Barriers to Entry
In 1995, the Village Voice published a two-part feature by journalist James Ledbetter titled “The Unbearable Whiteness of Publishing” that examined racial disparity in the American book and magazine publishing industries. The second part of the feature, which focused on book publishing, saw a readership boost online in 2020, after the Voice updated its digital archive. Twenty-five years later, the piece was still timely.
Over the past quarter-century, book publishing has made some strides in diversifying its workforce and the authors it publishes, thanks in part to the efforts of many recently founded advocacy groups and movements, including We Need Diverse Books, People of Color in Publishing, and the #OwnVoices movement. But while the book business’s stance on, and dialogue surrounding, race has improved, there is still work to be done—including much that was laid out in Ledbetter’s piece.
The parallels between publishing in 1995 and publishing today are astounding, unsurprising, and disheartening. In fact, the main threads of Ledbetter’s story could very well have been plucked from any recent discussion surrounding publishing’s lack of racial and ethnic diversity today. As a children’s book editor who has discussed these issues with my own circle of friends and colleagues, I wanted to revisit this piece, illustrating what has changed and what hasn’t.
Over the past few years, the industry has weathered the deaths of publishing giants, printer capacity issues, and the Covid-19 pandemic. Still, perhaps publishing’s greatest reckoning in years came last summer following the nationwide protests over the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans. June 8 marked a day of action organized by five publishing professionals—four BIPOC and one white colleague—who, according to their website, were directly inspired by their frustration with statements by the Big Five publishers following the killing of Floyd by Minneapolis police, as well as with the industry’s systemic failure to hire and retain Black employees, its dearth of Black authors, and the publication of harmful titles “that incite racism.” According to the organizers, the June 8 demonstration resulted in the mobilization of over 1,300 workers.
Also during the summer, book business workers and companies posted on social media to highlight and criticize publishing’s lack of Black professionals and other professionals of color in what seemed to be a time when publishing executives were finally listening to calls for greater industry diversity. According to the organizers of the June 8 action, the demonstration resulted in “the mobilization of over 1,300 workers” who participated in various ways—whether by donating, volunteering to phone bank, or protesting.
Publishing is an old industry, and it has well-established ways of systematically preventing BIPOC professionals from entering its workforce. The ways it gatekeeps are insidious but not unknown. One of the longest-standing issues is the lack of transparency surrounding the racial and ethnic makeup of publishing companies. Though most Big Five imprints have pages dedicated to their staff, complete with photos and bios, others do not. In the Village Voice piece, Ledbetter wrote, “In these companies, the question is not how many people of color they employ at decision-making levels, but whether they have any at all.” When asked for data by Ledbetter, several industry professionals were either evasive or refused to provide statistics.
In 2015, Lee & Low debuted its Diversity Baseline Survey (DBS), which was updated in January 2020 and expanded to include literary agents and book reviewers. The survey provides the most transparent and most accurate representation to date of how overwhelmingly white the publishing industry is on every level, from the C-suite down to interns.
DBS 2.0’s results are very stark—though this is no surprise to any person of color who is in the industry now or who has left due to burnout over a lack of agency and support. This is the same industry in which agents have told BIPOC authors that their stories aren’t “authentic” enough, yet American Dirt sells for six figures and is marketed so heavily that it becomes one of 2020’s bestselling novels. This is the same industry that has a massive disparity between how it pays Black authors and how it pays white and non-Black authors of color, a situation highlighted by the #PublishingPaidMe campaign created by author L.L. McKinney in June 2020.
The overall absence of BIPOC professionals within the industry contributes to these problems and forces the very few in-house BIPOC professionals to shoulder additional burdens, including serving as sensitivity readers and diversity consultants, usually without additional pay.
Penguin Random House took a step in the right direction in addressing the lack of industry diversity over the summer when it released its own racial and ethnic statistics on warehouse and nonwarehouse employees on the company’s “Our People” page. The page included PRH’s workforce demographics, as well as the company’s diversity and inclusion plans and goals to improve not only its workforce but the “number of books we publish, promote, and sell—by people of color.”
