Since the killing of George Floyd in late May, the book publishing industry, overwhelmingly white at every level, seems to have reached a period of reckoning about its own history of exclusionary hiring practices.
In the days following the protests around George Floyd’s death, the industry has seen the high-profile appointment of two Black women to prestigious positions at Simon & Schuster and Penguin Random House; new staff-driven initiatives focused on diversity, such as the June 8 Day of Solidarity; and numerous corporate pledges and fund-raising efforts aimed at supporting diversity.
PW spoke with the directors of several organizations, as well as one publisher, who have worked to address the long-standing lack of diversity in the industry. While all praised the high-level appointments and corporate pledges, the book industry, according to New Press executive director Diane Wachtell, needs to focus on creating “a pipeline of people of color moving into the industry that can grow into jobs over years.” In conversations with the directors of these programs, there was an emphasis on the need to recruit people of color and focus on retaining experienced professionals of color. There was an emphatic plea for paid internships at publishing houses, citing the difficulty of recruiting minority applicants without them. And the directors also cited the need for mentoring programs to connect new recruits with veteran book professionals of color to help them survive and thrive in an overwhelmingly white industry.
The Publishing Certificate Program at CUNY’s City College was founded in 1997 expressly to recruit and train CUNY students for the publishing industry—the PCP program welcomes students of all backgrounds, and CUNY’s student body offers access to minority students. The pandemic has added another layer of difficulty to an already tough mission. PCP executive director David Unger told PW the program has shifted to online classes because of the pandemic. “It’s all hands on deck,” he said, as he works to turn in-person internships for PCP grads into positions that can be done remotely.
All courses in the PCP program are taught by working book professionals, and Unger said the program has guided more than 175 graduates into the publishing industry since its founding. Graduates include Jennifer Baker, managing editor at Random House Children’s Books and the 2019 PW Star Watch Superstar, and Offauna Goodman, a production assistant at Macmillan, among many others throughout the industry. PCP graduated 24 students in 2018–2019, and it will host 30 students in 2020, a record number for the program. All PCP graduates must complete a working internship. Much like the other program directors, Unger stressed that internships and mentoring are the key components in recruiting minority applicants. Unger emphasized the potential impact of PCP grads on the New York City–based industry. “80% of our students are from the City, and about 20% are from other parts of the country,” he said. “Our graduates are in New York, they’re passionate about publishing, and they’re not going to move away after a year.” The most recent PCP graduating class, Unger said, included “Latinx, African American, Jewish, trans, and South Asian students. The seeds of diversity in the publishing industry are right here at City College.”
And while he applauds the new high-profile appointments and diversity pledges, he was less enthusiastic about some other recent efforts, such as S&S’s commitment to fund scholarships at the publishing programs at Columbia University, NYU, Pace University, and the University of Denver. Unger said that often the book industry “looks to show commitment to Black Lives Matter and diversity with the least amount of effort it can offer before moving on. PCP also needs paid interns and mentoring, and maybe throw in a little extra money for our faculty.”
Another problem, he said, is that big publishers send PCP grads to their Human Resource department’s internship portals, which pits PCP grads against applicants from programs at Columbia, Stanford, Denver, and NYU. “The problem is that when the house’s editors, designers, and marketers see résumés from Stanford and the University of Chicago, we know what will happen,” Unger said. “We need HR to advocate for our students, who need mentoring and some hand-holding when you’re the first brown face to work in a department.”
On the other hand, Unger praised Hachette Book Group CEO Michael Pietsch (“They walk the walk”), in addition to citing support from Penguin, Norton, and Princeton University Press. He also noted the literary agent community, including AAR, the Ayesha Pande and Tanya McKinnon agencies, and the Women’s Media Group, which also provides grants and internships to PCP students.
New Press publisher Ellen Adler and Wachtell (who is also a New Press cofounder) echoed the importance of internships and mentoring. Indeed, the New Press, a left-oriented house focused on issues of race and social and criminal justice, had to overcome a pandemic-driven crisis of its own: the cratering of book sales in April and May, as well as a temporary downturn in funding (the New Press is supported by a hybrid model that combines commercial book sales and grants). The house was rescued by its publishing program, which had an explosion of sales of its social justice backlist in June and July, led by Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, which went back to press for more than 250,000 copies, more than ten years after publication. The house also benefited from about 15–20 backlist titles focused on racial and economic justice, LGBTQ, education, and environmental issues, whose sales have spiked in the wake of national protests.
