The Major Built-In Bias of the Publishing World
A look at how Black women are faring
“When I left publishing it was because I had this feeling of not being wanted,” a Black woman and former publishing professional who asked to remain anonymous, tells me. After spending eight years working in education in Florida, she made the decision in 2012 to get a master’s degree in publishing in New York City. In her last and only full-time job in publishing at an art book distributor with a six-person U.S. staff, she had a limited trajectory and was often struggling financially to stay afloat. “I was always going to be that marketing assistant because there was nowhere else to move,” she explains. While half the staff was POC — including her, her boss, and a sales associate — there wasn’t a lot of camaraderie due to everyone being overworked.
Before landing her full-time job, she completed a two-year graduate program — where she was one of three Black people — as well as internships and part-time jobs, plus four years of volunteer work for book-adjacent organizations like the Women’s National Book Association. Her frustration is evident. “None of my efforts turned into jobs or even interviews. I got to know people at certain companies but none of that yielded any fruit,” she says. White classmates with whom she partnered up to review job applications had similar resumes and received callbacks, she notes. A lack of mentorship and encouragement within the paid and unpaid positions she took culminated in the inevitable. Dejected and struggling financially, she ultimately left New York City after almost five years.
Of the progress or perception thereof within publishing on diverse hiring, she says, “I saw no progress in actually making [publishing] houses more diverse. I think that was part of the issue. One of the things I wanted to see was everything moving beyond talking about diversity and actually doing something.”
“At every turn,” Pamela Newkirk writes in her book Diversity, Inc.: The Failed Promise of a Billion-Dollar Business, “purportedly liberal and elite sectors maintain racial custom and tradition in their hiring until they are publicly shamed or otherwise coerced into widening access to people of color.” Part of this public shame in publishing — or at least public acknowledgment — has been due to the data compiled in Lee & Low’s 2015 Diversity Baseline Survey (DBS), the VIDA count, the annual Publishers Weekly Industry Salary Survey, and CCBC’s Diversity Stats of children’s literature by/about BIPOC. Each report confirms the sizable disparity of women and gender minorities of color as staff, contributors, and creators throughout the publishing industry.
In the DBS and 2019 PW Industry Salary Survey, Black people are represented in incredibly small fractions — by 4% and 2%, respectively. These minuscule margins — in comparison to the 80% and up employment of White colleagues — distinguish the scale of how much being a Black person, especially a Black woman, in publishing relies on an already small pool. The numbers reflected for Black people also substantiate the feeling of “not being wanted” and illuminate the issues of retention, for those who’ve left, and the potential limitations of mentorship to those who remain.
Each report confirms the sizable disparity of women and gender minorities of color as staff, contributors, and creators throughout the publishing industry.
So what has changed since the release of the Diversity Baseline Survey, which pointed specifically to race, gender, sexual orientation, and disabled representation in the publishing workforce? Not much. Publishers from Hachette Book Group and Candlewick Press, to review publications such as School Library Journal, reflected on what they now had concrete evidence of: an overwhelmingly White, cisgender, heterosexual, and abled contingent. Some publishers pledged their good intentions as a way of making initiatives come to life. Others started initiatives or publicly referred to Diversity Committees already in the works. What was consistent was that no one had a surefire answer on what to do to fix this level of inequality.
Of the publishers who have openly stated or listed they have Diversity Committees (if not initiatives), there are a few including all the Big 5. Simon & Schuster has a director of Diversity Initiatives in Talent Acquisitions (Human Resources). At Macmillan, the Diversity & Inclusion team’s mission is to “create an inclusive environment at the company, continue to increase the diversity of the employees, and do outreach.” HarperCollins also has a Diversity Committee in the United States, and Hachette Book Group has a Diversity Advisory Group. Both HarperCollins’ and Hachette’s UK counterparts have recently hired and/or been touted for pursuing initiatives including a Diversity Forum. Stateside at Penguin Random House, senior editor Nicole Counts mentions there are not only multiple diversity councils across several imprints but also a dedicated associate director of Diversity & Inclusion at a corporate level who has integrated a few initiatives company-wide.
