Saturday, April 18, 2015

why aren't there more people of color in publishing?

Not long ago, I was at an MIT Press sales conference dinner and was surprised to notice that I was the only man at the table.  In fact, MIT has made incredible strides in gender equality.   Most of the key sales, marketing and administrative positions are held by women, and the editorial department is way more balanced than those of many other publishers.  Publishing in general has been transformed over the past few decades by women assuming leadership roles.

So why is the record on racial inclusiveness in publishing still so appalling?  Why do I sit at sales conference tables with dozens of very smart people season after season where the non-white representation is nil, or almost nil?  Why does book publishing still seem like a place where, as a friend of mine described it, “white people talk to white people?”

I can’t speak for other publishers, (and can’t even really speak for my own) but I’ve been in the book business long enough to know that the racial demographics in terms of employment is abysmal.  The paucity of African-American faces is one of a couple big elephants in the publishing room, and the lack of acknowledgment and apparent progress makes it seem as if we’ve just given up.  

The irony here is that the university presses I represent- Harvard and Yale in particular- routinely nurture the most extraordinary scholarship on African-American history, slavery, economic inequality, the criminal justice system,  urban issues, and education.  Their roster of author talent is an A list of contemporary Black public intellectuals and academics, who are doing groundbreaking research and constructing profoundly important arguments.  Their work stands to materially improve quality of life and to leverage change.  It’s a signal contribution made by university presses every season.  And the fact that these stellar books have been brought to life by talented, thoughtful white editors shows that if racism is at work, it’s of the institutional variety, not personal.

A sales conference is an assembly of the key in-house players, a conversation about the ideas in forthcoming books, and a strategy-session on how to present them to the public.  When a title has special valence for the Black community, it seems strange for members of that community to (literally) not have a chair at the table.  (I feel similarly uneasy when the recent cascade of books on Islamism is discussed without input of Muslims.)

The point is not diversity for diversity’s sake, as if it’s enough to just feel good about ticking that box.  It’s not even simply about making it possible for Black voices to be heard on marketing strategies for books on “Black” topics, whatever that may mean.  We’re missing the perspective that African-American sales, marketing and editorial personnel would bring to the entire publishing program.  Why wouldn’t discussion of environmental studies, classical music, digital humanities and ornithology titles not be just as enriched by a more representative staff?  How might the seasonal lists look different had the books been acquired and shepherded through the pre-publication gauntlet by black editors? 

In truth, nobody at any of the presses I work for would dispute this.  But diagnosis is easy.  Attracting, hiring and keeping non-white talent is a challenge, and I’m certainly not the first book person to have thought of advocating it.
The most common explanation I’ve heard for why the problem is so intractable goes something like this: there’s a lot of competition in the corporate and financial world for strong African-American candidates, and publishing simply can’t compete on salaries.

I’m sure there’s some truth in that, although leaving it there seems a little convenient. If the book industry in the US is to survive and grow, publishers have to find ways to increase the number of nonwhite professionals in their ranks at all levels- administrative, editorial, marketing, publicity, book design, financial, digital, sales reps.

There’s an obituary written for legacy publishing just about daily.  The causes cited are technological, or competing platforms, or e-book pricing, or self-publishing, or a dozen other predictable villains.  But I think there’s a bigger threat to the future of books: the prospect of publishing houses that, internally, look less and less like the country.  White people talking to white people. 

Sorry, I don’t have a killer app to solve this.  But I don’t believe in the notion that you can’t talk about an issue unless you do. More headway might be made by starting with the obvious- acknowledging the problem, designing plans and benchmarks to measure progress, and- most importantly- making sure that everything possible is being done to make the working environment a welcoming one for people of color.  Perhaps these things have made it to someone’s agenda, but I haven’t heard the issue addressed in years, and the results speak for themselves.

My presses have been incredibly great places to work, and book publishing is a fantastic way to spend a career.  People tend to stay in their positions for a long time.  But we’re in the midst of a great generational turning of the page as the valiant sixties generation begins to cede the reins.  It’s a perfect time for publishers to renew their commitment to actively finding non-white talent to fill some of those slots.

Hard to do.  But the presses have broken ground in all sorts of ways, and I don’t doubt their capacity to lead on this one.  They have some built-in advantages: the resources of three great universities; a battery of African-American authorial talent; and the ability to still do the long-term, big picture thinking that escapes most other enterprises in our short term quick buck age.

We might take a page from some of the booksellers who have faced the same challenge of staffing their stores in a representative way. 

