Eighty-nine percent of respondents to PW’s recently concluded salary survey identified themselves as white—a finding that, while hardly surprising, underscores the challenges the industry faces in producing books that appeal to minorities.
Of the nearly 800 employees who participated in the survey, 61% agreed that the industry suffers from a lack of diversity in the workforce, but there was not as much consensus on how that directly influences the types of books that are released.
Approximately 49% of survey participants believed that the homogeneity of senior-level management and editors affects the degree of diversity in titles being published. One survey respondent wrote, “We need editors at the top who are more invested in a diverse editorial staff. Editorial is the most difficult aspect of the publishing industry to break into—unless you are a white male. I work in a publishing house comprised primarily of women, yet the only time our editor-in-chief gets excited about new hires is when they are young men—and our editors are much more involved in their training and upbringing within the company.”
In contrast, another survey respondent observed, “There aren’t enough authors and illustrators out there producing books for diverse audiences. There aren’t enough agents/editors who are bringing those books in-house, and there aren’t enough senior leaders who care [about or] understand these multicultural perspectives. Our companies are run by mostly white, heterosexual women in their 40s [and] 50s: they hire and acquire books by authors/agents/assistants who look like them.”
Prospects for making publishing more representative of America, where only 63% of the population is white, are uncertain. The Denver Publishing Institute reports that in the past two years, there has been only a slight increase in the number of students identifying themselves as either African-American or Hispanic who have applied to or enrolled in its four-week program. It’s a “challenging mission and hard to quantify,” acknowledges Tina Jordan, v-p at the Association of American Publishers, who has overseen diversity issues and led industry outreach and recruitment efforts for the past decade.
Two New York–area publishers whose missions are to publish multicultural books note that qualified candidates from diverse backgrounds are out there, it’s just a matter of finding them. “When we started, there were so few people of color in the industry,” recalls Wade Hudson, the cofounder and publisher of Just Us Books, which he and his wife started in East Orange, N.J., in 1988 to publish African-American children’s books. “We focused on identifying talented African-American authors and illustrators. We tried to bring them into the industry; I think we’ve done that,” he says. Just Us downsized during the 2008 recession from 10 employees to its current five (all are members of the Hudson family), but Hudson says all former and current employees are African-American, while 70% of the freelancers the company hires are African-American.
Jason Low, the publisher of Lee & Low Books, renowned for its multicultural children’s books, particularly those targeting the Asian-American market, also considers it crucial to have a diverse staff acquiring and producing its 15–20 annual releases. “The hiring pool is not very diverse,” he says, “but we try our best to seek out applicants of color through social media and universities.” Of the 23-year-old company’s 15 employees, nine are not white. “Many people of color who want to work in publishing apply for jobs with us,” Lee says. “They feel a better affinity for our mission.”
Tracy Sherrod, the editorial director of Amistad, the HarperCollins imprint that publishes books of interest to the African-American market, says that she’s “seen an increase” in recent years in the diversity of those employed by New York’s large publishers. She adds, however, “It’s not necessarily happening in the editorial department.” At HarperCollins, she notes, she sees more diversity “in marketing and sales” than in editorial, although she has been able to hire plenty of editorial interns from diverse backgrounds. “They have to be brought in by those who are already there,” she says, confirming the view, expressed by many respondents to PW’s salary survey, that if there were more decision makers from diverse backgrounds in the industry, more multicultural titles would be published.
Alvina Ling, editorial director of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers and founder of the Children’s Book Council’s diversity committee, believes the industry may be more diverse than is commonly believed—and that things have certainly improved since she first entered publishing. “It’s better in the children’s book world,” she notes. “Certain publishers make that a priority; that makes a big difference.”
Far away from New York City and its publishing conglomerates, in El Paso, Tex., John Byrd, Cinco Puntos’s managing editor, says indie presses are more involved with recruiting minorities and publishing multicultural titles than their Big Five counterparts. According to Byrd, “the pool of potential employees is a lot more diverse than you might have seen from [PW’s] survey. Diversity is happening in the publishing industry, but you are finding it at the small-press level. That’s where you are going to find the people of color, although the pay and benefits aren’t as great.” While Cinco Puntos has only one full-time employee, out of four, who is not a member of the Byrd family, Byrd says that “probably all” of the interns hired at Cinco Puntos since it was founded by his parents in 1985 have been Hispanic. But, he acknowledges, El Paso is 70% Hispanic. Nationwide, 17% of the population is Hispanic, making it the largest ethnic or racial minority in the U.S. “Our press is much more reflective of what the U.S. is going to look like in 20 years,” Byrd adds.
The lack of minorities in top publishing spots is only one reason there are not more books for people of color. Another factor that appeared over and over in responses to the PW survey was a perceived lack of demand for such books. “The greatest obstacle has to do with the desire of the five largest conglomerates to reach the widest sales figures, so they prefer formulaic titles that appeal primarily to middle Americans,” one respondent wrote. A second respondent commented, “If a publisher branches into a new subject, they may not have the expertise to best market/publicize it and sales may suffer, creating a self-fulfilling prophesy that these books don’t sell as well.” That seemed to be borne out by the experience of a third respondent, who noted that “low sales in the past have meant that we do not pursue diverse books.”