Editor-turned-agent Quressa Robinson mentioned approaches by her former employer, a Big 5 imprint, that provided some help by having instituted a Diversity & Inclusion Team on the trade side. Robinson was one of the only Black people on her editorial team in the three years she was there. “My goal has always been to try to get more marginalized voices published. And there were often things that I wanted to take on that I got tons of pushback on,” she says. Pushback on title acquisitions was often due to the inability of sales, marketing, and publicity teams to alter their thinking that “because [the authors are] not White, they’re not mainstream,” and were therefore a “risk” commercially and financially.
Interoffice issues took a toll. Robinson says what was helpful was being paired up with a mentor — a queer White woman — through her publisher’s Diversity & Inclusion Team: “I got to tell her a lot of things and to call her and say ‘I’m having a frustrating time.’ She also hooked me up with some other people of color who were to be able to talk to me.” While talking helped, professional pushback and a problematic work environment remained, even with an outlet.
In a small team with close working quarters, having to report issues doesn’t always result in being believed. There may be no protocol for providing any kind of support to Black women like Robinson, who dealt with microaggressions from her direct manager. “When I had to report a manager it felt like a stopgap, but then reporting them to HR would only last but for so long,” she says. “There were times when I went in with microaggressions and there was a whole devil’s advocate thing from HR.” Robinson recalls little being done to support her claims. There was no recourse for the manager’s actions, but now there was a record of her complaint. “At some point I’d still have to leave [my job] if I was still under that person” she notes, because the complaint could breed animosity and make the working environment even more hostile.
Ultimately venting could help but so much. Robinson says she noticed she had more support than she thought after she left the company. “I don’t know if it’s just a matter of people not being vocal enough of their support or not knowing who to go to because not everybody is safe to be completely open with,” she says.
When it comes to how Diversity Committees can help women of color in the workplace, Counts has suggestions: “My dream for Diversity Committees is really to air shit out and open up about microaggressions that happen any given day and not get fired for it.” Where Robinson had little recourse during her time at her publisher, Counts mentions that at hers, optional bias training is available to all employees. Counts says what helps and has been crucial is that the new associate director of Diversity & Inclusion “takes a bit of that educating on so we don’t have to. I think the education is there and I think what [the D&I manager] provides, at least from my perception, is a space for you to show up as your full self.”
In 2016, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation became one of the first to financially invest in publishing to actively diversify staff at four university presses over four years. The money went to salaried positions for year-long apprenticeships in acquisition departments. (This program is called the University Press Diversity Fellowship.) In early 2019, the Mellon Foundation almost doubled their initial investment to extend and expand the same program to six university presses.
Beyond one guaranteed position a year, not much has been publicized in terms of whether these positions also provide a mindful working experience. While the apprenticeship and the methods of hiring seem to have improved as mentioned at presses such as University of Washington and MIT, extensive education to staff on exclusion and bias within each participating press was not advertised as part of the larger decree. This becomes another example of thrusting marginalized individuals into a potentially, and perhaps unconsciously, hostile work environment if the space itself remains the same without keener awareness of the issue at hand. The hiring may have improved for a role designated for a marginalized applicant, but the workplace dynamics may not be accommodating to these new hires. One can see on the website of several of the designated presses receiving the Mellon grant that their employee roster lacks parity.
This lack of parity was evident in anonymous testimonials on The Scholarly Kitchen in April and May of 2018 by BIPOC in publishing entitled “On Being Excluded.” Offensive remarks ranged from “not being like other [insert BIPOC demographic]” to surprises from Human Resources at one’s adeptness with grammar to blatant disrespect and condescension in an open forum. Most often the commentary was preceded by “as one of the few/only people of color” in their department, if not entire press. Last January, Wendy Lu interviewed 10 women of color in publishing — all ranging in age from their twenties to early thirties — who were transparent about the tensions and issues of access let alone sustainability in publishing. Many were in entry-level positions and experienced pressures to perform above-and-beyond while not being perceived as problematic. Some women revealed they were having a hard time due to burnout, finances, and feelings of isolation as one of a few, if not the only one, in their company. It seems that the larger investment, as some promised on Lee & Low’s blog, has not yet come to fruition, or if it has, it’s been incremental at best.
