At the Aspen Institute sponsored virtual panel, "Changing the Narrative: Diversity in the Publishing Industry" publishing insiders continued to make the case of the need to further push diversity among publishing professionals at all levels. Moderated by Aspen Words executive director Adrienne Brodeur, the speakers included Regina Brooks, founder and president of Serendipity Literary Agency; novelist Nicole Dennis-Benn; Lisa Lucas, outgoing executive director of the National Book Foundation, who was recently hired as Pantheon/ Schocken publisher; and Erroll McDonald executive editor at Knopf/Doubleday.
According to Brooks, who moved into publishing after a career as an aerospace engineer, greater publishing diversity all begins with a pipeline into the industry. “One year, I had the summer off and I [entered] the publishing program at Howard University. It changed my life, it changed my world,” she said, recalling that at the program she met literary agent Marie Brown and Cheryl Willis Hudson, co-founder and editorial director of Just Us Books, who guided her into a publishing career. “The industry needs to bring people into the business and sustain them,” she added, suggesting that a publishing institute similar to Howard’s now defunct program be launched to pull in people of color.
Lucas added that the industry has to do a better job of explaining its inner workings in terms of employment needs and opportunities. Certainly there is a need to hire editors who are BIPOC, she explained, but there are also opportunities in “below the line” jobs throughout the industry, such as in human resources, marketing, sales, publicity, and in-house legal departments. “It takes an enormous team to make all of these books,” she said, “We focus on authors and editors, but we have to think about the entire team. There’s a bounty of jobs in publishing that people don’t know about.”
McDonald echoed Lucas’s point, that the variety of employment opportunities in publishing could be better advertised. He emphasized the need to diversify the ranks of decision-makers in publishing, noting that certainly there are books about race hitting bestseller lists, but that these books are “mostly to educate whites.”
“The narrative is still being defined by people in power,” he said, “Publishers need to broaden their understanding of what books matter to Black people.”
Lucas described the paucity of books “that don’t face the white gaze” as “cultural suppression.” She added, “It’s not just unequal, it’s also a violence done against people” who are BIPOC, “artificially manufacturing a cultural landscape [in which] real Black voices are excluded.”
Diverse agents and editors as well as open-minded allies are key, Dennis-Benn noted, recalling that her debut novel, Here Comes the Sun (Liveright, 2016), was “a hard sell” due to its exploration of race, class, and sexuality in a Jamaican setting. “”If there’d been more Black people at the houses who ‘got’ my work, it would have been easier,” she noted, giving a shout out to her publicist, Michael Taeckens of an eponymous marketing and publicity firm, who is white.
Brooks confirmed points made by the other speakers, noting that the Association of Authors Representatives is trying to nurture young agents who are BIPOC, since agents “are the gatekeepers” to what gets published – and what does not. She pointed out that it can be difficult for people from diverse backgrounds to become agents, as access to New York City publishers is essential. Working on a commission basis can also be a deterrent to becoming an agent, amplified when the work of authors who are BIPOC “is devalued” because it often is not properly positioned in the marketplace.
Even after a book is produced, Brooks explained, it’s difficult to “penetrate the marketplace if there is a lack of understanding in the content.” She added that it is essential for publishers to understand how to properly position a book, explaining that “if there are people in sales, marketing, publicity who are people of color, there would be a lot more understanding” in terms of positioning books by BIPOC in the marketplace.
Lucas noted the need to make bookselling more diverse, not just publishing. “We need to talk about the fact that there are very few bookstores serving BIPOC communities,” she pointed out.
But the speakers noted that they are seeing shifts in the publishing industry that give them hope that it will become more inclusive, more diverse. McDonald referred to the actions taken by young publishing professionals this past year to make their views known.
The younger generation of publishing professionals, Lucas pointed out, consider the status quo "unacceptable; they’re so much more radical than I could dream of being.” She suggested mentoring these young professionals “to help them have all the tools to shake up the status quo.”
The pandemic is also transforming publishing “dramatically,” McDonald said, especially the growing acceptance of publishing professionals working remotely rather than clustering in New York City offices. “That might open the door to people who might not have considered [a career in publishing] previously.”
Brooks agreed, saying, “Working remotely is going to open it up.”
Aspen Institute has made available on audio the conversation, the second in a series of conversations on the construction and representations of race in America in journalism, publishing, and entertainment.
This story has been updated with further information.