Bringing ‘Working Class Voices’ to Publishing

Publishing has been progressive on many fronts. On the creative side, it’s really making inroads (with a special star given to the comic book world, which is re-contextualizing and empowering minorities left and right). On the business side, it is a strong example of a place where women can be hired and promoted to the top of their industry. Unfortunately, and despite much smoke about the efforts, diversifying the race of the workforce is much like everywhere else – languid.

Everyday, we see an article about people in the book world ‘saying what we’ve all been thinking’. Most recently, for example, was Claire Malcolm, CEO of England’s New Writing North, who told a conference that her industry is “keen to discover and bring forth more writers of colour, more working class voices and more work that represents a diversity and range of experiences”.

Malcolm is one that assuredly acts upon her beliefs, but pull-quotes alone are insufficient. They are like Top 40 pop songs: a pretty thing to hear, but when it comes to content – really elevating minorities in publishing – talk has been cheaper than a thrift store copy of 50 Shades of Grey. Earlier this year, Publishers Weekly took a deep look into the industry’s push to diversify. While the field no longer looks like an extras casting call for Citizen Kane, white men still dominate overall. It echoed the same sentiment they had in 1994, where they called out the industry for being “a metaphorical house without doors, attracting neither minority workers to their employ nor minority audiences to their products”.

(Image: Publisher’s Weekly/Lee & Low Books)

Recognition that the industry needs to adapt its demographics has been around for decades, so why is progress so slow? To say that non-white voices are critically or commercially negligible is an argument so oblivious it’s almost not worth pursuing. Instead, a defer my response to this. And this. And this

Publishers Weekly‘s article posited a couple of potential symptoms for the white collar side of books: the industry wasn’t actively recruiting and most job applicants were freshly post-grad Ivy Leaguers, which limited the minority pool all on its own. Living in cities that are publishing hubs – New York, Chicago, London – are expensive but requisite for a foot in the door, and most editorial assistants would need extra financial support underpriviged families couldn’t provide. There was little upward mobility, and a qualified worker who was also a person of color may be able to leverage a better salary in another field.

That withstanding, there are some silver linings that we can rally behind. Within two years, We Need Diverse Books has transformed from a hastag to an established nonprofit to a success story, sending minority interns to four of the Big Five publishing houses. All of the major houses have diversity programs, although their effectiveness is difficult to gauge. What needs to happen is a practice of what is preached, not only from the writer’s room but all throughout the book-making process. Hiring white employees is a default, and will continue to be unless we have more of a discussion – and more transparency – when numbers like this come out.


Featured image courtesy of the Huffington Post.