The End of the #Ownvoices Era
About a month ago, we saw the beginning of the end of the #ownvoices era when We Need Diverse Books chose to stop using the hashtag #ownvoices. Since I am a self-defined #ownvoices author who has used that hashtag for years: querying, pitching manuscripts on Twitter, and even including it on my bio here at Mixed-Up Files, I began asking myself: am I ready — and is it really time?
Where #Ownvoices Began
To answer that question, I want to start with why we needed it in the first place. Back in 2015 when author Corinne Duyvis coined the term, it quickly gained traction as a shorthand way to tell agents, editors, and readers that a manuscript’s diverse main characters were authentic and drawn from a creator’s lived experience.
The force that is We Need Diverse Books propelled #ownvoices into the mainstream, accompanied by the clear message to the publishing industry: publish and promote marginalized creators rather than white authors writing diverse characters.
It was a breath of fresh air. #Ownvoices creators had spent such a long time feeling frustrated that our authentic viewpoint didn’t seem to be valued as much as the white viewpoint of who we were. Now maybe, things were changing.
Authors (like me) used the hashtag on Twitter pitch contests like #PitMad and #DVPit, and the industry responded. Agents, editors, and readers all embraced the tool that helped diversify their lists.
So, it seemed that #ownvoices was a win.
Where #Ownvoices is Now
It should absolutely have been a win. But as always, trends that go mainstream become susceptible to the battlefield that is social media. In this case, what should have been an empowering self-identifying label morphed into anxiety-promoting ugliness. In the wilderness of social media, where nuance and context go to die, identity can be and often is flattened by out-of-context reading, crushed, or judged cruelly by followers who insist on the right to define your identity and its authenticity.
In a brilliant essay, author and bookseller Nicole Brinkley notes, “… how intensely the notion of perfect representation had been weaponized—both by readers who didn’t consider representations authentic enough to earn the label, and by readers who dismissed as problematic any representation that wasn’t explicitly labeled ownvoices by its author.”
With this relentless scrutiny, #ownvoices began to create a litmus test for diversity that felt a lot like backlash and certainly wasn’t creating a healthy and safe space for marginalized writers to promote their work.
#Ownvoices Doesn’t Police Identity
But the external pressure on #ownvoices creators was only part of the distortion that ultimately dismantled it. The other came from creators who were eager to ride the diversity wave even though they already had the privilege of benefiting from an overwhelmingly white publishing industry.
When Beth Phelan launched Twitter pitch contest #DVPit back in 2016, she would host pre-pitch Q and A sessions. Because often participated in the contest, I would read these threads avidly and frequently observed these kinds of questions:
“Can I participate if I don’t identify with a marginalized population but my book/main character/secondary character does?”
Phelan’s answer was always the same: we don’t police your identity; that’s on you. But #DVPit is for marginalized creators only.
Whether We Still Need #Ownvoices
While #ownvoices began because of a clear need for authors to be able to rally around a common flag and support each other in that space, it needed to be able to grow and change along with the industry’s attitude toward diversity. To have shown that kind of growth, we needed to see two distinct characteristics: 1) continued unambiguous support of marginalized creators; 2) results.
We’ve seen how the support system that was #ownvoices crumbled. But what about whether #ownvoices actually helped get more marginalized creators published? That’s tough to quantify.
Data on books by and about Black, Indigenous and People of Color published for children and teens compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison. reveals that in 2020, about 58% of 3,115 books reviewed were written by or about: BIPOC, Asian, Latinx, and Arab communities. The distinctions between “by” and “about” show that while the number of diverse books published continues to rise, the number of diverse creators still lags.
That said, CCBC doesn’t distill those”by” numbers further into whether creators are #ownvoices. According to the CCBC website, “… #OwnVoices is a term whose meaning is tied to culturally specific identity and experience, which is not captured in these broad categorizations. The information we document for each book regarding culturally specific content, and for book creators documenting their culturally specific identities, is necessary to determine if that book might be categorized as #OwnVoices. It is also important to note that the way in which individuals interpret the meaning of #OwnVoices may vary.”
((Want more on #ownvoices authors? Read this interview with MUF contributor Natalie Rompella))
Outlived its Usefulness
Ultimately, if you buy my assessment that #ownvoices needed two crucial supports and neither one of them held up, it seems clear that #ownvoices has outlived its usefulness.
I always have a hard time letting go though, and so I’m taking a moment to say thank you before I say goodbye.
Thank you to #ownvoices for:
- giving me and other creators a space in which we could become a visible choice –a force, in fact — for publishers to consider as they diversify;
- validating my lived experience as authentic material for the stories I write; and
- providing a community for marginalized creators navigating the still overwhelmingly white publishing industry.
I have chosen to remove the hashtag from my bio, but I will continue to identify myself as a mixed-race author and hope that there will continue to be room under this tent for all of us.
Hi Kelly – We had a chance to chat about this on Twitter this morning, but I wanted to let you know I am seeing your comment on here now. Thank you for reading, and thank you for your thoughtful response–I truly appreciate the opportunity to have this conversation.
Honest question though: Those of us who are marginalized creators (physical disability & TBI here and currently revising a MG fantasy about a girl with the same), how are we supposed to identify that we are authentic?
Rest assured, the policing hasn’t ended because #ownvoices has.
While I may not “look disabled“ online, in person I don’t have the option to hide it. In fact, I usually disclose a high-level explanation of my brain injury to people bc I’m sick of them making up horrible stories about me (happens a lot without and frequently even with that context). And I’ve even gotten snarky comments & eye rolls about a mobility aid at an SCBWI event – not for nothing, right after I’d won an award.
But make no mistake, 99.9repeating% of the people out there without my disability could NOT tell a story about it. On top of which, TO create & get involved in the kidlit circuit, I jump through many hoops that I wouldn’t had I never been hot by a tractor trailer.