Feb 24, 2016
“You Will Be Tokenized”: Speaking Out About the State of Diversity in Publishing
For many in the book world, the release of publisher Lee & Low’s first ever diversity in publishing survey in January 2016 offered no surprises. Publishing is overwhelmingly white (79 percent), straight (88 percent), able bodied (92 percent), and female (78 percent). In high school my friend Herbert would call these women, of whose ranks I am now a member, the white girl mafia. It was not a compliment.
Unmeasured in the survey is class, but the anecdotal evidence is vast. People who work in books make very, very little—and at the beginning of their careers too little to even live in the city of their employment. This one-two punch of there-is-no-one-here-like-you and you-literally-cannot-afford-to-take-this-job results in an industry that is, to its own detriment, made up of very much the same people. Like the doomed Cavendish banana, publishing is a monoculture. It does not have the genetic diversity necessary to resist threats to its health, to adapt to its environment. There was apparently an even better banana before this one, but it died out too. Homogeneity kills.
Publishing doesn’t exist in a bubble. Systemic and individual racism, misogyny, trans- and homophobia, ableism: these structure and surface in every American workplace. But publishing’s deadening sameness is unusual, and it makes for an unhealthy book culture. Of the 3,500 children’s books reviewed by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center in 2014, only 400 were about indigenous peoples and people of color. Only 292 were written by an indigenous person or person of color. For every one indigenous writer or writer of color who was published, there were 12 white writers. This is the sort of staggering that makes you laugh-cry, or angry-cry, or angry-laugh. It is too big for just one emotion. It’s also unfair. Inequitable. Immoral. Bad business. Choose the reason that suits you best—they all work.
No one in this industry has to be convinced that books matter. No one who managed to make it onto this banana farm would be here, underpaid and often underrepresented, unless books—literary or otherwise—mattered deeply to them. But if people in publishing genuinely believe that books save people’s lives, their output shows they believe only certain lives to be worth the trouble. Obviously many fine books are published every year, both from over- and underrepresented writers, but the statistics tell a bigger story.
In a Venn diagram of “people who care” and “people who are good at talking about caring,” underrepresented writers are the point of overlap. Coinciding with a boom in online literary magazines, places that wanted and needed content (and often were unable or unwilling to pay for it), many writers who had struggled to navigate the privilege maze of MFA programs, fellowships, legacy literary magazines, agents, and traditional publishing found a place where they could, finally, talk and readers could, finally, listen. Conversations about diversity in publishing, spearheaded primarily by Roxane Gay, reached an impassioned and underserved audience. That conversation grew larger and louder. But had anything changed?
Part of the answer, reflected in this year’s survey data, is dismal. Traditional publishers have straight up failed to hire a substantial diversity of employees or likewise successfully publish a substantial diversity of authors, whether they are writing cookbooks, picture books, romance novels, history, or literary fiction. But another part of the answer can be found, as it has for almost a decade now, online. An impassioned outcry against a bizarrely tone deaf (and so also uniquely hurtful) picture book, A Birthday Cake for George Washington, pushed Scholastic to remove it from shelves. (The book depicted an enslaved man, one who later famously escaped Washington’s captivity, delighting in making a cake for the man who owned him and from whom he would shortly flee.) While Lee & Low’s data is a lot of something (and that something is bad), the successful campaign against A Birthday Cake is not nothing either.
Where are we going? I spoke to fifty people across the book world—from emerging and established writers to agents to editors to publicists to critics, from lit mags to MFA programs to mainstream media to small presses to the Big Five publishing houses—in an effort to feel out this answer, as well as document the lived reality of working inside a monoculture.
Everyone wants—or says they want—change. Many expressed exhaustion, either from working within the system or advocating for changes without it; just as many spoke of their continued commitment to change. Many expressed frustrated with the term “diversity” itself, as if it referred to a concept decorative rather than fundamental. “Equity,” instead, offered a more exacting definition. Many also hoped that the hearts of people would change, that the people currently working in publishing would suddenly or gradually make different decisions. (Of this I am skeptical: the solution to the patriarchy isn’t finding a better patriarch.) Many repeated what Claire Vaye Watkins wrote in the blazing conclusion to her essay, “On Pandering”: “Let us burn this motherfucking system to the ground and build something better.”
What do you do, I wonder, if the house is already on fire?
I moved to New York during the recession where being a writer meant not being a writer. I remember applying for so many publishing jobs in 2008 without any idea how hard it would be to get them without an internship. I didn’t meet people in publishing until I started going to readings regularly. I wondered how everybody else figures things out. Social interactions with agents and editors and writers has taken me a lot farther than blind soliciting ever did. I totally remember scouring publishing websites, filling out form after form—what are your salary requirements, are they under 10k?
Brilliant black millennials, are they writing fiction? No. They are writing for The New Republic, editing the New York Times Magazine, working for BuzzFeed. Fiction feels like a losing game if you are a minority. See: living in Brooklyn as beneficial but limiting because of class status. If our rent was in the $400-500 per month range I feel like this would be a different conversation. These conversations don’t happen from a place of comfort. This isn’t an MFA vs NYC thing, it’s an eat or don’t eat thing.
Lippincott Massie McQuilkin, LLC
It’s the whitest place I’ve ever been. It’s been surprising to come back to New York after college and work in a fairly liberal industry, which manages to be even whiter than a white school in the middle of nowhere.
I had done three internships in total, all part time. Norton was paid, the two others were unpaid. One had the option for paid overtime reading at home. I still can’t afford to not live at home. That’s another reason why I can do publishing, I wouldn’t be able to if my family didn’t already live in New York.
I love knowing how books are published, but at the same time it’s a really grueling industry financially, socially. Right now I really like it, I want to stay in it. Publishing is one of those industries where if you aren’t ready to do this for 40 years, you aren’t really devoted to this. I’m hopeful that I can. Continuing to do this is hard. Getting to where I am was hard. My mom is always like, why are you doing this?
