Diversity in Publishers Weekly’s 2013 Young Adult Bestsellers

By Malinda Lo

On March 14, 2014, Publishers Weekly released its annual accounting of children’s bestsellers for the previous year. Continuing Diversity in YA’s efforts to analyze diversity in the book market, I’ve taken a look at the 2013 figures to determine how characters of color, LGBT characters, disabled characters, and authors of color are represented in these bestselling titles.

In comparison to 2012 (you can read those results here), there was a tiny uptick in 2013 in terms of overall numbers of titles that incorporate characters of color, LGBT and/or disabled characters, but that increase is due to errors I made in calculating diversity in the 2012 list. Last year was my first attempt to count diversity in bestsellers, and I missed the House of Night series by P.C. and Kristin Cast (published by St. Martin’s Press), whose main character, Zoey Redbird, is part-Cherokee. I also missed Michael Grant’s Gone series; I explain more about that series later in this post.

Additionally, last year I did not count Lois Lowry’s Gathering Blue as including a disabled character because I thought Lowry’s Giver Quartet was middle grade. While the series was originally published as middle grade, in recent years the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, has repositioned the series as young adult. (See the search results at Edelweiss, where the 2002 publication is categorized for ages 8–12, whereas the 2012 reprint is for ages 12 and up.) This clearly indicates that “young adult” is a marketing category, but because I rely on publishers to categorize their own books, I have to follow my own rule. That means this year, Gathering Blue and the other books in the Giver Quartet count as YA.

What this means is that the number of diverse YA titles — when diverse means main characters of color, LGBT and/or disabled main characters — has remained flat. There has been no improvement overall.

Before I continue to the rest of the analysis, first I’ll define my terms and explain some background information. If you’re not interested in this you can skip down to the next section, Overall Diversity in Publishers Weekly’s 2013 YA Bestsellers.

The Data and the Terms

The PW list is comprised of publisher-provided data on sales. The complete children’s list counts bestsellers in five different categories:

  • hardcover frontlist (new hardcover books, presumably published in 2013) with sales ≥ 100,000
  • hardcover backlist (old hardcover books, presumably published before 2013) with sales ≥ 100,000
  • paperback frontlist (new paperback books, published in 2013) with sales ≥ 100,000
  • paperback backlist (old paperback books, published before 2013) with sales ≥ 100,000
  • ebooks (published anytime) with sales ≥ 25,000

There are some things to note:

  • Ebook sales only need to top 25,000 to appear on the ebook bestseller list. This is obviously much lower than the number for printed books (100,000).
  • A lot of books that made the ebook bestseller list did not make the printed lists. Presumably, those books could have sold up to 99,999 printed copies without landing on those lists.
  • The vast majority of bestselling children’s books were not young adult fiction. Instead, they were board books, picture books, middle grade, or nonfiction titles. I’m only counting titles that publishers categorize as young adult.

What does “diverse” mean?

By “diverse,” I mean: Books in which the main character or one of the primary point-of-view characters is a character of color, LGBT, and/or disabled. Note:

  • This is a very narrow definition. It does not include books that feature diverse supporting casts, because I’m interested in narratives that center on diverse characters. Sometimes secondary characters can be quite important to a book, but for now I’m talking about main characters. Characters of color, LGBT and disabled characters deserve to be the heroes of their own stories, and that’s what I’m examining.
  • This also does not necessarily mean that these books feature well-written diverse main characters. They could be stereotypical, but if they are diverse, then they’re included in the analysis.
  • I have not read all the titles on the bestseller list and my analysis of the list does not necessarily mean I recommend any of the individual titles.

Overall Diversity in Publishers Weekly’s 2013 YA Bestsellers

Out of 123 young adult titles on the PW list, 23 were counted as diverse. That’s 19% of total. Those 23 titles and their sales figures (if provided by PW) are:

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

Twelve of those titles, or 52% of them, also appeared on PW’s 2012 bestseller list:

  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
  • Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
  • Hidden (House of Night) by P.C. and Kristin Cast
  • Clockwork Angel (The Infernal Devices #1) by Cassandra Clare
  • Clockwork Prince (The Infernal Devices #2) by Cassandra Clare
  • Gone by Michael Grant
  • The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
  • Gathering Blue by Lois Lowry
  • Legend (Legend #1) by Marie Lu
  • Pretty Little Liars (Pretty Little Liars #1) by Sara Shepard
  • Flawless (Pretty Little Liars #2) by Sara Shepard
  • Burned (Pretty Little Liars #12) by Sara Shepard

Of the other 11 titles, seven are continuations of series that already appeared in 2012; two are from a series that has spun off from an established series (The Bane Chronicles); and two have never before appeared on the PW year-end bestseller list (Eleanor & Park and Will Grayson, Will Grayson).

