The lack of diversity in the book publishing industry is not new or surprising to veterans of the business. PW first addressed the vexing issue of minority employment in a feature in the mid-1990s, and has since covered a variety of industry initiatives and business trends—including corporate internships, educational programs, and new ventures—that attract minorities and spotlight nonwhite entrepreneurs. But the problem persists: many years after that initial report, the book industry continues to lack a meaningful number of minorities.
In many ways, this year’s annual survey of African-American publishing is a response to a series of events in 2014 that directly focused on diversity. This year’s BookExpo America/BookCon was met with an outcry over its initial lack of diversity in programming for YA publishing. This spurred the We Need Diverse Books campaign, which grew from a passionate protest movement inside and outside the industry into a formal nonprofit with a mission to build diversity.
In addition, PW’s annual Salary Survey, which is generally focused specifically on industry pay scales, included survey questions on diversity in book publishing for the first time. The survey responses provided still more evidence—if any more was needed—of an industry that is overwhelmingly white. 90% of the survey’s respondents identified themselves as white; 3% identified themselves as Asian; another 3% identified as Latino; and 1% of the respondents identified as African-American. These percentages are so damning (though to many the survey confirmed the obvious) that even the report’s overwhelmingly white respondents identified the lack of diversity as a troubling issue likely to negatively affect the kind of books that are published.
In response to what we believe is a new level of concern and, it is to be hoped, industry-driven activism to address and embrace diversity, we informally canvassed a selection of book industry professionals and executives in search of fresh, practical ideas—hacks, as it were—that can be used as a template for action on diversity. First we asked our responders to define what they believe diversity means—race, gender, religious belief, sexual orientation, and other aspects were cited—within the book publishing profession. We then organized their comments into six hacks, or practical ideas, about how the book industry can begin achieving a diverse and representative workforce.
The responders include Shaye Areheart, director of the Columbia Publishing Course (formerly the Radcliffe Publishing Course); Ayanna Coleman, associate manager of events and programs at the Children’s Book Council (CBC); Dawn Davis, publisher at Atria/37 Ink, an imprint of Simon & Schuster; Linda Duggins, director of publicity at Grand Central Publishing; Kat Engh, communications manager at Berrett-Koehler Publishers; Tina Jordan, vice president of the Association of American Publishers (AAP); David Unger and Retha Powers, director and assistant director, respectively, of the Publishing Certificate Program at the City College of New York; and Diane Wachtell, executive director of the New Press.
What is Diversity?
Powers: The media continually reports on the changing demographics in a United States that is rapidly becoming more diverse. It’s good business sense to respond to that with a diverse community of the book industry: people [of color] working in the industry in all aspects, from acquisition to marketing, design, and sales.
Duggins: A lot of people think it’s black and white, but it’s so much broader: gender, pay, etc. But racial diversity is the real deal. We need to interconnect cultures.
Engh: Diversity and inclusion [D&I] means a lot of things: culture, religion, disability.
Coleman: When we talk about employee diversity, people think it’s only about race and ethnicity. But it’s also disability, gender, and religion.
Jordan: The Diversity, Recruit & Retain Committee of the Association of American Publishers was formed in the early 2000s to attract diverse professionals: gender, ethnicity, geography, and skills (in other words, digital and business skills, not just English skills).
Wachtell: Truly diverse publishing companies are rare; publishing has been a notoriously monochromatic industry. From a business sense, there are huge missed markets out there as a result. From the moment the New Press was set up, we had a proactive commitment to diversity on staff and on our board (we are not for profit). We are currently 45% nonwhite, and diverse by ethnicity, sexuality, and economic background. [See "The New Press: Better Diversity Through Internships."]
Hack #1: Watch Other Industries
Coleman: Though CBC is focused on children’s publishing, most of our member publishers are part of bigger publishers. So we try to help them by talking about the publishing industry as a whole. Perhaps the publishing industry might look to other industries that are excelling on the diversity-practices front. In March, our CBC Diversity Committee hosted an HR panel for hiring managers and human-resources professionals within children’s book publishing to explore ideas on how to bring about a more representative industry; the key takeaways are posted on our website, www.cbcdiversity.com. One of the panelists was Carolynn Johnson, COO at Diversity Inc., which puts out an annual list of the top 50 diverse companies.
Wachtell: Whenever we have a position at the New Press, I make it a point to remind the hiring person that the pool needs to be diverse. Maybe that goes without saying, but a surprising number of times the hiring person submitted a list of candidates who were overwhelmingly white. To find these pools of candidates, you must network. And you must look outside the publishing industry. I want to have a staff that’s diverse from top to bottom—but it wouldn’t be productive to hire diverse candidates from other publishing houses. It’s easier to teach someone book publishing than to teach them to have a social mission! So we’ve hired teachers, former journalists, a former social worker, a former social activist, and created editorial positions for them that fit their interests.
