Although the book industry remains overwhelmingly white—87% of respondents to PW’s most recent annual salary survey identify as Caucasian—there is undeniably a new and passionate generation of young black professionals working inside publishing houses.
To get their perspective on the industry, PW spoke with a group of 20- and 30-somethings that included Georgia Bodnar, associate editor, Viking; Milena Brown, publicity manager, Atria; Rakia Clark, senior editor, Beacon Press; Christian Coleman, associate digital marketing manager, Beacon Press; Nicole Counts, associate editor, One World; Devin Funches, sales and marketing manager, Lion Forge Comics; Zakia Henderson-Brown, associate editor and strategic partnerships coordinator, New Press; Chelcee Johns, editorial assistant, 37 Ink; Ebony Ladelle, senior marketing manager, HarperTeen; Tolani Osan, corporate marketing associate, Simon & Schuster; and Christina “Steenz” Stewart, associate editor, Lion Forge Comics.
Why and How They Got Jobs in Book Publishing
Johns: I knew I desired a life of words, to help shape and create culture. I also knew the importance of diversity not just in writers, but the editors and agents that walk these books into the market. I figured, by working in publishing, I could read, write, edit, and create books that stand the test of the time, empower, and maybe even change minds.
Coleman: I worked at two nonprofits in the Bay Area: one dedicated to environmental issues, the other a support organization for LGBTQ+ South Asians. The marketing, writing, and copyediting jobs I had at these places primed me for the digital marketing associate position that opened at Beacon Press.
Stewart: I knew I was always going to be in the arts, but as I started working in the comics industry, my interests moved toward publishing. It was all on-the-job training from being a comic shop retailer, comics-focused librarian, and now an editor! After having done a huge amount of event coordination and community management, I ended up having the skills to be the social media and community manager at Lion Forge; my knowledge of books in all markets is what led me to become an editor.
Funches: I went to school for marketing, so I have no true academic background in publishing. Everything I know I learned on the job or by taking the time to learn outside of work.
Ladelle: I thought I wanted to be a journalist, until I took a work-study job in the marketing department at the Howard University bookstore. I fell in love with being able to brainstorm how to get people interested and invested in our bookstore, author events, and reading. After getting my MS in publishing from Pace University, I was accepted into Simon & Schuster’s rotational associate program, and in less than a year I was hired there full time.
Bodnar: I always thought I’d be in government doing pro bono work as a human rights attorney. I interned at a think tank in D.C. for a semester, but I wanted to play a role in shaping culture through books. I took a proofreading and copyediting class at NYU’s School of Continuing Education and began my publishing career at Tor as a production coordinator working on mass market reprints.
Brown: I got a temp assignment in the publicity department at Hyperion/Disney and that’s where I had my “aha moment.” Having been a senior entertainment publicist in Los Angeles, I was overqualified for publicity assistant but underqualified for senior publicist positions, because I knew zero about the publishing industry. I ended up getting my first publishing job at Penguin as an associate publicist. I didn’t care that I was making less, because I loved books, reading, and doing PR.
Counts: I wanted to care for authors and readers by being in on the book from the beginning. What makes a good editor is the same thing that makes a good writer: you have to be a good observer, ask questions, and love words and the deep power they have.
Clark: Right out of the Columbia Publishing Course, I started at HarperCollins as a rotational associate—a program where you rotate from department to department, learning how they all work. I’d already suspected that I wanted to work in editorial, but I was curious about publicity and marketing, so I spent some time in a bunch of different departments. They were all interesting, but the rotating confirmed for me that editorial was the best fit.
Osan: In the very beginning, I pursued a career in magazine publishing. But during a trip to N.Y.C., I had the opportunity to see book publishing firsthand and vibed with it. After graduating college, I interned at Scholastic on Fridays while I proofread law patents—just to get some experience. When I was at Emerson College studying for my masters in publishing and writing, I interned at Wiley and at Serendipity Literary Agency.
Henderson-Brown: I didn’t plan a career in publishing, but I’ve been having a blast anyway. I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to combine two of my most enduring obsessions: social justice and literature. I owe it all to the paradigm-shifting work of The New Jim Crow and the New Press’s savvy decision to hire someone with an organizing background to galvanize the momentum of the book.
