At the height of the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020, sociologist Dana Weinberg collaborated on a complex survey looking for patterns of discrimination among book readers.
A Queens College City University of New York professor and a crime novelist, Weinberg created an inconspicuous market research survey for Amazon’s MTurk crowdsourcing marketplace – answer some questions for a book publisher. “We will ask you to examine book covers and book descriptions and then to offer your opinions about the book.”
The study by Professor Weinberg and her Queens College collaborator Adam Kapelner collected ratings of more than 25,000 book surveys across over 9,000 subjects, making the effort the largest experimental study of the book market to date. PLOS One has now published the results.
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Do Book Consumers Discriminate Against Black, Female, or Young Authors?
Subjects were presented with mocked-up book covers and descriptions from fiction and nonfiction genres. Using author names and photographs, the researchers signaled authors’ race, gender, and age, and randomly assigned these combinations to each book presented. Subjects noted their interest in purchasing the book, their evaluation of the authors’ credentials, and the amount they were willing to pay for the book.
“When you look at the history of publishing, we do see a lot of whitewashing,” Prof. Weinberg notes. “We see that the employees of publishers are mostly white. So there’s not a lot of diversity in the workforce itself in terms of who’s making the decisions and who’s doing the marketing.
“But also, there has been a history of a lack of diversity in who is getting published. And when publishers have historically decided that they want to highlight voices of people of color, it’s often been in niche markets – writing about racism, for example, or writing about the lives of Black people.”
As publishing has become increasingly profit-focused, suspicions also arise that a book by a Black authors won’t be acquired by an editor for fear it won’t make money.
“At the very least, we find that there’s no basis for publishers to discriminate against different kinds of authors,” Prof. Weinberg tells me. “Readers really weren’t sensitive to the identities of the authors. They were welcoming of this diversity of voices, especially ones that had been underrepresented.
“So the economic arguments, just don’t hold. In fact, it looks like there is an opportunity for greater profitability.”