The publication of American Dirt raised a host of issues that the publishing industry is likely to be dealing with for some time. The release of the novel forced the industry to ask who should write certain books, reignited the conversation over the lack of diversity within the industry, and also exposed the continued lack of understanding of the Hispanic/Latino consumer by most all publishers.
On January 29, a statement by Bob Miller, president of American Dirt publisher Flatiron Books, noted that the publishing house was “surprised by the anger that has emerged [in response to the book] from members of the Latinx and publishing communities.” The anger was the result of Flatiron’s demonstrated lack of understanding of Latino readers. This lack of understanding is by no means unique to the imprint but is a reflection of a prevalent problem within the book publishing industry. It is clear that the gatekeepers in publishing do not reflect, nor do they appreciate, the complexities of Latinos. Latinos are not a homogenous group; they are as vastly different as the general population, but with the added intricacy of acculturation.
The vast majority of adult trade books are written and published with the white, non-Hispanic reader in mind, at the exclusion of multicultural readers. Can the publishing industry afford to continue on this path? The consumer landscape has greatly changed in the last 20 years. The country has become much more diverse: almost 40% of the U.S. population is nonwhite, and almost 50% of Gen Zers are from communities of color.
This is a shift the industry must recognize and address, as most other industries are already devoting greater resources to capture revenue from diverse communities. Publishers can’t afford to continue publishing for 60% of Americans while excluding the rest. It just doesn’t make business sense.
Some publishers think they have solved the problem by having an imprint or two dedicated to books by authors of color, but diverse voices should be part of all publishing plans and not relegated to a single or limited number of imprints. Creating an imprint for these titles often leaves their authors pigeonholed and without the possibility of reaching wider audiences.
Marketers and publishers also need to go beyond the thinking that Latino readers will only read books written by Latinos or that black readers will only read black authors. That is a simplistic formula publishers often use to reach nonwhite audiences, but it will never deliver on the true potential of reaching multicultural readers. This signals a problem with an industry that lacks understanding of the multicultural consumers and seldom markets to them.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2019 there were 58 million Latinos in the U.S., making up 18% of the total U.S. population. Based on 2019 data from research firm MRI-Simmons, 13% of non-Hispanic white consumers had purchased a book (print or digital) within the three months prior to the survey, but only 7% of Hispanics had done so. Some will see this data and say Latinos don’t buy books, yet some books have been wildly successful among Latinos. For example, Unbreakable, the autobiography of singer Jenni Rivera, also published in Spanish as Inquebrantable, went on to sell a total of more than 300,000 copies, according to Simon & Schuster.
A diversified workforce will only take a company so far. If people of color don’t have seats at the table when editorial and marketing decisions are being made, then publishers shouldn’t be surprised if the problem of engaging multicultural consumers persists. Increasing the number of employees of color is important, but publishers need to ensure they have staff in positions of influence with true expertise and knowledge of multicultural consumers.
American Dirt might have kicked up a storm, but it has also served as a wake-up call for the publishing industry. Some have answered the call. The nonprofit group Latinx in Publishing, a network of book professionals, has launched a new initiative called the Writers Mentorship Program. The program is aimed at offering unpublished and/or unagented writers who identify as Latino to partner with an experienced published Latino author in order to “strengthen their craft, gain industry knowledge, and expand their professional connections.”
Though this is a small but significant step, a seismic shift is needed. Publishers cannot continue to look at the books they publish through the same set of outdated lenses. They need a new perspective that allows them to see the entirety of the consumer landscape. Solving the problem should not be treated as a public relations tactic but rather as a way to grow one’s business.
Leylha Ahuile is the editor of PW’s Books in Spanish department and has led multicultural marketing for various organizations, including eBay.