In case anyone had not noticed the lack of diversity in YA, in May 2012 Kate Hart published a survey of over 900 YA covers, revealing that she found 90% of the cover models were white. We’ve all seen the arguments since–publishers don’t offer diverse books because they don’t expect anyone to buy them. And many have noticed that when publishers do offer diverse books, they tend to hide the fact when they market those books. Shannon Hale’s Dangerous, for example, though it features a half-Paraguayan protagonist, was released with a symbol on the cover instead of a model. Hale even wrote a blog post revealing that when her retelling of “Maid Maleen,” Book of a Thousand Days, set in Mongolia, was republished with a Mongolian-American cover model, sales went down, though in the past her paperback sales had always exceeded her hardback sales. Perhaps that’s why, when Dangerous was released as a paperback, the cover model chosen appears like she might be white?
This problem extends beyond YA to middle grade. N. D. Wilson’s Ashtown Burials series and Suzanne Collins’s Underland Chronicles, for example, both feature protagonists of color, but the covers suggest these characters are white or choose not to depict them at all. Other books such as Kate Milford’s Greenglass House, featuring an adopted Chinese boy, follow this trend. Indeed, a reader searching for diverse books might have difficulty choosing one if he or she simply walked into a bookstore and looked at the covers. Sometimes even the summaries do not mention the diversity. Natalie Lloyd’s A Snicker of Magic has a character in a wheelchair, for example; Lisa Graff’s A Tangle of Knots features a protagonist of color; and Lisa Graff’s Absolutely Almost has a protagonist who is half-Swedish and half-Chinese. Nothing on the covers indicates as much.
Though we want to promote diverse books, Hale’s post suggests that publishers might be struggling with a real problem–how to diversify their books to audiences who aren’t sure they want diversity. Presumably once a reader becomes engaged in a story featuring a character of color or a character with a disability, etc., they will realize that diversity is a positive thing and that they really can relate to or sympathize with a character not exactly like them (after all, isn’t that part of the experience–how many of us don’t share Harry Potter’s life as a wizard, yet still follow his adventures eagerly?). But to do that, publishers must first entice readers in.
But is Hale’s experience the norm? Some readers, after all, do want diverse books. Some readers want more characters who look like them or like people they know. Some people just want books that go beyond what we already have and represent the world in all its amazing variety.
Since diversity is a big topic in the blogosphere, I thought it would be interesting to look at how popular some of our diverse reviews have been. I did not go through every diverse book we have ever reviewed, but I did take a sampling, noting when they were published, how popular they were on that day, and how popular they have been since. Since YA books tend to get more view than MG, adults, or (most) classics on our blog, I divided the reviews into those three categories to make for an easier comparison.
Honestly, it’s difficult to tell a lot from the data because so many factors are involved. For instance, we began blogging in 2011, so reviews published in that year barely received any views when they were first published and, as a result, we can’t really compare the popularity of some reviews to others. Books in series tend to receive fewer views, presumably because someone who is not reading a series does not care what happens in book three. Some books such as N. D. Wilson’s The Boys of Blur and Empire of Bones received more hits because they were reblogged by someone with a lot of follows, like the author. Some middle grade books simply get a lot of search engine hits from people obviously trying to write book reports for school–Suzanne Collins’s Gregor the Overlander (not included in the table) is always getting hits for this reason.
And, of course, for the data to be meaningful, we need to know how many views the average review receives in a day. Wordpress only gives the daily statistics for about the past month, so I can’t tell you how many views a book with a white cover model would have received in 2014. Now, however, our views range from about 5 to 15 a day for a book review (a discussion post might receive 30 or 40 views). As the week goes on, a book review might get two or so views for the next few days.
The popularity of an author, the genre, and the age range also affect results, however, so even knowing the average views of a review does not give us all the information we need. Classic African American literature tends to receive basically no views on this blog, for example, perhaps because many of our readers prefer to read YA. And MG reviews are usually less popular than YA ones (though that seems to be changing).
However, even the diverse YA books have limited views. Shannon Hale is a popular author, but only five people read our review of Dangerous the day it was posted. But is this because Hale is too popular and bloggers were tired of reading reviews for her new book? Or did we post it too soon, before bloggers had a chance to read the book themselves? Maybe they feared being spoiled or couldn’t respond without having read it first.
And what about Ms. Marvel? Her comics sell well, but she received few views on our blog. Maybe our followers don’t read comics? The Princeless series has also proved unpopular, perhaps because it’s a graphic novel. But even Written in Stars by Aisha Saeed, which received a lot of hype before publication, only managed seven page views the day we posted our review.
In interpreting the data, however, we also have the problem that the diversity of a book is not always clear. When a reader sees a title like Up from Slavery, they can expect a diverse character, but what about books like Patrick Carman’s Floors, which only received one view the day it was published–and yet which gives no indication that the protagonist befriends a Hispanic boy? We can’t say whether the diversity of a book influences its page views when we don’t know how many readers are aware that the book is diverse in the first place.
I can’t really say if diversity sells, at least on this blog, since readers often seem more concerned about the genre or the author than about the diversity. And to know how difficult publishers are really finding it to market diverse books, we would have to see the sales numbers of various books. But I am curious. Do you review diverse books? And, when you do, do you find the response enthusiastic? Or do you think your views go down?