Tuesday was the one-year anniversary of the death of George Floyd, and the date's significance was raised several times during the day on panels at the U.S. Book show—including an afternoon session on hiring and prioritizing inclusivity in your workforce. “This is a day about solidarity and mourning, but also about accountability,” said Carrie J. Bloxson, head of diversity and inclusion at Hachette Book Group.
Asked what has been the biggest barrier toward progress in diversifying the book business by Shelly Romero, assistant editor at Scholastic, who served as the moderator for the panel, Bloxson emphasized transparency. She argued that leadership should assume accountability for the work by releasing regular reports of key metrics and impact goals. “It's not to say that there won't be hard truths and revealing information—some things will work and some efforts will not—but being transparent about one's progress against DEI goals will force learnings and, I think, thoughtful dialogue along the way for everyone,” she said. (HBG released its latest report on its diversity efforts earlier this month).
Stacey A. Gordon, author of Unbias: Addressing Unconscious Bias at Work (Wiley), noted that, following Floyd’s murder, many companies, including those in publishing, posted out statements in support of Black Lives Matter, but the biggest barrier to progress has been getting leaders to act on their statements. “My question is, how many of those statements had actual action in them?” Gordon asked. “My question is, how many made good on those promises? How many company leaders who issued statements can remember what that statement is, and if we asked them today, would they know?”
After pointing out that approximately 85% of the membership of the Association of American Literary Agents (AALA) are white, agent Ayesha Pande, owner of Ayesha Pande Literary, said she felt that two of the deepest barriers to diversifying the agency workforce are the inherent bias toward hiring exclusively those with an elite education and the pervasiveness of unpaid internships as a means of training—the latter of which, she added, immediately excludes those who cannot give away their labor. “Another thing is a cliquishness that gives advantage to insiders, people who already know each other through their social networks. Those not inside those networks have a hard time entering those networks.”
Jason Low, publisher of Lee and Low—which has published two Diversity Baseline Surveys, most recently in January 2020—said executives need to “listen differently,” since there is a lot of unfamiliarity about issues of inequality and underrepresentation. “It just wasn’t covered in many people’s formal education or since they left school,” he said. This creates an obstacle of its own, because “there is going to be a lot of uncomfortable stuff coming your way and leaders are not comfortable being uncomfortable.” For real change to happen, “leaders are going to have to get comfortable being uncomfortable.”
Some meaningful, if incremental, change is in progress, but it is slow. Pande – who represents National Book Award winner Ibram X. Kendi, among others—pointed to the development of the group Literary Agents for Change, a charitable non-profit arm of AALA’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee. The group is initially offering four paid internships to candidates from underrepresented communities. In addition, the organization was offering anti-bias training to its members. “We know it is not a long term solution—agents should pay a living wage to interns or do away with the internship model altogether.” She said that the low starting wages in agenting made the profession untenable for many.
Romero said that, when it comes to fomenting change, the burden of educating colleagues on the lack of inclusion and diversity in the workplace unfairly falls on what few BIPOC employees there already are in the workforce. Addressing the issue, she said, should really fall to management. But what can be done?
It starts with leadership “acknowledging the work that is already being done by your BIPOC employees. Making sure you don’t take credit for their work, making sure they are not sidelined,” said Gordon. Bloxson said that, while much of the industry's focus is on recruitment, the industry must also look at retention, which starts with the employee experience: “It’s also important to understand that everyone in the BIPOC community is unique and you need to be able to individualize those conversations.”
Both Pande and Gordon lamented the demise of genuine apprenticeships. “We live in a time when we expect someone to show up knowing everything and we give them nothing. We act like they should be grateful for the scraps of a job,” said Gordon. Pande added that “you are expected to learn by osmosis and standing over someone’s shoulder, but it is incredibly hard to do that when you already feel marginalized and don’t’ have the standing to ask questions.”
Speaking to direct action that is taking place, Shelly Romero cited Simon & Schuster’s new Carolyn Kroll Reidy Memorial Scholarship, which will pay for a diverse candidate to attend the Denver Publishing Institute, but pointed out that "these scholarships are limited to only a couple of recipients and the programs still remain financially inaccessible to many." Jason Low said that his publishing company had established the Lee & Low and Friends Scholarship, which pays for a BIPOC student to attend the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at Simmons University. “But I wonder if the teachers at those programs are themselves diverse,” he said.
Citing her own challenge finding a publisher for her book, Gordon wondered which publisher would rise to become the champion for authors of color. After pointing out that she had only worked in publishing since the start of the year, Bloxson said she was still learning more about the industry, but that Hachette had started a volunteer diversity subcommittee which has worked on strategizing how to recruit BIPOC employees at all levels, from freelancers to management. The committee, she added, is reaching out to candidates who may not have worked in publishing but have adjacent skills. They are employing an adapted version of the National Football League's “Rooney Rule,” which mandates having a BIPOC candidate at every level of the hiring process. “Hopefully, this all represents a step forward,” Bloxson said.