Book publishing is an industry not widely known for embracing change. It’s old school, and it’s frankly a bit curmudgeonly in its insistence that things be done the way they’ve been done for 100-plus years. But in this year of unrest and uncertainty, even change-resistant industries are being called upon and called out.
In the case of publishing, what’s being called out now has been happening in plain sight for years. For too long (forever, really) the decision-makers (gatekeepers, as they’re known) have decided what does and doesn’t get published from both a privileged and white-centric worldview. This has resulted in entire generations raised on books in which the protagonists are only ever white and cisgender, and who look a lot like the people sitting in acquisitions meetings who decided to publish the books in the first place.
In my early years working as a young editor in the Bay Area publishing scene, I was trained to look for what sells, and as such, I was encouraged to lean into my education, my background and my personal experience when deciding what I thought other people would want to read. This subjectivity matters because most of my counterparts in publishing houses across the country looked a lot like me — young, white, educated, from upper-middle-class backgrounds. It’s worth considering the socioeconomic circumstances and family wealth that allow those young people to stay in these jobs in the first place.
In 2018, I moderated a panel about the lack of diversity in publishing, where I listened to Chris Jackson, the publisher and editor in chief of the One World imprint of Random House, talk about how his Black colleagues had been pushed out of the industry for reasons including low pay, microaggressions, lack of representation and not being able to acquire the books they wanted to acquire.
Although I’d been in the industry for nearly two decades by that point, that was the first time I understood the deep loss our entire industry had suffered as a result of systemic and internalized racism. Pushing out ambitious, eager people of color limits what all of us do and don’t read, and the repercussions could potentially have long-lasting and detrimental effects on our culture.
Publishing’s race problems were exposed in new ways in 2020, largely due to our country’s reckoning with race in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death and the subsequent national protests but also because publishers were being called out by an increasingly vocal contingent of interested parties — readers, writers, influencers, authors and publishing professionals themselves.
Last February, Barnes & Noble’s rollout of its “Diverse Editions” in honor of Black History Month was widely criticized as “literary Blackface.” The very fact that these decision-makers thought putting Black faces on the covers of classics written by white authors could or would honor Black history speaks volumes to what happens when decisions are made in a vacuum of white-only experience. Such missteps shine light on the fact that there are not enough people of color in the room where the decisions are made. In June, the #PublishingPaidMe hashtag went viral when writers started sharing their advances, and the stark truth of those numbers showed that writers of color are paid dismally compared to their white counterparts.
The positive effect of these conversations and social media’s power to root them out is that we are already seeing changes in the industry — from companies embracing diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, to commitments being made to hire diverse candidates, to more representative acquisitions decisions. All of these things are good steps forward, but we the public can be more accountable, too. It’s more important now than ever to expand our own reading lists to be more inclusive. Book podcasts, bookstagram and hashtag campaigns such as last year’s #BlackoutBestsellerList, whose goal was to skyrocket Black authors to the bestseller lists last June, are great sources for discovering new books.
Who gets to be heard and why has long been at the center of the debate on the way publishing marginalizes certain voices and communities. And while legacy publishers, such as Random House and Hachette Book Group, have historically been important players in shaping this conversation, today, because of indie and self-publishing, there are more books and more voices than ever. All of us — as community members, as parents, as friends — are influencers in our own right. We are part of this larger conversation about who gets heard and why because we are the readers, the intended target audience. As such, we have a lot of power, but we also bear a responsibility to influence and shape our own futures and those of the next generation by what we choose to read. So cast your net wide, spread the word about books you love and diversify your reading lists. Our future depends on it.