African-American Role Models and Mentors
Johns: A small but mighty group introduced me to the industry: I met Adrienne Ingrum [formerly at Hachette] and Malaika Adero [formerly at Atria], two dynamic black women editors. Ingrum recommended a young literary agent, Regina Brooks, and soon I was interning at Serendipity, her agency. I’d also met One World editorial director Chris Jackson. While I knew the realities of the lack of diversity in publishing, I was fortunate to see what was possible.
Stewart: I definitely am proud of and feel a kinship to editors Cassandra Pelham Fulton [at Scholastic], Desiree Wilson [at Oni Press], and C. Spike Trotman [at Iron Circus].
Ladelle: Gilda Squire—who now owns her own publicity firm and is Misty Copeland’s publicist—used to be a director of publicity at HarperCollins and was one of the first people who critiqued my résumé and passed it around to other people within her network, such as Yona Deshommes, the associate director of publicity at Atria, who helped me land an interview. While I was at Simon & Schuster, Malaika Adero, then a vice president and senior editor at Atria, was a mentor of mine and a big reason I stayed in the industry.
Bodnar: Beacon Press senior editor Rakia Clark is my role model, mentor, inspiration, and friend. And I am incredibly inspired by the way that Tracy Sherrod [at Amistad], Chris Jackson, and Dawn Davis [at 37Ink] all bring books to market.
Counts: I’m profoundly lucky to work with, and learn from, Chris Jackson. I had worked in publishing for almost three years before I started with him at Spiegel & Grau. One World being run by a person who intuitively understands—or, in cases where he doesn’t, does the work to learn—constantly reminds you that you are allowed to take up space, you are allowed to feel these heavy feelings, you are allowed to need a break.
Clark: Literary agent Marie Brown is someone I’ve looked to for mentorship since I was an assistant. Because she has seen everything 10 times over, she’s really good about helping me talk through strategies and solutions when I’m stuck. Dawn Davis, Monique Patterson [at St. Martin’s], Tracy Sherrod, and Chris Jackson have been great role models my whole career. Their success is so energizing.
Osan: I’ve had many mentors throughout my career. But I have to admit, I haven’t been as proactive as I should about finding a mentor lately. Connecting with my peers and learning about how they’re progressing, the resources they’re using, and the books they’re reading has been just as valuable as having a mentor.
Henderson-Brown: My colleague, senior editor Tara Grove, has been such a gift. Agewise, we’re just a few years apart, but she has about five years on me in the industry and has proven to be such an invaluable resource. Marie Brown is a legend, and she has been so generous with her time and perspective. And I’d count Tracy Sherrod at Amistad as a role model and mentor—she is warm, her savvy knows no bounds, and her approach to publishing is a lodestar.
Engaging Diverse Readers
Johns: Even as a person of color, I cannot assume I know the full span of the black/minority experience. I read a lot, from books to magazines. I pay attention to viewership of programs, blockbusters, new media platforms, and more examples that seem to be creating and shaping culture for ethnic audiences. Who’s winning awards? What social justice issues are shaping conversations and the next years ahead? It helps inform not only what’s on trend, but maybe even an overlooked area that could benefit from exposure.
Coleman: Another crucial part of my job entails critically reading Beacon’s books to suss out target audiences and what they may want from the books. In other words, this is about getting into their heads. From there, I come up with proposed marketing activities to reach these readers.
Stewart: Our main mission statement is to make comics for everyone—and that really means everyone. You can’t have that goal if you aren’t open to reading and learning about stories outside of your own, or outside of what you’re used to. In my opinion, knowledge about a variety of marginalized creators, in addition to those who have been working for years, is what makes you a well-rounded editor.
Funches: Lion Forge has the luxury of having a very diverse range of staff and freelancers who can speak authentically and passionately directly to marginalized groups without pandering or creating heavy-handed marketing campaigns that feel disingenuous. For us, it’s not an agenda but simply who we are.
Ladelle: My job will always involve engaging diverse readership, because it’s why I came into publishing in the first place. It’s downright depressing to look at your list of titles you have to market and not see one person who looks like you. It sends the message that your story isn’t valid or deserving. So I had to be strategic in finding a job that I felt had a list of authors who came from diverse backgrounds, in order to work and engage with diverse authors and content, which was what I was able to find in the YA department at HarperCollins.
