Last November, hundreds of workers at HarperCollins went on strike to protest low wages and racial inequity at their employer, one of the nation’s largest publishers. As their strike reaches a tentative end, HarperCollins workers have forced the publishing industry to reckon with practices that have long made it one of the least diverse fields in media.
Since the early days of our republic, publishers have helped shape the national narrative. Today, publishers are gatekeepers, selecting the heroes who are lionized in history textbooks and the novels that are later pitched for film adaptations.
In 2020, as chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, I commissioned research from the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) on Latino employment in media. I wanted to know whether our nation’s largest minority has a voice in America’s narrative-creating and image-defining industry. The answer was a resounding no.
Latinos make up 18% of the American workforce and nearly 20% of the overall population. But in its report, the GAO found that publishing is just 8% Latino—making it the worst field in media for Latino representation.
When the data is broken down to authors and contributors, the numbers are even more dismal. Last year, in data that likely reflects industry trends, Penguin Random House found that just 5% of its authors, illustrators, and translators identified as Hispanic or Latino.
The dearth of Latinos in publishing contributes to a blind spot in the industry. Too often, literary portrayals of Latinos are reduced to harmful stereotypes of menacing narcotraffickers, desperate migrants, or hypersexualized women—depictions that become fodder for racism and political exploitation, and obscure the real-life roles of Latinos as essential workers, immigrant entrepreneurs, and trailblazers across industries.
The lack of a basic understanding about Latinos is painfully clear at the highest levels of the publishing industry. In 2020, I convened a meeting between Congressional Hispanic Caucus members and publishers to talk about the industry’s diversity problem. Less than a year before, a madman in El Paso, Tex., killed 23 people in the worst anti-Latino hate crime in U.S. history, and I wanted publishers to understand their role in fomenting bigotry. To start, I asked one of the executives a simple question: as someone who publishes thousands of books a year, could he name three Latinos or Latinas who made significant contributions to U.S. history?
There are lots of good answers—from the Puerto Rican athletes who broke racial barriers to the Chicano activists who fought for civil rights. But after this bright, accomplished man took a moment to think, he admitted he couldn’t name any.
It was an honest response, and I’m convinced that if you asked most Americans the same question, they would say the same thing. The publishing industry has failed to tell Latino stories—and as a result, it’s failed to tell the full story of our country.
Thankfully, publishing is in a unique position to bring about change. The industry sits at the nexus of entertainment and education and has freedom to elevate a broad range of source material. A publisher might bet on hundreds of titles a year, but it only needs a few bestsellers to turn a profit. The business model of publishing allows for enormous risk-taking that can include Latino authors—if publishers are willing to give them a chance.
I strongly support the recommendations developed by members of Latinx in Publishing and the Dignidad Literaria movement that call on publishers to disclose current workforce diversity statistics, set measurable goals to increase the number of Latino publishers and authors, ensure equitable advances and publicity budgets, and establish robust anti-discrimination policies. In short, the makeup of the publishing industry should strive to reflect the makeup of America.
The publishing industry can and should take steps to diversify without outside intervention. However, if it fails to improve, the government has a responsibility to step in. Last fall, a federal judge moved to block a major publishing merger, agreeing with regulators that it could reduce author compensation and consumer choice. As regulators review future mergers, I hope they will consider the effects of media consolidation on authors, industry workers, and society at large. If Latinos have a voice within the publishing industry, we can change the future for millions who deserve to be part of our national story.
Joaquin Castro, a second-generation Mexican American, represents his hometown of San Antonio, Tex., in the U.S. House of Representatives.