Kathryn Ratcliffe Lee
senior marketing associate
It requires an amazing level of privilege, from a socio-economic privilege—first of all to get into college, because that (or equivalent experience) is a requirement on every single job listing, to have spent time in an office, and to be connected enough to get past HR’s bare minimum of screening. I was able to do an internship during college, I took an unpaid full time position in January 2009 for my last semester and I was hired immediately after. I earned that position, but I wouldn’t have had that opportunity if I hadn’t worked almost as an employee for four months. I’d like to thank my parents for this job.
Publishing can’t afford to pay people enough to sustain themselves. We eat our young. When I started entry level was $30,000. I’m not sure if it’s gone up since then, if so I’m sure minimally. You can’t afford to live in New York City on that salary. That limits your hiring field right off the bat. I’m not sure if that’s the industry as a whole not being able to make that much money. There’s something that’s just not trickling down for us.
I don’t think anyone in this industry is in it for the money. If they are I’m impressed.
writer and editorial assistant
During senior year, I was applying for all kinds of editorial assistant positions, missing class and paying $33 roundtrip from Princeton Junction to New York Penn Station. The whole trip would take about three hours for an interview that lasted less than 30 minutes most of the time. When I’d go to these places, I would always be greeted by a white editorial assistant. I’ve never shook hands with an editorial assistant who was not white.
I didn’t understand why I couldn’t get even an entry level job. While I was back at home, I just started to write on the internet and the bylines I accrued led me to getting the job I have now. It took 15 months.
During the interview, my boss asked me how was I able to write for so many places and I told him, “Because as a woman of color, I know I can’t ask for permission. Either that train is gonna come and it’s gonna be full or it’s not gonna come at all.” I left there thinking that I said too much, maybe I was too honest. But less than two weeks later, I didn’t get the internship role but an editorial assistant role.
I wouldn’t be in this business if I were cynical.
poet and executive director
Asian American Writers’ Workshop
It’s unique. There’s one city in the entire world that’s controlling what kind of ideas enter mainstream culture: the books that you hear on talk shows, the books that are made into movies. The publishing industry can be a propagandizing vehicle for racist liberalism. People are used to seeing race as an action. Daniel Handler says something racist so he’s a racist, it’s a moral shame. Racism is more about controlling equity and power, racism as a sin of omission. Publishers aren’t really curious about the histories of the rest of the world. They say, we pick books because we are pressured by market forces. But these things are really about imaginative acts. The way the system set is up, you exclude potential, the people who would help you build more markets.
If you go to Harlem, you see the pulp fiction sold on 125 Street. There are so many African American readers. There’s a market there, it exists. E. Lynn Harris was selling books out of the back out his car. The capitalist in me says it’s unacceptable from a business standpoint. Publishing will make more money if they target a more diverse readership. Is it rocket science? Am I missing something on the publishing end?
As a person who loves writing and aesthetics, I want to talk about beauty and art and life. You get to be in this weird place if you are a person of color and an advocate, you spend so much of your time saying this is not okay.
When I go to publishing events, it’s primarily gay white men. Who is making the guest list? Who gets invited? We know that William is black and gay so we invite him and that covers it. I don’t cover it. I went to a book party last night and I brought all the people of color! I brought them as a form of self-care. I will not be a minstrel, I will not be the gay sidekick, but I will be fully black and fully gay. Lambda has also given me the opportunity to do this. We keep bringing others through till we fill up this room.
vice president of audience development
The Reading Room
I grew up a black Puerto Rican in the Bronx—I internalized you’ll always have to work harder to get ahead, partly because I don’t have a college degree, partly because my last name is Gonzalez. I can count on one hand for the past fifteen years how many interviews I’ve gotten from a straight application, and none of them have been in the book industry. When I find jobs, it’s had to be through a personal connection. I assume that I’ve generally been paid less than my peers with similar experience. Whether that’s a factor of race or education, who knows.
Publishing is serving a declining percentage of the country. Just from a business perspective, you are not focusing on an area that can actually grow. Best case scenario it plateaus. Forget the social aspects of that stuff, there’s money in diversity. Book publishing likes to believe it’s this cultural bastion of tastemakers, great works of literature, yadda yadda yadda. Yes, they stumble on a great work of literature every once and a while, but most of what was published last year was like coloring books. And that’s cool, just don’t pretend.
Under a Painted Sky
I wrote a middle grade fantasy with an Asian American main character and was told by a very prominent editor that it wouldn’t sell because Asian Americans don’t buy books. Leaving aside the fact that Asian Americans DO buy books, she couldn’t imagine that someone other than an Asian American might read it. This misperception that diverse narratives don’t sell can be self-fulfilling. If you don’t put marketing dollars behind a book, it won’t sell, diverse or not. An un-marketed story is an unread story.
Simon & Schuster
Because there’s this bedrock assumption that the ideal costumer of a book is a middle-aged white woman in the suburbs, anything outside that identity is considered niche or genre. We had one gay author writing about gay topics and no one expected it would do well and no one invested in it. They weren’t interested in bringing that voice to a broader audience. It would get to the people who wanted it. So if I were to publish ten books a year, three would be about women, three would be rom coms, one would be about a gay person, one would be about a mixed-race person. You end up writing off your identity and your own story as something that makes you valuable to your job. You actually start thinking about it as a liability. If I had only grown up reading beach reads by and for white women, I would be so much better at my job. This has such a filtering effect.
Beacon Press Books
I was so hungry and eager at the start that I’d basically drawn a big sign on my back that said, “Nurture me! I work hard and I’m smart!” I didn’t realize it till much later, but that read as “Keep me as an assistant! I’m really friendly and will bring you coffee with a smile!” But that’s not how people get promoted out of assistanthood. So I dwelled there for a long time and watched people who were hired after me and with fewer years in the industry get better opportunities. That surprised me a lot. I don’t think my colleagues—especially the senior ones—saw themselves reflected in me. And I think people tend to want to help those that they see themselves in.
