Independent Presses Not Immune to Diversity Problems that Plague the Rest of the Publishing Industry

(Photo: Belladonna)
(Photo: Belladonna)

Publisher’s Weekly released the unfortunately not so surprising, but nonetheless horrifying, results of their 2014 survey of attitudes, wages, and demographics amongst 800 publishing professionals. When the results came to light a few weeks back, we not only found out that women (who by the way make up the vast majority of the industry, at 74% of employees) continue to make far less than their badly outnumbered male counterparts, but now we’re totally assured that people of color are vastly underrepresented in the industry, if not close to nonexistent. Just one percent of respondents indicated they are African-American, three percent selected Asian, and another three percent marked Hispanic.

But we thought it might be safe to assume that smaller presses might somehow be immune to this failure. After all, many of the problems plaguing big publishing are not issues of great importance for small-run publishing operations.

On Monday, Gawker noted a discussion between their contributor Kiese Laymon, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, Harmony Holiday, and Chris Jackson– all writers who happen to be people of color. The conversation reveals the kinds of obstacles faced by men and women of color in the the whiter-than-white publishing world and what it’s like navigating a notoriously cutthroat industry.

Christopher Jackson further confirmed our assumptions that small, independent presses are not only more accessible to authors of diverse backgrounds (i.e. less stuffy and white), but more likely to be staffed and run by people of color:

“In the 1990s, there was a lot more talk about increasing diversity, particularly in terms of race […] since that time, publishers have largely pretended that issues of inclusiveness and diversity don’t exist,” Jackson argued. “That said, I think there’s a lot of exciting work being done in other forms of media, particularly digital media and independent publishing. And gigantic publishers are just missing out.”

Belladonna, an organization based in New York City, has a publishing operation that, compared to huge, corporate publishing houses is quite small– the press generally prints 1,000 copies per edition per title.The small-run press, which also organizes a feminist avant-garde reading series, has been around for 15 years, and throughout its existence has published a diverse group of authors from all kinds of backgrounds. “We realized a lot of the books we were publishing were from people of color, because their work tended to be more radical and they’re less recognizable,” Rachel Levitsky, the founder of the series, explained. “It’s also about who gets to be published–all of these women of color, who we’ve been loving and going to their readings and panels for years, didn’t have books.”

Levitsky pointed out that Belladonna’s “biggest author” is LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, the author of TwERK, a collection of poems published by the press in 2013. “We’ve never seen any of our books sell like that,” Levitsky said.

Even the organizational structure of Belladonna is aimed at inclusiveness. “We’re non-hierarchical, there’s no editor in chief,” Levitsky said. “We have a very horizontal way of doing things, the audience is very much included. It’s not very formal and yet it’s very respectful.”

But when we asked Levitsky if the organization was as diverse as the group of writers Belladonna publishes, she regretted to inform us that: “No, it’s not.” Besides having a wide range of age groups represented, the organization struggles with racial and ethnic diversity. Though the founder said this is something Belladonna is working on. “We are diverse in a lot of ways, and we are very proactive in being diverse– but we’re mostly white,” she said. “But that’s the conversation that we have the most, it’s about making alliances.”

Levitsky said that Diggs is involved in spearheading a way to confront this problem. “She’s been wanting to do an event, actually, and we’ve been talking about it for a year now, where there’s a conversation amongst Black authors who are published by white editors,” Levitsky explained. “Like, what’s up with that? What is the meaning? What are the issues? What are people’s motivations?”

Whereas just over half of respondents in the Publisher’s Weekly survey demonstrated some concern for the issue of diversity, the rest were either “ambivalent” or felt that diversity is not an issue at all. But the fact that Levitsky was readily willing to admit that Belladonna’s staff is mostly white, and promised that her organization is tackling the issue, is perhaps a sign there’s hope for a more equal opportunity at small presses in the near future.


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