The lack of diversity in publishing is a topic that has been discussed in the industry for years. And while some companies have been hiring more people of color and releasing more titles by and about underrepresented groups, the industry is still largely run by, and largely publishes books by, white people.
The most serious challenge to that structure may have come last week, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by members of the Minneapolis Police Department. On June 8, a group of more than 1,100 workers across the book and media industries, most of them junior staffers, stepped off the job in a day of solidarity to “speak out against racist murder, white supremacy, and racial capitalism.”
The group’s statement was crafted collectively and shared via email and a Google document. “We protest our industry’s role in systemic racism, its failure to hire and retain a significant number of Black employees or publish a significant number of Black authors, and its pursuit of profit through books that incite racism,” the letter said. Participants were asked to use the day to support the black community by doing such things as protesting, organizing, and fund-raising, in addition to donating the day’s pay to a number of social justice–related and anti-racist causes.
Upcoming plans for the collective involve the development of “a democratic process for organizing and decision-making,” the statement continued. “Building collective power and having an activated base first is necessary to achieve this kind of action down the line.”
Danny Vazquez of Farrar, Straus and Giroux was one of the five Macmillan staffers, four of whom identify as BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of color) and one of whom is white, who drafted the initial language for the action. The action, Vazquez said, was created in response to the emails that CEOs of the Big Five publishing companies sent to their companies addressing the protests and the current political climate—statements the group considered inadequate in addressing issues pertaining to white supremacy, racial capitalism, and the murders of black people at the hands of police.
The collective action drew the attention of three of the trade’s Big Five publishers. Penguin Random House had the most comprehensive response. In a letter sent to its American employees, the board of PRH US acknowledged that though the company has made progress in diversifying its workforce and the types of books it publishes, it must do more on both counts. PRH, noting that it has published “groundbreaking Black authors,” stated that “our company and our industry haven’t published enough works by authors of color. We can, and must, do much more, and in particular, we must live up to our goal of publishing books for all readers.” PRH also said that to publish more diverse books, the company needs to create a more diverse and inclusive workforce and culture.
Among the actions announced by PRH are a donation to the Equal Justice Initiative, an increase in its donation to We Need Diverse Books, and an expansion of its partnership with WNDB that includes becoming the inaugural sponsor of the Black Creatives Fund, which will focus on encouraging and amplifying the work of black creatives who have written adult or children’s books.
PRH is also upping its anti-racism training and making it mandatory for all employees. The company also promised to share with employees statistics related to its current workforce demographics, and those findings will be used to set clear goals for increasing PRH’s diversity at all levels. To increase the number of books it publishes by people of color, PRH is conducting an audit of its publishing programs to set a baseline from which it can measure improvements.
The day of solidarity led Hachette Book Group’s executive management board to expand its current initiatives for increasing diversity and to begin work on other “important changes,” according to a spokesperson. Among the initiatives in the works are sharing with all employees metrics that HBG has previously shared with managers on staff diversity and list diversity, setting goals for hiring diverse staff and publishing diverse voices, expanding unconscious bias training, and accelerating equity and inclusion training for senior managers. “These broad diversity initiatives will include specific actions to support the discovery and publication of Black voices and the recruitment and hiring of Black applicants,” the spokesperson said.
Simon & Schuster issued a statement noting that the company agrees with its employees on the need for change. “We are committed to working with our employees, authors and the publishing community to make our company and our industry a safe and inclusive environment for all, and a publisher of works that represent the breadth and depth of our diverse population,” the statement read in part.
HarperCollins and Macmillan did not respond to a request for comment.
Criticism of the way the Poetry Foundation has been managed, particularly with respect to its treatment of underrepresented groups, led to the resignations of foundation president Henry Bienen and board chair Willard Bunn III last week. The resignations came shortly after the foundation received an open letter from a group of its fellows and programmatic partners, signed by more than 1,800 others, that was critical of the organization’s June 3 statement on the killing of George Floyd. “We find this statement to be worse than the bare minimum,” the letter read. “For years, your constituents have been calling on the Foundation to redistribute more of its enormous resources to marginalized artists, to make concrete commitments to and change-making efforts in your local community and beyond.”
The day of solidarity is not the only thing that shook publishing. Several hundred authors took to Twitter to publicly share what they were paid for their books under the hashtag #PublishingPaidMe. Most of the information related to advances rather than royalties.
The intention of the campaign, which was created by author L.L. McKinney, is to expose the disparity in book advances between white and black authors. Some people of color, such as Angie Thomas, author of The Hate U Give, declined to reveal specifics. She tweeted that she was “the exception, not the rule,” adding, “The rules have to change.”
Among the authors who were candid was National Book Award–winner Jesmyn Ward, who wrote, “Even after Salvage the Bones won the NBA, my publishing company did not want to give me 100k for my next novel. My agent and I fought and fought before we wrestled our way to that number.”
In creating #PublishingPaidMe, McKinney tweeted, “When books by white authors don’t perform, they’re likely to get another chance and another 100k advance. When books by Black authors don’t perform, the ENTIRE demographic gets blamed and punished. Black authors are told our books don’t sell. No one wants them. #PublishingPaidMe is part of a bigger conversation about the system issues in publishing that Black people face. Issues we’ve been talking about, and screaming about, for years, but we’ve largely gone ignored.”
Several authors noted that information on advances alone does not give the full picture. N.K. Jemisin wrote a long thread elucidating her thoughts on the situation: “A lot of people are treating advances like the earnings for a book, and... no. Basically advances indicate what the publishing industry *thinks* readers will like in the future, so they are effectively attempting to peer into a crystal ball when they do this. Since these are big corporations and not fortune tellers, some hard facts go into this guess: the author’s previous sales, for one. Sales of comparable books by comparable authors.”
Jemisin added, “But here’s where hard facts start to slip and other factors start to slip in, like, who are my comparable authors? Who is trying a different subgenre of SFF with every series, a different style, etc., like me? IDK. How many readers *like* authors who jump around like that? And this is America 2020, where for the past X years we’ve had to endure targeted marketing based on demographics.”