Joe Monti, executive editor for Simon & Schuster’s new Saga imprint for science fiction/fantasy, or SFF, admits that, as a first-generation American with an Italian father and a Latina mother and married to a Chinese-American woman, diversity is more than an intellectual exercise. “Diversity is part of the life I live,” he says. Despite this, he insists, he doesn’t allow his personal biases to sway him when it comes to publishing and promoting SFF. “It’s not about agendas, it’s not about beliefs, it’s about business,” Monti explains. “Putting a person of color on a book cover isn’t detrimental to sales. Having a bad cover is detrimental to sales.”
Monti certainly walks his talk: the four new releases on Saga’s spring debut list are all by multicultural authors, and of the total 20 new releases in 2015, only three are by white men. Of the four authors on today’s panel, three are Saga authors: Ken Liu, whose debut novel, Grace of Kings, was published in April; Nnedi Okoafor, whose novel Lagoon is being released in July; and Kameron Hurley, whose novel The Stars Are Legion will be published in 2016.
The lone panelist not associated with Saga, Daniel José Older (Bone Street Rumba series, published by Penguin Random House/Roc), writes urban fantasy that goes beyond “using the city as a cool backdrop in a subgenre that is dominated by white power narratives,” he says. Noting that last year’s inaugural BookCon drew a “very black and brown crowd” that was “not reflected equitably” in the event programming, Older adds, “It takes more than a diversity panel to change how the industry works. Diversity isn’t something that should need to be demanded. It’s a natural state of the world.”
Liu, who describes his writing as “silk punk”—tales inspired by Chinese myths and technological prototypes—says that the call for more diversity in SFF is “not about making books more inclusive,” it’s about “making books more reflective of the experiences of reading audiences.” Publishers have to “catch up” to their readers, he says, and drop the idea that SFF readers won’t read books by people of color or women. After all, he points out, all of the Nebula award winners last year (selected by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) were women. “Readers are not the problem,” Liu says, “We’re all about giving readers what they want.”
Nnedi Okorafor, who describes herself as having “stories that just pour out of me,” recalls that, growing up, she never read books that had characters “who looked like me,” which inspired her in part to write novels with themes that draw upon her Nigerian heritage. She says the calls for diversity in SFF are “very positive,” but admits that it’s frustrating to hear the emphasis upon “multicultural” when it comes to her books. “Every writer wants to be read,” she insists. “I hope you’re reading me because it’s a good story.”
Kameron Hurley points out that writing people of color and women into SFF is nothing new. African-Americans and women have always written SFF, she says, but “their voices have been suppressed.” She notes that when she wrote The Mirror Empire, “no one wanted it, because it didn’t look like other epic fantasies.” Her breakthrough came when Angry Robot, a small press in the U.K. that specializes in science fiction and fantasy fiction, sold 13,000 copies “in four or five months,” which attracted the attention of the major houses, including S&S/Saga.
“Small presses have always driven the changes n the industry,” Hurley notes. “They take the risks. I’m looking forward to this panel: we’re going to have a pretty interesting discussion.”
The panel, “We Need Diverse Books Presents In Our World and Beyond,” moderated by YA author Marieke Nijkamp (This Is Where It Ends), will be held in Room 1A21 at 11 a.m.
This article appeared in the May 30, 2015 edition of PW BookCon Daily.