Diversity in Publishing: Recent Studies Reveal That the Industry Is Still Mostly White

Even with calls in 2020 to bring diversity to more industries, a recent New York Times article reveals that the publishing industry is slow to implement the change.

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2020 saw global protests trying to create a more diverse and inclusive environment. The publishing industry has been slow in attempting to rectify the dominance of White employees. While major publishing houses promised to combat the issue, some even creating entirely new imprints focused on writers of color and diverse staff, many of these books floundered in sales, convincing many that the market was too saturated with similar books.

What the Numbers Say

A recent article from the New York Times reported on this disparity, using a recent study published by Lee & Low Books, a publisher that completes quadrennial baseline surveys on the level of diversity in publishing.

The 2023 study, conducted with 190 companies and 8,640 people, revealed that white workers made up 72.5% of the publishing workforce. While still high, the number is significantly down from the 2015 and 2019 surveys, which reported that the industry was 79% and 76% percent White.

White background with six multi-colored pie charts that read (from left to right): race, age, gender, sexual orientation, disability, work location.
IMAGE VIA LEE & LOW BOOKS

The survey also found that the percentage of Black people was unchanged from 2019 to 2023 (around 5%), and the percentage of Latino employees fell from 6 to 4.6%. It was also noticed that the greatest increase was in biracial and multiracial employees, which grew to 8.4% from 3%.

Regarding the higher echelon of publishing, the survey found that most publishing houses’ leadership was 76.7% white, slightly lower than the 78% in the 2019 survey. Many in the book world feel this reflects the entrenched structural and cultural issue. As explained by Erroll McDonald, vice president and executive editor at Alfred A. Knopf and one of the few Black executives in publishing:

Publishers went out of their way to embrace diversity, equity and inclusion practices, but that intensity seems to be on the wane these days…Despite all the talk of imminent change, that the industry was going through a revolution, and it would look completely different in five or 10 years, that has proven not to be true.”

Six multi-colored pie charts showing the levels of diversity among the executive levels of the publishing industry. From left: Race, Age, Gender, Sexual Orientation, Disability, Work Location.
IMAGE VIA LEE & LOW BOOKS

Setbacks

Following the 2020 protests, many prominent Black editors quit the business. Literary agents say that publishers are no longer interested in books that examine race and racism.

More recently, when some publishing executives from underrepresented backgrounds were brought on, their companies welcomed their perspectives. But many soon found that they were unable to make changes or to acquire different books. They might be approved to bid on a project, but not allotted enough money to make the deal. Or they might get little support from marketing and sales to promote a book from an author of color, leading to its failure to find an audience.

But others acknowledge the struggle that comes with attempting to diversify the industry. As seen by various lawsuits, state laws that target diversity programs, and critics who fear that focusing on an applicant’s race or ethnicity may lead to white applicants being passed over for jobs.

Publishers Optimistic for the Future?

Jason Low, publisher and owner of Lee & Low Books, said that while change is slow, there is a reason to be optimistic:

We are consistently moving in the right direction, maybe not as quickly as we’d like…I’m actually quite pleased and hopeful.”

And Krishan Trotman, executive editor at Hachette and only one of two Black publishers out of 25 at the company, said the lack of diversity remains an obstacle but seems to be taking hold:

“It has been harder for brown folks in publishing to find mentors at the executive level…[but] when I walk around the office, I do see more brown faces, which brings me joy.”


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