The color of the publishing industry is slowly changing, and Hachette Book Group is continuing to take steps to bring more BIPOC writers to the table in an equitable way. Spearheaded by its new chief diversity officer, Carrie Bloxson, and senior v-p of communication, Sophie Cottrell, HBG sponsored and cohosted a Hurston/Wright Writers Week Workshop retreat for the first time this summer. Started in 1996, the workshop has helped many emerging Black writers develop into award-winning authors. For HBG, cohosting the retreat was an opportunity to amplify the efforts of a long-standing organization that already serves the communities the publisher wants to support. “We certainly didn’t want to start from scratch at Hachette,” Bloxson said of the decision to work with Hurston/Wright, “because we know that there are organizations that are already doing this work.”
Bloxson joined HBG as the company’s first-ever chief diversity officer in February 2021. She was previously interim CEO and chief marketing officer at the social impact–focused DoSomething.org. Before that she spent six years as v-p of marketing at HarperCollins, launching campaigns for various titles—an experience she said informs her strategy in helping HBG better advocate and foster more diversity, equity, and inclusion in publishing. “We really wanted to make a concerted effort to work with communities and organizations that are helping writers of color to drive something measurable and impactful,” Bloxson said. Hachette’s mission and the goals of Hurston/Wright’s board of directors aligned, and “we thought that this workshop would be an excellent example of that to start,” she said.
Hurston/Wright partners with various universities around the country to facilitate its weeklong writers retreats. Writers are admitted based on submissions, with retreat costs varying based on location and room and board. Emerging and mid-career writers in the genres of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry take up residence on campus as retreat participants and are immersed in a week of professional instruction, including feedback on submitted works, writing workshops, and discussions on craft.
Hachette helped sponsor the retreat at Rutgers University in New Jersey and directly funded two emerging writers who attended the retreat as “Hachette fellows.” Hurston/Wright Foundation’s executive director Khadijah Ali-Coleman credited the success of the Rutgers retreat, which had a total of about a dozen participants, to Hachette’s support. “Hachette has always approached us from a place of ‘What can we do to help?’ ” Ali-Coleman said. “The success of this summer program, it’s really been due to that collaborative approach.”
The Hurston/Wright retreat’s “best takeaway” for Hachette fellow Jacqueline Ballantine was “simply being in the room with smart, driven, ambitious writers who were all Black,” she said. “I truly had no idea just how beneficial it was to be in that type of environment.” Her forthcoming novel will explore themes of nontraditional mother figures and colorism.
As part of HBG’s Hachette fellowship, Ballantine and recipient Marrion Johnson were invited to Hachette’s office in New York City to learn more about the book publishing process, from start to finish, and meet departmental editors working on books in their subjects of interest. “I came into the workshop just ready to be accepted,” Ballantine said. The visit to Hachette’s offices “was just the icing on this already beautiful cake.”
In a virtual event, Hachette also invited all Hurston/Wright’s summer retreat participants to a panel discussion detailing how books are acquired, published, and marketed. The aim was to support the writers attending the retreat as well as establish relationships with emerging talent, removing some of the mystery from the publishing process, Bloxson said. Through continued partnerships, she aims to help make Hachette’s DEI efforts “bigger and better.”
“The benchmark here is not super quantitative,” she explained, “because it’s really hard to measure how engaging the experience was—other than making sure that we get candid feedback from fellows and the retreat residents.”
As Hachette’s chief diversity officer, Bloxson’s goal is to hold the publisher accountable to its diversity, equity, and inclusion commitments in a way that promotes equity. “That we live that through not only internally at Hachette but also externally through the communities that we serve,” she said.
It was the third writers retreat for Johnson, but a “pivotal” step in his literary trajectory, he said, to feel witnessed and affirmed by peers who share similar struggles as Black writers. “So that was something that I left with and am holding on to,” he said. “And I hope that we can pass that on to other writers who come next.” Johnson is working on a forthcoming novel that delves into themes of freedom, spiritually and physically, during American slavery entitled The Promised Land.
A new program
Earlier this year, Hurston/Wight named its first novel Writer-in-Residence program recipients, awarding $15,000 sponsored residencies to two writers whose works are poised to make an impact. The residents received room and board, four weeks to focus on their writing, and the opportunity to lead a Hurston/Wright weeklong workshop. As a Writer-in-Residence recipient, multigenre writer Destiny Birdsong taught the retreat at Rutgers.
With input and support from publishers like Hachette, Hurston/Wright’s Writer-in-Residence program was “designed understanding that there are inequities that exist in the publishing industry,” Ali-Coleman explained. “We recognized that one of the major things that facilitates writers to continue writing, but also to move toward publishing, is their access and their connectivity to publishing houses.”
The publishing industry is expanding in a good way, Ali-Coleman said, adding: “We are recognizing that it’s not merely about the inequity in terms of how many Black writers are published, but what types of conversations and relationships are being formed with Black writers, even before it gets to the submission process.”