Hack #2: Embrace Social Media and Technology
Engh: [Note: We found Engh via her reader comments on a Gawker article, “The Difficulties of Publishing While Black,” by Jason Parham.] At Berrett-Koehler Publishers we have a D&I committee, and the members all have their own things that they steward. I steward social media; I am basically our online mouthpiece. I knew that the people who read that [Gawker] article would be the kind of people who were interested in that topic. We really want to move this forward, and the only way is to be proactive and make it known. I have very little patience for people who say, “We tried and didn’t get anywhere.” If diversity is something you are really committed to, you will go to the places where people have these conversations and join them. My staff and I search for people who are writing about D&I on Twitter, and I follow them, and join the tweetups. Social media helps get the word out for recruiting too. If I talk to another publicist all day, I’ll just get more strategy. Social media opens up more unique perspectives. It’s going to help us network with more diverse people so that when we are hiring, we have a bigger pool.
Coleman: Social media—Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr—has propelled publishing, allowing people to connect in ways we could not before. Twitter is the forum for activism; the diversity conversation has been ablaze for a while via the hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks. For recruitment, virtual career fairs enable people from within the companies to actually speak to the attendees and continue promoting the publishing industry to a variety of talented job seekers. This spring, CBC Diversity participated in the Hire Big 10 Plus Virtual Career Fair, which gave us access to more than 3,400 students from 17 universities during the three-day event.
Hack #3: Collaborate
Engh: Our staff at Berrett-Koehler is not hugely diverse—but that’s because people have been here for decades, and we have to wait for people to decide to leave! But we are committed to diversity. If you are a publisher focusing on one kind of reader, you will run out of customers! We publish books on diversity and inclusion. We have a D&I committee and we work with a [diversity] trainer: Juan Lopez, CEO of consulting firm Amistad Associates in Sebastopol, Calif. Until you have someone who comes in from the outside and shows you where you can make improvements, you will only focus on the things you are doing right, and you’ll miss your blind spots. From Juan, we’ve learned that there are a lot of different areas where we can do more. For example, we realized that there are so many opportunities in our own community that we didn’t take advantage of. Instead of limiting ourselves to bookstores or libraries, we should get to know the people in our community: businesses, activists, and nonprofits.
Areheart: We would like to think that the Columbia Publishing Course is doing everything possible to have an impact on diversity in publishing, but we are educators here and we need avid partners out there in the workplace who can help us relieve the tuition burden and help students become successful. As a longtime publishing executive and a longtime participant in the course, my interest in bringing more minority students into the program and thus into the publishing industry remains as ardent as my predecessor’s [the late CPC director, Lindy Hess]. I hope, in part, this piece in PW may help us. As for fund-raising, we welcome contributions from all publishers who would like to contribute to the education of the next generation and who would like to contribute to diversity in publishing.
Unger: Since 2009, the Women’s Media Group has provided a fellowship and mentoring support to some of our most talented female students. And we continue to collaborate with CCNY’s M.F.A. creative-writing program to develop events in which we invite publishers, editors, and agents to discuss the publishing industry.
Hack #4: Think Outside the Book!
Davis: If you are in a position to diversify your company, go outside your own routines to see the audience for the books. I found Steve Harvey on a radio show just a little to the right of where my usual stations are! [Davis subsequently developed and published Harvey’s bestselling Act like a Lady, Think like a Man for Amistad.]
Duggins: I am on the Diversity Committee at my company, and I am not going to have this position and not do anything. You help people inside the company, and you help people get inside the company. My coworkers constantly reach out: “Linda, what do you think? Do you have any people you can recommend?” Our CEO [Michael Pietsch] has been to our committee meeting and taken copious notes. He could have just said, “You guys meet and forward the minutes to me and just keep meeting.” And we didn’t behave any differently because he was there. I think that book industry CEOs could set the bar and raise awareness about the true definition of diversity and should be able to guide the entire company to a deeper and more meaningful understanding of the importance of creating a more diverse work force. Also, PW could create a column called “Ask the Publisher.” Then we the readers of PW will know the culture of each publishing house and will be able to address concerns concretely.