I had one boss who, after months of working with me, stared at me a beat too long and then asked out of the blue what my parents did for a living. It was an innocent question but she was clearly summing me up. She wasn’t trying to relate to me at all. She was trying to make sense of the difference she felt.
senior scout for adult fiction and nonfiction
Sanford J. GreenburgerAssociates
When I did Misty Copeland’s book [as an editor at Simon & Schuster], someone asked, “Is this a black book or is this a ballet book? If this were a black book we’d be selling this to Walmart, if it’s a ballet book we’d be selling it to independents.” The point is that she’s both the first and only black ballerina. It’s both.
I remember I was having my first editorial phone call with an author whose work I loved and he said, “You know Meg, I never thought I would have an editor who got me who looked like you.” It was one of those record-scratching moments. I was like, “Oh, we come in all shapes and sizes.” Just so I can get through the day.
I haven’t quite figured out ways to undo the structure other than living in it. Part of what kept me in the publishing industry was—god damn it—I have my foot in the door. When my job goes they are not going to give it to another black girl. There goes a black woman’s shot at changing something.
The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing
After 20 years, my novel sold right away and everything changed. When I went to these houses, I was in this rare position that I got to interview the people who were interested in the book. I was worried they would sari and spices me, that they would do the India they wanted. One said, “You can talk about all of these things but you can’t have them all in there. What’s the most important angle? It’s the immigrant angle, obviously.” I’ve been running from that editor my whole life. I will be one person only to that editor. I cried that night even though I was able to say no to her. How many authors had to hear that before me with this editor as their only option? How many stories have I not heard because this editor was in charge?
Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass
This spring, my book will be at Costco. Some people would have said, “Oh Costco. Oh Target. Oh Walmart.” From the point of view of moving units, it’s exciting—but it’s more prestigious to be sold in a bookstore. Sometimes people of color are not buying their books through bookstores. The bottom line is you want the stories in the right hands. It’s important to have avenues to reach Latino families. Within one single family, many don’t all have the same language. We need bilingual books.
We ought to be able to create classroom and school libraries where a student can pick up a book and see the food that she eats, hear the sound of her family, follow her stories. That isn’t achieved by just slapping the name “Maria” on a character. You really want to get books that get all the details right.
senior editorial manager
Teens and BookBeat Scholastic Reading Club
You never want to feel like you’re the diversity police. It’s hard sometimes to be in that position constantly because it’s exhausting. I will never forget this. There was a salesperson sitting next to me. We were talking about book covers featuring characters of color. This person felt entirely comfortable saying to me, multicultural books don’t sell, those people don’t buy books. That was the first time I realized the deep disconnect between the people selling books and our readers.
When you ask what it’s like as a woman of color, that’s something that’s never turned off in your head. I always want to make sure I am representing as many people as I can. You never stop thinking about being that kid and wishing either you were represented or wishing you were someone else. If there is something I can do to make that kid feel better about themselves, I will do it.
The thing I’m personally most proud of in my career, the Scholastic Reading Club, which produces the paper flyers given out in school that offer discounted books, recently partnered with We Need Diverse Books. We created a We Need Diverse Books Scholastic Reading Club flyer. I can’t imagine being a kid and receiving this curated list of books of characters who look like me.
Daniel José Older
Midnight Taxi Tango
For some people [who have talked about A Fine Dessert and A Birthday Cake for George Washington], it’s a conversation about trauma and invisibility and pain. It’s really about life and death. For other people it’s just another quirky, fun intellectual exercise. That says a lot about white culture, being able to turn tragedy into cocktail discussion. The fact that A Fine Dessert was published at all and the fact that it was loved, then the backlash to the criticism—there was a level of intellectual dishonesty that was really astonishing to me. Critics of the book repeatedly expressed very intelligent, well-thought out, passionate, vulnerable arguments about what that depiction of slavery meant to them. No one defending the book responded to the actual critiques. Instead they said we were the oppressors of this situation. None of us are laughing—this isn’t a learning moment. This is all a game to you. You are trying to figure out situations where you win.
The conversation about who physically was involved is a complicated one. It’s never just about the writer or the illustrator. The book is a product of a community.
The Turner House
Some of the opportunities that have come my way [since publication], my friends—white and mostly straight authors, men and women—they had these opportunities ages ago, even before they had a book out. Overnight five hundred people want me to judge their contest and they knew me last year, we went to school together. Everyone else judging, they are not, like, names. It’s not like I’m saying I’m a famous person. The people who choose and reach out to writers for this work, by the time they think to ask a person of color, that person of color is already well known or has a tenure track job—not in an emerging space. It takes a lot for a writer of color to be recognized, and then when they are recognized, every single person expects them to be the solution to their diversity problems. Two years ago I may have had the time to do these things for free or very cheap.
I worked at a library and there are a lot of gatekeepers that are not those grumpy dudes from the Muppets. Everyone just needs to investigate themselves. White supremacy and the heteropatriarchy are pervasive. Even down to librarians and the people on residency committees: maybe at the top there’s a white man but there’s also a lot of white women. This is controversial to say but white women need to look at themselves. Equality can’t just stop when you get in. It can’t be trickle down. It feels that way. “Wait a minute when we get everything settled, then we’ll bring more of you up.”
That dude in Best American Poetry. That shows at least that a certain sort of white dude is nervous. I’m not going to be able ensure that my mediocre poems are accepted on the strength my biography. The acknowledgement is that they are mediocre. It was terrible and it was offensive, it was crazy. But there is a mediocre white dude in the Midwest who believes that just on the strength of his own name he won’t succeed. That’s progress. Maybe.
New York Times Book Review
I left a job because I had a boss talk me in a fake Indian accent as a joke. [At previous workplaces] I had a colleague call me uppity. I’ve had the texture of my hair criticized.
To do my work well means I have to take these things into consideration. Not in a tokenism way. You want access to as much knowledge as possible. For me it feels what’s sensible and interesting. It’s something I think about a lot.