Other publishers followed suit, making public pledges to improve their in-house representation, creating diversity and inclusion task forces or councils, and even, in some cases, opening up to unagented submissions by authors of color with an emphasis on Black authors. The industry has also seen a handful of high-profile hires. Among them are Lisa Lucas, former executive director of the National Book Foundation, who is now senior v-p and publisher of Pantheon and Schocken Books, and Dana Canedy, the former Pulitzer Prize administrator, who succeeded Jonathan Karp as senior v-p and publisher of Simon & Schuster, making her the first Black person to hold that position. Additionally, imprints including Phoebe Robinson’s Tiny Reparations Books, within the Dutton imprint of PRH, and Nicola and David Yoon’s new YA romance–centric Joy Revolution, also at PRH, have been launched in response to the increased attention on diversity in the book business.
Though newfound transparency, the creation of Black and POC-centric imprints, and the hiring of Black professionals to executive positions are all important, publishing still retains many of the problematic practices noted in Ledbetter’s piece, such as nepotism, that contribute to the lack of diversity at the entry level. Gerald Howard, who in 1995 was an editor at W.W. Norton, explained to Ledbetter that new hires “come from a network of agents, writers, and academics.... It’s not really an open process.” Even if a job posting goes up, as is legally necessary, the opening may have already been filled, thanks to these still-extant whisper networks, before those with no connections get a chance to apply. (When I first started my career, I remember speaking to an older industry professional, who, when I mentioned that I had simply applied through the Scholastic career portal for my job, expressed surprise quipping, “Oh, well, usually you have to know someone.”)
Other avenues to breaking into publishing include expensive summer publishing courses, most notably the Denver Publishing Institute (DPI), the Columbia Publishing Course (CPC), and the NYU Summer Publishing Institute (SPI). The cost of these programs—including tuition, housing, and sometimes meal plans—can amount to several thousands of dollars.
I was privileged enough to attend the 2017 NYU SPI and used the course as a way to move to New York. In the interests of transparency, during my year at SPI, I was one of four recipients of the NYU SPI/Time Inc. $2,000 scholarship, along with a $1,000 grant from Sigma Tau Delta, the international English honor society. But even with these scholarships, I still had to take out a loan to cover tuition and my stay at an NYU dorm for 10 weeks.
I enjoyed my time learning at SPI, but to me the networking opportunities with industry professionals were the most beneficial aspect of the program. As a result, when advising aspiring publishing professionals, I often connect them with colleagues and friends across the industry or point them toward open internships and entry-level positions rather than to these pricey programs. I also mention the City College of New York’s Publishing Certificate Program as a more affordable option that offers the same caliber of faculty and information as the other programs, which Ledbetter referred to as only available to “people willing to be very poor for a period of time—and that too may act as a screen against many people of color.”
Ledbetter’s words still ring true. I was one of the few women of color in my year at SPI. And while high costs can make it difficult to attend a publishing program, judging by my experience and those of my peers, it seems that HR representatives tend to prioritize applicants from the NYU or Columbia publishing courses. The assumption is that a certificate from such a course signals that the applicant is serious about a publishing career, when its real significance is that its recipient is one of the 70–100 applicants accepted to those programs per year who had the financial resources to attend them.
Salaries are often another barrier to entry for people of color. The Voice piece points to a Cuban American assistant named Rosa, who had an annual salary of $19,000 in 1994. Average entry-level salaries now can hover around $36,000, though some may begin as low as $30,000. Last fall, publishers in New York and some other cities with high costs of living finally began to push starting salaries up past $40,000 into the $45,000 level.
Though raises are a step in the right direction, New York’s high cost of living keeps many working-class people from giving serious consideration to publishing careers. Trade publishing considers itself inextricably linked to the Big Apple, but the pandemic has forced a majority of the industry’s workforce to shift to working from home, leading to more opportunities for those outside of the city. However, there is the underlying expectation that once it is safe to do so, employees will return to New York offices.
As an assistant editor at Scholastic, I am only able to afford living in New York by splitting costs with my partner. In the years since I’ve joined the industry, a lot of friends and colleagues have left publishing completely, like Rosa did in 1995, to pursue careers in better-paying fields.
Looking forward, as Ledbetter stated in his Voice piece, “the publishing industry will not integrate until it recognizes diversity as critical to its mission.” Publishers’ recent public commitment to hiring new talent at the executive level needs to come with the understanding that they must also advocate for and support their current BIPOC employees. There is no blueprint for assistants looking to advance, and as a result, people of color in the industry have to network and build communities that will boost them up and lower the ladder to others.
