A person seated at a minimalist desk with laptop, paper, pen, and coffee neatly arranged; men in rumpled button-downs and suspenders staring pensively at typewriters: these are some of the photos Google Images returns when I search for what writers look like.
All the images have two things in common. One, the writer is always white. And two, the writer is always alone.
But consider what is at the heart of writing: stories. People who are not white have been telling stories for thousands of years—some of the best stories. And more often than not, we have used storytelling as a means of community care, or a practice in collective artistry, or an act of resistance. We tell stories together.
In the publishing world, stories are brought to life in a collaborative process, too. Sure, the author will write the first draft mostly alone, but then there are agents, editors, copy editors, cover illustrators, publicity managers. And though there should be more, most people can name a few authors of color.
Publishing is a collaborative process, but from editors to publicists to literary agents, the industry overall is 76% white. In other words, if you picked 100 people in publishing at random, only 24 of them would be people of color. Twenty-four. If you’ve ever been a person of color entering a new professional space, searching through a sea of white to find other melanated faces, you’ll understand my distress.
When I think about the power of racial diversity in the publishing world, I think first of Toni Morrison. She began her career in literature as an editor at Random House, and without her, Angela Davis might not have written her eponymous autobiography, or at least not until many years later. The world may have never been introduced to Toni Cade Bambara’s stories about Black feminist women. As an editor, Morrison made it her mission to elevate the voices of those who had so rarely been invited into the conversation. In the process, she created a community of Black women writers and an era of books that were published by someone who could intimately empathize with their content.
In some ways—though I had yet to connect with Morrison’s work—I went to college with the hope of doing something similar. I planned to study creative writing and become an editor for a publishing company. (I mean, reading books for a living? The dream.) The choice in major stuck; the career plan didn’t. I am someone who thrives in daily community with other people of color, and despite organizations like We Need Diverse Books advocating for more diversity in writing and publishing, I very quickly learned that publishing has been slow to bring in diverse voices.
Given publishing’s demographics, when I began writing my own book, I had a picture in my head of what a publishing team for it would look like (hint: not like me!). I feel so lucky to have been proven wrong.
My novel is about a Black, biracial teenage boy, written by me, a Black, biracial woman. The story is close to my heart, and I wanted to work with people who understood—who could help bring honesty to the forefront. That’s exactly what I got. My talent manager, I-Yana, was and is the fiercest advocate for my writing. She made sure I had the perfect editor, Kortney, with whom I exchanged comments and calls about how complicated it is to be a biracial teenager coming to terms with one’s identity, and how to authentically surface that experience in my novel. And then there was Chelsea, the artist who so beautifully illustrated my main character’s silhouette on the book cover. All of them are Black women.
Sharing a story with other people for their feedback and interpretation is a huge act of trust. It was comforting to go through this process with these women, because I trusted them in a way I likely wouldn’t have without their understanding of the contents of my novel. This community effort created a safety and warmth that was fertile ground for creativity, and out of it came a novel that I am deeply proud of. There’s something about a story passed through hands that know how to hold it: at the end, the finished product is inseparable from the love that went into it.
The publishing world needs people of color at every step in the process, so that we can have more political autobiographies by world-changing activists, more stories that center Black women under a lens of radical feminism, and more stories reflecting more people that can be put into the world and read with the knowledge that they were handled, at every step, with understanding and with love.
Daven McQueen is the author of 'The Invincible Summer of Juniper Jones' (Wattpad Books).