How many literary critics of color can you name? That’s something that I would love to see change. But it’s also about what books are being published and how seriously they are being treated. That’s where the industry is stuck. I can assign and take seriously as many writers of colors as I can, because they are brilliant. I handle so much nonfiction—again and again they are written by the same people.
This is a conversation that I’d like to have white people talk about with other white people. People of color get called on to talk about this all the time. At least for me, it’s very painful and very private.
and associate professor
Rutgers-Newark University MFA program
The MFA—it’s the gatekeeper for publishing. Pretty much everyone who is publishing fiction and poetry has an MFA. That is problematic in and of itself: There’s a specific demographic of people who go to grad school. We can’t change the fact that the MFA is the gatekeeper, but we can change the MFA. A diverse MFA program is a space where students can tell your stories where they don’t feel like they have to be the representative voice of color.
When you publish the first book, they think you are going to be the next “fill in the blank.” By your third book they know that you are going to be you. When I had my first book at Grand Central, Linda Duggins publicized my book really heavily in the black market. The black women of color who I reached with my first book have been there for me throughout my entire year. They buy my book as soon as it comes out. I am always grateful for my Grand Central audience for giving me my lifetime audience.
It’s a mistake to think you will do better by getting a “more mainstream” audience. It’s very difficult to get that mainstream NPR audience. But Algonquin books pushed my book, Silver Sparrow, just like they pushed all their other books. Plus I had my base, my base from Grand Central. If you can work with Linda Duggins and Lauren Cerand that’s the magic combo.
If you look at the list of the people on the panel for a residency, the people of color will be really famous and the other people can be really early career. The bar of participation is so much higher. I will go to a meeting for a residency and there will be people who won National Book Awards there. This is workload issue—other writers at their level of accomplishment they will not do these tasks. On some level people should be embarrassed.
I honestly don’t have the time, the energy, the space. But I’m not willing to not do the work. It’s going to change my output. I take a lot more time between books than most people. It can’t be avoided. There’s only so much time in the day.
poet and co-founder
VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts
Back when I was an editor at AGNI magazine in Boston, I had a friend at Poetry magazine. They were giving out their big prize, the $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. My friend, who I had every reason to think well of, asked, “We’re getting a lot of noise about the fact that a woman has never won it.” I said, “Oh wow that seems problematic.” So I gave him a list of amazing writers who happened to be women. What’s the problem? “Well you know we already gave it to Adrienne Rich,” he said, “and we can’t think of anyone else who is worth it.” This was 1996. I was just gobsmacked by this. There’s no Bond villain—he didn’t really have any idea of what he was saying. That’s one of the formative moments that made me want to found VIDA. They don’t realize how occupied their own minds are. Poetry gave the prize to a man that year too.
senior director of publicity
Grand Central Publishing
Every book that I worked on was for writers of color. It was amazing back then—maybe up until 2007, 2008. I worked on the most beautiful books. We had a whole Latina line. I had authors from Mexico, Puerto Rico, all over Argentina. You really have to look closely at those communities. There is no Latino market, as you know. The cultures are not interchangeable. Sometime women pass out book flyers to the churches. That’s a normal way that I would use to promote a book. As a publicist it’s my job to find as many interested people in the books that we publish.
We have a diversity committee here. Diversity to me is almost like a curse word. I want my voice heard on the committee but I also know if the hearts and minds of folks are not changed, it’s a tough road. I don’t work in a hostile work environment, it’s not like that at all. People are claiming their own space in the world at large, people do it at home at work everywhere. I try my best not to take things personally. But I also know when I see something, there’s a gut feeling that says “You need to speak on that, Linda.” Or “You don’t need to speak on that Linda.” A man or a woman starts calling people bitches—I’ll say hey whoa what do you mean? I don’t like that, don’t call me that, don’t call women that. Even if I don’t know them. But if that person is drunk or insane, I’ll walk away.
Growing up in the largest housing projects in the United States, Queensbridge, it affects everything I do, how I read.
associate director of publicity
I’ve seen certain things take off where I don’t get it. I work with Zane. She’s been writing erotica for 15 years now. Most people I know cannot wait for the next Zane book. And here you have 50 Shades of Gray. I’m sorry—compared to the stuff that Zane has sold over the years? You can imagine the type of money that series of book brought in to give $5,000 to everyone. Sometimes mediocrity sells.
Sex is sex—does race matter? For some people it does. One thing I have found especially for erotica, some reviewers will cover a 50 Shades of Gray, but if I send them a Zane book, I get an email: “I’m not really interested in this books. I’m not really into this kind of erotica.” You mean African America erotica? And then I don’t get a response.
Why is it that Atria is one of the only publishers that has a big African American program? Publishers just threw out everything in 2008, they just maintained the stuff that was just making money. Random House, Penguin basically just dismantled their African American imprints and programs. Now a lot of the houses are only publishing big commercial books, people with big names, celebrities. You don’t see the mid-lists as much as ten years ago maybe five years ago. There’s a market. African American women are the number one consumers of books.
Why is it a book like The Help can become a New York Times best seller? A white woman writing about the black experience? There is a problem. Lolita Files, a sister, wrote sex.lies.murder.fame, had only one African America character in it. We went as far as not putting Files’s picture on the book. Her book still got put in the black section exclusively. If it’s the reverse, a white writer, it’s not what happens. The Help gets put in both places, the black section and the fiction section.
Many white readers don’t question the monotony that’s presented to us as culture. Many white, male reviewers overlooked writers who did not resemble them without consequence, but the internet has visibly improved that issue, because editors and publishers now know they’re accountable.
It takes vision as a curator to look beyond the fame machine. I’ve been on both sides of it, and been instructed to create big, splashy events, and then been presented with a uniform list of mostly white men with the usual credentials to choose from, because that’s who has benefited from every advantage up to that moment––the main advantage being the absence of doubt. I’ve also pitched lots of authors and been told that it will be tough to attract an audience for them. That’s lazy marketing.