While praising the appointments of Dana Canedy and Lisa Lucas at S&S and PRH, respectively, Wachtell emphasized the need for the industry to develop programs that consistently bring people into publishing. Creating a diverse book industry, she said, will take more than “poaching a few people of color from other industries. You have to monitor every single hire at every level of the organization from editor to production director. And you have to be prepared to have uncomfortable conversations with your staff.”
“You need great humility and you need to stay at it,” Adler said, echoing Wachtell on diversity hiring. “Our intern program is at the heart of all our efforts at diversity. We have a commitment to hire our interns when openings happen.” New Press editorial director Tara Grove, for example, is a former social worker who started in publishing as a New Press intern. The New Press intern program—overseen by Ben Woodward, also a former New Press intern—generally accepts nine to 12 applicants a year, all of whom are paid minimum wage. All interns are “exposed to the whole publishing process at the New Press,” Adler said, but some specialization in certain publishing departments is allowed.
The New Press staff of 24 is roughly 50% nonwhite, and its board of directors is roughly 38% nonwhite. “Our funders want to know our diversity stats,” Adler said, noting that support for diversity hiring “must come from the top of the house.”
Much like We Need Diverse Books, with which it partners, POCinPub is a grassroots effort founded in 2017 to address the book industry’s lack of diversity. Literary agent Patrice Caldwell, founder of People of Color in Publishing, said, “We’re consolidating our programs to make sure we’re not reinventing the wheel.” Caldwell said POCinPub was eliminating its writers committee, to focus exclusively on “mentoring, retention, and professional development.” The organization has a wide array of professionally oriented programs and its mentoring program recruits from across all publishing departments. “We mix things up and place people all over publishing,” Caldwell said. “We’ve helped people of color get jobs, but getting them to stay in publishing is the key.”
Pre-pandemic, POCinPub organized panels on burnout and depression (Caldwell noted her own period of professional burnout earlier in her publishing career) featuring current professionals. While public events are now on hold, POCinPub is planning a new slate of virtual professional development panels for the fall, likely partnering with such organizations as WNDB and Latinx in Publishing. Caldwell also emphasized the importance of internships and mentors.
Looking ahead, Caldwell acknowledged that the current revived focus on systemic racism and diversity in the industry “feels different.” It’s also led to “a ton of donations” flowing into POCinPub, allowing the volunteer organization to ramp up its outreach . She also believes that “working remotely will change publishing and increase the pool of diverse talent looking to enter the industry,” she said.
POCinPub is working on establishing nonprofit status and plans to relaunch its website. “Sometimes you just need more money,” Caldwell said. “We can hire people to do workshops now, and that’s been invaluable.” POCinPub will also soon release a survey of “hundreds” of persons in the book industry, examining workplace racism in book publishing. She described the survey as “tales of what professional people of color endure working at publishing houses while Black.”
We Need Diverse Books executive director Nicole Johnson said the industry’s renewed calls for diversity reflect a moment of “preparation and opportunity,” adding, “This is the culmination of a lot of history. Social protest creates opportunity and the industry’s response has been that the current situation is unacceptable.” She said the PublishingPaidMe hashtag showed that “authors were prepared and ready with insights” about the industry’s meager salaries. Since its launch in 2014, WNDB has had a powerful impact on diversity in children’s book publishing, providing grants to authors (and children’s book professionals) and partnering with publishers and literary agencies on internships, as well as opening publishing to a wider pool of authors and diverse professional applicants.
WNDB is expanding its internship program from 10 positions to 20 in 2021 (all internships are virtual/remote), and Johnson said a donation from novelist Celeste Ng will allow WNDB to launch a pilot program for internships in adult publishing for the first time. “We’re focused on children’s publishing, but we can’t ignore that adult publishing is having a difficult time with diversity,” Johnson said. And she emphasized the need for publishers to look beyond the programs at Stanford, Denver, NYU, and Columbia when hiring. “These programs do have diverse candidates,” she said, “but we also need economic diversity, we need to recruit from HBCUs, and not just from English departments. We need editors, marketers, sales reps, production. There’s not a lot of education [by the industry] about what it means to be in publishing.”
“I didn’t come from the publishing industry,” explained Johnson, who came from the worlds of education and organizational development. “I couldn’t explain anything about publishing or what jobs it offers. The industry needs to demystify. There are structural reasons why people don’t choose to enter publishing.”
Correction: the months of the New Press sales crisis and sales rebound were incorrectly noted in an earlier version of this story.