Where’s the Diversity in Books and Publishing?

The US and UK each produce about a quarter of a million titles every year. For readers, that’s an overwhelming amount. Yet often, it can feel as if there’s hardly any diversity in the industry.

Have you noticed the fads that publishing goes through? One season, every hit book will have ‘girl’ in the title. The next, they’re all about vampires. Or childhood abuse. Or more recently, feature dystopias. It seems we lack diversity in content.

Sometimes, it can feel like they’re all by the same authors, too. James Patterson and Nora Roberts, for example, have each written (or co-written) over 200 books. It seems we lack diversity in perspective.

Then, there are times when it feels as if every store is selling, and everyone is reading, the same book. In 2016, charity stores received so many discarded copies of Fifty Shades of Grey, they begged people to stop donating them. (But not before building a book fort in at least one store!)

So how do we reconcile these statistics?

On the one hand, we have a picture of a healthy industry in which there are hundreds of thousands of titles produced every year. You’d think the publishing landscape was awash in diversity of perspectives and styles and content. On the other, we have a day-to-day reality in which only a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of those books are ever read by more than the authors’ family and friends.

The problem in publishing is that, like most aspects of modern markets in the capitalist economy, there is a long, long tail. A tiny fraction of books gain all of the fame and fortune, and have all of the resources thrown behind them, while the vast bulk escape our attention.

Perhaps none of this should be surprising, given the vast majority of books are published by the same five houses. While they might sell a lot of copies, they don’t actually produce that many titles. Even Simon & Schuster, the third-largest publisher, ‘only’ publishes 2,000 titles each year across its 35 different imprints. That’s a tiny, tiny drop in the ocean compared to the number of titles produced, and an even tinier drop compared to the number of manuscripts submitted.

What is an author, or a reader to do? Where can I find independent publishers?

A comprehensive list of publishers is difficult to find, since these lists are sold for profit by organisations like ‘Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook’ who charge prospective authors £24/month for access. W&A claims to have approximately ‘1,000 book and audio publishers’ in their listings. I pieced together a list of 661 publishers using Wikipedia’s lists of publishers and small presses. But its usefulness is limited.

Here’s what I found:

  • Of those 661 publishers, 89 (or close to 14%) are defunct.
  • 11 are not even publishers, and 9 have no website, or one which is down or broken.
  • A further 24 are not commercial publishers, but nonprofits or government printers.
  • 8 are magazine rather than book publishers.
  • Almost a quarter (147 publishers) publish only academic or non-fiction works.

For those interested in an independent publisher, the choice is very narrow:

  • 11 publishers are conglomerates, and 136 (over 20%) are imprints of large companies.
  • 44 publishers (or almost 7%) only accept works from specific genres.
    Another close to 6% (36 publishers) only publish spiritual or religious content.
  • Almost 4% of publishers only accept work from authors of specific backgrounds.
  • And another 4% only publish graphic novels, comics, or art books.
    Around 2.5% publish only poetry, and 2% only publish children’s books
  • Another 2.5% are self-publishers, print-on-demand, or multilevel marketing schemes masquerading as publishers.
  • 1% only reprint works already in the public domain. And half a percent (5 publishers) only work with digital and audio books.
  • Of those that remain, 1.5% don’t accept submissions from authors (only agents).
    And 1% have closed or suspended submissions entirely.

This leaves just 18/661 publishers (or 2.72%) as possibilities for submission.

Traditional vs. self-publishing

However, many of these publishers appear to offer few advantages over self-publishing. Two have no social media presence at all on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. Most have presence on one or two channels with very low followings. Only a couple use all three major social media platforms with followings larger than mine.

Of course, that is not to say that a publisher’s only – or main – role is marketing. But marketing support is certainly one of the main things prospective authors look to publishers for.

Underwhelmed, I decided to take a look at publisherglobal.com, concentrating specifically on Australian publishers this time – for which there were 449 listed.

An Australian author might be delighted to have 449 possible outlets for their novel… but…

Here’s what I found:

  • Of these 449 listings, the vast majority (308, or 69%) were for magazine or newspaper publishers.
  • A massive 27 listings were entries for associations, maps, gift manufacturers, online indexes and other non-publisher entities. A further 6 were defunct, only publish legal documents or had broken/down websites.
  • Close to 10% (or almost 30% of the non-magazine/newspaper listings) publish only academic, educational, or non-fiction works.
  • Nearly 5% (or over 12% of the non-magazine/newspaper listings) publish only children’s books.
  • Over 5% (or around 17% of the non-magazine/newspaper listings) are self publishers or print-on-demand companies.