Brown: If it’s a black author, we want to make sure we research media that speak to that audience. Going after the same traditional media is lazy. Part of my job is to dissect a book to make sure that we are targeting the readers that will pick up and buy that book.
Clark: By virtue of the types of books I publish, I engage with an ethnic readership. I don’t know that I’m always an expert, but my authors are.
Challenges and the Role of Black Professionals
Despite overwhelming optimism about entering the publishing industry, many of the young professionals of color pointed to conventional book career challenges as well as concerns about in-house attitudes toward diversity. We offered to include some of their comments without attribution.
Some of the issues were typical of book publishing, including complaints about the “lack of recognition for the work that goes into marketing a book” and the fact that “figuring out how much of a title we need to sell, with what production costs and quantities, in order to be profitable is mind numbing.”
Some of those we spoke with cited the heavy workload and low salaries (“the lack of work-life balance, and being underpaid”), as well as the small degree of upward mobility within houses. One person said, “I hoped that, at 30 and with more than one degree, I’d be further along in my career. I learned very recently, before a restructure, that I didn’t acquire the necessary skill I needed to move to the next stage—after four years. It was kind of discouraging.”
Others cited ongoing problems in marketing black-reader-focused titles. One person said, “The biggest challenge is trying to get a sales team that it is predominately straight white men and women to take a chance on unknown black authors. It constantly blows my mind how people don’t care about a book because they don’t fit into the narrative or don’t understand the context. It’s not until the New York Times—or any other big media outlet—makes a big deal of it that they go, ‘Wait, how can we capitalize on this?’ ”
Another young professional acknowledged that achieving diversity in publishing can be complicated issue: “It’s a struggle to create a title that speaks truth of other cultures without cultural appropriation. It’s a hazy line for sure, but the line is there. And explaining that line to others is exhausting.”
Another person expressed concern about being pigeonholed, valued only for offering a single cultural POV: “Early in my career, I was valued in the room for my black perspective more than I wanted. It made sense that people would come to me. But some people only came to me when they wanted ‘the black perspective.’ That never feels good. My value extends beyond my race. I deal with that less now than I did early on.”
Some of the people we spoke with expressed mixed reactions to their role as African-American professionals. One person said about getting the job, “I think they thought they hit the jackpot. They literally paraded me around in front of a program officer to say how happy they were that they were able to promote a person of color from within the company for the new editorial role. It’s important to them that they are seen as diverse, which they technically are—but not when it comes to more senior positions or institutional decision making. It’s all white on that side of things. However, I love that my very black perspective and analysis gets a voice at our editorial board meetings.”
Another person said, “I see myself as a resource, and it’s something I’m proud to be, because it makes our authors feel secure in knowing there’s someone on the inside doing everything they can to help their title succeed.”
Still another cited the role as a cultural duty: “I think that I have an extra responsibility to advocate not only for books by black people but, of equal importance, for black people as an audience, and I believe that responsibility extends to all marginalized groups.”
Indeed, a sense of a responsibility to represent the unrepresented within mainstream publishing houses seemed to be dominant among the group PW interviewed. One young black professional said, “Our stories are important and deserve recognition. It comes as no surprise that authors like Tayari Jones, Zadie Smith, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Jesmyn Ward, and Ta-Nehisi Coates are New York Times bestselling authors. It’s because we finally get to regularly read stories of the African-American experience by writers who didn’t come with a famous athletic/Hollywood/music platform.”
Another person said, “I see this job as a way of showing black readers and all readers of color that professionals of color in publishing are out there. Yes, we’re a thing. We exist. We’re a small group, but we’re out there. The more visible we are to the public, the better. Hopefully that visibility will inspire more blacks and professionals of color to join us. Publishing is still overwhelmingly white.”
One young publishing professional said of her work, “I see it as a positive not just for the company but for the entire publishing landscape. Seeing is believing. Hopefully other young black women see me and realize that editorial is a job market that they can work toward.”
Notable African-American Titles: Fall 2018/Spring 2019
African-American Interest Adult Titles, 2018-2019