Despite the belief by many industry members that multicultural books can be difficult to sell, publishers interviewed by PW say these titles do have an audience. Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man by Steve Harvey, Amistad’s all-time bestseller, has sold more than three million copies, while Lee & Low Books’ Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizujki and illustrated by Dom Lee has sold more than one million copies. Cinco Puntos’s La Llorona/The Weeping Woman by Joe Hayes and illustrated by Vicki Trego Hill has sold over 700,000 copies, and Just Us’s Book of Black Heroes from A to Z by Wade Hudson and Valerie W. Wesley has sold 500,000 copies. Ling points out that multicultural children’s books such as A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park and Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson have landed on recent New York Times bestseller lists. “The success of one will lead to many more,” she notes.
While Amistad, Just Us, and Cinco Puntos report that their titles sell especially well to schools and libraries, there is a regional correlation to those publishers’ sales. Amistad’s books sell best along the Eastern Seaboard, while Just Us titles sell best in the Northeast, Southeast, the Midwest, and “not as well on the West Coast,” Hudson says, noting that sales were up 25% in the last fiscal year as library budgets rebounded along with consumer spending. Just Us, Hudson says, “also takes [its] books to the marketplace,” with sales to churches, book fairs, and literacy organizations. Cinco Puntos’s releases sell best in the Western U.S., Byrd says, with sales to the trade in that region rising while sales to schools and libraries have remained stagnant. Cinco Puntos has also been successful selling books through gift shops and other nontrade outlets. Lee & Low’s books for the children’s market sell well “across the United States,” Low says, with 80% of sales going to schools and libraries.
Lee & Low recently relaunched its website to more aggressively pursue direct sales to consumers. The company has also established partnerships with First Book and Reading Is Fundamental, agreements that have helped to increase sales for the company. “In very Caucasian areas, our sales team sometimes still gets push-back,” Low acknowledges. “They say, ‘We don’t need those kinds of books; our kids aren’t interested in that.’ We use our social media channels to engage people in conversation about why diverse books are important for everyone.”
Some respondents to PW’s survey questioned whether there actually is a lack of diversity in books now being published, and suggested that the problem lies elsewhere. “We publish a ton of diverse [children’s] books,” one respondent pointed out. “But the gatekeepers [booksellers] need to stock them.” Another wrote, “Booksellers [are] not carrying the books that are published; the media [is] refusing to report on the books, the wide variety of exceptional books that are being published, in favor of flashy headlines that state, ‘There are no diverse books.’” While Ling agrees—“There are so many books out there that don’t go anywhere”—she applauds the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign for “shifting the dialogue in a meaningful way.” #WNDB has “widened the responsibility” for getting multicultural titles into readers’ hands, she says, to include parents, booksellers, teachers, librarians, and others. Indeed, 76% of respondents to the PW survey believe that to increase the number and sales of diverse books, all parts of the industry—publishers, booksellers and librarians—need to increase their efforts.
Byrd is frustrated with the consumer media focusing upon the lack of diversity in the titles published by the large houses, while ignoring those from small presses. For instance, he complains, in a report on diversity in the industry that aired on NPR in August, one small publisher was interviewed along with representatives from the Big Five, “and it’s Johnny Temple from Akashic in Brooklyn. They only interviewed people in New York City.” It’s not just NPR overlooking the small presses beyond New York, he adds; when Cinco Puntos won a PEN/Faulkner Award in 2013 for Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club, “the first indie to win it and the first Texas press, we couldn’t get any media traction. [The media] doesn’t treat our books with any weight.”
Elizabeth Bluemle of the Flying Pig in Shelburne, Vt., agrees that the small presses are publishing excellent multicultural titles, but notes there are reasons they do not always get picked up in the marketplace. Small presses don’t have the “marketing muscle” of the big houses, she says, and many of them don’t send sales reps to stores, so it means scouring catalogues for such titles. And if the store has to pay freight because the press doesn’t have distribution, it’s even more of an obstacle. “There are a lot of small impediments to find out about and order from smaller presses,” Bluemle says. “It just requires so much more legwork.” She also made the point that the “mainstream” houses have to participate in publishing multicultural titles “so that widespread change does happen. It can’t all rest on the shoulders of the small presses.” When the larger houses commit themselves to publishing more diverse titles, she adds, then people will see more of these books in the marketplace, and readers “will cease to think it’s a narrow interest, and it will cease to be an issue.”
Byrd agrees that if the larger houses became more involved, it would create a larger market that everyone could benefit from. Referring to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center’s report that, of the 3,200 books it received in 2013, only 253 had multicultural content, Byrd notes that last year Simon & Schuster published roughly the same number of books that met the CBCC’s criteria for Latino content as Cinco Puntos, which publishes 10–12 books annually. “If any of the media outlets that have covered the lack of diversity had shifted their focus and talked about what we do have, then there’d be some real change,” he says. “It’s frustrating to read that there’s nothing when there are so many wonderful books that deserve to be celebrated.”