A Chat About Diversity in Publishing -The Toast

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Like many others I was glad to be able to read the final breakdown from Lee & Low’s 2015 Diversity in Publishing Baseline Survey, however disheartening the numbers. Shortly after Mallory shared the report here, I found myself chatting about the results with my friend Linda, erstwhile book editor-turned-literary agent. It’s easy to look at stats like those in the Lee & Low survey and recognize that things ought to change. But as Linda pointed out, while many have brought their passion, commitment, and best intentions to publishing panels and discussions and roundtables, the lack of diversity is a tangled issue, and we often say “at least we talked about it!” without untangling any of the knots. So many conversations about working toward more authentic and diverse representation in publishing — as in the media, and the entertainment industry — seem to fire people up without necessarily resulting in change. I appreciated Linda’s thoughts and insights so much I asked if I could publish our conversation here, and she graciously agreed.

Nicole: Thank you so much for letting me share this chat with The Toast! First, can you tell us a little about your background in publishing?

Linda: I began in the industry in the recession, so jobs were disappearing like ice in August and Amazon had just become an unfathomable power player by launching the Kindle. I worked in bookstores, interned, and volunteered until landing a job in editorial outside of the then-Big 6. Through a number of freelance gigs that I took on in addition to being an editorial assistant—for both cash and caché—I was able to work my way up to editor at one of the Big 6 (now 5).

I then crossed the path from editor to agent (a common move), so I’m very much still in the game, but I don’t work in-house anymore.

The recent Lee & Low survey was sent to thousands of publishing professionals and reviewers. Did you participate in the survey? 

I did participate! I know that I generally fit the bill of who works in publishing: white, middle-class connections, college-educated, straight, cis woman. I know that it’s important to see the data and the ratios on paper. It’s important for readers to know who is making books. It’s important for Big 5 parent companies to see, on a spreadsheet, that they have a measurable diversity problem.

According to the Lee & Low survey, 80% of publishing and review journal staff are white, 98.7% are cis, ~78% are cis women, 88.2% are straight, only 7.6% identify themselves as having a disability. In your opinion, what are some of the biggest reasons for the overwhelming whiteness in publishing?

Part of it is that publishing salaries are incredibly low for entry-level—my editorial assistant salary was less than $13.50 an hour, and that has not improved since I started some years ago. Without middle-class or greater resources to subsidize living in New York, where most of the publishing jobs are, it’s difficult to accept those wages in addition to the student loans associated with going to both a prestigious university and NYU or Radcliffe or Columbia publishing programs. So publishing’s whiteness is partly a class issue.

Our hiring pools are filled with nepotism, which just intensifies the segregation and class divide. I’ve gotten an email everywhere I’ve worked: “Hey, we’re hiring an assistant/need an intern/are looking for a freelancer. Anyone know anyone?” (I’m 99.9% sure this is not a publishing-specific hiring practice.) And if you aren’t born into this world, if your dad didn’t ride Metro North every day with an executive editor, and if you don’t make those important connections at universities—and these are all markers of class—then the opportunities to get hired in the first place become few and far between. You have to get creative about breaking those barriers, you have to be ten times as driven to make it work, and you have to want to be there enough to justify all that hard work for $13.50/hour.

It wouldn’t occur to so many people in the industry that diversity would be “nice” or necessary, in part because they have only ever known these white-only spaces. The uncomfortable tide of whiteness in publishing is in many ways old-fashioned WASP racism. And it is uncomfortable. As a white person, even I was uncomfortable with how white it is.

Why is publishing so dominated by women, in particular white cis women?

For the same reasons Finance is dominated by white cis men, except the exact opposite. For the same reasons Meg Ryan and Kate Hudson worked as a journalist or editor or at a magazine in every romantic comedy. I think it’s seen as a gendered profession in the same way teaching and nursing are. (You’d have to look at the demographics of college English departments to see who is filtering into the field as well.)

If I’m feeling more generous, I would say that literature is a place women have always thrived. I would cite Jane Austen, the Brontes, and A Room of One’s Own. I would point to Elaine Showalter’s excellent A Literature of Their Own and Gilbert & Gubar’s classic Madwoman in the Attic. It’s historically been a place where women have been able to share their voices outside of the scrutiny of men—perhaps we haven’t always been admired, but we’ve been published. And as women entered the workforce in larger numbers over the last fifty years, no wonder we choose it as a career. Our names were already on the spines.

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Can you explain what publishers are looking for when they consider what to publish?

It’s a hierarchy of needs: Money; Net Units; Award Bait; and Engaging, Talented, Probing, Soul-Crushing, Inspiring Books.