In the late summer of last year, I was one of six Scholastic trade editorial and design professionals who formed a committee to create a free, accessible “Intro to Children’s Publishing” seminar for BIPOC professionals who want to learn more about publishing. As soon as we launched, we received an outpouring of applications—a reflection of how eager people of color are to get their foot in the door. It goes to show just how necessary it is that industry insiders work to break down the barriers to entry that have defined American publishing for so long.
I too face obstacles in my work. As a Honduran American editor, I am part of the 6% of Latinx professionals in the industry overall and the 2% within editorial, according to the DBS 2.0. As an editor, I am able to provide BIPOC authors with a chance to be published, and I push back when I hear agents and editors complain that they don’t receive enough submissions by authors of color. With Twitter pitch contests such as #DVpit, founded by Gallt & Zacker agent Beth Phelan in 2016, and #LatinxPitch, founded by a 12-person team of Latinx authors and illustrators last September, editors have no excuse for not seeking out new voices.
Many milestones have been met since the Voice published “The Unbearable Whiteness of Publishing,” but there is still much work to be done. I am cautiously optimistic that in the next 25 years the industry will make major improvements—that publishing will see more BIPOC professionals work their way to the top and, in turn, more books by BIPOC authors hit the bestseller lists. I know many individuals within the industry who, like myself, are committed to improving it. But we are increasingly feeling burned-out due to a lack of upward mobility, support, and adequate pay. We continuously ask ourselves, “How can we support our BIPOC authors and have them entrust us with their works if our staffs aren’t filled with BIPOC and other traditionally marginalized professionals? How can we support these authors if we, BIPOC professionals, also aren’t supported?”
I’ve been working in publishing for three years, and I hope to be here for many more. I have big aspirations, but the work is exhausting and frustrating. I remain committed, though, to pushing the diversity momentum forward. If we are to truly change the business, we need to look not just outward but inward, and from the top down, to support the BIPOC professionals already in the industry. We must ensure that they become the next generation of industry leaders. Then, and only then, will publishing no longer be unbearably white.
Voices from the Front Lines
When James Ledbetter wrote “The Unbearable Whiteness of Publishing” in 1995, he likely didn’t consider how much it would still resonate in 2020—a year when readers and writers stepped up their challenges publishers to take responsibility and diversify their teams, especially their editorial teams, with people of color. In fact, when Soledad O’Brien wrote an op-ed for the New York Times last year about the ways newsrooms and journalism in general are still overwhelmingly white, she cited Ledbetter’s article to showcase how little had changed. The publishing industry has to recognize that many obstacles still exist that prevent BIPOC professionals from advancing into positions of power.
To get to where we are today has taken decades of on-the-ground work and grassroots activism by people of color. And that work, says Norma Perez-Hernandez, an assistant editor at Kensington Publishing, “started with authors speaking from their experiences, noting that there’s a problem, and then from there looking on the inside of what that problem was.”
In his piece, Ledbetter reported that writer Walter Mosley was heading the Open Book Committee at PEN America, which was looking into “how many people of color work in the book trade.” The initiative shows how writers of color—whose manuscripts had long languished in slush piles—have led the charge in diversifying the industry, not publishers. In 2002, the Open Book Committee’s PEN/Open Book Award was created for authors of color published in the U.S.
Other initiatives spearheaded by authors of color followed, but perhaps none was more influential than the We Need Diverse Books Internship Grant. This program, started in 2015 by WNDB CEO and president Ellen Oh, brings financial aid to marginalized people interning at publishing houses and literary agencies. Internships in the publishing industry are highly competitive and rarely paid. “Internships are in-person and require interns to commute to offices in expensive cities like New York City, Boston, or Los Angeles, which makes it difficult for many marginalized applicants to take them,” says Alaina Lavoie, communications manager for WNDB.
The Covid-19 pandemic could be changing this, however; publishers have made internships remote while most of their employees work from home. “Remote internships are also more accessible to disabled applicants who may not be able to intern in an office, especially in cities like N.Y.C. that are notoriously inaccessible,” Lavoie notes, explaining that only about one in five New York subway stations are ADA accessible.