In 2014, I was contacted by the organizers at BEA Bloggers. They wanted me to speak at a panel on designing, but also needed a photograph for their website. I sent over the photograph, breath held, and the organizer replied with a quick “Thanks!”, while I was anticipating her response.
I was afraid that the people I’ve come to know so well would see the real me (veiled and covered) and back off. Sadly, it happens to me in real life all the time. People are quick to judge me by the clothes I wear, rather than the human I am. I don’t even get a word out before they’ve come to conclusions. Of course, they don’t explicitly say anything, but I’ve grown accustomed to the look: the hardening gaze, the set of their mouth, the way they pull their children close.
It’s now been nearly two years since my photograph was posted online. Honestly, a few people I know did back off, and I haven’t heard much from them since. And I’m glad I’ve weeded them out.
Claire Vaye Watkins
Gold Fame Citrus
All the women warn each other in the workshop bathroom. It’s kind of this underground network of women even allied men don’t even know about it. You got to the bathroom, you unpack stuff, and you come back to the classroom and you are quiet about it. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with these private spaces, but letting it end there isn’t the way to change. Bringing these conversations out—just so you know we don’t think that’s okay.
The level of hope I have vacillates from day to day. These conversation are alive and dynamic and engaging a lot of different people. I heard from people—this is news for them. The response was an education for me too in some ways. The conversation is moving out of the ladies room. Sometimes difficult, sometimes embarrassing.
I’m very skeptical about online discourse in general. I should at least listen. My impulse was to defend myself or argue. Maybe I could just listen. I didn’t know what white feminism was before I wrote that essay. I’m embarrassed about that. But hey, there’s whiteness for you! I’ve tried to redirect my interviews—maybe to Roxane Gay.
I don’t know what else to do than make the art and then point at it. What I’m hoping we could all do—let the art be art. Don’t make it have to be other things. I sound almost regressive.
The Last Illusion
My books really sold very few copies. I don’t know the exact numbers but I know they were low. If I was somebody who was invisible—I would get it. But I’ve had reviews in major publications like the New York Times Book Review and The New Yorker and The Los Angeles Times, my first book party was on Gawker, there’s always been NPR coverage galore. So, what happens at that last moment in a bookstore? Why is it that the person doesn’t end up going to the register to buy it? That’s a question I constantly struggle with because I’ve had the great privilege of a huge amount of exposure. I think it’s impossible to say it has nothing to do with my ethnicity.
White male writers have always asked me to help find them writers of color for their book coverage or syllabi. One time, not too long ago, I had to sit down a white male book critic and actually tell him, this is who Paul Beatty is, this is who Victor LaValle is, this is who Hanya Yanagihara is. And none of those authors are debut authors either! It’s exhausting but I’ve become used to it. These are constants in my life, this negotiation, part of a long legacy of white men coming to women of color to be taken care of in all sorts of ways.
I’d rather be a better person than a better writer.
My experiences as a genderqueer person in 2016 are different than they would have been two or three years ago. I have the advantage of timing and the advantage of research, being careful about who I sent my book too, and my agent being careful about who she sent it to. Scholastic is trying. When they shared a bunch of cis voice actors for the person to do the audiobook, I said you might want to reflect the gender of the narrator. And that’s how they ended up with [trans actress] Jamie Clayton. I’ve had to push, but they’ve also been pushable.
The positive public response has been unexpected. There are no pitchforks. Part of it is about timing, the fact that I am white and it isn’t an intersectional story. It’s an old school, simple story in the way people think about children’s literature. I have a bit of a Goodreads addiction. Most of the concern has been about—not “oh my goodness we are talking about a transgender person,” but that the book is being shown to kids. The negative response has been like, “Well we don’t need to show that to all the kids, just the poor kids this is happening to.” Which is actually a radically different viewpoint in a very short period of time. Then there are people who have no interest with the trans things but a have a problem that I mentioned tampons. There is less cultural capital in saying some people are awful.
editor and novelist
Foreign Gods Inc.
I was invited to this country by Chinua Achebe to be the founding editor of the magazine that he set up in Amherst called African Commentary. I came here in December of 1988 and by 1989 we came out with the first issue of the magazine. It quickly racked up quite a bit of critical attention. This magazine had people like Toni Morrison, Chinua Achebe, John Edgar Wideman as columnists. Library Journal included it in its round up of best new publications. In the end the magazine wasn’t able to thrive because we didn’t get any advertising to speak for. Advertisers in New York told us that black people didn’t read magazines, which became a self-fulfilling prophesy. In fact the rate at which the magazine was bought exceeded even the rate that white people were buying new publications.
At this point I had been a freelance reporter, and I applied for one of the open entry level reporting jobs at the Hartford Courant. The editor said they had an internship—he was proposing that I take one of those internships for 12 to 18 months. I said to him, why would I take an internship? And he said, you worked in magazines, not newspapers. But I had worked on newspapers in Nigeria, I told him, and he rolled his eyes—like how dare you talk about the Third World while we are talking about journalism. I asked, “If I had worked at a magazine like Newsweek would you propose I do an internship?” He said that’s a good question, and I said that’s a bad answer, and I walked out of his office. I ended up on the editorial board two years later, a newspaper that had denied me an entry level job.
Even before my official diagnosis [of Aspergers], the theme of bullying and the use of various types of force by those with power against those without had appeared in almost all of my writing. Unfortunately, the publishing world is hyper-competitive, YA especially, and I have experienced bullying and exclusion that has revived the trauma of my teenage years. In fact, I’ve considered stepping away from publishing my YA fiction as a result. At the same time, I appreciate how Rogue has been embraced by young people, who brought the book to their elders and said, “You have to read this.”
