Read Between the Racism: The Serious Lack of Diversity in Book Publishing
Unless you're a white guy from Brooklyn, the publishing industry has a huge problem when it comes to representation. But no one is sure how to fix it.
Illustration by Eleanor Doughty
"I woke up one morning, and I was 'diverse,'" says Michael Mejias, a playwright, former agent, and director of the internship program at the Writers House literary agency. He's Puerto Rican and grew up in New York City, the epicenter of a publishing world in which many say this not-so-new buzzword, "diversity," is being redefined as something it's not. Mejias says that we "haven't arrived at language that makes white people comfortable," which is perhaps why this word is sticking around. Yet there is no such thing as a single diverse person, no matter their race, gender, ethnicity, ability, age, sexuality, or other identifiers. Diversity means variety. Just as a nutritionist recommending a varied diet doesn't mean eating a lot of junk and then one apple every day, the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign doesn't recommend a single black author in an array of white trash.
"'Diverse' isn't half as bad as 'multicultural,' which is like saying if it isn't white, it's an undecipherable mass of otherness that we won't even bother to [give] actual cultural identities because they fit so neatly outside our main shelves," says Sonali Dev, author of, most recently, the novel The Bollywood Bride. "Then again," she adds, "maybe 'diverse' is worse because it clumps not just different cultures together but throws different sexualities and everything that's not straight and white into the sidelined mix, too. At least we have labels now, and that means we exist. A foot wedged firmly in the door, and all that."
A foot wedged firmly, but the door is heavy. In early January, the publishing industry was aflutter over the numbers produced by Lee and Low, which calls itself "the largest multicultural children's book publisher in the country." The afluttering wasn't a surprise—the numbers proved a reality that many people working in the publishing industry are aware of—but rather a renewed vow to take a good, hard navel-gaze and figure out what on earth could be done. Before the Lee and Low numbers came out, the literary magazine Tin House published "On Pandering," Claire Vaye Watkins's now-famous, or maybe infamous, lecture-turned-essay about how women writers feel they must pander to men. Although the piece was meant to epitomize the experience of women at large, responses to it quickly shifted from feminist thumbs-up to eyebrow raising at Watkins's assumption that her experience as a white woman—one with a high-powered agent and a publication history—was universal. One stand-out response came from Kavita Das, who has written before about the realities people of color face in the literary world: In her essay, published by VIDA, the organization that conducts an annual "count" of women in the publishing industry, Das examined how Watkins's references to the experiences of women writers of color seemed "hollow," like lip service. Her piece, as well as others, came after the 2015 Man Booker Prize winner Marlon James wrote a Facebook status—which got picked up by the Guardian—that said, basically: Actually, the publishing industry is largely controlled by white women, to whom writers of color must pander. The Lee and Low numbers confirmed James's conviction: 79 percent of the industry overall is white, and 78 percent is female.
It's not that no one is talking about the issue—publishing is an industry made up of people who like to communicate—but they don't really know what to do. The prevailing opinion and general agreement among everyone I spoke to is that most people in publishing are generally liberal and actually see the problems. Becky Cribb, an editor at Austin Macauley Publishers Ltd., a small UK trade publisher, reached out to me to discuss the first impressions she has when receiving submissions. "In terms of gut reactions to submissions at the early stages, the only effect on bias is the quality of the written email or spoken phone conversation," Cribb says. "[Our bias] could fall under class or perhaps country of residence/origin at a push. We tend to receive more 'inappropriate' submissions from men, and therefore we are more likely to be stringent in searching for sexist attitudes, racist terms, extreme viewpoints, libel, or similar from an assumed male author's submission." A white head of a boutique agency representing nonfiction, who wished to remain anonymous, told me that she too sees editors as being generally open-minded. After talking to me, she sent me articles relevant to this piece whenever she came across them—and the fact that she was coming across them meant she was keeping herself informed of the problems minorities face in publishing.
Yet the problem is so systemic, ingrained, and complex that it's hard to decide where to start tackling it. There are various roles and viewpoints that need addressing: authors, agents, editors, and executives. Education invariably looms large over the entire subject, but the lack of opportunities available to certain demographics is an entirely different system and incredibly complicated in itself, smooshing together factors of socioeconomic status, geography, and the identifiers already mentioned.
And it exists in an industry already in crisis. The number of Americans who buy—or even simply read—books has long been in decline. Marketing tactics abound, and don't often work. As the writer Emily Gould pointed out on Twitter after Kim Kardashian's Selfish reported what seemed like mediocre sales: "Reality check to everyone making fun of @KimKardashian for 'only' selling 32k copies of Selfish: that is a shitload of books. Do we have to have the 'most books even the ones "everyone" is talking about only sell a few thousand copies' talk AGAIN?"