It’s not simply one area that requires improvement when it comes to inclusion. We continue to see programs tap into part of the problem and not necessarily to the heart of the matter. The overwhelming attention to issues of representation reverberates in many industries thanks to social and digital media, rectifying the matter with education, investment, and dissection has been as long-standing an issue as representation itself.
Each of us who are in the industry, I think, have a responsibility for promoting and supporting each other because that’s how things get done.
Cherise Fisher, previously an editor-in-chief at Plume and now a literary agent, has witnessed “peaks and valleys” over the last 25 years when it comes to publishing’s investment in writers of color and, by extension, employees of color. The commercial success of several African American authors in the late nineties ushered in several niche imprints, but these proved to be underfunded investments and did not turn into long-term success for all parties. Fisher says, “I cannot have an expectation for these industries or these spaces, which are designed by and for White people, to take responsibility for my ability to thrive in these environments. I think that we as Black people have to set up the resources for ourselves.”
Fisher also spoke to how people of color continually find ways to thrive and survive in connection with one another, specifically, when it’s been absent in the workplace. “Black people, Black women, are challenged in these environments when they don’t have access to the networks that they need in order to propel their careers because all of publishing is about mentorship. Each of us who are in the industry, I think, have a responsibility for promoting and supporting each other because that’s how things get done.”
Black people getting things done and creating community for each other seemed to reflect Rakia Clark’s experience. I asked Clark, formerly a senior editor at Beacon Press with almost 20 years in the business, how she approached mentorship to remain in the industry. She recounted her methods when she first broke in as an editorial assistant at HarperCollins and Viking as one of a couple people of color, “I was always emailing Chris Jackson, Cherise Fisher, and Malaika Adero. And Marie Brown. Mama Marie! I stayed in their inboxes.” Counts pointed to a similar proactive mindset as Clark in her editorial assistant days three years ago, she’s been in the business since 2013. “When I started out at Random House, I asked all the editors out to lunch. I asked their assistants. I wanted to know who they are as people, not just publishers.”
For Clark, showing up as her full self was never out of the question. “I bring my whole self to the job and people either rock with it or they don’t. I bring my big curly ‘fro to the office. And my red Converse sneakers when I’m in the mood.” Her experience at an independent publisher like Beacon Press was appealing for the same reason it attracts others there and may create a “self-selecting group” in the process. “Beacon is a mission-based publisher. Part of that mission is to promote diversity and anti-racism. You see this mission at work in the kinds of discussions we have in meetings and in the way we handle conflict.” At Beacon, Clark edited books by vocal critics, scholars, and activists such as Lauren Michele Jackson, Mona Eltahawy, Howard Bryant, and Feminista Jones. As a publisher Beacon’s titles often incorporate scholarship and high literary quality, some of their recent bestsellers include An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. Clark said because of their mission Beacon is one of the more inclusive and diverse spaces she’s had the opportunity to work at, resulting in an atmosphere that’s healthier due to the embedded nature of it in the culture.
The mentoring and community foundation ties back into the ongoing issue of being “the only one.” To be “the one” automatically puts you at a disadvantage and, potentially, keeps one on guard regularly. Where some found community in-house as well as across the board like Clark and Counts, and Robinson has achieved in agenting, others find it mostly outside the office. Renée Jarvis is an agent assistant and mentioned she receives guidance on how to move up in her job and is encouraged to ask questions. Nonetheless, the staff at her agency is small. “Because I’m the only assistant, only person of color, and a baby in my publishing career I have found a more intimate community offsite among fellow assistants/POC (especially Black people) fairly new to publishing. The more matching intersections, the stronger the bonds,” Jarvis says. Zakiya Jamal, who previously worked in marketing at Macmillan, found the support and mentorship through one facet of their D&I team “still lacking.” She wishes there were a program for those beginning their publishing careers. “Some place where assistants could ask the questions they’re not comfortable asking their bosses specifically. For instance, how do I advocate for myself when I’m taking on more responsibilities but my title hasn’t changed and I’m still getting paid the same?”
