Like people across many industries, I braced myself for the worst when Covid-19 first started ripping into our communities in March. The first impacts on the publishing industry were event cancellations. The shuttering of indie bookstores was alarming; Powell’s Books in Portland, Ore., laid off nearly 400 employees in late March, for example. Countless publishers I know, myself included, furloughed staff. The outlook was dire, and I worried about the survival of my imprints. But soon enough, the coronavirus pandemic started to exacerbate more insidious, systemic issues of inequity—within the nation, yes, but also within our industry.
Before the pandemic hit the U.S., 2020 had already ushered in some fraught stories. In January, the much-anticipated novel American Dirt was lambasted for stereotyping and appropriating. In February, Barnes & Noble took serious heat for its Black History Month initiative, which rolled out new covers for 12 classic books—including Frankenstein and Moby Dick—that reimagined their protagonists as people of color. The feedback was consistent and clear: honor and respect writers of color enough to let them tell their own stories, then work toward making those stories part of the literary canon. In March, Grand Central Publishing dropped Woody Allen’s memoir after its employees, as well as those at several fellow Hachette Book Group imprints, staged a walkout in solidarity with Ronan Farrow (who’s published by HBG’s Little, Brown imprint) and victims of sexual abuse, showing the power of staff to hold a publisher accountable for the books it publishes.
By the time the protests erupted in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd by police in late May, publishing was already teeming with agitation. This is an industry whose racial inequities run deep—an industry that has been called out for decades for its lack of diversity. Since 2015, Lee & Low Books has issued a Diversity Baseline Survey detailing how systemically unequal the industry is. The national protests brought on a surge of anger and awareness, forcing the publishing industry to contend with the fact that, while it pays a lot of lip service to issues of diversity, its actions have not aligned with its professed values.
A pandemic alone would be disrupting, but the added social unrest has posed an existential question for the industry about how it perceives itself and what it wants to be going forward. As the United States faces similar questions about who we are as a nation, it has been heartening to see publishing take some important steps to meet the moment.
One force for positive change was the response to #PublishingPaidMe, which went viral in June and resulted in countless authors sharing their advances, shining even more light on publishing’s inequities. The compiled responses showed that writers of color are paid far less than their white counterparts, and that they’re less likely to be accordingly compensated when their books reach high levels of success or when they achieve accolades in the form of awards and prizes.
In July, two of the Big Five publishers announced unprecedented changes in leadership in the hiring of two Black publishers: Dana Canedy at Simon & Schuster and Lisa Lucas at Penguin Random House’s Pantheon and Schocken Books. “Ten years from now, I don’t think anything will look the same,” said Reagan Arthur, the publisher of Knopf since January, speaking with the New York Times in July for an article titled “In Publishing, ‘Everything Is Up for Change.’ ” That change is welcome and long overdue.
As the publisher of two hybrid imprints, I know how resistant the industry is to change. This resistance stems from people in power benefiting from the way things have always been done. There’s little incentive to change models, or paradigms, or payment structures, or the makeup of publishers’ lists—until there’s agitation. In a June Atlantic article, Zeynep Tufekci wrote that protests work because “they can scare authorities into changing their behavior.”
In publishing, the outrage sparked by all of the incidents mentioned above—by no means an exhaustive list of all that has happened this year—is pushing the industry to change its behavior. Publishing cannot continue to benefit from the experiences of the “other” without ensuring that marginalized peoples are fairly represented; it cannot cash in on the trauma of marginalized peoples without consequence; it cannot reward accused abusers without examining more deeply how doing so emboldens a culture of enabling and silencing; and it cannot continue to pledge to be more inclusive only to be disproved year after year. This industry is part of the problem, but it can also stand up to be part of the solution.
Brooke Warner is publisher of She Writes Press and SparkPress, a TEDx speaker, a writing coach, and the author of 'Green-Light Your Book' and 'What’s Your Book?'