New tides of corporate publishing, self-published ebooks, social media metrics, and monopolist retailers have really disturbed today’s publishing business model. Modern publishers are built on a back-mid-frontlist model, and I’m watching that fall away before my eyes. Well-paid opportunities for new books by non-famous people (the midlist) are disappearing. I’m talking really specifically about corporate publishing: from the tippy, tippy, top—from the international media conglomerate parent companies down—editors are being instructed to acquire money makers.

And aside from coloring books at the moment, you would not believe the sales of “Rush Revere,” Rush Limbaugh’s revisionist children’s book series, or any big Fox News or GOP primary leader’s memoir. Then there’s the tier of blockbusters like 50 Shades, Gone Girl, Girl on the Train, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (all owned by the same parent company, for what that’s worth). So there’s a capitalist, simplistic kind of logic that says, “Only publish Republicans, coloring books, and sexy thrillers with an unreliable narrator” because these make money in the moment. This makes people evaluate the midlist (where most new books fall) as a “bad investment.” This in turn really, severely limits paid opportunities for new writers, for great writers, for new classics, and especially for diverse writers. We’re eliminating books that could nourish readers for years to come, for the sake of a quarterly profit.

Many needs must be met before we can afford to invest in a book because it’s beautiful. And there are a lot of people in the industry who want to achieve this goal! We take the pay cut and put up with the BS for the opportunity to usher life-altering beauty into the world. But in the industry, sometimes you wonder, how many people does Bill O’Reilly need to kill before I can do that?

We’re eliminating books that could nourish readers for years to come, for the sake of a quarterly profit.

In our conversations, you and I have also talked about a kind of literary tokenism — publishers looking for authors for “diversity”‘s sake, while at the same time disparaging efforts by some as “identity stories” without “broad appeal.” How often did you see this when you worked in publishing?

This is the hill that I will die on. Sapphire’s Push is a great example: At the time, 20 years ago, it was received as a “Black book” on an “African American Women’s Interest” shelf. Over time, with more readers outside that label, it made it over to the “fiction” shelf. Now that book is, in many ways, hanging out with Toni Morrison in this world where the metadata people don’t know if they should code it as “African American Women’s Fiction” or just “Fiction.”

But there’s no “white guy shelf.” There’s no “Lads Who Write About Gentrified Brooklyn” shelf. And every author needs the space to write about things other than their identity moniker ascribed and recognized by wider society. We need to actively expunge the premise that the only [identity] writer on the list can write about [identity] and nothing else. I think this is a fundamental right for the life of a writer.

I trust book buyers to read beyond their immediate experience, beyond their census box. This is what readers have done since literacy became commonplace, so I don’t know why that’s a great leap for our industry today. But I still hear it all the time: “Does this group buy books?” “Is this group enough of an audience?” I hear real fear in that question. Because if you’re looking for coloring book money or 50 Shades or Gone Girl or Rush Revere, a little novel centering a trans woman might only sell 5,000 copies, and it sounds too risky. When everyone is constantly afraid of losing their job, nobody wants to be the one who overpaid on a clunker.

It also makes me wonder if my colleagues who’ve said these atrocious things actually know anyone who doesn’t share their identity. Like, if you grew up in a white upper-middle-class neighborhood, got a job in a white, white-collar industry, continue to live in a white neighborhood, then maybe you actually don’t know if [group] buys books, because you don’t know anyone in the group. Alexander Chee says it better than I can:

That’s because diversity as an editor begins with your friends, your teachers, and your books. What rooms are you in? What conversations? Who are the people in your social media feeds? When you go home, is your family all white? When you go to a party, are your friends all white? When you look down your bookshelf, are all your books by white authors? Those are some tests. What people call diversity has always been, to me, my life. And so if your tastes are not diverse, your life may also not be. And if you find a result you don’t like in all of this, then you work on it.

Publishers need to commit to reaching audiences beyond the core group of rich white women and Republicans who we think of as the “book buyers.” It’s about sales reps saying, “This story broke my heart and you’ll love it” to their accounts, without mentioning that it’s about an [identity], so it doesn’t get segregated in the bookstore. It’s about editors reading outside of their immediate experiences. It’s about having diverse staff who are reading in their experience to say, “Hey, this is true to me and many people, and we can break it out to an even wider audience.” It’s about putting money toward those investments.

What about the gender issue — so many white women work in publishing, and yet books by women authors can still be pigeonholed, considered “less serious” than — as you put it to me — “Important Male Fiction.”

I once worked on a book that I love—philosophy that isn’t feminism by a woman—but I had a really hard time getting traction with it. My husband said, “If a guy wrote this, people would eat it up.” If I had to take a stab at it, I would say it’s just a microcosm of larger society. I think sometimes women might not take their own interests seriously enough. Maybe it’s because so many of our executives and the people who chair literary awards are men. A part of it is plain old selection bias. A few years ago, one of the big science journals published a study about how women scientists were given a selection of resumes to hire from, and they would disproportionately chose men. And the catch was, of course, that the resumes were identical except for the name on the top. Even women can display this unconscious bias.