Fostering community has been one of the biggest staples and necessities for Black creators and publishers. The unity created early on continues to create spaces that explicitly bring these groups together. Author of the new book Brave. Black. First., Cheryl Willis Hudson has 50 years’ experience in publishing, 30 of which are as publisher with the press she co-founded with her husband Wade Hudson, Just Us Books — a company established out of their need and mission to provide authentic representation of Black children and their own voices and experiences in books. Seeing that Barbara Smith, a college friend of Hudson’s, had created her own business with Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press in the 1980s was validation for the Hudsons that they, too, could create and successfully run their own publishing company. Along the way Hudson mentioned seeing the creation, and sadly the folding, of various POC-run organizations that uplifted others in the industry. “Early on during the ’70s and ’80s, organizations like Council on Interracial Books for Children (formed in 1965), Black Women in Publishing, and Black Creators for Children were very helpful. They provided networking opportunities and a few courses and workshops that were extremely valuable,” Hudson says. The Black publishing community was even smaller then. “During the ’80s and ’90s there was a lot more networking and marketing of books via direct mail and the Black press. And then this whole thing with social media has exploded in the last five years, so the way you deal with people and connect with them now is different,” yet continually important Hudson added. The fact that community, and in many ways mentorship, is sought and found, outside of the immediate workplace has aided in allowing publishing professionals of color to see they aren’t alone. From actively seeking out information and relationship-building, the efforts to move up often is not embedded in the work culture but more so in the individual. And for Black women in publishing there’s been additional comfort, and a feeling of safety, in knowing where to find your people.
Over the long haul we have yet to see how much the industry itself, and the many companies that compose the entity of publishing, respond and incorporate more education, awareness, and support to BIPOC in the workplace beyond occasional initiatives and team-bonding exercises. One recent initiative Counts mentioned was the distribution of Ibram X. Kendi’s latest bestselling book How to Be an Antiracist to Diversity and Inclusion teams at Penguin Random House “for people who want to do the work of continuously learning how to care for one another and respect one another as companions on this earth.” In 2015, Lee & Low’s blog published the experiences of employees who had been enrolled in an Undoing Racism Workshop. Where Lee & Low noted they prided themselves on having majority BIPOC in the workplace (and posted a breakdown of their 19-person team), their numbers did not illuminate how many of the BIPOC staff were in managerial positions or have hiring power outside of the Low family.
Thus far there aren’t too many formal mentorship programs for those in publishing; many are focused on editor–writer/established writer–emerging writer partnerships. Yet there is the Representation Matters Mentorship Program headed by Joanna Cárdenas and Kendra Levin, editors on the children’s lit side of Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster, respectively. There’s also an annual mentorship program through the group POC in Publishing. POC in Publishing along with Latinx in Publishing and CBC Diversity are a few spaces offering opportunities for meet-and-greets, panels, and outreach.
Christine Bronstein and Deborah Santana, co-publishers of Nothing But The Truth Publishing, are in the midst of creating Diversity, Equity, Inclusion surveys. These surveys will compile experiences by women and gender minorities of color who are authors/illustrators and those working in the industry. Bronstein told me they hope to utilize information collected to decipher what areas in publishing — for working professionals as well as authors — need vast improvement and where those efforts can be placed. They also hope to create a database of resources for publishers, be it individuals to hire for cultural sensitivity reviews to publicity. In this case, the data is meant to provide steps toward improvement rather than serve as another point of record.
After the results of each survey, public and online discussions, and posts detailing targeted unprofessionalism in the workplace, more questions arise that often amount to the same concern: What is next? What methods/actions will result in persistent change? How will people of color feel wanted and when will the numbers reflect this?
When I asked Cherise Fisher her thoughts on this, especially in relation to altering the culture via Diversity & Inclusion committees as a start for those already in the door, she, too, had questions. “Who else is on that committee? Is the CEO on that committee? Is the CEO making sure he or she is at that committee every week? Are there actionable goals? Do those goals have to do with self-reflection? Looking at the history of the company, looking at the history of hiring practices. How real is it? I just don’t know.” This uncertainty will continue to overshadow the inherent change we need to see.