What Comes Next?: 23 Steps Toward Ending Publishing’s Diversity Problem

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I asked every person I spoke to for “‘You Will Be Tokenized’: Speaking Out About the State of Diversity in Publishing” what could be done about publishing’s monoculture. I got a range of answers, as I summarized in my introduction, from “urge the existing publishing industry to change” to “dismantle capitalism.” The most practical answer is likely somewhere in the middle—neither a painless change of heart nor a truly radical overhaul. Models for change already exist within the book world: We Need Diverse Books in particular is a powerful and inspiring agent of progress; the practical value of a database like writersofcolor.org is obvious; BuzzFeed’s Emerging Writers Fellowships puts money where the media organization’s values are. What follows is an aggregated list of “actionable items” both from the group of 50 writers and professionals I spoke to and from beyond. Neither exhaustive nor authoritative, it is a place to start. (Add your own suggestions in the comments!) Take out something to write with, decision makers, and start taking notes.

Pay your interns. Pay your interns. Pay your interns.

Offer entry-level salaries that allow your employees to live in the place where they work and maybe pay off a little of their student loans.

Institute formal, friendly policies for flexible schedules and working remotely.

If you are an agent, an editor, a critic, a bookseller, a librarian—it is YOUR JOB to find a diverse array of writers and books. If you find yourself only representing, editing, reviewing, buying, or displaying one kind of book from one kind of author—you have failed. It is your responsibility, and yours alone, to fix it.

Looking for excellent writers from diverse backgrounds but aren’t finding any? You are looking in the wrong places. Choose a different conference, pick up a different literary magazine, find a different review publication. In the meantime you can look here too: writersofcolor.org

Looking for excellent employees from diverse backgrounds but only white/cis/straight/wealthy people are applying? You are advertising in the wrong places. Consider creating a fellowship for employees from underrepresented communities. Try setting up an internship program with an HBCU. Actively reach out to professional or advocacy organizations like the Asian American Writers Workshop or Lambda Literary. Build partnerships. Get on some listservs.

Assessing many writers of color or job candidates of color but not finding anyone—not one—who meets your standards? You should probably reassess your standards. Write them down, share them, try and figure out what isn’t working. Because standards that are met only by one kind of person from one kind background aren’t working.

Try not to be defensive. You are the person in power here.

Trying is not doing. Doing is doing.

If your company values diversity, make it a priority. In writing. Commit to hiring and acquiring a certain number of underrepresented candidates and writers. Establish and enforce real consequences when those standards are not met.

Every time you call in your former professor’s favorite student for an interview, bring in three candidates whose resumes don’t look like yours.

If you are a white person, ask other white people what they are doing about diversity. Embarrass them, encourage them, persuade them, sell them. Race is a part of your life every day: acknowledge it. Then work on it.

Stop putting headless women on covers. Stop putting that one tree on covers. Stop putting white people on covers of books about characters of color.

Shelve every work of literary or commercial fiction, regardless of the author, in the fiction section. See also: politics, biography, romance, and so on.

Amplify the voices of people from underrepresented communities who speak out. Support them. Respect those who choose to remain silent. Support them.

Pay people with equivalent experience and job titles the same amount of money.

Create formal mentorship programs for entry level employees from marginalized communities.

Make all jobs, contracts, and awards available to undocumented immigrants.

Ask emerging writers from marginalized communities to participate in your residency committee, to judge your contest, to sit on your panel. Ask emerging writers from marginalized communities to talk about everything, not just their marginalization. Ask about plot. Ask about character. Ask about ~the craft~.

If you are publishing ten books about World War II, maybe publish only five. Give the remaining five contracts to histories that have not yet been published: a history of indigenous peoples written by an indigenous person for indigenous people.

Make books that aren’t for white people.

Give money to writers and employees of color. Give money to indigenous writers and employees. Give money to queer writers and employees. Give money to writers and employees who are disabled. Give money to trans writers and employees. Give money to writers and employees who come from poverty. Give it to them in the form of book contracts and salaries. This is in exchange for their labor. This is an investment.

Listen.

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17 COMMENTS

  1. Who SAYS that the lack of diversity is a PROBLEM? The market will bear what the market calls for. Perhaps minorities should start writing about subjects, topics and themes that ALL people can relate to instead of the same worn out racial topics.

  2. From a comment on the Lee and Low diversity survey: Not such a shocker at the lack of diversity. Applicant socioeconomic status is a big issue for a job that pays poorly but is highly competitive. If a person is of color, good with words, and of sufficient baseline academic achievement that a Big Six-plus publisher is willing to consider him or her, there are many other far better paying options that will be wide open. I would think that if Hachette paid its editors even half of what American Express, General Motors, or 3M pays its corporate communications staff, or even 80% of some government positions, you’d see whole lot more publishing houses with a whole lot more non-white staff. The money mean that people with stronger SES will be more likely to take publishing jobs.

    What is being attributed here to racism may be better attributed economics and the sociology. While there are always exceptions, I bet Scholastic isn’t getting all that many applicants from high-achieving rural white kids with laborer parents that don’t own their homes. If those kids are strong enough to qualify to be a Scholastic editor, they’re going to be wooed by higher paying jobs, too. Who could blame them for taking them?

