Sunday, 9 April 2017

Not just black and white - Anne Rooney

Photo: DIAC Images
Increasing diversity in children's books is harder than it looks. It's not just a matter of a diverse range of writers and illustrators creating a diverse range of characters. For one thing, not all books even have characters. That's a recipe (or a partial one) for increasing diversity in fiction. But even then, it's only one end of the line. We need to take a step back and look at the whole publishing picture.

Of course it's vital to encourage people from a diverse range of backgrounds to consider that they could be writers, illustrators or editors, and to encourage publishers to employ editors and commission authors from a more diverse mix of backgrounds. That's clearly a good start, but we all know editors don't get to choose which books are published or promoted - that decision lies largely with sales and marketing. Has anyone looked at diversity in sales and marketing? And the sales and marketing people talk to booksellers and distributors. What's the mix there, with the people who are deciding which books will get into shops? If sales and marketing aren't allowing the commissioning of diverse books, or aren't putting publicity budget behind them, the efforts of writers, illustrators and editors is not enough. Witness the recent argument about whether Marvel Comics has annoyed, alienated or bored its audience by extending its mix of characters. Everyone has to be on board for it to work.

In fiction, it's quite easy to include a diverse mix of characters in illustrations. In non-fiction, it can be much harder because the illustrations are often photos. And photos aren't taken specifically for the book - they are bought from picture libraries. It is very, very difficult to find photos in picture libraries that show a diverse mix of children or adults doing specific activities. If you need children climbing a mountain or mending a bicycle, the vast majority of photos are of white, able-bodied children. I just searched a picture library one of my publishers uses a lot for 'children climbing a mountain' and of the 96 images on the first page, there were only two non-white children, one in a photo with two white children and the other alone. The one with the white children wasn't playing and was facing away from the camera; the white children were in the front of the picture, climbing. It's like this at every turn - easy to find generic children-in-a-playground or children-in-a-family but very difficult to find the sort of photo most books actually need. If the photos aren't there, we can't use them.

Lots of publishers use the cheapest picture libraries, such as Shutterstock and iStock. These don't use professional photographers. Anyone can submit photos and receive a (very) small payment when they are used. There are separate issues with the undermining of professional photography, but they do provide a way for photographers of any background to make their pictures commercially available. We don't have to wait for social change that enables a wider range of people to become professional photographers, which is just as well as it will be a long wait.

Anne Rooney
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1 comment:

Penny Dolan said...

Excellent points, Anne, about the range of images available to choose from without special commission costs.