Sydnee Monday, an assistant editor at Kokila Books, came to New York from Maryland after working in Washington, D.C. She says that, though Washington’s cost of living is fairly similar to New York’s, working in publishing in New York brings extra costs, such as “publishing-adjacent social things that you need to do to kind of stay in the know. That costs money!”
Since BIPOC professionals rarely find people like themselves at industry events, groups such as POC in Publishing and Latinx in Publishing have organized gatherings. The creation and maintenance of these networks remain unpaid and typically unrecognized labor. “It’s still work that people have to do to really build community outside of their work,” Monday says.
In Ledbetter’s article, an unnamed Latina publishing worker said, “You can’t get into the industry unless you know somebody, and people know people like themselves.” Literary agent Linda Camacho, speaking with PW, agrees. “Every job I ever got in publishing was by knowing someone,” she says.
This sentiment was expressed by nearly every person interviewed for this piece, and most also argued that publishers should find ways to widen their recruiting practices in order to diversify their workforce. Monday suggests that publishers could begin by “looking for English scholars around the country that attend HBCUs and other programs.”
And when BIPOC professionals do find work in the industry, they face additional pressures. Often, the task of diversifying publishers’ lists falls to editors of color, allowing white editors to ignore that responsibility. Amanda Ramirez, Simon & Schuster Children’s Books associate editor, says, “I approach it in a way like, what can I, as one person, do? Because the second I start thinking about how we have to mobilize and be a driving force, I’m like, ‘That’s exhausting.’ And the more exhausted I get, the less work that I am able to do.”
This is not to say that the much-needed recent launch of BIPOC-led imprints such as Kokila, Heartdrum, and Joy Revolution isn’t promising. But the industry has to ask itself why there wasn’t a space for the sort of books these revolutionary imprints publish in the trade’s already-existing imprints. Meanwhile, most of the faces of these imprints are consultants for publishers and not necessarily full-time workers. Publishers often fail to support employees who work on projects that can bring in diverse voices. Perez-Hernandez says that when she started acquiring books at Kensington, she “only joined social media to be visible because I was marginalized.” She adds, “I basically had to really put myself out there, and really bang on the steel drum to be seen,” in order to have more agents and writers send her submissions.
Ramirez says that if a publisher can claim its numbers, in terms of BIPOC representation in their company, look great compared to everyone else’s, “then it sort of gives specific corporations the permission to become stagnant.” Because of this phenomenon, workers of color, even though overworked and underpaid, will also struggle to be given the same opportunities to advance in their respective departments and thus gain the confidence needed to succeed with their projects.
In order for publishing to move forward, publishers must have BIPOC professionals not just in the visible positions, from editors to v-ps, but those working behind the scenes to get books into the hands of readers. “There is also a need to diversify other departments, too, including marketing, publicity, sales, and management,” says Jalissa Corrie, Lee & Low Books’ marketing and publicity manager. “Because people think of authors and editors first when they think of publishing, calls to diversify other levels and areas in publishing can sometimes get lost.”
These issues, still here 25 years after Ledbetter’s article, are clearly systemic. However, they can be changed not just with appropriate conversation and action, but with flexibility of where and how these discussion are being held. “The truth is, publishing is a business, and just like any business, it has its faults,” says Zakiya Jamal, social media manager at Scholastic. “I think what social media does is allow all of us to talk about those issues honestly in a way that hasn’t really been done before.”
In addition to diversifying, publishers need to examine practices that maintain white dominance within them—such as corporate speak and passive-aggressive communications—and help BIPOC professionals overcome their fear of stepping over the line and offending their white peers. These practices leave their marks on those who, for the longest time, weren’t welcomed by the industry.
That there are still any BIPOC publishing professionals at all is remarkable, and the reasons many remain have little to do with publishers themselves. Rather it is the mutual support networks that keep them in the business.
“Obviously, things can be better,” Ramirez says, “and things can always be worse, as we have been witnessing. But the fact that some people in positions of power are actively working to make it better—it’s always really nice to see because you can say, ‘That’s the person I want to follow.’
Shelly Romero is a children’s book editor and writes Ghoul Gal, a horror pop-culture newsletter on Substack. Adriana M. Martínez Figueroa is a Puerto Rican writer, editor, and sensitivity reader.