The vast majority of booksellers I visit every season are, like my colleagues at the sales conference table, white.  But Left Bank Books in St Louis has always stood out for its multiracial, multigender, eclectic bookselling staff.  The composition seems organic, not token.  When the horror of Ferguson unfolded, Left Bank responded- as readers, as booksellers, as citizens.  Co-owner Kris Kleindienst was surprised when their efforts got so much attention, since “it just felt like what you do.”  One thing they do is to think hard and often about serving their entire community.

I asked Kris why she thought the issue of racial composition in publishing and bookselling gets such scant attention.  

“So many white people who are very well-intentioned have actually spent very little time talking about race, confronting privilege, examining implicit bias,” she said.  “Very articulate people stumble when asked why there aren’t more people of color in their professional worlds.  But the language about race, the meaningful conversations, have to be learned. If we want to address it, we have to commit to doing some hard looking at ourselves, commit to un-learning that racism, and also to interrupting it where we see it in action. This is a life-long process that doesn’t stop. But it is so worth it.”


Friday, March 27, 2015

how to become a child communist

The East Side Library, a creaky old store front, was on the corner Farwell and North, about a mile south of our flat on Bartlett Avenue.   I was nine years old in 1960, one of those anonymous, introverted after school regulars who have haunted the late afternoon stacks for generations.  If I took four buses- the #15 south to North Avenue, then the #21 west to Holton Street, then the #14 north to Center (or ran this six block leg), and finally the #22 back east to Oakland- and if I didn’t dawdle too long at the Library, I could make the whole circuit on one bus transfer.  Eventually, I would get a coveted weekly student pass that simplified the trip.

My Milwaukee Public Library card was my most treasured possession.  But I was regarded with some suspicion by the librarians because I had no interest in age-appropriate literature. 

There was no rule against a ten year old checking out adult reading matter, unless the book had been coded with the unsubtle red slash across the end paper, signifying sexual content.  These didn’t interest me.  I remember once seeing the word “homosexual” on the spine of a small book in the psychology section; it caught my eye,  but I was vague about what it meant and not curious enough to find out.

What mainly cast a spell on me were books about other countries.  Africa, Asia, Europe- my hunger to know these places was deep and indiscriminate.  But around this time the Soviet Union in particular clamped a hold on my imagination.  The paranoid, post-sputnik era prompted lots of books on the subject, often with garish covers and terrifying illustrations. 
Communism was evil.  How could it not be?  We’d been drilled to line up against the wall in the stifling basement hallway of Bartlett Avenue School, shielding our heads with our ten year old crossed arms lest Nikita Khruschev launch nukes at Milwaukee.

But I was intrigued by the idea of the USSR, this exotic, parallel universe.  I wondered whether Soviet students worried about war, and whether they had more effective protection than covering their heads with their hands.  My fascination had the flavor of a science fiction addiction, and I checked out every book I could find on the subject.  They often proved incomprehensible when I got them home, but I was not deterred.  I’ve never been afraid of complicated reading.

Once, a sneering librarian asked what I did with all these books about Russia.  My face went flush with hate and embarrassment.  But another time my favorite librarian, who reminded me of Miss Jane Hathaway, smiled as I hefted The Story of Soviet Man onto the counter.  “You must really be interested in what’s going on over there,” she said.  This simple, obvious remark made me love her. 

I wondered whether she might have been a communist.

During the summer of 1961, right after the end of fourth grade, someone from the school board called my mother.  They were setting up a new program for “Superior Ability” students and had identified me as a potential charter member.  Would she bring me to Wells Street School on a Saturday morning for a series of tests?  The class would have an experimental curriculum, draw students from five area schools, and we’d remain together as a cohesive group until eighth grade, each year hosted by a different school. 

There was much discussion about logistics- it would mean bus riding rather than walking to school- and my parents were ambivalent.  Would the class make me feel as if I’m “a little king?”  In our family, bragging and pride were two sides of the same unbecoming coin.  The notion of enrolling me in a program that boasted some kind of superiority in its very name was concerning.  (Later, there were times they did regret the SA class, and it became a sort of whipping boy.  Indeed, it was the inspiration for my seemingly out-of-nowhere political activism and dada pranks.)

But I passed the tests and started fifth grade at Hartford Avenue School the following September with 30 other clever kids.   What apparently got me in was my answer to an open-ended essay question designed to assess my skill with words.  Prompted to draft a page about anything, I composed a lengthy short story, brimming with pathos, about an East German girl who was separated from her family by the recently erected Berlin Wall.

