Publishing professionals from around the country gathered at Hilton Portland Downtown in Portland, Ore., for the annual PubWest conference last week. Running from Feb. 20-22, the trade association’s programming focused on ways to improve access, representation, and diversity in the publishing industry.

PubWest executive director Kent Watson counted 225 attendees (up from 175 last year). Watson was proud that students from Portland State University’s Book Publishing program could join the proceedings this year. “It's important to bring young, new voices into the group,” he said. “We can also learn from them. What information they're looking for, how they want their books delivered, what and who they want to read, and what is really going to spark their interest.”

The “Editorial: Own Voices” panel opened programming on Friday, engaging with the #OwnVoices debate sparked by the release of Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt earlier this year. The session name referred to a popular social media hashtag (first credited to the YA author Corinne Duyvis) supporting books whose protagonist shares the author’s identity. "Small presses have been doing this work for decades, long before the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag came along,” said Jessica Powers, founder of Catalyst Press and an editor and publicist at Cinco Puntos Press. “Small presses have an advantage because we're smaller, more flexible, and we're outside of the New York bubble,” she said.

Steve Wasserman, the publisher of Berkeley’s Heyday and a veteran literary agent and editor, agreed that small presses will help change the conversation, but objected to restricting the kinds stories writers are allowed to tackle. “The whole point of literature is to reward the genius time travelers who seek to imagine themselves into the lives of others,” he said. “So as to arouse in readers the idea that you too could vicariously, having grasped their extending hand, travel with them on a journey to meet people who are not in your community.”

Friday’s keynote tackled the subject of representation head-on, as literacy advocates shared strategies for making sure the next generation of writers includes people from all backgrounds. “Writing is a powerful tool that can change the professional and academic trajectory of lives, but it is not distributed equitably across the United States,” said Laura Brief, CEO of 826 National, a nonprofit that teaches creative writing to 80,000 students around the country. “Reading is access, but writing is power. Writing influences whose voices are represented in our books, whose voices are represented in the boardroom and policymaking tables,” said Brief.

Saturday’s keynote focused on “Reader Engagement,” a key topic for publishers navigating the post-#OurVoices environment. “The U.S. is becoming increasingly more racially, ethnically diverse and people are hungry to see themselves represented in media,” said Charlotte Abbott, the keynote speaker and founder of FutureProof Content Strategy. “These young readers and writers, if they don't get what they want from traditional publishers, they are ready, willing and able to bypass all of us to go out and make the change they want to see.”

Every year, PubWest gives the Jack W. Swanson Scholarship so one young publishing professional can attend the conference free of charge. This year, Leah Hernandez won the award for founding Young Authors Publishing, a children's book publisher that shares stories from underrepresented communities around the country. Heyday founder and publisher Malcolm Margolin received the annual Jack D. Rittenhouse Award, an annual honor recognizing “an important contribution to the Western community of the book.” The legendary publisher earned two standing ovations for his work at the Berkeley press he founded in 1974.“Look for the strengths in a manuscript,” he said, sharing advice for the next generation of publishing professionals assembled in the room. “Build around the strengths, rather than the faults.”

PubWest shared the Hilton with the annual ComicsPRO convention, an annual meeting for the trade organization for direct market comic book retailers. Book Industry Charitable Foundation (BINC) programs director Kit Steinaway attended both conferences. “In 2019, we helped 47% more booksellers than we helped 2018. And it looks like it's going to be the same or more for [this] year,” she said. “It's mostly medical-related. But there are a lot of housing-related issues on the West Coast because housing prices are rising.”

PubWest board member Arielle Kesweder said that conversations about the representation of diverse voices in publishing would continue at next year’s conference. “We're aware of the climate in which we are existing,” said Kesweder, the chair of the organization’s diversity committee. We want to be open about it and we want to open up those discussions.”

PubWest 2021 will be held in Denver, Colo. from February 4-6.