She’s the First Black Person to Lead a Major Publisher, and She’s Going to Get Authors Paid

Novelist Nicole Dennis Benn interviews Dana Canedy

Dana Canedy. Photo: Eileen Barroso/Columbia University

One would never believe that Dana Canedy was only a few days away from her Monday, July 27 start date as the first Black woman ever to be senior vice president of publishing giant Simon and Schuster. I was tasked to interview this magnificent woman, and her tone was welcoming, a light, refreshing breeze to help settle my nerves. This powerhouse, who was once an administrator for the Pulitzer Prize, has broken the concrete ceiling and is now sitting at the head of the table in publishing — a dream that made the little Black girl in me scream as well as the grown version who once found herself as one of two Black writers in an MFA program where White writers were the standard.

This new development came weeks after fiery discussions about racial prejudices in the mostly White publishing industry that reward White writers with more lucrative book deals and opportunities, including film and translation rights. No longer were people afraid to rip down curtains and blinds and welcome truths to shine light upon the darkness of systematic racism. Though Canedy’s appointment was in the making well before the current social climate, it could not have come at a better time.

Nicole Dennis-Benn: I’m so happy to know that this is happening right now! Congratulations on your new position as senior vice president of Simon and Schuster!

Dana Canedy: Thank you!

You’re coming from the Pulitzer Prize, taking on this new position. I listened to your PBS interview last week and heard you say that you’re still relatively new and you’re still getting all your ducks in order. However, what are your priorities? What would you first want to start with in this new position?

The first thing I want to do is really get to know the staff and their priorities and also to assess what we have in the pipeline. Then begin acquiring more books for the future. You know for the next year and beyond.

What kind of books are you hoping to see more of on the market?

I think that, first of all, Simon and Schuster already does a great job of acquiring books. It’s very successful on that front. I want to build on what they’re already doing. But certainly, I think that there’s room to do more books on religion, on race relations in America, expanding the range and the diversity of the authors that we have in our group. All of those are things that I want to focus on in the first months, in the first year. I think that politics is going to continue to be a big story, as is climate change.

“Every year, I want us to have books inside Simon and Schuster and inside the industry that really defy categories.”

What changes would you like to see in the broader publishing industry? In terms of changing the culture?

I think that there will be a lot of room to diversify the authors that receive book contracts. I want to work on that. There is going to be room for the stories I think that we have that surprise people that don’t necessarily fit into a particular category. I still have some ideas along that [line] that I’m still thinking through. But every year, I want us to have books inside Simon and Schuster and inside the industry that really defy categories. I don’t want to be too specific yet because I’m still sort of thinking about what I mean by that; and I have a few ideas of the books I want to acquire in the first month that I think fit into that category.

I think that there will be room for people like me to make sure women and people of color are coming up in the industry and given the opportunity to enter the industry and rise through the ranks. I’ll be working on that. And I think that along those lines, I would like to take a leadership role and collaborate even with my competitors in ways that as an industry we can make that happen. Once I settle in and really get my bearings, I’d love to reach out to some of my fellow publishers at other houses to talk about that and other things that we can do in order to diversify the industry.

Thank you so much for that. I love that you are a Black woman in this position right now. Do you feel any pressure or overwhelmed by the responsibility of being that one to diversify the industry?

Oh gosh, no. Not at all. That happens with God’s grace and my old career. You know. And so many roles. I consider it an honor, really. And a blessing. I don’t feel any pressure at all.

How can your non-Black colleagues in the industry help change the culture as well since the onus is often placed on people of color? You’re in this position as senior vice president, which is a great change. But in terms of what the culture already is like and what the face of publishing often looks like — the majority are still not Black or people of color. Would there be any conversations as to what non-BIPOC people in the industry can do to help as well?

Well, for sure, and I think even, you know, talking to my fellow publishers will help a lot in other companies because most of them aren’t people of color. … So the answer to your question obviously is yes, but the leadership on this has to start from the top. There has to be a commitment from the top, and that’s what I want to focus on. Obviously, people working to diversify the industry have to come at all levels. There’s work to be done at all levels. But for my part, I’ve always felt in any company, in any industry, the leadership has to start at the top, and that’s what I’m hoping to lead on.

“I think that there will be room for people like me to make sure women and people of color are coming up in the industry and given the opportunity to enter the industry and rise through the ranks.”

Finally, what are your favorite books? I know you are a big reader, so what are you reading now?

I was just doing some summer reading on the beach, but I put all my books aside because I’m reading Simon and Schuster documents. I have about 50 documents I’ve been reading this weekend in preparation for officially starting the role on Monday.

Oh wow!

[Laughter]

Yes … so everything else has been sort of put aside until I can finish that reading. But in general, one of my favorite books is Katharine Graham’s autobiography Personal History. I love that book because she’s a woman who was completely underestimated and found her strength and found her voice.

I want to read that!

Yes! She was the publisher of the Washington Post who was thrust into the role after her husband unexpectedly died. I love… if you haven’t read this book you should read American Tapestry by Rachel Swarns. She’s a New York Times reporter who wrote a story about Michelle Obama and then ended up writing a book after she discovered and found Michelle Obama’s White ancestors. It’s a fabulous book. I also love Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. It’s a favorite of mine.

This is so great. Thank you so much for your time. I’m so proud of you. I don’t know you personally, but you’re the change we’ve been hoping for as Black writers, especially Black women writers, and it’s just great to see it happening now.

Thank you. You stay in touch with me.

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