Throughout my life I’ve been a fan of Mind Body Spirit (MBS) books; in fact, I’m curently at book proposal stage for my own. In recent times, however, I have been less inclined to get excited about the launches I get invited to. Despite the camaraderie of fellow writers, the very visible lack of diversity has made me question: how fit is the MBS genre to be a voice for wellness today?
The MBS genre has become hamstrung by risk-averse decisions. It even seems to be moving backwards compared to other areas of publishing, which - especially following the Black Lives Matter crisis - appear eager not to lose their role as harbingers of cultural change.
But it’s not just the lack of diversity that’s the problem in MBS. It’s a lack of diversity compounded by a Western love of Eastern cultures, which leads to insights originating in non-white countries being filtered through white voices almost all of the time.
To put it bluntly: is the MBS industry only to be represented by a champagne slash green-juice swilling white middle class?
Has the desire for safety and sales created an MBS genre that is unwittingly upholding a legacy of imperialism, where the West preaches its understanding of other traditions as gospel?
Just a quick search of the MBS books on offer at the major retailers reveals the lack of author diversity. It appears that authors from the West can write about Eastern cultures - but rarely, if ever, do you see that cross over the other way. I don’t personally believe that MBS books need their equivalent of the Own Voices movement, but the agents, publishers and distributors who power the genre do need to stop and look at whether the over-representation of white authors in the industry is making an unspoken statement about who exactly is qualified to talk about wellbeing, enlightenment and personal growth. This won’t just deter a non-white audience. It will lead to poorer books for everyone. Told through the perspective and voice of one culture, without new, fresh voices and experiences used to filter it, the timeless content in most MBS books can become old hat.
So what’s the solution? Not the existing BAME schemes.
These can look great on paper, but if they aren’t surrounded in a wider equality change culture, then they’re simply ineffective.
A few years ago a nameless but significant MBS publisher hosted a diversity programme and the assumption from the start was: if you are BAME, you are not already good enough - so we will mentor you. We won’t offer you a book deal. We might, but that isn’t the purpose of this programme.
That is the premise for so many diversity initiatives. There are many barriers to entry for BAME authors, but the one that majority of initiatives are designed to tackle is the idea that "you aren’t yet good enough yet" - an attitude that simply perpetuates and feeds the same inequality it claims to want to change.
Mind you, this same publisher had an author who loved to tell me that all angels are white.
Where is the submission-to-commission reporting on MBS diversity? If it’s happening, why isn’t it published openly? What are BAME book deals when compared with non-BAME? And if it’s not happening for BAME authors, why? My rough-and-ready research via social media showed one of the biggest reasons BAME authors in the MBS genre were not given book deals was on their lack of, or perceived lack of, platform. It would be interesting to find out how common a reason that is for unsuccessful white applicants.
Book deals are a business decision, but they must now be subject to scrutiny when it comes to ensuring equality and diversity. It isn’t good enough to hide behind the veil that the commissioning decision is based purely on how much an editor loves the book and sees it in the marketplace.
This may be challenging, but then anti-racism is. Creating an equal world requires us to subject the current rules of engagement to a microscopic analysis so we can say hey, this is where we can and will do better.
So are you as an MBS editor actively seeking BAME voices out? Do you have a strategy in place that ensures there is diversity in who you commission and if not, how can you change that? The best person for the job argument is insufficient when it perpetuates a static culture. Create a quota, and have a proactive and dynamic pursuit for diverse writers - even if that means changing your submissions process.
The time has come for publishers to actively seek authors and books that change culture and support the equality revolution - as well as keeping MBS content fresh and dynamic.
As it stands, MBS involves predominantly white women (and men) telling people how to live a better life. The backlash against this kind of wellness is bubbling. It’s time for the MBS publishing industry to and actively fight the inequality that exists in the genre. But please: don’t just create another diversity scheme.
Sarupa Shah is the founder of The Soul Agency, an award winning writer, a regular contributor to the nationals on wellness, spiritual business mentor, and money manifestation, mentor columnist for Soul & Spirit Magazine, and author of Living a Rich Life.