Author “Ethnicity” Issues

In effect, at least in some parts of traditional F&SF publishing, there is a degree of skepticism (if not a de facto ban, according to some) on white writers writing works from a minority point of view. Two of the arguments in support of such “skepticism” are: (1) that white writers cannot accurately depict such cultures and (2) white authors depicting minority cultures deprive minority authors of access.

If an author depicts any cultures badly, or factually inaccurately, ideally such a book shouldn’t be published, but to say that only a person from culture/ethnicity “X” can write about that culture/ethnicity strikes me as just another form of censorship.

Authors, regardless of sameness or diversity of ethnicity, never tell exactly the same story, and the ethnicity of the author doesn’t make a good book. Good writing and an appealing story do. Also, the publishers I’ve known don’t have “quotas” for the number of ethnic authors, novels, or themes, and publishing a mediocre book by an ethnic author in place of a better book by a non-minority author doesn’t make good business sense. Publishing an excellent book by a minority author, rather than a mediocre one by a non-minority author does.

The public doesn’t choose what’s published, except in hindsight by sales numbers. In traditional publishing, the editors choose what gets published, and readers decide whether to buy it. In “indie” publishing, the author puts out work, and the public again chooses whether to buy it. Also, in traditional publishing, an author can submit a manuscript without revealing ethnicity, except possibly by the subject matter and treatment of that subject.

The bottom line is that publishing, either traditional or “indie,” is a business, and traditional publishers are in business to sell enough copies of a book to make money. Authors don’t get published because of their ethnicity, although in the past and even today, some didn’t or don’t get published for that reason. They generally get published because an editor or publisher thinks the book will make money.

What this means is that, in traditional publishing, editors (and sometimes agents) decide what they think the reading public will buy. For too long a time, the publishing industry, including S&SF imprints, avoided stories with strong minority themes and, from what I can tell, was skeptical of, if not hostile to fiction submitted by writers whose names suggested black or non-European minority origins. As has been noted by others, in addition, F&SF editors also tended to be skeptical of women who wrote under women’s names, and several women authors wrote under a last name preceded by initials.

As a bit of a side note, when I was first published, because I also wrote under my initials, and possibly because I write strong female characters, more than a few readers speculated that I was a woman. To this day, some few still do.

Today, diversity is the name of the game in F&SF because some of the most highly acclaimed authors are women and because more and more women and minority readers have decided they like F&SF, particularly fantasy. It’s also partly because the demographics of editors in the field have changed; the majority of F&SF editors today are women. But the emphasis on diversity will only last so long as the sales do, and the sales will be driven by the popularity of the work.

In this light, over the last ten years, particularly over the past five, I’ve seen so many new writers hyped by publishers, almost none of whom appear to be white or male, most of whom seem to disappear within a year or two. The pattern isn’t new. The same pattern existed twenty years ago, except those who disappeared were predominantly white males.

The reason for this, in my opinion, is that most editors tend to stick with the known and currently “safe” trends, which makes money… until it doesn’t, and the editors who played it too “safe” suddenly discover that they’re no longer editors.

2 thoughts on “Author “Ethnicity” Issues”

  1. Nick Gustafson says:

    Good morning from Sioux Falls, South Dakota!

    I just wanted to drop you a note after reading Scion of Cyador for literally the 10th time since first reading it in High School around publication.

    I eagerly buy nearly everything you write. Your detailed world building, realistic cultures, economies and relationships are so greatly appreciated.

    My favorite characters to date are Lorn, Sammis, Loki and Gershwin.

    Just wanted to say thanks for a vibrant body of work I revisit again and again.

    With respect and thankfulness,
    Nick Gustafson

  2. Tom says:

    Addressing these issues as affected by the Covid-19 pandemic was this article:

    Apparently how readers are exposed to writers and their products makes a difference to book sales. I do wonder if this is just the American cultural emphasis on “celebrities” and “advertisements”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *