By: Yasmeen Amjad
May 29th, 2023
This article is part of our Winter 2023 magazine. Click here to read the full edition.
Most people pick up a book to escape into a new world, form connections with characters, or learn about a new topic. They see themselves in the stories they read or connect with the author. That is, unless one is in a minority group. Most of their reading experience is spent on the outskirts of foreign land while they watch the hero, who is often a white, cis-gendered man, save the village. But it’s unclear where the stories are for other demographics.
Book publishing is predominantly white—from corporate employees, to authors and characters. Publishing has long since been a field for white, cis-gendered and heterosexual people to share their stories. However, conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) are quickly making their rounds and gaining more importance.
Lee and Low Books, a medium-sized publishing company focusing on diversity in children’s books, conducted surveys in both 2015 and 2019 on diversity within the industry. This survey first covered the “Big 5” (Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Macmillan and Hachette Book Group) and major review journals in 2015, then added academic press and literary agencies in 2019.
In 2015, the overall industry was dominated by white, cis-gendered, heterosexual and able-bodied women. Four years later, statistics remained almost identical, despite the addition of academic presses and literary agencies to the survey.
The few improvements made to the industry’s demographics occurred at the top. Here, Lee and Low found that about 60% of individuals at the executive level were still predominantly white, cis-gendered, heterosexual and able-bodied women. This was a significant drop from 2015, when approximately 80% of the executive team fell into those categories.
Despite the industry being female-dominated, a majority of male employees find themselves in decision-making roles, holding more power and responsibility. This has been the experience of Catherine Cocks, the Interim Director and an acquisitions editor at the Michigan State University Press (MSU Press).
Throughout her career, she has noticed a pattern. She says, “most of the early-career and mid-career people are female, and then most of the men in publishing are at the top … but that is definitely a thing that I think pretty much every woman in the industry faces and that’s not specific to publishing.”
Despite the pattern of gender and power, Cocks mentions that her male bosses have been “pretty supportive of [her] and of [ her] interest in learning more and gaining more responsibility.” Cocks luckily found supportive mentors, but for many looking to break into the industry, finding a program to help develop these types of relationships can be crucial to career development.
After building her knowledge of editing, acquisitions editor at MSU Press Caitlin Tyler-Richards, got “the Mellon University Press Diversity Fellowship [which] opened a lot of doors for [her]. It provided access to a level of mentorship and a type of network that a lot of other women and people of color don’t get access to if they try to break into publishing.”
Other fellows in her program; however, shared a common concern about the treatment they received. Rather than having their working knowledge of editing and the industry acknowledged, many were treated like interns with little to no knowledge or experience within the field. Contrary to this experience, Tyler-Richards’ was quite positive and she was able to take her new found knowledge to the next level at MSU Press.
The two editors have made drastic improvements in DEI-related issues at the press. When looking for new hires, Tyler-Richards took the time to write job descriptions that were anti-racist and focused more on candidate experience, knowledge and ability, rather than their degrees, connections and other demographics. The pair also focuses on who their senior editors, authors and peer reviewers are.
In her interview, Tyler-Richards explains that, “with any project [MSU Press] acquires within [a certain community], [they] make sure that the project is peer-reviewed by a member of that community, or at least try very hard [to]. For instance, if a project centers around Zimbabwe, the peer reviewer will ideally be based in Zimbabwe.” Additionally, the pair makes a point to ask reviewers if a work cited the appropriate people, ensuring that a project accurately depicts said culture or group.
Commercial publishing, on the other hand, has larger budgets and thus can do more visual changes compared to a small, scholarly press like MSU’s. For example, larger publishers, like Penguin Random House and the Hachette Book Group, are changing the hiring process and incorporating anti-racist training to foster a more inclusive workplace. Some companies even make donations to organizations such as We Need Diverse Books and the Equal Justice Initiative.
The lack of diversity internally is mirrored in published and bestselling authors. In an article published by The New York Times, it was found that 11% of fiction books published in 2018 were written by authors of color, just 10% shy of Lee and Low’s percentage of people of color in the industry overall. A similar pattern occurred from the late ‘60s to early ‘80s, when Toni Morrison was an editor at Random House.
During Morrison’s time at Random House, “3.3 percent of the 806 books published by Random House” were written by Black authors. However, once Morrison left, numbers dropped significantly, with just two books out of 512 being written by Black authors in 1990.
In 2020, books by authors of color began to climb the bestsellers lists around the same time as social and civil rights movements–such as Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate–gained momentum after an onslaught of hate crimes took place over the summer. This seems to be a trend within the industry:support of minority authors often follows the news cycle.
These social justice movements also lead to several social media trends surrounding diversity in publishing, the most notable hashtags being #publishingpaidme and #diversifyyourshelves. The #publishingpaidme trend was created with the intention to expose racial pay disparities in the industry.
In support, many white authors hopped on the trend, revealing that they were paid thousands of dollars more than their counterparts in minority groups. For example, debut author Mandy Len Catron shared on twitter that she, a white woman, was paid more than double in an advance than renowned author of color, Roxane Gay. Due to the outrage on social media, publishing houses released statements announcing that they stood against racism.
The second trending hashtag #diversifyyourshelves focuses on consumers’ actions, rather than publishers. The goal of this hashtag is to encourage readers to read more diversely and with intention. Support for these hashtags hold publishers, and readers, accountable for improving diversity in books and the field overall.
This is just the beginning of the progress surrounding DEI in publishing. Change is happening through the initiatives and actions of bibliophiles everywhere, and people seem to be noticing. Catherine Cocks notes “[there’s] a lot more commitment … to ensuring that that kind of diversity is a central part of what we do.” As a result, the publishing industry is on its way to becoming an equitable field for everyone.
Yasmeen (Yazzy) Amjad is a senior pursuing degrees in psychology and professional and public writing. She hopes to use her knowledge of rhetoric and psychology to effectively edit and write stories. Yazzy is passionate about all forms of storytelling. In her free time, she enjoys baking, watching movies and TV shows, listening to podcasts, and reading for hours on end.