Twenty-five years ago, trade publishing was approximately 93% Caucasian and university press publishing about 99%; at the managerial level, 3.4% of all publishing employees were Black and 1.8% were Hispanic, according to Federal figures.
Whenever I visited publishing houses in the early 2000s, reception and mailrooms were overwhelmingly staffed by minorities, calling into question even the relevance of the above percentages. As recently as 2016, Publishers Weekly published an article with the declarative title of “Why Publishing Is So White” citing Lee & Low Books’ “Diversity Baseline Survey,” which highlighted the lack of racial diversity in book publishing, which was then 79% white. Six years later, such a headline would be an overstatement.
I would like to think that the 1997 launching of the Publishing Certificate Program at the City College of New York (on the initiative of bestselling author Walter Mosley) sparked the start of the movement to redress these inequities. At the same time, senior editors perhaps recognized they were publishing more and more minority authors, but their marketing, publicity, and sales departments might not know how to get these titles into the hands of new readers and communities. It was obvious that something had to change if publishers were to take part in building a more equitable multicultural and multiracial society.
We received generous financial support from Random House; Little, Brown; Harcourt; Scholastic; Norton; Penguin; and Time Warner to start the program at City College. What we discovered immediately was that we could train our mostly diverse students, but we couldn’t get them placed into internships or entry-level positions. The CEOs wanted change, but the departments (editorial, in particular) were interested in hiring people of their own background, even when HR managers urged departments to look beyond their traditional “comfort zone.”
George Floyd’s murder and the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement shook the publishing industry out of its sleep, even in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. Almost from day one, diversity (or the lack of it) and pay parity for minority employees moved from being ancillary issues to being essential for the survival of publishing in an ever-changing society. According to Penguin Random House’s 2021 annual report, 52% of new hires are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) at what can now be characterized as living wages. This is a salutary development; now, some argue, increasing the number of nonbinary and gender-nonconforming employees is the next equity frontier.
I have been impressed by the number of publishers that have contacted us in the last year, asking for advice and offering our graduates mentoring and paid internships. We have developed strong relationships with Princeton University Press, Workman, Bloomsbury, Cedar Grove Books, and Macmillan. Through the persistence of Viking Penguin’s Brian Tart, PRH established a novel, rigorous, and varied program that has benefited 50 of our students. And we just signed an agreement with HBGUSA to start a two-year pilot associate program beginning June 2022 that will offer one CCNY PCP graduate a 12-month position at a very competitive salary, with a $3,000 extra stipend for incidentals, and a year of mentoring. Black Lives Matter strengthened long-standing relationships with the Women’s Media Group, Above the Treeline Edelweiss, and the Association of American Literary Agents and its nonprofit Literary Agents of Change, which will increase opportunities not only for our graduates but also for minorities nationally interested in entering publishing.
In all honesty, I have been a skeptic of change. In the past, publishers “talked the talk,” but didn’t really see the issue of diversity as fundamental and necessary. Money was proffered, there was a smattering of opportunities. Now, finally, I am noticing that publishers big (PRH, HBGUSA) and small (Astra House, Bellevue Press, Seven Stories) are proudly “walking the walk.” This may be a response to the insistence of powerful Facebook organizations such as People of Color in Publishing (1,100 members), https://www.facebook.com/pocpub, and LatinX in Publishing (1,700 followers), https://www.facebook.com/latinxpublishing, that are challenging the status quo.
Publishing is at a significant turning point, and I can only hope that the energy and commitment I now see will lead to real change for years to come.
David Unger is director of the Publishing Certificate Program at the City College of New York.