Notably, The Fault in Our Stars, which is about teens with disabilities, is the top-selling diverse title of both 2013 and 2012. In 2013, it sold more than three times as many copies as the second-bestselling diverse title of 2013, Clockwork Princess.

Although it is possible to mash up all the diverse titles and count them together (as I just did), it does obscure certain issues and also is a bit like comparing apples to oranges. For the rest of this post, I’m considering race, sexual orientation, and disability separately.

Race in Publishers Weekly’s 2013 YA Bestsellers

When considering the race of the main characters, among the 123 young adult bestsellers on the PW list, three books don’t count because they’re not novels, and 12 are about main characters of color. That adds up to 10% of the total.

pw13-chart-race

Those individual titles are:

  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
  • Revealed (House of Night) by P.C. and Kristin Cast
  • Hidden (House of Night) by P.C. and Kristin Cast
  • Clockwork Angel (The Infernal Devices #1) by Cassandra Clare
  • Clockwork Prince (The Infernal Devices #2) by Cassandra Clare
  • Clockwork Princess (The Infernal Devices #3) by Cassandra Clare
  • What Really Happened in Peru (The Bane Chronicles #1) by Cassandra Clare and Sarah Rees Brennan
  • The Runaway Queen (The Bane Chronicles #2) by Cassandra Clare and Maureen Johnson
  • Legend (Legend #1) by Marie Lu
  • Prodigy (Legend #2) by Marie Lu
  • Champion (Legend #3) by Marie Lu
  • Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

These 12 titles consist of four series and two standalone novels, and only six individual characters. Two of those characters are American Indian or part-American Indian, and all four of the other characters are Asian or half-Asian. I couldn’t find any Black or Latin@/Hispanic main characters on the PW bestseller list.

Among these titles, two authors (as far as I know) were writing about characters who share their ethnic background: Sherman Alexie and Marie Lu.

Sexual Orientation in Publishers Weekly’s 2013 YA Bestsellers

Among the 123 YA bestsellers on the PW list, again three books aren’t novels and don’t count in this analysis, and seven are about LGBT main characters, adding up to 6% of the total.

pw13-chart-lgbt

Those individual titles are:

  • What Really Happened in Peru (The Bane Chronicles #1) by Cassandra Clare and Sarah Rees Brennan
  • The Runaway Queen (The Bane Chronicles #2) by Cassandra Clare and Maureen Johnson
  • Pretty Little Liars (Pretty Little Liars #1) by Sara Shepard
  • Flawless (Pretty Little Liars #2) by Sara Shepard
  • Burned (Pretty Little Liars #12) by Sara Shepard
  • Ali’s Pretty Little Lies (Pretty Little Liars prequel) by Sara Shepard
  • Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan

These seven titles consist of two series (one of which is a series of short stories) and one standalone novel, so there are only three individual characters. Two of them (Magnus Bane and Emily Fields) are bisexual, and one (Will Grayson) is gay. There are no lesbian or transgender main characters among the PW bestsellers.

Among these titles, one author (as far as I know) was writing about a character who shares his sexual orientation: David Levithan.

Disability in Publishers Weekly’s 2013 YA Bestsellers

Among the 123 YA bestsellers on the PW list, again three books aren’t novels and don’t count in this analysis, and seven are about disabled main characters, adding up to 6% of the total.

pw13-chart-disability

Those individual titles are:

  • Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson — Muteness
  • Battle of the Ampere (Michael Vey #3) by Richard Paul Evans — Tourette’s Syndrome
  • The Fault in Our Stars by John Green — Cancer and other disabilities
  • Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan — Depression
  • Gone by Michael Grant — Autism
  • Light: A Gone Novel by Michael Grant — Autism
  • Gathering Blue by Lois Lowry — Physical disabilities

The Gone series by Michael Grant is something of a special case here, because while a character in the series has Autism, and that Autism is significant to the plot, that character is not a main point-of-view character. However, because of the significance to the plot, I’ve included the series under disability. The books also have a diverse cast that includes race and sexual orientation, but it’s debatable whether the non-white and LGBT characters are “main characters,” so I haven’t included the books in the sections on race and sexual orientation.

