Bridge the gap in the bookshelf and reach more readers with ethnically diverse stories.
“Red, brown, yellow, black and white / They are precious in His sight.”
The beautiful variety of ethnicities and races in this Sunday school song unfortunately doesn’t show up often in Christian fiction. Of the books I read last year, representing a fair subset of the books released, only 4 percent featured ethnically diverse characters. A troubling half of 1 percent had covers that reflected this diversity.
The blog “Diversity Between the Pages” recently facilitated an open discussion regarding who/what should be on the cover of an ethnically diverse book. Will a cover that features people of different races act as a deterrent to nonminority readers who may feel they will be unable to relate to the characters? Conversely, does a cover that features only silhouettes, objects, or settings mislead nonminority readers as well as offend minority readers?
These questions don’t have easy answers, and perhaps this is one of the obstacles to gaining more diversity in Christian fiction overall. These debates reflect deeper, soul-level, grace-grappling issues. But do they represent a general paradigm conflict at the marketing level, one that may explain why traditional publishing contracts offered to minority authors remain limited?
Author Toni Shiloh (Buying Love) recounts her own journey to publication and the roadblock she faced just finding an agent. “As an author who once wanted to be traditionally published by one of the big publishing houses, I never thought to not say my characters were African-American, but maybe if I left that part off, I would have been given a fair shot,” she says. “I have queried and submitted to small presses that don’t require an agent. Thankfully, I was picked up by one, but I still remember the [agents] who rejected me because they weren’t sure how to market my work.”
Shiloh adds, “I’m not sure why having characters that are ethnically diverse requires a different marketing strategy.” And why should it?
Jamie Lapeyrolerie of the blog booksandbeverages.org believes the greatest obstacle to diversity in Christian fiction is specifically our comfort zones.
“When we look at our lives, what do we see? Specifically what do our circles of influence and friendships look like? Human nature tends to stick with what’s comfortable. But, I also believe when we don’t intentionally push ourselves outside of our comfort zone, we miss out on amazing people, stories, and journeys.”
As Christians we are called to reflect Jesus in our approach to current events as much as in our approach to history. Therefore, we must start asking some key questions, engaging in perhaps-uncomfortable conversations, and dialoguing together to create change.
How do we facilitate change and bring more diversity to Christian fiction?
Shiloh encourages us to live it. “If you live a life where your friends aren’t like you, maybe you’ll push for change. For those who have been called to make a change, find courage and write (or publish) fearlessly. Minorities are crying out for change.”
Lapeyrolerie says, “I think it starts with going beyond our reading comfort zone and being willing to try diverse books. Authors, keep writing these stories. I believe agents and publishers will take notice. They will see that past (and dismal) book sales no longer mirror what today’s readers want.”
Most everyone in the Christian marketplace is passionate about story. We read it, we sell it, we market it. Yet, to really start bringing about positive change in the realm of ethnic diversity, we also need to be mindful of story’s power to change lives.
“In a climate that desperately needs to have understanding, empathy, engagement, and more love, I believe the church needs to be leading the way,” says Lapeyrolerie. “And not reluctantly, but bravely and boldly leading the march toward reconciliation. The heart of the Gospel is reconciliation. With all my heart, I believe fiction can play a role in that.”
— Carrie Schmidt