Coleman: On our HR panel, we had the COO from Diversity Inc., who works with companies and makes sure they are stepping up their game when it comes to diversity, because it increases their bottom line. She canvassed a few publishing-house websites and told them that from looking at the images, it was not evident at all that their company has a commitment to diversity. The content—photos, text, how they talk about diversity and retention—is a red flag to applicants. We know that traditionally, publishing has not been diverse, so it could be difficult to have pictures of a diverse workforce on your website. But have something, at least a statement that shows you value a varying range of backgrounds. Whoever is looking at your site or materials needs to see in some way, through text or otherwise, that you care about the culture of your company and that the company is searching for people from varying backgrounds. Everybody wants to be wanted!
We also have diversity dialogues with publishing-company representatives. It’s a safe space to congregate with colleagues across departments, to ask for help, share stories, and brainstorm panels. We are focused on changing the conversation from “what publishers aren’t doing” to “here’s what we can do together.” Our diversity dialogues and educational panels could translate to the adult side.
In terms of recruiting, make sure you look at U.S. News & World Report for their lists of colleges. Traditionally, we focused on English majors, but now I make sure to choose outside-the-box majors so people from those areas can see that there might be a place for them in the publishing industry. I select liberal arts, marketing, business development, entrepreneurship (a new major!), finance and accounting, computer science (there are plenty of opportunities in digital departments and technical support in general), religion (I’ve met so many editors who come from theology!), education, and library and information science.
Jordan: We have expanded our college outreach—we go to Temple, Howard, Drexel—with the goal of attracting a diverse workforce. We’ve had enormous response from colleges other than those that people immediately think of.
Wachtell: Realize that there are untapped audiences, and have people in your organization who understand different audiences and can speak to them effectively. We tapped into a market that a lot of publishers didn’t think was out there with The New Jim Crow, which spent more than 100 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list! My thoughts on important things the publishing industry can do? Set a tone that starts at the top: value diversity and be very explicit about the fact that the organization values it—in both staffing and authors. That also informs what we think about who we see as our audience.
If you start there and back up, you end up with a very different publishing list. And that tone needs to be present in every hiring decision, before the interview process begins. If it’s implicit, it doesn’t work; it must be explicit at every turn. Why wouldn’t people look at Dawn Davis [an African-American publishing executive who began her career at the New Press] and go, “Hey, she’s made a huge amount of money for her company—maybe we could look for somebody like her”? Or [Spiegel & Grau editor] Chris Jackson—why wouldn’t you hire someone like him? It’s enlightened self-interest to have diversity!
Davis: Andre Schiffrin [the late publisher and cofounder of the New Press] hired me on the spot without checking my references. There was no HR department. I had no applicable publishing experience. And I went on to help build the most diverse publishing company. To him, all points of view were valid.
Hack #5: Brainstorm, Research Metadata
Coleman: At one of our recent CBC committee meetings, we discussed the huge challenge of discoverability [of titles], especially with diverse content. Mark von Bargen, senior director of trade sales for children’s books at Macmillan, came up with the idea of updating BISAC codes [standardized headings used to categorize books]. Providing a book with the proper BISAC codes (you usually can only use three out of the hundreds available) is huge, as it determines where a book is shelved and how it comes up in a bookstore or library search by consumers; if the code is too general, people may not select it. Unfortunately, most of the codes for diverse cultures are very general or omitted entirely. So our committee brainstormed nine new, more specific BISAC codes, like “Juvenile Fiction/Family/Immigration and Assimilation,” for consideration to add to the 2015 industry-standard subject list. We also provided them with a list of 100 books that could fit into each of those nine categories—that’s at least 900 titles! The changes come out every November, and we are hoping that this will happen. This can lead to more books on bestseller lists, and more awards. It can make a huge difference. And it’s not having a rally—it’s just research! So the adult side could consider submitting new diverse or inclusive BISAC codes too. That’s where in-house brainstorming comes in, between sales and marketing and editorial.
Jordan: As a result of the PW panel [composed of publishing figures and convened in October to discuss diversity in the industry, in light of the results of our annual salary survey], I’d love to gather some of the attendees and mobilize them so we can amplify the involvement of the work that can be done. If we can mobilize the 30 people in the audience, imagine what could happen!
Hack #6: Start Today
Although Ayanna Coleman said, “A lot of the press about diversity is such a downer!” she and the other professionals responding to our questions made it clear that there is no shortage of committed people working behind the scenes to chip away at the industry’s diversity disparity. We hope that their comments will inspire publishing executives, staffers, and, indeed, anyone working in or hoping to work in book publishing to brainstorm and share their information, ideas, experiences, and resources, and reach out to those interviewed in this article, on social media or otherwise. So go forth and diversify, 21st-century style—the ultimate viability of a 21st-century book industry depends on it.[For a list of current and forthcoming notable African-American titles click here; for a longer list of adult titles click here; for a list of kids titles click here.]