My exposure to the non-white kids, precocious nerds, and children of academics in that four year program was an experience that re-shaped my worldview for a lifetime.  You might say it made me a Marxist.   

Funny that it was all down to a pretentious little story about the evils of communism.

October, 1964.  Eighth grade, Hartford Avenue School.  A freakishly tropical fall day.  I’m painfully bored, waiting for lunch hour to end on the shimmering asphalt playground.  As usual, I’m hiding, acting weird, avoiding sports, in my own head, leaning against the chain link fence, cloud watching.    Along Maryland Avenue, within earshot, a group of workmen are taking a break and listening to the World Series on the radio.  An announcer cuts in with a news bulletin to say that in the Soviet Union,  Khrushchev has been deposed, and that two new leaders- Brezhnev and Kosygin- will take his place.

I find this news extraordinarily fascinating.


Sunday, February 8, 2015

memory and loss as the wheel turns in the book business

Maybe it’s just in the nature of dinosaurs to think we are indispensable.  But as a wave of leave-taking sweeps over the book industry, I’m reminded nearly every day that we’re not just losing great people, but also their institutional memory.

A sharp bookseller with ordinary memory will recognize good customers by name and recall the last few books they bought.  Not to mention arcane details like ISBN prefixes and the quirks of publisher co-op policies.

The institutional memory operates at a higher level.   It records slow-moving changes in tastes, dips deftly into a deep pool of author and title knowledge, and remembers how the latest subject fad turned out the last time there was a bubble for it.  Typically, there’s a broad scope awareness of the book world born of decades of interaction with publishers, authors, other booksellers.

By definition, it takes years to develop institutional memory, and it’s not just a skill that can be learned by simply trying hard.    

Many of the sharpest institutional memories are housed in the heads of the visionaries who opened stores in the 60s and 70s because they couldn’t imagine a career in the world of business- maybe the last generation that didn’t worship money.

Younger booksellers are stepping up at Indies all over North America, bringing energy, digital smarts and their own kind of wisdom to the industry.  A decade ago I was pretty pessimistic that the book business would survive the passing of the dinosaurs.  But having worked with some of these twenty and thirty-somethings, it’s clear that they will survive our departure.  Yet it will take years for them to rebuild the store memory that resides in the brains and hearts of the old timers. 
When I pitch Helen Vendler’s wonderful collection of essays this month (The Ocean, the Bird and the Scholar), I refer buyers to her previous essay collections for hints on how this one will do.  Booksellers who instantly go to their computers to see how they did with those titles often find that books published in 1980 and 1989 don’t show up.  (And you weren’t alive then, I sometimes grimly think to myself.)
But the bookseller with the long memory (and a dozen lovely people immediately come to mind here) will immediately recall these books, and the selling of them, without reference to screens.

When MIT Press releases a new edition of the absolutely transformative Bauhaus, first published in 1969, the long memories see the book in the mind’s eye, and recall its fifty year life in the bookstore.

One of the most important books on the spring Harvard list is a deeply felt memoir by a human rights activist lawyer- John Sifton’s Violence All Around.  The book stands on its own merits, but it seems relevant to me to point out his family connections: his mother, Elizabeth Sifton, is a legendary FSG editor of enormous stature; his grandfather, the theologian and public intellectual Reinhold Niebuhr, needs no introduction.

Or so I thought.  Both of those names drew blanks with my buyers until I presented the book to Les Kreyer- another legend- at Follett last week.  Les immediately appreciated how these two names would have influenced the author, and made the book more interesting.

Les is the quintessential old school bookman- erudite, with sophisticated interests, yet someone you’d be happy to have the proverbial beer with.  When I pitched another book on the spring list, Nick Sousanis’ Unflattening, “the first dissertation drawn in comic form”, he compared it to the way Wittgenstein’s Tractatus was received in 1918.  Not that Les was around in 1918, but institutional memory!

Maybe I’m reading too much Modiano and Sebald lately, but I’m keenly aware of ghosts, transience, and loss.  We’re on the cusp of losing a generation of book people.  The young whip-smart staff now running Seminary Coop in Chicago (and other stores) has access to tools we never dreamed of to make bookselling profitable.  But it’s the handling of books physically, the “shelf awareness” that comes from touching and reading the books and engaging customers about them, that’s at least as important in building memory as blips on the screen. 
Book people of a certain age are dying off, it can’t be helped.  My friend Adena, who spent a stellar career in the book world, lamented the other day that the only time she recognizes names anymore in the Publishers Weekly “Personnel Changes” column is when there’s an obituary. 
And as for retirements, who can begrudge the bookselling lifers wanting some time to actually read?  It’s been a hard business.

