In the wake of the protests against racism and police brutality towards Black people in the U.S. and all over the world, publishers have released different statements condemning the actions of the police as well as committing to diversity and amplifying Black voices. Some of them have even gone on a recommendation spree and have promoted a lot of books by Black authors. But some people have commented on how disingenuous or performative this feels, considering the fact that publishing, at least in terms of the “Big Five” publishers, is comprised of mainly white people (specifically white women), and the stories that are published are mainly about white people.
The lack of diversity and publishing is no secret. These diversity surveys have been taken and presented to the public with regularity within the last decades, but we have seen little-to-no progress in the makeup of the industry. But other than a pretty homogeneous workplace, what does the lack of diversity means for the industry and the books that get published?
Because it is mostly white, straight, cisgender, and non-disabled editors who are acquiring books, it is most likely that they’re going to acquire books that are, in a sense, familiar to them, meaning books by and about people like them. For example, an infographic on diversity in children’s books by Sarah Park Dahlen, an associate professor of MLIS at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, MN, and illustrator David Huyck, revealed the percentage of books depicting characters from diverse backgrounds, and the numbers left much to be desired.
Another thing that can happen when there is a lack of diversity in the publishing industry is that, because the majority of the people come from the same kind of background, when they do acquire books that are diverse or deal with issues surrounding minorities it is very possible that they might miss some of the problems in them, compared to those that books were written by white authors and for white audiences.
Earlier this year the book American Dirt by Jeanine Cummings was published. This book, written by an author who identified as white about the Mexican immigrant experience, received a whopping seven-figure advance. The book was praised left and right prior to publication and it was even selected as part of Oprah’s Book Club. But many readers who had received advance copies of the book had already deemed it “stereotypical,” “appropriative” and “opportunistically, selfishly, and parasitically,” since many of the larger themes and complications behind immigration are never addressed in the book, as well as it having a very stereotypical portrayal of Mexican people, culture, and immigration.
All of these problems could’ve been addressed at the editorial stage of the book, or even better, the opportunity to publish a book about the immigrant experience might’ve been given to an immigrant author. Because of a lack of Latinx people in the editorial department, the problems that could’ve been obvious to them went under the radar. “I don’t want to comment on any one book or publisher,” said Lee & Low’s publicity director Hannah Ehrlich,
But I think that the extremely homogeneous nature of our industry’s workforce leaves publishers vulnerable to all sorts of mistakes, missteps, and failures … Without a diverse workforce behind the scenes, publishers cannot really have the awareness or cultural competency to do justice to diverse stories.
Publishing still needs to do a lot of work to be an industry that is truly diverse, but while the change has been very slow, it seems to be moving in that direction. Interns of the industry are by far the most diverse group, with 49% identifying as black, indigenous, or people of color. And though there is no guarantee that the editorial and other departments in publishing are going to be as diverse as the interns, hopefully, these are the same people who will be entering the workforce in the coming years, and with it hopefully more diverse books by authors marginalized authors.