“I often look up lists made by users on Goodreads, [and] DiverseBooks.org has a resource page with links to various sites or LGBTQ Reads by Dahlia Adler. Unfortunately, sometimes it’s hard to naturally find such books, as they are often published by smaller publishers with not enough advertising resources. That’s why it’s important to take some time each year to look for books by authors you wouldn’t normally see on a shelf in your favorite bookstore,” says Denis Ristić, a reader and a business owner.
The book publishing industry has been historically white, and it continues to be so.
In a 2019 blog post, Lee and Low Books published their Diversity Baseline Survey in which it was revealed that 76% of publishing is still white. This includes publishing staff, review journal staff, and literary agents. The blog initially conducted this survey in 2015, and in the 2019 edition, it concluded that “the field is just as white today as it was four years ago.”
The survey also showed that 74% of people in publishing are cis woman but that about 38% of executives and board members are cis men, which indicates that men continue to rise to positions of power more quickly than women. Further findings showed 81% are straight and 89% are non-disabled. One of the most concerning results of the 2019 Diversity Baseline Survey is the conclusion that “editorial is even more white than before” despite the efforts of publishers to provoke change.
In that same year, Publishers Weekly released its Publishing Industry Salary Survey, which only corroborated this statement. According to the survey, 84% of the workforce is white and publishing is still primarily a “white business.” This didn’t change much in the most recent edition of said survey, wherein the results show only a 1% difference.
Then, in the #PublishingPaidMe Twitter trend in 2020, authors exposed publishing’s big pay gap between white and non-white authors. Award-winning authors of color such as Jesmyn Ward and N.K. Jemisin revealed that their publishers had paid them lower advance money, while some white authors admitted to having been paid higher than their non-white counterparts.
These are just few of the recent cases that demonstrate that publishing is indeed still white.
But before these stats rolled in, there was a push for diversity from both readers and publishers in recent years, which occurred well ahead of the Black Lives Matter 2020 protests that helped sparked slow changes in the industry.
In September 2015, author Corinne Duyvis started the Twitter hashtag #OwnVoices so that readers recommend books written by authors who shared the diverse traits of the main characters in their works, e.g. Black authors writing Black characters. The hashtag, however, was actually never meant to be used in a more general sense. According to the nonprofit organization We Need Diverse Books, the publishing industry has since expanded its use to the point where it is now used as a “catch-all” marketing term.
Throughout the years, there have also been a lot of similar NGOs, projects, or initiatives that advocate diverse reading.
Even before the rise of BookTok, there has also been a wave of book blogs that actively support diverse reading, which wasn’t a possibility in the decades past. These blogs support diversity in many ways, and their writing caters to a variety of specific audiences. Book Riot, for example, has made inclusivity a cornerstone of its publication.
Diverse reading movements also found their way inside classrooms. Teachers in many schools joined the efforts in recommending, purchasing, and reading diverse books, even to aim in eliminating stereotypes.
A Reckoning in Publishing
After the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, publishers caught on, took action, and improved their diversity efforts. Among them is Penguin Random House, the biggest trade publisher in the United States, which promised to publish more Black authors, admitting that while it has published Black authors in the past, they did not actually publish enough. In previous years, PRH also took the initiative to hire more non-white staff, and that somehow paid dividends. We’ll explore the publisher’s latest social impact report and its U.S. workplace demographics in 2021 to 2022 in the latter part of this piece.
HarperCollins, another Big 5 publisher, in its website says it’s doing its part to increase diversity. It appears inadequate, however, as the recent HarperCollins Union strike demanded for more attention to diversity, among other issues.
Smaller publishers also joined the movement.
“As a Native Hawaiian, I helped put together a publishing company for my children because of this very issue. My children are Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, English, and Irish and born in Hawaii. As children, they wanted to see more books with characters that they could relate to. So now that they are older, we created that publishing company to help make that a reality,” says author and publisher AJ Paki Perkins of Perks Publishing.