Blueprints for Building Better Girls
I was a senior editor at the Paris Review when we started Tin House. I remember George [Plimpton] shaking his head and laughing when I told him we were planning to publish a new voice in every issue. He said, “Oh kiddo, good luck with that!” But it wasn’t hard. We’ve published a lot of people who’ve gone on to be very successful, one of them was Victor LaValle, who is a star. The reaction was the same when we said we were going to make an effort to publish more women and people of color. You know, “Good luck with that.”
It’s shocking and disgusting when you look at the demographic breakdown in publishing. It doesn’t reflect at all the pool of talent that exists and the amazing work that is being made by people of color. People always say, “good work rises”—that’s bullshit.
I don’t think it’s a case of a bunch of white men gathering in the catacombs beneath the Harvard Club and sipping the blood of suffragettes out of the skull of Jane Austen, making a pact not to publish anyone who wasn’t white and male. I can’t believe there is a conspiracy, but publishing is failing in this way. The truth is people help the people who they are most comfortable with, or who they think will bring them more power and glory.
writer and editor
The Rumpus and The Offing
I stepped in as Managing Editor. I was already somewhat trepidatious about it, as Queen Mob’s had courted its share of controversy (in particular, the interview it featured with Ted Hash-Berryman, which is still up on their website).
Two particular pieces that I published (those from Olivia Olivia and Aaminah Shakur) in response to the AWP/Vanessa Place controversy, received extraordinary pushback. I had people within Queen Mob’s telling me that the pieces weren’t good, that Olivia and Shakur “didn’t know what they were talking about.” To me, that was disgustingly offensive; who is more qualified to respond to Vanessa Place than female writers of color?
I published a piece by Sarah Boyle that was critiquing rape culture in the poetry community. It briefly mentions Bruce Covey. Covey in turn threatened to sue Queen Mob’s and the main editors told me to remove the piece. I didn’t want any part of what I felt was gross censorship. More than just censorship—it was disgusting, outright oppression. If Queen Mob’s is supposed to be truly subversive, as I felt it has always tried to brand itself, what was subversive about that?
I do think Queen Mob’s is highly tinged with the alt-lit mindset that tarnished HTML Giant. Lit mags are weird things. They’re more than just the people with their names of the masthead (The Rumpus is a good example). But it’s also not THAT complicated.
I was the poetry editor for Queen Mob’s for six months (from the founding of the magazine I think in September 2014 to March 2015). I quit because the head editors didn’t support me after I received gender-based harassment.
I was getting wary of poetry bros submitting to me dick poems that didn’t earn the dick. Around the same time I received a series of poems from a man that I didn’t like specifically because of the dick placement. I emailed him saying I didn’t think the poems were a right fit for the magazine. He responded with a hateful email calling me a petty woman and suggesting I kill myself. The emails continued but I just kind of ignored it because, although they were very hurtful, he was essentially a cyber bully with no connection to me. A week or so later, Queen Mob’s posted (through a different editor) an article that went through each dick in one of the poems this poet had submitted to me. I saw it as targeted towards me. Because I had editor privileges, I looked through the post history and saw it was edited by the editor in chief before it went live on the site. The editor in chief knew this poet had threatened me but seemed not to care. Thus began a long email convo where this editor basically dismissed my concerns as being dramatic and crazy. I quit. It’s funny that recent article asks why there aren’t more women poetry editors, this is why there aren’t more women poetry editors.
Google Play Books
For a couple years I read The Millions’ blog, The Paris Review Blog, every day. It was book Twitter was before Twitter, the internet book zeitgeist. I tapped into that from a distance.
After moving to New York, it took maybe three or four months before I felt like I was becoming a part of the literary scene. I was kicking myself, if I had moved to New York right out of college I would have felt much more fulfilled way way earlier. A lot of the barriers to me early on were prestige barriers, but there is certainly an acknowledging of a lack of diversity and a welcoming. Breaking into the publishing scene was really not hard at all.
I’ve never actually applied for a job at an industry publisher. I was thinking about it more intensely when I was leaving Amazon. This was the way to be closer to books. If I did I would really just have to start at the bottom again. There are no lateral moves—it really prevents anyone from entering the industry unless they did it since they left college. The only people who gets internships from the Big Five went to really prestigious schools. I don’t have a degree from Yale, I don’t have connections from Harvard. Even the people of color, they are all Yale grads
So much of being in this world is proving you are a publishing person. There are problematic foundations of that, but there’s something nice about it. I feel less hard on unpaid internships when I think of all the free writing I did.
critic and author
Feminist Ryan Gosling
Selling a book, finding an agent, that is still completely mysterious to me. I’ve been only be able to publish things if they are trying to find something specifically from me. My writing very much reflects my interests, who I am.
I was pitching broad topic stories about the upcoming TV seasons, and this editor would only ask me to write about black shows. It happens a few times, and finally I bring it up. “Hey, I’m not sure if you’re aware of this. I feel like you are constantly asking me to write about people of color. Here’s my resume, here are my clips, I write about all sorts of stuff.” They wrote back, “Oh my god, I’m so sorry I didn’t realize I’m doing that.” I was like, great, let’s move on. Literally the very next email from this person was “Can you write this black thing?” I could not understand at that point what our conversation was. I thought we had a very productive discussion, and the very next thing… I don’t know how to approach this to get through to someone. I thought they got it, but they demonstrated that they clearly did not get it.
The worry there is always that I’m going to be labeled as problematic and hard to work with, that editors won’t want to work with me anymore because they don’t want to be labeled a racist.
Particularly YA, everyone is interested in diverse projects right now. But it’s definitely fixed—I read sometimes, my agent tried to sell my book and an editor told them “oh we already have one of those for this season.”
I think about other kinds of diversity: Books about mental illness. You see the occasional book about mental illness and they are usually not handled well. Challenger Deep, I thought was unusually fantastic. A lot of people who write about mental illness who are peripheral to it, who haven’t experienced it themselves. There are so many false tropes there. Mental illness is overcome with the power of love! A lot of different kinds of diversity are not easy to tally.