"It's really nice seeing people talking about [diversity]," says Lulu Martinez, a publicist at Kensington Books, "but if people went out and purchased books, the story would be different."
While some writers could debate the death of print all day, just as many might respond that the problem is not necessarily the number of diverse books and authors being published, but the critical apparatus that receives them. It is a publicist's job to put books in front of people, to get them coverage in the press—reviews, ads, etc.—but Martinez, who works for several imprints at Kensington, says that she sees the books she represents being marginalized, "only reviewed by a certain type of reviewer and a certain type of media." In other words, people are interested in one type of book—be it historical romances, cooking memoirs, or hefty literary novels by white men—and that's it. This is especially true of Dafina, one of Martinez's imprints. It launched in 2000 and is "the leading publisher of commercial fiction written by and about people of African descent." That this imprint exists is wonderful; that the books emerging from it are being relegated to a niche is not.
Martinez sees the problem, in part, as the labels we give authors. This is ironic, of course, coming from someone working at a press that does exactly that, but here's just one of the many complications: Dafina publishes African American authors, but too often those books sit on shelves surrounded only by other black authors, ghettoized to an "African American Literature" corner of a bookstore or library. They should sit along with the rest of their genre, be that romance, thriller, or literary—but because readers tend to stick to what they know, or so the theory goes, booksellers, looking to do what their job title suggests, perpetuate these unfortunate categories. (Genre is another issue itself, and holds stigmas of its own, but that's a matter for another time.)
It's really nice seeing people talking about [diversity], but if people went out and purchased books, the story would be different.
Nandita Godbole, founder of the blog Curry Cravings and author of two cookbooks, ran into significant resistance when trying to publish her work. She sent her first cookbook, A Dozen Ways to Celebrate, out to agents for a long time before going the entrepreneurial route and publishing it herself. She says that agent after agent liked the first proposal she was sending around, but they kept rebuffing her. She knows this is normal for any author—getting an agent is difficult—but she also saw what seemed like a spate of bullshit in the responses she was getting. According to Godbole, one well-known cookbook agent told her that "she wasn't willing to take on another Indian author because (a) [Godbole] was new to the scene, (b) [Godbole] had a smaller social media footprint that she wanted, and (c) [the agent's] previous ethnic cookbook clients were not doing as well as she had expected." A and b are fine concerns for agents to consider; the fact that Godbole was being lumped in with other Indian authors, her book compared to other so-called "ethnic cookbooks," is less so. There seems to be a Wild West mentality here, as if there's no room at a literary agency for more than one author of color, or for more than one author of each particular color. Meanwhile, agents represent many, many white authors at a time, never seeming to find working with two white authors from, oh, let's say Brooklyn, to be a problem.
Among the literary elite there is also a snobbishness with regards to self-publishing, which is inherently more accessible. Even the kind that Godbole does is considered less than ideal—though she is not working alone, creating instant and generic formatting through a piece of free software on which she then hits publish. If anything, Godbole's type of self-publishing may be scaring publishers, who help nudge along the opinions of the literary elite: Her books are crowdfunded, well-designed, and selling all over the world (she has an interactive map that proves this last point).
Nevertheless, the Big Five—Penguin Random House, Hachette, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, and HarperCollins—is still where it's at in terms of getting maximum exposure, resources, and mainstream acceptance. There are, of course, exceptions—Claudia Rankine's poetry book Citizen came out with Graywolf Press, which is technically a midrange or small press, yet gained widespread notoriety—but ultimately the authors we tend to hear about and whose work is reviewed seemingly everywhere, like the aforementioned Marlon James, publish their books with bigger publishers, more beholden to the increasingly opaque demands of the market.
According to Pew Research Center numbers from October 2015, the average American reads 12 books (in whole or in part) a year. This number skews white, college-educated, and wealthy. Hispanic and black, non-Hispanic people each read eight books a year, and white, non-Hispanic people read 13. Mejias sees this as a real sales issue for publishers. He agrees that people in the industry are all "pretty progressive, [but] they're also keeping score about who's buying books." In other words, they're observing white people as the "consumers of culture." The numbers, he says, make "dollars-and-cents sense." Latinos, for example, aren't buying as many books, so they're not encouraging agents to take on as many Latino authors.
Mejias also sees the situation being such that writers of color aren't allowed to fail the same way white writers are allowed to. If one book by a white author doesn't sell, no one at the publishing house says they shouldn't acquire any books by white authors the next season. But if a book by, for instance, a Puerto Rican author doesn't sell, the publisher may take its sweet time in "taking a risk" on another. There are those writers who have seemingly transcended their background and skin color even though they often address their background and skin color in their literature: Toni Morrison, Junot Diaz, Jhumpa Lahiri, Zadie Smith, and Marlon James, to name a few. They're household names now. But, as Mejias sees it, they're the exception to the rule.
