Jennifer Baker, production editor at Teachers College Press in New York, is this year’s PW Star Watch Superstar. Baker balances her day job with side gigs hosting the podcast Minorities in Publishing, which she founded; work as a contributing editor at Electric Literature; volunteer work at the I, Too, Arts Collective, based in the Langston Hughes House in Harlem; and more. We spoke to Baker about her experiences in the book business, the work she does to make the industry more diverse, and what needs to change in publishing.
How did you come to find the intersection of politics and publishing?
I’d definitely say conversations, because people of color in particular—those in my community specifically, but not solely—we’ve always talked about it. We’ve always noticed it. You can’t not notice it. You can willfully not notice it, but it’s very, very prevalent throughout the publishing industry. So we had these conversations on how we’ve experienced that—who we saw up top, who we saw in certain positions. There were always people of color in the mail room, in every single job I ever had. A bulk of the people of color were in the mail room. And I made friends with them because we connected on a very human level.
When We Need Diverse Books came around, the discussion became more prevalent on social media. It was very interesting what wasn’t being talked about: Who are the editors? Who are the agents? Who are the production editors? Who are the marketers? The contributors, and all that stuff? So the thought was, well, let’s talk about that too, because we’ve always been talking about it on the back end. But visibly, everyone’s really talking about, rightfully, that we’re not seeing enough authors and illustrators of color. You kind of focus on people of color specifically because other marginalizations, such as disabilities, can be “invisible.”
The discourse is changing, but you’ve worked in the publishing industry for more than a decade. Have you seen the walk change with the talk?
I think certain people are way more invested than others, and the people who are invested aren’t always the ones making the decisions. It’s a mix of people, including people who really, really, really do want to do better. But we can’t collectively do better if I, whether I’m in a managerial or nonmanagerial role, cannot convince my boss that this is worth the investment, as well.
Are particular areas in publishing hit harder by this? Is this a bigger issue in corporate publishing, for instance?
I think it’s across the board. If you’re working with 200 people, the worst offenders may not even be in your department. Or, when you work with two dozen people, you’re working with literally everybody. So if someone’s problematic, you’re going to engage with them. So I can say that I’ve experienced that more so in a small space, at university presses, than I did in bigger corporate spaces. But I don’t think it’s relegated to only one or the other. I think it’s just the fact that, for one, I’ve become more aware. And two, it was just more defined in the close-knit spaces. Because I did see offensive things. I saw misogynistic things. I saw racial things working at a corporate space, Cambridge University Press, where 200 people were on-site, and then we had another thousand across the globe. So I can’t imagine that this doesn’t happen everywhere. And talking to other people on my podcast, outside of my podcast, on the record, off the record, just knowing that all these people have had some really messed up things happen confirms it.
I mean there was a review where someone recently wrote of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s upcoming fiction book, “It’s a good, not great, slave novel.” That was printed. Someone wrote that in a trade review. That’s a problem. That’s a big problem. That’s offensive, and it’s printed. It’s in print. It’s available. And that happened two months ago. And we’re in 2019.
What do you think it says about this industry that the most active push for diversity in publishing is coming from groups such as People of Color in Publishing, rather than the big publishers?
It says that we don’t have limitations on ourselves, because we’re working outside of the corporate space. The minute you work within the corporate space, you have to play by the corporate space’s rules. And that includes small indie university presses. Because, essentially, we’re capitalists, right? This is what we’re doing. We’re trying to make things, at the end of the day. I have to work within your rules and your system. That means I am confined in some ways. It means I can’t face certain things legally. I can’t do certain things legally. I don’t have, necessarily, the budgetary means by which to do it. And if I do, I have to get approval for it. With my podcast, it’s just me. I had an assistant for a little bit of time, but mostly it’s just me, which means I do what I’m able to. I invest my money to pay people for transcriptions. I pay for a website. I pay to do a newsletter. I pay for all of these things. I don’t have to ask anyone. As long as I have a job, I can pay on my own to do these things.
All these other places are volunteer-based. When I was at We Need Diverse Books, we were all volunteers. None of us were paid. There’s only one paid position now, maybe two—I can’t say because I haven’t been there for two years, but we were all volunteers. So we didn’t have parameters. Our limitations were budgetary due to donations, but our belief and our desire to do the work was only limited by our ability to do it. We didn’t have to answer to anybody. The irony of the situation is I still need money to do what I want to do, and therefore I have to work within the capitalist system that is limiting me in order to be vocal about what means something to me. I think we all recognize we’re part of it. I’m not going to sit here and get on a pulpit and say, “I’m the best person ever.” I know I’m working within a system to be able to do what I need to do, what I believe I need to do, and to do it in the best way I possibly can.
Besides diversity, what’s something you see lacking in the publishing industry?
Outreach is lacking in our industry, because people don’t have time. People don’t always have interest, either, but I think it really comes down to if you have time. People aren’t getting paid enough. People are doing 18 jobs instead of two. When I started out, I had one person I went to, and along the way I got two or three managers while I was an assistant. And that made no sense to me, because my paycheck didn’t increase that much, even though I had way more people that I had to report to. And when you have all of that going on, you’re not looking at how the expectations have changed in terms of work and productivity—because we can do everything now, apparently, and I never have to be offline. That changes how we’re looking at doing more, but we’re not looking at how we’re doing it, necessarily. I think that’s just one of the biggest issues that I have seen consistently is these postmortems of what worked, or what didn’t work and why. They exclude us as marginalized people. What worked? Well, that book really sold well at historically black colleges and universities, or in urban communities, or at indie bookstores, or at schools, or at Scholastic book fairs. But we’re not looking at that enough.
If you could say one thing to the heads of the big publishers in the U.S., what would you tell them?
I would say, please truly and actively invest in retention and mentorship for marginalized people and education for everyone on staff—every single person on staff—on bias, awareness, racism, and the ways in which any one of us can perpetuate harm. Not just white people. Every single one of us.