To determine which books included a disability, I cross-referenced the PW list with Disability in Kid Lit’s Goodread list, as well as did my own research. Among these titles, one author (as far as I know) was writing about a main character who shares his disability: Battle of the Ampere, which is about a character with Tourette’s Syndrome.

Authors of Publishers Weekly’s 2013 YA Bestsellers

Among the 50 YA authors on the PW list, there are only four authors of color as far as I know. That’s a regrettably low 7%.

pw13-chart-authorrace

The authors are:

Clockwise from top left: Sherman Alexie, Kiera Cass, Marie Lu, Demi Lovato
Clockwise from top left: Sherman Alexie (American Indian), Kiera Cass (half Puerto Rican), Marie Lu (Chinese American), Demi Lovato (Latina)

Because I had the data available to me, I also counted gender in the authors on the list, and approximately 63% of the authors are women, while 37% are men.

pw13-chart-authorgender

This gender breakdown differs most notably from the gender breakdown of the New York Times YA Bestseller List as analyzed here by Kelly Jensen at Stacked. A quick sorting of the PW list by total sales indicates that women authors of YA are selling quite a bit more than men.

Book Covers

Representing diversity on a book cover can be a difficult thing to do well or clearly. Visual cues indicating race may be read different ways by different people. When looking at the covers of 2013’s diverse bestsellers, I found that three book covers feature full-faced characters or design that reflects the race of the characters:

Left to right: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
  • Hidden (House of Night) by P.C. and Kristin Cast
  • Clockwork Prince (The Infernal Devices #2) by Cassandra Clare

All three of these books appeared on the 2012 PW list as well. Among the other titles about characters of color, the two Bane Chronicles short stories only show part of a face, so it’s not immediately clear that the person depicted is Asian, although most readers of the stories are likely to know. The cover of Eleanor & Park shows only the back of the Asian character’s head, so it’s not obvious from the cover that he’s Asian.

Conclusions

Overall, it’s hard to not be disheartened by the 10% representation of characters of color in the PW 2013 bestseller list. According to the US Census, in 2011 people of color made up 36.2% of the US population, and that proportion is only due to rise. There’s a huge gap between reality and what’s selling to today’s teens. Additionally, the tiny number of authors of color who are writing bestsellers is saddening, and is probably reflective of the low number of authors of color publishing YA books overall.

The representation of LGBT characters corresponds more closely to estimates of the proportion of LGBT people in the US, but there are many disagreements as to how to even count LGBT people given that many of them aren’t out to be counted. And of course, there are no lesbian or transgender main characters on the list.

One of the brighter spots may be in representations of disability, primarily because of The Fault in Our Stars. Since the film version of the book is due out later this year, I think that can only continue to raise awareness of disability issues.

A few other interesting and potentially problematic issues arose from the 2013 bestsellers. First, almost all of this year’s diversity is the same as last year’s. Only two diverse titles are genuinely new to the 2013 list: Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell, and Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan. Those two titles are certainly welcome, but it would have been nice to have more. It also shows how entrenched certain series are on the bestseller lists, and is an indication of just how difficult it is to break into these ranks.

Second, there’s a distinct lack of intersectionality when it comes to representations of minorities. It’s rare that you’ll find a character of color who is also gay, or a disabled character who is also of color. As far as I can tell, there are only two characters on the list that do this: Magnus Bane, who is both Asian and bisexual, from Cassandra Clare’s The Bane Chronicles; and Will Grayson, who is both gay and depressed, from Will Grayson, Will Grayson. It’s not as if I expect there to be a ton of bestselling books with characters like this, but it’s striking how few there are.

Finally, I think I find it most disheartening to see the total lack of bestsellers with Black and/or Latin@ main characters. Given that middle grade bestsellers such as Rick Riordan’s series regularly include Black and Latin@ main characters, it’s frankly deplorable that young adult books cannot seem to do the same.

Given the amount of discussion that has been taking place recently about diversity in children’s and young adult books, including the New York Times op-eds from Walter Dean Myers and Christopher Myers, a discussion on KQED’s Forum (NPR), and even an upcoming issue of School Library Journal devoted to diversity, it’s important for everyone involved in the book business, as well as readers, to ask themselves a hard question: What can you personally do to effect change so that young adult books can be more inclusive? Whether that’s simply buying a diverse book, checking it out at the library, inviting authors of color to speak at your conference, or actively acquiring diverse titles, I urge you to take those steps now.


Note: While I’ve made every effort to double-check my facts and figures, if you discover errors, I invite you to email me at diversityinya@gmail.com.