How does the Own Voices label intersect with influencers and bloggers? Well, typically if a marginalized author is writing about a marginalized experience, they are writing it primarily for marginalized readers. That doesn’t mean others can’t and won’t enjoy the story, but they might not understand or enjoy the nuance that comes from shared experiences. Because of this, the book community has put a heavy emphasis on making sure marginalized reviewers that share the identity of the author and story receive ARCs of the book. Those readers are the ones that the book was created for and are the most equipped to analyze and evaluate the story. It just makes sense that those readers should be the ones reviewing the book and letting other marginalized readers know whether they should buy it when it releases.
(Note: there is also a movement at the moment to get young adult ARCs to teen reviewers, but I won’t dive into that as much with this post. In addition, I will not be diving into the discrepancy in which countries receive ARCs although that topic certainly intersects with this one.)
So the book community has been shouting from the rooftops “Give ARCs to Own Voices readers!” We’ve been shouting this at publishers and even at non-marginalized reviewers who we hope will pass their physical ARCs along. We are putting the burden on publicists to make this happen, to distribute their copies in a way that brings them to marginalized reviews, but that is the only place we seem to be putting the burden. Let me be upfront: Own Voices reviewers will not receive ARCs unless publishers make it a priority, so of course, we should be making it clear to publishers that this is what we expect. However, getting these ARCs in the right hands is a two-part process… and we aren’t doing our part.
Publishing is a business. It always has been and it always will be. ARCs are expensive to print and, even in the case of e-arcs that can be distributed primarily for free, can cut into the final profits if they are not used correctly. For the most part, publishers are only going to send them to influencers who have influence. That may seem obvious, but let’s break down the idea of influence. Bloggers or other content creators have both quantitative and qualitative ways to measure their influence. Quantitative is easy: That’s the numbers side of things. How many followers do they have? How many people are visiting their blog or favoriting their Instagram photos? What’s their engagement rate? All of these can be easily seen and measured by publishers who use them to evaluate who receives ARCs. Qualitative is important too though. This refers to anything that isn’t numbers. How much book shopping do their followers do every month? Does reading that blogger's posts or seeing their pictures inspire followers to make a purchase? How much do their followers trust the blogger's opinion? This data is harder to measure, but it is what publishers most want to know when they are looking for influencers.
In my experience and observation, marginalized reviewers tend to have the influence more than they have the numbers. As the reading community is becoming more aware, we have started to care about representation and Own Voices opinions… but only to a point. When a new book is released, self-aware white readers will hop on Goodreads to hear the opinions of people of color. They want to know if the representation is good, either because they care or because they don’t want to get blasted for loving a problematic book. Cis readers will look to trans reviewers, straight to queer, and able-bodied to disabled. They will take the opinions of those groups into consideration and then move back to their own spheres. They are influenced by those reviewers, but only qualitatively. Only on the book’s Goodreads page or through retweets that appear on their timeline. Only in the ways that publishers can’t measure.
I say this to everyone who is the majority or non-marginalized in any area: We are bad at putting our effort where our hearts are. We think we care because we read and promote “diverse books,” but the influencer content we consume is all the same. There are fantastic and amazing people just outside of our spheres creating amazing and irreplaceable content on blogs, bookstagram, and booktube. Their stories reveal things about the diverse books we read that we could never understand on the same level. They are the ones that these Own Voices books are being written for but we are only supporting the blogs that shout the loudest.
We have to decide once and for all: Is our cry for Own Voices reviewers to receive ARCs just lip service or do we actually care? Are we just trying to look good or do we actually want to make a change? If we do, if we actually and honestly care, then we have to start putting our time and effort where our hearts are already. We have to start giving marginalized influencers the numbers, views, followers, likes, and shares. We have to promote them and scream about them from the virtual rooftops. Most importantly, we have to be willing to take a step back and say “listen to them instead,” even if it means sacrificing our own views and influence sometimes.
I’m not going to sugarcoat and make false promises. Even if we raise the numbers for marginalized influencers, publicists might still pass them over when distributing ARCs. It’s absolutely possible and I fully believe it is already happening. Certainly, there are white, cis, straight, and able-bodied reviewers out there with bad stats but who still get ARCs. And likewise there are marginalized reviewers who have the numbers but get pushed down the list anyway. We still have to hold publishers accountable for who they pick. But we also can’t pass the blame when we are passing the same influencers over. We have so much power that we aren’t using for good.
Publishing is a business and they are going to go where the money is. The money is in numbers and we are those numbers. Never before has a generation had so much influencing power as we do right now. Where we go, what we watch, who we support… That is what will thrive. So make sure you aren’t just supporting those who are just like you. Support those who have something more important to say than you do. Support those who haven’t been heard. We have the power and the ability to control the direction of publishing in the future and we have used that power to support marginalized authors. Slowly but surely, diverse books have grown from a niche genre to a thread that weaves into every genre and age group on the shelf. We did that with our purchasing habits and with our influence. Can’t we do the same for Own Voices reviewers now?