In a game of “getting warmer,” the publishing industry has been slow to recognize that in order to widen its consumer base, it needs to represent consumers in its own ranks. As a demographic, black women are one of the fastest-growing consumer groups for books, but according to the 2015 Lee & Low study “Diversity in Publishing,” only 4% of publishing employees are black. If you look specifically at acquiring editors, you’ll find that number is likely even smaller.
With nearly 80% of the industry identifying as white, straight, and able bodied, is it any wonder that so many stories sound the same? Calls for more diverse characters, authors, and stories are great. There’s a step further that must be taken, however; we need to make changes to the gatekeepers. As Kacen Callender rightly pointed out in their Publishers Weekly article, “We Need Diverse Editors,” sometimes stories weren’t written for the people we have guarding the house.
The need for representation in all aspects of publishing is clear. In order to get an editor, books need to be represented by agents—so it stands to reason that the industry needs diverse agents, as well. Publishing already has some amazing agents of color who you can learn more about via litagentsofcolor.com. But few agencies have more than a handful of agents that stray outside the industry’s typical demographic. Though many publishing houses and agencies claim to implement “diversity initiatives,” they often fail to address the true barriers to entry that exist—and they don’t take actionable measures to ensure that the people they do hire have opportunities to advance.
As a standard practice in the agenting world, agents and assistants work very closely together, both figuratively and literally. In hiring for a position that requires a great deal of subjectivity, agents often look for people with whom they share a connection; they want those who will view books the same way they do. Unfortunately, that is often focused through a white, heterosexual, able-bodied lens. When agents are confronted with a work that is different, they may feel that they just don’t “connect” with it because it doesn’t reflect their personal experiences or perspectives, and thus an opportunity for more diversity is lost.
The second barrier is literal proximity. People of color have less wealth overall, and they have one-tenth of the generational wealth of whites, according to an article in the Washington Post. In a sector of the industry where starting pay is low or commission only, and that is based in a city with skyrocketing rents, many diverse candidates do not have the financial resources to take jobs as agents’ assistants. Without that first job, it’s nearly impossible to gain the necessary industry experience.
Finding new ways of doing things is never an easy or fast process, which is why we need more top-down commitment. For too many years, heads of agencies and publishing companies have not embraced the reality that hiring a homogenous group is not the best way to access the market. In truth, there is no reason that agencies can’t recruit agents from a range of races, religions, geographic locations, socioeconomic backgrounds, and sexual and gender identities.
Being serious about systemic change means hiring people from marginalized backgrounds, people with vision and a mission to see people like themselves in the books they represent. This can mean the candidate with vision sometimes being chosen over the one with experience. Experience can be gained; having a passion for inclusion in literature cannot.
Once hired, all agents should be given the tools and support they need to grow their lists and to advance. Agencies need to do more than just talk about initiative—they need to ensure that everyone has an equal chance for success and advancement by writing it into their employment programs. For diversity to take root, it’s of paramount importance that agencies build these ideals into their mission and culture.
At Ladderbird Literary Agency, we take advantage of tools such as Google Drive, Slack, and WhatsApp to enable us to recruit the best agents for the job, rather than those able to afford $1,000 per month for a room. Our company is location agnostic, with all employees being remote, but this extreme isn’t necessary for every organization. By creating a diversity of positions—where some are paid reasonable wages for their area, and some are remote with flexible hours—agencies can create an environment that is more inclusive.
Over time, we hope the success of agencies that embrace this mission will act as a model for the entire industry.
Beth Marshea is the owner and lead agent at Ladderbird Literary Agency in Worcester, Mass.