#OwnVoices is Cancelled

We Need Diverse Books is dropping the #OwnVoices hashtag, opening a conversation on how we might do better.

We Need Diverse Books is dropping the hashtag. Here’s why.

Excerpted from

The Mythoversal Newsletter

Mythoversal restores inclusion and diversity to classical texts, rediscovering traditions erased by centuries of gatekeeping.

The Mythoversal Newsletter brings author commentary, mythological movie reviews, and occasional essays to your inbox.

If you’re new to this newsletter, welcome! It’s usually about mythology. Sometimes I discuss modern reception of mythology in popular culture. Sometimes I present practical advice to authors seeking to restore diversity, equity, and inclusion to classical texts. Often I preview material from my own mythology-inspired works for young readers.

But today I’m putting the mythology aside to comment on…

We Need Diverse Books

We Need Diverse Books is a non-profit grassroots organization working to create a world in which all children can see themselves in books. WNDB programs celebrate diverse books, mentor diverse writers and illustrators, support diverse publishing professionals, and provide books to classrooms.

My daughter was days old when the WNDB movement took off back in April of 2014. At the time, she was WNDB’s youngest supporter on social media. We called her Diversity Baby.

#OwnVoices

#OwnVoices is a social media hashtag originally intended for readers to recommend books by authors who openly share the diverse identity of their main characters. Since the hashtag started in 2015, I have been supportive of it, and so has Diveristy Baby, and so has WNDB.

Until yesterday, when WNDB announced that it will no longer be using the #OwnVoices hashtag to refer to works or authors of children’s literature. The change is to be applied retroactively, with the hashtag being removed or replaced in all previous blog posts.

This move comes in response to how the hashtag has been appropriated by the publishing industry and used in a manner that’s washed out the tag’s original meaning, sometimes causing actual harm.

A Matter of Push and Pull

I’ve been saying for a while now that #OwnVoices works best when used as a “pull” rather than as a “push.”

The “pull” of #OwnVoices aligns with its origins as a grassroots effort among the book-reading community to seek out works in which an author’s lived experience is expressly reflected in the themes, settings, and characters of a story.

An existing unmet demand from readers for a diversity of authentic viewpoints created a “pull” on the publishing industry, a demand to recruit and promote a larger number of voices who were willing to share lived experiences through their works. This has been an overwhelmingly positive force that has divesified protagonists while promoting authors of historically marginalized backgrounds.

The “push” of #OwnVoices came when marketing departments saw the hashtag as an advertising gimick. Although many publishers used the hashtag in the spirit in which it was intended, others distorted the tag to oversell works that weren’t authentic. Or again distorted the hashtag by applying it to works that were #OwnVoices in only the most narrow sense. Over time, these practices dilluted the term, giving it less meaning and making it less effective as a guide for readers.

Some publishers used the hashtag as a catch-all category for author and protagonist identities that weren’t considered “mainstream,” a usage that perpetuated the harmful idea that some identities should be treated as defaults while others should be grouped together on a separate shelf.

Some publishers even pressured authors to out themselves as #OwnVoices before they were ready, or when they might have preferred to keep their private lives separate from their published works. This may have been the practice WNDB referred to when saying that the term had “place[d] diverse creators in uncomfortable and potentially unsafe situations.”

Rather than responding to the “pull” of reader demand with authenticity, the “push” was often a lazy repackaging of existing business practices to create the illusion of increased diversity.

A Better Way

With its announcement yesterday, WNDB seems to be expressing a belief that the “push” has overtaken the “pull” as the dominant meaning of #OwnVoices, or that the “push” and “pull” have become so confused and so intertwined that the well-intentioned uses are being outweighed by the manipulative ones.

Going forward, in place of #OwnVoices, WNDB is pledging to use specific descriptions that authors use for themselves and their characters whenever possible. They will be using such terms as “Korean American author” or “autistic protagonist” to provide greater specificity and more accurate, value-neutral information. This change will be a great comfort to authors, a useful tool for readers, and a better guide for publishers.

This usage will shine a more accurate spotlight on authors who are responsibly diversifying the casts of their books while still promoting those who are writing authentic works within their own backgrounds.

Diversity Includes Everyone

WNDB’s decision tangentially relates to the ongoing debate over who should tell whose story. Should authors be encouraged to include diverse characters in their books, or should they be encouraged to stay in their lane and clear a path for other authors with authentic lived experience?

In its original usage in the reader community, the #OwnVoices tag was neutral in this debate. Anyone could write any story, with the tag merely providing guidance for readers who wanted it.

But when publishers adopted the tag as a marketing factor, it became a filter instead of a funnel. Usage within the publishing community came down hard on the “stay in your lane” side of the debate in a way that was not originally intended.

Even the most highly skilled and empathetic authors, the ones who do meticulous research and employ sensitivity readers, may miss some nuance that causes their work to veer away from authenticity. These mistakes may perpetuate stereotypes and harm marginalized communities. So staying in one’s lane can be good advice.

But the authors of works tagged as #OwnVoices, while avoiding such mistakes as they relate to their own lived experience, were as prone as any other authors in making mistakes related to other identities. Harsh enforcement of the tag encouraged them, also, to stay in their lane and write only from their own experience. This, ironically, reduced the diversity of casts in books that were marketed as #OwnVoices while stiffling creativity and chilling every author’s good-faith attempts at diversifying books through increased empathy.

So a bit of lane shifting is good and necessary, as long as you’re not swerving all over the road and remain mindful of other traffic.

The new usage being undertaken by WNDB is fact-based and objective, respects how authors are comfortable with presenting themselves, and serves readers by providing unlimited gradation in how authors and protagonists can be described. What I like is that it restores neutrality to the debate over lane-shifting, the pros and cons of which will continue to be argued on both sides.

Diversity Baby Update

Diversity Baby has been keenly following WNDB’s work for seven years. Her bookshelves are stocked with books inspired by the movement to diversify publishing. She’s grateful, but still she wants more.

Subscribe for the mythology, leave comments for Diversity Baby, and happy reading!

—Greg R. Fishbone,
Mythoversal Author-in-Residence