Report for Change:
The 2016 Sisters in Crime Publishing Summit Report on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the Mystery Community
By Catriona McPherson
Mystery publishing is tough. And it’s very white. Add diversity of author or characters to the mix, and breaking into print gets even tougher.
Every year, Sisters in Crime carries out what we call a publishing summit report on some aspect of this caper we’re all at. Recent reports have looked at e-publishing, the role of distributors, and brick-and-mortar bookstores.
Several important topics jostled for attention this year: indie-publishing; the YA market; making a living (without robbing banks) . . . But a couple of things, like pebbles in my shoe, led me to pitch the idea of tackling diversity, asking what life is like for writers of color (WOC), LGBTQ writers, and writers with disabilities (WWD) in our genre and—if it should turn out not to be perfect already—suggesting changes.
the realization that when I moved to the US in 2010, I knew all about Ed McBain’s 87th precinct, but I’d never heard of Eleanor Taylor Bland and her Marti MacAlister, the first African American female protagonist in a police procedural series. Why? I was mystified.
the reader review that called a friend’s book “soft porn”—because the lesbian heroine holds hands with her girlfriend—and demanded warnings on the jacket of such “alternative lifestyles.”
the experience of seeing a moderator who uses a wheelchair be forced to run a panel from the floor instead of the stage, invisible to the audience because the ramp was late, steep and rickety.
Thankfully, and not surprisingly, the SinC board gave enthusiastic approval to the plan and a team formed to carry out the work. Now, except for Frankie Bailey, mystery author, criminal justice professor and SinC’s first African American president, you have never seen such a bunch of straight whites. That seemed like a drawback at the time, but it turned out strangely positive.
Because hardly any of us could speak to the issues from our own experience, the first step was to find wiser heads to help us understand what this report should be. We approached African American, Latina, Asian American, and Native American writers and publishers. We approached LGBTQ writers and publishers. We approached writers, one of whom was also a publisher, with disabilities. We asked them all the same questions and then we listened. We listened and listened and listened, and the most surprising thing we heard was that the listening itself was a departure from depressing norms; that the listening itself was part of the work that needed to be done.
For a team who thought we’d be asking publishers—with our arms folded and brows drawn down—to account for themselves and their record on diversity, it was chastening to discover that SinC needed to take a long, hard, inward look.
But on the other hand, by the very act of asking, we had begun the process. And the next step was to ask some more and listen again: to hear our entire membership tell us who they are and what their publishing lives are like.
We designed a survey to do two things: establish our level of diversity and investigate whether people of color, people with disabilities and LGBTQ people have experiences different from those of writers in the dominant group (so for SinC that’s straight, white, non-Latina, able-bodied, cis women).
To take just one question and just one group: let’s look at who published our members’ last book.
Writers of Color
Of course, more and more authors are choosing to self-publish, since most authors are doing their own promotional work anyway and advances have dwindled towards invisibility. But as Steph Cha said in one of the clearest and straightest-talking moments of the listening phase: “Put bluntly, if people of color choose self-publishing freely, that’s fine. If they choose it after rejection from their first choice…that’s a ghetto.” And our interviews and invited comments on the survey strongly suggested that WWD, WOC and LGBTQ writers are just as likely to want a traditional publishing path as anyone else. But unconscious attitudes and biases create obstacles that mean they’re not as likely to find it.
So, there is a problem in mystery publishing. And there is no easy solution. As long as assistant jobs in editorial departments are low-paid and located in expensive cities, and as long as wealth still correlates as closely with race as it does in the US today, the task of diversifying publishing to help open the gates to all authors is a hefty challenge. We realize these conversations are happening in publishers’ board rooms as well. But talk isn’t enough. And it takes more than numbers. LGBTQ people are well-represented in US publishing and Asian Americans are over-represented (according to PW figures and US census data), but neither of these facts translates into an easy ride or even a fair deal for Asian American or LGBTQ writers. Real progress is going to take something else as well. It’s going to take allies.
The final section of Report for Change describes how allies—people who happen to have landed in powerful groups—can advocate and agitate for people in less powerful groups at every level. SinC’s national board, our chapters, and all of us as individuals in the mystery community can, with a little thought and some guidance, make a big difference.
Here’s just one example; We sometimes hear that it’s difficult to represent a true picture of US mystery writing because a typical event organizer, teacher planning guest lectures, or a librarian building a collection, simply does not know who is out there. As part of Report for Change, we have begun a list of diverse authors, to be hosted on the Sisters in Crime website and to be tended as it grows. Frankie’s List (named after its author, Frankie Bailey, against her protestations) is the part of this year’s publishing summit report we hope will live on until the happy day when it’s no longer necessary and young crime writers laugh to imagine that it ever was. Onward!
You can find the report online at: http://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.sistersincrime.org/resource/resmgr/summit_report/SinC-Diversity-Report-2016-F.pdf
Catriona McPherson is the immediate past president of Sisters in Crime and led the team of seven who produced Report for Change. She is a multi-award-winning writer of historical mysteries and contemporary standalones, all set in her native Scotland. She immigrated to California in 2010. Learn more at www.catrionamcpherson.com.