On the other hand, Sulay Hernandez, owner of Unveiled Ink Book Development and a former editor at Kensington Books and Simon & Schuster, doesn't buy the statistics about certain communities purchasing fewer books than others. "Readers buy books. Lots of them every year," she says. With regards to the issue of being allowed to fail, she says, "The majority of books published every year don't actually make a profit for the company. Very few high-profile authors finance the entire operation. So, in that sense, every writer is 'allowed' to fail. And, in fact, most writers do fail."
But Hernandez also admits that "the majority of books that are published in the US are not by people of color. The majority of high-profile authors are not people of color. So what we want is more voices of color being published and more voices of color being published well. And, very importantly, selling well."
The publishing industry is slow on the uptake for a variety of reasons, most of which come down to an apparent fear of change. E-books once terrified publishers, who lamented the certain end of nice-smelling libraries, but now they're embracing them with e-book-only imprints such as Bloomsbury Spark. The issue came to a head in 2014 with the long Amazon/Hachette fight over Amazon's e-book payment policies; even though Hachette won that battle, there are still hang-wringing articles about the pros and cons of e-books. "Publishing companies are incredibly old-fashioned and slow on changing their business models," Hernandez says. "They are creatures of habit. [They] 'market' the same way [they always have]—they take out ads in certain print media, etc. Now, with the advent of social media, the paradigm has certainly shifted."
Hernandez and Mejias agree that it's also important to promote more editors and publishers of color into positions of power on the creative side of the table. Mejias attempts to start this early, through the internship program he started at Writers House. By using his wide-ranging network—he's a person who seems to know everyone and be known by everyone in the industry in return—he helps "the poor brown kid from the Bronx," as he refers to his younger self, get the publishing and agency jobs that have been occupied for so long by middle-class white people.
In other words, Hernandez and Mejias differ on a crucial point: responsibility. It's hard to say whose job it is, in such an interconnected ecosystem, to fix the situation. Another editor I spoke to, Anitra Budd, the first black woman to become an acquiring editor at Coffee House Press and now a freelancer, also wonders how much responsibility people of color have to their own community. Neither she nor Hernandez exclusively acquired books by people of color for their publishers. Budd's last acquisition, for example, was Upright Beasts, the debut short story collection by Lincoln Michel, which made its appearance on countless best-of-2015 lists. Michel is a white cis man.
But Budd also acquired Hold It 'Til It Hurts, a PEN/Faulkner Award finalist by T. Geronimo Johnson, whose latest book Welcome to Braggsville, has also been critically acclaimed. In Johnson's first book, Budd saw a discussion of race that was uncomfortable, new, ambiguous, and nothing like she'd seen before; it changed her. This is what she always looked for in the books she acquired: something that left her changed. Coffee House Press is a non-profit, which means that they have a mission, a board that oversees that mission and the money that goes into it, and a responsibility towards that mission as well as towards sales numbers. Budd sees this model as a compromise, the best way to move the publishing world forward, and definitely better than continuing to wait for the big publishers to catch up.
Budd believes too that writers of color and other minorities shouldn't feel the need to either write about their experiences or to pander to a white audience. Daniel Willis, publisher at Bygone Era Books Ltd., a small publisher dealing only in historical fiction and nonfiction, publishes a Native American author who writes about western Europe rather than about Native culture or traditions—and he firmly believes this is crucial in developing true "diversity," whatever that means.
"Publishing is all about risk," Budd says, and this is true—from the financial risk publishers and agents take on to that of authors choosing to dedicate their lives only to writing; the personal risk that belongs to the trio of author, agent, and editor if a book doesn't sell, because their jobs and reputations may be on the line; and the wider sense of cultural risk, the stories and books that can change people. "There's a big difference between cultural dissemination and sales numbers," Budd believes, and she points to Citizen, by Claudia Rankine, which is unlikely to have gotten a huge advance, as an example. "I mean, my God—it's changing people, it's changing people in front of our very eyes."
There are many things that can and should be done in publishing, programs that are slowly being developed or put into place: paid internships; more opportunities for people of color, people with disabilities, people of different gender identities and sexualities; publicizing these opportunities known outside of elite universities that often have majority-white student bodies; and more. But as Budd says, "it's practically going to take a generation before these changes are implemented."
Budd hasn't given up on this generation, though, or on our times. "At the very least, one thing we all can do and should do is read more," she adds. "That's the very first thing that has to happen."