To the surprise of no one in the room, a series of charts tracking the lack of diversity in children’s book publishing over the last 18 years showed virtually no change in the problem. The dismal series of charts was supplied by Lee & Low publisher Jason Low during a PW panel on diversity held last week at Penguin Random House's midtown offices.
Over the course of a two-hour discussion focused on diversity in book publishing—or, rather, lack thereof—the panel, moderated by PW editorial director Jim Milliot, examined the depth of the industry’s lack of diversity, while also touching on some possible ways to address the problem.
The panel drew a small but lively audience that, while more diverse than most industry gatherings, inadvertently highlighted one concern among many attendees: the people with the power to address the issue of diversity in the industry are not making it a priority. Only one senior publishing executive from a Big Five house attended the panel with the majority of the audience consisting of editorial staffers. There was only one person from marketing, cited during the program as a key department for providing support to a diverse list.
Panelists Alvina Ling, executive editorial director of Little Brown Books for Young Readers, and Stacy Barney, senior editor at Penguin/Putnam, acknowledged the industry’s long running lack of minorities. The panel was, in part, held as a way to address the recent PW Salary Survey that showed nearly 90% of respondents were white.
“There’s a supreme lack of diversity in book publishing at every level, from editors, to publishers to librarians and book reviewers,” said Low. While Low also showed charts detailing a profound lack of diversity in the American TV and film industries, book publishing’s lack of minorities seems intractable, he said, and is a problem that haunts the industry. The panel cautioned that this issue threatens the book publishing's long-term viability.
“The needle is not moving,” Low said, noting that about 36% of the U.S. population identifies itself as a person of color, while his data showed that about 10% of U.S. children’s books have content targeting minority readers. Low said his house, L&L, is an exception to the rule; it has 15 employees, nine of which are people of color. “We walk the walk,” he added.
Ling detailed many of the classic reasons offered for the industry’s inability to attract minorities—low salaries, the obsession with hiring Ivy League grads—“we’re an old school industry that looks to hire people of similar backgrounds,” she’s said. “It’s crazy. We need to examine our biases.” Ling said when she joined Little Brown Books for Young Readers, she found a commitment to diversity from the publisher and said the kids imprints where about 35% are minorities—though once again the tally is “skewed” to mostly Asian staff. While she acknowledged that diversity among “higher ups” remains an issue at Little Brown, she said that “HR has made diversity a priority. Now we have to retain the minority staff that we have.”
However, panelists did point out there are some diverse books getting published, like Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, from Penguin, which was nominated for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. But overall there are simply not enough being released. “Does the lack of diversity impact what books are published,” Ling asked rhetorically, “yes it does. I respond to Asian American content and authors. I want to publish books for underrepresented communities.”
Barney said that while she feels welcome at Penguin, she is, nevertheless, often “the only person of color” in editorial and sales meetings. An English major and a teacher before she began working in publishing, Barney was an intern at Lee & Low before moving to Penguin. Barney, and others on the panel, said part of the problem with getting more diverse books published is the myth that they don’t sell. Often parents and teachers believe books with minority characters are somehow, “not for them. These in-grown beliefs perpetuate the myth that books with minority characters don’t sell,” said Low.
Panelist said books targeting minorities should not be “segregated” in special sections in bookstores. “Don’t over emphasize the issue of diversity,” Low said. “We acquire books because they’re great books and that is how they should be talked about. Don’t put them in a diversity box.”
While there was not much focus on programs like the Publishing Certificate Program at CUNY or the long running New Press internship program, programs designed to attract and train minorities for the book publishing industry, the audience and the panel emphasized the need to talk and investigate and highlight possible solutions and not just repeatedly invoke the problem. The possible influence and collaboration with the AAP's Young To Publishing group was discussed as well as college outreach, job fairs and internships designed to bring minorities into the industry. And Low emphasized that editors and book professionals need to “diversity your bookshelves. People need to read cross-culturally. Books represent who you are and what you stand for.”
“It can’t just be one segment of the industry working on this. We all have to get involved in changing this situation,” Milliot said.