It’s no secret that many industries lack diversity. With 69% of actors being white, 87% percent of directors being white, and 89% of fiction books in 2018 being written by white writers (who are majority cis straight women), diversity is a serious issue in these, and many other, communities. Following the popularization of the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2020 after the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, the publishing world was one of the communities called out on its bullsh*t. Since it is Black History Month, even though you should care about diversity consistently (but I guess that’s asking too much), let’s go over why we need more black people in publishing and the book world.
Let’s start with the specifics. In a 2019 diversity baseline survey, the publishing industry was shown to be 76% white. In the other 24%, only 5% of non-white individuals in the industry were black. 74% of individuals were cis women, 81% straight, and 89% non-disabled. From this data, it is clear that the publishing industry is made up mostly of cis, straight, able-bodied white women. However, let’s focus on the data that is particularly relevant to this article and that is how only 5% of people in the publishing industry were black. Despite the rising popularity of movies like ‘Black Panther’ and ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ both featuring POC leads and majority POC cast proving that diversity sells by breaking box office records, and titles like The Hate You Give becoming ‘New York Times’ bestsellers during this time, changes to industries like the publishing world still were clearly not being made. It has been proven time and time again that diversity is a popular commodity in today’s world, yet communities like the publishing industry are shutting out black people and therefore black voices.
Being black in publishing is no easy task, however, being black in spaces that are majority white (which is most spaces and industries) in general is exhausting. The publishing industry has always been criticized for hiring and retaining so few employees of color and in 2020, the percentages of black people in the industry were STILL 5%. Recently, due to the events of summer 2020, black professionals in the publishing industry were motivated to speak out. So, what’s it like to be black in publishing? Well according to a ‘New York Times’ article featuring black professionals in publishing, challenging. Here are a few quotes from what some of them had to say:
There is, in a curious way, a greater openness to books by and about Black people, but that has not necessarily changed the structure of the industry. Every major publisher now is singing the “diversity of voices” blues. They want to increase diversity of voices, but diversity of voices doesn’t have anything to do with anti-Black racism in publishing.
– Erroll McDonald, Vice president and executive director at Pantheon Books
I have had some experiences along the way. For example, a colleague — who didn’t know I was a colleague — there was at a gathering for a Black author, I was in the lobby of the building, and she didn’t have her ID. I said, “Oh, great, I can get you upstairs,” and she turned to me and said, “Oh, are you related to the author?” And the reason she asked me that was that the author was Black. The thing that was the most upsetting was this editor had worked on a book by this author, and the book was about the racist practices at the inception of this country. I think people have this false impression that this industry is great, it’s books, and people love to read and write. But you bring all the baggage of the systemic racism right through the door with you, whether you know it or not.
– Linda Duggins, Senior director of publicity at Grand Central Publishing
It took seven years of interviews for an editorial assistant position. I used to make a joke that I was the oldest editorial assistant in the world. Given my sales history, I think if I weren’t a Black woman, I would probably have a higher title. But titles don’t really matter to me, just the opportunity to publish books for my people is what matters most, so I don’t really focus on that. When I was interviewing for those seven years for an editorial assistant position, I was told multiple times that Black people didn’t read. That’s an unfortunate belief. Because it’s just not true.
-Tracy Sherrod, Editorial director at Amistad
Reading what these black professionals said about the publishing industry and its insensitivity and continued systemic racism really shocked me. Why should I be shocked though? This is to be expected from an industry that can’t manage to employ more black people and continues to only favor us when it’s popular. I recommend reading the full article because so many stories and experiences that deserve to be shared were told. As long as there’s an underwhelming amount of diversity in publishing, these experiences will continue to be had and white people will be favored. We need to allow space for not just black people but all people of color in the publishing world. We have ideas, we have skills, and we have talent that goes unseen and unheard, or even worse, exploited, because the publishing industry is majority white. However, it is not just diversity but we also need to change systems and to change mindsets. Combating systemic racism is about changing how the publishing world has functioned for years and learning to be anti-racist. Even still, black people are suffering as a minority in the publishing industry and it’s not just people working behind the scenes but black authors who are also continuously snubbed or undervalued for their work.
2020 also showed us how black authors are undervalued with the hashtag ‘publishing paid me’ being popularized after the author L.L. McKinney started it to highlight the pay inequality between black and nonblack writers. Black authors began to share their advances and some white authors shared that they got paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for their debut books which is a big difference from the $10,000 and $12,500 received by black authors like Roxane Gay. Author Jesmyn Ward even shared this tweet about her experience to get paid more.
Even after Salvage the Bones won the NBA, my publishing company did not want to give me 100k for my next novel. My agent and I fought and fought before we wrestled our way to that number.
— Jesmyn Ward (@jesmimi) June 8, 2020
It’s not just about one particular role in the publishing and book world but all of them. Allowing more diversity in the publishing world will allow for black talent to be seen and paid for what it is: talent! Roxane Gay receiving 12k for her first book and even 15k for Bad Feminist while an ‘unknown white woman with one viral article’ got 400k for her first book says a lot about the publishing industry. It says that black authors are lowballed and it is time for this to change because I am fed up!
In June 2020, the Black Writers’ Guild also called for a change in UK publishing in a letter requesting 8 things including:
- an audit of the books published by black authors and staff across the business
- hiring black commissioners at every level of their companies
- hiring black people in key positions like sales, marketing, and publicity as well as in creative positions such as designing and illustrating
- more support for books by black authors to reach the right audience
- inclusion of black members on core leadership boards
- publishers to help lobby to expand the pool of black literary agents
- publishers to make an additional financial commitment to new awards recognizing and amplifying black talent
- a mechanism for stakeholders and senior executives to have a direct relationship to discuss concerns and trends in the output of publishers
This is just a condensed version of their request so read the full letter but these changes need to be made in publishing everywhere to give more opportunities to black people. Since you all loved to hear what we had to say last summer, let’s change that ‘we hear you’ into ‘these are the changes we are making within our companies to diversify and uplift black voices.’ So, publishing industry, it’s time you hired more black people!
Featured image via Alex Nemo hanse on unsplash