I’m half Asian, I almost forget that as a reader. I kind of subconsciously identify as white as I’m reading. I’ve never really looked for a half Asian narrative because I don’t expect to find it. Even when I find Asian American novels, that’s not really my experience either. I don’t have as much diverse stuff on my list as I’d like. Why is that really? Maybe these writers are not breaking through the same ways—maybe they can’t afford to go to conferences? I find writers sometimes in lit mags or MFA programs, which are also predominantly white. I perhaps need to look in other places.
poet and essayist
I was doing edits on my short story collection a few years ago. I was trying to figure out how many Chinese words I wanted to translate in this story to English and I was thinking about how, in the Neapolitan novels, Ferrante never—in the entire four volumes—defines or translates certain Italian words, like stradone, she just pops it in. As a reader you just say, okay, I guess I don’t know what that means. But for Chinese words, it needs to be translated, it needs to be made legible. It makes a difference when a person of color is edited by a person of color.
reviews team manager
School Library Journal
I remember in my early days as an editorial assistant trying to make my first big acquisition, I heard that the English rights to the books by Spain’s “J.K. Rowling” were being shopped around, so I found and read the Spanish versions, loved them, and pitched them to my supervisor. She decided not to pursue because no one else in the office could understand Spanish and vouch for my gut feeling. It went on to be bought by a big time editor at another house.
I believe that while these conversations are painful and agonizing, these are conversations that have to be had. Literature is a powerful thing, especially in the hands of a child. If you ask the majority of readers when they fell in love with reading, most of them will say, when they were children. And they will remember the book or the author that changed their lives.
You will be tokenized. Even when you get to write about your own experience of being a minority in America—you know, even that can be turned against you. Are you going to be used later on as leverage against an accusation of racism? Will you then be seen as a collaborator? In most cases the answer is yes.
Hiring is a crucial step, but it is reformist. It’s not going to really fix anything, just sand off the rough edges, right? Because there is far more concern about appearing racist rather than not doing racist things. It’s not just a publishing thing. What else can I say but dismantle capitalism? And I don’t know that anything radical enough to do that wouldn’t hurt a lot of the people that we are trying to save. Barring world historical change, I don’t see really anything happening but a new paint job. It is systemic racism for a reason, it’s so essentially wound up with the system upon which everything is built. You can ameliorate it. You can palliate it. But you can’t cure it. This is what I sound like when I’m optimistic.
Thomas Page McBee
I found getting published in literary magazine really hard. It was before I transitioned but I think my work was decidedly queer. I was writing in a way I wasn’t really happy writing.
At that time Cheryl Strayed, Roxane Gay, and Saeed Jones were all writing. A lot of people I know came through The Rumpus specifically. There was a resurgence of the personal essay, the literary personal essay. It’s kind of a radical idea on the Internet. You are either writing a screed or dealing with trolls. That was something I internalized. That’s what that school of writing was about. Vulnerability. Writing into vulnerability. Trusting that your readers will follow you there. We are all still negotiating that. What actually happened was largely good.
To have stories about trans people that are not about being trans, that would be a really meaningful thing. Only one in ten people have said they know a trans person, that means most of those people are only meeting us through cultural projects. It makes a difference with our lives. And our deaths.
former reviews editor
There’s a kind of space in the middle where white women don’t drop beneath a certain level but they can’t get to the top. This isn’t unique to publishing, it’s also in women-dominated industries like librarianship or medicine. Women are librarians and men are the directors. Men are CEOs and women are doing the grunt work.
One of the ideas in assigning, you wanted a mix of publishers, a mix of sciences (you didn’t want all biology), and you want to get some books in there by women. I would assign any book by a women, just because there were so few. It leads to a negative way of thinking, at least for me. When I read something that’s scientific, I assume it’s by a man. I hate that part about myself. It can’t be helpful to female writers that people think that they are an oddity.
Coffee House Press
I have always up until this point worked for women. I know we are paid worse for sure. It’s a weird place to be in because publishing feels so female, but it feels like a lot of women working for very few men.
When we put the list together we look at gender and race. If it’s 4/5 in the spring it has to be 5/4 in the fall. We consider it in terms of our residencies. We consider it in terms of our internships. We also consider the place that person has on our list. There’s a difference between being on the list and being the lead title. When we go through the submissions queue, white men are the last thing we are looking for. I think that’s a necessary corrective, and something we are very conscious of.
Publishing those books isn’t good enough. Another big important piece of it is putting people of color in a position to make those decisions. You have to do that to not just want to hire people of color but figure how to run a job search to find those candidates. All the interns get a stipend now. Our pool of applicants changed overnight.
I don’t think you have to be in New York to do this kind of stuff. When I was deciding how I wanted my career and my life to be, I found New York was not only so expensive but it had the most disgusting groceries stores in the world.
Kelly Link & Gavin Grant
Small Beer Press
Gavin: In the last couple years, VIDA has shown that counting is very useful.
Kelly: Despite the fact that we decided we would make a conscious effort [to recruit diverse writers], we didn’t have to. It was very easy. We would like to publishing more work in translation.
Gavin: But [translation in particular] is expensive and difficult.
Kelly: When we started out we decided that we wouldn’t go into debt publishing books. We know so many people who had started small presses who had gone into 20, 30 thousand dollars worth of debt. But typically I’ve had other sorts of work like teaching. I think we’ll do zines for the rest of our lives. We periodically look at the press and say, is this worth it? So far the answer is yes.
Gavin: We used to do more volunteering things, now we do things at the press. There’s definitely an opportunity cost. We’re both working, we only have one child, so it’s doable.
School Library Journal
I called on School Library Journal and the whole company to adopt a diversity statement. This was based on O’Reilly media’s diversity statement they posted on Creative Commons. I’m not sure who else would have done that. It’s a small thing, but what I’ve seen internally over time is the awareness that we’ve signed on to increasing diversity across all types—age, gender, perspective, not just racial—in our programming that we’re putting forth to our audience. Overtime this has become really part of—I hate to say DNA—it has become ingrained in our own culture.