Tiffany Obeng, children’s book author and publisher of Sugar Cookie Books Publishing, has made diversity a priority as well.
“As a woman- and minority-owned independent publisher, I create and publish quality literary content that features BIPOC characters in spaces where they have historically been absent, such as in children’s literature, in media and in certain professions,” says Obeng. “Equally important, I create and publish universally relatable content featuring Black child characters, especially Black boys, in normal everyday situations. In this way, our children are normalized, humanized, and the world can be made a safer place for them.”
In a similar vein, the Association of American Publishers in November 2021 said it aims to expand its diversity, inclusion and equity efforts. In other areas of publishing, meanwhile, many publications started advocating books by authors of color, especially by Black people, at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. At the time, anti-racist books even skyrocketed to the top of many best-selling lists.
With this multitude of efforts from both readers and publishers in the wide publishing landscape, has it shaken up the way publishing does things?
Publishing Remains Unchanged
In October last year, PEN America published the comprehensive report Reading Between the Lines: Race, Equity, and Book Publishing, where researchers used metrics to determine whether the diversity pledges of Big 5 publishers translated to an actual change. The 50-page report also included interviews, conversations with publishers, and open-source data, and it somewhat defined the current state of diversity in publishing.
PEN America analyzed the data from the employee demographics of the Big 5 publishers in the report. According to the organization, the number of white employees varies slightly, although not much, between the three biggest publishing houses. Penguin Random House (PRH) employees are 74% white, while 70.5% are white at Macmillan, and 64.6% white at Hachette. PRH, Macmillan, and Hachette each reported the composition of their top management teams. The statistics revealed that senior managers are disproportionately white, outnumbering white employees in lesser positions. “All of this data helps to confirm the widespread assumption that the industry remains overwhelmingly white, particularly at the higher echelons,” the report reads.
To expound, in PRH’s Workforce Demographics released in October 2021, white employees still dominate with 74% non-warehouse and 75% warehouse employees. Meanwhile, its contributors – authors, illustrators, and other creators – from 2019 to 2021 are 74.86% white. Hachette’s report, released in 2022, boasts that diversity increased in its workforce, but white employees still stand out. The other three major houses have not made their diversity reports publicly available.
At the height of the response to George Floyd’s death, there was also a surge of diversity pledges from various publishers. PEN America believes that the industry has undertaken current reforms with a genuine commitment to effect change. Still, they say, “it is too early to evaluate how much long-term change this burst of post–George Floyd efforts will bring.” According to PEN America, experts and longstanding insiders have warned that previous attempts have peaked and fallen off when public and media interest dwindled after gaining significant hype. This is evident in the current diversity statistics reports and the statement of many publishing and writing professionals of color PEN America spoke to.
And despite the minor improvements in the system the protests brought, the fundamental issues still exist. An interviewee summarizes all of them: “low salaries, toxic culture, lack of timely promotions, employees being generally overworked, and an industry steeped in whiteness.”
PEN America also acknowledged that this longstanding diversity problem not only lies in editorial, but also in marketing and publicity.
“There is little available market research on book buyers and readers of color. This absence is seldom discussed but critical to understanding the lasting biases in the industry. Readers of color may have different preferences or buying habits, different media that they follow or topics that they read about, different ways that they learn about and consume books,” the report says.
In other words, publishers aren’t targeting readers of color enough, which perpetuates the lie that “diverse books don’t sell” and forces publishers to put out less books by authors of color.
PEN America’s extensive report reveals that every step of the publishing process is impacted by “ingrained prejudices, preconceptions, and ossified thinking,” which collectively hinder the rise of authors of color and other ethnicities.
With all these anecdotal evidence and hard-to-swallow statistics from various sources — from Lee and Low Books to Publishers Weekly and PEN America — it just confirms the truth we all knew all along: the publishing industry remains white and more work is needed to be done to level the playing field.