The Philharmonic has had tremendous success with “blind” auditions. I take this practice to heart and try to blind my submissions. I do a style check before even reading the narrative: Is the sentence structure sophisticated? How is the dialogue presented? How deft is the exposition? I read pages out of order to get a feel for their rhythm. White males disproportionately fail these tests — these are writers who are professors of creative writing at universities, who’ve been published in every great journal, yet their sentences all have the same verb constructions! Maybe it’s because some are disproportionately influenced by Cormac McCarthy and Hemingway and Philip Roth, who are admittedly not my jam. But when I look at my list as a whole, I find that it’s diverse. There are queer writers, writers of color, a few men, and certainly women. When you read for quality, for what stirs your soul, I think a good reader and industry professional will find diversity on their own (if they’re reading and living diversely outside of work as well).

It seems obvious that publishing as an industry will have to change somehow if it’s going to represent and publish books about the world we actually live in. Do you think it can, and if so, how?

Hiring diverse staff is number one. If we have experience and diverse staff at the editorial board level to stop a colleague from saying something phobic, then fewer phobic things make it into the world. We need people in house who know where readers are, who aren’t blaming the readers for not being where we are. Like, if we’re only advertising in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and the Today Show, we’re only going to reach a certain pool of readers. If we have editors and agents from all backgrounds, we’ll have more voices acquiring to more tastes.

When an editor says, “This is amazing!” we need the purse strings to trust the editor to make the investment. It’s also about not privileging mediocrity. Let’s stop investing in work that doesn’t pass the style check just because someone’s CV is impressive. Let’s hire the person who maybe didn’t go to a prestigious certificate program but nailed the manuscript evaluation. Let’s hire someone because their worldview and their experience could offer something different and essential, something we need.

Many needs must be met before we can afford to invest in a book because it’s beautiful. And there are a lot of people in the industry who want to achieve this goal.

An immediate action readers who want diverse books can take is to read and buy and review diverse books…loudly. If publishers see a lot of NET units moving, they’re capitalists, they will put more of it out there. We don’t necessarily want to be working on Donald Trump’s latest, but Nielson Bookscan sales figures look a lot like midterm congressional elections. Where’s the readership turnout? We need diverse readers to be more voracious than a Trump supporter.

But it’s important to note that spending the extra $26 on a hardcover makes it a real luxury good. Books should not be a luxury good, and yet that’s how our business model can feel. Readers can complain at a publisher (like we recently saw with the Scholastic book about George Washington’s slaves) that books aren’t serving them. Readers can hold publishers accountable with a tweet. And it works, sometimes.

Honestly, I do think the industry wants to change. And in some ways, I think it has changed.

What positive changes have you seen, and what is left to tackle apart from publishers hiring editors who are more representative of the world we actually live and write in?

Amazon is really good at supporting the sales of the top 50 books, and providing access to more obscure books. Those latter numbers are like popcorn sales, though; they aren’t concentrated enough to make a measurable impact for big publishers. The Big 5—over half the industry—have their eyes on getting a book in the top 50, and compete for those few slots. Look at what’s in the top 50 overall now: How many of those books are even new? How many are coloring books? The industry has so much capital going toward the least risk adverse books, it results in mergers and layoffs. It leaves a lot of literary, brilliant, cool, driven, smart people out of the system. It leaves great authors out of the system. It leaves diversity out of the system.

Really, this whole conversation is about an open wound, but I’m paying attention to how we’re healing. I see it in the Renaissance of the indie publisher—it’s like a hundred years ago, when Knopf was Knopf, not an imprint of subdivision of a division of a multinational media conglomerate. It’s Coffee House and Graywolf and Two Dollar Radio and Melville House and Catapult and New Directions and City Lights and Norton. These publishers are investing in beautiful voices. By not competing for those 50 slots, they have freedom to be interesting. These books don’t earn blockbuster money, but they do win awards. And more are breaking through. Marlon James is a great example—his first book was rejected 80 times, but Akashic invested in him. His follow-up was published by Riverhead and went on to win the Man Booker. Now his name is on the lips of every literati.

The more attention readers give these smaller presses, the more literary judges and reviewers keep their eyes on them, the more capital will go in their direction, and the more weight they’ll carry in the industry as a whole. And if these newer, smaller presses build on a foundation of diversity, as they are looking to do now, that could hold the answer for the future of publishing. This is great news for industry professionals, for writers, and most of all, for readers.

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