    Gjdagis is right about this implication: there would be a whole lot more minorities in publishing if there the buying public supported the books being produced that featured non-white characters and non dominant culture subjects. Seriously. McDonald’s has no stake (no pun intended) in hamburgers. They’d sell kale everything if the market were there for it. Same thing with for-profit publishers. (Not university presses, which would be fascinating to survey to see if they also fit the same white-female-dominated mold). If a much, much larger number of bookbuyers in America were African-American, Latino, Muslim, GLBTQ+, Native American, and people with disabilities, there’s be SO many more writers and editors of those group. Look at the facts. America women are massive bookbuyers. Guess what the publishing industry is dominated by? Not men.

    That a disparity or anomaly may have racial, religious, or other class-based characteristics does not automatically make it a matter of prejudice. Other explanations need to be ignored. Yes. It sometimes is race. But it’s not always.

    • Anonymous, your argument is so chicken-and-egg that it trails off into irrelevance. At best it adds up to: There are no books, so there are no readers; there are no readers,so there are no books. Do you believe that the POC writers who’ve answered McArdle’s survey are simply answering individualistically? Has it not occurred to you that they might be arguing for the need — in a democratic society configured as ours is — to muster the will and imagination tto break into that cycle, even if arbitrarily? YOU do the math. You know a lot of facts, so you must know what such an effort would require. If your only response is, That would not be economicaly feasible, then please do everyone the favor of not kidding yourself as to what that response means for the culture as a whole. Your exposition was so tone-deaf, I wondered. . . When you said “America[n] women are massive bookbuyers.” did you mean white women? Because that’s who dominates the publishing industry. And then I wondered. . . Did you not get the respondent who indicates what it might mean for a black woman not to find printed erotica that reflects her? But there’s so much you don’t get here.

  3. For white people of color to say there is no problem is truly laughable. As a POC writer and lit mag editor, I have experienced the problem first hand. It’s not the POC write only about race/culture, but that agents and publishers only want to see them write specific, stereotypical characters and storylines. If a POC wants to write about a topic seen as “white” or wants to explore more nuanced narratives rather than stereotypical ones, their manuscripts are rejected as not appealing to the market.

    • Really? Your assertions about writers of color being pigeonholed into stereotypical storylines are not supported by the data. The latest CCBC data indicates that there were 154 books for children by Asian writers, while there were only 105 books by writers of ALL colors (including Asian) about Asian subjects. Even the most ardent multiculturalist can do the math and see that the pigeonhole assert has no basis in fact. These Asan writers’ manuscripts on other subjects were ACCEPTED, not rejected.

      https://ccbc.education.wisc.edu/books/pcstats.asp

  4. White people, please stop whining about how PoC “only write about race,” as if white people with power in publishing aren’t the ones REQUIRING that PoC do so if they want to get published. PoC are regularly rejected if their manuscripts aren’t ethnic enough or don’t fit into the one or two stories white people think that PoC are relevant in, like civil rights or slavery or being a geisha.

    Not to mention that white people write about race all time – the simple fact of writing and never engaging with race at all is the ultimate example of white privilege and white supremacy. The rest of us can’t ignore our race.

    • At least in children’s books, the data does not support your allegation.

      Asian writers especially are having no issues writing outside of the phantasmagorical “geisha” ghetto that some believe exists. Look at the CCBC data and you’ll see that there are many more Asian authors who have been published in children’s lit in the last year than there were books on Asian subjects.

      https://ccbc.education.wisc.edu/books/pcstats.asp

      As for PoC authors being rejected? ALL authors get rejected at rates far beyond their being accepted. Even JK Rowling did. Til she got accepted.

      • “All authors get rejected.” Gee, I had no idea. Not the point. The reality is still that PoC authors are more often rejected, even if it’s for the same mediocre stuff that white authors are being picked up for. I’m quite familiar with the CCBC data, and the kidlit community, including me, is fascinated but troubled by the Asian stats. But that doesn’t mean data or anecdotes don’t support my allegations. They do. And they’re not a few anecdotes screaming into the wind, they’re from just about every PoC author you ask.

        I promise you that I am highly qualified to speak on this issue, from professional to academic to creative to personal credentials, and your anonymity doesn’t inspire confidence or trust or validity in your comments.

  5. Make books that aren’t for white people? Really? Books by marginalized authors are for everybody. You mean you don’t want white readers to support the authors of color by purchasing and reading their books?

    Also, as much as I agree with some of your points, especially the acacia tree, I don’t think it’s necessarily stereotyping to put a veiled woman on a cover of a book in which the women are veiled. There’s wanting to avoid stereotypes, and then there’s just outright denial of depicting something that would indeed be culturally accurate.

    And making all jobs available to immigrants who are not here legally… ehhh… I am not sure that one will go over so well.

  6. Mclicious … You castigate someone else for posting anonymity yet assert your credentials anonymously? Speaking as a queer man of color who works in the publishing industry, I choked in my tea reading this how to guide for awarding racial bribes, as per chapter 6 of Michelle Alexander’s “the new Jim Crow laws.” One of the unfortunate delusions born of the last eight years is a belief in pedagogy, as though everything can (or, “finally”) will be resolved if only people are good students, sit up and take notes. What goes I to a career is so much more complex than this laundry list could ever hope to convey and it actually makes me sad. By remaining attached to identity politics and the belief that sounding off righteously is bound to fail. The hard reality is that nobody’s going to give you the handout, that you’re going to have to hustle and charm, fail and face rejection … Just like white people. I guess there’s a market for everything, including ain’t never gonna happen prescriptively for an industry that cares abt one color: green.

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