‘No room at the table’: Student authors call for diversifying publishing industry

Oct. 5, 2023, 12:34 a.m.

When Kyla Zhao ’21 was looking for agents to publish her debut novel “The Fraud Squad,” prospective agents asked if she would be willing to change her book’s setting from Singapore to America. If she wanted her novel to be more “marketable,” they said, she could make some of her Asian characters white too. Zhao refused and found her current agent, Alex Rice, instead.

“It’s apparently quite common when you’re an author of color that a publisher says, ‘We already have one book coming out this season from a Black author, we don’t need another story from a Black author,’” Zhao said. 

Though the publishing industry has long been a rigid and oversaturated environment for authors, the road to publishing can be even more challenging for women and writers of color. Traditionally, books published by female authors are also priced 45% lower on average than those by male authors. 

This creates a “zero-sum game” in publishing, said Zhao, and leaves “no room at the table to foster stories from the same community.”

“I think that also goes back to this perception of marginalized communities as a monolith, where everyone in this community has the same experiences,” she said. “There’s just not as much room for diverse experiences as one would hope.”

“The Fraud Squad” tells the story of a woman who impersonates a socialite to infiltrate high society and secure her dream job. Because Zhao is supported by Berkley Books, she can publish and promote the novel through resources like Berkley’s marketing team and cover artists for free. These resources can cost thousands of dollars for a self-published author. 

But still, as traditional publishing can push out authors from marginalized communities or limit their creative control over edits, more and more writers are now turning to self-publishing. More than 1.7 million books are self-published every year. 

Aparna Verma ’20 has, uniquely, gone both routes. Her debut novel, “The Phoenix King,” was originally self-published as “The Boy With Fire” in 2021. 

“I want to keep writing the books that I want to write,” Verma said about her initial decision to self-publish the novel. “I don’t want to ever be held back by people’s rules or expectations.”

Verma called her novel “an Indian-inspired sci-fi fantasy that blends futuristic elements with ancient Hindu mythology.” After “The Boy With Fire” gained popularity on social media platforms such as TikTok, it was picked up by a traditional publisher, Orbit Books, and republished in August. For Verma, one vital factor of her positive experience with Orbit was working with a South Asian editor.

“It was so amazing working with a South Asian editor because she just understood all the little intricacies and subtleties,” Verma said. “She didn’t ask me to change the cultural authenticity. She asked me to expand.” 

Verma called for more women and people of color to hold positions of power in the traditional publishing industry. So did Shanti Hershenson, a self-published teenage author from California.

“If I were a man, I feel as though I would be so much more successful by now and I would have so many people reading my books,” Hershenson said.

Hershenson, a sophomore in high school who lives in Carlsbad, Calif., has published 14 books and written 26. She said she has felt and seen sexism during book festivals, where she has witnessed men acting “really passive aggressive” towards young female writers. 

“I had a guy come up to me and try to tell me how my book’s title is grammatically incorrect,” she said. “It’s not. That title went past multiple people before it went out, and I know my grammar.”

Among Hershenson’s books is “Neverdying,” a dystopian series about an immortal girl who accidentally finds herself stuck on an adventure with someone on a mission to exterminate all immortals.

“There are a lot of men that read science fiction and still don’t want to read books written by women,” Hershenson said. “It is unfortunately still a very male-dominated genre.”

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