For those interested in an independent publisher, the choice is again narrow:

  • At least 3 publishers listed are conglomerates, and a further 2 are the imprints of conglomerates (3% of the non-magazine/newspaper listings)
  • Close to 1% only publish religious or spiritual content (in addition to a large number of religious newsletters already counted under the magazines/newspapers category)
  • Two only publish art/photography books, and another two only short stories.
  • Two publishers only work with digital and audio books, and one only reprints works already in the public domain.
  • Of those that remain, 1% (or 3% of the non-magazine/newspaper listings) are closed to submissions or, in the case of one publisher, don’t accept unsolicited submissions.

Again, this leaves just a couple of publishers (or 0.45%) as possibilities for submission.

The diversity is in indie publishing

If – as readers and writers – we’re looking for diversity, I can’t help but think the evidence is overwhelming. We have to be looking to indie publishing.

Indie publishing is, of course, not without its issues. And traditional publishers are not simply glorified printing presses. When they function at their best, they also provide immensely valuable advice on both the manuscript itself, and on everything that surrounds it. Even the best authors are not necessarily experts in copyediting, layout, cover design, PR and marketing.

But ‘indie’ doesn’t have to mean ‘alone’. It can simply mean independent of the enormous constraints that traditional publishers – big and small – deal with.

Profitability is not the measure of a work’s value. But a publishing company is not a charity. Indie publishing gives authors the opportunity to publish works that are unlikely to sell millions, thousands, or even hundreds of copies. But that may become someone’s favourite book all the same. And it gives readers the opportunity to discover books that may have remained hidden forever – or which would have been modified beyond recognition – had they needed to be palatable to the masses.

3 thoughts on “Where’s the Diversity in Books and Publishing?

  1. I’m always about the overall statistics. You have laid out a very detail view here and a conclusion I had already come to as an indie writer. Since I waited until I retired to start a writing career, time was short for me. I had to decide if I was good enough to break into traditional publishing. I had decided years before, no, I was not, so did not pursue a writing career to feed the family. But at the same time, I was constantly told I was a good writer at work and from the family who got to read my quirky forays into writing stories. So it made sense to go indie. But that is no cakewalk either. Searching and finding quality editing, book cover design, and marketing outlets to finish the book can be an expensive venture. I loved writing enough to invest. I am happy to find out through your intensive research I made the right decision. Thank you for this wonderful, informative article.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, Robynn. I’m glad this post resonated with you.
      Personally, I think your writing being ‘good enough’ to break into traditional publishing is only one tiny part of the equation. As I recently posted about in my ‘Why Does Garbage Get Published?’ article (https://www.sarahneofield.com/why-does-garbage-get-published-profits-vs-value/), there are many authors who are wonderful writers that are never published in their lifetime, or at all, while many terrible ‘writers’ (many of whom are not ‘writers’ in the real sense, as they don’t actually write anything, but pay others to do it for them) receive multi six-figure advances.
      Just as it’s not the best singers who necessarily receive recording contracts, if there’s someone else lined up with less talent but with an existing fan base from a television show, or an easily marketable body/face, publishers will choose the ‘safer’ bet over the better writer almost every time.
      The same goes for content – a wonderful book on a less marketable topic will rarely be picked up by a traditional publisher when a less well-written (but still passable) book on a hugely popular topic is available instead.
      So I don’t think we should sell ourselves short in saying that traditional publishing is not for us. I prefer to think of it as an option for those unwilling to compromise on our principles 🙂 That’s not to say that publishers don’t have valuable insights about both books themselves, and how to produce them. But I imagine many true publishers today are frustrated by having to focus so heavily on commercial prospects, and having to work with people who don’t even necessarily want to be writers – or who, indeed, aren’t writers but instead are reality TV stars or controversial ‘provocateur’ types the head office thinks would be beneficial to have as part of their stable.
      I’m finding out for myself just what the road of an indie author/publisher is, and you’re right that it’s no cake walk. But I think that the flexibility is well worth it. In my former career, I published several books with traditional publishers, and while I appreciated their advice and expertise immensely, the freedom I now feel is incomparable.
      I hope to keep publishing articles that are informative and useful – thanks so much for your feedback!

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