So hats off to the new generation, and good luck.  But don’t forget to remember, remember, remember.


Wednesday, January 14, 2015

hey booksellers: say hello!

At a time when their online competitors are spending millions on enhancing customer interface, why aren’t brick and mortar bookstores friendlier places?

Saying hello seems like such a simple thing.  Why go into an intensely social occupation like bookselling if it doesn’t come naturally?

It’s on my mind because this week I dropped in on a couple new bookstores in Chicago, and my “customer experience” was wildly divergent. 

At one store, I was greeted warmly the moment I walked in the door, and all three staff made it clear I was welcome.  (This was before I introduced myself as a book rep.  I like to scout stores as a civilian first.  Like most reps, I'm a bookaholic.)  Isn’t this Bookselling 101?

But at another store, I was invisible.  Despite being the only browser in the shop, one bookseller never looked up from a laptop, and the other shelved and tidied without so much as a nod to her only customer.  The store is small, essentially one large room, and it must have taken some effort to not make eye contact.  No goodbye when I quietly left fifteen minutes later. 

It’s a pretty store with a nice inventory in a promising location, and I hope they stock some of my books.  But if I’d been a neighborhood resident paying my first visit, I’d have left with a feeling of “guess I’m not the customer they’re looking for.” 

This puzzles me.  I was trained in the David Schwartz School of book retailing, where “greet the customer” was right up there with “take them to the book, don’t just point,” and “no eating behind the counter.”  But I visit dozens of bookstores every season in the US and Canada, and, sorry to say, the non-greet is often the norm, even among some of the loveliest, friendliest people imaginable.

To explain this phenomenon, I recall some of my own excuses from twenty years ago when David would see a customer slip past us without a hello.  I would explain that we didn’t want to unduly bother the browsers, that it was important to guard against “would you like fries with that” insincerity, that they could say hello to us.  Plus, booksellers can get stressed with multi-tasking, and everyone can have a bad day. 

But all of these rationalizations collapse on examination.   A simple hello is never an intrusion, and takes no effort.  If the bookstore is the kind of value-added public space we want and claim it to be, ignoring a visitor should be as unthinkable as snubbing a guest in one’s own home. 

Maybe the silent treatment is meant to protect the privacy and sensibilities of the introverted loner types, a core bookstore audience.  But I am that guy!  And I would not experience “hello” as an intrusion.

There’s a lot of space on the continuum between no acknowledgement at all and the robotic “welcome to Walgreens welcome to Walgreens welcome to Walgreens” that assaults me as I walk through a chain store.  Booksellers can be empowered to use whatever words they like to get the job done.  We get paid to talk about the books we love, what could be more personal?  The fact that the book business is one of the rare enclaves where it’s possible to bring your real self to work is an amazing thing, so say whatever feels right.

Personally, I like “hi!” or “let me know if you need any help.”  But whatever the terms, the point is to communicate the message: we see you, we’re glad you’re here, and even though we look really busy, we’re available.   

The cool paradox of the simple greeting is that it does double duty: it welcomes potential book buyers, but it’s also the most effective deterrent to potential thieves (or disturbed souls like the woman who used to come in and slit faces of movie stars out of our film books.)  For everyone entering the store, hello means “we see you.”

Customers can be strange.   You can ask someone if they need help and they will reply “no, I’m just browsing.”  But a minute later they will ask a question after all, a specific one they did have in mind.  The greeting was an implicit invitation, and works like a kind of spell in this way. 

If the lack of greeting is accompanied by robust chatter among booksellers, the customer’s feeling of awkwardness can be compounded.  Book-related conversation is no problem.  Customers often jump in when I’m going over new titles with a bookseller on the sales floor.  But if the chat is about how smashed someone’s roommate got last weekend, there’s not really a way for the rest of us to participate, and it can be a real browsing distraction.

Many booksellers are excellent greeters, and its one reason I feel at home in so many stores, even new or unfamiliar ones.  And I never hear outright rudeness in bookstores of the sort I routinely encounter at a Cambridge coffee shop.  But there’s work to be done on the friendliness front.

Though his greeting might be a bit exuberant for a bookstore, my dog Blake embodies the idea of welcome.   Whether I’ve been gone for weeks or just run out for groceries, he’s always glad to see me.  Every guest at our door is a cause for joy.  Return visitors are especially relished. 

No need for booksellers to lick my face, but acknowledging my existence is always appreciated.