Part of the foundation of my business is my desire to help underrepresented voices in publishing tell their stories. When I say that, I’m talking about women (especially women of color), people of color, and members of the LGTBQ community. Basically, voices and stories from people outside the dominant societal group, cis white men. Before I get any MRAs up in my face about it, my focus on supporting these voices is not about bashing on or silencing cis white men. It’s about hearing from those outside the “norm”—ideally, to permanently deconstruct the “norm” —because I believe it is vital to a healthy, functioning society.
Stories are the Engine of Empathy
People fear what they don’t know or understand.
Empathy is the capacity to understand, be aware of, be sensitive to, and vicariously experience the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another. In other words, it’s the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Empathy opens doors in the walls society builds to separate people into different groups and allows you to make connections with people who are different from you, to see them as actual human beings.
The easiest way to get to know someone is, obviously, by talking to or interacting with them in real life. However, for folks in isolated (read: not especially diverse) places, reading does a good job of replicating the experience. Neuroscientists have found that when you’re reading a fictional story, “your brain is literally living vicariously through the characters at a neurobiological level.” Reading fiction helps with your ability to take experiences you’ve never had seriously, to see from another person’s perspective.
Long story short, for many people books are the only access they have to people who aren’t like them.
Stories Shape the Culture
The stories we consume have a direct impact on how we see, thinking about, and experience the world.
Media is the main means of mass communication (broadcasting, publishing, and the Internet). Most people don’t consider books to be media these days, but they do technically fall under that umbrella. The narratives that dominate the media we interact with are the ones we accept as “normal.” This goes hand-in-hand with our capacity for empathy.
If the only stories being told are those about cisgender, heterosexual, white men, then anyone outside of that mold becomes something else. They become the “other.”
According to The Atlantic, the trend line in support for gay marriage began a steady upward climb around 2009. While there’s no way to establish causality, 2009 happens to be the year Modern Family (which stars an openly gay couple with an adopted child) first aired. In 2008, Harris Interactive did a survey of American adults over 18 and found that two in ten of them had changed their opinion on gay marriage to a more favorable one. Among the reasons they gave for this shift were seeing gay and lesbian characters on TV and film (34 percent and 29 percent, respectively).
All of this is to say that stories shape our views, positively and negatively.
Publishing has a Diversity Problem
Diversity in publishing has been a hot topic for many years now, so it probably doesn’t shock anyone to hear this. In January 2016, children’s publisher Lee & Low released the results of a survey they took in 2015 describing the demographic makeup of the publishing industry. Overall the industry is 79 percent white. The numbers go up at the executive level (86 percent) and in the editorial departments specifically (82 percent). Despite programs and initiatives put in place throughout the industry, those numbers haven’t changed much in the two years since.
In an essay recently published on Lit Hub, Chris Jackson (vice president, publisher, and editor in chief of the OneWorld imprint at Penguin Random House) touched on the effect this overwhelming whiteness has on the stories that get written, let alone published, referencing Booker Prize winner Marlon James who, “wrote about how writers, sometimes without realizing it, pander to the person they imagine to be the gatekeeper and how we are all poorer for it.” He goes on to make the case for diversifying the gatekeepers, “When we expand the range of the industry’s gatekeepers, we expand the range of our storytelling, which expands our ability to see each other, to talk and listen to each other, and to understand each other.”
But we all know industries as huge as publishing take a long time to correct course. Meanwhile, I firmly believe that self-publishing is a key to the gate every writer is trying to break through. Thanks to self-publishing, writers telling stories that wouldn’t pass muster with the gatekeepers as they exist now can still share those stories with readers. And if they do it right, investing in putting out a professional book, they can still compete with traditional titles.
Representation and Diversity Matter
The more we interact with stories that aren’t our own, the better we understand our fellow human beings. Connection and empathy are the only tools we have for dismantling the “us vs. them” mentality created by fear and mistrust. Supporting the voices of folks telling those stories is the first step toward increasing the availability of diverse narratives that depict the variety of human experiences.
Marginalized writers can still share their stories with the power of self-publishing. To help you understand what it takes to put out a professional-quality book yourself, use the form below to download the Ultimate Self-Publishing Checklist.
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