Covid-19 pandemic and the 2020 election turbulence have lately overshadowed the urgent issues of social and economic justice that dominated headlines following the death of George Floyd last spring. But religion and spirituality publishers remain aware of the need to diversify an overwhelmingly white industry.
In November, PW asked major Evangelical trade houses and the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association about their policies and practices, Now, PW has called on a sampling of mainline Christian, Catholic, and spirituality publishers to ask about their efforts toward an inclusive workforce.
All say they are working to bring forward more titles by Black, Latinx, Asian American, and indigenous authors. But that may be the easier part of the equity equation. The greater challenge is in hiring people of color who may bring fresh perspectives and sensitive insights to publishing, editing, and marketing to all their titles.
Red Wheel Weiser, based in a seaport town on the Massachusetts coast, has 26 employees — few of color — although “in recent years, we have had a lot of internal discussion and debate about how to be more inclusive,” says associate publisher Peter Turner. Such efforts raise questions not easily answered or resolved by loading up an acquisitions list with minority authors. Questions Turner raises include: "Is our process of acquiring books in some way exclusionary? Should we seek out and prioritize POC authors or should we judge submissions strictly based on the merit of content? What about spiritual or religious books? Is it cultural appropriation if someone who is not personally from that particular tradition writes a book on it? Take Buddhism, for example. What about all the Buddhist teachers in this country who are white, not Asian?
Hurdles to Good Intensions
"So much has to do with your intentions and motivations,” Turner says.
Publishers try to keep such concerns in mind as their good intentions bump into tight budgets, small staffs, lack of attrition, high competition for talent, fear of tokenism, and the need to develop a rich, respectful culture within their company.
Aligning the workplace with the mission of the company was a goal for Sounds True associate publisher Jaime Schwalb a year before the tumultuous 2020. “Our mission statement is ‘To wake up the world,’ and part of our obligation is to create an equitable and inclusive spiritual and wellness publishing world. I want us to really show up for authors and employees, to ensure we welcome people into a place that is welcoming and authentic.”
In 2019, Sounds True established a budget for diversity and inclusion training and began a search for the right organization to lead it. Last year, the publisher brought in Tiffany Jana, founder of TMI Consulting, a diversity and inclusion management consulting firm, and co-author of several books on defeating systemic bias in corporations and changing workplace culture. Jana’s latest book, co-authored with social scientist Michael Baran, was Subtle Acts of Exclusion: How to Understand, Identify, and Stop Microaggressions (Berrett-Koehler, March 2020). Now, Sounds True has embarked on a multi-year program training and hired several sensitivity readers as well.
Schwalb points out, “The publishing world and spirituality titles have centered on white voices. Sounds True is trying to be a home for BIPOC authors. I want us to publish and market all kinds of authors and do it in a sensitive way. We want to work with authors who give respect to the cultures they have learned from, that they are responsible and reverent, and that, in turn, people in those cultures recognize and support these authors.”
But she’s not taking any bows for their efforts. Schwalb says, “As a white publisher who supports a lot of people with privilege, we have to address how have we contributed to the pain of others and what can we learn from these times. We don’t want to self congratulate. We didn’t dismantle 400 years of history here. There’s so much work to be done.”
Casting a wide net
Like Schwalb, Shambhala publisher K J Grow says her company, which focuses on transformational spirituality and Buddhism, was already working to expand acquisitions before the spotlight flashed on diversity in 2020. “We are proud that 44% of our contributors (authors, illustrators, photographers) for books publishing in 2021 are non-white. This represents a 20% increase from 2019 and 2020.”
Shambhala is based in Colorado and for a company with very little turnover in a city that is 80% non-Hispanic white, hiring called for a new level of creativity to add diversity. Grow says an internal committee is working with hiring managers on “best practices for language in job postings, increasing diversity in where we post, and considerations around required experience and skill set… to cast the widest net and attract a diverse pool.”
Shambhala and the Denver Publishing Institute are “co-hosting a scholarship opportunity for BIPOC applicants. This way, we hope, the pipeline of entry-level candidates who demonstrate an interest in working in publishing can become more diverse,” Grow says. “The surprising upside of the pandemic forcing everyone to adapt to remote work is that it has opened up the possibilities in (hiring), so we’re hopeful that we’ll start to see some shifts in our candidate pool.”
The new age spirituality specialty house Inner Traditions also faces the challenge of location. John Hays, v-p and director of sales and marketing, says, “We stand firmly in the anti-racist camp and try to be aware of our biases and strive for diversity in our acquisitions.” However, diversifying the workforce is difficult because, he says, “We are in Vermont, a very white place. We only have 35 people and there’s not a lot of turnovers. I’m the newbie here after 12 years.”
At Paulist Press the obstacle is also location but for a different reason. The press is based in New York City where fierce competition for talent drives salary expectations beyond the reach of the Catholic non-profit publishing house with 35 employees, says publisher Mark-David Janus. “Salary is a big issue. Good talent should go where the money goes and we can’t compete on that front.”
Janus’ workaround on that is to present opportunities like a realtor promoting a “starter house” to a young first-time buyer. When he’s prospecting for hires, his pitch is “Start with us, get into the industry, and move up to more money later," he says. "We talk to theology graduate students and faculty who might want to teach but can’t find jobs. We put a bug in their ear — ‘Consider us for now. See if you’re a fit for publishing.’ And we are consciously publishing more books aimed at minority audiences so people see us. We’re signaling as much as we can.”
Hosffman Ospino, associate professor of theology and religious education at Boston College, has spoken several times to Catholic publishing groups including Paulist Press on the intricacies of drawing authors and employees from a Hispanic-American world that is far from monolithic. They can’t just get by with importing and translating books from Mexico or Spain, he says, “when it’s different to be a Hispanic Catholic in California, or New York or Wyoming.”
Even as they struggle to reach “an elusive audience,” Ospino tells Catholic publishers that for hiring, “they need to be more intentional in cultivating a generation of editors. Invest in the young. Offer scholarships in Catholic universities. Cultivate these students. Invest in mentoring. And don’t limit people with the false assumption that if you are white, you can speak, write or edit about the entire tradition whereas you can’t if you are Black or Hispanic.”
No Openings —Yet
A new or small imprint can benefit from programs, policies, and hiring practices developed by the larger house. St. Martin's Essentials is a mind-body-spirit publisher under the umbrella of Macmillan. LaToya Rose, Macmillan's v-p, Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion said in a statement shared with PW that the house created a cross-departmental trade management committee to set the goals and objectives. In January, they launched “a 12-month diversity, equity, and inclusion program, formed employee resource groups, raised entry-level salary, and launched a remote internship program “to build a more robust and inclusive candidate pool partnering with not-for-profits, community-based groups, and university career centers.”
At New World Library, editorial director Georgia Hughes says she scouts online resources, periodicals, and other publications, “hoping to find ethnically diverse writers and speakers who might be interested in writing a book.” And Hughes takes the same active approach to her effort to diversify the staff of 16. But she hasn’t had a job opening in three years and relies on freelancers to handle design, copy-editing, and proofreading. Still, Hughes reaches out to networks such as PubWest and Publishing Professionals Network, invites students and job hunters to have informational visits at their Marin County offices across the bay from San Francisco, and holds online seminars as well.
So far, no hires — yet, says Hughes, undaunted.