I feel really fortunate to be in this position. To do what I can. It’s really about equity.
host of the podcast
Minorities in Publishing
and production editor
It can be a very frustrating violent environment—violence in terms of how you feel at the end of the day. Feeling violated. Or you can be in a nice place but the mindset isn’t very liberal. If you don’t have that mentorship and that guidance, you feel very isolated. That can exacerbate you wanting to leave. Instead of moving up the chain, I was staying in the same place. My friends of color are not getting mentors. They are thinking about other careers. I can’t guarantee I would have stayed in the industry without my mentor. The woman who mentored me wasn’t a woman of color, she was just very considerate.
The problem I had with that Penguin Random House in the UK removing the university requirement for job applications was that no one was looking at the issue of bias. Looking at anti-racism classes for their employees. Really looking at what the barriers are. People are throwing quick fixes at it. Yeah yeah yeah I’ll look for more diverse books, yeah yeah yeah, I’ll hire that black person, yeah yeah yeah I’ll take away the requirement for college degrees.
writer and critic
I remember when VIDA came out and thinking this is so great, and I was like I am a part of this. Then I looked at my year in reading and realized I had only read one book by a woman. I was like wow, I need to be thinking about this. This whole time, since I was ten years old, I’ve been reading fan fiction, which is written by women and queer people, and which is really into subverting straight white male narratives. It had felt like something I really needed to hide. I decided I was going to read books I really wanted to read. I don’t need to pretend to praise certain kinds of books. I know that I’m a smart critic. I know what’s good and what’s not.
poet and cofounder
VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts
One of the most hilarious responses came from the Times Literary Supplement. He was completely dismissive of the VIDA count. “TLS is only interested in getting the best reviews of the most important books.” Well you are showing some not-so-unconscious bias there. We got a lot of responses saying, “You know you are right, we have to do better.” We have been happy to see they have been better. VIDA ran its first women of color count. This year we’ll run our first counts for LGBTI writers and writer with disabilities. We came to realize that all these things run together. These things intersect. VIDA is about representation and access. All of those hinge on identity
In my own writing, no. In the editing, I do [think about identity]. I think less of my own than that of potential writers. I think about it in a lot of different ways. I think it’s a great time, aside from all the bad news, to be working in a magazine
I know about [the VIDA count]. They are out there, it’s hard not to know about them. It’s a headcount, it’s an accurate picture. I keep these things in mind when I am assigning pieces. It’s an opportunity to do better. Not only just to find certain kinds of people but also different kinds of thinkers. Again it goes back to, you want to try and attract as many engaged readers as possible. You do that through having a section that offers footholds to different kinds of people, in the way they think, in the way they see themselves. The essential question of matching a writer to a book or a subject to an essay.
You can choose to remain the hostage to what the industry gives you, or you can choose to do something else. Sometimes it’s hard.
I’ve been fairly certain that in any room I walk into I’ll be a part of the majority group—white women—and that we will have had, generally speaking, similar lives: middle class upbringing, liberal arts education, etc. It’s impossible that the warm reception I’ve had into the industry, the ease of rapport that developed early with people in my cohort that evolved into a professional network, isn’t in some way related to that. When I have walked into a room that was mostly comprised of publishing professionals (not, for instance, a reading or something where it’s more open to the public/the artists are present) that was NOT 90 percent, or higher, white women, I’ve noticed.
books and culture columnist
I never look at a list of books and say, “Oh that’s not very diverse.” I think about it some but I’m more inclined to read about subjects very different from my own. That allows me to have a more diverse list of subjects. I don’t worry about it.
With nonfiction you often have no idea of the race of the author, especially prepublication. The author is often just not a personality. The author isn’t used the sell the book in the same way as fiction—it’s their affiliation that sells. Unless I tried to find a photo of them I was never going to know what their race was. If the author is the selling point you’d get a photo or you know of them in advance. I’m aware of it—it’s a weird sort of balance.
I read Margo Jefferson for years without knowing that she was African American. That’s the thing about bylines. And of course Michiko Kakutani—on the more peer level. The Washington Post Book World always had a pretty diverse staff. There was Michael Anderson at the New York Times Book Review. If I look at the Nation Book Critics Circle, it’s mostly white but it’s still more diverse than the community of people who work in book publishing.
I came to the book world late. I started in film and in theater. I was used to being one of very few people of color in the room, but I had rarely had the experience of being the ONLY one in certain rooms until I worked in publishing. I was somewhere last night for a book launch and I was legitimately the only woman of color in the whole room. In the arts it’s already so bad, for it to be even worse within the book world is sort of alarming.
Literary is just a harder market with every demographic. You never get the returns. Waiting to Exhale is a great example of a huge hit. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t know what that book or film is. But I’ve read dozens of books about dating in Brooklyn from a perspective that doesn’t include me. Where is that book?
For many of us, you know more writers of color than ever before, we know about the community of writers of color, because of the internet. To have that vehicle to push ourselves to the place where we have now, it’s been so instrumental. The world got introduced to Stacia L. Brown from blogging. Daniel José Older’s Twitter feed. We were able to share content very quickly and make these beautiful, powerful professional connections. My visibility creeps, a blog post of mine gets cross posted on PostBourgie, then the Huffington Post, then Feministing. All the while steadily working on my longform nonfiction pieces. I wrote for the New York Times Magazine because of my blog.
I’d like affirmative action the fuck out of that space. I’d readjust salaries for these folks. Solicit interns outside of the usual places. Train them in the culture of what a literary citizen should look like. Make them listen to Kanye. Get the United Colors of Benetton in that bitch. Empower people of color open their own bookstores. Create a literary agency. Buy a pop culture media outlet. I know a couple of people who are doing that but they need capital. I’d give it to them—a fund for affirmation. Seed money for people who are already doing that work. That’s the thing, right? We’ve been out here working.
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