make a huge difference. For example, if half the Asians in the U.S. or UK bought just ONE of the handful of Asian books released each year, all the books would be on the bestseller list.

That is influence at such a small price.

In an article with online magazine Publishing Perspectives, Joe Marriot, a mixed raced book editor at Random House was asked about the diversity of the book industry. He said: "It's not diverse at all. It is largely white, middle class and female. And there is also a lack of diversity in books published."

So, I guess being a working class male Asian American author meant that my literary friend had a less than a 0.01% chance of getting published.

However if readers work together, we can help authors like him beat the odds. If more books by Asian and ethnic minority authors are sold, editors will have to sit up and take notice. Asian readers especially need to support our own community by reaching into our pockets, wallets and purses. By buying a book by an Asian author, positive change can be made in the book industry for less than the price of a KFC bargain bucket.