If there was one clear takeaway from the participating panelists in PEN America’s panel discussion titled "Do Publisher’s Have a Moral Obligation to Diversify American Literature?" it’s that fostering diversity can be as easy or as difficult as it is allowed to be in a publishing ecosystem that has gone unchallenged for so long.
During the town hall held on December 13, moderated by Pen America CEO Suzanne Nossel, author Min Jin Lee, writer and editor Chris Beha, writer, editor and publisher Roxane Gay and publishing veteran Erroll McDonald all shared different takes on systemic issues in the publishing industry—from overpaying for certain titles to low wages for workers.
McDonald framed the conversation from a different lens early on by calling the book publishing a "white supremacist" industry. "And by white supremacist, I mean it caters to a certain consumer that is interested in a certain end product," he explained. "So, we can focus all we want on the gatekeeping, on editorial, but more often than not that effort will simply reinforce the issue because those books will not sell."
McDonald suggested incentives for publishing executives for selling books of a more diverse authorship and focus because good faith efforts have shown to not be working. “I’ve been in this game for exactly 45 years, and I’ve never known publishers not to want to diversify,” he said, later adding, “Publishers need to do what they said they said they were going to do after the murder of George Floyd,” he said. “And they have failed miserably, with the exception of certain token appointments.”
In conversation, Gay questioned the use of "morality" in a business built around profits, and Beha made the distinction between issues of diversity in publishing operations versus diversity of authorship.
The question, "assumes what happens in American Literature is up to the Big Five publishers," Beha explained. "I don't think those of us who care about American Literature should want Big Five publishers to be the custodians of American Literature, I don't think they've proven to be very good at it."
There are independent publishers and bookstores doing work to uplift the work of a more diverse authorship, Beha said, but still the power and influence that the Big Five publishers (Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, Macmillan) wield, which nearly becoming the Big Four, should not be understated said Beha because "what happens at Big Five publishing matters a lot."
PEN America presented the discussion as a reaction to their recent report "Reading Between the Lines: Race, Equity, and Book Publishing," detailing business practices that have kept book publishing overwhelmingly white. The report "sounded the alarm and will continue to sound the alarm about the lack of diversity in publishing," said PEN America president Ayad Akhtar in his opening remarks.
From her experiences as an aspiring author to her experience as a published author, Lee was able to confirm some of the elitist attitudes that plague the publishing industry among its longtime gatekeepers. Gay made reference to these gatekeepers in a point about real solutions the industry can take, such as raising wages, so not only the independently wealthy can afford to work in publishing.
Overall, "It's not rocket science," said Gay. "Truly it’s super, super simple, but publishing simply does not want to make those changes.”
Watch the full discussion below.