In March, the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books, which advocates for the diversification of children’s literature and publishing, took an unusual step: it announced its first-ever grants in the adult publishing sector. The two $2,500 grants, which are part of the WNDB Internship Grant program, will “support two interns from diverse backgrounds” to work in adult publishing beginning in summer 2021. The funding was provided by Celeste Ng, the author of Everything I Never Told You and Little Fires Everywhere, who gave $25,000 to ensure that the scholarships would continue for at least the next five years.

Ng’s donation is part of a growing trend in publishing: authors of color are using their means to push for systemic changes to address publishing’s much-documented diversity problem. “I’m troubled by how undiverse the publishing industry is—extremely white, extremely straight, extremely abled, among other things—and have wanted to do something about it for the long time,” Ng tweeted when announcing the grants. “A job in publishing often requires experience like an internship—often unpaid or low-paid—before you can get hired. This shuts out many people who can’t afford that. But their voices are exactly what we need to acquire, publish, and champion stories that often go overlooked. The goal of these grants is to make internships (and hopefully careers) in publishing more accessible, so we can increase diversity in publishing from the ground up.”

The idea, Ng said in another tweet, was inspired by author and Ringer staff writer Shea Serrano. “Back in november i read an article at Publishers Weekly that included a stat that i thought was very sucky: hispanics barely make up 3 percent the racial makeup of publishing,” Serrano tweeted in December 2019, referring to the 2019 PW Salary Survey. “That chart really stuck with me in one of those bad kind of ways—i spent a lot thinking about how i didn’t even know writing for a living was a thing that was available because that’s not the kind of work they tell you about when you live on the south side of san antonio.” So he and his wife, Larami Serrano, donated $20,000 to the San Antonio Association of Hispanic Journalists to found a four-year, $5,000 scholarship in his name, given to students interested in becoming either a journalist or a published author.

“Larami and I decided to fund the scholarship because writing has changed our lives,” Serrano told PW. “And partly I say that from a philosophical standpoint, sure, but mostly I say that from a very practical standpoint, in that we used to be poor and now we are no longer poor. I figured if we started this scholarship and made it so that you have to be Latino or Latina to qualify for it, then maybe it’d eventually help a tiny amount to get a couple more faces like mine in the room.”

Ng and Serrano are only two of a number of authors who have stepped up to address publishing’s diversity issues. Authors Alexander Chee and Christine H. Lee sponsor the Justin Chin Memorial Scholarship, in memory of the late author Justin Chin, to financially support “a queer, Asian American Pacific Islander” writer’s attendance at Lambda Literary’s annual Retreat for LGBTQ Voices. Chee also sponsors the Yi Dae Up Fellowships, named after his grandmother, which helps women writers who are Asian-Americans and Asian immigrants attend the Jack Jones Literary Arts annual writing retreat. The intention, according to the fellowship description, is to encourage older women to apply but allow others to as well.

Roxane Gay has established her own fellowships to support the attendance of four women of color, writing in the categories of fiction, nonfiction, prose, and poetry, at the same retreat. And Chee mentioned a number of writers he knows who also fund such fellowships, including Tommy Orange and Natalie Diaz.

“I don’t think of my efforts as being so much about diversity as much as I think of them as being about equity,” Chee said. “I also think of my efforts as being specifically about changing the culture. That’s partly about thinking of diversity in terms of age, which is part of what doesn’t always get talked about with diversity. And with Asian-American writers, there’s certain of our groups that are more popular, say, than others, or more well-known, if you will. We’re still always sending our protégés off into an industry that isn’t necessarily equipped to see them or make sense of their careers. But I think that’s changing—gradually.”

Urging publishers to step up

Stories like this one are often framed in a positive light, highlighting how big-name authors are giving back to their industry and helping to ensure its diversification. But many of the authors PW spoke with see that sort of assessment as missing the point.

Ng said sporadic acts of outreach by publishers are not enough to seriously drive diversity forward. “It’s great when people do good things, but that is a situation that should not have happened in the first place,” she noted. “And I don’t want to shame publishers per se. But it does strike me as weird that a lot of the push is coming from authors and groups like We Need Diverse Books, which was founded by, among others, Ellen Oh, a YA and middle grade author.”

Ng added that even in the most recent discussions about the need for more diversity, the push is coming from the bottom up. “That’s a problem,” she said. “Because a lot of the change needs to happen from the top down.”

For poet Natalie Diaz, the lack of diversity in publishing is part of a much larger issue. “I think it mainly speaks to capitalism that authors and artists are forced to turn our care and energy into money—that so much of our care has to take the form of activism rather than care being a practice and a way of love first,” she said. “The publishing industry is as ridiculous as any other industry: in its largest structures it controls what is literature, what is a book, what is a story in this country. It shapes and controls what is ‘good,’ and this is dangerous when you assume that the few who arrive at the top are diversifying literature—when that structure can also be seen as maintaining ‘diversity’ in literature.”

Publishing is certainly aware of this issue. Big Five publishers, including Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster, have teams devoted to diversity and inclusion. Ng noted that PRH (her publisher) was “very supportive of the grants, and they’re going to do some mentorship and events for the interns and so on.”

Still, many of the changes publishers make come in response to criticism or outside pushes. After the controversy surrounding Flatiron Books’ publication of Jeanine Cummins’s novel American Dirt earlier this year, for instance, the imprint responded by hiring Nadxieli Nieto as editor-at-large to acquire upmarket and literary fiction, nonfiction, and YA, with a focus on work by Latinx and BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of color).

The numbers also speak for themselves: in last year’s PW salary survey, 84% of publishing employees who responded identified as white or Caucasian, barely moving the needle from 2018, when 86% of the respondents were white. The result is that many authors see publishing moving too slowly in its efforts to hire and publish people of color, and they feel compelled to push the business forward.

“We’d like to see some changes, and if they aren’t going to come from the inside then that means they’re going to have to come from the outside,” Serrano said. “I think that’s why you see a lot of nonwhite authors trying to lower that ladder back to help out in whatever way we can. It’s absolutely a different experience to exist in the publishing world when you don’t look like 90% of the rest of the industry, or whatever the numbers are.”

Ng said, “The people who are doing a lot of the work tend to be people of color. And it is not enough to have them doing it, because they’re often not the ones who have the power to change all of these things, and the burden shouldn’t always be on them—the people who don’t have the power to be changing the systems of power.”

Nicole Johnson, WNDB’s executive director, agreed, though she acknowledged that big change often comes from below, or outside. “I’ve done work in the past with youth organizers and folks who are doing community-based work on social issues at a community level, and they speak a lot to this idea that power concedes nothing without demand,” she said. “I don’t think that the industry, given the power structure that it has and the legacy that it holds, will change without folks who have the resources and the power to make the call and to offer up a new way or a different way of operating. It won’t change without that action.”  

This means that within publishing houses, those who have influence—the vast majority of whom are white—need to step up to push for those changes.

“You know what I was really proud of?” Serrano asked. “As soon as we announced the scholarship, I got a message from my editor at Twelve, Sean Desmond, and he was like, ‘Hey, man. I saw the scholarship. Really proud of you and Larami. I’d like to help in any way that you’ll let me.’ And then we had conversations about setting up internships that focus specifically on the areas that need to be focused on. That’s an important part of all of this, too. We need those allies who are already in the room who will unlock the door for us.”